In Response to Adam Frank's "Where is Now? The Paradox of the Present"

In a recent blog post on npr.org, Adam Frank writes that “your present is at the mercy of many overlapping pasts.” Because it takes time, however infinitesimal, for a light wave to bounce off an object, be detected by your retina, and speed across your optic nerve to the sensors in your brain, nothing you see is in real time. What’s more, because light travels at a constant speed—300 million miles per second—objects farther away in your view are older than the ones closer to you. Rearview mirrors should carry the disclaimer, objects are older than they appear. The stellar bodies we gaze upon in the nighttime sky emanated their glow light years ago, and today we perceive them as equal parts of a coherent skyscape, when in fact each star is of a different era. Only the coherence demanded by human rationality can maintain the illusion of simultaneity between objects set in spacetime.

Frank says that these “multiple, foliated pasts” seem to disprove Presentism, a philosophy of time that states the past and future do not exist—the Now is all there is. Although I agree with Frank when he purports that efforts to inhabit the present moment, whether through meditation or mindfulness or drug use, will reveal an all-pervading oneness, wholeness, and unity with the ceaseless Now, I find it hard to place the isness I've felt at times in the same arena as the time-lag of perception. Interconnectivity exists in a different valence from the now-narrative of our senses. True, we can only ever perceive the past. True, the present is an illusory concoction in the cauldron of our senses. But being present with yourself occurs beyond the senses, in that Emersonian oversoul, and when you inhabit the Now, you inhabit a negative space of infinite possibility where picayune distinctions fall away. A space in which time collapses and the past and future converge.


Images for Twitter: Four Airports in a Day

Many times when I'm on an airplane, I'm inspired by the cloudscapes viewed through the window, the sense of going somewhere new, the passivity required of travelers as the airline shuttles them to their destination, and I pluck the notebook from my pocket and scribble furtively, huddled in my allotted space, blocking my writings from the view of the person next to me. Once, on a late afternoon in 2008 as I flew over the middle of the country, up over the Rockies, and down into San Francisco, our plane seemed in competition with the sun to first reach the Pacific horizon. The sun won, as you might have guessed, but our plane battled hard, and that competitive effort won us an extended sunset that cast its reds and oranges onto the clouds at eye level, the farmland below, and the mountains in between. We landed in San Fransisco in the newborn darkness as the sun dipped below the Pacific in its ineluctable march to meet other hopeless competitors. For the last line of that entry, I wrote, "The ocean / The bay / The end of the day."

I don't think I'll ever get tired of staring out the window of an airplane. Last weekend, I flew to Burlington from Tallahassee to spend time in my motherland of New Hampshire/Vermont where I hadn't been in almost 10 years. As both BTV and TLH are dinky little airports, I made two connections both ways. Tallahassee-->Charlotte-->Washington D.C.-->Burlington going there; Burlington-->Philadelphia-->Charlotte-->Tallahassee coming back. For each of my six flights, I booked a window seat. I also just got a new smart phone, and thought I'd post to my Twitter account as I traveled. But for some reason, either bad phone connection or incompetence, I couldn't get connected. In the air, and some on the ground, I scribbled what I would've like to have posted to Twitter inside the back cover of the book I was reading, Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark. Here is what I wrote:

Going Out

The Tallahassee airport is a hairy wart stuck to Capital Circle and attracting mosquitoes.

Looking out the window of an airplane, the clouds are landforms--mountains and shorelines--and our cities lay at the bottom of the ocean.

Kudos to the flight attendant who laid the smack down on a passenger's unruly children somewhere over South Carolina.

The Charlotte airport buzzes like a slaughterhouse. Travelers tumble down the chute, go through processing, and plop into the packaging of the airplane.

In the south, the clouds are made of cotton thrown in the air by jubilant slave hands who stood in front of city hall to hear the mayor read the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Lincoln Memorial sits like a lion figurine at the bottom of a toy chest; the Washington Monument has his father's nose and high cheekbones.

The Raegan International Airport is a smorgasbord of faces to focus and feed on as you pass along your way.

The Capital Building is an ice cream cone dipped in white chocolate.

Clouds are ghosts of mountains that crumbled before men could grace them with names.

The Burlington airport is a trampoline to break your fall from atop a two-thousand story building.

Relaxation is hearing water lapping at the shoreline of Lake Champlain from your room overlooking Windmill Bay at the end of the day.

Coming In

There are two kinds of boats on Lake Champlain: those have have hit the bottom, and those that will.

Blinding white clouds deflect the sun and wonder why we rise above their protection.

At 22,000 feet, the clouds comprise a hierarchy casting shadows on each other.

The Philadelphia airport is a serpent who speaks every tongue of Babel.

I didn't speak to a soul on the airplane, but many spoke to me.

Seven species of cloud meet and inspect each other with curiosity like animals at a watering hole on the Sahara.

The air above Charlotte ripples like the thighs of an obese woman who finally decides to get in shape.

Cloud nurseries are staffed by firm but loving nannies.

The Tallahassee airport may be a hairy wart, but it's my hairy wart.