by Geoff Olson
“Did you bring mom and dad?” Luckily, I had. I’m the absent-minded one in the family and to my sister’s relief, I remembered to pack my parents’ ashes in the trunk of my car.
My family had rented a ski cabin in northern British Columbia for a weekend get-together and ceremony. On Saturday afternoon, the relatives gathered around a table and rummaged through the contents of my parents’ safety deposit box. The estate had all been settled and the money apportioned. Now, there were only loose ends: some outdated bank statements, a birth certificate of one of my sisters and some old coins.
These were some of the material traces left of my parents’ time in this world: ashes and silver. At dinner the night before the ceremony, we toasted their memory and struggled with a rickety, sixties-era slide carousel with slides from Olson family camping trips, birthdays and holidays. Over drinks, we laughed and shared anecdotes from our childhood days on an Ontario airbase town. We tried, with only partial success, to recall the names of family friends in slides. We marvelled at how my mother kept her slim figure even after four children.
Given enough time, personal history takes on the quality of a dream. What became of that kid with the crew cut and buck-toothed grin, for example? The childhood self in Ektachrome seemed no more real to me now than a dream I had the previous night. And my parents are almost as spectral. They were here only a short time ago. My dad, two years ago. My mom, nine months ago, though she had long been absent through dementia. Now, they are utterly gone. It still seems strange and so dreamlike.
Time, dreams and death. Those are three of the biggest puzzles for human beings.
What is time? “The cradle rocks above an abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” wrote Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov in the opening lines of his memoir, Speak, Memory. Nabokov went on to describe a “chronophobiac” young friend who experienced panic when he watched an old home movie in which his mother was waving from an upstairs window. Below, a brand-new baby carriage sat empty. He realized that the carriage was his own, days before his actual birth, “with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin.” For Nabokov’s chronophobiac, it was a frightening peek into the eternity of darkness preceding existence.
I’m not a chronophobiac; if anything, I’m a ‘chronophiliac.’ The subject of time has long fascinated me, along with its existential sidekick, death. I’ve been on the trail of all things temporal since my teens and have thumbed through plenty of books on the topic, yet all I’ve managed to do is circle a dense thicket of prose, without flushing out the prey. I’m hardly alone in my puzzlement. Seventeen-hundred-years-ago, St. Augustine famously asked, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”
If anything, it’s even harder to square our subjective understanding with the contemporary scientific description of time. At the turn of the last century, a Swiss patent office clerk by the name of Albert Einstein denied time and space independent existence, replacing them with a ghostly hybrid called “space-time.” In Einstein’s “General Theory of Relativity,” clocks slow down at velocities near the speed of light and in the presence of gravitational fields. Even something as straightforward as determining whether two events happened simultaneously or not gets all mucked up at relativistic scales and speeds. And it’s all been confirmed by experiments.
It’s even weirder in the microworld where time is theorized to be ‘quantized’ like particles of light. At this level of inquiry, answers are conditioned by the way we ask questions. To measure is to change the reality we attempt to measure. Luckily, for embodied beings that prefer to exist in one place at once, the whims of the microworld are swamped at classical scales, giving us our hard-edged world of bus trips, bank holidays and baseball games.
There is inextricable connection between consciousness and time, some scientists believe. Theoretical physicist Julian Barbour hypothesizes the passage of time is purely an artifact of consciousness, like colour. Just as ‘red’ is a subjective quality the human brain imparts to a particular wavelength of light, the subjective sense of time is something the mind conjures up out of a physical world. How, I’m not sure, since I’ve only skimmed his book. (So many books about time and so little time.)
What are dreams? There is no shortage of theories, from neural house cleaning to an evolutionary gambit for avoiding nocturnal predators. Or how about the freedom to “go quietly insane” every night? Whatever the story we tell ourselves about dreams, they will, at some point, leave the dreamer scratching his or her head. A few weeks after my father’s death, I had one such dream. I was sitting at a desk as hands set before me a drawing of a western-style comic strip. There were cowboys and horses in action scenes, drawn in a manner reminiscent of the long-gone Sunday strip, Price Valiant. “Now I want to show you something I’m really proud of,” said the voice, which I recognized as my father. The hands set another comic strip before me on the desk surface – more western stuff, but drawn in an unconventional, stylistic manner of great beauty. This was graphic art, as opposed to commercial art.
My father had always wanted to be an artist, an impossible pursuit with four kids, yet he felt pride that one of them had taken his road untravelled. I already knew that. And certainly it would make sense I would project that knowledge into a dream. Something I didn’t know, however, was revealed a few weeks after his death when my sisters and I were rummaging through a decaying leather photo album we had found among my parents’ effects. None of us had ever seen it before. I was surprised to see so many black and white photographs of horses in bridles and cowboy gear. My father took them when he was a kid, at his uncle’s farm in Regina. This was the place he was happiest as a kid, my sisters told me. The pages and pages of horse photos were strongly reminiscent of the strip I was shown in the dream.
If my dad had a bit more time on his hands – say, all of eternity – perhaps he’d have taken up a hobby he had little time for on Earth. At least, that’s the theory my sister endorses.
It’s no use conveying this to the New England Journal of Medicine or The Lancet. It’s an anecdotal report of no weight to anyone other than me and a few family members. Yet, for decades, there have been a number of studies, such as those from The Maimonides Medical Center Dream Laboratory in Brooklyn, New York, suggesting the dreaming mind may sometimes extend beyond the normal limits of space and time. But debunkers continue to reject such research as pseudoscience, the result of loose protocols and experimenter bias. I’m not qualified to assess the contending claims, but I’ve met some so-called ‘rationalists’ who become completely unhinged by anything with a whiff of the occult. No experimental evidence for the paranormal will ever score through their ever-moving goalposts, just as the only standard of proof for some fuzzy-minded New Agers is whatever makes them feel good.
Skeptical-minded materialists like their world with sharply defined boundaries and tightly stitched labels, but I don’t believe this tidy mapmaking does full justice to the messy terrain of human experience. All I know is that my dream with the comic strips felt like a “big dream” rather than the nocturnal newsreels I’m familiar with. It was like an IMAX film compared to a small, highly compressed jpeg.
What is death? Actually, my father was himself a hard-core skeptic for most of his life. He lived in an intellectual Missouri (the “show me” state) and didn’t go in for fringe ideas of any kind and that included stories about life after death. Then, about 13-years-ago, after he had fallen sick, he was wide awake in his bedroom when his brother walked in, big as life and real as day. Unmedicated at the time, my father could see the sheets crumpled from where the figure sat at the edge of the bed. His brother, who had died several years earlier, told him “everything is going to be all right” and then vanished. After hearing this story from my sister, I had my dad confirm it for me. He didn’t like to talk about it all that much; it did not conform to his mental picture of the world in any way, shape or form.
Of course, my dad’s experience was a “vision.” Yet we are often too quick to shelve boundary-dissolving experiences that might trouble the dinner table or the faculty room. And when we do try to examine them rationally, one-size-fits-all nouns like “vision,” “hallucination,” or even “hypnagogic imagery” don’t so much explain as explain away. Visions of deceased loved ones are not uncommon and estimates of so-called ADCs (After Death Communication) range from 50 to 100 million Americans – 20 to 40 percent of the population of the US. Given the cultural pressure on us to keep a lid on anything that might make us sound ‘crazy,’ this high figure is not altogether surprising.
A grieving father who had lost his young son once wrote Albert Einstein for some comforting words. A passage from Einstein’s letter was recorded in the New York Times in 1950. “A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”
My bias is this: I would like to believe, in ways I cannot fathom, that love is not so much a hostage of time as a species of eternity and in rare moments of dreams or vision, the levees of individual separation are breached. That being said, I will sum up these musings with three little words that men find so difficult to say: I don’t know.
On a cloudless Sunday, I walked with two of my sisters and my niece along a forest path as the morning sun cut shafts of light through an arbour of branches. Stepping around banana slugs and tree roots, we arrived at a secluded spot by a brook that we had selected the previous day. We took turns scattering our parents’ ashes and I read a poem I had written. We held hands in a circle and honoured the two people who had brought four utterly unlike, occasionally fractious, siblings into the material world.
To keep the moment from fading into shadowy recollection, we agreed to return to the spot every year. Our parents passed away in such a terrible, tragic manner, the least we thought we could do as their children is to honour their final, brave battle against impossible odds.
It’s become a cliché that the Pollyannas compare the world to a dream and the Cassandras compare it to a nightmare. Yet the world-as-dream theme has persisted for centuries across the globe, from the Australian aboriginal ‘dreamtime’ to Taoist philosophy to ancient Vedic myth to physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s “participatory universe.” It’s also a time-honoured theme in literature, art and music, from Shakespeare to Philip K. Dick to the songs of Neil Young to children’s nursery rhymes (“row, row your boat gently down the stream… life is but a dream”). Its millennia-long shelf life demands our attention and our acknowledgement that we may be dealing with something more than a shop-worn metaphor.
Scientists, philosophers and artists will continue to debate and celebrate these questions as long as there is a human species. As Prospero said in The Tempest, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on/ and our little life/ is rounded with a sleep.”
time image © Lincolnrogers