The Time Toggle

Work over a drawing or a poem and all sense of passing time is suspended.   The next day, watch television all evening, and you’re surprised at how fast the evening goes.   These are common observations, common enough to abstract into principle: when the senses are full but inactive,  time speeds up.  When the faculties labor, time slows down.  When we are passive consumers of information or entertainment, irrespective of the quality of what we consume, time flies.   When we are producers, time stops.    The intensity of the creative mind is inverse to the perception of passing time.   (By creating, I mean most any active production, from origami to plumbing, as opposed to passive consumption, from reading novels to sitcom bingeing.)

After each of these experiences we sense how they are opposites.  When a session of creative work is over,  we feel integrated, whole.  Consciousness is fuller.   But when we come to our senses after hours of entertainment and realize the hours we lost, it feels like a loss of something we can’t quite say.  We feel a little less whole; the field of consciousness seems to have shrunk.    We feel alienated.

So we can actually punch the time button if we want, and suspend it.  Or, toggle it the other direction and lose time.

Let’s aggregate this insight:  as a society becomes more and more filled with opportunities to passively consume content,  the sense of passing time  grows more acute, individually, and enters the general air as a pop culture mood.    There are ancillary effects.   Hoarding, for example – here’s a phenomenon that has appeared in recent decades in the affluent West, like some emergent disease.  Hoarders collect objects that have touched their lives in a desperate attempt to resist the sense that life is passing away like a flash.   The piles of junk that fill hoarders’ homes are shored-up bulwarks against the empty present.   Mounds of memory.   Fear of death.   Physical nostalgia.

So, this oddity: nostalgia and entertainment culture go together.   I’d go so far as this:  individuals who spend their time creating do not feel much nostalgia.

There are many needed distinctions at this point, but I can only list them.  Each needs longer treatment.   One:  nostalgia and respect for the past are not the same thing.   Another:   reading can be active or passive, it depends on the larger context and not on the subject matter of the book.  Reading good books is to be praised and encouraged, but can be just as passive a lifetime as one spent staring at a screen.   The reader should do something with her reading – write something, sing something, use the information somehow, or let the poem inspire her to create in her own idiom.   Good writing deserves to be responded, and the healthy reader will be UNABLE not to respond to a good book with active production of some kind.  It’s not a rule, it just happens.   Further, none of this contradicts the common and healthy advice to “read for pleasure”, which is good counsel.   Read for pleasure, and with active engagement (but these are the same thing), then do what you will.

There are ancillary insights.   For example, in the same way that time stops when we make things, God, who is pure creative act, experiences literal eternity.

Speaking of theology….in many religious anthropologies, much is made of efforts to fix some supposed heirarchy of the senses, or other.  This effort is, partly, to make any sense other than the visual the one in charge, so it can slow or organize an increasingly fast and chaotic sensorium centered, typically,  around our sight.   Ellul wrote of “the humiliation of the word”;  Postman writes of the loss of the “typographical mind”; the Desert Fathers were concerned about the cognitive “image” obscuring the theoria (or contemplation) of the adept.

The recurrent impulse to make pyramids of the sense-organs is understandable as a reaction to the panic of speeding time, and has suggestions of biblical warrant, ever since Eve preferred a vivid vision (her own picture of her own future) over a fading verbal proposition (“don’t eat from that tree”).

But this mistakes the symptom for the disease.   There are indeed pathological rebellions of one sense over the others, and each unique person will have an idiosyncratic imbalance.   Pathology has random permutations.  But there is no prescribed heirarchy of the senses, either from God, or in historical experience.  None works.

Another impulse is physical solitude.   We sometimes want to just go apart, sit by the Walden pond or in the monastic cell or walk through Yosemite – just to get away from the kaleidoscope.  Fine, if we’re just shutting out most of the world in order to concentrate on work.  But if we’re just retreating from the distractions in self-defense, solitude isn’t the necessary solution.   Work is.   Work more on your own project, and you’ll find your sense-life has suddenly grown quiet and almost contemplative, in the middle of the traffic noises.

There is no correct hierarchy of sense.  There is no redemption in place.   There is only the active man, and the passive man.  As man acts upon the world, craftsperson acting on the material, artist acting on the medium, all the senses swing into perfect harmony automatically,  pulled into their proper roles and relations by the pressure of the external task.   The glorious external task of keeping the garden, building the city.

Modern man is becoming more passive as his world fills up with things to do and watch and he gets busier and busier,  and the dis-arrangement of his senses, culminating in actual mental illness, is a symptom of this entropy — not a cause.

Time will continue to speed up as the world fills with distractions.  In the end,  alienation is experienced more like a narcotic, like a not unpleasant buzz, with occasional startles from noticing the number of the year.

Paul Elie, on Thomas Merton, on Conversation

“…Here was a book that achieved the kind of dialogue to which he had aspired ever since reading I and Thou:  not reformulated thought, but the “spontaneous elucidation of what we do not yet know” ; not thought about what is already known, but “what will come to be known in our saying it to someone who will reply”.   “

from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own:  An American Pilgrimage”, by Paul Elie.   Farrar, Straus, Giroux, NY.   2013.  page 357.

This is Paul Elie talking about Merton’s reaction to Walker Percy’s novel “The Moviegoer”….but now that we’ve mapped out all the literary references, the money phrase is “what will come to be known in our saying it to someone who will reply”.   The remote cause of the insight is Martin Buber, “I and Thou”.

 Great description of what happens in what I’m calling, in this blog, Conversation. Capital C.

There Is A Child: 2

He does prefer lost to found, birds to men, and wild to tame but he can’t stay out of towns because that is where the town games are.   This child runs the streets all day, but is seen best right after supper when the sunbeams split up and choose teams.  He joins both sides: the golds and the mauves.

He plays town games and will come to your house.  Town games, unlike country games,  are full of rules, and rules about rules, and hat deep in the rules is where the fun begins.  But I’m getting ahead.  I’ll tell you how his favorite games play, but don’t try too hard to memorize, and forget about taking notes.  The best rules grow too fast to write down.

You were a boy once.  Right after supper, I say, when the light is right, the boys begin to run in packs like labrador retrievers.   Maybe you didn’t play the doorbell game, but I did, and it’s a favorite.   There is a town child; he is somewhere among the pack who rings doorbells and runs away at the porch light hour.

When he selects a house he returns, time after time, until he finds someone to play or gives up.

Answer the door every time. At the beginning, there will be a long time between his visits, so you’ll have forgotten the last prank. Gradually, he’ll ring more often, till you recognize you’re being teased. At this point most people stop leaving supper to answer the door and he stops ringing, since he doesn’t want to bother anyone who doesn’t want to play.
So answer every time, day or night. When you have found an empty porch return gently to your bed or table and think no more of it. Do not try to learn anything or notice patterns. There is nothing in this event which will help you the next time.

Don’t bother to hide near the door. Some try this; when he rings they throw open the door, leap off the porch and run across the lawn to where they think he’s hiding.
He’s never there; he moves like a hummingbird.

Here is the principle: he must find, he cannot be found. If you learn this you’ll not only guide yourself in a hundred uncertain moments, but you’ll also settle your soul to rest.
One day he’ll be standing on your front porch. You cannot, at first, tell him by his appearance. Like many children, he enjoys dressing up so the first countless times he is disguised. You will know it is him because he will ask you a riddle.

You may ask yourself why, it being your front porch, he should ask you a riddle. As you take four seconds to wonder this, he will run away. If you say or think anything at all except the riddle’s answer, he runs away. Anytime he runs away, he is a long time returning.

The only way to respond to the riddle is to say the first thing you think of when you hear it. But, of course, if you answer wrong, he runs away.There is no exact right answer to the riddle, which he formulates especially for you and especially for that day. The right answer is whatever you happen to think — but this doesn’t mean the riddle has a casual answer. Your answer will be wrong if your thoughts are wrong.

How will your thoughts be right? Have a friend who has talked with the child. If, when the doorbell rings, you’ve been talking all evening with your friend about the child and His Father; talking all through supper and after, when the dishes are put back in the cupboard, when the fireplace has been lit and the ardent talk has been moved to the club chairs; if you get up and back up to the door still talking and listening, and then, turning and opening the door while mulling your next reply to your friend — then, he hits you in the face with a disguise and a riddle, let the riddle and the paused conversation mix in your mind — that thought, that new one, will be right.

His disguise is as much for you as for him. He likes to distract you with, say, a surprising mask (never ugly) so you will stumble for a second, miss the riddle, and — he runs away. He isn’t cruel, he just enjoys challenging you and watching you cope with the distraction.

There is a Child: 1

There is a Child

There is a child who walks in the treetops at daybreak and at dusk. He prefers the company of birds to that of men. Few men have seen him, though some have heard him chortle as he slides down the back side of the sky on his way home, beyond the sun.

He plays in the gales of the summer storms. He lets his limbs fall limp in the wind and tumbles headfirst across the tops of the greatest oaks, tumbles miles and miles until he’s lost. He prefers being lost to being found. Nobody who’s ever played with him can say where they happened on him. If the map of your hike is still hanging on the back side of your brain he hears it flapping in your thoughts, and he runs away. But if you walk in the woods for hours, chasing a furtive warbler or naming new colors until you think of nothing else — well, he might find you.

You’ll tumble all night along the wind with him. You might venture, at the deepest hours, into a metropolis and help him check on other children as they sleep. A sunbeam will wake you under a forest elm near your home, and the warbler will be singing on your chest.  You’ll not be sure you didn’t dream it. The memories will fade, quicker than most, to a gentle longing for somewhere.

In a few months you’ll return to the woods and get intentionally lost. After days of random walking you’ll despair of ever playing with the mysterious child again. Then you’ll remember he found you not lost in the random but lost, enthralled, in something precious.


On The Summer Urge To Sit Outside

I can’t claim to understand my own urge to sit among the wildflowers.   Beauty?  Sure.  But even before the candied blooms pop, as soon as green shoots break the spring soil, I’m sure I’m missing out on a secret.  Before the beauty,  nature draws.  Why?

The cliches are many:  “the healing power of nature”.  Again, sure.  But what, exactly, is this “power”, and what is this “healing”?   It’s more than rest, more than just that we ‘feel better”.  There’s an existential longing before there’s any tiredness.

I can sit cross legged in the middle of a daisy field and feel vaguely that I’ve come home.   As I listen to the sigh of wind through the field, I don’t hear anything missing.  That moment is not a passage on the way to, for example, people.   People, even beloved ones, are not missing from this, though none are here.   This field is the means to no end.   Even the history of kingdoms and holocausts, here in the daisies and the wind, does not ask for redemption.   Why not?

It’s a feeling that something important is happening right here.   And that this importance somehow outweighs whatever is the chatter on the evening news.  Western culture adds one more brick on its Hell project, yet somehow the hummingbird sipping at the lantana on my porch seems more important.

No, I have no theory to support this.   I’m not sure the Romantic movement ever produced one; did Wordsworth ever do more than say this in a thousand fine but redundant ways?   And the chance universe of the secular modern is just silent about the meaning of everything.  After all, if what we see around us just happened, then both hummingbird and hell are random collisions of particles.  No feeling means anything.  No thoughts will survive the sun.

Even my own Judeo-Christian and designed universe doesn’t fully account for my pre-cognitive intuitions,  intuitions surely common to churched and unchurched alike.   Unless I’m so audacious to say that the love of the Creator for every sparrow, for every blade of grass, is literally what you and I are feeling.   We feel His affections – His bowels, in that old Hebraic sense.  All nations, races, and tongues feel His pleasures but they don’t even know it.

We feel His paternal love for what He makes, and we mistake what moves through our depths for our own self, but He is in fact closer to us than we are to ourselves.  The Spirit within me longs with longings that cannot be articulated?  Longings for the daisy, the hummingbird, and the lantana, as well as for the hymns and the alms?     Is it You?  Is it really You?

Do Better People See More?

Do good people perceive anything at all that evil people do not?  Anything?

Once this line is crossed, we must allow for the existence of persons, castles, dragons, and unicorns that the good can see and the bad cannot. If there is any moral dimension at all to percipience, and if we allow that everyone is morally imperfect, then it follows that we must allow for the existence of things we cannot perceive.  Well, yes, you say:  the very big, very small, or very distant.  No, we aren’t just talking about the things that telescopes or microscopes can’t yet see.  This logic says the Demiurge may be sitting in the next armchair.

A commonplace sentiment?  No, this is more than the romantic wish-dream of the artsy types. It’s hard, cold logic that sitting next to you as you read this can very well be a person who is invisible to you because of the moral nature – not the cognitive power – the moral nature of your eyes.

None of this is a comment on probabilities, of course.  Just because we must allow for the existence of dragons and fairies does not mean that dragons and fairies are probable.   They are not more probable because they are possible, and the probability that a certain thing exists is often confused (by supernaturalists from my camp) with the cold logic that this same thing must be allowed to exist.  These two questions have nothing to do with each other.    The materialists like to argue that nothing can exist that all of us can’t perceive; the religious like to argue that because God must logically be allowed space to exist, He must therefore exist.  Both views are nonsense,  ditches on opposite sides of the rational road where emotional warriors crash and spin their wheels for a lifetime.

Science is that method which seeks to drain the moral dimension from perception.  Before it can be labeled “science” an experimental result must be repeatable by any experimenter, whether morally good or bad.  So, for those who hold that science is the only source of knowledge, any perception that changes with the character of the observer cannot be part of the knowable universe.   The empiricist (a scientist is not necessarily an ontological empiricist) is a cultivator of an impoverished perception.

The universe is either material or mystical. Once you pass this fork in the epistemological road, there are no degrees; each road leads all the way to the Many or the One. The universe is either divided into smaller and smaller particles described in more and more numbers, or language and numbers end in: One. People choose between these approaches to at early ages.   The universe you live in is the one you LIKE.

Conversation is Simple.

Are we just complicating something simple?  When we first talked, it was “I’ll say something, you say something back.”

Exactly. This is all we do, I agree. Inside the moment this is all we experience. To adapt something from C.S. Lewis, looking through the crack in the door we don’t see the sunbeam. The light is what we look through, not at.

Yet when we step outside the sunbeam and look back at where we stood looking through the door, we see the beam and could describe it. Standing outside our talks, we can dissect the experience after the fact, and articulate the principles we see in retrospective vision.

It’s the same in all disciplines: the adept act is simple from the inside, complicated from the outside. The baseball player can analyze his technique by looking back at his swing on film. He might break it down into its parts and work on each movement individually. He might talk about his stance at the plate with a coach, and they probably would together see so much they could talk, then drill, for hours. Yet when he goes back up the plate to hit, he doesn’t try to hold all the complicated detail in his head. He will say to himself as he walks up to the batter’s box “now get out of your head. Just hit the ball.”

As the practitioner advances, his experience from the inside of his craft grows simpler and simpler, yet his description of his skill, for those not yet practicing at his level, grows more and more rich and nuanced.

Simple.   Yes.   I’ll say something, you say something back.