Art and Essay by Mary Reddy
A memoir takes a lens to selected moments in a life. More forgiving than an autobiography, memoir acknowledges the possibility of shapeshifting memories. But in either format, the leading player is time. Several of my more vivid childhood memories touch on the concept of time. Let me take you back to when I was seven.
Summer blows through the classroom windows. Six broad wood-framed windows, half-open, allow the breeze to clean our desks and play with our hair. We sit in slightly less orderly fashion than usual, wriggling under the call of freedom and the outdoors. The nun chalks the last few words on the blackboard and for the last time passes back the little booklets with our corrected exercises. It is the final day of second grade, the day before summer break. I will never be in second grade again.
I am suddenly conscious, through the medium of the balmy weather, of moving outside time. I feel myself pulled into a vaster self, looking at time as though I were outside or above it. From that perspective, my state as a seven-year old feels like an important brush stroke in a larger canvas or a fragment of colored glass essential to the makeup of a beautiful stained-glass window. My adult future sends warmth back to me. How wonderful to feel affection and support from my own future self! When I inevitably and all too soon lose that expansive consciousness, I find myself treasuring the present bright afternoon and feeling a swell of relief that the tortures of second grade will soon be history. And some curiosity lingers about the adult I will grow into.
Why are moments like these rare? I’ve always felt that it stems from the necessity of immersion. We need to feel the emotions, the responsibility, the capacity to choose and in that way alter the course of our future. One of my favorite songwriters, Jason Isbell, said it this way when asked about a song he’d written called “If Were We Vampires.” He spoke of re-examining his notions about mortality. “I realized that to write a love song, you have to write a death song. Love doesn’t mean as much without death. If I agree to marry someone, that’s a big risk, because I only have one life. … I’m giving her the most valuable thing I have: my time.”
The consequences of our decisions occur in time. We manifest our wishes in time. We long for love and peace. And in the imagining of what that love might feel like, we create a vector toward the future. All this while navigating enormous numbers of small moments, thousands of interactions with others, millions of intakes and outflows of breath. This time-bounded state seems to be intimately connected to being in bodies. Our hearts hold us in time, keeping time with each beat. Our bodies place us in a ‘where’ as well as a ‘when.’ Whenever I have felt pulled out into an expansive timeless state, it began when I was fully in my body and fully in the present moment, with the breeze lifting my hair, in the stillness of a starry night, or feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin.
So incarnation, embodiment, and time are intricately woven together. In pondering our relationship to time, I began to see us humans as time magicians. If only because that phrase implies the immense creative power we wield in living each moment. Another favorite songwriter of mine, Joanna Newsom, in “Time as a Symptom,” sings “But stand brave, life liver, bleeding out your days in the river of time, stand brave. Time moves both ways.” We are brave, to take on this life! And each moment that we wield our sword or our magic staff—whether gently, in happiness or in sorrow, whether fiercely, in anger or grief—we magically amend the past and alter the future.
One of David Spangler’s subtle colleagues confirmed that time is a powerful incarnational tool, kindly sharing these thoughts:
“Time is a gift given to those in incarnation. It is a mode of perception that allows for an intensification of experience and fine management of outcomes. I don't know exactly how to explain the difference to you between time as I know it and as you experience it, but in a way, it's as if it allows you to enter into the wholeness of an experience and perceive its innards, so to speak. The experience of time is much slower for you than it is for us as it is broken down into moments in ways we do not experience. If events were food, it's as if we absorb it directly and immediately whereas you have to cut it up and chew it into small bits and then digest it before it becomes part of you. We are both nourished by the food in our own ways, but you experience it differently and in greater intensity.”
As incarnate humans, we are invited into the wholeness of each moment, whether its meaning is mundane, exalting, challenging, or traumatic. Incarnational spirituality properly emphasizes our presence here on earth, encompassing relationships within ourselves—with our personality and our own soul—and outwardly with the human community and the earth of which we are part. Imagine adding the element of time to this conscious affirmation of our place in the world. Being present can mean simply being here, not elsewhere. But being present in the moment adds the quality of knowing where we are in time. These two awarenesses are inseparable. If we detach from the present moment, especially if it is to flee the full experience of something painful, how can we claim our presence? We are no longer here.
These musings on time can get convoluted. Because, of course, in some present moments we must be considering future plans. Stepping into and out of the flow of moments may be part of that very human “fine management of outcomes’ that David’s colleague described. This is the magic we wield: being fully our presence in the present. This moment is your life.
Time Magicians: Part 1 of this essay can be found here.