My blog entries about different ways of conceptualizing time (e.g., Three takes on time and The tree ring model of time) are all fine and fun, but what about the more personal anxiety that many people have – anxiety about aging and death. I’ve largely escaped this anxiety – maybe from reading the ancient Greeks at an early age, maybe from robust health and a good knack for living in the moment. Or maybe it’s my meditation in the park. Aging there seems peculiarly irrelevant. As I tune in to my surroundings, it’s clear that there is no ‘I’ growing old – it’s ‘we’ growing old – me, the grass, the old oaks, the little lizards, the sky and the universe – we’re all moving through time together. The idea that ‘I’ am aging relative to the world is an illusion. Somehow this perspective removes the anxiety.
Something similar, but not exactly the same, comes up in a weird episode of my speculative novel, Alice, where Alice makes a discovery in a shuttered museum. Here’s an excerpt for your amusement and edification.
Alice proceeded as quickly as seemed decorous, given the solemn aspect of the place, to the arched doorway at the interior end of the room. The next room was equally desolate but spacious. Four columns topped by groined arches ran down each side of what seemed the great hall. Concrete debris littered the floor. A dire-looking chandelier hung at the center, and under it was a simple folding chair and a large table. The table held some kind of old machine, and so what could Alice do but approach?
She sat in the chair and looked at the machine for a minute. Someone had been here. There was a wet circle on the table where someone had placed a glass or cup recently. There was a box of batteries at the far end of the table. The machine itself had a circular device with a button next to it, attached to a cylinder of some kind. Alice pushed the button and the circular device began to spin. She pushed again and it stopped. Three plastic discs lay between the device and the batteries. Were they pulled from a larger collection? Were they intended for some purpose? Or were they supposed to be hidden? Was Alice trespassing? Stirring up more trouble as everyone seemed to think she was doing just because she was a New Arcadian?
The last thought emboldened Alice. She put the first disc on the device and pushed the button.
* * *
A monk sat on a bench, engaged in a daily practice of reflection. Another monk approached and sat on the bench next to him.
“I am here, Brother Anselm,” said the second monk. “If you need me.”
“I know, Brother Hector,” said the first. “Thank you.”
Brother Anselm continued his practice, controlling his breath. Four breaths per minute. Three breaths per minute. Duckweed on the pond in front of the bench drifted like bits of green plastic clouds, forming slow shapes at the water line, breaking apart on the surface. Two breaths per minute. Drifting into transcendence. Time crawled to a stop. Alice could see all this happening on the wall-projected image. She could feel it. The gentle rat-a-tat of the machine continued.
But then she saw his anxiety. Time had stopped for the practicing monk. The rest of the world went on. There are things he should be doing. In his meditation, five minutes seemed like an hour. His mental images flitted across the screen. That was an hour that he could have spent baking bread with Brother Joseph or helping with the school play. Sometimes it seemed that the deeper the meditation, the slower his metabolism became, the more frantic he became that the world was flying by while he was idling.
Gradually, the whole thing flipped. The idea was not to slow oneself to a pace of contentment while the world rushed along in its course. In meditation, one could slow the world itself. When he slowed, his life slowed, the trees growing around the pond slowed, everything in the world slowed. He was not slowing down relative to the world; he was slowing down the world and himself within it. Alice could see it in the film. The eternal goalpost became more and more distant as time slowed. Like approaching the event horizon of a black hole. And then, as when one hits the horizon, time stopped and eternity was here.
Brother Anselm smiled. Alice could see in his smile that he had solved the problem of meditation as disengagement. It was not disengagement. It was a shaping force of reality. It had taken Brother Anselm many years of meditation, an enormity of reflection, to bring the world to pace. For Brother Hector, on the other hand, everything came in a flash. Alice could see into his mind. He didn’t need to think about things first. He didn’t need to go through all the hard work. He moved by quantum leaps.
“Funny thing about quantum leaps,” said Brother Anselm out loud. “No one can say ahead of time if they are in the right or the wrong direction.”
Then the camera panned back and Alice noticed something strange. The pond. It was her pond. A different time. Her pond. Mab’s pond. Maggie’s Hollow. But time passed. The monks disappeared. At the far end of the pond, a woman with long brown hair stood with her back to the camera. Then the rat-a-tat slowed to a tat . . . tat . . . tat.
The disc had run its course. Well, fair enough, thought Alice. No one has to know everything all in the same minute. She started the second disc.
* * *
God and the devil were walking in the Himalayas, jagged peaks and plains of ice, bamboo and stone below.
“I never knew why you did it,” said God.
“Did what?” asked the devil.
“Damned Adam and Eve.”
God gestured and the devil followed him into a small clearing behind the rocks. Strewn about were costumes of Greek gods and goddesses.
“I didn’t damn Adam and Eve,” said the devil, indignant. “You damned them. I was only trying to help.”
“Help? I gave them a pure soul and you ruined it.” God tossed a centaur costume at the devil.
“No,” said the devil. “Too obvious. You take the centaur costume. I’ll be Zeus.” He smiled at the thought.
God shrugged and fingered through the representations of Hermes, Hera, Hades, and a few others.
“You told them the soul was inside the body,” said the Devil. “That was a lie. You told them to look inward, forbade them the fruit of the outer garden, the joy of the senses, the senses that are always reaching outward, desire pushing them ever out into the world to discover its joys.”
“But those sensual joys are not the joys of the soul,” said God. And as if tripping over his own severity, God slipped, slid several feet below the clearing, almost into a small stream running down from the peaks. His antagonist caught him by the arm and helped him up. But in the combination of helping and laughing, the enemy slipped his own foot into the icy waters and let out a high-pitched yelp.
“Damn,” cried the Devil. “Not used to this cold water.”
The Devil then mocked God in a sing-songy voice of sarcasm.
“But those sensual joys are not the joys of the soul,” he mimicked.
Then he returned to his own voice and looked at God in earnest.
“You’re falling for your own tricks,” he said. They hobbled back to the clearing and to the weighty decision of costumes.
“The soul was always outside the body,” continued the Devil. “The joys I speak of, found in the world through the desiring senses, those are exactly the joys of the soul. The soul is not inside the body. The body is inside the soul. The soul is the universal body. And it must be explored. Your trick – trying to capture the universal soul, seal it inside the bodies of those poor creatures, Adam and Eve – it was just a trick. It couldn’t last. Sooner or later they would break the seal and rejoin the great outer soul. I just sped things up.”
They both stood and headed down the mountainside. The Devil had finally chosen the costume of Prometheus and God had settled upon Athena. They had crossed the tree line and were surrounded by rich vegetation.
“Ah, well,” said God. “A philosopher-devil. How comes it then that you fell from heaven while good ones stayed behind and lived in inner peace?”
“Relativity,” said the Devil. “I was rising up from the pit of heaven. From your point of view, it looked like a fall. For me it was a discovery.”
God aspirated in disgust, and the Devil gave an impish grin.
“You should join me, God. Before the festival. You have your costume and I have mine. Get away from all that nasty inwardness. Get out and explore the world, feel all the reflexes of the great outer soul.”
They paused to rest against a great rock, and God seemed to consider the Devil’s proposal. Then the rat-a-tat-tat slowed to a stop.
“Sorry, God and the Devil,” said Alice smartly. “One more to go.” And she put on the third disc.
* * * Click covers below for links * * *