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When Things Fall Apart: Tibetan Buddhist Nun and Teacher Pema Chödrön on Transformation Through Difficult Times

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”

When Things Fall Apart: Tibetan Buddhist Nun and Teacher Pema Chödrön on Transformation Through Difficult Times

In every life, there comes a time when we are razed to the bone of our resilience by losses beyond our control — lacerations of the heart that feel barely bearable, that leave us bereft of solid ground. What then?

“In art,” Kafka assured his teenage walking companion, “one must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.” As in art, so in life — so suggests the American Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön. In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (public library), she draws on her own confrontation with personal crisis and on the ancient teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to offer gentle and incisive guidance to the enormity we stand to gain during those times when all seems to be lost. Half a century after Albert Camus asserted that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” Chödrön reframes those moments of acute despair as opportunities for befriending life by befriending ourselves in the deepest sense.

“Liminal Worlds” by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Writing in that Buddhist way of wrapping in simple language the difficult and beautiful truths of existence, Chödrön examines the most elemental human response to the uncharted territory that comes with loss or any other species of unforeseen change:

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.

This clarity, Chödrön argues, is a matter of becoming intimate with fear and rather than treating it as a problem to be solved, using it as a tool with which to dismantle all of our familiar structures of being, “a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking.” Noting that bravery is not the absence of fear but the intimacy with fear, she writes:

When we really begin to do this, we’re going to be continually humbled. There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding on to ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.

In essence, this is the hard work of befriending ourselves, which is our only mechanism for befriending life in its completeness. Out of that, Chödrön argues, arises our deepest strength:

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.

[…]

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

“Broken/hearted” by Maria Popova. Available as a print.

Decades after Rollo May made his case for the constructiveness of despair, Chödrön considers the fundamental choice we have in facing our unsettlement — whether with aggressive aversion or with generative openness to possibility:

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.

To stay with that shakiness — to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge — that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic — this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation — harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.

Half a century after Alan Watts began introducing Eastern teachings into the West with his clarion call for presence as the antidote to anxiety, Chödrön points to the present moment — however uncertain, however difficult — as the sole seedbed of wakefulness to all of life:

This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it’s always with us.

[…]

We can be with what’s happening and not dissociate. Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Remaining present and intimate with the moment, she argues, requires mastering maitri — the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness toward oneself, that most difficult art of self-compassion. She contrasts maitri with the typical Western therapy and self-help method of handling crises:

What makes maitri such a different approach is that we are not trying to solve a problem. We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time. Thoughts, emotions, moods, and memories come and they go, and basic nowness is always here.

[…]

In the midst of all the heavy dialogue with ourselves, open space is always there.

Another Buddhist concept at odds with our Western coping mechanisms is the Tibetan expression ye tang che. Chödrön explains its connotations, evocative of Camus’s insistence on the vitalizing power of despair:

The ye part means “totally, completely,” and the rest of it means “exhausted.” Altogether, ye tang che means totally tired out. We might say “totally fed up.” It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope — that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be — we will never relax with where we are or who we are.

[…]

Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

Decades after Simone de Beauvoir’s proclamation about atheism and the ultimate frontier of hope, Chödrön points out that at the heart of Buddhism’s approach is not the escapism of religion but the realism of secular philosophy. And yet these crude demarcations fail to capture the subtlety of these teachings. She clarifies:

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God… Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.

[…]

Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the journey with the hope of getting security… Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness.

[…]

When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself… In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things.

Art from The Lion and the Bird by Marianne Dubuc

Only through such active self-compassion to our own darkness, Chödrön suggests, can we begin to offer authentic light to anybody else, to become a force of radiance in the world. She writes:

We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.

Complement the immensely grounding and elevating When Things Fall Apart with Camus on strength of character in times of trouble, Erich Fromm on what self-love really means, and Nietzsche on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, then revisit Chödrön on the art of letting go.

BP

Kierkegaard on Time, the Fullness of the Moment, and How to Bridge the Ephemeral with the Eternal

“The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.”

Kierkegaard on Time, the Fullness of the Moment, and How to Bridge the Ephemeral with the Eternal

“All eternity is in the moment,” Mary Oliver wrote with an indebted eye to Blake and Whitman. “[Is] only the present comprehended?” Patti Smith asked two decades later in her magnificent meditation on time and transformation.

This temporal tension between the immediate and the eternal is one of the core characteristics and defining frustrations of the human experience — over and over, we strain to locate ourselves within time, against time, grasping for solid ground while aswirl in its unstoppable flow. We struggle to hold it all with what Bertrand Russell called “a largeness of contemplation,” but we continually suffer at the smallness of our temporal existence — suffering reflected in our cultural fascination with time travel, which illuminates the central mystery of human consciousness.

How to inhabit the time-scale of our existence without suffering and fill the moment with eternity is what the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) explores in a portion of his 1844 classic The Concept of Anxiety, later included in the indispensable volume The Essential Kierkegaard (public library).

Søren Kierkegaard

A century before Borges’s famous proclamation — “time is the substance I am made of” — and more than a century and a half before Einstein revolutionized human thought by annealing our two primary modes of existence to one another in the single entity of spacetime, Kierkegaard writes:

Man … is a synthesis of psyche and body, but he is also a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal.

Centuries before physicists came to explore the science of why we can’t remember the future, Kierkegaard probes our familiar temporal ordering of events and experiences:

If time is correctly defined as an infinite succession, it most likely is also defined as the present, the past, and the future. This distinction, however, is incorrect if it is considered to be implicit in time itself, because the distinction appears only through the relation of time to eternity and through the reflection of eternity in time. If in the infinite succession of time a foothold could be found, i.e., a present, which was the dividing point, the division would be quite correct. However, precisely because every moment, as well as the sum of the moments, is a process (a passing by), no moment is a present, and accordingly there is in time neither present, nor past, nor future. If it is claimed that this division can be maintained, it is because the moment is spatialized, but thereby the infinite succession comes to a halt, it is because representation is introduced that allows time to be represented instead of being thought. Even so, this is not correct procedure, for even as representation, the infinite succession of time is an infinitely contentless present (this is the parody of the eternal).

[…]

The present, however, is not a concept of time, except precisely as something infinitely contentless, which again is the infinite vanishing. If this is not kept in mind, no matter how quickly it may disappear, the present is posited, and being posited it again appears in the categories: the past and the future.

The eternal, on the contrary, is the present. For thought, the eternal is the present in terms of an annulled succession (time is the succession that passes by). For representation, it is a going forth that nevertheless does not get off the spot, because the eternal is for representation the infinitely contentful present. So also in the eternal there is no division into the past and the future, because the present is posited as the annulled succession.

Time is, then, infinite succession; the life that is in time and is only of time has no present. In order to define the sensuous life, it is usually said that it is in the moment and only in the moment. By the moment, then, is understood that abstraction from the eternal that, if it is to be the present, is a parody of it. The present is the eternal, or rather, the eternal is the present, and the present is full.

Illustration by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick, 1960

Nearly two centuries before the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard so poetically observed that “if our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” Kierkegaard arrives at the problem of definition and the paradox of defining time-as-succession via the instant:

If at this point one wants to use the moment to define time and let the moment signify the purely abstract exclusion of the past and the future and as such the present, then the moment is precisely not the present, because the intermediary between the past and the future, purely abstractly conceived, is not at all. Thus it is seen that the moment is not a determination of time, because the determination of time is that it “passes by.” For this reason time, if it is to be defined by any of the determinations revealed in time itself, is time past. If, on the contrary, time and eternity touch each other, then it must be in time, and now we have come to the moment.

With an eye to the ancient Greeks, Kierkegaard considers the not uncomplicated loveliness emanating from what Plato called “the sudden”:

“The moment” is a figurative expression, and therefore it is not easy to deal with. However, it is a beautiful word to consider. Nothing is as swift as a blink of the eye, and yet it is commensurable with the content of the eternal… Whatever its etymological explanation, [“the sudden”] is related to the category of the invisible, because time and eternity were conceived equally abstractly, because the concept of temporality was lacking, and this again was due to the lack of the concept of spirit. The Latin term is momentum (from movere [to move]), which by derivation expresses the merely vanishing.

Thus understood, the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

At this meeting point of the ephemeral and the eternal, Kierkegaard argues, our entire experience of time plays out:

The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited, whereby time constantly intersects eternity and eternity constantly pervades time. As a result, the above-mentioned division acquires its significance: the present time, the past time, the future time.

And yet this temporal taxonomy suggests that past, present, and future don’t exist on equal terms:

The future in a certain sense signifies more than the present and the past, because in a certain sense the future is the whole of which the past is a part, and the future can in a certain sense signify the whole. This is because the eternal first signifies the future or because the future is the incognito in which the eternal, even though it is incommensurable with time, nevertheless preserves its association with time… The moment and the future in turn posit the past.

[…]

The fullness of time is the moment as the eternal, and yet this eternal is also the future and the past. If attention is not paid to this, not a single concept can be saved from a heretical and treasonable admixture that annihilates the concept.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly revelatory The Essential Kierkegaard with T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to time, the story of how Einstein and Gödel redefined our understanding of it, Virginia Woolf on the past and how to live more fully in the present, and Hannah Arendt on time, space, and our thinking ego, then revisit Kierkegaard on boredom, the trap of busyness, the power of the minority, and why haters hate.

BP

Hourglass: Dani Shapiro on Time, Memory, Marriage, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Change even one moment, the whole thing unravels… There is no other life than this. You would not have stumbled into the vastly imperfect, beautiful, impossible present.”

Hourglass: Dani Shapiro on Time, Memory, Marriage, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person,” philosopher Amelie Rorty concluded in her taxonomy of the seven layers of identity in literature and life. “Time is the substance I am made of,” wrote Borges decades earlier in refuting the most perplexing dimension of existence. “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

How is it, then, that we live both in time and outside of time, with it and against it, constantly balancing between resistance and surrender as we sculpt ourselves through our choices across life? “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” wrote the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in contemplating our paradoxical experience of time.

That delicate, ferocious act of unsweeping ourselves from the river of time and unplundering its instants is what Dani Shapiro explores with uncommon elegance in Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage (public library) — at once a memoir and a quiet manifesto for how, despite the cavalcade of losses and the exponential narrowing of possibility marking the passage of the years, it remains possible to have an expansive and creatively invigorating existence. In Shapiro’s virtuosic hands, time compresses and expands — an accordion playing the sorrowful yet redemptive melody that is life.

Dani Shapiro by Kate Uhry
Dani Shapiro by Kate Uhry

Radiating from Shapiro’s particular life-story is a larger inquiry into the universal puzzlement of “the selves we shed and shed — only to have them rise within us once more.” As she leafs through her old journals — her way of ordering the chaos of life, “an attempt to separate the interior from the exterior,” replete with long-ago lists of fossilized intentions — she marvels:

How do you suppose time works? A slippery succession of long hours adding up to ever-shorter days and years that disappear like falling dominoes? Near the end of her life, Grace Paley once remarked that the decades between fifty and eighty feel not like minutes, but seconds. I don’t know yet if this is the case, but I do know this: the decades that separate that young mother making her lists from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and I’m back there. But is she here? How can I tell her that her lists will not protect her?

Shapiro, both a novelist and a masterly memoirist, considers the building blocks of selfhood in literature and life:

In crafting a work of fiction, at least in first draft, a writer’s got to have a kind of willful blindness to her own motivations. Why the knock at the door, the chance meeting, the near miss? The writer may not know, even as she proceeds. But when the self — not a fictional character — is the landscape of the story, we can’t afford to be blind to our own themes and the strands weaving through them. And so we must make a map, even as the ground shifts beneath us.

This is, of course, not only a literary problem.

New York City is particularly fertile territory for the continual mapping and remapping of the self, with its peculiar way of populating the present with every past version of oneself. With wistful wonderment, Shapiro addresses her 22-year-old self vanishing behind a New York street corner, addresses the universal inner child in each of us, in everyone who has ever grown up:

Oh, child! Somewhere inside you, your future has already unfurled like one of those coiled-up party streamers, once shiny, shaken loose, floating gracefully for a brief moment, now trampled underfoot after the party is over. The future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches you as you vanish.

Illustration by Isol from Daytime Visions

Echoing Simone de Beauvoir’s reflections on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, Shapiro writes:

Each fork in the road: the choice to stay home, to go out, to catch the flight, or cancel it, to take the 1 train, to stop at the bar on the corner. The chance encounters, split-second decisions that make the design — that are the design.

[…]

Change even one moment, the whole thing unravels. The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot.

In a sentiment that calls to mind astrophysicist Janna Levin’s magnificent Moth story about the Möbius life-paths that lead us back to ourselves, Shapiro adds:

There is no other life than this. You would not have stumbled into the vastly imperfect, beautiful, impossible present.

There is, of course, a powerful meta-truth to such a recognition within a memoir — an almost countercultural willingness to consider the past, that raw material of memoir, not as a predecessor of the present but as its twin of permanent residence. We don’t so much emigrate from the past to the present, Shapiro suggests, as we hold a lifelong dual citizenship that confers upon us as many rights as it does responsibilities, particularly when it comes to the stories we tell about our own lives. With an eye to this meta-dimension of her craft, Shapiro — who has observed that writing memoir “embeds your story deep inside you” — offers:

I used to tell my students that in order to write memoir — or at least good memoir, the kind that will be of value to the disinterested reader — the writer has to have some distance from the material. I was quite certain that we could not write directly from our feelings, but only the memory of our feelings. How else to find the necessary ironic distance, the cool remove? How else to shape a narrative but from the insight and wisdom of retrospect?

But like every fixed idea, this one has lost its hold on me as years have passed and the onrushing present — the only place from which the writer can tell the story — continues to shift along with the sands of time. Our recollections alter as we attempt to gather them. Even retrospect is mutable. Perspective, a momentary figment of consciousness. Memoir freezes a moment like an insect trapped in amber. Me now, me then. This woman, that girl. It all keeps changing. And so: If retrospect is an illusion, then why not attempt to tell the story as I’m inside of it? Which is to say: before the story has become a story?

Then there are the moments of the story, of a life, that stand as what T.S. Eliot so memorably called “the still point of the turning world.” Shapiro relays one particularly poignant touchpoint of past and present — the kind in which the arrow of time pierces the heart of the human experience:

At the end of the first evening at a large retreat, an old man approaches as I’m packing up my books and papers for the night. He looks at me with such warmth and love. Do I know you? Startled, I glance down at his name tag. I raise a hand to my mouth, then stand and hug him hard, wordlessly. He had been my first piano teacher.

“I read a book review of yours in the Times,” he tells me. “Which led me to read all of your work. I had to come see you”

[…]

He has traveled hundreds of miles to see me. He tells me of the loss of one of his adult children, tears standing still in his eyes. What’s left? he wonders aloud. What’s left? He asks the question as if he believes I may know the answer. At first, I feel a wave of fear. What do I know? What can I possibly offer this man who saved me every Wednesday afternoon of my childhood? … I fight back my own tears as the first measures of Mozart’s Sonata no. 11 in A Major begin to play in my head. Be who you needed when you were younger. He reaches out a trembling hand and I take it.

Looking back on the wild mosaic of her life — two catastrophic youthful marriages and one, to the love of her life, that has grown for eighteen years; a life devoted entirely to art and thus bedeviled by the artist’s ongoing struggle for survival; the near-loss of her infant son Jacob, now a handsome teenager, to a rare seizure disorder; 9/11; her father’s death in a car crash; the myriad unpredictable turns in the road that make a person precisely the person they are — Shapiro writes:

Dig deep enough and everything that has ever happened is alive and whole, a world unto itself — scenes, words, images — unspooling in some other dimension. I am not referring to memory, but rather, to a galaxy that exists outside the limited reach of memory. It can be understood, perhaps, as the place where neurobiology ends and physics begins. The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant — it is said to be conserved over time.

All those selves — that inner crowd — clamor inside me. The girl who believed men would save her. The young woman who made harsh and quick work of herself — savage obstinacy — and nearly succeeded in her blind, flailing quest for self-ruin. The one who said I do, and then didn’t. The one who kept journals despite it all. The one who turned over the shovelful of earth and heard it hit the plain pine box six feet below — once, twice. The one who said I do, then did. The one who wrote books as if her life depended on it. The one who held her baby to her breast and sang Hush little baby don’t you cry. The one who was going to save him or die trying. The one who fled the city after the towers fell. The one who grew up. The one — now — with her boy on the verge of manhood, her man struggling with his own wounded spirit, who is consumed with a sense of urgency. From fifty to eighty.

Somewhere, a clock ticks. Sand pours through the hourglass. I am no longer interested in the stories but rather, what is underneath the stories: the soft, pulsating thing that is true.

Illustration by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick, 1960

Shapiro’s 91-year-old aunt pulls into sharp relief the urgency of inhabiting those deeper stories and the timescales on which they unfold:

“You know,” my aunt says, “I once had a terribly difficult period that lasted twenty-four years.” Wait. Twenty-four years? “And it was so important to realize that I didn’t know what was on the other side of the darkness. Every so often there was a sliver of light that shot the whole world through with mystery and wonder, and reminded me: I didn’t have all the information.”

Reflecting on her own glimmers of darkness-dispelling illumination, Shapiro writes:

Sometimes I think I have organized the inner crowd. For a brief, breathtaking moment, I feel completely whole. I understand that I am comprised of many selves that make up a single chorus. To listen to the music this chorus makes, to recognize it as music, as something noble, varied, patterned, beautiful — that is the work of a lifetime.

What makes the book especially powerful is the intrepid rawness with which Shapiro examines the essential counterpart to that inner crowd — her marriage to M., in which their two selves are reoriented and recalibrated so that “suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters.” The treachery of time then becomes double treason, but there is also something deeply redemptive in the presence of the two banks facing each other along the river of time, on which to shore up against the merciless flow.

Pulling out her wedding vows from a yellowed old envelope, Shapiro writes:

I can no longer say to M. that we’re just beginning… That solid yet light thing — our journey — is no longer new. He identified my mother’s body. We took turns holding our seizing child. We have watched his mother disappear in plain sight. We have raised Jacob together. We know each other in a way that young couple couldn’t have fathomed. Our shared vocabulary — our language — will die with us. We are the treasure itself: fathoms deep, in the world we have made and made again.

With an eye to the ongoingness of that making against time’s destruction, which is the ultimate material of life, Shapiro writes:

Years vanish. Months collapse. Time is like a tall building made of playing cards. It seems orderly until a strong gust of wind comes along and blows the whole thing skyward. Imagine it: an entire deck of cards soaring like a flock of birds.

Complement the thoroughly transcendent Hourglass with Bertrand Russell on the nature of time, Virginia Woolf on its elasticity, and Marc Wittmann on the psychology of how we experience it, then revisit Shapiro on writing and vulnerability and why creative work requires leaping into the unknown.

BP

Nina Simone on Time

A meditation on the one dimension of human existence that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts.”

Nina Simone on Time

“If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” wrote the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard as he contemplated our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s just as Einstein, Gödel, and the rise of relativity had begun revolutionizing our understanding of time. “Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges proclaimed a generation later in his exquisite 1944 refutation of time. “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

If Borges’s words sound like a song lyric, it is because there is something singularly musical about our perception of time — we speak of our daily rhythms, abide by the metronomic ticking of the clock, and feel the flow of time like one feels the flow of a melody. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the elusive and indomitable nature of time preoccupied not only the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and writers, but also one of its greatest musicians: Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Nina Simone (February 21, 1933–April 21, 2003).

Nina Simone, 1969

On October 26, 1969, at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City, Simone performed a version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” written by the English folk-rock singer-songwriter Sandy Denny and popularized by Judy Collins. The version was released a year later on her live album Black Gold and was later included in The Essential Nina Simone.

Simone, who was at least as devoted to civil rights as she was to music, considered this “a reflective tune” that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts,” for it deals with the supreme unifying force of all human existence: the shared experience of time’s inescapable flow. She introduced her cover with a beautiful, simple, profound prefatory meditation on time — please enjoy:

Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say, “What is this thing called time?” What is that, the clock? You go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock and your coffee by the clock, and you have to get on the plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on and on.

And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then, one day, you look in the mirror — you’re old — and you say, “Where does the time go?”

WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES

Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving
How can they know that it’s time to go?
Before the winter fire, I’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know that it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
For I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

But I am not alone as long as my love is near me
And I know it will be so till it’s time to go
All through the winter, until the birds return in spring again
I do not fear the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Complement with the psychology of how we experience time, T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to the nature of time, and James Gleick on how our fascination with time illuminates the central mystery of consciousness.

BP

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