Monday, January 29, 2007

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. *

"Why not go out on a limb? Isn't that where the fruit is?" --Frank Scully

I've always liked that quotation. I also believe it is absolutely true. I think about it whenever I'm feeling particularly cowardly. It helps me overcome it. Words help me overcome it.

I've always stood in awe before the power of words.

With words, simple words, we can delve into the past and the future, and all the various time blends that scientists must use big words to explain, but which writers can explain simply by using one or two of the helping verbs Ol' Miz Roberts made us memorize back in seventh grade.

Time machines in stories show the blending of times with numerals and fast-motion, whipping past the window of the machine, or by numbers going backwards or forwards on a dial.

Writers just use a helping verb or two.

Scientists discuss the concept of time, past time, present time, future time, using diagrams and equations and big, big words.

Writers just stick a "have" or "had" or a "will" in front of a plain old verb to show the same thing.

Past and future are the easiest to measure. They are also the easiest to understand, or comprehend.

"Already happened" and "not happened yet" are no biggie.

It's the present that's the most difficult to comprehend and measure, because even with all of our scientific knowledge, inventions, devices, equations, whatever, the present is too fleeting to measure. The actual 'present' is so fleeting, we can't even realize it ourselves. By the time we do, it's already gone. Blink, and it's past. Breathe, and it's past. Sit still; each beat of your heart is in the past, because by the time you are aware, it's too late, it's gone.

Look at your children. They're in the present, sure, if you want to call it that. Watch them sleeping. Each rise and fall of the covers is already part of the past. History. It's already happened.

And it will never happen again. Not that particular breathe. Not that particular heartbeat. Watch them play; this moment will never come again.

So often we say that we can't WAIT for a particular phase or week or school year, etc, to be over with. Be careful what you wish, my dears. . . . When it's gone, it's gone.

The actual present can't be measured, not by us, not yet. Use it carefully, for once you're aware of it, it's already part of your history.
And your history, and mine, are, of course, part of the history of mankind.

Ah, the power of words, that we can so clearly express the elements of time with just a few simple helping verbs.

I wondered about it. (simple past: one-shot deal, it's over.)

For many years, I have wondered about it. (present perfect: I was wondering in the past and I'm STILL wondering. Two times are represented here, one in the past and one in the present.)

I had wondered about it before I said something. (past perfect: both actions are in the past, but one is more recent than the other. Two times are represented; both past.)

I have always enjoyed teaching this concept, and with adult students, it's even more awesome. I've had students weep, during this lesson.

Words are powerful. A pen in the hand is power. Use words carefully, and properly. Choose them wisely.

Remember, there's a big difference between a wise man and a wise guy. And which would you prefer: a day off or an off day?


*Annie Dillard
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