See the huge watch?

I was a fourth-grade farm girl heading back to school in last-year’s shoes when this picture was taken. My brother was a brand-new first grader, judging from the sharp crease in those pants. I’m looking beyond us both, waiting for the bus, hovering protectively, but also displaying “the watch.”

If you’ve read  Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, you may recall that my father gave me the watch as a “toy” because it no longer worked. The moment I took it apart and discovered that the little hand was stuck trying to get past the big hand, I shrieked. Time itself stopped (Kairos) as I gently moved one hand away from the other, wound the stem, and heard the lovely, rhythmic sound of Chronos time ticking away.

Fast forward almost sixty years.

I’ve found a book that is teaching me lessons, showing up at just the right time in my life, through the serendipity I am claiming this year.

I’m pondering the ways mortality presents itself in relation to time. For older people. For younger people.

Below, meet the 36-year-old author of the book and listen to him reflect on how the meaning of time changed in his life after the diagnosis of stage four lung cancer:

“Clocks are now kind of irrelevant to me. Time, where it used to have kind of a linear progression feel to it, now feels more like a space.”

–Paul Kalanithi


I underlined the words below in my super-annotated copy of When Breath Becomes Air.

“I don’t believe in the wisdom of children, nor in the wisdom of the old. There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of the living. We are never so wise as when we live in the moment.’

Long ago, as a child, I was excited by making a desire come true. I wanted a watch, a watch that worked! Finding a way to do that felt like a miracle. I was an alchemist, taking base metal and turning it gold. The “toy” gift from my father became real. I could wear it, borrowing strength and power from him, not caring that I was not wearing a “girl’s” watch.

But it was that moment of pure intent and concentration, of moving the small hand away for the big hand, that has stayed with me. Because I now know the days are short, I realize that the same alchemy is available to me every day.

Paul Kalanithi found a way to live in the present tense when he saw that he had no control over the future tense. He faced suffering with courage and gave himself to as many moments as possible, allowing his baby daughter who arrived trailing clouds of glory, to teach him.

We can do the same! The lesson of this book and of all great books is that time is not the enemy. Time is the teacher. Every breath has the potential to take us to Kairos, the place of pure love, the place where the last breath ends.

When and how have you encountered Kairos in your life? Or, if you prefer, when has time stood still in your life?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Merril Smith on February 10, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Shirley, what a lovely, thoughtful post. I love the photo of you and your brother!
    Thank you for sharing the distinction between Kairos and Chronos.
    I think in times of complete joy–times sometimes stands still, or in any case, appears to move differently. (As in the saying, “time flies when you’re having fun.) 🙂 I remember when my husband and I married, I felt like I was moving in a dream, and time seemed to stop for a moment.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 10, 2016 at 5:15 pm

      Thank you, Merril. I am enjoying finding a connection between my Magical Memoir Moments and the new theme of Jubilación: vocation in the third act of life.

      The Kalanithi book has given me many of these, and I go back to photos I saw often before but now see things in them that were less important before.

      Yes, that dreamy feeling of slow motion or no motion is one of the characteristics of Kairos time. Hope you have many of these in the next week!

  2. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on February 10, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    Shirley, the photo of you and your brother on the first day of school is such a story in itself (new clothes new books last years shoes, smile of anticipation on your part, a bit of anxiety on your brother’s part … but you are there for him). Time stands still for just a moment captured by the camera.
    I must read Kalanithi’s book. Thanks for that link to Wordsworth. Wonderful poem! Ah yes, life looks a little different when you stand almost at the end, looking back instead of ahead. Live in the moment!

    • Shirley Showalter on February 10, 2016 at 5:20 pm

      You seem to know what it’s like to be an older sister, Elfrieda. 🙂

      And to anticipate the first day of school.

      Thanks for pointing out the nature of photography itself. During the course of that 1957 day, this was a small moment. But many years later, time slows way down as all the artifacts and landscape speak of that moment in a way that reminds us to look around and seek to live more fully in this one. You get it.

    • Kathleen Friesen on February 11, 2016 at 11:05 am

      “Time stands still for just a moment captured by the camera.” Yes, Elfrieda, I’ve come to appreciate these “moments” and see them as a contemplative practice.

      • Shirley Showalter on February 11, 2016 at 11:14 am

        You get it too, Kathleen, you and Jon. I love the idea of photography as contemplation. Through your photos, “the stones themselves cry out.”

  3. Glen Nafziger on February 10, 2016 at 5:09 pm

    I just finished reading “Breath” before moving to my email. My wife of 56 years died of cancer five days after being diagnosed. She opted for no treatment and was at home surrounded by her family. How very fortunate for her and us. Time stopped for her and briefly for us.

    How mysterious are life and death! We mortals can comprehend nothing with out the framework of time and place.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 10, 2016 at 5:24 pm

      Glen, talk about serendipity. You must still be reeling from reading the book, especially when you have your own powerful personal story. You can comprehend more fully and deeply than many. I like the way Paul K. talks about moving from linear to spacial time. That’s another way to TRY to describe the mystery. Thank you for sharing this story. Hope the book helped you to remember, grieve, and heal.

  4. Richard Gilbert on February 10, 2016 at 8:52 pm

    Wow, Shirley. This is such distilled wisdom! I love your picture and his video. As I age, I have been thinking a lot more about time. How fast it does, now not to be trapped in it. The timeless moments I remember are odd, when in that nothing “outside” was happening but something was happening inside, or dropping away, and I can still picture what I was looking at.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 11, 2016 at 10:43 am

      I’m sitting in Dulles Airport thinking about this comment and wondering if I can invite the world to drop away or if that kind of moment just has to happen TO one. I thought about this passage right away from Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark:

      “When Thea took her bath at the bottom of the canyon,
      in the sunny pool behind the screen of cottonwoods, she
      sometimes felt as if the water must have sovereign quali-
      ties, from having been the object of so much service and
      desire. That stream was the only living thing left of the
      drama that had been played out in the canyon centuries
      ago. In the rapid, restless heart of it, flowing swifter than
      the rest, there was a continuity of life that reached back
      into the old time. The glittering thread of current had a
      kind of lightly worn, loosely knit personality, graceful and
      laughing. Thea’s bath came to have a ceremonial gravity.
      The atmosphere of the canyon was ritualistic.

      One morning, as she was standing upright in the pool,
      splashing water between her shoulder-blades with a big
      sponge, something flashed through her mind that made her
      draw herself up and stand still until the water had quite
      dried upon her flushed skin. The stream and the broken
      pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a
      sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the
      shining, elusive element which is life itself,–life hurrying
      past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to
      lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars. In the
      sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been
      caught in a flash of arrested motion. In singing, one made
      a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s
      breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals. . . .

      Not only did the world seem older and richer to Thea
      now, but she herself seemed older. She had never been
      alone for so long before, or thought so much. Nothing had
      ever engrossed her so deeply as the daily contemplation of
      that line of pale-yellow houses tucked into the wrinkle of the
      cliff. Moonstone and Chicago had become vague. Here
      everything was simple and definite, as things had been in
      childhood. Her mind was like a ragbag into which she had
      been frantically thrusting whatever she could grab. And
      here she must throw this lumber away. The things that
      were really hers separated themselves from the rest. Her
      ideas were simplified, became sharper and clearer. She felt
      united and strong.”

      Thank you, Richard, for reminding me of the beauty of this kind of time. May you have many more moments like these.

  5. Marian Beaman on February 10, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Aside from the practicality of their being shaped so, I believe there is a reason why wedding rings and timepieces are circular. They are shadows of eternity, which exists outside of time and space in a place where I believe “agape” the essence of love may reside.

    Nice tie-in with the cleverness with which you got your dad’s watch running again and the “strength and power” that has accompanied you every step of the way since then. What a metaphor for your life! Here’s also to Wordsworth, Shelley, and James M. Black.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 11, 2016 at 10:50 am

      It takes another English professor to appreciate all those allusions to the books Paul Kalanithi absorbed and found solace in during his last year. Glad you took the time to listen to the beautiful video.

      You made me think again about the photo, Marian. Not only was that watch huge on my nine-year-old wrist, but I was carrying around a giant circle with me every day. The circle of love and the circle of time have so much in common. As we enter the last third of our lives, that circle begins to find new meanings. Thank you.

  6. Laurie Buchanan on February 11, 2016 at 12:43 am

    Shirley — This weekend when the book club I belong to meets, I’m going to recommend WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi. As you know (from having read my manuscript), I pay tremendous attention to time: chronos—regular time (i.e., past, present, future) and kairos—extraordinary time.

    Having read BLUSH, I do, indeed, remember your father gifting you with his watch. I’m tickled pink that what he thought had become a toy because it was “broken,” was put to rights by YOU! Further, I love the photograph you included in this post.

    Godspeed on your journey.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 11, 2016 at 10:54 am

      Thanks, Laurie. It could well have been the fact that I was reading your manuscript when I drafted this post that led me to use Kairos and Chronos as categories. I don’t recall that Paul himself used these terms. I’ve long felt these ancient words something important in the spiritual life.

      One thing for sure, Serendipity comes when we ask and when we stop, look, and listen!

  7. melodie davis on February 11, 2016 at 5:41 am

    That video is almost too painful to watch but very rich indeed. My son-in-law lost his father to cancer about 5 months before he and his wife (our daughter) were able to announce their first pregnancy at Easter. Remembering that moment still fills my eyes with tears and my heart with pain–joy for us and them but heartache for his surviving wife and family who would enter this great phase but without “grandpa.” Kalatni’s reflections also take me back to studying The Last Lecture ( an adult Sunday school class with a young beloved member of our congregation who had last stage breast cancer, and her son was just 5. Laura faced her chronos time with an unforgettable spirit that has helped me live more fully in Kairos time. Thanks even for these painful reminders.

    • melodie davis on February 11, 2016 at 5:44 am

      Oops, the “surviving wife and family” is likely not clear, I should have written “heartache for his mother now widowed, who would finally become a grandma but without grandpa.”

      Hope that helps.

      • Shirley Showalter on February 11, 2016 at 10:57 am

        Thanks for sharing this story and the Last Lecture, Melodie. The veil separating sorrow, pain, and loss from love and eternity sometimes gets very thin, and when it does, we instinctively water creation with our tears.

  8. Kathleen Friesen on February 11, 2016 at 11:25 am

    About 20 years ago, I made a decision to stop wearing a wrist watch. It was in the context of knowing that time with my husband was going to be finite. I wanted the experience of being places and having experiences without the tyranny of time.
    Perhaps watches are like maps that locate us in time and space. I no longer miss my watch. I continue to work at being located fully in my journey where people, event, space, and story create my map of the world.
    When I am working, I carry a small, flat clock with me that allows me to keep sessions running on “standard time!” And, I often wonder what would happen in our organizations – and to the length of our meetings – if we connected only over what matters and didn’t feel compelled to meet for one hour or four or eight!

    P.S. I too highly recommend “When Breath Becomes Air” to your readers.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 11, 2016 at 11:33 am

      Kathleen, your deep experiences as widow, business consultant, and photographer permeate this comment. I like the way you described the role of watches here: “Perhaps watches are like maps that locate us in time and space.” I admire the way you continue to invite kairos time to enter your life.

      And I’m glad I don’t have to go to meetings any more. 🙂 I loved the challenge of trying to bring kairos into the workplace, but I’m enjoying the freedom of not being ruled by the clock.

      I’m so glad you’ve read this book. You and Lucy Kalanithi would understand each other completely.

  9. Carol Bodensteiner on February 11, 2016 at 11:25 am

    Time stood still when my father died. I’d never lost someone so close to me and the shock was overpowering. For days, my mother and I were caught in that other-world space between the finality of death and continuation of life, as we made funeral preparations, waited for family to arrive, welcomed each visitor who offered a useful distraction. Only when the visitation and funeral were over, did life begin to move again.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 11, 2016 at 11:38 am

      You said this so well, Carol. My father did not die suddenly, but even so, the time before his death and for months afterward took on a whole new quality. This phrase is so apt: “that other-world space between the finality of death and continuation of life. . . .”

      I am thinking of Lucy Kalanithi because we are nearing the first anniversary of Paul’s death.

      The “continuation of life” can be disrupted at any moment by memory flooding the conscious mind. Daughters know this. Widows must know it even more.

  10. Roxanne Landis on February 11, 2016 at 11:41 am

    The minute before my precious husband Rick died. His breathing had become as slow as it could possibly be on this side of Heaven. I knew that where he was going was a place he would never want to leave, but I also knew that being on earth with me and our four children was a place he wanted to stay. That minute surely had to be longer than 60 seconds. It seemed like an eternity and yet seemed to go by far to fast.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 11, 2016 at 11:47 am

      Roxanne, thank you so much for describing this moving moment. I can only imagine that kind of timelessness. I so admire you as mother and wife, loving your precious husband to the last breath and then, even harder, carrying on with the parenting of your four children after he was gone. I’m so glad we met online and send you gratitude, the outer garment of kairos time and agape love.

  11. Audrey on February 11, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Shirley … your post and Paul’s story takes us to a deep place … the space between the breath in the great OM of time. I was introduced to Paul’s story on TV recently. I was most struck by his courage to say yes to the birth of their child. Yes, as you too write, it is a model for all of us to live courageously and fully knowing our time is finite. Not unlike other families,our family has walked the hospital corridors all too frequently recently. In one case for a young niece with cancer … a bell ringing ceremony heralding the end of treatments and the absence of cancer. Last year in January, the end of my mom’s journey with cancer. This year around Christmas a brother-in-law had 2 heart attacks and went through double by-pass surgery. Thankfully a successful outcome and yet a reminder again. I too am in my third act of life. When I was in my coaching certification some time ago now, one of the books on our required reading list was Denial of Death. Clearly death will not be denied. Life is too sweet to miss it. Thank you so much.

  12. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on February 11, 2016 at 2:30 pm

    I am full of wonder as I read all these connections to time and Eternity here, and I find they complement the ashy cross that was drawn on my forehead last night and the words that were spoken: “Dolores, from dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

    • Shirley Showalter on February 11, 2016 at 11:18 pm

      I was aware writing this post that it was being published on Ash Wednesday. Thank you for bringing this sacred reminder into the conversation, Dolores. I’m glad you’ve found inspiration here. I certainly have as I read these comments.

  13. When Breath Becomes Air on February 11, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    Shirley, thank you so much for writing about When Breath Becomes Air and Paul! Much appreciated.

    • When Breath Becomes Air on February 11, 2016 at 6:33 pm

      BTW, I have posted links to your articles on my fb page. Thank you!

      • Shirley Showalter on February 11, 2016 at 11:20 pm

        Thank you, Lucy, for honoring this post with your presence and thank you for sharing these two posts about Paul with your readers. I’m deeply touched.

  14. Marylin Warner on February 12, 2016 at 1:12 am

    Shirley, I do remember the watch from BLUSH, but now, in this context, picture, and message, it means even more.
    What was it about us at that age? You wore the watch proudly, and with my carefully saved babysitting and dog-walking money I bought a pair of “squash heels” that I wore with such pride. Ah, growing up.
    Excellent post, Shirley.

    • Shirley on February 12, 2016 at 9:48 am

      Ah, Marylin, indeed! We probably would have been good friends “back in the day.” It was Paul’s words about clocks that took me to look again at the photo. I am awed at the way that what we see depends on what’s in our hearts at the moment.

  15. June on February 13, 2016 at 1:24 am

    I have ordered a copy of, When breath become air. Apparently there was a CBC, radio program about the book and the author, and our local book store is bringing it in, due to high demand.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 14, 2016 at 2:57 pm

      I’m so glad you’ve ordered the book, June. Thanks for letting us know, and come back and tell us what you think after you’ve read it!

  16. Elaine Mansfield on February 13, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    Thank you, Shirley. You’ve written something so perfect for my author page on FB. I’m always looking for interesting articles to share that talk about mortality or grief from new perspectives. Yes to the teachings of Kronos. I think of this quote:
    “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.” ~Jorge Luis Borges

    I’m reading When Breath Becomes Air because your last blog made it clear I should not delay. I’m 1/3 of the way through, savoring and loving it as I knew I would after reading a few of his articles in recent years. What a big Soul with Teachings that continue after his death through writing and his example. Thank you for distilling and sharing much of his wisdom.

    • Shirley Showalter on February 14, 2016 at 2:59 pm

      Thank you, Elaine, for these words and for sharing. Your own perceptions are so finely attuned to these themes in the world. I love the Borges quote. Isn’t it wonderful the way our thoughts attract the wisdom of others, who bring us the wisdom of the ages.

      So glad you found the post useful to share. Thank you.

  17. Sherrey Meyer on February 16, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    Shirley, the photo of your brother and you as one of my favorites from Blush, if not my favorite. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on time as serendipitously found in Paul Kalanithi’s book. Bob and I watched this video together and just from it gained a new perspective on the word “time.” We have the book, but haven’t begun reading it yet. How special to have heard Kalanithi’s voice speaking his thoughts before we read his story. I’ll be sharing your post on my FB timeline and my page. This is a story that should be spread around the world.

    Portland needs another visit from the Showalters. Just saying…


  18. Shirley Showalter on February 17, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    Thank you so much for these kind words and generous shares, Sherrey. I agree that this message is one for our time. And, like you, I loved hearing and seeing Paul. What a gift it is to be able to record images and voices!

  19. When Breath Becomes Air | Tuesdays with Laurie on February 23, 2016 at 5:07 am

    […] my friend, Shirley Hershey Showalter, wrote about When Breath Becomes Air in her blog post, When Time Shall Be No More: Kalanithi and Kairos, on February 10, 2016, I read it immediately following the book I was currently reading. […]

  20. Linda Gartz on April 17, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    Thanks for this recommendation, Shirley. I came back to this post because I met Laurie Buchanan this weekend at the Writers’ Institute in Madison, WI. I was checking out her blog, Tuesdays with Laurie, when I came across her post on Kalanithi’s book, and saw it linked back to this post of yours. I’m eager to read it after my own bout with cancer–now almost two years ago. I also want to thank you for leading my to Laurie online. I recognized her from across the room at a “mixer” and introduced myself. She gave several excellent and informative lectures! A great speaker with lots of great advice. Thank you for leading me to her.

    • Laurie Buchanan on April 17, 2016 at 5:00 pm

      Linda, it was fantastic to meet you in person! I had so much fun at the writer’s conference and I’m confident that you did too. I’m currently traveling, but I will catch back up with you soon.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 17, 2016 at 9:33 pm

      Linda, thanks for letting me know you got to hear Laurie. I can only imagine how good she would be as a speaker at a writer’s conference.

      I love when my friends meet each other. Isn’t it wonderful that kindred spirits can find each other virtually first and then in person?

      And I hope you will love When Breath Becomes Air as much as the two of us do.

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