Americans have a funny relationship with time.
We don’t necessarily honor it—we manage it. We read countless books and attend seminars, struggling to achieve an efficient management of time, as if industriousness can harness something so (pardon the pun) timeless.
We prize efficiency and effectiveness… we’re so very American.
Though our lives are a tiny speck in the continuum, we believe that we can somehow constrain it. Cultures rooted in ancient traditions—Roman, Greek, Persian—don’t apprehend time in this way. For Americans, it’s dollars per minute; we seem to want to get through time, one experience to the next, rather than inhabit it.
Civita, for instance, is all about letting time be—in Civita, time is tufa stone. In Rome, time is honey. In New York, time is a guy masturbating on the subway—over quick and on to the next dirty thing. In Seattle, time is a brisk walk to the waterfront on a sunny April day; after all, if we don’t move fast, the sun goes away. For us, time is weaving through waddling crowds of parents and children on their way to Seattle Center to celebrate the beginning of The Next 50.
Time is open windows letting in 60-degree air at Toulouse Petit, couples drinking creamy iced lattes on Adirondack chairs at Caffe Ladro, waiting for the #18 bus in shorts in front of Kidd Valley and trotting the dog out for a walk at Myrtle Edwards Park. We enjoy the moments, then they’re over.
Much of my time in Seattle is meetings, lunches, handshakes and breakfast presentations in hotel ballrooms. It consists of design crits and charrettes where ideas become converging lines on plotter paper—or nothing—and proposals with phrases like “design development” and “construction documents.”
Sitting in the dark of the now-reopened Uptown Theater last week, I struggled with time bending fast and slow. I was alternately thrilled and frustrated with “Pina” in 3D, a performance documentary about Pina Bausch’s legacy as a dancer and choreographer.
For me, as an introduction to her work, it was both a challenging and eye-opening way to spend an hour and 43 minutes. Her dancers took time to new places; in their bodies, I saw some of the yoga poses I do on Sundays brought to ethereal animation. Bones and muscles made symphonies in ways that I never knew bodies could express. It made me consider the body as a vehicle for containing time through movement.
Pina’s work requires patience, it demands so much time. A single act unfolds in twenty minutes rather than three. You have to be comfortable investing a slice of your life to absorb her slow-moving stories. The hardest parts for me were to see how richly she painted plot lines with her dancers while at the same time wishing that she had gotten us there sooner. Would her performances have impacted me in the same way if they had progressed quickly?
What is faster? Is faster better? It alleviates tension, but are we really looking for easy relief in art or in life? Aren’t we actually seeking moments of tension, exploration, and haunting desire and then—only from that process—a sense of fulfillment?
We Americans have little patience for such drawn-out cycles. We have self-service gas pumps and self-check-out at grocery stores. Part of it is a shut-up strategy: You think you’re so smart? You be the checker and see how fast you go. The other part is designed to answer our desire to control time: You want to keep your hand on the pump and inject your car with petrol at your own speed? Fine. Have at it.
The older I get, the less I believe that I can harness time—some small moments remain with me forever and larger ones only for a while. How long will I recall the couple blinking at each other across the table at Caffe Fiore, his mouth slowly making the words, “I just don’t feel it,” tinged with discomfort, perhaps fearing that she would make a scene?
She smoothed her hair behind her ears. “Okay…” she said, frozen. He had taken her off guard.
“I’m sorry,” he said lamely, his eyes darting back and forth. Her only response to was hold a small, silent smile. She waited for him to go on. As if she had accused him of something, he offered, “I’m just trying to be honest.”
“Okay,” she said. Her face continued to hold that smile. It felt brittle in my peripheral vision, but it remained in place as he continued.
He said something like, “You’re an amazing person,” this decade’s version of, It’s not you, it’s me. For those of us who have been on both the giving and receiving end of those words, we know what “amazing,” means; it means “not amazing enough.” They sat blinking at each other for a very long moment—Civita long, Pina Bausch long—then he said, “I’m gonna go.”
“Okay,” she said again, opening her laptop as he gathered his things. I wondered if he had planned to break up with her at a coffee shop in front of people. The way she greeted him when he came in, I’d say that she didn’t see it coming.
Why had he bothered to set down his things and step into the restroom before he delivered the news? That shit takes at least a moment of forethought. After all, it’s awkward to ask someone to watch your stuff while you pee after you dump them. I felt irritated on her behalf.
I’d like to think that, if he had gone to the bathroom after he said he “didn’t feel it” rather than before, she would have walked out in his absence. Instead, she sat and he exited, taking his motorcycle jacket and helmet with him, leaving two empty seats that an Indian couple took, after which I soon departed.
How long had it taken him to figure out that he didn’t feel it? I could tell from her deep inhale after he left that it was more than a single date. My heart went out to her.
As we sat there typing away on our keyboards, the corners of her mouth remained slightly upturned, her smile a mask of composure. She would probably go home and cry later, but she kept it together as long as she worked, acting as if no one else heard the exchange. Time marched forward, but the muscles of her face held the stinging moments of surprise.
She remained on my mind for the rest of the afternoon as I walked down to the waterfront, watching happy couples canoodling on the grassy slopes at Olympic Sculpture Park. The brave expression frozen on her lips—I’ve worn it enough that I won’t soon forget seeing it on someone else.
Time brings many gifts, but it isn’t a friend. Happy moments are fleeting and hard times seem to last forever when we’re in the thick of them. Time always dumps us, lumbering on and leaving behind a trail of what we had when we came into this world: bones, muscles, brains and heart, all in search of meaning and movement.
I’m curious to see how time feels in Nashville this coming week. Visions of a concrete Parthenon and a never-ending series of concert halls humming with live music fill my mind. When I think of time in the South, I assume that it’s slower than in Seattle where moments feel crisp, even icy. Distinct.
In the days before I depart, the idea of Nashville consists of sweaty glasses of lemonade and iced tea, guitar strings and warbly voices, muddy water spilling over winding riverbanks, tree-lined streets where houses with porches face each other and the sounds of a slow, warm drawl pulling out words like overstretched taffy, which my ears ache to hear.
I’ll give time one thing: despite its fickle nature, my limbs still long to dance with it. My body unabashedly aches to embrace it in all its forms—to really feel it—to inhabit and remember the shift in my perception of the world as my body incorporates pieces of Seattle and Detroit, Las Vegas and New Orleans, Nashville and Boston… and wherever else I go.