Future tense

With too many other bits of reading in between and over, I am reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. In a summer-time when I am trying to be stronger than my silly, temporary anxieties, Jinko and Oliver are becoming necessary, somehow, as they move in the background, slowing down the frantic sadness and, yes, anxiety of the two primary characters, Nao and Ruth. I am too close to the end of the book, though. I am at that moment, when to stop reading for a few days is impossible. Still, I set the finishing of this book up as a barrier between me, now, in my July of not working, and the inevitability (not unwelcome) of August and working again. Of course, the reading and breathing and planning and writing are not month-bound. They always are.

Simultaneity  is a (the?) significant truth in Time Being, as it is in the Quartets. “Up and down, same thing,” says Jinko, to Ruth in her dream, to Nao on the beach. “The way up and the way down are one and the same,” says Heraclitus in the epigraph. And of course, “Burnt Norton” begins:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
                                  But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story of St. Francis. In the middle of winter, St. Francis is walking through a grove of almond trees. It is winter, so the trees are void of leaves. The Umbrian region of Italy is not its glorious green self. Perhaps St. Francis is in despair or maybe just ready for an end to cold and the illnesses of winter. Perhaps St. Francis just needs reassurance. Perhaps he is in search of a new metaphor. For whatever reason, Francis calls out to the trees, to the birds (or their absence), “Teach me of the Holy Spirit.” In response, the trees break out into bloom. There was death (or the deathlike sleep) of winter. Simultaneously, the bare branches of the almond trees held the blooms of spring. Spring, winter, the same thing.

We think of time as passing, of course, as fleeting. It all goes so quickly. Days go from dawn to dusk in a few moments. How, for example, is it almost 4:30 pm as I write this? I just woke up a few minutes ago. My bike only now got that flat. Surely, I just walked through the door after the two-mile return on foot to get the car to get the bike. (How ridiculous.)

In Time Being, Jinko is 104 and will not pass on as a Bodhisattva until everyone is at peace, until everyone finds her or his “supapawa.” Jinko moves slowly through time, deliberately. She enjoys chocolate and sends text messages to her great-granddaughter via a computer — and through treasured letters of a dead son. She controls her presence in the world by erasing her footsteps, all without denying that she made them. Ghosts do return to her. Nao, though, is herself a living ghost, all tangled up in how her insistence on her own past footsteps keep her from controlling her own presence. Eliot recognizes the simultaneity, and, I think, also sees the futility of keeping the footsteps, the breadcrumbs back.

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

We regret. We want to do it over. We want to redeem our time, how we wasted it, how we wronged it. But we can’t.

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

Yes! They, the moments we can’t do over or redeem, are foggy, misty, and so why look at them or for them.

I spend a lot of time in the past. Remembering it and rewriting it, retelling it. When I need peace, I look backward. My footsteps are so tiny, that I can’t really see them, so I recreate them, and this let’s pretend about the past is soothing because it helps me to hold moments and, in illusion, at least, it helps me to stop time. The past is safe. Its unredeemability is safe. The mistakes in it are done. And I push, push, push the present to get into the past. This hard thing, this present moment, this immediate future is so much easier to deal with when it’s past.

I am terrified of the might-be, of possibility. I have a child, and I want her to live her life, but the very prospect paralyzes me. I first read James Joyce’s The Dubliners when I was a senior in high school, so I was 18 years old. How I pitied Gabriel Conroy. I had no idea. Paralysis is the safest spot, but it is impossible to maintain. For if I stand still in avoidance, then what? But if I let my child make her own choices and she falls, then what? And how will my mothering stand up to scrutiny? The might-be’s are overwhelming, but I can’t let them be so. A different way of moving through it exists, and sometimes, I stumble upon it. It isn’t the racing pace I set during the school  year, nor is it the sleepy pace of the summer months. It isn’t those, but it is in them, or they are in it. Sometimes, I find my way in time, in the fluid present, by counting stitches as I crochet around and around. I breathe it, momentarily-timelessly when I look up as I pedal and am surprised by a garden or I fly through a tree tunnel and the shadows dapple everything and I cannot see. And the now is here.

My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
                                  But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.

Unlike the you of the poem, I am not filled with regret for what has been. I am filled with anxiety for what might come and how I might be judged for it. When I am in time, when up and down and past and present are the same, when there is a now, I have breathed a full breath and not worried about whether I will be deemed wanting. I do love the past, I guess, but not in the same way that Nao does. I love the past because there is nothing there than could hurt me or my daughter or how my daughter sees me. The past can be dealt with. It’s a known. What might be squirms in my stomach and begs to be be forgotten.

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