A man, who for several years hasn’t driven outside the radius that holds his grocery store and a few favorite restaurants, is planning a road trip. He has taken to checking the tires, lifting the hood, and wondering if his Prius is up to the challenge. Can such an ambitious excursion really amount to simply loading the car, turning the key in the ignition (or in the case of my Prius having the key with me and pushing the button marked “P”), then steering the vehicle along a highway in the direction of the future?
But I should make a confession sooner rather than later. I’m not actually planning a car trip and I am far more interested in my position in time than in space. Now that I am intending to write a book, a memoir of sorts, I feel some concern that it’s been several years since I’ve written anything longer than a few pages.
So here I am—to continue the driving metaphor for another moment or two—contemplating a road trip on the open road. They say that you never forget how to ride a bicycle or a car, and I wonder whether, if in setting out to write something with a longer narrative arc, there is actually a need for considered preparation before embarking on this journey. In other words: in building a vehicle for exploration, inquiry and remembrance, do we just need to start exploring, inquiring and remembering? And then, as with riding a bicycle, will the experience of writing a book come back, so that I’ll find my pen coasting across the paper effortlessly?
The notion of writing a memoir feels like it’s more about the on-going flow of time than about accessing something standing by in the dry dock of the past. True, there are events and turning points that seem to be inviting us to explore them further, but as for launching a search party to retrieve those remains of myself, I figure it’s up to them to speak, if they want me to take a journey on their behalf. And if they are hoping that I can help them to discover their lost voice and to give them the confidence to get on with who they truly are, well good luck with that. You can only speak of what you know and no one else can help us with that, even if we are in a sense the same person.
I’m acting on an intuition that to build a bigger building, you need bigger bricks; and if I’m going to write a book with chapters I’d better start writing longer pieces than the few pages I have been posting online for the past four years. (Fair disclaimer: this piece will be my longest ‘blog’ ever, because I am testing the waters for this to be a possible book chapter).
I have a feeling that when someone starts walking down a road out of the town in which he was born, then he can’t be absolutely sure that he won’t decide to return home for supper. However, there’s a chance that a momentum will gather and he will bed down in a field beneath the mountain peaks—now taller and more imposing on the horizon—beneath which he has lived every day of his life.
Isn’t it interesting how—depending on how much discretionary time we have—we can always make a story longer by saying “yes” to all those ancillary themes that come to mind once we start: all those wandering stories of our lonely minds. But that discursive freedom may not be enough to allow the sights of our narrative arc to open out into a wider field.
Most of us have already taken road trips and many have even travelled to a distant place where—in my case without a lot of premeditation, it was to Albuquerque–we find ourselves, many years later, still living in a whole new situation.
The further I go down this path which I hope will become some kind of a spiritual-journey memoir, the more I realize that the metaphor of a road trip, and the urge to migrate in space which such an image entails, is not quite right. The truth is that I’m more interested in time travel than in space flight.
I wonder why that is. Perhaps I’m a sucker for the underdog and, in the multi-dimensional reality in which we live, time’s single dimension, compared to space’s three dimensions, feels like a fundamental and undeserved poverty inflicted on the living soul of humanity.
Since we live in the midst of multidimensional appearances, which pop up out of, into and woven from a realm that never actually settles down into an ‘established’ reality, our minds keep spinning off from the vibrating medium of being, feeling a bit dizzy, to seek refuge on a constructed raft that pretends it is stable and buoyant within that medium.
Or, as Tibetan Lama Tarthang Tulku put it:
“. . . The transitional constructions of multidimensional appearance give way to a reality that has already been established.” Dynamic of Time and Space, P55.
Why is ‘time’ an underdog in this dimensioned reality in which we believe ourselves to be card-carrying members? Why has space been allocated three dimensions while time has been allocated only one? Since conventional space embraces breadth, width and depth, it’s small wonder that a car trip beckons as a preferred image for exploration, offering us the freedom of choice between heading north or south, and between ascending mountain passes or plummeting down winding roads into the depths of a green valley. Most of us don’t believe that going forward or backward, right or left, up or down in the stream of time is anything more than empty metaphor.
In our hearts we may believe that there are greater riches and meaning in the unfolding of our ‘time’ on Earth (explored through memory, hope and mindful presence) than turning right or left on the tectonic plates of Mother Earth can provide. But the unfortunate truth is that the great majority of our relationship with time is confined to a single dimension. We treat time as being distributed on a linear timeline, where each event—past, present now, and yet to come—is irrevocably stationed, rigidly at attention, in its gravity-anchored guard house of the hours.
That’s pretty strange, isn’t it? On the one hand, we realize that in a fundamental way our time is our life: and that without time we could not move, evolve, or be alive; that time is the soul of intention and creativity; and that time is all we ever experience from birth until death. And yet we think of the rich, unfolding mobility that characterizes all our thoughts and actions as just rolling along downhill on a single-lane path—each appearance funneled into a chute that leads to the graveyard of the already happened. Even calling this unidirectional momentum ‘one-dimensional’ may be an overstatement. Time may move from moment to moment, but we ourselves seem to be chronically stuck in a single ‘present’ instant.
Think of it. The past is dead and gone; the future has not yet arrived; and both are equally inaccessible to our present, living being. Even calling time and our life in time, one-dimensional is the ‘Pinocchio’ dream of a point without extension that it is a ‘real’ line. What relationship can there be between this instant of time (so important to us as our one chance to be present) and the vastness of space, the dynamic fullness of time, and the full range of knowing that living beings such as ourselves are able to access? Can we really be confined to a dark, padlocked, basement room—confined to the zero-dimensional prison of being a self; devoid of hope, aspiration or appreciation; and exiled from gratitude, fellowship and faith?
But perhaps time is more than this logical construct of a present moment banished from both past and future and hurtling forever onward. Perhaps time can still hold the field at the end of the day. At the heart of any journey we could ever take, including this one that I am contemplating, resides the great odyssey of a human lifetime, which each of us is always on before we realize it and which may well continue after our minds are no longer able to realize whether or not we are on one.
No wonder people write memoirs, become seekers and sojourners, and are drawn to practices that aim at being mindful in each passing moment. If only those moments had the decency to stick around, who would write a memoir, or even wash the dishes?
[Warning: Blog length exceeded. Seek overnight rest-stop immediately!]
A problem with memoirs is that they tend to look into the past, peering across the horizon of the flying moment, in search of a memory capable of conducting a more inclusive sense of time. As long as we remain in the present, trolling for a good catch in the shallows of past time, we are likely to remain on board the careening vehicle of the present moment, casting forth from this unstable platform again and again, coming up empty each time. The hope implied in such trolling is not that we will come up with a really good, seven-pound memory that can feed us for several days (or perhaps, for a serious memorialist, a lifetime), but that we will be dragged back, like Jonah, into the whales’ belly of a greater time and that from there, liberated from our incarceration inside this tiny instant of present time, we will also be liberated from our obsession with the things and occurrences toward which we assert such fierce demands of proprietary ownership. If we could bring back from our travels the recognition that trying to ‘own’ anything we value just makes us miserable, what a catch that would be.
But that’s too much to expect from a memoir or even a trip to Reno. Still I can’t help wishing that going in search of past time—as Marcel Proust made luminous for all of time in his “A la Recherché du Temp Perdu”–we could recapture something of what it was like to be younger, in love, or a leaf blowing on the exhalation of a melody so intoxicating to the soul that we cannot prevent our present selves from being drawn back into those lost times, to put down stakes there, and discover a canopy of the heavens arcing over all that we have ever experienced. And who would not be transformed by that kind of transport? To awaken such fullness of time would be to rediscover the natural kinship that adheres between all moments and all experiences throughout our human lifetime.
When two or more are gathered in the name of living time, is the whole more than the sum of those individual moments? Perhaps that hope is more or less the gist of why some people write memoirs. Not those who are grieving for a loved one, or searching for a personal voice in a world that appears to have no use for them, but among the people who simply wonder why our society seems so dead-set on destroying itself and everything else while it’s at it. Indeed, how can people who themselves feel propelled along on a train with no brakes, locked in the baggage car, ever feel kinship and loyalty to the living being whom many call “Mother”?
Deliberate or intuitive in our intentions, we all aspire to understand the meaning of our lives, and to experience a narrative arc that joins and unifies the entire flowing of our days upon Earth. Perhaps we also long for a perspective that would allow us—instead of bouncing along drenched and uncomfortable, as we careen off rocks and are carried along by the unforgiving rapids—to lift our eyes above the meadows, forests, and the picnickers leaning back with their faces to the Sun, until we can see the river of our days, reflecting that sunlight, and transporting far more than our own, small raft of being in its current.
That sure sounds promising, but time does not heal all wounds and some people will always set out on a journey of rescue, once they have equipped themselves to do so, because they just can’t wait any longer. They may well hope that they can fix the past, but I suspect that anyone who embarks on such an excursion into past time is actually far more interested in opening a doorway into the future—for themselves and for others.
Therapy, spiritual practice, and some forms of introspective writing: each provides a way to reach into the past in order to undo the habits and attitudes that are controlling our thoughts and behavior and causing us pain.
The urge to write a memoir—be the impulse celebratory or desperate—is also most directly addressed to the legacy of the past. But I don’t think many people would spend a lot of effort to understand their past if they weren’t dedicated to developing a view of time that leaves room for the future to appear—unassuming, capable, and unscripted—like an uncle whose return from foreign lands is expected any day.
The past clearly plays an important role in any ‘memoir’, to use the word in a sense that I hope is gradually evolving here. But more than memory is involved, even in what our present, subjective self thinks it most ardently desires to recover. The past itself isn’t lost and it doesn’t need a special invitation in order to be a model for all our present thoughts and feelings, our expectations and longings, and all our dreads, remorse and fear. Sometimes we look toward the vanishing past and sometimes toward a future that is imaginary at best, but both memories and expectations borrow their content from our past experiences. In both these viewfinders—the one facing behind and the one facing ahead—rarely do we extend an open-hearted welcome toward this unknown future.
When we explore the past, we are like a gardener turning the soil so that it is ready to receive the seeds of new possibility. But that’s a spatial metaphor for ‘time’. It doesn’t quite capture the feeling that the launched arrow of time is already on an irreversible trajectory; and we can only hope it will circle Earth and return to us once more from the other direction. Such cycles certainly exist: the seasons, birth and death, the last ice age, times of war and peace, waves of extinction . . .
Meanwhile, aren’t we all growing tired of this waiting, as if we’re riding the bullet train of time and have no alternative but to wait for our stop to come into view? Our strategy, while we wait, usually takes the form of splitting ourselves into two so that one of us can rescue, or at least entertain, the other.
We’ve fallen by the wayside; we’ve been abandoned; we’ve been injured and are MIA somewhere in the lost provinces of past time. And now perhaps a present, living entity within us has developed the courage and understanding to go out in search of a fallen comrade–who happens to be ourselves. We are two who yearn to be one.
I’ve started reading a book about memoir writing, (“Finding Your Story; Telling your Memoir” by two women, Lynn Miller and Lisa Lenard Cook, both of whom have helped me feel more confident as a writer. I bought it at a book reading the other night in honor of Woman’s Month. Three woman writers told their stories and shared the obstacles they had to challenge in order to become writers. For each of them it has not been an easy matter to discover their own voices.
I started reading this book a few days ago because I thought I might be ready to start my own memoir (which would in fact be my second memoir), and found that their images of a writer finding his or her voice have remained with me. Not many pages in, I encountered an interesting twist, at least in terms of my own interest in a greater kind of time which is not so strung out along a linear sequence: not so shattered into moments which we only know how to pick up one at a time, like the remnants of a once beautiful vase designed to hold the flowing waters of eternity.
Their twist is that there are “two you’s” involved in telling a memoir’s story. One in whom “an occasion of the telling” has materialized (not necessarily the one presently writing and plotting how to lay siege to the past), but the one who developed the hutzpah to tell this important story. And the second ‘You’ is in the past and has no voice unless the memoir writing-You speaks for her. Their book adds that it’s important to keep these two facets of our being distinct from one another.
I personally appreciate both these woman because they have helped me to recognize that I am happier when I write and have helped me to do so. In principle, I understand that it is important to separate a remembered time of life from a present self who finds it important to explore it: and that in this collaborative exploration there must be a subject and an object; an explorer and a lost continent of being. Just as we want our surgeon to stay alert when we are under the scalpel, so someone writing a memoir needs to respect that clear-eyed skills of research and composition are required in order to understand and write about our own past.
But I feel inclined to add a further twist. As the ‘author-you”, residing in present time, I don’t want to only be a “subject-you”, examining, exploring and honoring a past ‘you’. I’ve done that all my life, albeit without the depth that Lynn and Liza—both writers and teachers of writers— bring to finding and telling their life stories.
But (Fair Disclosure # 2) I ‘secretly’ want those past ‘me’s’ to write the story of this present ‘me’. Not just in the way that the past always writes the story of the present—in habits, conditions and the broad sweep of limitations that we all learn to live with (like a horse pulling a cart learns to live with his harness); and not just in the way that the past always conducts forward what we expect and what we have learned to settle for in our future potential.
I dream that the past can be the living bird on the wire of linear time, which will lift into the bright air and remember to look my way.
I hope you will join me is this exploration of the hidden depth of our human potential. I believe we are all living together through an important time and that parallel to our individual ruptures in memory, and in our capacity to hope, our entire society has fallen off a continuum in which past, present and future–the body, mind and breath of community—no longer recognizes itself as a living whole.