The Angel of Now

A meditation on the nature of time and a visit from an owl
The world we live in and the universe that surrounds it could not exist without time. Only the permission of time allows us to move, to think, to feel, to build and grow. Only time with its one-way flow allows us to accomplish anything. Even thought depends on time — if time stopped, we would become nothing more than frozen, unconscious statues. Time is like an animating breath. Time, with its promise of a continual future, is also the font of hope, for only within time can our dreams be realized.

For me, it sometimes feels as if time gushes, that it pushes me up and I hover, like a ball floating on top of a fountain. I can feel the tremendous energy of it, and of life also. In my yard, the past few afternoons have been bright and warm beneath a hazy blue sky. Yesterday I saw the first butterfly of the season sunning itself on the back of my house beneath the kitchen window. It had just emerged from hibernation and it basked, opening and closing its purple and gold wings as if inhaling the warmth. Does time flow more quickly for the butterfly? Do the windows of its compound eyes open onto the same temporal world as my own? Does a sunny spring afternoon stretch for years? Even to me, things seem to happen more slowly in spring, as the days grow longer. Time bends and stretches. We imagine that time speeds straight as an arrow, yet sometimes it seems to circle back on itself like watch-work gears. In my garden, its toothed wheels mesh with toothed wheels in the heart of the crocuses blooming gold and purple above the muck.

time present

Tonight the sun set almost exactly at 7:00 p.m., a few minutes later than yesterday. I can feel a sort of voluptuous suspense in the balmy evening air after sunset. The darkness is certainly much warmer than it was a few weeks ago when I saw the owl. The owl, a symbol of wisdom and memory, is now itself a memory. The only things that haven’t changed are the three letters on the fence post, my small monument to our encounter.

But memory also weathers the rush of time and keeps me company — though not such close company as the present. The present, with its corner in the future, is always opening onto something new. The American nineteenth-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote, “The Present, the Present is all thou hast/For thy sure possessing;/Like the patriarch’s angel hold it fast/Till it gives its blessing.” He was referring to the passage from the Old Testament where the patriarch Jacob struggles with an angel at night. For me the owl was like Jacob’s angel, and although it would be a stretch to say I wrestled with it in the darkness, our encounter did bestow something wonderful — the knowledge that there are extraordinary beings out there, wild and exotic, making their way in the world, and that my neighbourhood, unremarkable as it may appear, is home to some of them.

But the owl’s visit gave me something else as well — an experience of “now,” a single bell-note of coincidence that retuned my relationship to the present. And Whittier’s quote is essentially about seizing the moment — the only time we really have. The payoff of this wrestling match with time is the promise of greater productivity and awareness: the opposite of “wasting time.”

But given that most of us aren’t Zen monks, how do we embrace, and let ourselves be embraced by, the present? This takes different tacks. Sometimes it arises from moments in nature. Sometimes it ambushes us in the middle of making love; we exist nowhere else but in that moment — calm, alert, fully aware. But this experience is quixotic. And how can we describe “now?” Is it the space between “then” and “next” — a tablecloth deftly pulled from beneath the cutlery? Is the present an instant long or a millisecond? Or is it only what we make it out to be when we sit still and concentrate on it?

It is a moonless city night. Through my window the sound of early evening traffic has faded, and darkness is settling over the neighbourhood. Overhead a fast-moving high layer of ribbed cirrus clouds, lit from beneath by the city, looks like phosphorescent X-rays of fossil fish slipping through the stars. The window ledge inside my study is still warm from the afternoon sun, but the sun itself is long gone.

Why does the present vanish so quickly? How can there be a seemingly endless series of present moments? The more deeply you delve into “now,” the more mysterious it becomes.

the shape of now

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