Updated: Jul 17, 2022
Evening, the sun still un-setted. Light shatters through the outside trees, breaking through windows and landing on my typing hands. Drawing blood, I think. Intensifying the remnants of unlived life in my body.
I once wrote that I feel the need to situate myself at the beginning of each essay. What objects seduce my gaze, where does the light stray, what sounds surround me? It’s not a writing practice so much as an ethical impulse: like the researcher, I feel compelled to acknowledge my influences, my potential conflicts of interest. What surrounds me presses into me, implying itself into my language. All art is a conversation, not with a blank medium— the canvas, the page, the stage— but with time itself. I converse with the verbal imprints of every book I’ve ever read, every painting that has climbed past the veil of the body into my inner is, every future reader who may stumble into the room where these words are being written.
I glance at a vast mural in process of being painted—leaf shadows shimmer against the golden canvas of my living room wall. Evening light makes the world seem significant, pulling the gaze towards the darkening earth, towards the still-warm remnants of the day. My remnants feel stillborn, blue, bloated. We’ve been down with Covid for a week, and I’ve succumbed to the lethargy by doing nearly nothing: teaching brief reading lessons to my daughter, watching movies, reading Figuring, by Maria Popova—the intellectual and literary highpoint of the day.
Not writing, because I don’t yet trust the genius of the moment, that warm-blooded words may be birthed from even the stalest of sensations, the blindest of bodies. So, I suppose my life is not to blame. I have time, but not yet the wisdom to let the timeless unfold within me. I am here now, anyway, physically recovered, alert and listening. Eager to pry open the heart of this essay, which is the heart of my present life, invisible until magnified by the glass lens of writing.
I resume this essay in a café, a fury flowing through me. I pound the keyboard with the whole-bodied inflections of a pianist, punctuated by pauses in which I gather eyefuls, more glare than glance.
A decidedly uncool sentiment: I am furious for the technology use around me. In this particular café, on this particular morning, not a single person looks at their partner, except to toss a scrap or two of syncopated dialogue, then back to the silent phone screen.
I haven’t written in public for a long time. I prefer my private spaces, the familiar ways that a room captures and directs the one thinning and fattening light of day. I pace my living room, always aware of the trees watching through the tall and wide windows. I open the patio door to let the air in, opening also my pores to the pouring light as I light a candle, kneel on the floor, squat on a chair while I type. For me, both writing and thinking are kinetic activities. If I can no longer feel my body, I begin to doubt the potency of my words.
But we had to leave the apartment during the open house— people should be there now with our realtor, scrutinizing each defect, weighing the property value, squinting at our family pictures and imagining theirs instead, wondering what kinds of memories these spaces could sculpt. So my husband took Sophie to a store, and I came here, where I am catching a glimpse of the screen of the young man in front of me. His frantic flipping between apps— Instagram, iMessages, news, back to Instagram— scatters my brain anxiously on his behalf. In the midst of staggeringly high and climbing rates of mental illness, I am suddenly surprised there are any happy, sane humans in our societies. When civilization itself is ill, we require sheer force of will to be well— measured steps against the grain, conscious disengagement from unhealthy norms. Each time I glance up, the humans are still scrolling. Even the food is offered no more than a half-hearted glance, balancing a burrito in one hand and the screen in the other.
Out the warming window, a large bur oak is swimming through the clear waters of a Saturday sun. How strange we must seem to the trees. Not swimming through time, but skipping, stopping, wanting, wasting, preserving, clinging as if time were a material thing that could be elongated or truncated by the sagacious or foolish.
I am angry at these hapless humans because I am angry at myself. A question struggles through the thick cloth of the moment, pressing itself against my perception.
Why do I kill time? Perhaps this question beats at the heart of this essay, the heart of my present life.
I tilt my head as I watch the couple in front of me, faces turned away from each other, eyes buried in the unfeeling phone screen that demands nothing and incites no vulnerability. Another question— subtle, half-formed— threads through the first: is this silencing of self and other, the constant turning away of our age, also a betrayal of time?
Bodies blanked by screens, minds hived, souls wisped into feather-light things: we humans are waning. We are are forgetting our selves, our oneness, our reality.
Could it be that a shared terror of time has birthed this forgetting?
Days have passed, time slipping through my grasping hands.
No time to write. Preschool is out for the summer, so I spend my days—happy days, I'll add—caring for my daughter full-time. We make glittery slime and tie-dye shirts and bake chocolate chip cookies, and while she plays alone, I pack our things, preparing for our cross-country move to New York. Deep reading and writing have been set aside, for a time, though I do listen to lectures on Indian philosophy while I cook. There are tiny bursts of free time when I could jot down a few lines. But these essays taste truer when ripened slowly by my attention, like a sun stretching long and patiently over a receptive earth.
Hours flicker past as my mind seeks a moment to moor.
One pre-dawn morning, I awake early to record a few stray thoughts when an insight jitters through me:the fear of time is identical with the fear of eternity.
I have written much about the culmination of time (death), and yet nothing about the timelessness at the center of perception (eternity). And yet, this is what vanishes in each decaying moment: the carefully creviced "now" that resists exposure to the light, the present that cannot be seen without slipping out of sight, the moment that is no measurable unit, but only the brute sensation of embeddedness in time. This is the truth we rarely realize: no one experiences a "now" who is aware of time. The present exists only when it is forgotten, in a state of pure process called flow.
Flow state carries the creative, athlete, scholar, or anyone excelling at their craft, when action and awareness are merged, time transfigures, and the ego is tranquilized. This state engenders feelings of individual well-being and personal meaning, perhaps surprisingly because it describes the individual self (time) becoming one with the whole (eternity). Flow is self-dissolution in the waters of the blind "Now."
For the self is simply a particular scrap of spacetime. Who are you without linear time to link your always-changing self through every stage of life? Who are you without your inheritance of space, both the environment that raised you and the space-taking body with its generational genetic code?
Spacetime sculpts the one spaceless, timeless light of consciousness into its ten thousand iterations. But if spacetime is an illusion, as philosophers and physicists generally agree, then so are you as separate self.
Without these extraneous qualities, you are simply:
Time is only eternity objectified. Perception crafts spacetime into individual things, objects, selves. As the Ancient Greek Zeno's paradox illustrated (and modern quantum physics intimates), motion is impossible under observation. So are eternity, consciousness, selfhood, and freedom. Observation is objectification. But reality is no object.
In the experiencing subject full reality resides. But your subjective self-experience cannot be seen without being objectified in space and time. A brain scan images a conscious experience. But the experiences themselves— eating chocolate, seeing red, walking barefoot on the earth— are always invisible from the outside, locked in your particular mind and body.
My husband has woken up. As he passes into his office, a trace of strangeness lingers in the hallway between us. So long we've known one another, and yet knowing is nothing. The loneliness does not lessen. I often feel wondrously lucky to be with him, wondrously happy. But sometimes, I feel nothing. And by this I mean, "nothing" opens a chasm in my very body, and I feel alien from everything, desperate to pull aloneness close to me, to cover my bones with cold.
I have felt this way in all my relationships: the truth and falsity of closeness, the ebb and flow of intimacy. A reminder that no one will ever see me in my startling totality, perhaps including me. A reminder that I will never love him in all the ways he requires loving.
The man is not the answer, I remind myself, for the thousandth time in my tiny adult life. The woman or man of your affection is never the answer. The answer eludes, as time eludes, carrying your very self in its folds.
With this reminder, the blade of my separation sharpens. Loneliness swells, up towards a scrap of sky that I cannot yet peak through the blinds.
The self is not the answer, either, I remind myself. Or, not the full answer.
To desire relief in another object or human is to deny time. To believe your separation as final fact is to deny eternity.
Opposites require each another just as they dissolve each another when their common center is exposed: subject/ object, seer/ seen, time/eternity. Just as the contemplative meets God at the moment both self as subject and God as object dissolve into oneness, you meet eternity precisely when both "time" and "eternity" collapse into the blind Now, a oneness that brackets and befores both sides of the duality. Thus we realize the paradoxical wholeness at the heart of all opposites: the pure experience of time is, in fact, eternity.
I raise the blinds just a few inches. Dawn pinks lightly the scorched grass tips. Sun drips down a leaf, sliding into a slow-stretched pool of light.
Do you kill time? Do you drown moments in noise, stimulation, distraction?
Then you kill your very self. You drown your own becoming. For time is nothing but the unfolding of your separation in space.
Never again will this particular map of genetic and socially selected traits constellate in a body. How achingly instant is your life, a snapshot depiction of eternal mind. Never again will mind walk the earth as you. Consciousness incarnates in your body in a blaze of never-before and never-again.
Do you feel the cold concentration of self that has been lodged like a bullet in your chest? Do you feel the wound of separation that gapes open all expression, the infinitely unbridgeable abyss between your body and mine, pulling us towards language, sex, prayer, art of all colors and stripes? No canvas can capture your inner "is." No note can sing your singularity. No human can hold your true name. No role can bring you back into wholeness. Banished from the garden of original oneness, we wander naked and afraid through the gray streets and slanted gaze of a dehumanized society. Can you utter your own name in your chest? Can you hold the note of your own song? Can you breathe your color into the corpsehood of things, so all may arise, alive and alight?
Again a gold-rimmed sky falls out of doors, though the wan electric lights remain alight. The leaves dance a shadowed morse code on the living room walls, and I wonder if the leaf or the shadow contains more of reality, the light or its imprint of absence.
Particularity is a practice and a task. You explore your possibilities as a scientist explores the mind-boggling diversity of underwater life: with wonder, curiosity, and care, while knowing that no species is identical with the researcher, though it may share some of her qualities. When you realize that your fundamental quality is pure consciousness, then you can approach your staggering specificity with a small gap of identification. Self-consciousness is also such a gap, between the one who knows the world and the one who knows they are knowing. This distinction makes selfhood possible. In the same way, when you recognize that your tiny life is not the sum of your possibilities, you realize the distinction between your true Self and the role you play. Your bravery emboldened by this gap, you dive into the waters of your life with a full-throated laugh, knowing the freedom of being more than a time-scrap.
How I feel when I see my daughter: thrilled! by the intimate otherness of her small body and rapidly complexifying personality. She is me, she is not me. She is her father, she is not her father. Both of us, and yet totally distinct— how could such a human suddenly blaze into being?
Stark, rare, and strange is the sudden advent of each human creature, already miraculous with millions of self-seeds, effulgent with possibility. And death the sudden absence of a stunning singularity. This question cores the living left behind: how could such a world vanish, brimful with meaning, possibility, history? Can it cease to exist so simply? Can it leave such a void? Will another ever replace such an untold instantiation of time, such an unseen instantiation of place?
I will not reply. My answers would only bind you to my own becoming. All advice is a form of self-borrowing, and answers to existential questions always appear as advice.
No answers can I offer but the hope that my perambulating questions begin seeking shelter in your body. Hope that an answer starts brewing in the dark recesses of your unknowing, starts living a reply in wider and wider wonderings.
You are also a wondering. Your body poses a question to the world; your mind wants an answer. Everything you do sculpts time and space, creating something new and never-before and I hope something loved to its core. The very fact of your existence is worthy of awe. The very fact of your body is worthy of love.
Strange song of your unbecoming: I become myself in you. Strange sound of my beginning: you begin yourself in me. Through me, you become a stranger to yourself, recovering wonder. Through you, I begin myself again, wandering home to a common core. Self and un-selfing in a single bated breath.
An essay also decays. I have posed this question: why do I kill time? in a number of ways. I have offered no answers. I have prayed that the answers incarnate in you.
So I will abandon this essay and sit on the sun-dappled banks of the creek. I'll sit until this essay abandons me, words leaked of light, meanings puckered by droughted knowings. If I sit for long enough, the long-wisped-away words will begin to breathe—wordless, soundless, cleansing me of accumulated untruths.
An essay also decays because an essay is also a living.
Who knows where a word can land me? Who knows how a question can breathe new blood into your quick-corpsing life? Perhaps no one knows until the knowing is becomed in you. You carry my words in your unwording body and your carrying carries me: subject and object, seer and seen, time and eternity, reader and writer: in a single blink, our singularities collapse:
Oneness relieves a sigh of unbelief.