We Don't Remember the Years, We Remember the Moments: Fiction and the Slow Problem of Time
When I was a kid, every time I went out and looked at the stars, I thought to myself that someday I would go to them. It wasn’t a hope whispered, it was a shout of defiance, echoing nowhere but mine own skull and shoved out with as much mental force as I could muster. On some level I thought that if I could yell loudly enough at the stars with my mind, they would know that I was coming, that I could bend the universe itself towards a half-imagined destiny. I also wanted to be the first baseman for the Oakland Athletics and fly fighter jets in the offseason, so take my dreams with rock salt.
John Varley once said something very depressing that rings true, to the effect that growing up is the process of realizing that you won’t change the world after all. And it’s strange how that process sneaks up on you, so that it seems to part of your brain that it was just yesterday that you were staring at those summer stars even while the rest of your brain can hardly fathom the eternity that has passed since those nights.
Our fictions are built to help us rationalize our world, to use lies to jolt us with emotional truths that make us see what surrounds us more clearly. It’s empathy at its finest. We watch and read stories and we can’t help feeling what these fake people feel, and seeing their joys and pains enhances our own, lets us feel our own again as if for the first time. Good art is a wicked high.
And yet time is the hardest thing for stories to convey. That thing that is most universal to all human experience. I don’t just mean the heartbreak of losing people, of the slow ticking of death after death over the years until you’ve lost more than you have left. I mean the day by day glacial change. Never underestimate a good montage, but it’s a mental technique not an emotional one. They serve to tell us time is passing without actually making us feel that time is passing.
The thing is that we’re hardwired not to feel time. It’s an invisible thing we’re passing through, like the air all around us. Until we become conscious of the ether, it just flows past us. We only register its passage in sad flashes of nostalgia, and not because we feel its passage, but because we look back and see the waystones and realize that we must have been moving the entire time. Yogi Berra said that we don’t remember the years, we remember the moments. And I used to think that was a joyous sentiment, a testament to the fact that no matter how bad or boring the interim time is, it’s our moments of greatness that stick in our minds.
But as another year passes, and another soul or two is consigned to the ground, it’s a statement that rings with more and more sadness. We are cheated by our own memories of the years of small joys in favor of the ghosts of crucifixions, strung out behind us like morbid milemarkers. And even if the good milemarkers outweigh the bad, there’s something so tragic about the loss of the miles between.
See, art is really good at making us feel those milemarkers again, to cry or laugh or pump or fists again as fictions replay our past emotions for us. But fiction is terrible at letting us feel those years again. It’s so easy to tell a story that reminds us of the fevered compressed time of falling in love, but rare as can be to find a story that makes us feel the slow burn joy of waking up next to your love for a decade.
Art has difficulty making us feel again how the years felt because we can’t actually remember how they felt. And so art that manages to is working some sort of voodoo, some true magic rather than the illusions parlayed by most art. It’s too much to ask, too much to demand of our storytellers, but that’s the miracle that the best of art manages to perform. It makes me feel again the years, even if I forget the moment after. The best lets me feel again how I lost the dream of the stars, instead of just looking back and wondering how all the technicolor of youth turned grey without my notice.
But see that’s not as depressing as it sounds, because in letting us feel the years that we cannot feel on our own, great art gives us back our agency. It lets us rederive those decisions from first principles and realize that dreams can never die, they can only be sacrificed on an altar to better dreams.
And so I still look at the stars, and I still tell them I’m coming. But it’s now with a smile, that inward facing grin, because now I tell them that I’ll come when I’m ready.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.