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Time and Space, Space and Time.

December 3, 2011

Midwinter spring is its own season

Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,

Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,

The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,

In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,

Reflecting in a watery mirror

A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.

In recent weeks, I’ve been nagged by a sense of space and time. I say nagged, because it keeps surprising me while I’m reading or listening to something. It comes from my familiar headwater of ideas and information: good ol’ fashioned books and podcasts. Call it Reading-Stephen-Hawking-in-the-Gobi Syndrome, but really, it’s been cropping up in too many things to count. I’ll just mention one because it’s concise. A Radiolab episode describes a Peace Corps Volunteer spending two years in the jungle in Africa. He’d lived in a small community, surrounded on all sides by dense forest—the people of his community only cleared enough of the forest to make room for small huts and meeting spaces. At the end of his service, he left the jungle and spent two weeks on the plains of Kenya with a friend, another Volunteer. The first, the one who had lived in the jungle, described his profound sense of anxiety and unease at now being exposed on the open plain. Without the comforting concealment of the forest, he always felt as if something was creeping up behind him.

The story worked itself in. I’d always been one to consider the vastness of the Mongolian countryside, and the Gobi in particular, as awesome, in the truest and most literal sense of the word. But I often have to stare at the ground when I walk to school, because the view almost triggers something like horizontal vertigo—instead of feeling like I might fall, I feel like I might walk forever and never find the end—like the axes on some giant, three dimensional graph of time and space.

Here I’ve been occupying this 12-foot in diameter circular tent for nigh on 15 months, every day stepping a little closer to closing what’s sure to be a major chapter of my life. The contrast between this little felt cave and that enormous horizon is part of the unease. I’ve also watched my town experience the explosive growth and development that mining money and job opportunities can offer when one of the largest coal deposits in the world is only a stone’s throw away. But mining is at once a rose and the thorn. I’ve been witness to millions of tons of rock pulled from the earth and moved around by machines that dwarf even the largest dump trucks you’ve seen with your average American road crew.

That is to the south of town. All I have to do is turn north to catch a glimpse of a desert that probably hasn’t changed a whole lot since the last ice age, and probably won’t change any time in the near future. Here I am, in the presence of both, and the collusion of the space and the time makes me a little uneasy—makes me feel a little exposed. I guess we just don’t notice these things until all of a sudden we do: the old and the young alive together, buildings that are older still, traditions and speech that are older than that, with the earth and rocks clocking in some time before that. It’s something the desert is uniquely capable of making apparent. I chalk it up to the size of the canvas and the scarcity of brushstrokes—like the way that painting by Georges Seurat looks strange up close but becomes an orderly picture from far away—you know the one, the painting of a Sunday afternoon in the park, featured momentarily in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Maybe those wild assertions of quantum physicists, about all times existing at once, aren’t so far off when we have a moment to break it down and take a long hard look at the picture in front of us.

The linearity of all of it is a little bit of an illusion, and so my fear of that particular line in Mongolia ending, of closing that chapter, is unfounded. As I said, it’s my open plain, and my exposure is limited only to my own introspection, no need to feel like it’s creeping up behind me. I have to believe that the person I’ve become here in Mongolia has a reality that follows me home, and conversely that the learning and changing I’ve done is really just a facet of the person I always thought I was. I can’t bear the thought that between here and there is an event horizon that refuses to let each time and place speak to the other, both the before and the after. Travel long enough in one direction and you’ll end up where you started, someplace where this soup of experiences and opinions somehow makes itself into a recognizable picture, and someplace where progress and being who we always were are one in the same.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate

When the last of the earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea

Quick now, here, now, always—

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

 -T. S. Eliot

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