Reconciled Among the Stars
On a fairly regular basis, I find myself saying (out loud, no less) that I would give anything for an extra day in the week. I know my to-do list would simply expand to fill the extension, but still, it’s an active fantasy. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s impossible. Yet here we are at the end of the month, and what do I see? February 29th.
Leap Day is a correctional measure that comes to us from the Egyptians via Julius Caesar, created to account for the fact that it takes the earth 365.2421 days to orbit the sun, rather than a nice round 365. That might not seem like a big difference, but over decades and centuries, our calendar time would become increasingly divorced from solar reality if we did nothing to recoup those 5 hours a year, and we’d eventually be having backyard barbecues at Christmas and snowball fights during summer vacation.
In the context of the history of the Roman and Gregorian calendars, one added day is peanuts. Before Caesar put his foot down, an entire month, called Mercedonius, was sometimes thrown into the middle of February at the politically motivated whim of the Roman consuls. One can only imagine how this kind of decision would go down in today’s harmonious political environment. This may also explain why, to this day, February feels like a bit of a dumping ground to some of us.
Lunar, sidereal, solar, corporeal
Time has historically been based on the apparent movement of the stars and planets. The moon orbits the earth, the earth circles the sun and spins on its axis and wheels us round the constellations like those teacup rides at the funfair. We called the duration of these movements “month,” “day,” “year”; according to them we cast spells and planted crops and honored the spiral of life. Because these movements do not fit neatly within one another, they are now all defined as multiples of seconds. But how long is a second? What exactly is being measured? To put it in very simplistic terms: movement. One second is defined as 9 billion oscillations of the cesium atom. “Oscillation” here means that the electrons orbiting the nucleus of the atom jump back and forth between energy states when cesium is exposed to radiation. A different kind of leap, if you will.
That’s not all. While cesium’s vibrations are precise enough to calibrate the Atomic Clock, its leaping electrons have been found to leap more slowly as the atom moves away from a center of gravity (like the earth). This is part of the theory of relativity: time slows down as you approach the speed of light. With all due respect to Einstein, short of hopping on the next mission to Mars, this kind of time dilation does not help me with my desire to stretch my week.
What about body time? Like all life on this planet, the human body measures time according to the movement of the cosmos on the grand scale. Our cells and genes have built-in “clocks” that are designed to sync us to the recurring cycles of light and darkness. This circadian rhythm originates within us but is modified by our environment, and regulates sleep, hormones, body temperature, insulin levels, the menstrual cycle, and many other basic functions.
But my extra hours will certainly not come from toying with my circadian rhythm – quite the opposite. The best thing to do with this incredible timepiece is to get out of its way and let it do its work. Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, as much as possible. Don’t set up a situation in which you’re battling with your own body.
Having gone down the rabbit holes of physics and biology, I’ve come to think that my time-stretching quest is less about actual measurement and more about perception. Here, at last, we enter into a more elastic realm: not only is our perception of time fluid and subjective, it is also something I believe we can consciously alter.
You’ve most likely had the experience of time appearing to slow down, or pass in a flash. You’re “in the zone,” doing something you love, totally absorbed, when you “come to” and find that hours have passed. Or you’re in an accident or falling down or receiving shocking news, and everything happens in surreal, lucid slow motion. It’s not about pleasant or unpleasant experiences. Time can feel suspended when you’re deeply in love, too. It’s not really even about fast or slow. It’s about being outside of time. You can call it a mystical state or a magical act or a temporal illusion or the stuff of poetry. Which it is. It is also a state accessible to all of us. It’s about heightened attention, and implies agreeing to go with what’s happening rather than shutting down against it.
Another factor in consciously altering the perception of time is newness – keeping things fresh, changing even small things to wake up your brain. Neuroscience tells us that new information takes longer for the brain to process, which gives the impression of extended time. The less familiar the event, the more time it takes to process, and the slower time seems to go.
Lately I’ve been delving into permaculture – the alternative to more traditional methods of agriculture that favors working as much as possible with what already exists in nature and letting nature do a lot of the work. Permaculture puts particular emphasis on boosting the quality of existing soil. I’m bingeing on videos and books about composting, discovering the delights of leaf mulch, earthworms, and kitchen waste, and putting my hands directly into all of those things. While turning my compost pile it occurred to me that the best endeavor might be to seek, not to increase time, or even slow it, but to enrich it as we would the soil we plant in. Layering experience. Giving meaning to our own ephemerality and decomposition. Leaf, eggshell, manure, my life, my body, my kith and kin, everything I create and shed, all breaking down into something lush and life-giving.
Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.
– from Burnt Norton, the first of “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
Motivating, thought-provoking, informative: The Attentive Body monthly newsletter. It’s free and your privacy is respected. Sign up here.