It’s About Time
Think about a second - a tiny but familiar unit of time. You can arrive at the length of a second a couple of ways. One is reductive. Start with a big, pretty uniform and regular cosmic action, say the circling of the Earth around the Sun, and then start breaking it down. First by 365, then by 24, then by 60, and again by 60, and you have a piece of existence that is roughly 1/31557600 of a year. Modern science, with its ability to measure tiny things with a high degree of precision can do the same thing additively. Take a very tiny but precisely repetitive event, the vibration of a cesium atom for example, and count up how many of those constitute a second (about 9 billion). You’d have a pretty accurate clock. But you still wouldn’t have a very satisfying idea of a second. That’s because time itself is different from the terms we apply to it. A giraffe doesn’t need to be called a giraffe, but without a name, we’d have a hard time talking about it. Humans use language and mathematical constructs as a way of corralling existence and making it comprehensible. Existence itself though is, well, existential. Stuff happens. And when it does it has a durative quality – it takes time. All clocks aside, we instinctively gauge time according to our experience of events. How long does it take to brush your teeth, walk home from school, sing a song? Are we there yet? And when will it be Christmas?
“Official” or nominal time is suspect. As I write this, something called Daylight Saving Time is about to expire. I, along with everybody I know, will casually set the clocks back an hour and behave as if it were completely normal to eat supper when it’s dark out. As I mentioned in an earlier article, a similarly cavalier attitude about the ultimate propriety of clocks and calendars has caused weeks and even months to suddenly drop out of historical accounting. Literary fiction witnesses many attempts to travel back in time. In a theory akin to running rapidly to the rear of a slowly moving train, a time traveler need only exceed the speed of light to arrive in the distant past. But the constant passage of events continues nonetheless, and the science of physics erects a theoretically impassible barrier to the intrepid time traveler.
Revels relates to time in both a nominal and an existential way. Certainly we organize our activities and celebrations in a framework of dates and intervals based upon convention and traditional practice. The regular turning of the year is the central metaphor for reveling, and we observe the shortest day in counterpoint to the Summer Solstice. Our enactments of traditional customs and rituals take note of their attachments to feast days, seasons, and other temporal measurements. Mayday can’t happen in February, and Octoberfest is self-locating. We use our festivals as waypoints to mark the passage of time, and to maintain our bearings in a sea of activity. And yet Revels is about knowing time as the continuity of events as well.
It is axiomatic to say that “time flows like a river” and like many axioms, this one is successful because it gives us a concise and useful way to understand things. Like time, a river exists in three dimensions: there is the river that has flowed past; the river that is still to come; and the river in which we stand. It is all the same river.
I was reminded of this again at the recent Chorus retreat when Jenny Jackson Paton observed that one of the rewards of singing songs hundreds of years old is that it recognizes the connection we have with the people who sang them many generations ago. By singing the same words, the same tunes and experiencing the same emotions, we become aware that we are swimming in the same temporal waters as our ancestors. We are not challenging the speed of light, but it is time travel of another sort.
Additionally, as we look upstream at the river yet to come we feel a pull, a deep need to pass on all that we have learned, all that we celebrate, all that we cherish to those who will wade in these waters after us. And so we sing and dance with our children and offer them a legacy of all the treasures we ourselves have inherited.
Finally, when we come together as revelers we celebrate the ephemeral and unique quality of the present moment. Whether singing, feasting together, joining in the endless chain of “Lord of the Dance”, or simply gazing at the faces in the crowded hall, we are made aware of just how wonderful human community can be. We are all standing in the same river. We are all celebrating our precious time together.
- David Parr, Artistic Director