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Living at the edge

By living in the present moment, we can find ourselves at the gateway to eternity.
By Philip Simmons
September/October 2000 9.1.00

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I've always loved edges: the edge of night when color drains from the land, the edge of an argument where a fixed idea adjusts to other points of view, the edge of a body where skin meets air or my caress. I love edges for the vantage they provide. If you invite me to a backyard barbecue, you'll see me drift away--as discreetly as one can while riding a 400-pound motorized wheelchair--to check out your property line and look for signs of history there: a broken fence, discarded tools, a change of grade where a neighbor added fill. From such edges we can see past and present together, and thus get a glimpse at history.

One night last spring, visiting friends northwest of Chicago, I sneaked away to the edge of their new housing development and gazed across a mile of cornfield gone fallow and waiting to sprout more driveways, lampposts, houses, heartbreak, bliss. An alien spaceship hovered (a water tower, actually), its red lights flashing, having lowered spindly legs and a long tube to feed on the rich topsoil--10,000 years in the making. A cultivator rusted in the scruff at the field's edge; the night sky glowed purple with city light; on the horizon the mountain of a landfill loomed, tongues of flame licking out of methane vents. Highway noise, distant and unstoppable, washed over all. I was seeing the beginning and ending of a world.

Here in New Hampshire the fields have suffered a different fate, taken over by woods when farmers fled this bony soil 100 years ago to work the very fields now sprouting shopping malls and subdivisions near Chicago and throughout the Midwest. To build our house, on part of the 200-year-old farm my parents own, we had to reclaim some territory from the woods, restoring what had once been pasture, and before that, primeval forest. The cabin where I write sits in the woods near the property's edge, within sight of a stone wall that once kept cows in but failed to stop the woods' advance once the cows had gone. From my cabin window I can see the shallow pit of an old farm dump, a settled heap of broken bottles and rusted cans, punctured pots and flayed rubber boot soles.

We stand in awe before such junk, staring at the mute, recalcitrant wreck of time. The past is there before us, rusted, cracked, peeling, sinking into earth, and yet it is not there but unutterably gone, absent as the dead. You hoist a rusted bucket, its bottom a hole through which you peer at all that's vanished.

I want to think about those moments when we stand at the edge, when we feel the presence of what has gone before, when we sense the onrushing promise--or threat--of things to come. Maybe it's just the time of year. We pick our last tomatoes, not knowing they're the last until we wake one morning to see frost blanketing the fields and our petunias slumped in their beds. Trees catch fire, whole hillsides burst into flame. Armed men roam the woods; we're wakened by rifle shots. It's as if every year at this time the world imagined its own ending. Maybe, too, my interest in edges is personal. I stand at the edge of a life made shorter by illness and can't help being pulled out of the present moment into mourning my losses, courting my fears.

But we all stand at the edge. The present moment is itself an edge, this evanescent sliver of time between past and future. We're called away from it continually by our earthly pleasures and concerns. Even now you may be thinking it's time for another cup of coffee and one of those blueberry muffins. Seems it's always time to be doing something other than what we're doing at the moment. Like the spotted owl or the sea turtle, the present moment has become an endangered species. Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline. More boldly, I would say that our very presentness is our salvation; the present moment, entered into fully, is our gateway to eternal life.

Now, when I say this, you could accuse me of being a mystic. And I am, but of a very ordinary kind. I don't doubt that some people throughout history, and some living today, have heard voices and seen visions. But my mysticism involves no access to other realms, only the deeper experience of this one. Mine is the mysticism of everyday life, of the heaped laundry and the bruised toe, of overcooked broccoli and dew-spangled leaves, of sunrise and sorrow, laughter and linguine, music and mold. This everyday mysticism requires no special powers, only imagination, a doting and practiced attention to the ordinary, and a willingness to be surprised by grace.

Still, when I say I'm looking for eternity in a pile of laundry, you might wonder if I've been going a bit heavy on the Tabasco sauce. But I'm just being pragmatic. I don't know what, if anything, follows this life. What I do know is that I'm here, now, in a world of worn shoes and rose petals, seeking eternity wherever I can find it. You might say that I want my eternal life now, before it's over with.

So how to go about it? How can we cultivate this eternal present? The Buddhist practice of mindfulness, as explicated by Thich Nhat Hanh and others, offers one model. Dwelling in the moment, on our breath, on the work of our hands immediately before us, we're drawn into life's luminousness, into the mystery at the heart of ordinary things. Dwelling in the present, at least at first, involves forgetting past and future, stopping the mind's whirlwind of memory and expectation, giving ourselves a blessed hour's calm as we meditate, bake bread, walk through the forest, or play games with a child. But with further practice we may find past and future returning to our awareness, only now without bringing anxiety or distraction along with them. Instead, we become aware of living in eternity. The present moment enlarges, drawing past and future into it, until we are dwelling not just in the moment but within the whole of life.

Let me give an example. Our small New Hampshire town is in love with the past, and with celebrating its own history. Driving into the town center, with its white clapboard houses and one blinking light, you feel as though you're driving into a museum. And, mostly, that's the way we like it. The title sequence of a popular 1980s television show featured an aerial shot of the place, meant to convey to the viewer an image of classic, picturesque New England. But as a child who spent my summers there in the 1960s I sensed the lateness of the cultural hour. The fields were filling with brush, the tractors rusting, the men who used them dying or moving away. We feel the keenest nostalgia for a past we've never lived, and that's what I felt, at eight or ten years old, each time I went into our barn, with its smell of hay dust and rope, motor oil and tar. Surely this vanished world of the farm was far richer--far more real, somehow--than any world I, a kid from the suburbs, would ever know. Things we found there had a talismanic power: the cow's horn fringed with white hair, the hide folded like a blanket and stiff as wood.

Nothing cures nostalgia like growing up. I was reminded of this recently, during our annual country fair, when I rolled my wheelchair down the street after the parade of horses and oxen had gone by. Whatever its rustic pleasures may have been, our lost agrarian paradise produced a lot of manure.

Still, at our historical society museum, at the fair, or at our Old Home Week celebration, it's easy to start feeling that the present is but a cheap copy of a more authentic past. I sit along the parade route, watching flatbed trailers roll by loaded with hay bales, corn stalks, pumpkins, and hastily costumed children being reminded to wave and smile. A bonneted and aproned girl, barely five years old and bored, drags a turkey down the street on a leash. Surely in the old days, I was thinking, people did this better. Or because they actually lived the lives being reenacted here, they didn't need to do these things at all. Clearly, if presentness is my goal, neither attitude--neither my boyhood nostalgia nor my adult cynicism--serves me well.

And yet at times I can escape both attitudes and see things differently. Two years ago, for instance, during our 100th annual Old Home Week, people gathered at the bandstand on the fairgrounds for an "old-fashioned ice cream social." We ate ice cream and strawberry sauce out of plastic cups and did our best, I suppose, to feel old-fashioned. Then something happened, a shift from my ordinary way of seeing to what I can only call mystic vision. Suddenly it was as though I was looking at this gathering from far off, from a time 100 years in the future, when this crowd of happy people in their Gap T-shirts and Reebok shoes would be no more, would be nothing but dust and ashes, even their photographs piled into shoeboxes and forgotten in attics. From such a vantage one's generosity returns, and I saw that this moment, graced with ice cream and artificial preservatives and the ordinary talk of friends and neighbors, was as authentic as any in the town's history. From the vantage of that onlooker of the future, this was the town's history, and we were its old-timers.

My point is simple, in a way. If eternity includes all time, then we are living in eternity now. When we see this, we feel in touch with the bedrock beneath the flowing stream. We enter the eternal life beneath the surface of this passing one.

Shamans and nuclear physicists know that our limited everyday understanding of time is a result of our particular cognitive and perceptual faculties. Other forms of consciousness and thus other descriptions of reality are possible. But you don't have to beat a drum or use a particle accelerator to see multiple periods of time at once. Simply look into the heavens on a clear night. Looking at a star 100 light years away, you see it as it was 100 years ago. In the same moment you're seeing the more distant star next to it as it was 1,000 years ago. You're not just looking into the past but into multiple pasts. Then look into the blackness between stars (you really need a radio telescope to do this), and you can see back 15 billion years to the beginning of the universe, detecting there the residue of the big bang, a uniform background hiss reaching us from the edge of all that is.

When you're finished doing that, you're probably ready to come back to earth, where we've already got enough weirdness to keep us fully occupied. I'm reminded of the speaker of Robert Frost's poem "Desert Places," who watches a field filling up with snow and thinks:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Yes, we have plenty to scare ourselves with in this life, so this mystic vision, this living at the edge, requires an extra fearlessness. Most times, it strikes me unprepared. I can be standing in a room full of people and eating canned peas, listening to bouzouki music, or discussing the price of ostrich futures, and suddenly I'm aware that everyone in this room will one day die. It does not come to me as an idea, as something to analyze or ponder, but as a quality of vision, as though my inner videographer had flipped on a different lens. But it's more of a feeling than an actual vision. What I see does not literally change. Rather, I feel as though faces, bodies, gestures have suddenly grown fluid, changeable, translucent. My awareness flickers between seeing these people as they stand here before me, solid and breathing, and sensing how the world will be when they have vanished from it.

When received in the proper spirit, such experiences are not frightening but liberating. For in glimpsing our own transitory nature, are we not seeing a deeper truth? As the scientists tell us, we're nothing more than temporary arrangements of atoms forged in the depths of distant stars and consisting mostly of empty space. Knowing this, we discover we're both more and less important than we thought. More important because our bodies are literally made of cosmic stuff, and our being is part of the dynamic, living dance of all existence. Less important because we know the cosmic dance both creates and destroys. The very particles we're made of wink in and out of being as light becomes matter and matter, light. Here science gives us new language for old truths, confirming what we've already been told by the Buddha, Heraclitus, and the writers of the Psalms: the very fabric of our being glimmers and is gone; our lives are as fleeting as shadows. Knowing this, we can either despair or choose to lighten up. Jesus clearly urges the latter when with characteristic wry humor he asks, "Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?"

When we accept our impermanence, letting go of our attachment to things as they are, we open ourselves to grace. When we can stand calmly in the face of our passing away, when we have the courage to look even into the face of a child and say, "This flower, too, will fade and be no more," when we can sense the nearness of death and feel its rightness equally with birth, then we will have crossed over to that farther shore where death can hold no fear for us, where we will know the measure of the eternal that is ours in this life.

And we've all had this experience. Perhaps you have sat with someone who was near death and found yourself drawn into her inner radiance, into a place where pain and fear give way before a lucid awareness of the nearness of life's source. Or perhaps you have listened to a friend who just lost a loved one, and you've heard in his voice, through the grief and exhaustion, a wondrous and wondering connection to life's deepest levels. Perhaps you have had it while giving birth or witnessing a birth, when we can seem to rise out of our bodies and become winged things, hovering over all we love. Or you have had it in those ordinary moments, when watching a child butter a slice of bread or a crow settle in a field, or when listening to an old nurseryman describe a hybrid azalea with the light hitting his face just so, and suddenly nothing else matters and you feel like removing your shoes and bowing down.

I felt this way one day last week, when my wife and I drove into Boston to meet with my doctors at the hospital. I wasn't supposed to enjoy the day, but as it turned out, I did. On the drive down, I took in the brilliant fall colors against the blue sky. And I especially liked the chance to get out in my wheelchair in the city, rolling up and down the narrow streets of Beacon Hill. These days when I'm out in city streets, I have the extra pleasure of being greeted warmly by drunkards and the homeless. I suspect that the wheelchair catches their eye, that I'm simply a spectacle, a change from the usual passersby. But I also sense they recognize me as kin, and I find myself happy to be welcomed thus into the family of the marginal and the maimed. As my wife and I waited at one intersection for the light to change, a man staggered toward us through four lanes of traffic. He was a sight himself, with his shirt half unbuttoned and twisted sideways, his badly shaven head and bulbous red nose. He stopped short of reaching us, standing well out into the busy street, and stared. He pointed a finger at the side of his head, making a disbelieving, "Am I crazy?" gesture, and then said, "Are you guys all right?" I assured him I was. Then I suggested he get out of the street so that he would be, too. At other times in my life, such a man would have had my defenses up. More recently, it seems I've had less to lose and so instead could find myself moved to discover that, no matter the illness and suffering of his own life, this man at this moment was concerned for my welfare.

You see, we really are all in this together. There are times when the fact that we inhabit different bodies, or have lived in different centuries, or that some of us have died while others live on or are yet to be born, seems a trivial difference compared to what unites us and abides. Our journey takes us to suffering and sorrow, but there is a way through suffering to something like redemption, something like joy, to that larger version of ourselves that lives outside of time.

A short while after my encounter in the street, I waited outside the entrance to the hospital while my wife went to get the car. Sitting in my wheelchair in the sun, I watched people come and go. I saw people missing large pieces of their bodies, I saw people wheeled in unconscious, I saw people walking briskly while talking on cell phones, I saw families walking in bunches, shoulders bent beneath the weight of worry. An elderly couple, tiny, elegantly dressed, and fragile as dried leaves, tottered toward the curb. Each held a four-point cane in one hand, and with their free hands they held onto each other as though bracing against a wind that might any moment carry them off. On another day I might have been downcast to be part of such a scene, but now I sensed its rightness and beauty, and I felt strangely buoyant. Facing our own private calamities, we nonetheless seemed fellow travelers, carried along on the same living stream. Somehow, astonishingly, in the midst of our carnage, we had become immortal.

Some of us go willingly to the edge, some of us are driven to it, some of us find ourselves there by grace. But all of us get there at some time in our lives, when through the gateway of the present moment we glimpse something beyond. And when we do, may we open ourselves to wonder, may we surrender to the mystery that passes understanding, may we find ourselves at the threshold of this eternal life.

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