“Has anyone ever turned in a paper that you considered too long?” a student asked when I mentioned an approximate page length for an assignment.
Once, I asked students to define a term from their major area of study. Write two or three pages explaining the term to someone who’s not in your major, I said.
A zealous physics student emailed me a detailed, fourteen-page discourse on time travel. I opened the file, scrolled through the fourteen pages, and postponed grading the paper.
I did not put reading the paper on hold because its length discouraged me. I put the paper on hold because its promise engaged my curiosity. In the introduction, the student declared that time travel is currently possible. I was excited to learn about the possibilities. I saved his pages for last, so I’d have reading to anticipate. (I hear you. You aren’t the first. Others have called me gullible.)
The idea of time travel fascinates me. I have read A Wrinkle in Time, The Time Machine, and Danny Dunn Time Traveler more than once. I watched all the Back to the Future movies. More than once.
I have imagined being able to travel backwards and forwards through time. What time period would I visit?
After I had graded the other student papers, I eagerly opened the fourteen page paper. I read my way through six pages of words like vectors, velocity, momentum, and quantum gravity. Around page seven, the mathematical equations spun into nonsense in my head.
The writer had forgotten his intended reader.
I scrolled to the end.
On the last page, the student triumphantly declared: time travel is possible. Go east at the speed of light and pretty soon you’ll arrive somewhere (I’m murky on the specifics) a few split seconds before you left somewhere. (Like I said, I’m murky on the specifics.)
Here’s what I know: the student measured time by numbers on a clock, and I found his conclusion a letdown. I can’t time travel because I don’t know how to travel at the speed of light. But not only that.
The time travel I dream of has little to do with the numbers used to measure time and lots to do with the emotions I feel as I make my way through time.
I wanted to hand the assignment back and tell him: write fourteen pages when you can describe an actual device that I can use to press slow-motion during a joyful celebration, fast forward during life’s sad times and revisit for the love-filled moments that I want to live through again.
I’m imagining this type of time-travel because today I’m mired in the happy-sad space that’s inevitable after a much-anticipated celebration.
Early this month, one of my sons married a lovely young woman. On the wedding day, as my son stood with the minister and groomsmen in front of the seated guests, he glimpsed his bride coming toward him in a horse-drawn carriage, and he got teary eyed.
I’ve attended many of his firsts (first steps, first words, first day of school, first stitches) and this is another. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed him overwhelmed by beauty.
The ceremony was a celebration of love and commitment. In front of family and friends, the bride and groom promised to love each other through the ups and downs of life. Afterwards, we enjoyed a great party celebrating the couple.
I wanted to press pause as the day that we’d anticipated for months went so quickly.
Our daughter had traveled from Haiti for her brother’s wedding. A few days after the celebration, I sprawled on her bed watching her pack for her return trip to her home, husband and new job. When her suitcase was full, she looked around her bedroom which was decorated the same as when she moved out a few years ago. All the posters she’d selected and pinned up over the years were still on the walls.
She said, “Mom, I don’t live here anymore. You need to take these posters down. You need to re-decorate this room. Make this room yours.”
I looked round the room.
“You want me to take down the poster of the puppy peeking out from the plants that says Lazy Days? You spent allowance money to get that poster.”
“And what about the pig candle?” I asked. When she was ten and infatuated with pigs, I bought her a pink candle in the shape of a pig at a second-hand store. It still occupied a prominent position on a shelf. “You don’t want me to get rid of that, do you?”
“Mom!” She exclaimed and started taking posters off the walls and stuffing them in the trash.
I leaned back against her pillows and scrolled through Facebook posts on my phone. I was looking for pictures of the wedding, but I noticed a picture my niece had just posted.
She and her family had joined us for the celebration and they were on the long ride home from Pennsylvania to Virginia. My niece’s two-year-old daughter agreed to nap in the car only if her mom would hold her hand. My niece had snapped and shared a picture of her peacefully sleeping daughter holding her momma’s hand.
I liked the picture, and thought: just yesterday, my daughter needed me like that. How do I get a revisit?
As my grown daughter peeled the posters off the wall of her childhood bedroom, she said, “Mom, our relationship doesn’t exist in these things. It’s time to get rid of them.”
Who is this young woman spouting wisdom? I thought. I like her.
And honestly, I was glad to get rid of the pig candle.
But today, I’m drooping in the happy-sad of the wedding day over and all the out-of-town guests gone home. I muse that if a student wrote a fourteen page paper to share knowledge of a device that would allow me to press pause on the celebrations, or to revisit the times when my kids needed me more, I’d read all fourteen pages.
For I have often imagined a time travel ability that would allow me to occasionally flit through time. To linger in the celebrations. To revisit the love-filled moments.
I have to remind myself that the joy that calls me to linger and the love that swelled in the moments that call me back—those emotions aren’t fleeting like moments of time. The feelings are present, growing and ready to be expressed in new ways.
And the happy-sad? The lull after a celebration? It’s like an unexpected rough patch of air on a flight. I remind myself that I just need to ride, or in this case, rest it out.
Forget fast forward. The July 4 sunset pictured above reminds me that the contrasts make life vibrant.