Time and Narrative

As summer ends, in the social if not the geo-physical sense, I’m thinking back on the great films I saw and scripts I read, and nothing moves me to go back for a second visit like this episode of On Being, the radio show hosted by Krista Tippett. She interviews the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, in a conversation she titles “The Inner Landscape of Beauty.” It was one of his last interviews before he died.

O’Donohue was by this time a former Catholic priest who loved talking about his spiritual forefather, the 14th Century mystic Meister Eckhart von Hochheim, and about the Celtic mind. I suppose his idea that it’s uplifting to connect with natural beauty – that “landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.” – resonated after I’d walked inside a farmhouse after a long hike through this kind of landscape…

…and been practically forced to listen to this episode by my friends.

“Philosophically,” O’Donohue says, “stress is a perverted relationship to time, so that rather than being a subject of your own time, you become its target, its victim.” Isn’t that why we go to the mountains or the beach, to places with what he calls “an ancient conversation between the ocean and the stone,” to reshuffle the cards in the great gin rummy game we play with time, and deal out a new hand?

On a deeper level, and more relevant to the general content of this blog, one of O’Donohue’s refelctions on the American mind, as opposed to the Celtic, is the following: “It often seems to me here that a person believes that if they tell you their story, then that’s who they are….that there’s a reduction of identity to biography.” In other words, we get so fixated on our stories – we screenwriters, especially those of us who’ve made forays into public relations, preaching the art of story-telling as a way of putting a face on for the world – we sometimes obscure as much as we illuminate.

With so much to ponder about the relationships narrative has with identity – be it script to film, screenwriting to direction, or institutional history to present-day action – I need a reminder now and then about the questions that are deeper still. What the hell am I doing today? Or even, who am I? By coercing me to listen to this, my friends opened a portal to new ways of understanding this – in O’Donohue’s book Anam Cara, and his hero Meister Eckhart, two must-reads. A good place to start, it seems, is rethinking time.

Coincidentally, my wife and I attended a wedding here in Brooklyn yesterday, at which Whitman was read by the father of the bride. There was Whitman at our wedding, but also a poem called “The Time Wars,” by the American poet Tony Hoagland. It ends,

“We ourselves aren’t thinking about the future anymore.
What we want is to calm time down, to get time in a good mood,
to make time feel wanted.
We just want to give time many homemade gifts,
covered with fingerprints and kisses.”

It’s the last day of summer, but it is still summer. The sun is beating, and the afternoon dew on my back is as real as it would be if it were the first hot day of June.

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