The room was at the end of the hall. Its large windows looked out over an empty field where, during fire drills, we stood at bored attention in long lines awaiting the all clear. Its rows of desks were topped with heavy black Royal and Olivetti manual typewriters and worn copies of the Gregg Typing Manual that opened from the bottom rather than the side like ordinary books. The object, Mrs. Reba Clements explained to us on the first day of seventh grade, was not just speed, but speed along with accuracy.
At the end of the timed tests that eventually became as competitive as the sprints and free throws in P.E., we were required to proofread what we’d typed and count the errors, circle each one so that it stood out like one of the blemishes that had started to appear on our adolescent faces. Five or more errors and the words-per-minute was simply irrelevant.
The English language, the placement of the letters of the alphabet on the QWERTY keyboard and the unpredictability of the human mind inevitably and frequently create situations in which it is not only easy but probable that the rapidly twitching muscles in a typist’s fingers will turn "was" into "saw" and "heart" into "heard" — or "sacred" into "scared."
Last year, within the 12 weeks that span my birthday and Christmas, three friends, all unbeknownst to each other, gave me the same gift: an hourglass.
They are each about 8 inches tall and contain sand that is the pale aqua color that I prefer over all others. I tried placing them together at first, but the concentrated reminder of life’s ephemeral nature (“Like sands through the hourglass . . . ”) was too much for me, so, like misbehaving children, I separated them. One is now in town at the office as a reminder that what I do there is not who I am. One is in the study at Sandhill, a functional prod to commit measurable time to the words that keep me alive. The third is on a chest in my bedroom next to a jar of seashells and a candle, a focal point where, at the end of the day or first thing in the morning, all the rays of thought and sensation and emotion can converge in a place of calm.
Last night, as I walked into the bedroom (Was it to empty my gym bag or put up linens or take out my contacts?), my peripheral vision registered something out of place. I stopped. Lamplight left the corners dull, but I could see that no photograph had been knocked over on its table, the door to the deck had not been blown open. All appeared to be in order.
I turned back to what I’d been doing, and that’s when I saw it: the hourglass, about a quarter of its sand still in the upper chamber and not falling. Time, literally, had stopped.
In the one to two milliseconds it took my brain to register the image and to relay back to my conscious self that, clearly, some object or force, most probably humidity, had acted upon the sand to impede its flow, my unconscious self — the one that is contained within but not defined by that brain and 5 feet 9 inches of bone and muscle and flesh, the one that sees things that cannot be imaged and knows things that cannot be articulated — had already experienced the startle and fear of the possibility that time really had stopped and processed that fear into the marvel of expectation of the what-next.
What if there is only now now? What if I am no longer moving inevitably away from what I have known and inescapably toward what I cannot know? What if this — lamplight and the shimmer of new polish on my fingernails and the sounds of a baseball game on the television in the living room — is all there is?
I am, for a moment, allowed a glimpse of what it could be like if I did not live caught between the magnetic poles of yesterday and tomorrow, feeling the equally violent pull of both.
I reach for the hourglass to dislodge the sand, and am stopped. Leave it there, I am told. Leave it there and know what is possible.
I was always one of Mrs. Clement’s students who aimed for speed. I pay more attention to accuracy now. It takes more than a couple of errant keystrokes to turn scared into sacred.