To Think Of Time

Walt Whitman once wrote a poem entitled “To Think of Time.” A recent trip to Atlanta reminded me of that poem. Rather than flying to a conference, I took the train, a sleeper on Amtrak’s Crescent Limited. I know what you’re thinking: what a waste of time.

Eighteen hours to make a trip that you can do in less than four by plane.

It was a great experience. Wonderful scenery. A great chance to read and (luxuries of luxuries) just sit and think. And great conversation. In the dining car they always seat you with other people.

At dinner, I had the good fortune to dine with Calvin, an 18-year-old from a small town outside of Macon, Ga. He worked in “kitchen prep” for a restaurant, but saved all of his money for the great passion of his life: train rides. He was starting college in the fall in California, majoring in railroad history. He was able to tell me the history of every train station we passed–what line built it, whether it prospered or withered, and how it eventually ended up as an Amtrak station.

I had breakfast with John, a 40-ish federal employee who had lived for a while in Alaska and described for me what it was like to play in a midnight softball tournament in Fairbanks in June in broad daylight. My sleeper compartment was across the aisle from two Amish newlyweds just returning from volunteer work helping in post-Katrina Mississippi. In short, it was a great trip, full of wonders large and small.

And that’s what made me think of time. I hadn’t wasted this time at all. In fact, it would have been a much greater loss for me if I had “saved” time by flying. An experience that would have been faster, cheaper, and largely devoid of real human contact.

It struck me that the real nature of time usually eludes us. In our daily haste, we think of it as moments that tick away and are lost forever. But in fact, time doesn’t disappear. It accumulates all around us. But we don’t notice it building up around us unless we sit still long enough.

And in some ways, I’ve sat still just long enough for all of this accumulated time to start unfolding its secrets before me. I’ve lived in the Village of New Paltz for almost my entire life, over 40 years. And the place I live in is different from the Village lived in by relative new comers or people just passing through. Not necessarily better, mind you, but very, very different.

It is hard to describe. But if you stay in one place long enough, after a while, you can’t help it: whenever you move through space, you also start moving through time. Let me explain. Here it is, 2005. I am walking North on Plattekill Avenue toward Main Street. I get to the intersection. If the air and the light are just right, without warning I can find myself in 1964. Officer Ed Walsh is standing in the middle of Main Street calling all of the kids (by name) to cross the street. There he is, smiling, his navy blue cap at a jaunty angle. . . and then he’s gone and its 2005 again and I cross the street.

It’s Spring, 2005. I am crossing Main Street at Oakwood Terrace after lunch at Hoffman’s Deli. As I cross the street, I notice the way the trees dapple the sunshine along the street on Oakwood. If the light is just right, I see Mrs. Compton walking her two Scotty dogs across that street. And for a moment, just a moment, I am eight years old. What is really strange about this is that the eight year old boy is sharing this moment with his fifty-year-old self. A moment, long passed, just poked its head into my life these many years later.

It is as if I see ghosts. Or like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse 5 (the movie, not the inferior book), I’ve become unstuck in time. But it’s not because I have extraordinary powers or insights. Unlike almost all Americans, my life just unfolded in a way that has kept me in one place. It has made me sit still.

Old Walt Whitman finished “To Think of Time” by declaring that there was nothing but immortality. I’m beginning to think he was on to something.


Peter Fairweather lives and works in the Village of New Paltz (

For those of us lucky enough to have been reared in New Paltz, Mrs. Compton taught fifth grade at the Campus School, now SUNY’s Vanderberg Learning Center.