As with the question “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” we can ask “Which came first, time or this moment?”
“Once upon a time” is a strange phrase. It points to a relationship between a moment (this “once”) and something called ‘time” and places that ‘once’ on the surface of time, not within it or beneath it. Might not this moment in time, be like a fish in the ocean or like you and me standing beneath the sky?
“Once upon a time” suggests a canoe floating down a stream, carried along by a current that would continue to flow whether or not that canoe was bobbing along upon it, and whether or not its occupant is paddling away in panic or quietly eating his sandwich at the edge of the stream gazing upon a meadow of wild flowers; and could this stream actually be more than a one-way flow heading from beginnings to endings but, rather, the breaking in and out of a cosmic manifesting, of which Mother Earth is a local resident who understands the cosmos so well that she has given birth to countless, baby canoes bobbing along on her rivers and streams while she herself is bobbing along in a vaster space?
So ‘once upon a time’ a being, named Michael, was born on a military base in Barrie, Ontario, in July of 1942. In those days, there were no routine ultrasounds that peered through the eggshell to determine if it housed a male or a female, a chicken or a velociraptor. So it wasn’t until the day of the birth, when a new life appeared and started to breath, in a body that then began circulating its blood with its own heart–like a waterwheel spinning in a river that flows from far off mountains and is heading back to the sea from whence it came. And this waterwheel was immediately producing electricity which fired up a brain and flung open the doors of the senses. At first these senses did not have a comforting story to tell: reporting on the cold breezes blowing across wet skin and a skull that had been compressed in order to fit through a tunnel that led to this new ‘reality’. And as for trying to make sense of all this, that’s probably when my lifelong tendency to leave difficult questions for another time and place–in hopes that a better knowing would eventually show up—first showed up.
Well, I doubt that on its first day on Planet Earth, that compressed skull pondered such questions as “where did I come from?” or “if I’m now thinking, does that mean that there is a thinker present to do that thinking?” Although something along the lines of “What the heck is this?” may have been blown into the room, along with the cold air, like a wind stirring up ocean waves as a sailboat flounders, its sails ripped to shreds, in the deep sea.
And who is this one looking on now, like a camera orbiting in space, focusing in on a small hospital room in Barrie, Ontario, on July 15, 1942? Is he a relative of the one back there, in his small, wet body that must have been quickly wrapped in a towel or a blanket? And already this ‘story’ of those vanished moments grows faint, like a jigsaw puzzle whose picture, once glued to the surface, depicting a house with a white, picket fence out front and blue shutters (why not be specific when no one still living remembers such details), have been worn away so that it is no longer possible to say how many pieces are missing, let alone fit the remaining ones together into a past that may or may not have happened.
The difficulty faced when trying to reconstruct events that supposedly took place in the past runs deeper than any surface obstacle to accurate memory: it’s not just that my parents have been long gone from the realm in which I was allegedly born 76 years ago; it’s not just that any nurses and pediatricians present then must now be dead and who, if I tried to invent them, would just be unconvincing replicas based upon the births of my own children in Albuquerque hospitals. A more fundamental issue is that I don’t really have much interest in any pictures or recorded memories which might show up—such as an inscription in a bible or a birth certificate—because I would take them to be nothing but a few more items to file away in my meager database of memories: that compendium of impressions of people who—just like me—are hardly ever really present the vast majority of time.
Now if a memory such as the reports I’ve heard from several friends, who briefly died in a hospital and who saw everything going on from up on the ceiling, then I would listen to their reports with great interest. The impressions of someone who was freed from their body and their entrenched perspectives about a life transition (be it birth, death, or in between), then I am all ears to hear about their visit to another realm.
I may have experienced something like that as a two year old, while drowning in Lake Ontario in March 1944. I may have experienced the pulling apart of body and mind—a kind of involution of the birth process that had so recently occurred to that young two year old—but I don’t think anyone interviewed me on that occasion to find out my impressions, any more than they would have asked me as a one-day-old what I had noticed upon emerging into a breathing, heart-powered body. I don’t seem to have access to either of those memories, even though I suspect that both would have been compellingly vivid “once upon a time”. This remoteness continues to be my defining characteristic: At best, I can stand to one side and say, “I don’t really remember it, but I have to appreciate that earlier version of myself navigating such challenging situations so that I could be here now.”
People who are already feeling the onslaught of dissolution regularly say “Getting old is not for wimps.” But whoever says, “Being born is not for wimps”. People say “Youth is wasted on the young”, but whoever says, “Wisdom is wasted on the old”?
It seems that the most fundamental incidents in a human life are usually not recognized as being ones that have tested the character of the primary participants. Although a mother certainly feels the distress of her child and tries to preserve the greater unity that has ruled the previous nine months; now that her infant, a valiant explorer, has just arrived on the scene.
I don’t know if this is an anomaly of mine, but I feel that I have never given enough credit to that being whose name I share, who came forth onto a world stage with no speaking lines, wearing no costume from that or any other era, and who has spent the next 76 years blaming himself that his dog must have eaten some script which others seem to have been given.
The few memories I have of the first decades of my life (excuse me if I sometimes lapse into the convention that I am in the midst of a consequential stream of time, which I laughingly refer to as my lifetime), are tinged with the feeling that I was recruited into a drama, with no dress rehearsals, which only rarely rises to the spontaneity of divine comedy.