Now I’m all, “What just happened?”
One trip in a TARDIS and I was hooked.
When I was 12 years old, I made my acting debut as a Lost Boy in a professional regional theatrical production of Peter Pan. I made a very strong showing as Tootles, according to my dad.
That’s when I learned that a theater was a TARDIS: it was bigger on the inside than the outside, and it could take hundreds of people anywhere in time and space.
And I became a Time Lord, baby. It took years of study and knocking around in sketchy regional theaters for the privilege of returning to New York for auditions. But I learned the disciplines of managing time, so it was totally worth it.
And it is a discipline. Performers willingly surrender control over their personal time in order to create the shared temporal experience that will then become the TARDIS for the audience.
Time is the first significant dimension a performer masters. On the macro level, they must be able to show up when they are supposed to show up. And they must be able to parse comic beats into milliseconds. (Pause too short or too long = Silence. Pause just right = Big laugh. Ba-da-boom.)
It was good to be a Time Lord. Why, I could take you anywhere.
And then… time became chaos.
But the charmed world of a theater, created and metered to perfection, is nothing like the unscripted real world. The real reality show. Once I exited my beloved TARDIS, I discovered what others had known all along. Time is all tangled up, for everyone, and no one can really master it.
We want to believe we are in control of events, even though the pace of those events is relentlessly increasing. I personally feel like one of those idiots in the movies who try to chase down a moving car on foot. (They always look surprised when they can’t catch it.)
We frantically take on opportunities and obligations until, exhausted, we must divest before we collapse. And so we are desperate for help managing our calendars, our priorities, our anxieties, and our pressured thoughts. We know we must find a way to manage our time — past, future, and present — and the anxiety it provokes.
Lately, we are almost universally counseled to strive to live in The Now — a peaceful pursuit that many have found beneficial.
But I was once a Time Lord, and I remain a contrarian. I need a different way.
As a reminder, the goal of the peaceful way — which is not a goal, so don’t be anxious! — is to rest serenely in The Now. To do that, we are taught to take time to meditate, count our breaths, and gently but firmly hush our toxic thoughts. Wise men and women have recommended this path for millennia: from the East, Lao Tzu, the Dalai Lama, Jesus, and Thich Nhat Hanh; in the West, Eckhart Tolle, Henry David Thoreau. And Oprah.
Because this advice is so ancient and so persistent, I can only conclude that living in The Now is either the true holy purpose of our existence or — and this is my suspicion — it’s pretty much impossible. Like sticking your elbow in your own ear.
Breathe, release, rinse, repeat?
It is the contrarian in me that resists that solution. I’m sure it is wonderful for some, and I would never advise anyone who found health and healing in that practice to give it up. I am happy for my friend who now lives totally in The Now, though, in releasing thoughts of her past, she also seems to have released the memory that she owes me twenty bucks.
Moreover — before you ask — yes, I have tried the most popular form of breathing and sitting meditation, in various times and places. It is not for me.
I learned why this is so while studying with a Buddhist monk at a well-regarded seminary. I am one of a small group of people who, when they focus on their breathing, actually stop breathing. We have to consciously restart each breath. My teacher advised me with a straight face that this trait would not be conducive to my serenity. So I don’t count breaths, in case, one day, I accidentally forget and stop after “one.”
So I do not try to live in The Now. I take a contrarian way.
The contrarian way: Live everywhere else.
First of all, as I say, I avoid counting my breaths. I just keep breathing. If I notice I’m doing it badly, or whatever, I take a few cleansing breaths or adjust as needed, but then I just go on about my business. My body either knows what it’s doing or it doesn’t.
Likewise, I avoid trying to live in The Now. Instead, I approach “living in The Now” the same way The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy advises learning how to fly:
“The knack [of flying] lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
I throw myself into the past and the future — and miss.
“The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
William Faulkner’s familiar adage has an ominous tone, but really, why should it? What do people fear about the past?
I like it that my past isn’t dead. That means it’s still alive, and that means I’m still alive, and I am able to thrive in my unique matrix of memories and experiences. That rich heap of debris built me into the person that I am.
I’ve only gradually become comfortable there because I’ve finally lived down most of my screw-ups. I worked hard at that, and it wasn’t easy. I recorded them all in notebooks, grieved over them, made amends where I could, and then closed the notebooks.
They are like cold cases now. I’ll open them again if there’s new DNA evidence or something; otherwise, they are landfill. Nice, stable, landfill.
I have only a few regrets. Chief among them is that once I sold my like-new 1967 Cutlass 442 convertible for $600. I can’t show you an image of it, but Google it — they go for about $25,000 or $35,000 today. Not that I’d sell it, because I loved that car. I was a smoking hot babe in that car.
I don’t live in the past. The past lives in me.
So for me, “my past” is not a collection of “thoughts” that pester me from time to time so that I have to manage them just to get some peace and quiet.
The past of my being is like an archaeological tell upon which I stand, dropping litter and memos and banana peels that will become new layers of that past later on. See, I inhabit my past right now, in the present moment.It is a paradox.
Certainly, focusing on The Now can give us relief from morbid obsessions with the shame, resentments, or regrets of the past. And if those obsessions remain toxic for us, help and work are needed to heal them.
But the accumulated thoughts of our past are the substance of our very selves, and we need not be too quick to dismiss those thoughts.
Unless you believe the self is an illusion, in which case I don’t know who is reading this post. I guess you can get the notes from them.
Managing the future. Somebody has to.
Years ago, in our salad days, my dear spouse and I lived for a time in a popular area of a major city. Young and frisky and irresponsible, we were free to do things on the spur of the moment, as our whims and finances dictated.
More than once, on a Friday, we’d meet back at the apartment and decide, madcap, to go out to dinner. “Yes!” we’d say, all excited. “Rosenzweig’s!” And off we’d go.
But then, we’d realize that every other young professional couple within a 15-mile radius had had the same madcap idea at the exact same time. And without a reservation, which of course we did not have, there would be a 90-minute wait. Nuts.
In my life, so far, I have never considered a restaurant meal worth a 90-minute wait.
Eventually, we learned two lessons. First, we learned that as members of the largest generation to date (not the greatest, just the largest), we would probably never, ever have an idea that millions of our peers would not also simultaneously have. There would always be a 90-minute wait for anything worth doing.
Therefore, and here was point two, we would always have to plan for anything we wanted to do. Always.
My beloved maverick spouse resists this reality, frequently advising, “let the game come to you.” Often that’s the best way. But sometimes, that’s not going to be the game I want to play, so I have to make other things happen. To do that, I need to plan.
I’ve always wanted to see into the future. Even as a kid, I was always reading ahead in the textbook and getting in trouble for it, too. Seems I was dropping “spoilers” in class before “spoilers” were even a thing.
And now, as a devoted planner and schemer and calendar-keeper, I suppose you could say I’m trying to read ahead in some cosmic Book of Time.
We all try to do it, one way or another. I do it with lists, and sublists, and graphics, and charts, all written by hand because project management software is for lightweights. In fact, I’m not reading ahead in the Book of Time. I’m writing the Book of Time, aren’t I? Aren’t we all?
And we aren’t doing all that planning in a void. We do it using the knowledge and experiences of our past, of course. How else can it be?
The future won’t unfold exactly the way I want it to. It will change every day, every minute, and I’ll adjust to each new scenario if I can — just as I have done every day of my life so far.
I see into my future from the matrix of my past, poised between them, and….
Hey presto! — I am living in The Now.
Without even buying a yoga mat.
Because The Now is where your deeds meet your destiny.
So that’s my contrarian way, my alternative to striving to live in The Now.
- I throw myself wholeheartedly at the Past and the Future.
- Since I’m human, I usually miss.
- Therefore, I find myself in The Now, where I’ve been all along.
I imagine it is working as well as anything else — any of the other ways people explore the universe’s wonders or stretch their own souls.
Wait — what just happened?
Sometimes these days, time seems to step away for a moment, all on its own. My attention wanders, perhaps, and when it returns, I have the distinct sensation that I’ve missed something. A few frames have been carefully snipped out of my movie and the ends spliced together. Sneakily. As if I won’t notice.
The same thing happens when I search for a word I can’t recall. I look in the place where I’ve kept it for years, and see only a blank space where it has been neatly… removed. It is unsettling.
(Doctors who are younger than I always say it is natural; nothing to worry about, dear. I want to make a sharp retort, but I don’t, because someday it will happen to them, too. Hah.)
Those moments are like random glimpses through the veil that obstructs our view of our whole lives. They seem to spark an illuminated sense of the present; they are like free samples of the awareness most of us would pay a lot to find.
Patience is required before we get the whole vision, but I’m sure it will be worth it.
I had heard that, according to God, a million years is like a minute, and a million dollars is like a penny.
So I asked God, “Can I have a penny?”
And God said, “Sure, Sparky. In a minute.”
Dear readers — Where have you traveled in time? Do share with us how you cherish the past… create the future… and live mindfully in the present.
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