Updated: Apr 23, 2022
Who Knows Where the Time Goes? Written by English folk-rock singer and songwriter Sandy Denny, this late ‘60s anthem was popularized by American folk singer, Judy Collins. Who has not been haunted by the lyrics! But why do they appeal to us so strongly…and what do they even mean?
Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
There is no concept of time per se in nature (no clocks, no calendars, no complex arithmetic) and yet processes unfold in an orderly and rhythmic fashion. The birds cannot ‘know’ that it’s time for them to go and yet…it is…and they do. The rhythm of nature demands it…and without thought or remorse the birds play out their role in the cosmic dance.
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming I have no thought of time For who knows where the time goes? Who knows where the time goes?
The artist, taking her cue from nature, lives in a dream-like state, a state where there is “no thought of time”. Just as there is no concept of time in nature, neither is there in the pre-conscious human mind.
By contrast, for the conscious, rational human mind, everything is bound to space and time. ‘To be’ is to occupy a defined region in spacetime.
According to the logic of time, things that are not come to be and things that come to be eventually are not. But where do these things come from in the first place and where do they go when they are done being? (And what does a question like that even mean?)
Because no one knows where time goes, no one knows what becomes of entities and events that are time-bound once they are no longer present.
In the 1950’s, a TV show called Howdy Doody was a big part of ‘kid culture’. The show would always begin with the MC (Buffalo Bob) calling out, “What time is it?”; and kids lucky enough to be in that day’s ‘Peanut Gallery’ would dutifully respond in unison, “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
It was always ‘Howdy Doody time’, which in a sense meant that time was suspended. For 30 minutes, a lucky kid could descend into the pre-conscious world of make believe, free of homework, chores and parental expectations.
Similarly, a modern adult version of that Peanut Gallery might reply, “It’s present time!” Indeed, it is always ‘present time’. What other time could it be?
We think and talk a lot about the ‘past’ and the ‘future’ but we never actually experience either (except perhaps as memories or dreams). We always and only live in the ‘present’. So, when someone asks ‘where the time goes’, the logical answer is, “Nowhere.”
Accordingly, events bound to that flow of time may also be assumed to go precisely nowhere. Once no longer present, it is just as though they never were. That makes time the great eraser, the mortal enemy of life itself.
Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving Ah, but then you know it’s time for them to go
Nature is not perturbed by the processes that unfold within it. There is no sense of loss. Everything is just right, just as it’s supposed to be. One is reminded of the famous lines from Ecclesiastes:
“There is an appointed time for everything… A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot the plant…A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them…A time to seek and a time to lose, a time to keep and a time to cast away.”
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving I do not count the time For who knows where the time goes? Who knows where the time goes?
One does not ‘think of leaving’. To ‘think of leaving’ is to position oneself inside of time and to bind oneself to time’s peculiar, linear progression…and so to annihilate oneself in the process.
And I am not alone while my love is near me I know it will be so until it’s time to go
I am not a bird, I am not the deserted shore; am I then doomed to be merely an isolated observer of natural processes? A lonely scientist? A frustrated anthropologist? Fortunately, no! There is ‘process’ that is naturally appropriate for us humans: It’s not thought, but love!
Love is the antithesis of time. Indeed, it has often been said that love makes time stand still. More accurately, love is a process that occurs outside of time. When I love, I give myself over to nature’s timeless rhythms. And so, for me too, eventually it will be ‘time to go’. But I will not discover that using a watch or a calendar; it will discover me and take me entirely unawares.
Is this death? Yes and no. Not the terrible annihilation that may be the fate of time bound entities but the peaceful fulfillment that is nature’s destiny.
So come the storms of winter and then The birds in spring again I have no fear of time For who knows how my love grows? And who knows where the time goes?
In the arena of time, things appear and disappear, wax and wane; but do they ever just simply ‘be’? In time, things are past…or future…but never present. The present is at best an infinitesimal point. Therefore, ‘present events’ (an oxymoron in the context of time) have vanishingly short durations.
In timeless nature, on the other hand, everything that exists exists in the present (and only in the present). As long as it exists, it is present; and as long as it is present, it exists. There is no waxing and waning but there is process; process in the present is called ‘growth’. Therefore, love, which is always only present, grows. Growth replaces waxing and waning. And what grows endures…not on the external, objective timeline but internally, subjectively.
Because my love grows, I need have no fear of time, that great eraser. I don’t live because of the past or for the future. I live by and for the present. Love has no cause; it is sui generis. Likewise, it is its own end (teleos). It exists because of itself (causa sui) and it exists for itself (pour soi). It is its own raison d’etre.
In his First Letter to Corinthians, Saint Paul writes concerning the eschaton (the end of time):
So, three things remain, faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.
Faith is the shadow of the past as we experience it in the present. Likewise, hope is the shadow that the future casts on the present. But love is the present; it is experience; it is being.