Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Time of Your Life

I read the news today oh boy
about a lucky man who made the grade. ...
He blew his mind out in a car,
he didn't notice that the light had changed.
It is in dispute among the narrow section people who care about such things whether John Lennon wrote of "a lucky man who made the grade" or "the grave." Considering the theme of the section, "grave" would fit, but the words printed on the back of the original album say "grade," which would seem authoritative. Since Lennon has himself made the grave, no doubt the discussion will continue.

Time will tell.

Saturday, en route home from the North Carolina shore, we stopped at Black Mountain, a small but thriving town not far east of Asheville, in the foothills of the Appalachians, just north of I-40. The putative reason was that my wife and daughter wanted to relieve me of my hard-earned coin at the Doncaster outlet store there.

I argued not. I wanted to go the the town also. Not to shop for clothing but to buy some more time. There is a place there called Pellom's Time Shop. Gerard wrote about it a couple of years ago.
It's the oldest shop in Black Mountain, North Carolina. None of the other shop keepers can remember a time when it wasn't here. Nobody in town can remember a time when Pellom himself wasn't here. The Time Shop and Pellom may well have been here before the town was here; before even the Cherokee were here. Nobody can say. ... 
Most people look into the cluttered and dust-layered window of the Time Shop and walk on by. The stores full of crafts made the old-time way lure them on. After all, most of those who walk up and down this street in Black Mountain are retired and have, they think, all the time in the world. 
Pellom doesn't mind. He knows what time it is. He also knows what can happen to time. How it can come unsprung. How it can run slow and still run fast. How time runs down. How time goes by. How time runs out. That's why he's careful, when he can, to save time. 
You can, if he decides he likes you, buy some time at the Time Shop. All you have to do is to step through the seldom used door of the Time Shop and say "Good afternoon, Mr. Pellom." Then you need to look around the shop carefully and slowly. You need, most of all, to take your time. 
In time, if the time is right, Pellom will glance up at you from behind his bench, his green eyeshade shadowing his eyes, and say, "What can I get you?" 
Not "What are you looking for?," or "How can I help you?," but "What can I get you?" 
You'd be well advised to take him at his word and say, "I'd like to buy some more time." 
Then, if your request is timely, Pellom will nod and fetch that small cloud-blue glass-stoppered bottle from the shelf behind him and bring it over to the counter and put it down in front of you with a sharp, satisfying clack on the glass of the counter. Looking into it all you will see is, towards the center, the faintest mist made from the color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars. 
"Very good, sir," Pellom will say. "How much time would you like?" 
I'd advise you to buy as much time as you can afford, as often as you can afford it, time after time. 
Just because Pellom has some extra time today doesn't mean he won't be out of time tomorrow. Most of the time, time is always in short supply. Tonight, while you sleep, your government will be awake printing more money. Nobody is printing more time. Which is why you should be careful how you spend time in the first place. Just ask Pellom down at the Time Shop.
"Nobody is printing more time."

One day in seminary we pulled our desks into a circle and took the sets of construction paper the instructor passed out, four squares each of four colors. On the first, she said (she'd been years a chaplain at a large Catholic hospital), write the names of the four people you love most. On the second, the names of the four places you enjoy most to go to. The third, your four favorite ways to spend leisure time. The fourth, your four favorite restaurants. We complied.

"Now listen," she said. "You have recently had exploratory surgery and the doctor has the lab tests back. You are in his office. 'It's cancer,' he says. (Pause) Now, select any one of the sixteen pieces of paper, crumple it into a ball and throw it into the middle of the room."

My piece of paper marked "beach" went sailing. I don't get there all that often and there are other places to go, anyway.

"You are going to have to undergo chemotherapy beginning this coming Monday. Toss another piece of paper." This time I crumpled up a restaurant and pitched it into the pile.

"The chemotherapy did not work. Next is radiation therapy, but the oncologist has already told you that its chances are less than the chemo. Throw one more piece."

And so it went. You throw away a piece of your life one at a time. At first it's not hard because of the four categories for which you have written four items, there is always one item that does not mean that much to you and so is quickly tossed. Until about the sixth or seventh throw when you realize that you have kept every piece of paper with the names of the people you love most. Almost every restaurant is gone and all but one favorite place to go.

Before long she says, "The cancer is in stage four and is inoperable. The doctor prescribes hospice care." And you look at your papers, mocking you like a two-high hand with a missing card, and all that is left are the names of the four people you love most - for me they were my wife and three children.

"Throw away a piece of paper," she says. I stare. Who shall I throw away? And the answer is no one. Game over. I fold my cards by laying the papers down and leaning back.

"Does anyone really know what time it is? Does anyone really care about time?"

So I went to Pellom's Time Shop, not really believing that Pellom will fetch a small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle from the shelf behind him and bring it over to the counter and put it down in front of me with a sharp clack on the glass of the counter. And even if he did such a thing, I did not think that looking into it all I would see is, towards the center, the faintest mist made from the color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars.

I took the picture above from across the street and then went to the door. The Time Shop is so small that I almost went through the door of the next shop over, but corrected myself. A gray-headed man was standing near the door facing the right wall, manipulating some time when I walked in. He turned slightly toward me and said hello. "Hello," I answered.

I awaited the question I knew had to come: "What can I get you?" Not "What are you looking for?," or "How can I help you?," but "What can I get you?"

"Pretty cool day," he said. "Yes," I answered, "it is." Chit chat was not what I expected. Truth is, I didn't really know what to expect. "Are you Mr. Pellom?" It seemed a foolish question, for who else would be in here?

"John Pellom," he said. "Indeed." He put his right hand out. I took at and shook it gently.

"My name is Don Sensing."

As you can see, one thing John Pellom has plenty of is time. Time is everywhere in the Time Shop. (It is a real place, you know.)

"Ah, well, Mr. Don Sensing, I am glad to meet you. What brings you here today?"

"My wife and daughter are presently bankrupting me over at Doncasters, and I don't want to be there for that bloodletting. So I searched for your Time Shop."

"How did you know I was here?"

"I read about your shop on the Internet." I pulled out my smartphone and opened Gerard's post from the prior decade and showed it to him. He scanned it quietly. He read about the small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle and the mist of stars.

"Well," he said, "that would really be something."

We made small talk for a few moments. I gave him my card and briefly explained what we had done on vacation. He told me that his he kept busy repairing globe clocks and putting antique wristwatches back into service. I learned that his father opened the Time Shop in 1929. "Not before the Cherokee?" I quizzed. John chuckled. "Well, I don't think so."

My phone buzzed. I knew it was the deadly shopping duo telling me that the MasterCard was now maxed out and would I please go to a bank and bring them a wheelbarrow full of ben franklins. I verified the accuracy of my prophecy.

"John, it was a fine pleasure meeting you. I hope you are open for a long time." I turned toward the door.

"Reverend Sensing," John said. I glanced back. He peered kindly at me a moment. "One more thing I have to ask you." I felt his pale blue eyes looking right through mine to the infinity beyond the Time Shop. "What can I get you?"

I said nothing for two heartbeats, then spoke slowly. "I'd like to buy some more time."

There was no shelf behind him. He reached into his pocket and produced a small, cloud-blue, glass-stoppered bottle. "Take this," he said, "and look inside."

There was, just as Gerard had written, a faint mist of a color out of space and inside that, towards the core of the mist, a shovel of stars. And you must believe me when I tell you that at that moment, time stood still. Traffic outside ceased, birdsongs stopped, the dustmites in the sunbeam froze in the air. The ticking of the clocks in the Time Shop stopped. The bottle drew me in so that I barely had time to think, then I was surrounded by timelessness.

There were scenes. Sometimes just still shots and sometimes short clips of short seconds - except there were no seconds, or minutes, or hours, because those things are all time. Inside the cloud-blue bottle there was no time.

There I was as a small boy learning to ride a bike. There I was with neighborhood kids playing kick the can after dark. There was my dad giving me my first set of golf clubs when I was 5. My mom holding my hand while the doctor gave me a series of antibiotic shots. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Jarvis, unjustly punishing me for another kid's spill of paint, but I didn't fink. My older brother complimenting me for kicking a football well. A homerun in a backyard game. Walking Valerie home from seventh grade. Trying to play football in high school. My first job at Woodlawn Market and owner Pappy's fondness for the bottle, but he was a jolly drunk. My grandfather teaching me to milk cows and my grandmother rocking me when I was small. Creeks I stomped in, Boy Scout hikes and merit badges. First girl I kissed. Hunting and golfing with my dad. First day of college. First parachute jump. A pretty girl who told me she liked my beard my senior year. Wedding day. Birth of children. Honors and awards. This was the highlight reel, I thought. And it felt good overall.

The blue bottle wasn't finished.

The lies I told. The kids I treated badly because they were different. The lessons I would not learn. The defiance to my parents. The anger at my brothers. The blows I landed. The push I gave a child when I got home and all he wanted to do was hug me. The prideful stands and the cruel words said. The barriers I put up. The books I didn't read to my children. Contemptuous words uttered. Affections neither accepted nor given. Arguments started. The cursory treatments. The tantrums. The self-centeredness, the services never rendered, the people dismissed, the loveworthy ignored. This was the low-light reel. It burned.

The blue bottle wasn't finished.

The kindnesses given. Taking Mrs. Adams’ paper to her in the winter because she couldn’t walk in the snow. The elderly befriended. The mother's hand held at her son's last breath. The prayers for the grieving, the bereaved consoled. The shoulder to cry on. The blessings invoked. The needy assisted. The children cared for. The life I saved. The celebrations blessed, the dying anointed. The Word spoken truly, the sacraments offered duly. The friendships offered and the hands extended. The prisoners visited, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the strangers welcomed, the sick cared for. The counsels offered. The listening ear. The prayers too deep for words.

The scenes ended. Time returned. I looked up. John Pellom was there as before. I whispered, "Did I get more time?"

He shook his head. "Son, no mortal can give you more time."

"But the blue bottle ..."

"All it can do is show you the time of your life, so far."

My phone buzzed again. I ignored it. "Is there a lesson here?"

John glanced again at my card. "Reverend, you know the lesson."

I did, but I needed to hear it. "Tell me."

He locked his eyes on mine. "There is only one question you will have to answer before the Lord when that time comes. You tell it to me."

"How did you spend the time of your life."

A gentle smile crossed John's face. "That's it. Now what do you think the right answer is?"

My phone buzzed again. "It's time for you to rejoin your family," John said.

"Thank you for your time, John," I answered. We shook hands.

"Anytime," he said.

I left the Time Shop and walked back to the car in the rain. The financial damage that two human females can do working as a team would put a pride of lionesses to shame, allegorically speaking, but this was no time to worry about that. Plenty of time to do that later.

We sat in the car for a few moments. "Where did you go?" Cathy asked. I told her of the Time Shop and showed her the two photos I had taken. I tried to read her Gerard's explanation of the Time Shop but could not make it to the end. Time was out of joint. Time's fabric had been ripped and had not yet been woven back together. Rain was falling, closing the world off from us.

We were silent for awhile, then she said, "It's time to go." I started the car and we drove home.

No matter how it is phrased, the Lord will ask each of us only one question: How did you spend the time of your life?

What do you think the right answer is?
"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’"
No one is printing more time. The time of your life is measured only by the love you give away, so make sure you always have time enough for love.

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