Once upon a time I was a child. Then one day I wasn’t. Let’s say that it was one of those winter days. The sky sagged. The dog whimpered. A thought came to me: “Maybe this is all there is?”
That’s all it took.
I’m trying to read a book. These days, I am struggling to read books. One clunky adverb is all it takes for me to want to throw a book across the room. I keep buying books and then discarding those same books. I have stacks of partially read books. I miss books.
The book I’m trying to read is Graham Swift’s Waterland. Where I find this:
Reality’s not strange, not unexpected. Reality doesn’t reside in the sudden hallucination of events. Reality is uneventfulness, vacancy, flatness. Reality is that nothing happens…. [T]here are very few of us who can be, for any length of time, merely realistic. So there’s no escaping it: even if we miss the grand repertoire of history, we yet imitate it in miniature and endorse, in miniature, its longing for presence, for feature, for purpose, for content….
And there’s no saying what consequences we won’t risk, what reactions to our actions, what repercussions, what brick towers built to be knocked down, what chasing of our own tails, what chaos we won’t assent to in order to assure ourselves that, none the less, things are happening. And there’s no saying what heady potions we won’t concoct, what meanings, myths, manias we won’t imbibe in order to convince ourselves that reality is not an empty vessel.
The Earth is 4.543 billion years old, give or take 50 million years.
Imagine saying to a friend, “I’ll meet you at 7:30. Just a heads up, though. Depending on traffic, I may be 50 million years late.” That’s a really long time for your friend to sit at a restaurant, checking her watch again and again.
It’s not so long, however, if you’re Mother Earth, with a to-do list that includes generating an atmosphere, creating multicellular organisms out of single cells, and moving continents around.
So, reality is a function of time. For an adult, time is that immense machine in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. It speeds up, and you want it to slow down. It slows down, and you want it to speed up. At some point, though, you realize you no longer much care, because you’ve concluded that nothing truly new and different will ever come out of it.
Time for a child is different. It’s a clock ticking inside a crocodile. It swims into and out of consciousness. When it does come into view, it seems exotic and strange and tingly. When it’s out of sight, the Lost Boys don’t think about it. After all, nothing happens in Neverland that hasn’t happened before and won’t happen again, and what could be better than that?
“Again, again!” says the laughing child.
“Not again,” thinks the adult.
There you have it.
Here I am, reflecting and writing on (of all things!) reality.
It’s like the Greek myth about the murderous daughters of Danaus, whose punishment in the underworld is to fill jars with water, only there are holes in the jars. For my part, I’m trying and trying to fill the leaky vessel of reality with a short essay on reality. I’m wearing a suit of mirrors in a hall of mirrors. I’m Sisyphus, except that it’s not a stone I’m pushing up a hill. I’m trying to push the hill up the hill.
I hear you telling me it’s okay. We all do what we have to do, in the face of this vacant vacancy, this flat flatness. Look, over there’s a man who collects swizzle sticks. Here’s a woman who is saving the world, one demonstration or march or Facebook comment at a time.
For some reason this makes me think of a realization I once had. It was about play. Not a play — play.
What’s the point of play? What’s its purpose?
Ah, I thought. Now I get it.
I’m not sure where this gets me, but isn’t it telling that the ancient Greeks imagined eternal damnation to be not physical pain, but utter futility? (T. S. Eliot: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”)
And is there anything more futile than building towers out of wooden blocks?
And have you ever encountered a child who is bothered by the supposed futility of building towers out of wooden blocks?
And isn’t it striking how much difference it makes to add “-like” instead of “-ish” to the word “child”?
Adam and Eve were childlike adults. Then they ate forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Once they became conscious of good and evil, they became childish adults.
I don’t know if this will make any sense, but it seems to me that the simplest way to describe our problem is this: we refuse to accept that reality is circular. Instead, we keep trying to make it linear.
“Nothing happens.” What it should say, of course, is that nothing new happens. The same things keep happening again and again and again and again….
The sun rises and sets. Today’s toys are identical to yesterday’s. The sun rises and sets. Some team beat some other team in some sport. The sun rises and sets. It’s trash collection day — again. The sun rises and sets. Yet another person tells you how busy he or she is. The sun rises and sets. The sun rises and sets. The sun rises and sets.
What’s wrong, though, with that?
Did you know that you can now download a meditation app for your smartphone? And that people all over the world are competing with one another for most consecutive days of meditating?
It’s memory, isn’t it, that causes the trouble.
We’re trapped in the present with memories of a past we can’t alter and hopes for a future we can neither predict nor control. Time passes. The past dogs our step; it’s our constant companion. Time passes. No matter how fast we run, meanwhile, the future stays always one step ahead. Time passes. The past swells, spreads, and keeps tossing memories on the pile. Time passes. We stand at the edge of a mountain of jumbled memories, dismayed, seeing how many of them are identical — roll, roll, roll, roll, roll the trash bin to the curb —and too weary, too discouraged to dig through them to find …
that early summer morning you stood at the edge of a meadow in Montana, where the perfection of each plant, each insect, each molecule of air filled your soul with perfect tranquillity
that evening you looked up the sidewalk to watch a brown-haired girl, deep in her own thoughts, pirouette around a parking meter, a tree, another parking meter
that time, one among many, when you said to yourself, “Remember this.”
Physicists talk about the “arrow of time.” The second law of thermodynamics says that in spontaneous processes, total entropy increases irreversibly. Eggs break — they don’t knit themselves back together. A cup of coffee heats your hand — not the reverse. So as disorder gets more disorderly, and randomness becomes even more random, time ticks forward.
Okay, I suppose. If the scientists say so. It is a law, after all.
It’s just that there always seems to be a carton of unbroken eggs in my refrigerator. And many of the same things that irked me when I was 20 still get on my nerves. And when I open the antique china cabinet we bought twenty-five years ago at a shop in Hillsborough, North Carolina, out rushes the smell of some old woman’s white clapboard house with a wraparound porch, floors of heart pine, and white lace doilies on the upholstery.
The sun rises. Again.
Hallelujah. We’re all still here.
And what should we do with the gift of one more day?
Yeah, let’s play.