Life in the Box

Where do you live?

Your street address, city, country, latitude, longitude, altitude help pinpoint your unique space, defining it in a neat three-dimensional way. You, and only you, are in the space you occupy at this moment. But you will and must move on and that space will belong to another. As your world shifts, new scenes appear; old scenes reveal new features.

Inextricably related to the three dimensional world of the moment is another dimension—one of time. Gradually we realize the relative nature of time as we travel through it. It is a spotlight that has passed through the ages and illuminated those who have preceded us. The spotlight relentlessly moves on and will soon play on others yet unborn. We, like those before us, will become part of the background, the shadows upon which the present is projected. Autumn thoughts.

As I walk along a creek reflecting on these thoughts, I see things with fresh eyes. A sycamore tree stands tall on the bank. Its length, depth, breadth is far greater than mine and its future promises a longer time in the spotlight. But more does not seem better. I prefer my mobile limitations.

A tangle of berry vines builds upon itself, shading last year’s growth. The low leaves, eclipsed by the new, drop to become the earth from which new vines erupt. Animals live, propagate, die; moisture evaporates, condenses, falls. Nothing is lost; everything is altered.

The path dips down to the water. The chill fall air lingering in this dale makes me shiver. From a branch an insect chrysalis hangs, winter insulation. Leaves have turned red and gold and brown. Seedpods litter the ground waiting for the cold damp winter and warm spring to expand their tiny treasures.

I become conscious of yet another dimension—the dimension of temperature. When temperate weather reigns, there is little that calls attention to the limitations imposed by heat or cold. But with this temperature drop, I become aware of the narrow life zone within which I must reside. Few are the plants or animals with such a small temperature window. But once again, I will take my limitations.

These constraints of length, width, depth, time, and temperature define not just human life, not just life alone, but all existence—rocks as well as trees, comets as well as dinosaurs, air as well as oceans. Every minute, every second, everything resides within the changing boundaries imposed by these unfailing five. Never again will anything be exactly the same.

I live in a box that is my space, my time, my temperature, my address. If I try to step outside it, I will find the impossible is just that. Does this shifting, multidimensional box provide a haven, a safe harbor, a home for viewing the rest of the universe, or is it a barrier to struggle against until I am defeated? I am willing to accept its limitations. Life is where I live.

It’s About Time

The band-tailed pigeons have returned. Not that they’ve been gone; they’ve just been eating acorns in the woods.

Elderberry bushes and band-tailed pigeons have both been here far longer than most of our ancestors. The elusive band-tails come out of the woods as soon as the elderberries start to ripen on sunny slopes in summer. And the elderberries start to ripen as soon as it’s warm enough. Where I live this can mean any time from the Fourth of July to mid-August.

The band-tailed pigeon is not your ordinary pigeon. This large light-colored bird with dark bands across its tail endears itself by perching on the highest tiniest twig or wire it can find where it teeters back and forth alarmingly trying to get its balance. I usually start seeing them low on the mountain where the elderberries ripen in late spring. Week by week they work their way uphill as the elderberries ripen at higher and higher altitudes. When the elderberries are gone, the band-tails disappear until the next year when, somehow, they know precisely when and where to find a new crop.

Imagine yourself living without a watch, without a calendar. The adjustment might be jarring at first after having lived your life with time regimented by the precise increments these tools provide. How would you know when to get up, when to go to work, when to eat? You would know. You would know in the same way the band-tailed pigeons know it is time to climb the mountain following a trail of ripening elderberries.

Is there a way to capture some of this same freedom of opportunity in a world that now familiarly deals not just with minutes, but with nanoseconds? Can the tyranny of time somehow be kept at least partially at bay?

The first time I became consciously aware of the dramatic role my surroundings could play in orienting me in time and space was during an all night car trip with friends when I was in college. I was next to a window in the back seat on one of those dark, but bright, moonless nights—the kind where each star stands out brilliantly against a deep navy sky.

We were traveling east to west on a course that went unswervingly across a broad expanse of the Midwest. I slept and woke periodically and suddenly realized that the heavens were shifting above me. In that one night I learned how far the heavens travel in ten hours and got a sense of the passing of time that transcended the tick of a clock—a lesson that had eluded me during all the sunrises and sunsets of the two decades before.

I have a friend who had high blood pressure whose doctor prescribed that he quit wearing a watch. Although he works for a high-tech company, has three children and many commitments to his family and community, he took his doctor’s advice. He does not ignore time; he asks others what time it is when he senses he needs to. He finally got over looking at his wrist every few minutes. He is much more relaxed and seems not to always be in a rush. His blood pressure is now normal.

I am not advocating a life without calendars and clocks. But maybe having a few touchstones in the world to help locate us in time and space without worrying about the hour, the week, or the year can give us a chance to savor more elderberries when they are ripe.