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Considering time, and time well spent

On a Sunday afternoon, enjoying the luxury of free time but not wanting to waste a minute of it, I enter Central Park. I sit on a park bench and look at notes compiled from books I have read.

"My time is worth nothing," Chekhov writes in a letter. How wrong he is! There are few writers whose time was more valuable. Think of his extraordinary talent, his immense literary output, his brief life.

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He is my favorite writer. I read and reread his short stories and plays. In the letter, written to Alexei Suvorin, his publisher and friend, he explains that neither time nor money - "I never have any money anyway," he writes - are impediments to his traveling from Moscow, thousands of miles across Russia, to the penal colony on Sakhalin Island. There he conducted a census of prisoners. The book he wrote on the experience influenced prison reform in Russia.

Johann Sebastian Bach also used his time well. (Time seems to be a theme of my reading notes.) He wrote church cantatas. He planned, composed, rehearsed, and performed them - all between one Sunday and the next, week after week.

Critical to novelist R.K. Narayan was selecting the right time to begin his career. In "My Days" (1974) he writes: "On a certain day in September, selected by my grandmother for its auspiciousness, I bought an exercise book and wrote the first line of a novel. As I sat in a room nibbling my pen and wondering what to write, Malgudi with its little railroad station swam into view, all ready-made...."

His novels are set in the fictional south Indian town of Malgudi. They are favorites of mine. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Narayan in Madras, the vibrant real-life city where he lived.

Robert Lowell reflected on time and writing: "How often it takes the ache away, takes time away...."

Father Zosima, in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" (1880) found that with the passage of years, his favorite time of day changed. "I bless the sun's rising each day and my heart sings to it as before, but now I love its setting even more, its long slanting rays, and with them quiet, mild, tender memories."

Late afternoon. The golden rays of the sun embrace the limestone facades of Fifth Avenue buildings. I leave the park and cross the avenue to visit the Frick Collection at 70th Street.

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After viewing the paintings, I come upon an exhibition of clocks. Some are over 300 years old, made by clockmakers when Bach lived. I set my pocket watch by one of them.

The passage of time helps place events in perspective. From Natural History magazine comes my most recent entry, the concluding lines of an essay, "Sunset on the World Trade Center," by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium:

"New York City's twin towers have lost the Sun forever. But I take comfort in knowing that the Sun will rise again each day, as it has done a trillion times before."


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