"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Category: Mortal Concerns

The Time of Our Life

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.    St. Augustine

We typically segment time into three clearly demarked, independent parts. Past: over, done, gone. Present: now, ephemeral, ever-evaporating. Future: yet to be, a horizon beyond the rim of the present. This makes much intuitive sense, and presumes an objective river of time that carries us along in its current, a stream parceled into a regular metronome of moments, pacing off seconds, minutes, hours… We thus can situate ourselves within the surge of time: it is now January 1, 2020, at 10:31.09 AM. Which, of course, is immediately consigned to the past as the present rushes into the future. The flux of time is thus given some measure of order, stability and control.

Physics of Time

This ordering, however intuitively obvious and useful, does not snare time. Modern physics offers a very detailed understanding of the remarkable and bizarre features of time as a physical phenomenon. In the smallest of durations, in the quantum zone inhabited by subatomic and virtual particles, time becomes unmeasurable and merges with mass and energy. What does this even mean? When considering cosmic time of vast dimensions, time and space are welded, and in the proximity of entities of unimaginably huge masses, a time horizon appears beyond which time disappears down a black (rabbit) hole. And everything, including time, began with the Big Bang1. No metronome of regular moments here.

Psychology of Time

The physics of time does not exhaust time’s possibilities. Psychological time, our personal experience of it, is as powerful, meaningful and complex. Here, too, time manifests itself in multiple guises. Our experience of duration is intimately entangled with our encounter with the world. Searing, inescapable pain creates an eternity of seconds. Joy and surprise can halt time.  Boredom, pleasure, play—indeed, the entire range of our emotional life—all have their unique temporality.

Furthermore, while segmenting time into independent zones of ‘past, present, future’ helps order and understand our experience of time, these zones also interpenetrate, mutually influencing each other.

Future present tense: My goals, expectations, wishes, desires, hopes and fears, and how I thrust myself into the future—all these focus and structure my attention in the present. What captures my interests, what priorities I give to my immediate efforts are shaped by the gravitational pull of the future. Change my goals, aspirations and expectations, I change my life as lived in the present.

Future past tense: This same tug of future’s influence extends into the past. How I construct and understand my past is shaped by what I expect, hope, fear. The past, while over, does not sit inertly in my life. What facts do I remember? What meaning and value do I attribute to them? What is forgotten? Our memory is not a photographic plate impassively recording events as they scroll by. It is an active process, influenced by attention, expectations and under constant reconstruction and renovation.

Past present future tense: The past reaches into the present and shapes our anticipations of the future. What we have experienced organizes how we act and respond in the present and guides our expectations for the future. Our experiences in childhood, our prior traumas, trials and triumphs, our relationships of significance with others and much else in the past have enduring influence on our present and future. Habit and memory are powerful ways the past grips the present and reaches into the future.2

Present past future tense: The grip of the past and the pull of the future meet in the present; it is a temporal vortex not only influenced by past and future, but exerts its own power, “on the fly”, on the past (testing, reinforcing, revising, altering and creating new habits and memory) as well as the future (testing, abandoning, revising, renewing and forging new expectations and anticipations).

The very foundation, structure and texture of our lives turn on these dynamic temporal relationships. This is underscored when we try to understand, manage and change our lives. Temporality is the central focus of all therapy, or any agent of personal change, regardless of its form, offering us different ways to understand our past, comport in the present, and anticipate the future. We change the past by changing our present and future. We change our future by changing our present and past. And so on. They are all dynamically connected. The most final and dramatic way to escape when the weight and pain of these temporal dynamics becomes unbearable is to end time; to commit suicide.

Being and Non-Being

Death, and the decision to choose death through suicide, underscores that we are not just in time, not just an object sailing along in the river of time, but composed of time; a song. We can experience ourselves as a biological entity, as a ‘human being’, a noun, but we also are ‘be-ings’, verbs, gerunds of temporality and tense whose plight is shadowed by non-being, death. We are embodied time; a paradox, a befuddlement, an enigma.

We may understand some of the ways time manifests itself that St. Augustine did not. The vexation of time, however, remains, for it is integral to the unfathomable mystery that is our being.

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.    

Songs of Habit Amidst Chaos

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Habit and Time

The biosphere is a teeming, humming, buzzing, riot of life in every earthly nook and cranny; collaborating with one another, competing with one another, eating one another. Each species, each individual, must rely on habits to establish a measure of stability, enabling them to extract the necessary sustenance for survival. Habit forestalls chaos.

All life, in its many forms, from bacteria to insects, fungi to mammals, are beholden to habit, which is as elemental to life as DNA. A primal characteristic of all life is movement and endurance within time. All, also, share a common fate—the end of movement and endurance in time; death.

Habits are fundamental strategies of temporal beings that must anticipate the future. Habits occur when a situation at Time 2 is perceived as similar to a situation at Time 1, evoking the same response at Time 2 that was  adaptive at Time 1. The perceived reoccurrence of familiar events “stops time”, allowing us to steady ourselves in the face of an uncertain future. Habits create routines, establishing an order in time with expected, reoccurring beats. Indeed, survival depends on establishing a vital regularity within the assaultive, chaotic flux of events, circumstances, and contingencies that threaten the delicate, wavering, spider-thread of life.

Habits of Differing Time Scales

Habit is defined as “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance1. Typically, we think of habit as behavioral routines that derive from individuals learning about their environment; that habit operates within an individual, not the species, at the behavioral, not biological level.

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This definition need not only apply to an individual organism. Consider reflexes. From the perspective of the individual, reflexes are invariant, unchanging; no habits are acquired. Breathing, pupil dilation, digestion, heartbeat, these arise automatically, without conscious prompting, effort, or control. However, from an evolutionary perspective, which encompasses the arc of the emergence of life forms and their adaptation, reflexes are, as the definition states, “patterns acquired by physiological exposure that results in increased facility of performance”. From an evolutionary time scale, then, species’ morphology and the attendant neurophysiological organization and functioning, and even DNA, can also be considered habits.  What appears to be the static, immutable biological givens of of an individual’s existence—the bones, pulsing blood and breathing—are dynamic properties of an evolving process within an evolutionary temporal frame. We are a composite of the individual habits we acquire over our life and species’ habits conferred to us by our primordial ancestors.

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Culture adds yet another layer of habits. Communally organized daily routines and seasonal rituals organize our bodies to the collective rhythms of our culture. Time is regulated; our calendar and clocks are standardized, establishing a rigid temporal grid that individuals must adopt and internalize if they are to participate in essential communal activities. The year rolls over to the next one on January 1; daylight savings time sets the clock ahead, then it is later set back; school schedules, meal times, business hours, the reoccurring weekday-weekend sequence, and many other micro-cultural regularities pervade our lives. Public holidays, such as Thanksgiving and July 4th, with their attendant rituals, mark time within the broader seasonal round.

Songs

Our bodies are composed of layers of habits, each contributing its own rhythms; the beating, breathing, surging biorhythms that compress eons of prior life, the habits we acquire to adapt to our unique personal challenges and circumstances, and the cultural rituals and routines required for communal life. This complex, multilayered cadence of habits comprises the music that is our song, our lives.

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We are songs of life, sung, for our ever-brief moment, within the roar of flux and chaos. Our plight is most heartrendingly expressed in music:

Music is like the inclusive testimony of a visitor to a wondrous world. As it plays you have everything. When it stops, you are left with nothing. Which is exactly like life itself.2

An inclusive testimony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBVkYGLEUpg

Between Sunlight and Darkness

We find ourselves in the place where the life-giving source of all, the sun, appears daily, yet we cannot bear to look at it for more than a few heartbeats; a truth so strong that it blinds. We are also shadowed by the event that will end our existence, forever. Death. There is no escape. It will happen, and could happen, any moment, without warning, looming over us—the promise of no-more.

We carry on as if these elemental, pressing weights do not exist. We live a dream, travel along our everyday paths, oblivious to these existential truths, elevating the mundane to pseudo-cosmic significance. The soporific effects of habit and routine confers regularity, familiarity, and banality to our daily round. We do not do this alone. We are born into the ready-made world of culture that confers established meanings, practices, rituals and rites to stabilize the flux. These group habits, which exist before and beyond any single individual, provide comfort and assurance that our world is mastered, that all can be explained, that there is ground beneath our feet. The rhythmic incantations of habit and culture arrest time, confer predictability, and provide a home in an uncanny universe. Our eyes are diverted from the blinding light of being, and death is forestalled, moved to the cheap seats in the balcony, while we play-out our predictable days. And this must be so, for to be alive to the truth of existence with every tic-tock would be a frenzied, paralyzing, madness.

But our burden, and our gift, is that we can be aware of our plight. We grasp the fundamental truths of our existence in a primordial way: fright, anxiety, angst, as well as wonderment, awe and bewilderment. These are the wellsprings that urge us, compel us to find our way between sunshine and darkness. Bestowed with consciousness, we are creatures of the in-between. It is terrifying and thrilling. Our challenge: to avoid being pulled beneath the waves by the under-toe of habit; keeping our heads above the surface so that we may sing our song, reveling in finding ourselves here, now, alive in the jaws and splendor of life.

Haiku Potpourri

summersaults, baseball, balloons
gravity
at play

*

*

*

in sleep
she mumbles
my name

*

*

*

old records
familiar tunes
songs from the dead

*

*

*

...hea...mur...rt...mur...

*

*

*

3 AM hard rain
beats on the roof
of my brain

*

*

*

city rhythms
horns, sirens, shouts
urban rap

*

*

*

blown from their perch
autumn leaves
dance1

*

*

*

summer solstice
empty classrooms
thresholds

*

*

*

privileged 
to observe
my decline

*

*

*

eclipsed sun
stars appear
aging

.

.

.

Bombers & Butterflies

Tucson Postcard

Air and Space Flight

We visited the Pima Air and Space museum during our stay in Tucson and I expected to be mildly interested. Instead, I was deeply touched—surprisingly so. As a kid I was consumed with books about WW II pilots and air combat, and when I saw the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B 29 Superfortress and the P-51 fighter, I choked up. The bombers were so brutal and so beautiful, and what was especially gut-grabbing was the ball-turret under the fuselage of the B-24. Strapped into a space with NO wiggle room, a casket waiting to happen, barely visible amidst the tubes, gears and gadgets, the gunner was literally a breathing extension of the weaponry.

The bombers were industrial—not one concession to comfort or human concerns—WAR was the architecture writ large in every detail. On the B-17 and B-24, neither was pressurized and they frequently flew at altitudes of 20,000 feet or higher. They had doors that opened for gunners with machine guns so the crew endured sub-zero temps at high altitudes for hours.

There was a special hanger for the B-17 and the day we were there a vet who flew 28 missions in 1943 was there to talk about his experiences. 95 years old and he looked and talked like someone in their 70’s. He had interesting stories, but even more noteworthy was we were in the presence of someone giving voice to frightful happenings so long ago; the last echo of a past age.

The B-29 Superfortress, which is what dropped the A bomb, was the largest and most impressive of these planes.  It turns out, they were very dangerous—for the air crew, because the engines had a propensity to catch fire, and accounted for more losses that enemy fire. The problem was known from day one, yet they continued to make 4,000 of them. Why? The calculus of war— its strategic importance (long range, high altitude, pressurized, heavy payload bomber) outweighed the known casualties that would result from the design. We protected civilians of opulent prosperity have been spared these types of grim calculations…as those who have been in combat know only too well.

Flight in Air and Space

The previous day we visited the Tucson Botanical Garden, a gem of artistically arranged plants from several desert regions (with local bird accompaniments). What proved to be the surprise of our visit was the butterfly house. To prevent any errant escapees, a guard was stationed at the double-doored entrance to escort visitors in, and a guard manned the exit of the small enclosure, scanning those leaving for any hitchhikers, before allowing them to depart through double-doors.  Entering—what a sight! Amidst blooming orchids, tropical plants, in jungle-like humidity, were hundreds of winged, near weightless apparitions, filling the air. The fluttering yellows, reds, whites, browns, blacks and iridescent blues evoked an ephemeral, dream-scape. We stayed here for a long time, holding our breath, as the butterflies flitted about in their erratic flight—prompting me to ask; what kind of body-music animates these whimsical paths? Certainly not the one-two, one-two, that organizes our movement.

(An attempted hitchhiker)

Flight

Flight of the butterfly, flight of the B’s. Both lifted by the same currents— one, a bejeweled, vulnerable expression of life; the other, a steeled fist, tasked with ending it.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Randall Jarrell

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

(See Jessica Plattner’s stunning paintings of themes related to “Bombers & Butterflies”: http://www.jessicaplattnerart.com/home.html)

December 7…

December 7, 2014
A Day that Will Live…

She, downstairs, unable to sleep.  I, upstairs, awake, with an injured knee. We meet, with surprise, on the stairway, stumbling in our own world’s worry. A 3 AM reunion of the elderly. We feel the end in our bodies, in our bones, as we embrace, grateful that we are here, now, together in the darkness.

winter night
moonlight
shadows

 

December 7, 1941
…In Infamy

The searing memories of  December 7, 1941 fade into the black-and-white of history, as most of those who lived it are gone from us. But the aftershocks still pulse. My father was drafted into the army after December 7, 1941, and my mother moved to Washington DC to work in the war effort, where she met my father.  Seventy-three years later, Sharon and I, serendipitous progeny of that fateful day, embrace in the darkness…

precious life
heft measured
in grief

 

 

Songs of the Seasons

November’s Song1

The leaves changing to deep, intense colors—blood red, sunshine yellow, electric orange—express the passion of life’s last exclamation before surrendering. Life’s goodbye. I feel an empathy, a communion, an organic connection to trees. As I watch my hair grow white (sadly, no reds, yellows, oranges; I go out with a whimper, not a bang…), feel my limbs creak and groan under the strain of the north wind, as I observe the obvious decay of my memory and vitality, I draw comfort from my friends the trees.

One of the most poignant and evocative moments of the fall, a moment that stops me, breath abated, is the gentle flutter and fall of a single, solitary leaf. Followed by the seemingly capricious and hypnotic flutter of another. And another. Tens of thousands of leaves on a tree, each scribing their unique trajectory to the earth.

December’s Song

The transition to December’s song are trees, denuded, but surrounded by a blanket of fallen leaves. It lasts only for a day or two, before the color is drained by decay, the leaves swept away by the wind into piles of soon-to-be compost. The last, faint kiss.

 

Winter trees, shed of their life, reveal the bare, skeletal expression of a lifetime of storms, struggles, and strivings captured in the frozen movements and entanglements of the bare limbs and branches.2

Winter trees speak truth. Everywhere I turn, they stand, reminding me of my fate; a fate that looms. But the trees also reassure that I am not alone. My fate is shared with all life, however humble and brief, that has burst from our fertile earth. My good fortune is to have been given awareness of my life, of my seasons, and to bear witness to the experience of the seasons that all life, in their unique form, experience. I go down in a crowd. Can I, through the pain and suffering that usually accompanies the end of life, draw some measure of solace knowing that I join a wide, well-trod path? That pain and suffering are the grease to ease the passage into the night? That the adventure of life exacts its measure of payment? Can I…?

In Blackwater Woods
Mary Oliver

 

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let go,
to let go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking News

Headlines Shout:

Ice Pick Killer Executed! Dow Jones Up 53 Points! Cardinals Beat Cubs, 6-3! Congress Passes Tax Cut! Prostitute Sues President for Defamation! Apple Announces New iPhone! Beyoncé and JAY-Z Expecting Twins! Self-Driving Cars are Here! Burger King Gives Free Cheeseburgers to Terminally Ill Dog! Price of Beef Up! Amazon Announces Drone Delivery Soon! Prince Harry Marries! ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’—Box Office Smash! City Helps Boy Get Permit for His Hot Dog Stand! Fire Destroys Warehouse! Genealogy DNA Bank Nabs Killer! Facebook Announces New Privacy Policy! Scientists: Limits of Human Lifespan Not Yet Reached! President Calls Former Reality Show Participant a Dog!1

 

While just off camera:

This year is one if the hottest years on record in the hottest decade on record.  30% of coral reefs, home to 25% of ocean life and the densest area of biodiversity on the planet, have died in the last 30 years, and 90% will be gone in 50 years. Wildfires have grown exponentially in magnitude and frequency in the past 30 years. Monster storms and extreme weather events are now commonplace. Over 18 million acres of forest are lost every year; an area about the size of South Carolina. Ice at the poles is melting much faster than previously thought— the Arctic Ocean will be ice free in about 20 years, and in Antarctica, a huge ice shelf, the size of a Delaware and 700 feet thick, has calved into the sea. Oceans will rise 2-5 feet in next 50 years flooding many major coastal cities, from New York and Miami to Shanghai and Hong Kong, from Osaka and Alexandria to Rio de Janeiro and The Hague. A number of island nations will be underwater. The oceans’ temperature, oxygen depletion and acidification are increasing exponentially, destroying ocean ecosystems, changing weather patterns,  increasing sea levels and contributing to human famine. Intense drought has increased world-wide, denuding forests, destroying agriculture, and initiating mass human migration. Underground aquifers, which took thousands of years to create and that supply 35% of world’s population with water, are being drained. Glacier National Park is a misnomer, and the great glaciers of the high Asia mountains, the water source for millions of people, will diminish by over 50% in the next century. We are in the midst of earth’s 6th extinction crisis, called the Anthropocene period, named for the single species responsible for this mass destruction of life: us.2

 

 

delusional arsonist
big brained
virus3

 

 

Footprints

 

1

Shoes on the floor where they were tossed after yesterday’s walk. The frig, with the tomatoes, special lettuce, mushrooms, beets and milk for the day’s meal. The radio, tuned to NPR, for the morning chat. Porch chairs askew, as they were left after we spent the evening reading. Laundry basket, checkbook, a pile of unopened mail; desk clutter, yesterday’s newspaper, phone charger, to-do list and purse on the counter. TV clicker on the couch, half completed crossword, grocery list, opened book with bookmark, pills to be taken. The pillow with the impress of where she laid her head. Habits, routines and concerns of daily life leave behind a trail of our presence; the intimacy of the mundane, overlooked in our headlong rush through our days…into the night.

 

 

footprints
in the sand
incoming tide

 

2

 

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