Your experience of time is relative to where you are. In London, time is short. Maybe because there are so many people in one space sharing it, there isn’t quite enough for everyone. In rural Latvia, time is one long now where there is no point staying a step ahead, or getting bogged down in the past.
On the beach at Cape Kolka, in the summer of 2016, it was a bit cold in the early evening wind. The grey clouds moved steadily across the sky with the wind, against the Earth’s rotation. They changed shape and colour the way clouds do, in changing air pressure and light. They were of so many kinds of grey they look perfectly multicoloured, I thought sitting in the sand. I’d driven there from the more touristy Jūrmala outside Riga earlier that day. I had checked into a Moomin-like guesthouse with a lilac bush outside the bedroom window before walking through the forest to the Cape, and sat down on the beach. I let the soft sand fall between my fingers like flour, and picked up my pen.
Like a string of pearls, is how Henri Bergson described time. Each moment, second, millisecond, is another pearl added to a continuously changing necklace; like a snowball rolling down a hill, changing with every snowflake it collects; or like clouds moving across the sky. Like people are the sum of every experience and moment they’ve ever had and continue to have; like the words I wrote on the beach, that I write now, the meaning changing with every word and every letter, every stroke of the pen. So the story emerges, and the person is made. Like the Argo, I am still me, but a little bit different after each day. I felt it more keenly and knew it more certainly there on the beach. Time is change, and to be alive is to change.
Cape Kolka is the northwesternmost point of Latvia, where the Gulf of Riga meets the Baltic Sea. Before I got there, I had imagined it as something from a Brontë novel. I wanted to stand high on a cliff looking out at the two waters, seeing them clash far below me against the rocks, every moment of my life having led up to it, every decision I’d made having put me on the path to that place, to that point in time. That thought had made me happy.
But the Cape was flat, and disappointed me at first. Not much more than a bit of sand separating the two waters, wild and loud to west and calm and quiet on the east. A place of meeting and blending, like the genes in my blood.
I remembered a film about the musician Nick Cave. He talks about people moving in time not as changing, exactly, but more like being modifications on the original model, hopefully going on to becoming better versions of themselves. That is, until something so catastrophic happens that it profoundly and irreversibly changes them. Time then becomes elastic, and keeps bringing you back to that traumatic event, no matter how far away you think you move from it. Is this Bergson’s pearls on a rubber band, perhaps?
‘A string is linear. A rubber band is round’, I wrote. But a rubber band is expandable. Ted Chiang also writes about being able to remember the future. Elsewhere Cave describes the events in our lives as bells, which when struck send their vibrations outwards to affect everything; our presents and futures and our pasts. If life is a course through time and space, why wouldn’t we be able to sense its direction?
I paused my writing to wrap my scarf tighter around me and looked out over the water on the left side; westwards, Swedenwards. I thought, I think the future can be sensed. And the past can be changed by an event in the present. Not through time travel, but through perception, and perspective. Memories can be altered when new information is learnt. And decisions in the present are changed depending on which future one foresees for oneself.
On beaches like the one in Kolka, throughout the western coast of the Kurzeme region, Latvians chose to risk their lives on the open ocean because they sensed freedom and safety was on the other side, and that was what they had seen for themselves in their futures. The future they imagined if they stayed was one of fear and hunger, which they did not see or want for their children. I was now on that beach to feel the past, in order to write about it in the future.
Olivia Laing writes about the memory of landscape, that sometimes ‘it is what has been done to a landscape that curdles it, so it becomes a place in which one does not like to linger, for fear of something that cannot be expressed.’ Cape Kolka was a place I liked to linger, for it was a place with hope of something that could not be expressed. Hope had remained on the beach. I could feel it in the sand, mixed with the fear that must have been felt there, mixed with my own hopes and fears for the future.
I would like to think that my grandmother had a vision of the future when she left her past behind. Did she know her sons would all marry Swedish girls, and have half and half children, nationalities mixed like the waters of Cape Kolka? Could she see one of her ten granddaughters writing about the past, her past? Was she smiling at the thought? Is she smiling to me now, in a past reality on her trajectory through relative time and space, to the me on the beach in Latvia in 2016, to the me at my desk in London in 2017, writing about her? From the other side of the water, from behind my screen, I look over at her through the years and the miles and the waves and I smile back.
At the beach, I packed my journal and pen away. The grey flatness of Kolka had inspired me after all. I brushed the sand off my trousers, and tip-toed along the patches of sand dotted like pearls in the water. In front of me the forest stretched out like a sea, and behind me the sea welcomed me like a forest. A junction, a juncture. Undramatic and simple. But special nonetheless.