Crux, Eternity, Hannah Coutler, Living in the present, Love makes us forget for a while, Memory and presence, Memory and the present tense, Only now, Remembering, Salvador Dali, Taken by Surprise, The persistence of memory, Time and Eternity, Time and Timelessness, Wendell Berry
You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise.
This passage comes out of Wendell Berry’s novel, “Hannah Coulter.” In it, Berry touches on the interplay of memory still being with us in the present tense. He continues:
Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind.
And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.
But you have a life too that you remember. It stays with you. You have lived a life in the breath and pulse and living light of the present, and your memories of it, remembered now, are of a different life in a different world and time. When you remember the past, you are not remembering it as it was. You are remembering it as it is. It is a vision or a dream, present with you in the present, alive with you in the only time you are alive. (HC [Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2004], 148).
Quoted in Crux, Vol. 51
The Past is not Past
In an interview with Crux, Berry elaborates on this passage:
The past is not past. My experience, that I suppose that comes from, is of living nearly all my life in the same place. I am very conscious—I’ve grown more conscious of it as I’ve grown older, and it’s very rich in my mind now—that every day I’m walking in the tracks and across the tracks of people I’ve loved, who are now up there on the hill in the graveyard. But they’re alive to me. It’s in the present that they live.
This has caused me to think a lot about time, which, it seems to me, is as mysterious nearly as eternity. I think time verges off into eternity, when we are living actually in the present.
A Generosity that makes us forget for a while
… In the large economy of this existence of ours there is a generosity, and very good things happen to us that make us forget for a while that we’re living in time. If we have good work to do, that can make it happen. Love can make it happen. Art can make it happen. Sleep even, on a good night, can make it happen.
When we Quit Counting
We live in the present only when we quit counting. If we start counting—the minutes, the hours, the days, the months, the years—we’re either living in the past, or we’re fantasizing—usually some horror story—about the future.
It has amused me a lot in my dealings with scientists to argue that the present is uncountable. It has no duration . . . at all. If you get it down to nanoseconds, then there’s half a nanosecond. And then there’s half a half a nanosecond. There isn’t any way you can measure it. If you start talking about it, it’s gone already. If I say “present,” it’s already past, you see. But if you’ve forgotten, if the thing you’re doing now makes you forget to count the time, it may be you’re in eternity: heaven or hell.
Quoted in Crux, Vol. 51
What does it mean for you to live in the memory of God?
For more in this theme, see “Time and Timelessness.”
For contrast, see “Biofeedback on Crack.”