This week, my daughter will be thirteen. Thirteen years ago, my first child was born. I could tell you that the years have sped past me like lightning. I can see me, in a chair, by a window, thirteen years ago, holding her tiny jerky body after feeding her and it could be yesterday. It could be earlier today, so precisely and vividly can I inhabit the moment again. Or I could tell you of all the event that has happened since – hundreds of thousands of moments such as those when I walked her to nursery hand in hand; plaited her soft hair for ballet; sat on the end of her bed reading 101 Dalmatians with her serious eyes on me; watched her talk to a seal in a cold Irish Sea; struggled to breathe with laughing too much as she joked around on a train; listened to her whisper in my ear that she was worried about something, worried about everything; caught sight of her from behind in the kitchen, preparing her lunch, and thought: Where did this woman arrive from? Who put this beautiful woman in my kitchen? And we would think, after hearing of a hundred thousand of those moments: well that is a long time, to be a mother.
The birth itself (no need to avert your eyes, I’ll spare you the gory details) was the same: it was over in a flash and it also took forever – well, 23 hours – and I recall slipping in and out of time throughout, one moment feeling as though it would never end, as though it was my destiny to labour on forever, the next as though it had only just begun and yet mysteriously one day had tipped into another and it was ending. I looked up occasionally at the clock and it made no sense to me – it started at 11pm and so when I saw 2 o’clock or 6 o’clock I had no clue was it morning, evening? What was morning and evening anyway? I was at home, gas and air was my friend, I was high; and it was winter and it was snowing, it was dark and silent, nothing to orientate by.
To me, time is long and short; fast and slow. Slow: let me treasure every moment. Fast: that girl, that day, she isn’t a long ago girl, she’s yesterday’s girl. This is parenting: when we look at our children, it doesn’t matter how old they are in that moment, because what we see in our mind’s eye is them as a baby and a toddler and a schoolchild and an adult and at our own age and older all at once. Their whole lives and the beauty of those lives – not to mention the burden on us of protecting them throughout their whole beautiful lives – falls down on us all at once as an almost unbearably heavy crushing weight. (This is what we mean, when we tell new parents that they will from this day forward never not worry – it’s because they’re about to see the beginning, middle and end of something they love more than they ever thought possible; and they will see it every day, every day.) A child can’t look back on how they were, how they formed and grew, as we can. They can’t look forwards either, they don’t know what it will be like, to be 21, to be married, to have their own children, to age, to be dying. Only we can see all of their lives, all at once.
Other kinds of love work the same way on us. When you are deeply in love, you see and love that other person as a child, as a young adult, as they are now, as a wrinkly old thing; that’s why you love them as their mother or father did, passionately as you used to when you met them, consistently as if you renewed your vow daily, loyally as you will in years to come. Our greatest acts of love are continuous – we re-enact them again and again every day. And sometimes our greatest acts of love do in fact come out of that beautiful ability, to go back in time with a loved one, to help them to see their pasts again with new eyes.
I’ve been fascinated for a while by the idea, attributed sometimes to Einstein, that time is just humanity’s way of stopping everything from happening all at once. That time is our necessary system of mapping and measuring how much space we have to cover, how far we have to travel; but in reality now is the only time; now is the moment we inhabit – and now, and now, and now – and we can inhabit all our moments at once.
This scientific idea is far too complicated for me to fully comprehend in its science, but of course as a reader and a dreamer and a lover and a parent and someone who lives in metaphor too I can understand it fully because don’t we know, we readers, that time is a laughably simple scheme that we can try to keep hold of when we’re living but which we throw to the winds as soon as we turn the pages of a novel? (Lord how I despise the new Kindle habit of telling me how many hours and minutes are left in my book – as if we’re marking time as we read. This reading time is a gift not a chore, don’t count it down.)
I wrote a blog about editing a few months ago and in it I referred to setting a metronome early on in my read, so that I could judge when and if the pace dropped. I still like what I said about editing but I’m not sure that was such a great metaphor. Because novels speed up and slow down. Some exciting or pivotal scenes describe the events of a few minutes over twenty pages; the pace of other books requires the writer to dispense of a decade in a page. I may have an editor’s internal metronome, but it doesn’t mark a steady beat.
And novels can contain several timelines at once: often narratives set at different points in the past, but also different characters’ timelines, or a public timeline and a private timeline. Those timelines aren’t always marching side by side but sometimes seem to detach, to surreal effect. Poet Rachel Zucker writes in her poem Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesdayhow: “….we conflate historical time / with personal time, how on 9.11 I took my nine-month old son / to his first day of day care and the city exploded, went up / in smoke, and no one but me cares that he spent hours there, / only nine months old, while we watched TV in our phone-jammed / airspace…”
Some great novels use this collision of public time and private time to tell us something important about how we identify meaning in our small lives. Other writers become experts in the conflation of timelines, piling memory upon memory or impression upon impression like yellow Autumn leaves onto orange leaves onto red and brown and onto the mulch of last year’s Autumn fall, so that in reading only one page of their novels you can see today and yesterday and last year all at once. Dense work like this takes time to develop; imagining all of our continuous presents, our now, and now, and now, and now, is a grand act, it’s constructing a palace not knocking up a shed.
When we write fiction, we shape and contort and jump-cut time in ways that suit us, suit our purposes. And that’s what we have to do in our lives too, to find the time to read, to write, to remember. Whether your time is absorbed by looking after little children, or working full-time, or rearing sheep, it doesn’t matter, what you are is In the Middle of Things and in order to find the time to write, you’re going to have to shape and contort and jump-cut your real time too. I wrote a blog about how I steal from my sleep hours to write, using the space between day and night – the non-time, off-the-clock time – to carve out minutes for something that is all mine. I’m a seasoned criminal now – I steal from eating hours, cleaning the house hours (what cleaning? wait, what house?), friendship hours, commuting hours.
But the wonderful thing is that there is no better place to write from than In the Middle of Things – this is the time to write, when everything is happening all at once, when you see your daughter’s past, present and future collide as she tips from childhood into young womanhood and it inspires you to think: I should write about that. When you are handling books that belonged to your father, and you read them aloud to your son, and you think: I’m In the Middle of Things, I should write about that. As my author Amanda Brookfield puts it, in her new novel, “There was memory and there was hope. Life, as something lived, took place between the two.” And that’s where we find our fiction: in life, In the Middle of Things, with everything happening all at once, right now, and now, and now, somewhere between memory and hope.