By Christine Baker
Clinton, CT, USA
Christine Baker and Jessie
The only time I ran away, I was seven-years-old. I remember packing my little red backpack full of important things like my toothbrush, an apple, my diary and my two favorite stuffed animals—Casper the Friendly Ghost and Winnie the Pooh. Emboldened by my need for independence, I marched straight out the front door in the middle of the afternoon, not the back door in the dead of night or early dawn. My black Labrador retriever named Sam walked at my side.
Sam always walked at my side. We did everything together that dog and me. We played in the woods, we used to lie on our backs in the field and make shapes out of the clouds. We shared a special language and I was always safe in his presence. In fact, my mother tells the story often of how he patiently taught me to walk by standing next to me so I could hold on to him as my legs wobbled. From the earliest moments of my life, animals have been there to guide me, to help me and to share life with me. This fact is not lost on me now, as I look down to two sleeping Labrador retrievers, one yellow and one black, that I cannot imagine my life without.
Together, Sam and I took off into the great unknown. Down the driveway lined with a split rail fence and Mountain Laurel in full purple bloom. I looked both ways before I crossed the road even though I knew no one would be passing by. It was a very quiet country road and only a few neighbors lived on the street at all. But still I looked both ways because my mother taught me to. I kicked some dust up from the road. It was summer and the cicadas marked my steps. My mind was made up. I was leaving. I was ready to move onto the next thing, whatever that thing was.
I crossed the street and walked right up to a front door painted a pale shade of yellow. I knocked. No one answered. I knocked again. And then it happened. She opened the door. My grandmother. She was already smiling when she saw me, like she somehow knew I would be there in that very moment. There was something magnificent about how my grandmother (or my Mimi, as I called her) always smiled at me with her light brown eyes twinkling. It was as if we shared a special secret that no one else in the world knew but us. I loved that about her. No one else in my life has ever made me feel that way but her.
"I can't let you come in, Christine," she said, patting Sam on the head. "Your mother made it clear you can't run away."
This made me angry. First of all, I was old enough to make up my own mind. Second of all, I wasn't running away, I was running toward. Why didn't anyone get that?
"But, why don't you go back and put your things away. I just made chocolate chip cookies. Come over after dinner and we'll have some cookies and milk together. How's that?" she said.
Christine Baker, age 7
"Okay," I mumbled. "C'mon Sam." And so we left, this time, just to spite my mother, I walked straight into the street without looking in either direction. I don't remember what happened after that, but I do remember eating chocolate chip cookies at my grandparents' kitchen table often, my legs swinging gently from the wooden chair with the crack in one leg. I also remember crossing the magical threshold of my grandparents' powder blue living room, covered in protective plastic (like every good Italian used to do), taking in a deep breath of fresh tomato sauce, braciole and sausage.
Whenever I smell chocolate cookies or make a fresh pot of sauce myself, I think of my grandmother. Food has a way of doing that for us. It can remind us of so much more than just a meal shared. Food memories put our lives in context and help give a shape to the times of our lives.
Time has been on my mind a great deal lately. Maybe it's because I am getting older and time seems to pass so much more quickly than it did when I was young. Maybe it's the season. There is something splendid about early summer. The days are long, and evenings are brought to us on the wings of a cool breeze and a lounging red sunset. Summer forces us to look, to smell, to see the world around us, and to stop for a moment. In what other season can catching fireflies in an old mason jar as dusk falls seem like the best way to spend an hour?
Last night, I awoke at 3:11 a.m. because I smelled chocolate chip cookies. Before I opened my eyes, I forgot I was 40-years-old. I thought, honestly, that I was seven again. I even reached down for my old Casper stuffed animal and for my Siamese cat Charlie. Neither was there of course, but in that moment, I realized something the universe had been trying to tell me for a while that I had stubbornly ignored: Time is a continuum but it is not linear. Too often, we push through our lives as if we are on a northbound train headed for God only knows what of our own doing. We fill our moments with obscure emails and television shows where people dance or fight or kill or lie to one another. We rush through days just focused on getting from Point A to Point B because if we connect the dots, we'll have the life we thought we had to have when we were 10 and making up things as we went along.
But maybe the dots don't connect that way at all. Maybe the dots of our lives are comprised of different points at different times. If I close my eyes, I can see myself staring at the blue streaked sky from the highest perch of a giant oak tree. I can see Sam on the ground looking up at me, worried. I can remember the smell of my grandfather's aftershave when I hugged him. I remember being so afraid my legs shook as I climbed a rickety ladder in Hull, Illinois on a college service trip so I could remove Mississippi River mud from a ceiling light of an old farmhouse. I remember standing on another ladder in the dead of night laughing so hard my sides hurt as my friends and I stole a "Slow Children" street sign (my one rebellious teenage act). I can still see the look of pride on my father's face when I hit a game-winning jump shot in a college basketball game. He always wore a blue oxford shirt to each of my games because he was superstitious. Whenever I hear a Frank Sinatra song, I can close my eyes and see my mother reading a book with a cat on her lap. I can see myself standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower or in the middle of a piazza in Siena, Italy.
I've walked thousands of miles on trails in the woods, on dirt roads and paved roads in this country or another. I've walked through the Mall of America, down the Champs Elysees, through a local Walmart, across bridges high over the Hudson River and gangways onto boats or planes or trains. I've watched the world pass by me as I've hurdled through space rushing from one thing to another, from one meeting to the next, from one goal to another. And every one of these moments connects forwards and backwards and even sideways. They connect to form the unique constellation that is me.
Since when did the phrase "just passing time," become a curse, a phrase only to be used for those who don't have anything better to do? As if there is something inherently wrong with people who choose to just pass time rather than trying somehow to control it.
Since Hurricane Sandy swept my world upside down, writing has not come easy and some days have passed with no thoughts at all except the way the tide moves in and moves out. Living by the beach these past seven months has taught me a thing or two about time. Time is not for watching. Time is not for planning. Time cannot be bottled, or broken like a wild horse. Time is for roaming free, for imagination, for wonder to creep in when we least expect it. Time is for memories and dreams to live side by side without hesitation. Time is just a marker, not an immovable force.
The artists, the painters, the actors, the writers, the dreamers and the inventors all know the secrets time whispers in the darkness and the early morning light. Could you image a world without Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, without the poetry of Emily Dickinson, or a world devoid of the Mona Lisa's sly smile? Could you imagine what our lives would be like if each and every one of us was ruled only by the hands of time?
The time has come to wake up. Don't sleep through your life. Don't try to control every moment. Don't plan your days so you don't have a moment to yourself to stop and think and wonder. Free time and in the end, you will free yourself. And maybe, just maybe, you'll stop running for a moment and realize it isn't about packing our bags and running away—or running toward, it's about living in the moment before the moment is gone forever.