While waiting in the cattle call line to board a Southwest flight from Oakland CA to Albuquerque, I struck up a conversation with the stranger standing next to me. I learned that he was a physicist working at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories and now on his way to Los Alamos Labs… the birthplace of the atomic bomb.
At that moment I remembered Albert Einstein who said,
“The most important question you can ever ask is if the world is a friendly place?”
This fellow seems friendly enough, I thought. Here’s a chance to ask him about his big question…Referencing Einstein, I asked if he had one big question, or if there was something developing in physics that he was most excited to be learning about.
Just then the line began to quickly move towards the boarding jetway. Time was running out.
With what seemed almost like a conspiratorial whisper and a wink and backward look, he answered,
Time Travel! It’s real. It ‘s possible.” And then…. he was gone.
Time Travel! I first started thinking about In the early 60‘s watching the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon episodes that featured Mr. Peabody, Sherman and the Waybac Machine.
From time to time since, I’ve speculated about where I would set the dial on a Waybac machine should I be so fortunate to have the opportunity to take a spin. What period if history would I most want to witness or participate in?.
Last week, I found myself having multiple ‘flashbacks’ while visiting a marvelous exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum, called Voices of the Counter Culture in the Southwest.”
Among the assembled treasures, were blotter acid pages, a tipi, geodesic dome, a classic perfectly restored VW van, and the original manuscript for Ram Dass’ classic book of the era, Be Here Now.
BE HERE NOW.
At that moment, I had an epiphany to pair with the flashback.
If time travel IS possible, the most difficult period of time to travel to… the most exotic and unfamiliar time and place, is the present. And of course, on the improbable chance that you ever make it there, the signs are posted… no loitering and no lingering.
But linger and loiter in the past we can and do. Here is a ridiculously trivial example to make a larger point.
I’’ll be going to a neighborhood mayoral candidate forum later this afternoon. Last night while sipping on a glass of wine I remembered an incident many years back with one of my neighbors. He has a fairly good size back yard vineyard and a number of years ago put out a request at harvest time… there was a thin window to pick the grapes at their best. Neighbors were invited to help out, with the promise of a bottle of wine at the end of the day. It was a wonderful day of hard work and good company, with the backdrop the Sandia Mountains rising to 12,000 feet, through crystal clear blue skies, made all the better by the anticipation of bringing home a bottle of a previous year’s vintage… I’d enjoy that wine and have the added satisfaction of knowing that I couldn’t possible me more of a wine locavore than that! The work done, I presented myself for my reward. And received it… a bottle of Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck! Have I let go of that deception, that betrayal, that bait and switch all those years ago? Apparently not! Last night, lost for a moment in memory, I drank sour grapes and missed the opportunity to enjoy the far better wine I was drinking in the moment.
Here is a story that gets to the bone and marrow of the matter. I’ve excerpted it from Mo Yan’s acceptence speech in 2012 for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
“My most painful memory involved going out in the collective’s field with Mother to glean ears of wheat. The gleaners scattered when they spotted the watchman. But Mother, who had bound feet, could not run; she was caught and slapped so hard by the watchman, a hulk of a man, that she fell to the ground. The watchman confiscated the wheat we’d gleaned and walked off whistling. As she sat on the ground, her lip bleeding, Mother wore a look of hopelessness I’ll never forget. Years later, when I encountered the watchman, now a gray-haired old man, in the marketplace, Mother had to stop me from going up to avenge her./
“Son,” she said evenly, “the man who hit me and this man are not the same person.”
Consider this parable from Paul Reps classic collection, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
The Muddy Road
“Tanzan and Eido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a ben, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.
“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. “ We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely one. it is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“ I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “ Are you still carrying her?”
I have to be honest with myself and admit that barely a day goes by when I
don’t find some some traces of old muddy roads on my time traveling boots.
From small grudges, to estranged friends and relatives, on to seething century old animosities between people and nations; the road towards healing, towards peace, towards our better natures and possibilities is littered by the seldom discarded anchors of the past. Burdened and blinded by these obstacles which include by the way, our often worn thin ideas, it becomes impossible to really take stock of the moment, and respond in a way that makes it more rather than less likely that we’ll achieve what really matters most to us. To love and be loved in return. To know that all our children, and they are all our children will be safe and healthy and provided for on a healthy planet.
We are like that monkey, hand stuck, clutching a banana in the bottle with a narrow neck. Trapped by what we won’t let go of, even to save our individual and collective skins.
Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose that banana that our monkey minds are clutching is an idea, and suppose that idea, is that the world is a dangerous and unfriendly place and always will be as evidenced by our personal and collective ‘historical record’ Let’s return to the rest of the Einstein quote now.
“For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.”
As part of understanding that universe, we need to understand our minds and hearts work. We need to understand how we thwart ourselves by holding on to the past when it no longer serves.
I’ll close with one more passage, this from Joan Halifax in her remarkable book Being with Dying.
“Some years ago, walking across the Himalayas, I realized I would never make it over those mountains unless I let go of everything extra. That meant I had to lighten up m mind as well as my overloaded day pack. It all came down to one simple sentence: Nothing extra! Just as these two legs carried me across mountains those same words carry me through complicated days. They always remind me to let go. The also remind me of the weightlessness and ease of a whole and dedicated heart.”
I see it’s about time to head to that neighborhood meeting. Now, all I have to do is remember… Nothing extra… and….
“The man who hit me and this man are not the same person.”
“ Mr. Peabody, please set the dial the Waybac Machine to Be Here Now.”
May peace prevail on earth, and sooner rather than later.