It’s possible to ignore the present. To let it slip away, unacknowledged. Suddenly part of the blur of racing time.
When you select pictures to capture an event you recently attended, you look backward. When you write up your timesheet (as freelancers like me often do) to create an invoice, you measure your productivity by looking into the past.
On the other hand, when you imagine your daughter striding across the stage in cap and gown to accept her graduation diploma in 2 weeks, you wander with mind and heart into the future. Or when you’re anticipating a work deadline, you make goals and to-do lists that lay out your plans for hours and days to come.
It’s easy, really, to be absorbed by what has come beforehand, and what may happen tomorrow. On this day, which is cool and grey and just a little bit drizzly, after the brilliance of a late spring weekend, you almost want to snuggle up somewhere cozy, and think about a warmer, sunnier, easier time in your life. It would be simple to give away this moment, and trade it for thoughts about something past or future.
Yet today I challenge myself to remain in the moment. To ride it out, rather than wandering away.
This time we’re given — now, here — is just as sacred as what has passed and what may come. And each now touches the next now, connecting all of them infinitely.
The contrast between now and infinity, as a mathematical idea, has been played with in the concept of such constructions as the mobius strip or the Klein bottle. Or in the illustrations of M.C. Escher. We love to stare at and play with the impossibility of being able to see a representation of eternity, because in other ways, these ideas are completely possible. We can describe them in equations, explain them through physics, or believe in them in our spiritual practices.
Argh, sometimes, it’s all too much to think about. Let’s just say that, for once, I am making an effort, a mental push-up and a small contract with myself, to be here: present in this moment.
In some faith traditions and philosophies, now is all there is. It’s an ancient practice. A long-held idea. Consider the teachings of Buddha, for instance. Or read the words of the 19th century poetess Emily Dickinson, who captured something of what I have posed as a reflection (and an exercise in discipline) for myself today.
Forever – is composed of Nows –
by Emily Dickinson
Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –
From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years –
Without Debate – or Pause –
Or Celebrated Days –
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Dominies –
What I especially love about this poem is that thousands, maybe millions, of other people have read and considered it. Each of us in our own moments. Our nows are strung and twined together across a loom of Emily’s imagined infinity, if you believe that now dissolves into an endless skein of time.
The readers’ shared experience, like the feel of gravity that binds us to earth, or the light of the sun that shines down on us and the moon that tugs at us, joins us in another common experience. Our individual minds make a ribbon of human curiosity, pain and love that braids all our lives together. Each of us privately, and all of us together, have waded through her poem, puzzling over its moving and challenging phrases, trying to stand inside the “latitude of home” or to breathe with an “exhale in years.”
In a season when I’m looking at gravestone markers and diplomas, at endings and beginnings, I especially appreciate her invitation to “From this – experienced Here – Remove the Dates – to These –”
She doesn’t punctuate the poem, did you notice? There aren’t any periods or questions marks. Just dashes that mark time like the tick-tock of a clock, allowing lines and moments to be daisy-chained together, rather than snipped off completely. Without punctuation, in a poem written as small phrases, there’s no clear sense of a start or finish to the sentence and thought. Not precisely. Just a cycle that repeats and repeats and repeats.
She says that forever is not a different time. I would add, it’s not a different time, except when it is. There’s paradox for you.