About a week has past since I took off my watch (I’ve lost track of time) in order to remind myself to spend more time focusing on this very moment of living; for showing up for life. For the first two days I found myself taking a peek at my bare left wrist; habits, it seems, are hard to break. Over the following few days, however, the frequency of sneaking a peek at my wrist diminished until yesterday when I noticed at the end of the day that I wasn’t looking at all. The simple idea that removing one ubiquitous reminder of linear time could remove the desire to actually know what time it is could actually happen quickly astonishes me.
Most of my life, especially since I entered kindergarten, was neatly tied to the clock. I had to get up and out of bed at a time certain in order to do all the things one does in order to arrive at school on time. The school day ran on a schedule with weird bell times; in high school class periods ran for 43 minutes, add 5 minutes for passing time and do that nine times each and every day…well you get my point. Because I was in school for a total of 27 or 28 years (from kindergarten through graduate school and a terminal degree (Ed.D.)) and because I spent the vast majority of my working life as a teacher and then as a professor, everything was driven by a calendar and a clock; sometimes it felt like a train schedule. One of my academic interests turned on the ethical meaning of time; how time itself is elusive, a simulacrum of the real yet without substance or space to give it form. Inspired by postmodern thinkers like Levinas, Derrida, Foucault and Heidegger, the theoretical question of time was something I pondered.
In retirement I learned a great deal about time and life; I could not help but put theory into practice. One of the things I retired to was, or more precisely, is making photographic images. The very act of making a photograph is the closest approximation to this very moment as one can ever come. A photographic image is most often captured in fractions of seconds freezing a particular moment in linear time that can never be captured again. A photographic image is, in effect, a simulacrum of the infinitely brief moment of the here and now. As I made images I began to think about how the photograph is, in fact, an historical artifact of the very moment the image was made.
Capturing a frozen moment in time is, at some level, a reduction of time and space into a single tangible trace of that which once was but is no more. The photographic image has the ability to squeeze four dimensions into two by stopping the moment and then flattening the image into a two dimensional plane, one which is not permitted to ever expand to its original magesty; a singular reminder of an unrepeatable moment. The image is a preserved, two-dimensional approximation of the very moment of capture; one that can not only be experienced by another but can act as a bridge to memory, to traces of experience remembered by a viewer of an image. The image itself is an artifact, a trace of that moment that always already happened.
So what does this have to do with me and my cancer? Only this…As I think about releasing myself from the trappings of linear time, time governed by calendars and clocks, I begin to immerse myself in the stream of moments strung together as if pearls snatched from the insides of an oyster are strung to decorate a neck. There is a string of moments that decorate my life, a life that I barely remember except as a string of traces, of memories, some vivid, others hidden away only to sneak up from time to time to remind me of imperfections. The traces of my memories are but whisps of the always already past moment, the moment of my personal exposure to the universe in which I reside.
Through a conscious act of releasing myself from the physical trappings of time, a discarding of the watch on my wrist, I am brought closer to the proximity of this very moment, the always already past moment of existence. Additionally, without the necessity of worrying about some possible future, my concentration on the now leaves me open to encounter the other, to be of service through proximity with the other. With proximity comes a terrible responsibility (not terrible in a negative sense, rather in a respectful yet difficult undertaking), the responsibility for the other. Ethical obligations force me to turn outward, to approach the other without reservations and without expectations for reciprocity, to be of service. Proximity is external to the self leaving little room for self-pity or focusing toward the interiority of the self.
Living in the proximate moment relieves one of the necessity to obsess about the future. It is enough to proceed forward in time while leaving traces of oneself behind. It is that ethical life I choose to live; looking outward rather than isolating inwardly. Being of service for others is the absolute key to living an ethical life. I learned this long ago from a dear friend, Lenny Stark; it is a fresh today as it was when I first learned this gem. It is that ethical obligation that carries me through these difficult times.