The Present Monument II: Perception

. . . a realistic grasp of time opens onto the longing for eternity. — Robert Cummings Neville

after 'Aughna' by Julie Speidel

Monuments and moments occupy and share time. We describe the one as enduring and the other as fleeting, the long and short of it so to speak. We envision the one as lasting forever, the other as passing imperceptibly into another just like itself — the one too vast, the other too ambiguous to be amenable to scientific measurement. Yet the granularity of the second must somehow add up to the wholeness of the first, whether time is reckoned by the motion of the sun and moon or by the vibration of atoms.

Clock time is the least of it, however. Something that en-dures is “in duration”; it resides in time from one moment to the next, as surely as it does in space if it has physical substance. Thus, a monument, like an endurance athlete in John L. Parker’s wonderful phrase, is “an expert at lasting.” But the athlete is intensely aware of both the passage of time and the duration of the event. It is at the interface of these two awarenesses that the difficult task of pacing must be performed — arguably far more difficult than the monotonously repetitive turnover of legs or arms or oars or pedals or skis — the brain persuading the body to spend energy at just the right rate so as to endure for the duration. This difficulty is revealed in the two words; the root of both is durus, Latin for “hard.” This is also the root of “durance,” an archaism for forced confinement. Is it any wonder that a long prison term is referred to by those who must live it as hard time?

By contrast, moments — the granules out of which we might imagine eternity to be compiled — are at their richest when time seems not to matter. Peak or transcendent spiritual experiences are often described as occurring outside of time or as though time stood still, as though the hourglass had run out of sand. This sense of cessation is outside the physical, because we know that clocks keep working dur-ing these moments. So here is an irony: we may be most aware of the passing of time when it is abundant and routine; and least aware of its passing when it is precious and sacred.

There must be a meeting ground, however, between the two ways of perceiving time — ordinary and monumental versus extraordinary and fleeting — because any moment has the potential to be extraordinary. We are inhibited only by the limits of our awareness and attitude. Do we then accumulate an ordinary eternity from extraordinary moments? Perhaps like nature itself, we gather grains of sand on the beach, cement them to each other, and press them together until they indurate as a sandstone. Only then can someone come along to quarry blocks from our collective lives and build a monument.

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