The Speed of Life

The path is so familiar, so routine, so customary that her very shoes seem to know the way, which is a good thing since her mind seems to be off on a walk of its own.  Her steps are middling slow, but her thoughts, in her careful, sorting way, are occupied with speed.  Speed of light.  Speed of life.

Sixty-six thousand six hundred fifty-nine.  She thinks it in words but sees it in her mind’s eye as a number: 66,659.  Ever since she heard that number on the radio this morning it has loomed before her, driving out every other thought.  The speaker on the radio—an astronomer? an astrophysicist?—he threw out the number so casually as if it was something everyone already knew.  “Well,” he said, “we’re all moving around the sun at 66,659 miles per hour, so one way or another we’re making progress.”  And they had laughed, the astronomer and the radio host.  And what was that other number?  One thousand forty.  “Don’t forget,” said the astronomer, “that the earth is also rotating on its axis at 1,040 miles an hour at the equator, so nobody really gets to stand still.”

She stands still, or as still as she can given that she is moving around the sun at such a horrendous speed.  Her unfocused eyes do not see the sharp dazzles of sunlight glinting on the bay or the sleek ketch making its way toward the open sea or the pelican diving for an anchovy, or the other walkers on the path or their happy, eager dogs reading the scents that dodge about in the breeze.  She is a million miles away watching her lovely blue-green planet spinning like a dervish, singing itself through space in an endless elliptical tarantella with the sun as she, herself, chases it through space, racing to catch up as it speeds away from her.

The sun wraps her in light, warm and welcoming this close to the solstice, penetrating her long sleeves and wide-brimmed hat, teasing out memories.  You used to let me touch you the sun seems to say.  You used to lie on the beach and bathe in my light.  But that was before the ozone layer had thinned.  That was before skin cancer.  That was before.  That’s the problem with moving through space at 66,659 miles an hour she thinks.  In no time at all it’s all gone by.  In no time at all your ride is over.  She lifts her eyes to the horizon but the sights of the bay on this beautiful, nearly summer day are invisible to her.

She sees a face, that dearly beloved face she misses most, and her breath catches in her throat.  She sees that face she loves in all the ages she had known and loved it.  She sees it young and radiant, framed by chestnut hair, thick and full. She sees it older, rounder, accented by the soft lines of character and hair the color of steel.  She sees it old, thin, worn and weathered, the hair a cirrus cloud of wispy snow.  She sees the old dog they both loved so much, just for a moment out on the path ahead of her, looking back, smiling, then turning to amble on ahead.  She sees old friends, family, companions standing off in the distance, all of them swallowed by the light.

Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  World without end. Amen.  The words come echoing up from the sanctuary of her memories, attached to half-forgotten melodies, rising from the pages of long-disused hymnals.  Oh, Jesus, must it all go by so fast?  Does it ever stop? she wonders.  And suddenly, despite the fact that the whole earth on which she stands is hurtling through space at 66,659 miles an hour, she truly is perfectly still.  No…she realizes, that’s not quite right.  I am not still, she thinks, I have stepped into stillness.  Stillness was waiting for me.  Stillness was waiting for me to stop running through life at 66,659 miles an hour.

And for the first time in this long day that has moved by so fast, she sees what’s in front of her and around her and above her and under her feet.  She sees the path, the friendly dogs, the smiling, chatting walkers, the boats, the birds, the trees, the grass, the sky of this real and present world.  She feels the sunlight on her face.  She feels the caress of the breeze and the gentle kiss of salt in the air.  She sees it, feels it, smells it, tastes it all in a clearer light, everything sharp and distinct, suffused with the Presence of the moment.  And she realizes that this moment is eternal.  That all moments are eternal.  That life is eternal.  She sees that everything and everyone she has ever loved has, indeed, gone on ahead and is, simultaneously, thanks to some divine relativity or theological quantum twist right there beside her.  She takes a deep breath and lets out a sigh of both intense longing and profound peace, and calls out to the old dog that only she can see, “Hang on, buddy.  I’ll catch up.”

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