4 Min Read
Time as a Literary Element
The Divided Self
Christmas and the Solstice
Readers Call to Action
Not to toot my own horn, but I’ll let my cousin do so. She wrote in her Christmas card that she loved the TreeHouseLetter because it is “pithy and practical.” She is an engineer for work and a poet at heart, and it warms me to read this. I have been writing the letter for 14 years and encourage you to share with others if you find it pithy or practical, or fun or whatever modifier.
An agent read my memoir proposal and first chapters. She said the story is “compelling, beautifully told” and she’d like to “see [my] platform be even stronger.” To me this translates to having readers outside my family and friends. Sigh. You are the best of readers, thank you.
The Vietnamese word for sister is the same as the word for cousin*, which means I am blessed beyond measure on my maternal side with so many “sisters” I do not have a count. My mother’s six siblings each had six or seven or more children. And my uncle who remained in Vietnam had a number of children, and so on.
Let’s return to pith and pragmaticism. Pith is the essence of something and pithy is having substance. Gleaning essence and substance in this letter and finding it useful is a joy to learn as a writer. Thank you, Ba.
Something has been on my mind as the year winds down. Time. The construct and human idea of time. Winter solstice is the shortest day of the year; it marks that turning point in the season when every day brings more light and we may look forward to spring. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ, but this is not factual. Biblical scholars agree Christ was not born on 25 December. Most likely he was born in spring, even summer.
Why do Christians celebrate Christ’s birth during the week of the solstice? This has been done so long people believe that Jesus was born in the darkest hours of the year. The church in its infinite wisdom wanted to stem the pagan merry-making and solstice festivals, aiming for a reverent period of prayer and solemnity. For much of humanity the solstice has been the cause of universal celebration. Christmas proponents felt why not choose this week for the birth of the son of God, and tame the masses?
Accepting the syncing of the Son to the solstice, how do we pass the seasons of the year, of our lives, of our history? “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die.”*
As a child time is divided into grades: infancy and preschool, elementary and middle and high school.Then college and work. Marriage and children. The ways we mark time are common and numerous: by age, by job, by geography. If you were Elizabeth Taylor, by husband. By president, pets, progeny. Lincoln years of Civil War. Carter years of inflation and pain at the pump. My Belgian Shepherd years. The children years. The grandchildren years. Or, by God, by god: with BC and AD for Before Christ and Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord. And, 2022 AD morphed into 2022 CE for the Common Era. Or, the number one factor in all relationships, place: the Germany years, the Florida years, the Connecticut years.
Picasso had a blue period. Vintage champagne varies from months to years and vintage in furniture could mean decades, to a century for antiques. Geologic marks time by millions of years. I write of time at mid-life easily enough. I’ve been exposed since my birth on a Sunday in winter, in the nation’s capital. It’s nice to know it was convenient for my parents, birth on the Lord’s Day, a day of rest. Or labor in my mother’s case.
These are, all of them, human constructs.
Time is personal. For me as a child, time was linear: I watched the days of the week progress on a timeline on a chalkboard. As an adult, time is cyclical: I watch the hands of a clock circle around its center and the seasons of the year cycle onward. I often believe the only time is the present. Now.
The Divided Self
In memoir, time is the literary element responsible for tension and meaning. The character of I in the story may be my eleven year old self at the end of the driveway or my teenage self at the laundry. The narrator of I is the person telling the story. The narrator writes in the narrative present and the tension builds until the narrator reflects, discerning meaning over the intervening time. Over the three minutes you’ve been reading this letter as example, beginning with comments in a Christmas card to the divided self in memoir, you read of the church’s ruse and the personal nature of time.
Maybe what distinguishes time as we age is meaning, the lessons we learn through the seasons of life and from each other, the distillation of all of it, whether it is about Christ’s birth or the solstice. Meaning–like time–is personal and it is our view out to the world, the connections to each other and everything else.
Where I’m sitting in Soho on the twenty-sixth floor, I can see the Colgate Clock in Jersey City, a 50 foot clock face on the water’s edge. The hands are visible in Manhattan, with the minute hand at 40 and the hour hand between 9 and 10.
It’s a clear winter day. East of the Jersey clock in this view is the Freedom Tower (One World Trade Center), its glorious skyward angles an illusion of infinity. For those who see the clock, it is 9:40 AM. Or so, we are at liberty to believe.
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Thank you for being the best of readers. Writing that is read is the same as music that is heard. It is better when someone reads it. Or hears it.
*The word for sister is the same as the word for brother in Vietnamese on this measure. First cousins are so close they are like siblings. Anh for elder brother or cousin and chi for elder sister or cousin and em for a sibling or cousin who is younger.
*Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 New Living Translation. “For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away. A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace.”
*Memoir differs from biography or autobiorgraphy because it depicts an aspect of one’s life whereas biography portrays a whole life. Phillip Lopate on the divided self in memoir, excellent podcast Let’s Talk Memoir with Ronit Plank.