I have been coming to Oaxaca for 16 years now. I come for weeks or even months at a time, and yet I am so far unable to master the language. In spite of all the time I’ve spent going to dinner, riding in taxis, and attempting to decipher the labels in the galleries and museums. Despite months of Spanish lessons at home, I speak like a stunted toddler: in monosyllables, two words at a time. I am unable to coherently express so much as, “I came from Seattle yesterday.”
Here I have no tenses but the present. I can say “I going out now,” but cannot manage “I arrived on Tuesday,” or, “I went to the Toledo museum this morning,” or, “I would like to ride the horses tomorrow”.
In Mexico I have few futures. I can manage a sort of “further tense” using the present tense of ir (to go) and an infinitive — loosely “I am going to” [do this thing]. Voy a scriber mañana. I am going to write tomorrow.
There is no ongoing forward movement and there is no completion. Nor do I have moods beyond the indicative — I cannot be subjunctive, nor can I be imperative. I have no subtly, nor any way to express regret or requirement.
In Mexico I have no past: I did not grow up in Pittsburgh; there was no failed first marriage. The list of things that I can excuse is long, both the large and the small. There were no classes that I barely passed in college, no jobs I lost because I could not disguise my boredom, no times that I broke someone’s heart.
In the present tense I lose all my dogs. There are a few I can stand to forget, but the others… so many other dogs that lie in my heart: all gone. In the present tense there are no dear friends gone and beyond gone. In the present tense there was no first date that wasn’t a date at the terrible Chinese restaurant in Hillsboro, where we sat and bitched about the people that we were dating.
In Mexico there are no years stolen by the layers of crushing depression, the malicious product of a defective brain. But in Mexico there are no good years either. Yes, I wrote some bad books, but they were good years in which I wrote them.
In Mexico there is no past or future, there is only the Eternal Now.
Recently while discussing an early draft of this essay, my friend Jack remarked to me that: “Art requires a present challenge as well a remembered past and a dreamt-of future.”
If this is true, and I believe that it is, it eliminates the Eternal Now as a useful place for an artist to stand.
The Eternal Now is for monks — very lucky monks. Ascetics who can rely on the fact that there are those of us in the real world who plant the crops, harvest the rice, build the cities and care for the children. All of those things that require remembering the lessons of history and planning for the future. The Eternal Now is the province of certain enlightened ones who can lounge about with spotless minds in spotless robes forgoing ties to the prosaic, grimy earth. Some religions praise the Eternal Now as the state of enlightenment, of bliss, of one with the godhead — which ever godhead you might choose. Consider the lilies of the field, and all of that. Lilies neither spin nor toil. Lilies certainly don’t write poetry — for that matter they don’t do much of anything useful. Though I admit life might be poorer if there were not occasionally lily. But the religion of the creator does not live in the Eternal Now. It cannot live there.
Architects dwelling in the Eternal Now cannot erect buildings for us to live and create in. Parents residing in the Eternal Now cannot raise children. Farmers lodged in the Eternal Now neither sow, nor reap. Poets cannot drift in the Eternal Now and create poems.
Art relies on a past, one that we wrestle with daily in our work. Our own pasts provide our material, shape our obsessions and questions, outline our pet theories, and determine our language and accents. Existing art, the products of our predecessors and contemporaries, provides a grounded past for our work. These are the examples that we study, our models for better or worse. Inescapably we are in conversation with this past. Everything you have ever read from Horace to Walcott, to the copy on the back of the cereal box this morning shapes the work you do. Try as you might to check that fact the past is with you in every moment.
Art also requires a future. A place to dream in whether in aspiration or apprehension. A future in which there are readers, listeners and viewers who react to our creations. The future is the place in which our work continually exists in imagined perfection though we often (mostly?) do not reach that place. It is the place in which we have paid our dues to the past, collected our present, and are attempting to purchase a future. It is the aim of our becoming.
The present of the artist is different from the Eternal Now of the ascetic; it is inextricably interleaved with the past and the future. There is no true present without the taste of the past in its mouth and the smell of the future on the breeze. More importantly, the present itself is the moment in which the work is created. It is the moment of becoming — the moment in which your creation is being shaped by and shaping itself and the world.
This Momentary Present contains within it the necessary, present challenge that makes art happen, cradled as it is between our remembered pasts and our dreamt-of futures. It is the environment in which we strive to create. It holds the constraints against which we struggle. It is the channel that directs the past through the present into the unknown future. There can be no constraint, no channel within which to work without the past’s inexorable flow forward to the future.
This moment of creation, the Momentary Present, may masquerade as the Eternal Now but it is substantially different. I am all for mindfulness, that pleasant antidote to clamoring modern life. That sliver of the Eternal Now in which we can often find a moment’s peace and imagine that the hectoring push of the past and the relentless pull of the future can be switched off and left behind. But it is the Momentary Present that allows us to enter a flow state, to begin creation. It may be the only place where the present moment and the present task exist, but in this moment of flow, be it a moment of joy or terror, the past and the future are always riding along.
The Momentary Present is a moment in which we have perfect access to our remembered pasts and our dreamt-of futures. It is the place in which we are in service to the work.
Unlike the Eternal Now, in the Momentary Present you retain access to all of your language. All the tenses and moods and the rich vocabulary of your experiences and dreams. You have a complete language. A massive workshop containing your best tools, everything from a torque wrench to a boning knife; there are hammers, spatulas, socket kits, a massive industrial sewing machine and more are waiting for you to put them to use. Struggle though you might to find the best way to construct the poem, you have at hand all the tools.
This Momentary Present is the place in which you have to dwell — whether for a moment, or an hour, or a day, to make the poem come out right.