Ringing in ’09

New Year’s Day seems a fitting moment to revisit E. B. White’s meditative essay “The Ring of Time.”

The time is March 1956, and the ring is in Sarasota, at the headquarters of the Ringling Brothers circus. Like a baseball fan at spring training, EBW is watching behind the scenes as a teenage girl practices her riding stunts, bareback and barefoot. The thrill of watching this casual, uncostumed rehearsal far exceeds that of watching a final performance. As girl and horse circle the riding ring, he falls into a trance:

The enchantment grew not out of anything that happened or was performed but out of something that seemed to go round and around and around with the girl, attending her, a steady gleam in the shape of a circle — a ring of ambition, of happiness, of youth.

Lulled, momentarily, into believing the illusion that time itself runs in circles, he grows “acutely unhappy” when he realizes that,

…she was too young to know that time does not really move in a circle at all. I thought: ‘She will never be as beautiful as this again…..She is at that enviable moment in life [I thought] when she believes she can go once around the ring, make one complete circuit, and at the end be exactly the same age as at the start.’

Emerging from his reverie, he apologizes for having overreached in trying “to describe what is indescribable” and compares his writerly failure to grab onto the ring of time to “an acrobat (who) must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him.” It is false humility, of course, and the essay is no failure, but a timeless ode to the constant inconstancy of time.

The second half of the essay feels entirely unrelated initially, as EBW describes the languid feel of days in the Florida, where the heat and humidity slow the pace of life.

The newspaper, with its headlines about integration, wilts in your hand and falls limply into the coffee and the egg. Envelopes seal themselves. Postage stamps mate with each other as shamelessly as grasshoppers.

As a “beachcomber from the North” EBW is struck, and unsettled, by the persistence of separate but equal treatment of blacks in Florida, a full two years after Brown vs. Board of Education struck it down.

As a guest, I mind my manners and do not criticize the customs of my hosts. It gives me a queer feeling, though, to be at the center of the greatest social crisis of my time and see hardly a sign of it.

He believes that civil rights movement, “like the Southern sun, laggard in its early stages” will eventually shake the locals, both black and white, out of their complacency despite the “great temptation in Florida to duck the passage of time.”

Lying in warm comfort by the sea, you receive gratefully the gift of the sun, the gift of the South. This is true seduction. The day is a circle — morning, afternoon, and night. After a few days I was clearly enjoying the same delusion as the girl on the horse — that I could ride clear around the ring of day, guarded by wind and sun and sea and sand, and be not a moment older.

And so the essay comes full circle, back to the girl, the horse, and mortality.

Personal Reflections

On Segregation: During my Florida childhood in the 1960s and ’70s, school integration had taken hold via busing, though socio-economic divisions and the proliferation of private schools enabled white families like mine to continue to lead very segregated lives in the suburbs with barely a thought of the sharp color lines that divided us. My high school had a handful of black students, and the national junior tennis circuit that I traveled had even fewer. I graduated from Princeton the year Michelle Obama arrived, and the campus was socially segregated. African-Americans were only 8.2% of her class; in this year’s freshman class, the percentage is just 7.6%, though non-white students make up 37.9% of the class (excluding international students at 11.3%). I imagine, hope, that social interaction at Princeton is more fluid now, more than half a century after Brown vs. Board of Ed.

On the Shape of Time: Having grown up before digital displays made time-telling a linear celebration of the “now,” with each minute isolated from those before and after, I have always thought of time as circular and contiguous. In my mental picture of a calendar, January sits on top at 12:00, and the months progress clockwise so that December ends at 11:59. In picturing the days of the week, however, I envision them as moving counter-clockwise in an ellipse: Monday at 12, Tuesday through Friday covering 11 down to 6, and the weekend stretching all the way back up to 12. And if that isn’t odd enough, I picture the first 30 years of my life as a backward S-shape. (After 30, the shape dissolves, but I’ll resist thinking it runs downhill from there!) I see the same backward S when I think of the years 1900-1930.

So, there! I’ve fallen into the same trap as EBW by trying to describe the indescribable. I’m curious: how do you imagine time?

Me and my horse, "Early to Rise." We went around a lot of rings together.

Me and my horse, "Early to Rise." We went around a lot of rings together.

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