MWD23 - On Being, On Time, and On Being on Time

Anna Karenina and thinking about time and hope

Welcome to Midweek Dinner. If this is your first time here, feel free to poke around and ask questions (but please don’t call the health department). Perhaps you’d be interested in seeing the very first edition? If you like the look of the place, stick around! You can sign up here to receive a new issue every Wednesday, delivered piping hot, right to your doorstep.

In case you are starting to feel like I’ve just invited you into an Escher print, well, maybe I have. It’s where I live, so if I’m going to have you over for dinner, you might have to climb a few staircases to nowhere. Or maybe it’s Dali, and the watches are all melting. Either way, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Exhibit A (written from the bare edge of pandemic lockdown). Exhibit B. Suffice it to say, time is no new preoccupation with me.

The latest prompting to reconsider time comes from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. After finishing War and Peace with the #TolstoyTogether group, several of us splintered off to keep hanging out with Leo. For me, Anna Karenina was officially a reread, but my faulty memory served me well here, allowing me to encounter this masterwork as though for the first time.

I’m also continuing the reading groups with A Public Space, currently reading Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees. And I’ve picked up the ever-important, ever-frightening Parable of the Sower from Octavia Butler. Taken individually, each of these books would be important to me. Taken collectively, they have formed the walls, buttresses, stained glass, and tracery of a cathedral. Inside them, I can voice the word, “TIME,” and then listen as that concept reverberates, roiling and reshaping and returning to me in overlapping waves.

For now, though, I’m thinking about time as it relates to hope. And how that kind of time does not fit well in a calendar or on a watch face. At the close of Anna Karenina, Levin is wrestling with big questions: faith, truth, and God, or “what I am and why I am here.” One answer Levin attempts is this:

“In infinite time, in infinite matter, in infinite space, is formed a bubble-organism, and that bubble lasts a while and bursts, and that bubble is Me.”

This is a confounding sentence, out of keeping with Levin’s voice specifically, and Tolstoy’s style more generally. Thankfully, Tolstoy goes on to explain that Levin’s conclusion was “an agonizing error, but it was the sole logical result of ages of human thought in that direction.” Levin is in dire straits, convinced for a time that if he cannot solve this puzzle, he must end his own life, but that chapter concludes:

“But Levin did not shoot himself, and he did not hang himself; he went on living.”

He went on living. For Levin that means work, occupying his time with those things that are “incontestably necessary.”

“it was as necessary as dining when one was hungry. And to do this, just as it was necessary to cook dinner, it was necessary to keep the mechanism of agriculture at Pokrovskoe going so as to yield an income. . . . And to do this it was necessary to look after the land himself, not to let it, and to breed cattle, and plant timber.”

Levin’s ties to the land and the right working of it stand in stark contrast to his life in Moscow: “here in town he was in a continual hurry, as though afraid of missing something, and yet he had nothing to do.” In Moscow, the characters are always consulting their watches, checking the time, worrying they will be late, full of concerns of being on time. In Moscow, their days are run like the train station: full of schedules and time tables, all of it covered over with a feeling of urgency, a false necessity.

When I worked outside the home, there was “never enough time” to accomplish all that needed to be done. Time was fixed and finite; I could only try to fit myself into it. Stepping outside of that calendar-driven life, time unspooled and opened up before me.

My parents’ farm helped me see what Levin saw: the difference between what is necessary and what is scheduled. Each morning, my dad leaves his house after breakfast, and he will work all day on his farm. Very little of what he does is scheduled, and those things that are (horseback riding lessons or haircuts) often interrupt the natural flow of his work. They force him to leave aside what is necessary for what is scheduled.

The relief comes in the knowledge that what didn’t get done today can be finished tomorrow. The work of a farm is infinite. There is no end to the necessary on a farm. But each day opens before you on a farm, uncertain and unplannable. We need to cut hay, perhaps, but the overcast skies say otherwise. Or perhaps you planned to weed the strawberry bed today, but the tomatoes that got picked a few days ago can’t wait any longer and must be canned today. Though they are demanding, these necessities, the tasks aren’t tied to time in the same way, and it is a feeling full of hope.

Anna Karenina holds these two notions of time in clear opposition, the finite and the infinite, and partners them with the emotional state of the main characters. Anna’s life feels fixed, finite, and impossible. She is convinced, utterly, that no good outcome is possible. Her despair is universal; who among us has not considered the years ahead and asked Is this really how the rest of my life is going to be? She arrives and departs this novel by train, governed by the fixed time table of society around her.

By contrast, Levin never achieves certainty, going on as he does to ask huge, unanswerable questions even as he wonders, “Can I have found the solution of it all?” Tolstoy’s characters often experience epiphanies flat on their backs, gazing up into the sky. This is true for Levin. His life is changed under the infinite sky, his suffering over, even though his questions remain. And the only answer to his questions is to go on being. To live in the daily uncertainty. To try to do work that matters. He knows, "I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying."

Prayer here for Levin is choosing hope. Perhaps what Levin has realized is this: every uncertainty holds infinite possibilities.

There’s something here for us in the midst of varying stages of pandemic lockdown and reopening. We live in daily uncertainty. We wonder is this really how things will be for a year? or more? We understand Anna and Levin as we vacillate between hope and despair. Perhaps our best option is to embrace one aspect of what the pandemic has given us: the blank calendar. Perhaps we can spend an hour on our backs looking at the sky, or two hours on the phone with a new friend who feels like an old friend, perhaps we can linger over tasks because they are necessary and because we are here.

Some Related Reading:

One of my oldest, dearest friends sent me this piece from Orion Magazine this week, and the idea of presence as a type of prayer seems to fit right here.

And from today’s newspaper, this AP piece on finding “Faith in protest” and this:

“I can say this is liturgy in the street,” said the Rev. Jacqueline Lewis, pastor of the Middle Collegiate Church in New York’s East Village. “This is church in the street, it is song in the street, it is lament in the street. The tears are in the street. When the kids say, ‘Black Lives Matter!’” Lewis continued, “that’s a prayer.”

Jennifer Spitzer’s piece “Me and Mrs Dalloway: On Losing My Mother to COVID-19” takes up the idea of time losing its structure, its importance, its weight upon our days. In section I. Time Passes, she writes, “In April, I stop measuring time by school days, work meetings, weekends, and social events. I start measuring it by the length of the disease, the progress of symptoms.” And later, remarking on being four hours away from her ailing father, her dying mother, she notes that distance is “another measure of time.” Her story will rend your heart, but it might also help close the distance between us.

And this 2016 feature on Annie Dillard from the Atlantic is full of insights like this,

There are two kinds [of seeing], she explains. The common variety is active, where you strain, against the running babble of internal monologue, to pay attention to what’s actually in front of you. That’s the sort of seeing that produces perceptions, and phrases, like twiggy haze. But, she tells us, “there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” You do not seek, you wait. It isn’t prayer; it is grace. The visions come to you, and they come from out of the blue.

Finally, if I ever go in search of a true time-out, you’ll probably find me in this tiny reading cabin in Poland.

Starting to return to a rhythm on the website, here’s what I’ve been reading and thinking on this week:

It’s been awhile since I’ve had an interview to crow about, and I am so excited about this one with Tae Keller, author of The Science of Breakable Things and When You Trap a Tiger, MG wonders the both of them. You can read my review of When You Trap a Tiger here.

Tae Keller Interview

This debut short story collection from Shruti Swamy (A House is a Body) isn’t out until August 11, but it is - trust me - one to watch.

A House is a Body

Sunday’s poetry was Ada Limon’s The Carrying: Poems, and here’s the thing: I gulped it down on the couch on our covered patio, pausing periodically to listen to the hawks cry, and to feverishly scribble (a la Jo March!) my own lines on the empty pages in the back. That’s a recommendation in itself, but click through to read one of the most stunning poems in the collection, and you’ll see for yourself.

The Carrying: Poems

Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response. And if you can think of someone who might appreciate this sort of weekly musing, please consider sharing this post with them and encouraging them to join us. There’s always room for more around this odd table.