Exactly one day after the Fall 2010 semester ended, a student in my technical writing class appeared at my office door to explain why he had not submitted a major assignment. He had tried to start writing it, he told me, but, for some inexplicable reason, he found he “couldn’t be in the moment.”
Be in the moment! Now, I could have lectured him on the myth of writerly inspiration, that “one fell swoop” ideology created by the 18th-century romantics whereby the entire work descends, like a tongue of fire, upon an especially sensitive soul, a mystification of the writing process designed to elevate themselves to the level of the wealthy patrons upon whom they depended and to efface the self-abjection they felt because of that dependence.
But I did not lecture him, for I found that I could not be in the moment. Be in the moment! A vision of a long-haired, bellbottomed me klieg-lit my mental sky, a me amid the boisterous uproar of the 1960s, a me who actually said, frequently and sincerely, “Man, I just want to be in the moment.” But that vision was just as suddenly eclipsed by that irrepressibly philosophical part of me, that thoroughly Kantified, Sartrefied, Heideggerized part of me, which, it seems, no mortification of the flesh can discipline. Is it possible, I wondered, to really be in the moment?
Not according to the Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, who says time is a “river of passing events,” and “no sooner is one thing brought to sight than it is swept away and another takes its place and this too will be swept away.” Not according to Job, who says time is “swifter than a weaver’s shuttle,” nor Andrew Marvel, who, at his back, hears “time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” nor William Butler Yeats, who says “The years like great black oxen tread the world/ And God, the herdsman, goads them on behind,” nor T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who says there is “Time yet for a hundred indecisions,/ And for a hundred visions and revisions,” nor Robert Frost, who says time “seriously, sadly, runs away.” Certainly, being in the moment would seem impossible in our culture’s time-fissioning present, our iPhoned, Facebooked, Googled, Twittered restlessness, our desperate fear of missing the latest morsel of information, our attention never more than a nanosecond from seduction — our discontinuous, du jour present, a Smithsonian so densely packed with experiential exhibits that no lingering look, no settled examination, seems permitted. No sooner do we settle into a moment than another gallops by, all dust and flashing hooves.
Then, too, having tensed time with a future, we ironically become captives to our own invention. We suffer anticipation and apprehension, both of which uproot us from the moment. If we look forward to something, if we anticipate it with pleasure, time seems to move like a severely arthritic mule. If something distasteful or painful lies ahead, it poisons all the time in between. As Brutus says in Julius Caesar, “between the acting of a dreadful thing/ And the first motion, all the interim is/ Like a phantasm or a hideous dream.” For me, the “dreadful thing” is Monday afternoon faculty meetings. Their upcomingness festers in my mind, envenoming the weekend. The English language does not contain within its 600,000+ word vocabulary, the term that adequately expresses the depth and breadth of my loathing for faculty meetings. “Odious,” perhaps, comes close. Maybe I should view them in the spirit of Yossarian, the bombardier protagonist of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 who seeks out boredom as a means of life extension, for, as anyone can attest, time slows to a crawl when one is bored.
Experience teaches me, however, that it is indeed possible to be in the moment. Often, immersed in various activities — in a classroom, woodworking, writing, reading — I have “zoned out,” have felt the so-called “flow experience,” that deep, subjective state, that almost cellular, almost mitochondrial hum of effortlessly embodied energy, where muscle experiences itself as motion, mind as mindfulness; that thrumming calm into which I descend and become other than that watchful observer standing outside myself. It is a state of honed sensibility so profound it disremembers itself, a state of wakefulness wholly entuned with the rhythm of a task, an inattentive attentiveness, a tranced alertness and focus. Cezanne captures this sense of vigilant self-forgetting when he describes painting as becoming a “sensitive plate” to the moment, so as “to paint it in its reality, and forget everything for that.” Even lowly, much maligned routine, which sent Thoreau to the garden of Walden and then expelled him with a sword of fire two years and two months later, can stop time in its passing. In its pattern of actions, recurrent and familiar, routine domesticates time, allows us to locate ourselves in it, to be on social terms with it, to dwell in it.
The zen-like CSI character Gus Grissom once told a colleague, “I’ve found that to get things done fast, you sometimes have to move slow.” His colleague replied, “I’ve found that to get things done fast, you have to move fast.” Whatever our relationship to time, whether we are in the moment or out of it, we will always write ourselves into the story of time. We will challenge it, defy its tyranny of geared wheels or piezoelectric crystals or tiny batteries, or we will bow and accept its tyranny. We will ignore it or invest it with meaning. We will sing in it, march to it, see it as a cruel overseer or as a lover, feel it as ravaging or healing. We will feel it as budded or sere. We will spend it, waste it, manage it, want more of it, run out of it, cut it in half, kill it (and, as Thoreau warns, risk injuring eternity), burn in it, go a-fishing in it, take it, steal it, hold on to it, consider it on our side, proclaim it “neither wrong nor right,” believe it can be shifted and warped and wrinkled, behold it as a “dome of many-color’d glass” staining “the white radiance of eternity,” consider it “greedy” as did Nietsche or assert that there is “an eternity in an hour,” as did William Blake. But always we inhabit it, always.
A moment is a small room, a closet-sized room, in the mansion of time. And while we may move, sometimes swiftly, sometimes sludgingly slow, from room to room, we cannot raise a window, cannot open the door. We pass from room to room, and in that passing we may be bruised by anxiety and regret, may be lacerated by loss and grief, may be wounded by a withering of soul or rigidity of mind. In that passing our tongue may yearn to say what we had left unsaid; may long to touch what we had left untouched; may wish to extend the hand we withheld. In that passing we may feel small and consumed and vulnerable, and create heavens or philosophies to surmount the churn of our resentment. In that passing we may love; we may nurture flourishing children; we may grow in compassion and find the empathy to imagine, wholly imagine, the lives of others; we may bud in knowledge, perhaps blossom in wisdom; we may find the language to speak our minds and our hearts; we may swerve from the path of least resistance, may remake ourselves in previously unanticipated ways; we may experience exciting turbulence, enticing disorientation, rapturous rupture.
We may be in a moment, but we cannot stay in it. We are in many moments. No matter how we use those moments, they go, and in that going time marks us, but we can mark it. We are its, but it can be ours. We can watch those moments go, we can curse their passing, call them hard names, consider them the sad algorithm of our lives, or we can acknowledge them, attend to them, listen to their whisper, look at them, really look, try to find a balance, maybe a come-out-even point, and, perhaps, make them answer to the shape of our desire. To own our lives, to make our lives our own, we must make those moments our own. • 21 February 2011