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Living Outside the Present photo

All I do is force my son out of the present moment.

He’s five years old. For him, there is hardly anything but the present moment. He uses the word “yesterday” to refer to any time in the past, even a year ago. When we tell him a friend is coming to visit tomorrow, he says, “Tomorrow today?”

The experience he has of the present moment must be like a rapture. How bright is the sky? How sweet is the music? How much richness does a single instant contain?

As adults, we wish that we could spend just one minute in the shoes of a five-year-old. We read books that remind us how important it is to be present. We download meditation apps. We try to listen to the friends who say that the promotion won’t be as good as we hope and the presentation won’t be as bad as we fear. 

Return to your breath, the app tells us.

Life is a journey, not a destination, the saying goes.

And yet, my son is eating lunch, and we have to interrupt the meal for a potty break. The trip from the kitchen table to the bathroom is like an illustration of Zeno’s Paradox. Halfway there, he encounters a Slinky on the floor. Between the Slinky and the bathroom, there is a shadow that transfixes him. Between the shadow and the bathroom, we encounter a light switch. And you’ll never believe it: the light switch has a dimmer.

“Come on,” I say, “we need to get to the potty.” He acquiesces, barely. The return trip is a chance for the paradox to perform an encore. “Come on,” I say, forcing him out of the present again, “we need to get back to lunch.” Every minute from lunch to dinner, and from dinner to bed, tells the same tale. He wants to be in the moment. I want to move on. “Come on, it’s time to get to bed.” “Shut your eyes, it’s time to go to sleep.”

The present moment isn’t so rapturous when he’s at the dentist. Or getting an inoculation. Or meeting his kindergarten teacher after almost two years of Covid-careful isolation. What must it be like, after knowing only your parents’ faces and the faces of animal cartoon characters, to be confronted with a new set of teeth and eyes and ears, peering down from behind a face shield, casting a long shadow, exuding new odors from new armpits? “Don’t worry,” says the new face, “I’m safe.” How long will that moment last for my son? How long is a kindergarten day? The idea that his parents will pick him up at some point in the future does not register for him.

I don’t have a fond memory of being a five-year-old. I remember how endless those dentist visits were. I remember how much shots hurt. I remember sobbing at kindergarten drop-off, my tears not abating until the first snack. At night, I was so afraid of a burglar shooting at me through the window that my mom invented a lie that our windows were bulletproof. “Of course we made them bulletproof,” she told me.

Thank goodness I grew up.

There is hope in looking outside the present, toward the future. Imagine that you are in the dentist’s chair. Your jaw is wide open. The drill is in your teeth. It has been touching the nerve in your back left molar for ten minutes now. But you know that there will come a time when you aren’t in that chair anymore. And it is Friday afternoon—you have a weekend coming up.

There is a serenity in remembering the past, too. You have just lost someone dear to you. You don’t know how you will manage. Waking up tomorrow sounds impossible. Nevertheless, you have weathered losses before. It is hard, but your experience tells you that you will wake up tomorrow. You have done it before.

Hope and serenity may not be visceral feelings; a five-year-old may want nothing to do with them. Yet whatever peace of mind we’re invited to achieve by living in the present isn’t available to a five-year-old, either. “Common sense tells us,” Nabokov wrote, “that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” The terror in these words evokes the terror of childhood. Indeed, the words preceding these are: “The cradle rocks above an abyss.”

When someone urges me to live in the present, I wonder what they mean. I wonder what sort of acceptance or presence I would be better able to achieve if as I wash the dishes tonight, looking out over Lake Ontario, I think only of tonight, only of these dishes, and not how I once lived in Chicago, on a different Great Lake, and washed cheaper dishes in a smaller apartment, or how I may one day visit Manitoulin Island, on a different Great Lake still, when I am retired and my knees creak and my five-year-old has gone on to college, and I wash dishes there that belong to somebody else.

Those moments, past and future, as well as the centuries-old symphony to which I’m listening, seep into the present moment and add a depth, a joyous calm. When it is time to get to bed, I go without fear, no matter how dark it is tonight.