On Time: One Year’s Diary of Small Truths
by Jasmina Tesanovic
When nightmarish events take over your life, speeding you through the horror of crisis situations, your fear becomes your standard of measurement. But then happier times are those which lack fear and anxiety, and somehow this good fortune is not perceived as happiness, unless we focus strongly on the present moment, the airy balloon of the here and now. The perception of happiness, the maintenance of inner peace, requires an effort of will.
Without the willingness to be happy, anxiety floats in a murk of real and imaginary danger, a stew of artificial threats, which itself is dangerous, even if it’s unreal. So I make no decisions out of fear. Instead, I will embrace my troubles as the motors of my life. They drive me uphill, even if my journey lacks balance.
I am travelling in time. I am going away, I am leaving, I am leaving you, me, everybody, everything, and I am not afraid.
If I were an Egyptian queen in the shadow of timeless pyramids, I would even be happy and dutiful about my travel toward the sarcophagus. But as a 21st century woman, a vessel for anxiety, I write diaries. My sacred heritage is every bad experience that ever happened to any woman in the entirety of the past. My anxiety is my choice, my awareness of the human tragedy of the female condition.
My major problem here is to get coherent hold of just one current of this oceanic flow, so as to think, speak and act as if my life were my own. Because otherwise there can be no conscious decision, no moral action: just the vast flow. Why can’t I do that? If only it were possible!
About this diary about time, in which I outsmart myself with my dream notes about my nightmares. My theme is time, because only with that perspective can I understand the big, flickering, motion-picture. My life is no still-life painting: I am running a race with time, trying to get the most benefit from my accidental human existence, which has a span of years whose length is unknown to me.
So many events and incidents, that I lived through, situations that I created, desired, or coped with. I write to tie the loose ends, or just to punctuate, to place a comma, a period full-stop. Before I involved myself in these issues of time, I imagined that something else ruled my existence. Now I see differently.
I don’t have to imagine my lifespan as a race, where some commanding force drives me on. I can never win that race or know its finish line. Instead I participate, I take part in the parade, since, besides myself, there are billions of other active players.
I cannot tie up history in a red silk bow, or transform a movie into a single freeze-frame. The blur comes from the time constraint, this shutter-speed of exposure to reality, which sometimes I notice, understand, live through, but mostly it passes below the level of my consciousness. I am like a goose in the fog, in the Serbian proverb. But I do indeed travel through time, and if I am a goose, maybe I can fly.
My fear of the void began when I was a small child, a human being maybe four years old. It was a profound sensation of being isolated from space and time, like a huge, cosmic bell jar heaved over my head.
I was an alien being surrounded by this white space, foggy and without limit. I knew that no one would hear me or understand my experience of the void. Instead, I saw myself inside the void from the outside, as a frightened, serious but resolute little girl, properly dressed from head to foot, and well-behaved. Clean, obedient, reaching up to the hand of her mom or her governess… Dutifully doing what she is told, but already knowing better about it.
Did I ever grow out of that phase? Do other children have that particular form of profound rebellion against mere existence? Is that why newborn infants howl their heads off? Certainly my childish fear of the void was transformed by my life experience, expanded, colored, redesigned… But the void remains with me even now.
The void is not an aggressive evil, but it is naked and raw. I have defenses against the veil, but when those fail, I become speechless, and it hurts. I do not live in terror of the void, I don’t panic at its imtimate nearness, I just know it is there. I know that if I out-wait it, my being can flow around it.
To confess my awareness of the void, to write about it, is a kind of pleasure. It’s like staring into Nietzsche’s abyss and having the abyss blink first. Those moments are intensely private. When I face the void I am truly the center of my universe.
As a small child I felt myself to be universal, but I had to reach up to hold the hands of authority, I had to obey… Now I can think for myself, with adult decisions and actions, I exist at liberty…. I stand unique and alone before the void, creative within my human condition, with all its flaws and fears.
Even at the center of my childish universe, I always knew that the universe is bigger than any human mind. My awareness of the void was a religious experience, but I will never expect any of the conventional gods of conventional religions to rescue me or protect me. I used to fear the void, now I enjoy this cosmic emptiness as an aspect of human condition.
I don’t believe that I will ever fully grasp the void, except maybe in my own death, in which case, I rather look forward to the event. I can’t remember my own birth — my debut into public life — but I do remember giving birth. In the physical struggle of childbirth I grew close to something wordless and huge, which I comprehended only during that interlude: and if I grapple with it in my death-throes, I won’t be able to report it in a diary, later.
There are aspects of the human condition where everybody has to do their own homework. No teacher exists to grade us, no pupils to follow us. It’s not a scientific exploration; our understanding does not advance. This un-improvable, primal state of the world does not belong to religion or to tradition. The void is just there, a source of marvel or suffering.
I suffered privately for many years, but my ignorance and isolation was a source of enlightenment, a part of my way of becoming myself, a human being enmeshed in the here and now.
Now time has become my topic, because I can understand my non-void temporal being as an oasis, as a bliss. For years, I was hesitating on the verge of happiness, but now I know that I can become happiness, I can embody it. One can do no better than happiness, and there is a kind of Keatsian permanence about achieved it, for to have once become happiness is a joy forever. In the future, I can suffer and die, but nobody can take my past happiness away from my being.
Everybody has their own capacity for joy, and cannot abuse mine. They cannot perceive my happiness, profane it, steal it, mine it, tax it or store it. What a sense of freedom in this universe, to have no anxious pangs about fear or loss, and yet be rich and full.
Beset with random thoughts and strange doubts, I cannot sleep… I always crave for dependable habits, but I am incapable of living through the same thing twice.
Certain other people — such as Marcel Proust, or my mother — have spoken of their long white nights crowded with obsessive thoughts. My mother, who slept near a bookcase, used to fear that her beloved books would tumble on her in the darkness and suffocate her in her marriage bed. Marcel Proust hand-wrote seven volumes of obsessive recollections, mostly writing in his sickbed, at night.
My bewildered thoughts at night are petty, vague fears about the next day, silly errands that I forget, forgotten or missing possessions, mere buzzing trivia, as opposed to the void that will engulf me if do not catch and board the train of time. Insomnia reveals the utmost structural silliness of our daily routines.
How much busywork will I impose on myself, now many boring, unpleasant or squalid chores will I do today or tomorrow, in order not to confront my raw existence in the universe, to confront reality and maybe snap from the strain? Or shall I just sulk in my bed, amusing myself with the prospect of a nervous breakdown, or else rise and scramble around town erratically, flittering from one cafe chair to another, and drinking beer in the day’s mobile rays of sunlight…. Living as an alien inside my own skin…
Yes the very thought of throwing all routines and duties overboard, that defection really tempts me…. I am known for my clean breaks with reality, gleefully accepting a new city, a new continent…. One of these days, I will just do it, for stacking up petty chores and errands in order to control the timetable of the universe, that makes no sense to me and that gives me no real comfort.
Multitasking means doing many different things in parallel… variant activities all stuffed into the the same wedge of time. I have always been at my ease with multitasking, as opposed to fully concentrating on a single issue, which comes hard to me. Rather than do any single thing properly, I will throw open an entire desk of drawers, and live like I run a train yard.
No single thing can exist in cosmic isolation, for it is tied to every other thing in the universe. If I pick a tiny piece of lint from a sweater, it is part of a system, a vast chain… I may not know its complicated context, and I can pick that piece of lint through a thoughtless reflex, but I can sense the Blakeian infinite inherent in a grain of sand.
They say that a sign of education is the ability to hold conflicting concepts in your head, without confusion. But when you multitask, your activities are necessarily connected, whether or not that makes any sense, in a vivid Surrealist collage. Their simultaneity changes the perception of time.
If one maintains a sense of composure, and performs actions on different fronts with one’s brain and senses mobilized in the flow, then the very same hour feels both fast and slow. Fast, because tasks and accomplishments are tumbling all at once, instead of one after another. And yet slow, considering how many different things are seeking a definitive conclusion, in a kind of traffic jam.
How does the multitasking human driver manage that traffic jam? Well, the key is not to panic, curse in rage and skid off the roadway. Once you are inside the moving traffic, you can maneuver through it, fast lanes and slow lanes, sinking into it, gloating absent-mindedly above it all…. It is not that traffic, by its nature, ever changes much…. Because for Heraclitus, the river is always changing and yet always there. Nothing matters, everything changes; nothing changes, everything matters.
We have imperfect tools and our intelligence is a faulty yardstick for the absolute, and yet our tools and intelligence are all we’ve got. So, register the moment, think, think again and roll onwards. If you stumble across soke great cosmic truth, like previous mystics, seers and philosophers, try not to get crucified for it.
I have always excelled at knowing the dates on the calendar. I have a mental knack for numbers, anniversaries, the birth dates and death dates of remote acquaintances.
But since I began my diary of time, I sense a liberation from this long obsession. I feel indifference about the burning issue if this is January or February. Maybe all these dates hoarded in my head are some kind of mathematical shield against the rawness of geological deep time, thirteen billion years of cosmic zeros.
Because dates are the grid of my life, they are like notes of music. They offer me a structure, a discernable shape, a cluster of stars in a small universe, of a life that brought me consciousness, that matters to me.
I know that I am here in space and time, I know that I exist, and I can even see my temporal shape, although it never appears in the mirror. Dates are time apprehended as numbers, in the cyclic music that those numbers make, verses, choruses, repeating seasons, consecutive years…
But, well, now the dates are confused within me, the structure of my internal schedule is broken, somehow… Some times these are. Maybe the passage of time wore my internal schedule away, a consequence of the plain physical aging of my brain. Or maybe some acquired wisdom has chased this scheduling busywork away, and allowed me to experience time more organically, more authentically, like a woman hearing music played, instead of reading sheet-music.
Whatever the case, time feels different to me this year. Who am I, without that structure, what am I becoming, where is time taking me? I am different. I can envision the past Jasmina with a certain fondness, even nostalgia, for she was so young and vigorous. But she was also so fussy that she could count the particles in a snow-globe.
Now I still treasure my past like a black-and-white photograph, but I do live more at ease. Why should I panic if minutes, hours, days or whole months go uncounted, unnumbered? I live in a different flow now. I have no need to slice my lifetime into bits, and count each numerical digit. I am flowing into my future, and I feel no need to stand in my own way.
I dreamed of a small apartment. We were all in there together, sleeping on stacked bunks, me, my family, my friends, random celebrities. And except for me, they were all ageless immortals, each preserved forever in the moment of their prime. These angelic dream-beings were radiant and kind to me, well behaved and efficient. All of them except for me, of course; I was still trapped in my mortal human flesh, fretful, wrinking, crumbling.
Hanging in a moment’s suspension, I direly need to attach myself to something, to somebody: any element of permanence. I cannot endure the free floating human condition, the stumbles, the fall, the harsh drive of invisible forces, the unknown possibilities, the useless, the futile… I plead for an order that makes sense. Can I buy it?
This is all about the fear of death, really.
Such a velocity, such nervous speed, such nonsense and loneliness. Where has the knowledge gone, where did the common sense go…