Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

IT’S ABOUT TIME

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I once told my next door neighbour that I was eighty-seven.

It was meant to be a joke.

“No…” said she, unbelieving. “You couldn’t be…”

“No,” said I. “I’m really not!” And we both laughed.

But there was a moment there when she wasn’t sure…

Don’t know what kind of gap that is. Maybe a “Don’t believe everything you’re told!” gap or a “You surely need new glasses, dear,” gap or perhaps, more than likely, a “Stop seeing yourself as you were fifteen years ago!” gap.

I was not upset. I have been pleased in my adult life to be several persons — I’d rather not say how many — one of whom is four years old. This is very helpful for many reasons. For example, I write a lot for children, and it’s very useful there. A perspective of the world from low down is most revealing, and also there’s a lot of treasure to be found in the dirt. Miners know this. If you are four a lot of the time, it’s less of a big thing to be mistook for eighty-seven when you are sixty-five.

But it’s about time, isn’t it? Your time and my time, and everyone else’s time — time, which is very different according to how you look at it.

Two days ago I heard on PBS radio about this tiny Greek island where there are more very old people than anywhere else on earth. If you live there, you’d be entering your middle years at sixty-five, and looking at another forty years to come. Way to go, or better, to put off going.

In my native island, there was, many years ago, a popular revue series called EIGHT O’CLOCK JAMAICA TIME. The curtain rose at eight-thirty. In Jamaica, aka Jamdown or JA, you invite guests to your home for seven, but you don’t expect them before seven-thirty or eight. In fact, it’s inconsiderate if they arrive on time. The evening done, you say goodbye and your guests can take an hour to get from the door of the house to the car. The Jamaican idea of time is sort of errant, meandering, elastic. Latinos share that with us.

We also say in JA, “Time longer than rope.”

These past few weeks, I been making my way through a book called CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE END OF TIME. Penguin published it in 1999 when everybody was panicked about the sky falling in when the year 2000 came. (Well, in the book Umberto Eco says it’s the media that was creating the panic… Could well have been. Probably was.) The conversations take place with four people, two of whom are really famous, Eco being one of the two, but all of whom are hugely smart and engaging.

On the cover they put the names, Umberto Eco (the blurb says he’s a Web-fanatic…who knew?) and Stephen Jay Gould (paleontologist) in big type, twice the size used for Jean-Claude Carrière (screenwriter) and Jean Delumeau (historian), whose names come right underneath. They do this even though Carrière and Delumeau do most of the talking, which seems a double dis.

It’s the marketing people, of course, hoping that the sweeping eyes of the potential buyer will light upon Eco and Gould. But I bet a lot of “End-of-the World” folks, who might not have known any of the four people, bought the book too. These are the folks who believe that the Mayan long count calendar predicts a cataclysm on 12 December 2012 (some expert opinion says it doesn’t) or who regard the Book of Revelations as history-about-to-be, or who’ve already bought THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO 2012 and THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO THE LAST DAYS. Or all three.

Penguin could really have given the four fellows equal billing!

No women being talked to either… I wonder why?

On the subject of calendars, just exactly what is a calendar? Like the duck, I know it when I see it, but I don’t know if I could say what a calendar is any more easily than I could define a duck. I’ll have to look it up.

But back to time, and CONVERSATIONS. Who knew that in the year 1582, the days from the 5th to the 14th of October inclusive, disappeared from the calendar? In 1582, the day after October 4th was October 15th! Way out — especially if you had a date you didn’t want to keep. They were fiddling with calendars, of course, but don’t start thinking about it. It will make your head spin.

Also, there wasn’t a year zero, which went through its twelve months like every other year, at the end of which it became year one. We count time after Christ, or in the Common Era, from the year one. Which seems to make no sense. It’s like saying you were a year old when you were born. In fact, several East Asian cultures calculate age in exactly this way. And if a person begins to be at conception, then they are close to a year old when they are born. Hmmnnn...

As for leap years, it turns out that they come every four years, but not if a fourth year is also a hundredth year, except for every four hundred years, when that year is also a leap year. So 1884, 1888, 1892, 1896 are leap years and 1900 ought to be, or rather, should have been, but wasn’t, because it was a hundredth year. In the same way, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 were leap years, and 2000 should not have been, because it’s a hundredth year, but it was, because it was a four hundredth year.

Nor is the idea of time as marching forward in a line shared by all cultures. The Greeks didn’t think of time that way, nor many Eastern cultures, nor the Mayans, for that matter. For them, time was cyclical, going round, and coming back to start all over again.

But just in case you think you’re going to catch it on the next go-round, don’t be too sure. Hindus believe that we are living in the Kali Yuga, the age of destruction, and there’s nothing to be done about it but maintain dharma, a hard to define word with a range of meanings, so we’ll take Krishna’s. He says, in the Mahabharata, dharma “upholds both this-worldly and other-worldly affairs." That’s each person’s role in these devastating days, to keep things, earthly and other-than-earthly, in their right places.

No one knows what happens after the Kali Yuga.

As for that Jamaican “Time longer than rope” business, it seems the Yoruba word for time, igba, is also the word for rope.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Pamela Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai has been many things: a teacher, a trainer of teachers, a TV host, a diplomatic wife, an anthologist, a writer of poems, stories and textbooks for children, and a writer of criticism, fiction, poetry and plays for those challenged by age. Born and raised in Jamaica, educated there and in the U.S.A., Pam has lived in Toronto for the past 15 years.

Go to Pamela Mordecai’s Author Page