Two hours had passed and still, the last bit of expresso stained the bottom of the white porcelain cup. Boys passed a soccer ball back and forth across the plaza, gossips simmered between mothers while their children slept inside the high-tech strollers. Across our table, contemplating beer and tapas, were the Millennials engaging in visceral dialogue. We had only a few more minutes with our friend from Madrid before he rushed to catch a flight to Paris. Years had passed unnoticed since my husband, Sherman, and Ignacio shared an office in the halls of MIT.
Our talk settled on the vast difference between how Spaniards experience time and those of us who are soaked in the Silicon Valley culture. One thing was clear, each culture had a different time currency. Californians are driven by efficiency, speed, and material outcome while Spaniards are more focused on the social value of personal exchange.
“Spaniards are insulted by tips, they weigh down their pockets,” Ignacio smiled as he relayed this amusing anecdote. He lived two months of the year in Madrid, his home base, and the rest of the time traveling the world. A trained engineer, he chose to use his time currency to bring electrical power to underdeveloped countries.
“In the few years I have left I might as well use my time to make a difference” he responded when I asked him why he chose to live his life out of a suitcase.
“Remember, I do spend the whole month of August in Mallorca with family, no phones or internet. It’s heaven,” he said as he looked at his watch and sipped his expresso.
Thirty-plus years had passed since I sat in a similar square on the other side of this ancient city. I was single at that time and unencumbered with the responsibilities of family. Central Madrid looked unchanged, except for the size of the cameras and multicolored hair. Unlike in the U.S., elders and youngsters walked arm in arm down the Gran Via.
Many Spaniards start their day at nine in the morning and take a break in mid-afternoon for an elaborate lunch. They return to work at 4 in the afternoon and end their work day around 9 in the evening. After which their social life begins at a bar or outdoor cafe until early morning.
I was tempted to look at my phone and check the time as if I had somewhere to be. The habit of checking the phone is hard to give up. I reminded myself that I was on vacation, the only place I had to be was here in the moment. When the dessert menu arrives it signals a time to begin winding down a luxurious meal. In Madrid, restaurants tend to close at one or two a.m. It’s customary for people to linger even after the doors are locked.
Time does leave undeniable impressions; crumbling stone, graffiti etched into the side of a cave, the dullness of the cobblestones leading down narrow alleys, a star cluster within a nebula located 210,000 light years away.
We are obsessed with time, looking outside for evidence of it, and forget about our inner experiences. The powerful now is accessible at any moment. Why is it so uncomfortable to stay in the moment, the unfettered moment? Where does the discomfort come from? Why do we want to know what will happen next or linger on moments of the past?
Philosophers and spiritual guides encourage reflection, discernment, meditation, contemplation, inquiry, and stillness. It’s all a way of expressing an inward gaze, inward attention to the silence that exists within us.
“Time is nothing other than tension and I would not be very surprised if it’s not tension of the consciousness itself.” St. Augustine wrote.
What happens to many of us, I know it does for me when I try to attend to the silence inside of me, a storm of thoughts rushes into my mental awareness– where are my glasses, what time is the doctor’s appointment, what’s for dinner, look at that cobweb across the window pane, I need to clean the bathroom. But when I can allow the thoughts to pass, like clouds overhead, and contemplate on what is here now, at the moment, I find myself in a place where time stands still.
As I get older I fear the loss of time, the onset of dementia, Alzheimer’s, an ancestral gene turning on me, or some form of mental ineptitude. Fear is another way of passing time.
A friend whose mother was aging with Alzheimer’s said that she had never seen her mother so happy. As she got older she would say less and less, at one point she would alternate between only these two phrases: “I love you” and “I wonder”.
Would it not be a relief to be living in the present moment? I wonder why we work so hard to avoid this moment.