On Time: One Year’s Diary of Small Truths
by Jasmina Tesanovic
I dreamt of my father, my dad, who appeared to me as a child, nine years old. He was dressed as a lad of the distant nineteen-twenties, when young boys wore the clothing of men, except with short trousers. He appeared to me in black and white of course, like a period photograph.
He had a playmate, too, a slightly older kid. My father looked rather devilish, full of wicked bad-boy charm, but the other boy was calm and gently smiling.
I found myself catapulted into this situation, for I had to take care of them. I wasn’t certain that the young boy was my dad, until someone in the dream assured me that he was. So I looked them over carefully, being responsible, and sure enough, the little boy simply felt like my dad. I knew that it had to be him, though he had no awareness that I was his daughter from the future.
Since I was a grown-up and he wasn’t, he didn’t even care. But I did care, I looked after him, and enjoyed minute of it. We talked, we even played. I found that I didn’t understand his old-fashioned regional accent, for his accent was almost a hundred years old. Quite a lot of things happened during my dad’s extensive lifespan. I had remembered his birthday before I had this dream, and it struck me he would have strongly that he would have been 94. That’s where my dream came from; my awareness that he hadn’t always been old. He lost his youth, but I was dreaming of it. I was trying to remember him from times when I couldn’t possibly remember him. And, he was lovable; such a charming, clever, lively little boy.
While delivering my one and only baby, after reading Thomas Mann through nine months of pregnancy, mostly to stay aloof from my primordial fear, I had my strongest experience of abstract time versus real time.
During labor I hallucinated, gigantic mermaids floating all around me in the delivery room. But the room also featured an outsized hospital clock and I was watching its hands move, for was nothing else to do but breathe, suffer and wait.
I started following the motion of the clock hands at exactly 3 pm, and at 8.10 pm my baby came out of me. I was wide awake and made careful note of the time. However, those five hours of labor passed through me in an half an hour, at most. Why, how? Well, my busy body and mind were in some other space of temporal apprehension.
I can vividly remember the clock-hands moving as time whipped by. I could see that the clock’s behavior was normal, but not my experience.
I always rather wanted to see that happen again, though the experience would have required another baby. That wouldn’t have been so much a price, as a gift. It was a major privilege to learn that time could feel so different, that a baby arrived in my world wrapped in a kind of time-capsule. It was a direct experience of the nature of time in the cosmos. What a privilege to be a woman.
What about calendar reform, or daylight savings time — so arbitrary. If we were willing to pass the laws, we could do anything we wanted with the measurement of time. Instead of tiresome years, months, days, we could shatter time into ever-smaller units — live by seconds if we liked, or milliseconds, nanoseconds, picoseconds, battering time into dust until we feel cosy. No more dread of long, unwieldy time-spans, such as prison sentences and golden wedding anniversaries. After all, we are just humans, and with short attention spans. Why not break time into bite-sized pieces we can mentally handle, and set ourselves free?
Seeing time run on a digital display while I exercise on a gym machine. The first seven minutes of treadmill walking feel long, hard, nerve wracking, a waste of time… Until I catch my breath and find the machine’s groove, and then I feel like I could march the entire Earth without ever moving from this spot.
I walk without moving anywhere, so I could destroy my material being, my body, my shell, the only vehicle I’ve got on the planet earth, and just keep walking, straight to nowhere. Each rubbery treadmill step is like a drop in an ocean, purifying, beautiful edifying, repetitious like the surf waves.
No pain, no heights or depths, no stumbling, it’s a walk so plastic and mechanical that it feels like a taxiing aircraft. But then I stop, because the digital clock tells me that I have to stop. This is serious exercise, I have to get down off the too-smooth machine, so as to not overdo it. Otherwise, tomorrow I’ll feel sore and I’ll regret this, my gym encounter with this clock-like no-place, where there is no dirt or dust, and the air is conditioned, and I can never write, in rude graffiti, “Jasmina was here.”
Some small small talk for big big fear, I had a nightmare encounter with eternity, images came in the depths of night that were unthinkably vast, endless, timeless… If I choose not to write about these abysses of darkness, will I feel better? Or maybe the act of writing about these phantoms will chase them away from me.
Why does everything remind me of something, or someone? I cannot break away from my dead mother. It is as if she were here, present, alive, eighteen years after her death. Time does not touch her because she is an aspect of me
My mom used to tell me: when your mother appears in your dream, it is always a good sign… Your mother in your dream is always good for something, so don’t worry…
So, I won’t. Why should I fret, why worry about the dead and the living spending time in my bed of slumber? I am safe in my own bed, I will cheerfully go to sleep again, cover myself like a baby in warm blankets and dream. Dreams are necessary, they feel good, they are edifying, dignifying, sometimes prophetic. I cannot avoid seeing more, and feeling more, than my waking mind can tolerate… I am a Cassandra, and always was, even as a child. I must learn how to live with nightmares without suffering.
But still, why does everything remind me of something, something different but the same, from the past… or the past that is still within me, as I grown blind to the lost details, smart now that I have the big picture, wise in my senility, shrewd in my sentimentality, timeless in my aching nostalgia — I know the answer. Each memory of time is different because it is me who is changing. The devil is in the details and I am that devil.
Sometimes it is better to avoid writing about time.
Approaching Belgrade, dreams like Breughel’s wasp nests. I must toughen it out and take it like a natural Belgrade girl, for this city is part of my life.
How many parallel cities, how many parallel lives do I want to live? Can I even imagine all of them? I had a nightmare of losing all my travel gear, my core valuables, my passport, my glasses, my clothes. I was nude, drenching wet and on the verge of some abyss, literally and metaphorically.
But I was not frantic, instead I was briskly surviving, like nobody’s business. I was once again the Balkan woman, ready to haul my ox-cart from the mud; to adjust again just took me a couple of days, a couple of nightmares.
Now my soul aches for all those lost things in the past, lost days ago or even centuries ago. It’s only the loss itself that matters, not the time. It’s like that antique table clock that I took this morning to the grumpy clock repairman, who didn’t even look at its clockwork entrails, but simply barked: get rid of that rubbish, it’s a hundred years old.
Can’t they see that something a hundred years old is not rubbish. Well, not here, not exactly. In Balkan village life, if you’re a hundred years old and therefore useless and burdensome they take you out to the mountains and place a final round loaf of bread on our bald and spotty head, and then slice off both your head and the loaf with one quick swipe of a scimitar. You get the bread loaf as a formal courtesy, since you are longer the bread winner.
They perform this act out of love, your own sons and daughters approve, and, since you’re not required to do it to yourself, you feel grateful for it. You have to meet death sometime, and since death is taking his time-out it, you go to the mountains to meet him in a brave and responsible way. It’s an act of sturdy virtue, really; I am trying to learn the merit of it by writing this.
Now we in the Balkan can also measure out time in a more pleasant and palatable way: you drink 40 year old brandy, and to compensate, you distill a similar brandy that someone else will drink in 40 years.
My father gave me, for my fortieth birthday a whiskey he bought when i was born. It was already 12 years old when he bought it. He included a handwritten note stating: this whiskey is older than you, it is your birthday today and I hope you will find the right moment to enjoy it.
I kept the old bottle on my piano, as a trophy of time and love…expecting the right moment to arrive. And then the moment came, my mother died. I was hollowed out with grief, but also in a strange elation, so I decided to guzzle down that bottle… So I went to snatch it off its treasured place on my piano, and my treasure was gone. Somebody, at a party maybe, had simply appropriated it and chugged it down.
I was stunned and amazed at the loss of my bottle, in denial about it, like the loss of my mother. I was forty-seven.
Many years later i realized that I had never carefully checked the date on the bottle. So maybe dad had stretched the truth about the age of that whiskey. After his death I found a locked drawer where he’d stored quite of few other identical bottles, with no particular care for their age and rarity. When it came to the hushed sanctity of totems like vintage whiskey, my father knew a lot about the power of suggestion. When handling items like whiskey, my father was a very bright guy.
Okay I confess, I have never fully understood the fable of the turtle and the rabbit. I can’t understand the nature of this senseless competition and who we are supposed to cheer to victory, or why. Maybe that’s why I love writing about it so much. When the moral of the story simply dashes past you, or entirely fails to arrive, you can enjoy the tale as pure fantasy. The turtle and the rabbit: maybe they can give up that undignified racing, and devote their precious time to discovery and exploration.