This unusual Fourth of July reminded me of time in the past. In 1985, my wife and I were in Bath, England, with our friends, eating at an outdoor restaurant on the Fourth of July. My friend had brought some tiny American flags, which we placed on our cakes. Last year on the Fourth of July, I was at my daughter’s home on the sun-drenched ocean in Rockport, Mass., surrounded by family to celebrate my niece’s wedding. Both of these memories, 34 years apart, caused me to think of how rapidly time passes.

That time passes is almost a cliché. Yet it is perhaps the most fundamental truth that we know and experience about life. We think of ourselves as flowing with it as on a boat in a river watching the various things on the shore — trees, houses, people, the events in our lives — come and go as we flow by.

But how does time exist? It exists in the moment, another almost cliché, but, again, a truth. Only the present exists. What happened before does not exist, nor does the future. We remember the past and envision the future, but they do not exist, the past never again, the future not until it happens. And the present, the moment, is precisely that. We tend to lump moments together, like that was a great breakfast, jog, party or day, but the present is an instant that comes and goes.

We experience time passing slowly or quickly. When young, not fast enough. When old, too fast. And as adults, in the thickness of life pursuing our careers, getting married, raising children, scurrying to and fro, we usually don’t pause in the now to truly and fully experience it. We are on the boat swiftly flowing past what is on the shore, shopping, paying bills, eating, jogging, forward, forward. Busy crossing them off our daily list, as we miss small events. I wonder how many things my children did that I do not remember because I was going from hour to hour, day to day.

In this time of sheltering in place, we are often impatient. The boat has slowed down, it seems, almost to a stop, and we want to get moving again. Yet we have been given a gift of time when we can concern ourselves with how to fill our time, another almost cliché, but a truth. We have freedom, but the most fundamental freedom is to choose how to live, how to fill our time, how to use this gift of time to ponder life.

Three things occur to me. First, let us use this time to grow our inner self, our soul, expand it with the search for truth and wisdom, knowledge of history, history of our world, our nation, our community, and ourselves. Let us read, let us think and meditate on human accomplishments, foibles and the terrible mistakes like slavery, war and genocide.

Let us meditate on ourselves, who we are and who we would like to be, acknowledging trivial desires for the superficial, new and shinier things, and the importance of embracing our understanding, respect and compassion for others, others whom we have not taken the time to know.

Let us also appreciate the daily beauty that surrounds us. Flowers blooming in our garden and the lawns of houses we walk and drive past, so many works of nature’s art. Let us see the golden glow of sunsets and the white face of the moon in the evening blue sky. Let us see the joy in the faces of our neighbors.

Most of all, let us treasure our families and friends. Talk more with them, and as the pandemic eases, spend more time laughing and listening to their deepest voices. Sharing our stories, fears and hopes, weeping and laughing. Sharing our souls.

Yes, time always passes. We cannot stop that. But we can slow down and experience it fully. Its gift is ours, the choice is ours.

Jack Hernandez is a retired director of the Norman Levan Center of the Humanities at Bakersfield College.