An appointment is like a buoy on the tossing surface of a great lake. If I cancel a meeting with someone, I fear that it will never be rescheduled and that the coming together of our shared trajectories in life will drift off like bursts of wind or rain showers that abruptly cease; like camp fires that go out or the Biblical stony ground in which no seed can sink its roots.
When I ponder time and my relationship to the presence of time, each of the four Ancient Greek elements is active. Aristotle depicted the whole of physical reality as an intertwining of earth, air, fire and water; these four elements also play a role in the dance of time.
For anyone who has ever sailed, as I did growing up, water and wind are the most natural companions in the dance of time. Water gives shape to this dynamic, providing a firm support for the boat to dig in its centerboard and rudder, like a horse-drawn plough making its way across a field in spring; and the wind, steady or fitful, blustery or calm, provides locomotion–filling the sails as they capture the wind and carry it off in a different direction than the prevailing currents of air—allowing the boat to tack back and forth into the wind, as well as run free before it.
Out in the middle of the lake, either tacking into the wind with the sails pulled in tight over the gunnels or running before it with sails out perpendicular to the sides, like hawk wings during a long coast far above the forest floor below, we got to dance with the wind and the waves.
One afternoon, caught unawares by a sudden squall, our 14 foot dingy was yanked into a new direction and the mainsail swung out to the side–the rudder now useless to alter or detain the run toward the shore miles away. The bow of the small sailboat pushed deeply into the water under the weight of the wind and the rigging vibrated like a cello with all strings being bowed at once. There was nothing to do but ride it out and pray that the runaway horse of time would not pitch us into the four foot white caps through which we were careening–or that the front of the boat would not plow under the surface like a submarine diving.
While sailing across the lake, fire and earth were also always right there. How could earth not be present? Without gravity there would be no lakes or oceans, no atmosphere, and no solitary walks across the face of the planet. We call our planet “Mother Earth” in acknowledgement that Earth is our home, the parent of all known life forms. Our planet feels rock steady, even immobile, in its stable presence under our feet. But when it comes to sailing upon the great open spaces of our cosmos, our Mother is no stay at home, no mere keeper of the hearth. She sets the metronome of the seasons and, along with Sister Moon, she measures out the unfolding or our lives.
What about the element of fire? Is the burning of the Sun–which illuminates the white caps and the far shore, which reflects off the face of the Moon when we are wandering far from home along unfamiliar roadways–also a face of time?
“Time is like lighting—flickering and flashing, playfully presenting without freezing anything in place.” Time, Space and Knowledge, page 108.
Time in its essence is more fire than air, water or earth. Time, when not measured out in the seasons or in our agendas, when not indexed to the life journeys that we think will never end for us, is a flashing and a sparkling; time is the crackling flames in a wood stove on a cold night; it’s the living bursts of energy, heat and neural impulses which animate our bodies and minds. There is always fire at the heart of all our tamed-down strategies to harness time’s energy.
Without fire, there would be no life. Just ask the trees.
Just ask the leaves, as their roots, nourished by last week’s rain, weave a foothold in the earth. Just ask those millions of leaves–loyally transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen for the greater good–whether sunlight is passing through them on its way down into the darkness beneath.
Sunlight, detained on its voyage out to distant galaxies, tarries awhile with those leaves before being transported down into the dark depths for a season: where roots, busy drinking recent rainfalls, are able to imbibe because they are alive with the photosynthetic fire of the Sun. And in spring sap flows up branches and twigs until it reaches the leaves that are flagging in the sunbeams for their delicate landings: while each awaiting leaf bobs up and down and rocks back and forth in the summer breezes rolling by.
Like you and I, trees are citadels that stand between Sun and Earth. They are the juncture and the way, in which yin and yang pass one another in opposite directions, creating a pathway for abundant life. All living beings, but most impressively trees, are pathways under construction, bridges that carry the two way traffic of the actual and the possible.