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Time, time, time is on my side, yes, it is. Time, time, time is on my side.

-- The Rolling Stones

Musicians called it "tempo rubato." The word originates from the Italian rubare, which means to steal. It's when the musician plays some notes ahead of the regular tempo (thus stealing time), then gives it back later in the song by playing the rest of it a bit slower. By doing this, the singer or musician has expressive and rhythmic freedom to shape the music in his own unique way.

Life can be like that, too. I remember once I was driving too fast in wet conditions to make a flight at the airport. I came to a slight curve in the road and hydroplaned. Instinctively, I stepped on the brakes, sending my car into two tight, 360-degree spins. I remember it was as if I was in slow motion as my brain frantically tried to process what was happening. Time seemed to have almost stopped. Fortunately, I was the only idiot driving on the stretch of road that early morning and came to a halt in the middle of the road, unscathed. Of course, what had just occurred had only taken a few seconds, but later, it seemed almost a complete blur. That's because the experience of time is flexible -- moving slowly, then fast. Time is experienced.

When I was a little boy, the time of summer vacation seemed to last about a decade. I went on adventures, blazed new trails, fought ferocious dinosaurs, built a fort -- and that was all before Mom called me for lunch. When you are having those kinds of perfect moments, your brain is in tempo rubato mode, slowing things down because it knows you are experiencing something entrancing. Later, when I had to sit through 26 choruses of "How Great Thou Art" at Sunday morning service, I wished my brain would speed up. If someone asked me later what was said by the preacher, I honestly would have no idea -- it now was a blur.

Contemporary culture -- especially Western societies -- have placed great value on what they call "not wasting time." Many people pride themselves on how busy they are. Some observers trace this back to the advent of the Industrial Age, when factory owners needed workers to keep up with the machine's pace -- no tempo rubato allowed or encouraged. Playing, wandering, being idle or even taking the time to think about something was a pitfall to the worker's reputation -- and usually associated with the mindset of a child.

The shift for the current on-line way of living has only acerbated the problem of time by often obscuring it all together. People feel driven. "Time is money," they hear repeatedly. And everyone always seems in a hurry. But aren't time and money only a represented form to get what we really want? After all, money should not be confused with wealth, nor time with freedom.

We all need maps and clocks to organize our lives -- to go see a friend, a movie or go to work -- but let us not forget that time is a social institution, not a physical reality. Time was originally created to facilitate our lives, not control it. The elastic perception of time is vividly felt when we get close to nature -- such as the mountains or the ocean. And even in large cities, an inquisitive look in the everlasting sky can make the notion of time vague.

For the philosopher Allan Watts, in the natural world, when we have our primary needs satisfied, we do not need to justify idle time or look for ways to improve the use of it. Rather we can allow the rhythm of things to pace us. As our early ancestors made known, after the food was hunted or gathered, they would sing and dance, making a joyful noise. We have been doing that for thousands of years. Even though for many people, the natural world sounds more like a parallel space, finding one's own tempo in this world could be the best present to give yourself this holiday season.

And who knows? You might even find the time to build a fort.

NAN Our Town on 11/09/2017

Print Headline: Stolen, idle time

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