Time in summer

No one who reads a modern novel, or sees a modern play or movie, can have failed to observe that the concept of time is no longer what it once was. Stories once moved within a framework of time which gave them a beginning, a middle, and an end. They unfolded chronologically from first to last. In those days, to enter a movie a few minutes late was to be denied a knowledge of how everything began. But now time is all mixed up. Events are out of order, and men's lives - instead of progressing magisterially from start to finish - seem to have been put into a blender which dilutes their priorities and conclusions.

In one's own existence, it appears to me, a sense of being ensconced within the rhythms of time imparts a comforting reassurance to one's days. The brightness of morning, the pause at midday, the long afternoon, and the slow unfolding of the evening hours - this measured advance tells us that all is well and that we are in tune with the nature of things. For myself, I don't want to have the end come first or to have the plot spun forward and back like the work of a mad weaver.

Shakespeare, in one of his greatest plays, has given us a glimpse of what it is to have the procession of time put out of gear. Macbeth was a man who by one immense crime had betrayed his conscience, falsified his character, denied his god. His universe was overthrown, and with it his traditional feeling for time itself. Henceforth he was condemned to move through a life without order in its days as without meaning in the shape of its hours. Such a life was ''a tale told by an idiot.'' At the news of his wife's death he could only cry out, ''She should have died hereafter.'' Even that climactic event could not fall in the sequence that might have made it comprehensible.

These thoughts have occurred to me while sitting in the midst of summer's calm. Now, at least, nature asserts its respect for time. I am part of the beneficent revolution that reveals all things in their place and order. Gone is the flood of urban sensations, each crowding upon the other so intensely that one feels little connection between them or sees small reason why one should have occurred before or after another. In place of a jumble there are rational sequences; in place of juxtapositions, brotherly relationships. The day is so fine, from the first breaking of the sun's rays over my eastern bay to its going down behind the low hills, that I can think of it as a completed masterpiece. Being part of it, being inextricably bound up in its course, I find my own existence validated.

Not only is time orderly in this place; it passes for the most part with a delicious slowness. In one of Virginia Woolf's novels there is a description of how time can alter its pace according to our activities. ''Thus Orlando,'' Woolf tells us, ''gave his orders and did the business of his vast estates in a flash; but directly he was alone on the mound under the oak tree, the seconds began to round and fill until it seemed as if they would never fall.'' For better or worse I have no vast estates and few orders to give. But I have a fair spruce tree or two, and under these my own satisfaction extends itself remarkably.

The sensation of summer may indeed become one of timelessness - an absence of time, a feeling that eternity is here and now. This is a very different kind of timelessness, and a different kind of eternity, from that which is conceived of as merely lasting forever. If it is an eternity I experience on my hill of summer, it must be the kind that the prophets and saints have had in mind. They could not have desired to go on existing without change or end; and even I in my July felicity do not altogether wish the moment to endure ceaselessly. A breeze wakes the sea; a visitor comes calling - and once again time passes ''in a flash.''

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