Vladimir Nabokov—literary stylist, lifelong lepidopterist—wrote, following his late masterwork Ada, a slim novel entitled Transparent Things. On the very first page, the book’s narrator posits the following statement about time: “When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntary sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!” While Nabokov’s novel veers off in pursuit of the duplicitously named “Person” and his sordid tale, Nabokov’s philosophy of the present moment, multiperspectival and enigmatical, stuck with me, novice that I am, leaving me in need of practice.
Let’s back up. Let’s jump ahead.
“Look. A transparent thing!” I said, as I entered the back door of our house, holding out an object for my wife to inspect. “You found a what?” she slyly answered, eyeing the less-than-see-through block of wood in my hand. I stepped down from the metaphysical soap box and said, “One of my trap nests…que está llena.” Lisa shook her head and went back to grading papers; I stepped back outside, pleased, smiling to myself.
That object, pictured above, may not be immediately recognizable to many. And that’s ok.
A closed door, a pebble, the bark of a tree, a loose floorboard, a shut book, an unopened letter, a missed phone call…almost any object or event, unknown or familiar, gives the mind opportunity to wander; it’s never long before a magic key unlocks the door, a phantom hand lifts the loose floorboard or reaches into the past and answers that phone. The mind jumps at the chance to get moving, budging ahead of the senses. The thing we were looking at or holding dissolves, disappears before our eyes like smoke into fog. The moment the past shines through, we sink out of the present moment, into the metaphysical transparency of memory and imagination. We lose hold of the day. Or, at least I do, often. It’s as if I fill an imaginary glass with imaginary water, over and over, never drinking anything. Daydreaming, I suppose some would call it. My mind races to supply answers to questions it needn’t have asked, forgetting the task at hand.
Left untreated, this traveling out of the present moment can be problematic, and probably irritating to others. Luckily it only takes the smallest amount of discipline (a deep breath, a hug or a handshake…at most a cup of coffee or a glass of wine) to return one to their senses; a little enjoyment, a little curiosity, a little wonder is all it takes. And so I’ll leave you curiously wondering about this image, that clay disc centered in that block of wood, fixed on its concentric orbit like a model planet. Consider it a gift, a temporary present of the present moment. We’ll tear the wrapping paper off in the next post.