I was 22 and spending the night at Wellesley with my friend Claire. I’d graduated already; she still had a semester to go. I slept on the floor in her dorm room, which was lit with pink bulbs, the walls decorated with charms and beads and scarves she’d collected in India, where she’d studied abroad. I arrived in the late afternoon. We ate dinner in the dining hall, and then went out to a party. We stayed up late, as I recall, drinking wine from a box and watching the lake. It was fall, an Indian summer.
What I remember most, though, about that visit is waking up the next morning, lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling while Claire slept. She’s always been a late sleeper. After a while, quiet as could be, I turned so I could study the bottom row of her bookshelf. Among many textbooks, a couple of novels I’d read, and an English-Arabic dictionary, I saw a tiny book, a book I could manage to skim while Claire snoozed. I tugged it off the shelf: Einstein’s Dreams.
I read the whole book while Claire slept, falling into Alan Lightman’s words, leaving that college dorm room where outside delivery trucks came and went, students left their rooms to go to the library, or the dining hall, or church.
“In the world in which time is a circle,” Lightman writes, “every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely. So too every moment that two friends stop becoming friends, every time that a family is broken because of money, every vicious remark in an argument between spouses, every opportunity denied because of a superior’s jealous, every promise not kept.”
I read every word and didn’t stop for water or the bathroom or a breath of fresh air. It was Milan Kundera, but American, I thought. It was physics and math, and it was, to me, one long poem. Lightman was talking about time, Einstein’s mind, metaphysics—and I could understand it perfectly. This was science in beautiful, tragic metaphors. Many times I wept as I read Einstein’s Dreams, but Claire never stirred. Sunlight travelled in patches across the floor as I fell in love with the book in my hands.
“They stand quietly,” Lightman writes, describing those waiting to see the Great Clock, the first clock ever invented, the thing that would count their lives down. “They stand quietly,” he writes, “reading prayer books, holding their children. They stand quietly, but secretly they seethe with their anger. For they must watch measured that which should not be measured.”
Claire finally woke up. She looked at me and asked, “What it is it, my love?” I held up the book, asked whether she’d read it. “Not yet, my precious one,” she replied. “It’s for a class.” We went to the dining hall for breakfast, and then I drove back to Cambridge, cleaned my apartment, took a nap, and cooked a meal. Time rolled past, winter into spring into ten years from that day. Still, Einstein’s Dreams come to me often, and now I check the time less.
Don't miss Alan Lightman in Santa Fe this Wednesday! He'll be discussing his latest, The Accidental Universe (Vintage).
May 6, 7:30 PM, at the James A. Little Theatre on Cerrillos Road...thanks, Santa Fe Institute!