On a long-haul flight, time stretches, warps, balloons. As we fly across time zones, in and out of days and nights, time becomes a tangible substance that we move through, like dense fog, or like water. It seems to exist only in the space outside the plane. Inside the plane there is no real time, and there is no real sleep and no real waking. The air conditioning circulates the same brittle air. People communicate in nudges and murmurs. We try to sleep, lopsided in our seats, like crushed cans. It’s a strange static dimension – at first enjoyable, because there’s nothing to do but read, eat, drink, sit, and it feels like a little holiday, but soon those actions begin to wear and we long to walk into another room and talk to somebody or open a door and walk outside. On this flight, between Auckland and Los Angeles before flying on to London, I was sitting next to two young rugby players in their uniforms, and I was reading Alan Lightman’s book The Accidental Universe. It’s a collection of essays in which – very broadly – Lightman, a physicist, explores discoveries about the universe from a philosophical and emotional perspective as well as a scientific one. It’s a book I’ve read before, but I was reading it differently this time, paying closer attention, hoping that my semi-wakeness might lower my defences and help me notice more. Lightman is an unusual physicist in that he’s intensely interested in religion – particularly Buddhism – and literature and art, and in how these things widen a scientific perspective, and vice versa. He has that kind of restless, search-beaming mind that, as you follow it, seems to open up possibilities for understanding the universe, and the tiny accidental blip of human life within it, even as he arrives at more questions rather than answers. Reading this book reminds me of my first memories of flying in a plane, with my parents and my brothers JP and Neil – looking out the window and down at the town below, seeing the cars on the tiny roads, the rivers, the sheep. I was thrilled and haunted by how small all our busy-ness had become.
On my flight I read one of the essays, ‘The Temporary Universe’, a number of times. There was something in it I wanted to grasp but couldn’t. It opens with Lightman describing his daughter’s wedding, and his feeling that it’s a sort of tragedy – he wishes that she could have stayed the same, that he could have his younger daughter back, as she was at ten or twenty. (She’s only thirty in this essay, but, alright, fair enough, Lightman.) He has this irrational wish, he explains, for permanence, despite his scientific understanding that everything around us – the universe, the earth, our own bodies – is relentlessly shifting and evaporating. Nature shows us that time is constantly wearing away at what we know in this moment, and that to hope for lasting stability is futile. But in a profound contradiction, people still cling: to knackered old shoes, to photographs, to products that might make us look more like our younger selves, to a house perched on a clifftop that’s falling into the sea. This clinging is ridiculous in the face of the second law of thermodynamics – otherwise known as the arrow of time – and yet many of us can’t relinquish a desire for the people and the things that we love to never change and never leave us. ‘The universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player,’ says Lightman. I was expecting him to leave it there: to tell us with a shrug and a smile, like the cobbler who can’t fix his falling-apart shoes anymore, that we have to accept this and get on with things. But then he suggests that, maybe, nature is not yet complete. Maybe it’s nature, not us, that can be found wanting. ‘Perhaps this immortal thing that we wish for exists beyond time and space.’
A few short days earlier, my brother Neil’s partner of nearly ten years, and the mother of their two small children Kiwa and Ngaire, took her own life. When I spoke to Neil on the day that it happened, a Saturday morning on the other side of the world, when paramedics and police were still in his home in Brixton, I heard a roaring sound in my ears and my whole body seemed to go numb. Then it felt like time stopped. The next morning, when it was night in London and the end of Neil’s first day living with what had happened, I walked outside. I saw a young woman pushing a pram with a toddler inside it, and a dog on a leash trotting beside them. A few cars hissed past, and a cyclist. These were indications that time was continuing to continue. Each indication felt piercing, acute, like the harshest glare of sunlight.
Neil was the one who found Jeng on the morning she died. On the first few days afterwards, in deep trauma, when numbness set in, he said that he became like a sea anemone, responding only to the environment around him in each moment. I keep picturing a sea anemone, attached to the sea bottom, its skeletonless body triggered by the slightest touch. Beneath the weight of miles of water above it, it moves around very slowly in the dark.
Lightman quickly – but with empathy, letting us down gently – dismisses the notion that a magnificent immortal substance exists in nature. It’s too preposterous to believe. And yet, like so many of us, he can’t force his mind to the dark place where he might truly accept that ‘in a few short years, my atoms will be scattered in wind and soil, my mind and thoughts gone, my pleasures and joys vanished’. In the essay’s uplifting final paragraphs, he writes that perhaps mortality grants a sort of grandeur on its own; perhaps there is something majestic in the brevity of our lives. And he writes, of course, about the night-blooming cereus, the leathery plant that blooms for only one night a year.
It is very hard to see the grandeur of brevity when a person’s life is cut short, and perhaps particularly hard when it is the person herself who cuts it short. Instead of beauty, the far stronger impression is of cruelty. When Lightman writes so vividly of the wearing effects of time, I think instead of the wearing effects of depression, with bitterness, because, whereas time outlasts us all, it’s not inevitable that depression will outlast the depressive. When he writes of the way the universe falls apart and constantly yields to disorder, and the way that the genes of some living things are subjected to random chemical storms so that, in time, they become degraded, like ‘forks with missing tines’, I think of these processes as the turmoil of depression, of what happened to Jeng in a space where nobody else could reach. In one way, this kind of thinking helps: Jeng was ill, and what happened may have been the result of a random storm of her illness, or perhaps the storm had been building for some time. In another way, it does not: if only she could have held on through this last storm. At this moment, the wish to reach into the past and hold on to someone is an even more profound futility than the futility of trying to stop time.
My seven-year-old nephew Kiwa likes to play Minecraft. The other day, my brother Neil says, Kiwa found himself stuck inside a dimension of Minecraft that he couldn’t get out of. He felt very alarmed by this and Neil had to help get him out of there, though it took some time and some trial and error. The FAQ boards providing advice on how to escape such dimensions say things like: ‘You need to set up a temporary shop by collecting leather, feather and sugarcanes, and go myst-hopping forth and back until you find one with a star fissure symbol. Temporary home, if you will.’ ‘Create a portal to the twilight forest. Once on the other side if you jump through the portal to go back home, it seems to drop you in the overworld.’ ‘Die, then escape limbo by finding the void.’
Maybe the place where his mum has gone, he said to Neil, is like the dimension in Minecraft. She has got lost, got stuck.
When I walked through Brixton the morning after I landed, on my way to Neil’s, through the morning rush to the tube, nearly every face I saw was squinting, grimacing, into bright grey sunlight, pressing forwards.
I don’t believe that we can ever consider the brevity of Jeng’s life to be in itself beautiful, to be majestic. Just over a week later, accepting that she is no longer here and will not come back is to force our minds into a dark place. Coming to terms with the inevitability of the past rather than that of the future is the impossible thing; learning to live in the reality that one terrible decision has made seems like the impossible thing. But we can consider many, many moments of her life to be beautiful, each of these accidental, shining blips within a life, within a universe: Jeng walking through the Brixton markets with shopping bags over her shoulder, Jeng riding her bike to work, Jeng making dumplings, Jeng in the countryside holding Ngaire’s hand. We can also consider the pressing-forward of those left behind to be beautiful. As my brother paces himself through the coming days, not only trying to process a deep trauma but also working his way through many grim administrative tasks, such as speaking to a coroner and closing bank accounts and explaining to many people what has happened, he moves around a little bit more, begins to make the very first movements, very slowly, upwards through the weight.