Fish Out of Water

stone wall Ireland

There’s a lovely passage near the beginning of A Severe Mercy, when Vanauken is telling the story of the early days of his and Davy’s love:

The walks, especially as the sun got up and began to warm us, were leisurely, full of pauses to talk to a farmer or farmwife.  Sometimes they would have us in for a glass of fresh milk.  Or sometimes we would stop and sit on a wall, eating a sun-warmed tomato, talking or peacefully silent.  Often we talked of the sad and somehow outrageous fact that in most lives, perhaps our own before long, there isn’t time for long walks and sitting on walls.  We quoted a poem by W.H. Davies to the effect that it is a poor life if we have no time “to stop and stare” as sheep and cows do.  We agreed.  Nor were we cheered by the prospect of an occasional day off from an office, for with only one day there would be a sense of time at one’s back, a time too limited to “waste” sitting on walls.  How were we to contrive a life full of time—a timeful life—where we could be quiet and leisurely, where we could stop and stare?

 For days after I read that passage, I kept going back to it in my mind.  That’s the dream, isn’t it?  As much as I love adventure, I love those landing places, when you can be fully present and fully alive.  When that sun-warmed tomato is the best damn tomato you’ve ever eaten in your life.  Van and Davy ended up learning to sail, and taking a yacht out in the Florida Keys, wading knee deep in water, getting “brown as nuts” and spearing lobster for their dinner.  They had, for a little while, that timeful life.

But I have a feeling that this life isn’t meant to be “timeful.”  Time, by nature, is not abundant but scarce.  Time never multiplies, it only decreases.  Every day our time is running out – sometimes one grain of sand at a time but for some of us, the whole hourglass is kicked over and time comes rushing out over the shattered glass. 

C.S. Lewis describes humans’ tense relationship with time, and hints at the idea in Romans of humanity and all of creation groaning and longing for their redemption and a coming into ourselves:

“Do fish complain of the sea being wet?  Or if they did, would not that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had had not always been, or [would] not always be, purely aquatic creatures?  Notice how we are always perpetually surprised at Time.  (“How time flies!  Fancy John being grown up and married!  I can hardly believe it!”) In heaven’s name, why?  Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal.”

I first read the passage from A Severe Mercy last week, and I tucked those words into a corner of my mind like Charlie and his prized chocolate bar – often going to the corner, slowly peeling back the wrapper, then the foil, allowing myself a little nibble and tasting the melting sweetness of that idea all over again – the idea of a timeful life; of taking long walks outdoors and eating fresh foods and delighting in the company of my companion.  That was last week, when I was working a steady job Monday through Thursday and figured I would do that until I started at Fuller, where I would work and go to school every day and somehow survive until the next busy season, whatever that would be.

But now, suddenly, I’m quasi-unemployed.  I still have my subbing job but I don’t have the regular work.  Last week I was stressing about money and hoarding for the future and dreaming of a timeful life – this week I’m overwhelmed with free time, and also with the knowledge that I lack nothing; it’s now clear the stress and the hoarding were a waste of my energy.  So what’s the moral of this story?  Did I get a timeful life just for the wishing of it?

No, I don’t think that’s what happened.  And I still think that time’s nature does not allow itself to be abundant – for long.  But sometimes the Creator of Time does some fancy footwork and creates these little pockets, these little hollows in time where we get to camp out and rest a while, before going back to the normal state of things, i.e. swimming around and wondering why we’re getting wet and why we can’t take a deep breath under here.

It’s only a matter of time, so to speak, before we’re back on land and there’s no more Sea and no more Time and we can just be, and that will be better even than what we think we’re groaning for now.


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