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The Mystifying Present: Another Look at Tinker Creek

Everyone knows what the present is until you ask them.

When I learned of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, I was intrigued, not least because she did so well so young (29) and because she had studied at a nearby (then) women’s college, Hollins (now University). When I learned she had written about the very creek that bordered our house I just had to read it. Except it was ten years before I began.

This year marks that year and happens also to be the 50th anniversary of its publishing, So I set the helpful, if rather pedestrian, goal of reading it through the year and writing on it month by month. I have yet to know if the book’s depth — or mine — is up to that task, but the creek is wonderful thus far.

The book is comprised of fifteen chapters, a journal of sorts, most of which were previously published in various magazines. No particular method of approach presents itself so in this round I am going to look at one chapter. Chapter 6: The Present.

Everyone knows what the present is until you ask them, just like we know what to do with it until we realize whatever we are doing we already did. Time is such a mystery – who can know it? The Psalmist says to number your days and so we try to have a sense of how many we have left and how we should use the ones we have.

But how do we use the present?

The beginning scene of the chapter is exactly right and earthy, a simple stopover at a gas station- a reprieve from the weary highway miles on her way home. I love it for the implicit mix of space and time. When you travel by modern means, present takes on a whole new feel as it flies past at artificial speed.

Drive 400 miles in 7 hours and you feel hurled into your destination as if it were a backstop on a ball field. You don’t feel alive for a day or two as your body chides you for attempting to play god with time and space. The same kind of thing happens, says Annie, when you leave a theater mid-movie. Stepping from the imitation to the real, from time-suspended to time-absorbed – it shocks the soul.

This gas station is no ordinary stop. In her quiet waiting at the station Annie feels the surrounding Virginia panorama. “Shadows lope along the mountain’s rumpled flanks,” she says. Of course mountains have flanks, at least that’s what I’ve always said. And shadows lope. Yes they do, we just never stop to see, to know, to feel. Later on she says mountains are “hunched.” My thought exactly! Except not, because I was never sufficiently present.

Present. This chapter could theoretically be the whole book for Tinker is about being in time rather than marking it. When we are truly ‘present in the present’ artificial (clock) time is forgotten. Instead such moments know life by the moving sun, or as darkness creeps in beneath the clouds.

Clock time is construct, thief, imposter: claiming – tyrant-like — allegiance, devotion, and surrender. But it loses power when you learn to be with those around you; when you listen, hear, and see the very earth in all its expressions; when you dare to engage ‘the present circumstances’ as the simple and real stuff of life.

Annie says living in the present lets us “catch grace as a man fills his cup at a waterfall.”

And she lays waste, again, to self-consciousness as the enemy of the present: of life itself, one might say. It made me wonder if self-consciousness gets in the way like two mirrors facing one another. Self-reflection repeats itself until there is nothing left. Innocence is better than self-consciousness, she says: a wide-eyed openness and settled intent to receive the real rather than imagine we will re-make it.

Innocence for Annie? “At once a receptiveness and total concentration.”

But why, I wonder, serve and revere the present? Is this the dictum of one Ben Franklin that calls us to treasure time? Surely it is more. The present is life and let’s not reduce life to a clock. How much time do I have left in this world? I don’t know and I’m not going to trouble over what I can’t know. In fact, knowing is oversold: living is better.

Living- that is – in the present.

Platitudes like this are worn but no less true for that. Some cultures, wiser, tell us not to look forward but backward, for only there can we see the countless points of presence that make us who we are today. Look forward and there is nothing to see. It is too much for me, but before I die I want to learn to love life by loving the present.

Tolstoy has a famous short story about how much land a man needs. A man is told to circumvent as much acreage as he can, and it will belong to him if only he arrives at the starting point by sundown. He runs hard and fast to encompass as much as possible but his ill-prepared body succumbs to the exertion and he dies upon reaching the starting point as the sun is setting. There he is buried and we are told he had all the land a man ever needs: enough for his own grave.

How much time do I need? The present is all. The past is no more and the next moment does not exist. To say I need the present is simply to affirm life, for there is no life outside of the present. The present is the only place we live.

Even if I live to be one hundred years my whole life will be described (inadequately) as a compilation of moments. And whenever I missed the moment, I wasn’t really living. The present is enough because it is all I can hope to manage, and learning to manage it is a lifetime endeavor.

Presence is a kind of anchor that transcends time. It is presence that rightly demands “allegiance, devotion, surrender.” Presence is the central gift of life: existence, wonder, scintillating joy and discovery. Whatever life is, it is the present. I think this is true but it is too much for me.

Though this is a second reading, I’ll not finish the chapter. Annie holds forth beautifully on trees, and it is enough to know those trees, the trees along that bank where I once mowed, are all but certainly long gone. At one moment they were no more and so shall be with all things in this life. We know, we are aware, we are present. And then, in some moment as real as all the others, we are not.

I wonder if that is what some theologians call “the eternal now.” And I dare to believe that must be a right conception, and that in that day, a moment never ending, we will finally know that for which the wonder of presence is a clue.

Puzzling, heart-breaking, stupefying: but a clue nonetheless.

That’s reason enough to learn to live in the present. Figure that out. Rather, let it figure you out, for the reality is vastly more than you and I. But if we go there, game on! We become more than we ever imagined.

For we only learn to “hold” the present when we let it hold us.

Randy Huff

Randy Huff and his wife lived for 5 years in Roanoke (Hollins) where they raised 2 sons. Randy served as Dean of Students at a Christian school and then worked in construction. For the last 8 years he has served as pastor of a church in North Pole, Alaska.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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