Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sensing Space

I wrote earlier about my artist roommate’s comments about time. A couple of days later, it was about space. I think she had given up thinking I’d ask, so she made a demonstration about taking space for granted. Our apartment was in a converted old house; its door opened on the second floor and the apartment itself was on the third floor. I arrived home tired from the laboratory one night to find I couldn’t get up the stairs. I kept running into strings that were placed strategically across the stair well. First, I had to duck, then to step over a string, next to duck WHILE stepping over another string, etc. Needless to say, by the time I was up the stairs I was pretty upset.

My roommate was sipping a hot mint tea, sitting on the couch covered with an embroidered red Greek folk bed spread, watching my exertions with glee. “I’ll bet you’ll never take that space for granted again,” she said, getting up and beginning to disassemble the spider web of strings.

“Did you have to do this to me when I was so tired? I might have appreciated it earlier.”
”This is when you came home. I didn’t choose the time, you did.”

This experience made me aware of a staircase in an apartment, maybe not worth so much effort. But a lot of times since then, I’ve had a flash back to that moment, and taken in the details of a small, unusually shaped space in which I’ve found myself, the scraped paint, the way there is a little molding sticking out at the corner, the way the first flight is wider than the second one, the size and shape of the hickory sculpture at the turn, reminding me of a totem pole, its smell of furniture polish, the spot on the wall where she had killed a moth once and no one had wiped it off.

You don’t need this experience to become more aware of space, just imagine it happened to you, and think about spaces you’ve visited recently that could have had spider webs of string in them, and write.

Friday, June 1, 2007

When is time?

An artist with whom I roomed many years ago once said, “You really don’t understand time and space at all, do you?”

I said, ‘Well, if you’re going to explain, just start with time. I don’t think my brain can take in both at once.”

She looked at me in bafflement for a minute. Then she said, “Okay. Time. When is it?”

“What? You mean, it’s 2:30?”

“No! I mean when is the time, when is the time?”


“It’s NOW, that’s when it is. It’s always now. It’s never then, it’s never future time either. We’re trapped in a tiny sliver in between then and time-to-come. We have no influence over either the past or the future, only the present.”

“I see why we can’t influence the past, but of course we can influence the future. That’s called planning.”

“ No, the future…you can never go there and change it. All you can do is right now, something you guess might change the future. But you might guess wrong. Don’t you see? Time is a tiny, cramped spot, not the huge expanse we like to think about. Right now. If you don’t sense your surroundings right now, if you don’t observe, then you have wasted that part of life.” She looked at me quizzically.

I thought she was talking philosophy, a subject that can give me a strong headache. But I had a glimmering of the idea she wanted me to get. “It’s only now, but I still say the best use of now is to plan how to influence the future.”

“So that’s why you smoke?” I did at that time, luckily I’ve had the sense to stop.

“No, that’s why I can do experiments. The smoking is stupid.”

“Stupid now and stupid later. But the best use of now is to perceive NOW, not waste all your time planning for the future. We humans aren’t that good at planning anyway, and if you’re doing that, you’ll be missing what you could take in from your environment, human and otherwise.”