One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. --Ecclesiastes 1:4
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Spoken and written a long, long time ago. I think about those words from time to time, and what they meant to him, and to me.
What are the constituents of a life? Are they the plans we make for tomorrow, or for next year, or for many years to come? Are they the endless re-thinkings of the many yesterdays that have passed behind us along the path, the might-have-beens, the if-onlys?
The Preacher had much to say about a lifelong search for meaning, and of the generations that came, and the generations that passed by, day after day, year after year, century after century. What was it that they looked for, and what was it that they found? What did they take with them when they stepped through the door?
As a child, many years ago now, I came to a conclusion about life that has never left me:
There is no Past. There is no Future. There is only Now.
The past is an illusion, and exists only in the present, only in the re-living in the current moment of a different moment, one already gone by. There is no stepping back to the past, no chance of re-directing the flow of our life stream into another channel of the river that we have passed by, because the current that carries us only moves forward. Every moment spent in contemplation of yesterday is a moment stolen from today.
The future, for us, has no existence at all, no information that we are privy to of the plans of God. Our actions today certainly affect our course as we journey into the future, but when the future arrives, we discover that it is only the present, again and again. My five-year-old son once awoke early one morning and asked me about it.
“Kevin,” he said sleepily as I buckled him into the van in the pre-dawn for the two-hour drive to the city. “Kevin, is this tomorrow?”
We live our lives along the razor-edge between a past that exists only in our memory, and a future that never comes. A long, long series of nows; of momentary and unique assemblages of emotions and smells, sights, and sounds, each unique and each adding together to create what we will call a life, what we call our experience of this earth.
“Well, Hoss, what do you think?”
My uncle leans back on the bank in the cool shade, the bamboo fishing pole held over his faded blue overalls and then arcing over the water. The wind rustles the leaves of the black willows above him and then dances out across the surface of the pond, the ripples blurring the perfect reflection of the cumulus clouds drifting quietly across the blue sky. A mile away, the thumping and sputtering of the pump jacks sounds an irregular drumbeat, the soft popping and backfiring filling the distance every day, all day and all night.
I don’t answer immediately.
Instead, I watch the surface of the pond, picking out the occasional black points of the turtles surfacing to breathe. The barn swallows hurtle silently out of the sky and skim the water, darting down to within inches and then rolling off into the blue sky again, their forked tails clipping the air like scissors as they disappear.
I step across the concrete monsoon drain from the hot and crowded street under the covered arch of the sidewalk, then into the rank darkness of the open storefront beyond. As my eyes adjust to the dimness, the thick smell of animal life fills my nostrils: fur, urine, musk, decay. A marmoset no bigger than my hand looks up at me from inside a welded wire cage, its miniscule face a wizened parody of humanity. Tiny jungle finches flutter from side to side along one cage against the wall, above the rolled-up bird snares hanging on hooks. I walk slowly along the wet concrete down the narrow aisle, past cages of monkeys and parrots, past the cages with the huge black and yellow monitor lizards, around a golden pangolin, its scaled body coiled into a loose circle. On a back shelf above is a large, empty cage, higher up at eye level. I can see nothing inside it. I tap the mesh and instantly five small black cobras rear up above the bottom tray, spreading their hoods as they stare directly back into my face.
“Vanity of vanities. All is vanity,” the Preacher said. “There is no new thing under the sun.” But the Preacher was wrong, because every moment of every minute is new, every second the first second of all that are yet to come, and the only one that will be lived, because the future exists only in the now. “Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new?” he asked. “It hath been already of old time, which was before us.” But he spoke of knowing things that had not been his to know: the moments he claimed were those of another, of a life that he did not live himself. Vanity it was indeed, futile it was indeed, but not in the way he thought. His error lay in the arrogance of assuming that knowledge of the past was the same as the experience of it, that hearing of someone's journey on the river was the same as piloting the boat through the current himself. The Preacher was wrong.
I lean over the starboard rail, the stiff wind cool in my face as the mud boat pitches through the swells, the bow heaving and falling under my feet in a perfect circle that I compensate for by shifting my weight from foot to foot, left to right, left to right, all day, every day. I look ahead into the lighter gap between the dark gray ceiling of the storm clouds and the eternally busy surface of the sea to the source of the cool air, the wall of cloud immediately ahead of us stretching across the world from one end to the other.
Beneath the thunderhead, a blue snake appears, and gently feels its way through the band of lighter sky to the water, thousands of feet below. As it does, it transforms into an immense funnel that slowly turns white as it touches the surface of the sea. Next to it, another snake slowly slips out of the cloud bank to the surface. Together, the two funnel clouds begin a slow-motion dance across the band of light, curving and swinging from side to side together.
I look up behind me to the wheelhouse, where the helmsman has stepped out and leans against the upper rail, swinging from side to side himself as he looks across the bows into the future. I point to the funnels, and he nods briefly, unimpressed. I turn back to watch the slowly gyrating funnels. The first of the rain drops slap my face, heavy and cool.
I lean forward and rest my weight against the oncoming wind, the dry desert air at 100 miles per hour supporting me like a solid cushion. The sound of the motorcycle engine is also solid, the packed roar of pistons, pushrods, and valves reciprocating beneath me filling my ears and then radiating outwards across the desert evening in my wake. I fly down the road, riding a thundering Pegasus, aimed at the vanishing point far in front of me, past the juniper thickets and the pinyon pines which appear, slowly grow, pass by me, and recede. Forty miles ahead the basalt cliffs that ring the mesa tops remain motionless, their slow approach only perceptible after minutes at the same speed, the vertical fractures gradually becoming faintly visible and then finally clear. My hands wrap around the grips, twice their normal diameter as they vibrate in time with the machine, and I wind the throttle back to a steady 90 miles per hour. In front of me small tarantulas the size of a teacup appear on the tarmac, slice by me and are gone. I thread my way through them at 130 feet per second as the mesas slowly grow over the headlamp shell.
We live our lives like passengers on a train, always in motion, always seeming to hurry on to somewhere else, but in truth never leaving our compartments, riding along to our destinations in the company of those who stepped aboard with us at the beginning of our journeys. The scenery through the windows changes constantly, but it’s the world passing by us that really moves, while we actually remain still in the eternal now, in the present. At each station, older passengers leave the train and newer passengers step aboard to take their seats. The mix of people and stories changes at every station, but we’re all on the same train, all of us on the same tracks. All of us have stepped aboard when our turn came, and sooner or later, all of us will step off.
I stand on the hot gravel in front of the metal warehouse, listening to the high-pitched whine far in the sky above me. I can’t see them, but I can hear them coming. As I look up into the blue, suddenly the first bees drop within my range of visual acuity, popping into existence thirty feet above my head as they approach close enough to see. The first of the scouts descend at random, and then thicken into a spiraling cloud, circling and circling, finally focusing on a small twig in the blooming almond tree by the old flatbed. I watch from within a growing cloud of honey-colored insects as the bees begun to cluster on the branch, landing and falling, recovering and returning, a small brown waterfall intensely concentrated on one twig amid the pink flowers.
I walk to the branch, peering closely, and eventually locate the larger wasp-waisted queen walking on the branch, surrounded by workers. I reach into the cluster and gently grasp her by the wings, then tuck her headfirst into the tiny wooden cage from my pocket. I put my fingertip over the hole and hold her out at arm’s length. After a few seconds the cluster on the branch disintegrates, and I am again surrounded by bees, swirling and singing, closer and closer to me. Then the cluster re-appears, centered on my hand, and one after another, the swarm coalesces, bee after bee, until my arm is buried in a mass of excited insects from fingertips to elbow, more and more landing every second from out of the blue sky.
I sit on a dark brown wooden bench in the back row of the meeting house, one of a silent cloud of witnesses. I look down at the rear of the bench in front of me. The initials and doodling scratched into the varnished poplar testify to the generations that have sat in the same seat as me, for the same reasons, every First Day, thousands upon thousands of witnesses, for thousands upon thousands of First Days. The room is full of people, and full of a quiet anticipation that connects us together, a linkage of joint expectancy that we all share.
Slowly I become aware of a thought forming in my conscious mind, a string of symbols that swirls into the shape of an intelligible idea, that itself gradually takes on the structure of words and sentences. As I wait for minute after minute, I feel the tension appear, and I recognize that I have been selected to deliver a message. Another member of the meeting rises and speaks briefly, and I feel the living tension in me build. She sits, and for a few minutes more I wait, until finally the beginning of the message is made clear and my heart suddenly begins to pound violently against my ribs. I lean forward, grip the seat back in front of me and stand up into the silent and waiting room, watched by those in this world and the next one. Instantly I feel my heart rate fall to a slow idle, a steady tick over, and the tension disappears, leaving the message with me. I pause a few seconds, feeling the silence, and then begin to speak.