Wednesday, September 29, 2004

What if time wiggles?

We assume time is neatly linear and can be measured to mindboggling finite values, but what if it really wiggles?

It's rather customary for us to view time as both linear and discrete. We divide and subdivide time into units impossible to measure except by computers or mathematical computation. Most of do not live life in nanoseconds, which is one one-billionth of a second, or 10 to the ninth power. I tend measure time far less accurately, looking at events as simply before, during, and after. I measure it by marking off a calendar or staring helplessly and impatiently at my watch.

When I was in college I took an advanced class in sociology and ran smack into Mircea Eliade (1907 - 1986.) I was reading an ethnography on the a tribe of Apaches that were uniquely matrilineal. The book was called Thunder Rides a Black Horse: Mescalero Apaches and the Mythic Present, by Claire R. Farrer. You can read a fair review of the book here. The key thing about this tribe are evocative phrases such as "in the time of the grandfathers," which is a unit of time that could be anywhere from thirty to one thousand years past, or maybe even farther back in time: events that occurred then also occur now.

One of the highlights of a young Mescalero's life is her coming of age ceremony, an event spread over four days and involves everyone in the community. They speak of a mythic figure, White Painted Woman, and during the four day ceremony the girls are not merely enacting rituals: the girls become White Painted Woman, she who exists in both the present and the past. They are believed to hold in them the power and magic of the original. There are reports of girls actually healing disease and illness when the re-enact the great rituals that mark them as women.

The most remarkable thing, to me, is not the miracles but the view of time. Time isn't linear. These girls enact the rituals that link them to the original through time. This isn't possible if you view time as linear. But I invite you to step away from our western notions and consider this: maybe time is a spiral with a single plane, a line if you will, that runs through the spiral touching all curving lines. Such a view would hold that everything is linked, not just distantly and with a sense of comfortable remoteness. What if time does unfold in a spiral that reiterates prior events like echoes in a canyon? I found that concept fascinating. It could explain the endless repetitions we, as a species, seem doomed to repeat. It could even go so far as to hint at explanations for that troubling sensation of Deju vu some claim to experience.

When I was writing my paper, I stumbled into Mircea Eliade's profound work, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. I admit he is better know for his work, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, both books I read and reread because they fascinated me. (What can I say, I found and was ruined by Joseph Campbell at an early age.) By reading him, and Farrer's book, I could see the connection within my own childhood, in what has to be the only western link to illuminate events in and out of time for me.

I was raised as a strict Roman Catholic, and I attended parochial school (more years than I ever want to think about.) One article of faith for Catholics is communion and how something so everyday becomes a link to our religious past. Not just the act of receiving it but the act of blessing it by the priest. In that moment, a simple unleavened wafer and red wine at transformed into the body and blood of Christ. We are not witnessing this from the secular present -- well, we didn't then as the entire mass was in Latin -- we are there and connected to an event that the faithful believe occurred almost two thousand years ago, and continues to happen with each mass. In the precise moment when the chalice is raised and consecrated, we are present at the Last Supper. It is an article of faith that the objects raised and blessed in fact are the body and blood of Christ, and we become a part of the last supper, if only through our latter day consumption.

When I was a child, if you dropped a communion wafer, after blessing, you had to wait for the priest to come, pick it up, and place it on your tongue, because it was consecrated and holy. I lived in fear of dropping a wafer at my first communion; I think every pre-Vatican II child feared that worse than the boogieman.

I looked at mass from the safe and secular present I live in, I that no longer practices any faith, and it still gives me goose bumps. What if the Mescalero are right and all time is linked together as a spiral and events that occurred one thousand years ago can have a deep and powerful, yet knowable, influence on our very modern lives today?

I am probably one of the few people that thinks about such strange things, or finds them both meaningful and moving. Personally, I like living in a state that allows for the unknowable side by side with the mundane and practical.

Photo taken near Basalt, a town in between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. I play trout bum there in the summer.


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October 27, 2005 at 11:48 AM  

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