Changing time

Thu, 03/15/2012 - 5:54am

Time ago the day was balanced on the fulcrum of noon; midday was, in practice, the middle of the day. We were close to that standard the day before the clocks changed – the day before we changed the clocks. The sun rose just after six in the morning and set just before the traditional start of the evening news.

The world was almost in balance – then, whoosh! With the push of a button, the turn of a hand, or increasingly with no action at all, just a waiting for a preordained electronic flicker, it was thrown out of kilter.

It is only an hour, we tell each other, how could one hour make so much difference, and why does it seem worse in the spring – that is, in fact, it’s still winter but “winter ahead’ just doesn’t cut it – than in the fall?

Yet it feels time has taken a new dimension. I think the disorientation has been hovering all week, but it has only been a few days, further proving my point.

I hate it when the time changes and I hate it even more now that it pushed deeper into the winter, when the loss of a single hour in the dark of a Sunday morning plummets us back to sunrise after seven, that milepost we clawed our way through January to attain.

It always feels after the fact, this artificial maneuvering of a dimension we try in vain to measure. Our ineptitude is demonstrated by the way so many of us feel. The golden evening in late winter should be a gift; it would be a few weeks later when the loss of the morning was not so difficult to reconcile.

This year I remembered, I always do at the last minute, and changed all the clocks. There was no arriving in church 50 minutes late in the manner of the uncle so few now remember, and the long light at day’s end did not seem so different. The next day, Monday, told of winter less by the calendar than by the boats passing to the east, confusingly, underscoring the general off-ness of the day. My sense of time becomes more acute in the late afternoon and I knew, absolutely, that it was not time for the last one to be leaving for Point Judith.

It is not the absolute it once was, when there was a single boat all the winter months, another fulcrum upon which to balance the day. It was an event unintentionally memorialized in a yearbook of the late 50s or early 60s, a page with grainy photos with captions like “Any freight today, Buster?” The little vessel, the Sprigg Carroll, docked at the inner basin of the Old Harbor, near the pilot boat that was often berthed in the corner, waiting to carry a pilot out to a big ship that needed to travel up Narragansett Bay.

The shed has grown over the years and today is a shiny new building housing “facilities.” Then it was truly a shed, an unassuming little white building with green trim, sitting at the edge of the parking lot. I never was sure what it was about; it was not big enough to house any freight.

People met the boat, not necessarily for any reason, perhaps to check on freight, as likely to follow routine.

There are three questions I remember. Saying you were going to the harbor to meet the boat would be met with, “Which harbor?” – silly to my 7-year-old sensibilities, since everyone knew there was the harbor, and there was the New Harbor.

“Who is coming on the ferry?” was the next question, revealing a presumption that there had to be a reason to meet it. It also revealed the more nuanced “ferry” or “boat” question. We met a boat, not a ferry, ferries were more like... more like the multiple boats that run today, back and forth, back and forth, across rivers and bays – not a single sturdy little vessel that made the rough winter run from Point Judith-that-is-really-Galilee at eleven o’clock every day, the “noon boat” not for what time it left there but what time it landed here.

Finally, “What time is the fill-in-the-blank-time boat?” never seemed an especially dumb, yuck-yuck-who-would-ask-that question. Of course, I have to allow, it might seem so to someone who goes “up” the Neck, and not down it.

The time has changed, the night air is filled with the chorus of peepers and the certainty of spring rolling in on the surf, and the next day after today that is scheduled to have only one boat is Thanksgiving.

It can be a confusing time of year, even without the record-breaking warmth of this season. Daffodils sprouted long ago, some are in bloom on the south side of my old shed, burst open a few days ago, not even a respectable interval after the blue-purple crocus. There are leaves on the vines by the road that I do not remember seeing in bud, they opened in an instant, like some illusionist’s trick.

Daylilies are inches tall where they have not been shorn by the deer and the familiar sound of geese on the wing has returned. The fog comes and goes, rolling in and out, swallowing Clayhead in the late afternoon, creating a strange tableau from the hill above the harbor — land and sea, all things wild and open, behind the jarring reality of a building and heavy overhead power lines.

The drifting gray came, not on little cat feet but with the pace of a cheetah, enveloping the island even as the golden light that is more normally the end of day in May shone fleetingly. The light was bright white on the tower of the old City Drug building, turning the setting sun to a full pale moon before it dropped like a rock behind Beacon Hill, leaving behind an odd line of gold. It was a moment to scribble on the nearest piece of paper in the shorthand we know will be enough to recall what could easily pass into darkness.

Some version of the sunset happens every day, like that noon boat of long ago, such a part of our lives it need not be memorialized, but we cannot help ourselves.