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A Sense of Time

 

Time feels like a game of Chutes and Ladders to me. On paper, time seems like it should be a linear sort of thing, with one hour following another in orderly progression, but sometimes I fall through a chute and I’m suddenly ten years old again and I have to work hard to climb back up to my forties and remember all of the events that came in between. I know too many people who slip and slide through time like this to think it’s unique to me, but the percentage of my time spent falling down chutes and climbing up ladders seems excessive. Trauma creates strange loops in our brains. We call them flashbacks, or regression, or dissociation, depending on how we experience the details of the thing, but they all have the same general effect of making time feel like an unreliable substance that refuses to stay solid and constant.

When it snows, memories of winters past pop up, but they don’t have solid picture frames around them announcing that they are moments from the past, or even descriptions in permanent marker telling me the exact date and time when it all occurred. In my mind I am both here in this moment, in my walk-the-dog shoes, stepping out onto the slushy walkway with Cricket and Ellie dragging me forward, and I am also eight years old in my pink snowsuit and boots, feeling like an over-stuffed sausage and too hot and too cold all at once.

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“Wheeeeee!”

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“I’ll wait here.”

And then I smell mildew and I’m back at Grandpa’s house in Chappaqua, looking at the pen and ink portraits in the laundry room, and the chute that carries the laundry down from the upstairs hallway. But really I’m thirty-something and living in half a house, in a town by the water, where the smell of seaweed blows through the windows. Wait, no, that’s not right. I’m forty-something and there’s no mildew smell at all, and I don’t live by the water anymore, and I’m not even sure I’m awake.

The image of the Chutes and Ladders game feels so visceral to me, as if I’m sliding down a red chute into the past or laboriously climbing up a silver ladder to get back to normal. But I wasn’t sure that my 3D memory of that childhood board game was even accurate, so I had to ask Google for help. According to Wikipedia, Chutes and Ladders is the American version of an English (and Canadian) board game called Snakes and Ladders, which itself is a variation on an ancient Indian game called Moksha Patam, filled with moral lessons based on the Karmic cycle. The English version adapted those lessons to teach children virtues like generosity and faith and humility, and to discourage vices like lust, anger, theft, and murder. And then the American version adapted the lessons again, to fit good and bad deeds that American kids could relate to, like saving a cat from a tree and eating healthy food, versus eating too many cookies and not doing chores.

I don’t remember any of that, and it’s possible that Wikipedia is lying to me, but I’m pretty sure the essentials are true, especially the fact that the game is a game of luck. The player doesn’t get to choose whether to do a good or bad deed, and therefore to receive the resulting reward or punishment. Scoring is all based on the roll of a die or the spin of a wheel. And that bothers me, because it’s too close to the truth.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the value of being a good person. I strive to be a kind and generous and open-hearted person, to hurt no one, or to hurt as few people as possible, and to help when I can. But I don’t actually believe that these virtues will add up to an easier life for me, or to a more successful life with more rewards. I don’t believe that we are always rewarded for good deeds, or punished for evil ones, though I wish we were. I do believe that our souls are impacted by our actions, but I know too many people who walk around with Swiss cheese souls and don’t seem to mind.

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“Those people scare me, Mommy.”

This Chutes and Ladders metaphor started out as a way to describe the way my memory slips and slides through time, and how I struggle to maintain myself in the present tense, and yet the original meaning of the board game works for me too. Whether we act in good or evil ways is not about chance, but whether we are rewarded or punished is chance. And I resent that. I resent that the game of life has such unreliable rules, and that the rules don’t always fit my moral code.

I resent that evil acts can be perpetrated, on me, and on others, that create these chutes and ladders in our brains, and yet the punishment belongs to me, not to the perpetrator. I resent that the roll of the die can go against me, no matter how many good acts I perform, or how good of a person I try to be as I am slipping and sliding through time. But I still do the work. After every fall through a chute into the past I climb back up the ladder to the present, and maybe the reward is that the ladders actually exist at all, and that I can climb them; that I can always find my way back into the game and the chance for something better. The dogs always help me back to the present tense with their right-this-moment view of the world. They make every ladder easier to climb.

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“Where’s this ladder you speak of, and do we have to climb it too?”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

77 responses »

  1. You have described it so vividly; “…with their Swiss cheese souls…” Love it!

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  2. That game has changed over time. When I was a child, in the version we played, some chutes ended in spankings. More recently, I saw a modern version with more politically correct punishments. All that aside, the game does reflect real life where chance decides which chutes and ladders you get. I try to stay optimistic. Even in the game, you eventually reach your goal.

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  3. I may not know you personally but I believe you are a good person. You are right that this may not be appreciated by others but be a good person anyway. Is chutes and ladders the same game as Snakes and Ladders?

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  4. The smell of stale flour sends me to a dank set of rooms in my grandparents place where old flour bags were kept. Olfactory memory is an amazing thing.

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  5. As always, this blog article is articulate, creates a visual picture, and reminds us how all of our senses can create what we believe are memories of our past. For me, a song from a certain “era” of my life takes me back immediately and I can vividly recall my life at the time it was popular. It is good to have those memories – the good ones and the not-so-good ones. I believe that each significant thing that happens in our lives is what molds us into the person we become. Content with self, I harbor no bad thoughts about the not-so-good ones, realizing that without them happening, I would be a different person. Oh, and I got your book for Christmas as requested, and can’t wait to delve in!

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  6. When I was a child, I played Snakes and Ladders. (I’m Australian.) It was a game of pure luck. Sure, luck plays a part in our lives, but we very often have the capacity for choice.
    A very interesting, well-crafted post!

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  7. I love your metaphor here and it is so true

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  8. That’s crazy, I grew up in Chappaqua. My grandparents lived there for decades too. I often think about reminding students: “Life’s not fair.” But I don’t often get the chance to say it, because sympathetically nodding and saying “I know.” when students says something’s not fair is usually enough. When something is working out, and often against them, I know there’s no point in mollycoddling or lying. If I can, I tell them what they can do, to fight for themselves, and stand up for their rights. Thanks for sharing, your candor is always enlightening.

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  9. I can identify with your Chutes – and Ladders, Rachel – the older you get, the more you chase the chutes of your memories and the more difficult the climb up the ladder to the present. thanks for your insightful post today.
    And I love the pictures of Cricket and Ellie! What perfect happiness.

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  10. I’m glad your pups are there to pull you back. : – )

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  11. I’ve ready many a novel in which the timing is exactly what you have described, ‘chuting’ down to some point in the past then climbing back into the present.

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  12. Rachel,

    I have not been able to reply on this blog ( and two or three others) for two weeks.

    Trying now to see if it will work this time. I fit does I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this forthright piece, and am so in agreement about how our pets
    pull us into the reality of the moment and also of the simplicity that can be.

    Sarah

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  13. oh my gosh, it looks like it is working!

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  14. You are amazing, and also, I thought you were in your twenties – not that it matters, but you just seem a very young soul to me, somehow innocent in spite of all you’ve been through.
    I recently read that to dogs, if it isn’t happening now, it isn’t happening. I’ve been trying to remember that and keep it in my heart – perhaps it will help you when you fly down the chute.
    And once again, your words are amazing.

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  15. How wonderfully insightful. And beautifully written.

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  16. What a beautifully written, insightful post! Thank you for sharing it with us.

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  17. Chutes and Ladders—more like a roller coaster of memories beautifully told.

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  18. Such a good metaphor for the ups, downs, twists and turns of life, and could also relate to the grounding influence of pets.

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  19. The Chutes and Ladders effects mellow a bit when we reach the 60s.

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  20. In Hebrew we say שכר מצוה, מצוה meaning the reward of a good deed is the deed itself, and the same thing can be said for evil… an evil deed is its own punishment. Sometimes it takes a while till we’re sensitive enough to appreciate the influence of our choices on our own nature… but it does work that way.

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  21. We still call it snakes and ladders here.
    It always seemed like a metaphor for my life too, sliding all the way back down that long snake, just when I thought I was going to finally win.
    I understand how things can take you back in time. It happens to me almost every day.
    Beautifully expressed as always, Rachel.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  22. My metaphor was always swings and roundabouts, as I was forever going round in circles or yo-yoing from one thing to another. I grew tired of the game, and decided I needed a bigger playground. Since my subconscious mind accepted that, it hasn’t been too bad!
    Happy New Year Rachel, and hugs and chicken treats to Ellie and Cricket.

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  23. I can only speak from a Christian perspective. We are not promised an easy life in exchange for our good deeds. Rather, this is a fallen world. Evil exists b/c free will exists. Mankind’s nature is corrupted by sin. God, however, can use evil for good. He sustains the righteous despite it. In fact, we are refined as silver by the trials we endure. “And He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver” (Malachi 3:3). Perfect justice must await the final judgment. ❤ ❤ ❤

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  24. I loved that game as a child and can still feel the punch in my gut when I had to slide down a ladder. Recovery takes as long as it takes. I am frustrated that the recovery takes longer than the trauma, but so it goes. Dogs make it bearable.

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  25. Don’t think I ever played Chutes and Ladders at least not that I remember. Terrific post. Love the doggie expressions and the photos.

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  26. First, dogs are just so stinkin’ cute. I know I’ve said it before:). And second, this Chutes & Ladders analogy–wow. Really, I’m going to be chewing on that one for awhile. Really a good one.

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  27. Amazingly written! Yes, I played snake and ladder when I was young ! Life also like that! 🌷

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  28. An unusually insightful post, Rachel.. time slippage in memory, wow.. got me thinking a lot.. take a look at this article from Psychology Today on memory.. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/about-thinking/202001/what-you-need-remember-about-your-memory
    Take care,
    DrWeb

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  29. Excellent thinking and writing. As a mom, I finally noticed that at least one object of Chutes and Ladders is to prevent one child from shooting ahead of the other players. Everyone remains in the game until the very end — with plenty of chances for stymied players to catch up. Maybe that’s what God wants from us — all of us to make it into His heaven while knowing that it isn’t of our doing that we got there. Blessings, Rachel!

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  30. Beautiful, I can relate to that! One of my favourite quotes is from Cesare Pavese who said “We do not remember days, we remember moments” and that is true for me.

    Interestingly, we call that game ‘Snakes and Ladders’ 🙂

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  31. I read this yesterday and later when reading a book called Riding the Bus With My Sister, on page 129, last paragraph, the author mentions that her sister Beth is playing Chutes and Ladders and then mentions it on the next page. I thought that was interesting..

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  32. A lovely and evocative piece of writing. I can relate to those lapses, to those climbs and drops.

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  33. I really like the Chutes and Ladders metaphor. I never thought about time in quite that way, but it really does convey how it occurs.

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  34. I have heard it said, actually I’ve read it from a reliable source, that even though justice for good or bad is delayed, out of mercy, it is still going to come. Fortunately the purpose of justice is to restore, correct and renew so even bad acting folks can have hope. You are a deep thinker.

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  35. I’m Australian and Snakes and Ladders was one of my favourite games as a child. I love that it’s called Chutes and Ladders in America. I don’t remember the game having moral lessons which is lucky as I sometimes cheated when playing! I’m a snake in Chinese astrology so I was probably playing to my nature. 🙂 I’m keen to do more research on this game and its Indian heritage.

    Thanks for another powerful blog that has really got me thinking.

    Reply
  36. What a perfect analogy! I’ll probably be stealing it at some point. 😉

    I’m with you on the luck/rules/moral code issues. If only.

    Dogs make everything better!

    Reply

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