The next week, at the close of my class on Death and Dying, my professor Bonnie said the precise opposite of what Morna had said. Even Bonnie's language and sentence structure were similar: "The past and the future do not exist. Only the present exists." In response, I said out loud (though I might have kept it to myself), "Last week my other professor said exactly the opposite!" And then, because my classmate Abby knew and loved both Morna and Bonnie, as I do, I said, "That was Morna."
Apparently, the University of Washington's School of Social Work does not have a policy on the present. Or on contradictions. This was, as my Dublin philosopher-cabbie said to me decades ago, "a conundrum."
I thought (to myself this time) about one of my favorite quotations from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
I contain multitudes.
What multitudes are here?
Though I know that Morna and Bonnie are not one, I struggled with what this contradiction meant. I thought about Morna's comment. I thought and thought. But I could not make sense of it. I emailed Morna to say thanks for being such a great teacher, and I told her that I would like to understand what she meant when she said that only the past and future exist, and the present does not.
Monday morning Morna came over for tea, and we shared stories, and then she reminded me that I had had a question. (I hadn't forgotten, but she was kind to give me an opening: fortunately, we are both nerdy enough for this conversation.)
So I asked Morna again what she meant by, "The past and the future do not exist. Only the present exists." I described Bonnie's similar but opposite statement, and I told Morna that in my readings in Buddhism and Hinduism and my yoga practice, I have always learned that only the present is real, and this makes sense to me. Meditation also tells me that the moment, and only the moment, is real. My life tells me that, too.
Morna tried to explain her thinking to me, and though I'm sure it's quite deep, it is apparently beyond my depth. I will try to share what she said here, and you can try to understand. (As the writer Osho is always saying to me about understanding the Hindu poet Lao-Tsu, "Try to understand.") Perhaps you can understand it and explain it to me. Or perhaps in the writing I will come to understand it better.
Morna began by describing the Buddhist idea that the coffee table in front of her did not really exist, but the table exists as a concept. She was already beyond me. I know that as an idea of Plato's but not a Buddhist idea. I nodded as if I knew what she was talking about, encouraging her to continue. Perhaps I would understand if she said more.
Morna explained that she thinks in spirals. I do not. Though I think change happens in spirals, and maybe time moves is spirals, and I think such thinking must be awfully smart, I don't think in spirals myself. Perhaps I've written too many outlines in my day. (It won't surprise you to know, however, that I don't write outlines for my blog entries: they just take me to some new place of thinking…not exactly a line but not exactly a spiral either. Perhaps more line-like than spiral-like, more path-like than aliens-in-wheatfields-like.)
Morna kept explaining and told me that the two statements, which seemed like opposites to me, were in fact the same thing. The idea that the present does exist and is, in fact, the only thing that exists is the same, apparently, as the idea that the present does not exist. I suspect that this is something like string theory.
I thought--and am still thinking--about all of the linguistic expressions of the present, of a kind of eternity in the present. Of course, I thought of Annie Dillard's chapter titled "The Present" in An American Childhood where she describes being absolutely in the moment until she realizes she is there and analyzes it and then she's lost it. But for a moment she was part of the eternal moment. I realize that these moments in literature are not about the narrative arc: they are not part of the plot's rise and fall. They always descriptive and poetic.
Last night, for instance, Ann read to me Mary Oliver's "The Pine Woods," in which Oliver described deer munching "as if the moment were nothing different / from eternity." When Ann read that line, I thought--and I wondered if Mary Oliver thought--that the moment in which we truly live, the moment in which we are absolutely present, is in truth like this moment for the munching deer: "nothing different from eternity."
I thought, too, of Blake's line of eternity in a flower, which I love, but then I looked it up to make sure I had the line right, and it turns out that Blake wrote of "heaven in a wild flower" and "eternity in an hour." Oh right, I remember that now, but I like "eternity in a flower" better. So that's my line, not Blake's.
Maybe poetry, with its spaces and surprising line breaks, is best for being in the present. Maybe the punctuation mark, the period at the end of a sentence in its silence and stillness, is the mark of the eternal, stopping us as it does.
Or maybe Calculus, stopping in movement to measure a moment, is the language of the present in the midst of swirl. Maybe that symbol of infinity, the sideways and elongated eight with the intersection at the middle, holds Morna's idea that infinity is both the ever-moving past and the future and the still moment at the center. I can visualize that, though I can't say it in words.
Perhaps you are thinking, "Oh good grief. Why does this matter?" Perhaps like Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians in the 1980s you think, "Philosophy, is the talk on a cereal box." That's what my mom is thinking. I can tell you that for sure. My partner Ann might be thinking that, too, except that I'm guessing the part about Calculus has her attention.
But to me this matters. This idea of needing a language for the eternal present is wrapped up in my needing a tense to talk about my dear friend Chris, who died two weeks ago, who is gone and is not gone.
And so, I've gone where I always go when my mind whirls and I feel unsteady: to poetry. And again to Mary Oliver. And I find her poem, "When Death Comes."
When Death Comes
--by Mary Oliver (Oct 03, 2006)
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
when death comes
like the measle-pox
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
as a field daisy, and as singular,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
precious to the earth.
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
or full of argument.
What could be truer than that? I want to live lovely and loving, like a common flower, a daisy, in the present and in the eternity of this world. And I want to bow in the slight breeze to the other daisies and Indian paintbrush and bear grass on the hillsides of Mt. Rainier.