The Walrus

The Angel of Now

A meditation on the nature of time and a visit from an owl

by Chris Dewdney · photography by Steve Bloom
illustrations by Monika Aichelle
Essay · From the March 2006 magazine
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The night was cool, too cool to stand outside very long, yet a slight mildness in the air pledged warmer evenings to come. In the twilight I could make out the long rectangle of my lawn and a dark strip of earth where winter flower beds ran along the east fence toward the silhouette of the garage with its peaked roof. Two stubborn patches of snow glowed whitely at its foot. Then something stirred, close to me. Something gathered and clotted in the darkness near the top of the fence. It fluttered with an inky, infinitely soft movement that was made more precise by its silence.

A bird had alighted. I couldn’t see it at first. I searched along the top rail and there it was — I met the full intensity of its eyes before I could name it — an owl, a small one, perched atop a fence post less than four metres from where I stood. We stared at each other, both motionless, me in spellbound astonishment and the owl broadcasting its hooded, imperious, and unblinking gaze. I wanted to get closer — I think I even had the naive idea that the owl might hop onto my arm if I proffered it. But after I had taken a few cautious steps, it rose up as soundlessly as it had arrived, floating up into the stars above a neighbour’s house and disappearing into the night. How marvellous! This mysterious bird had blessed my yard. After all, how often do you see owls in the city?

That evening, the owl and I became aware of each other — we met — and each regarded the other in an enchanted encounter that ended too quickly for me. Something ancient bonded us. Blood and miracle and twilight had combined in a single charged alchemy and I had, briefly, been in the presence of magnificence, of night’s own beak and talons. Time stood still.

The next day, I got out my old set of vinyl transfer letters and stuck the word “owl” in stamp-sized letters at the top of the fence post. I wanted to fix the actual place where the owl had landed — and I wanted to memorialize this special moment in time.

Time gives, and time takes away. That evening has been carried away along with all the other events of that day and that week. The snow that lingered for a few more days in the shadow of the garage, like the terminal moraine of a diminutive glacier, has disappeared, and the green tongues of crocuses have begun to poke through the surface of my garden. A new season has started — it is March 20, 2005, and at 7:34 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, spring will officially begin. Our timekeepers, who have refined their accuracy over the millennia to capture the exact instant of equinoxes and solstices, will announce the subtle moment of transition — the beginning of a new season and a signpost along earth’s 940-million-kilometre journey around the sun. Yet the cycles of the seasons themselves roll through the calendar like cogs caught in time’s great wheel.

The incremental passage from winter to spring seems stately enough, but I’m already behind the seasonal schedule. My yard needs raking and I see that the bricks that line the flower beds have buckled in the frost and need resetting.”O time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing!” as the English playwright George Peele wrote in 1590. I tell myself that I can do these chores next week, though the rising greenery in my garden has an urgent timetable that will eventually force me to act. I can hear spring ticking like a clock.

But I’m in no hurry. Friends have told me that I behave as if I have all the time in the world, and I suppose they’re right. I tarry over life-changing decisions: whether to move, whether to marry or divorce. I tell myself that I can wait it out. I tell myself that time is on my side.

To check this tendency, I have a digital Olympic clock posted over my desk that measures not just hours, minutes, and seconds, but tenths and even hundredths of seconds. It’s a sliding scale of time — on the left, the unmoving hours are posted like newspaper headlines. Next comes the stately procession of minutes, and then the seconds ticking by. To the right are the tenths of seconds. They worry me a little, with their molecular onward rush. But it is the hundredths of seconds that I find fascinating. They’re hypnotic, like a waterfall or a light show. They dance furiously, flashing by so quickly I can’t read them. Most clocks move stealthily, almost imperceptibly, but this one gushes time.

The Olympic clock is my chronographic mascot, reminding me that my leisurely perspective on time is an illusion. The days are whipping by more quickly than I like to imagine.

Is time really on my side? What does it have in mind for me? “To every thing there is a season,” Ecclesiastes tells us, “and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” But time is more than an orderly sequence of events. Without time, there is nothing. Time is both the dance floor and the music. Everything that moves and everything that seems unmoved is choreographed by time — it is everywhere.

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

As I write, it is a cool, overcast late-March afternoon in Toronto. Through my study window, the sky is a featureless pewter grey and the leafless trees look like dark coral. What shadows there are appear more like faint stains than black silhouettes. A week ago today was the first official day of spring, and yesterday I saw a couple of robins stalking my slowly greening lawn. But today looks decidedly unspringlike.

Around noon some snow fell, a deluge of large flakes that settled so slowly it seemed as if the air had thickened into a fluid — as if my house were on the floor of some great ocean. The thumbnail-sized crystals filled the sky in a slow-motion cataclysm for a few minutes and then stopped as if they had been a hallucination, leaving only damp spots on the bricks of the pathway that winds through the yard to my garage. Now even those spots have evaporated.

In an hour, I’ll have to dress and leave for a wedding. The bride is an old friend of mine and it is her second marriage. I wonder what she is thinking right now? As I imagine this, she seems to step into my vision of “now.” But “now” is even bigger than that. It includes the whole Earth. Half a world away, in the African bush where it is already night, the Serengeti jackals are on the prowl, keeping a wary eye out for nocturnal lions. In the Antarctic, on the other side of the planet, it is late fall and the sun has stopped rising above the horizon. Knowing how frequently the moon is pelted by small meteorites, I can guess that, at this instant in time, a small meteorite the size of a pea is soundlessly striking the surface of Mare Imbrium at 145,000 kilometres per hour. The heat of the impact melts some of the lunar soil into a dark, glassy pit. All this happens...in the immensity of now.

But it is also true to say we know that the present moment is very brief, so brief that it may be one-dimensional, perhaps even less than flat. Saint Augustine certainly thought so at the end of the fourth century. He likened the present to a knife-edge that separates the past and the future. He said it could not be divided into smaller parts, that it had no extension in time, that “now” was non-dimensional.

But “now” is also cultural. The pulse of fashion that constantly reinvents and transforms our world is a kind of attenuated “now” that lasts a season or longer. Even entire eras are another kind of “now,” though ones with many subdivisions. Of all times, perhaps our own is the most complex. We live our lives in a layered media nest of competing times, wrapped in the past, present, and future. Television, movies, and music continually resurrect history and even prehistory until it seems as if all of time is available to us. My generation, the boomers, has been the narcissistic focus of this voracious nostalgia. We have lived in a charmed “now” all our lives — our tastes and predilections have driven the Western economy. But now our youth and dominance are ebbing. We are rationalizing cosmetic surgery and advocating life-extension therapies with a passion we once directed toward social change.

Our time-obsessed generation, with its day planners and lockstep schedules, is now challenging biology with our sense of entitlement and hubris. Rumour has it that Bill Clinton, a vanguard boomer, once said, “We’ll live to 120.” May our now never set. Already the retirement ads on television are portraying younger, more vital seniors who are merely changing careers, not sailing into the sunset. We are pushing “now” into the future as far as we can. But we can’t yet move it through space — where time still does exactly as it wishes.

the speed of now

It would seem logical to think that you could extend the present instant to include the moon and, generally speaking, you can. But when things get farther away, say, the 150-million-kilometre distance to the sun, that simultaneous instant ends. How is that possible? We know that light coming from the sun takes eight minutes to get here, so common sense would tell us that we can easily account for that difference in time, that delay, simply by compensating for it. We can imagine, for example, that the sun could be erupting with a huge solar flare at this very moment, and although it would take eight minutes for us to see that flare, we intuitively think that there is a sort of God’s-eye view of simultaneity. We know the flare is happening “now” — it’s just that we won’t see it right away.

In a slightly more elaborate fantasy, we might imagine that an astronaut travelling close to the sun has a clock on board his spaceship set to “Earth time.” But time is not so portable. Although we have an intuitive idea that there is a single present that encompasses the entire universe, physicists and scientists since Einstein have argued that time is “local.” They believe that time flows at different rates in different parts of the cosmos. If our astronaut set his clock on Earth time, and then sped off at high velocity to the sun, his clock would read a slightly different time than our earthbound watches when he got there.

But why does distance affect time like this? What could change the tempo of time itself?

Einstein discovered that the closer to the speed of light you travel, the more time slows down. That’s why the World War II pilots who walked off the alien spaceship in Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind were the same age as when they had been abducted nearly thirty years earlier. That’s how cinema depicts speed affecting time. But space also influences time — in the larger universe, sheer distance separates the “now” of various regions. Because of the relative motions of stars and galaxies and the time it takes light to travel across the universe, we are part of a kind of time mosaic, a multitude of temporal solitudes where everyone has their own “now.” Not only that, but gravity affects time too. Time passes more slowly near the surface of a large planet or star than it does a hundred kilometres above it.

no time like the present

Despite these cosmic solitudes, each of us knows viscerally, absolutely, that there is only the present. We cannot travel into the future and change things, nor can we travel into the past and change anything there. Our discovery of photography, film, and video has made the past more tantalizingly vivid, but no matter how much physical evidence we collect — the photographs on the wall, the souvenirs on the desk — we can’t actually touch the past or go back. This is our tragedy, and our liberation. I cannot revisit the night I saw the owl. I will never have to relive my first frightening, exhilarating thunderstorm as a child. In fact, for all intents and purposes, a second ago might as well be a hundred years ago. How eternally reinvented we are! The future is also opaque to us. In a sense, we walk backwards into the future and see the present with a kind of peripheral vision.

The twentieth-century philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin has used this image too, comparing the present to an angel who backs into the future while gazing at the past as all the evidence of history piles like wreckage at his feet. “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”

So it is with us. Like passengers riding backwards on a train, we see only the landscape we have passed, but nothing ahead of us. Clocks and calendars allow us to measure time, to anticipate events in the future, and perhaps this is what gives us a false sense of vista, of being able to meditate on approaching events. We at least have the illusion of facing forward, like someone driving a car who can see objects ahead long before she passes them. We can savour a holiday before it arrives, and the dates pencilled on our calendars — the lunches, graduations, and dental appointments — seem to parade in a stream toward us, like items on a conveyor belt. But that is just an illusion — something that our measurement of time has inculcated in us. We know all too well that the future often arrives as a surprise.

If our future is unknown to us and our past exists only in memory, then for us time consists of what is and what was. It’s a magic act really, like a conjuror pulling endless coloured scarves out of a hat. But the hat is so small, it’s invisible. There’s hardly anything to “now.” We keep measuring finer and finer units of time in an elusive search for a pure, irreducible “now.” Some physicists claim that someday we will discover an indivisible, quantum unit of time, but at this point the search seems fruitless. Perhaps the heart of “now” is beyond the grasp of science. If so, and if time can be divided into smaller and smaller units without end, then every second, every nanosecond is infinite. We only have to speed up our consciousness in order to experience eternity in a single second. This ability to run parallel with eternity would seem to vindicate William Blake’s mystical lines, “To see the World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.”

the stealth of time

Another way of experiencing the effects of time without meditating on the present moment is to experience its effects over a relatively short period. We can know it better, perhaps, if we witness what time does to the world we know the best.

You’ve just come home from vacation. At first, everything is reassuringly the same — the chairs and tables and furniture are clean, just where you left them, a shopping list you made is still on the kitchen table. The fridge is humming peacefully. The drapes are closed, as they were when you left. But there are some changes, evidence of time’s infiltration. An apple that you left out in a bowl has withered and become wrinkled. The water in a tumbler beside the bathroom sink has evaporated completely, leaving a graduated series of white rings down the inside of the glass.

It’s as if some presence, something no lock or security system could stop from entering, had been in your home while you were away, delicately changing things and going about its subtle business. Most things look the same, but in fact everything has been touched by time’s fingers — the varnish on the wooden chairs is just a little yellower than when you left, the refrigerator motor is slightly more worn, the foundation of the building itself has settled imperceptibly. In a sense you haven’t come back to the same place you left; time’s thieves have been there, replacing all your original possessions with slightly altered copies. It’s as Shakespeare wrote in The Comedy of Errors: “Nay, he’s a thief too. Have you not heard men say/That time comes stealing on by night and day?”

So even if time would seem, at least intuitively, to be one of the easiest things to observe, it is still elusive. It may be everywhere, and there may be nothing outside of time, nothing that doesn’t reflect its passage — yet time remains intangible. We see only the results of its action, not the thing itself. It is like the wind in the grass.

touching time

Nothing is more intimate than time, which is inside and outside us — but how can we touch it? As an experiment, I decided to try to experience the flow of time, as if it were something elemental. I would try to feel its current, like a diviner looking for water. I went out into my yard and concentrated as completely as I could on the moment, on feeling the passage of time from second to second. I didn’t know how to detect this flow — I didn’t even know what I was supposed to feel — but I tried with whatever part of me could feel it, in an act of fierce will.

I had precedents, of course. William James, the famous American psychologist, once attempted something similar: “Let anyone try, I will not say to arrest, but to notice or attend to, the present moment of time. One of the most baffling experiences occurs. Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.” Paul CŽzanne, the great French painter with some claim to being the father of modern art, also tried to seize the present and experience it. He said, “Right now a moment of time is fleeting by! Capture its reality in paint! To do that we must put all else out of our minds. We must become that moment....”

After several days of trying, something happened; I had a fleeting experience of not only the moment, but also the texture of time itself.

time wind

I have a small patch of evergreen broadleaf bamboo growing at the edge of my patio. It’s a species of Japanese bamboo that is surviving at the northern limit of its range. The leaves are emerald green and tropical, providing, along with my rhododendron, the only summer foliage in my early-spring yard. On the last night of March, a warm wind began blowing out of the south and I went outside to feel the first breath of summer. Unlike the evening ten days earlier, when the owl presided briefly over my yard, on this night the sky was filled with stars. Jupiter, a calendrical star of the Maya timekeepers, glowed brightly at the centre of the southern sky. The breeze was rustling the bamboo leaves, and as the wind swirled up I felt its balmy touch on my skin.

Quite suddenly it seemed as if the wind was penetrating deeper than my skin — that it was somehow blowing through me, very gently. This warm current of air was subtly combing through my skin, my muscles, my bones, my very cells. It seemed I could feel it brushing them all — and then I realized that this was what time was, at least for me: a wind that blows through flesh, through all substance. As quickly as the revelation came over me, the sensation vanished. Once again, exiled from time’s touch, I was left looking at the leaves of the bamboo rustling in the night breeze.

Then, a few days later, I came across this, in a poem, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through,” by D.H. Lawrence: “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!/A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.” There it was. He too had felt the wind of time. For him it was a slightly empty sort of wind, but thrilling at the same time.

For me, it meant that perhaps the flow of time was more ethereal than I had thought — a sort of sandstorm so finely grained that nothing was impervious to it. Time, I realized, could blow through steel and concrete and planets as easily as through empty space. Everything is a sieve to time and time is everywhere. You can lock a diamond in a steel box inside a thousand tons of concrete and time will still blow through that diamond as easily as through a screen door on a summer afternoon.
Christopher Dewdney is a Toronto author whose most recent book is Acquainted With The Night. In the next issue, he writes about Father Time, Kronos, and
other actors in the drama of the moment.