Being Against the Eternal Now

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.



3 replies on “Being Against the Eternal Now”

  1. There is no true present with­out the taste of the past in its mouth and the smell of the future on the breeze. ” « gor­geous writ­ing, Lara. 

    This essay is so thought pro­vok­ing to me today, as I con­sid­er my writer’s block (or reluc­tance) and its rela­tion­ship to the deep sense of lack of future. Thank you.

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