What Is Time, Anyway?

rosetta coffee picture

What is time, anyway?  Slowing down.  Grinding the coffee.  Boiling the water.  Measuring the amounts. Smelling the coffee that almost always promises more than it delivers.  Looking out the window.

One of my relatives received a difficult medical diagnosis a while back. He is doing very well. However, the severity of the diagnosis made some of us stop and freeze momentarily, like rabbits on a lawn when a dog runs by.

We all know that bad news can come. We just don’t expect it to come at this particular time and at this particular place. That kind of news changes things, blocks the determined trajectory.  It’s like a doorknob coming off in your hands on a Tuesday afternoon as you are clutching your list and rushing out for groceries. Your plans were simply different for the time you had.  The door won’t open.  That kind of news makes you move in a different direction.

With all the ensuing medical discussions, something changed in my relative. He began to think about his daily experiences in a different way, to taste his moments differently, to mark them, to savor them. He loves to read about physics. As he reflected on his medical situation one day, he said to me, “What is time, anyway?” A simple enough question–but it struck me like an unseen low-hanging tree branch.  I haven’t been the same since.

What is time, anyway? I remember reading a letter Albert Einstein wrote to his good friend’s family after his friend’s death. He said that for physicists the “separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

Only an illusion. Physicists sometimes refer to the “block universe” theory (or “block time” theory).  This theory describes space-time as an unchanging four-dimensional “block” as opposed to the view of the world as a three-dimensional space regulated by the passage of time. In this “block time” view, all of the history of the universe would simply exist–like a mural, so to speak.

Physicists talk about this kind of thing.  If it were true, I can’t help but imagine–my life would be one tiny tiny segment in that vast mural. If you took a “microscope” and looked at my little segment, you would see all the variations of my whole life in them, all the choices I made, step by step. There would be few simple brush strokes in such a mural. Each tiny segment would probably, upon closer examination, be more like an increasingly intricate and complex tapestry–events, circumstances, people, conversations, thoughts, reactions, all weaving and interacting with each other in variegated colors. If you looked at my specific part of the mural, you would see the beginning of it, and the also the end of it, all in one viewing.  A life would seem less like a movie and more like a landscape.  So in one material sense, in a block universe, I would always be fully alive. Of course, I would always be fully dead, too.

It would be all there in the block. I can’t help but hang out in that block. It simply is, and I am a part of it. You can’t see the picture when you are inside the frame, and I am definitely inside this frame. In fact, I am so inside this frame that I can’t even see the frame–I’m not even sure the frame is there. So perhaps the medieval mystics who talked about God always experiencing one eternal present time, well, perhaps they would be right. God is the only one I know that would be outside this “frame.”

But back to the physicists discussing the issue, not those medieval mystics and theologians. I understand that a block universe theory is helpful for other equations and scientific observations to make sense. That kind of thing is so beyond me. Yet even on a sensory level, I realize I have no assurance that my senses let me know anything very specific about time. I certainly haven’t cornered the market in even understanding sound or smell or sight. Bats can hear more than we can and dogs can smell more than we can. Some birds show plumage in ultraviolet that humans cannot even see–the light spectrum is wider than we can perceive. Perhaps time is wider than our specific sense of consciousness can experience, perhaps much wider. We have no assurance our perceptions always tell us “accurately” what is.

What is time, anyway? This morning I made coffee very slowly and looked out through the fog.  I see the place where my two sons and I played tag when they were small, many, many years ago. In my mind’s eye, I see the image of us running back and forth, breathing heavily, laughing.  If those physicists are right, maybe we are always playing there.

Taylor Field

Upside Down Devotion

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Published in: on May 7, 2015 at 3:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Footprint of Night and the Rim of Light

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It’s not really about the coffee

Only now do I realize the hidden windfall of growing older–unrestrained excitement at the coming of the dawn. As a teenager and as a young adult, one had to fight off the grogginess of facing the morning, wrestling with the fuzziness of forcing the young body to wake up to the occasion. Morning could be wonderful, but it was such a dreary exercise even to move away from the amniotic warmth of the covers.

Now, evening is a fight. Morning is an amphetamine. At dawn the bed feels more like a trampoline. It is hard to stay still. Morning creates the illusion that everything is new; the dew has cleansed away the petty decisions of the day before.

Morning is a potion that imparts the impression that we can triumph over all those things that have defeated us already in the dark.

Coffee is a tiny symbol for that night footprint surrounded by the new light at the rim of the earth. Coffee is a black pool within a perfect circle of white, eternally dark until the snowy cream dives into the center and flowers into a tree.

Taylor Field
Upside Down Devotion

Published in: on November 20, 2014 at 5:37 pm  Comments (1)  

Monks Do It…

coffeemonk

One of the legends about the origins of coffee is that a goat herder in Ethiopia watched his goats frolicking about after eating from the coffee plant. Soon, one legend says monks nearby began enjoying the drink and found that it increased their concentration when doing religious studies.

I’m glad to hear that monks were in on the beginning of our love of coffee. Deep down, I’ve always felt there is something transcendent about holding that endless ring of porcelain heat in your hands, about tipping the cup to your lips and gauging when it will not burn, about feeling the heat go immediately to your brain, bathing your prefrontal cortex with clarity. Of course one can “see” better when reading a text with a cup of coffee. A friend sent me a poem by the mystic Rumi on my birthday. Part of it said, “Inside your face the ancient manuscripts seem like rusty mirrors.” I suppose that anything, if we take it seriously enough, can point us to something deeper, larger, clearer–something less like manuscripts and more like rain.

Taylor Field
Upside Down Devotion

Published in: on October 13, 2014 at 4:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why I Like Dr. Zhivago Even Though I Think He Is a Jerk

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I saw the movie Dr. Zhivago for the first time in the 1960’s when I was a teenager.  At the time,  I saw Dr. Zhivago as a superhero.  He was practical, he was a doctor, yet he was also a poet, and he had an appetite for life.  In addition, he was Omar Sharif, so he was cool and good looking, at least by the standards of the 60’s.   Likewise, his lover was Julie Christie–what more could one ask? In my pubescent mind, with prefrontal cortex not fully developed, Zhivago was the one to emulate.

 

I saw the film again in the 1980’s while I was living in Hong Kong.  By then I was married in my later 20’s.  I was shocked at how much my hero had changed.  He seemed weak-willed, unable to take a stand, just going with the flow of history like a top in a river.  His lack of moral fiber made him betray his own wife and children, and there is no poetic excuse for that.

 

Now, at 60 years of age, I am reading the book itself for the first time.  Everything seems changed again.  Before I read Pasternak’s book, I read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.  Nabokov was a wealthy, brilliant intellectual, and he left Russia during Russia’s civil war.  I could see the world through his eyes and understand his reasoning.

 

But Pasternak stayed in Russia rather than leave.  Their civil war was horrible–typhus, hunger, accusations.  For the first time, I tried to understand why a thoughtful writer would stay in Russia at that time.  Pasternak, it seems, saw the revolution as an essential change in society, and he felt that an individual may need to suffer greatly to help this new world come into being.  I suppose that the character Dr. Zhivago reflected many of his thoughts and feelings about Russia.  Dr. Zhivago stayed, took the menial tasks, endured.  Also, I imagine that the character Zhivago was a way for Pasternak to work out his feelings about his own marital infidelity.  In the book at least, Zhivago and Lara his lover are plagued by guilt because of what they do.

 

I still think that Zhivago was a jerk for being unfaithful to his wife Tonya, no matter how many layers of poetic romance we give to Zhivago’s lover Lara.  However, on reading the book, I do have a grudging respect for Pasternak’s desire to see a new society emerge, one without the oppressive structures of pre-revolutionary Russia.  Pasternak’s disenchantment with the revolutionary movement developed as he grew older and saw what Russia had become.  But my new, reserved respect for the author is not the reason I like Dr. Zhivago.

 

I like the character Zhivago, because in the midst of horrible suffering, he still appreciates the sky before a storm, the smell of the linden trees at the crowded train station, the color of the snow at sunset, the taste of white bread and jam when one is sick.  Pasternak’s success in portraying that part of the character of Zhivago, without being maudlin, is his genius.  Instead of being totally absorbed by the challenges of his life, Zhivago savors the moment in spite of the hardships, senses how wonderful each moment is.  In another venue, Thornton Wilder’s stage manager responds to the question whether anyone ever realizes how wonderful the earth is every moment, “Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

The songwriter David in the Bible understood all these good things coming from God, and put the secret in paradoxical language.  Here’s an example–”You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  For me this is one of the strangest images in the Bible–consuming a magnificent feast, surrounded by your enemies.  But the image smacks of truth.  There are always enemies, large and small, no matter how grand the feast is.  The art of life is appreciating the feast in the midst of the troubles, sorrows, and inconveniences.  The doctor in the novel understood that.

 

Yesterday was my day off, and I went to Williamsburg to a place that roasts its own coffee –a place called Oslo.  I have many unresolved problems and issues surrounding me.  The coffee served was simply their regular roast, in a classic white coffee cup.  The soft hum of the ceiling fans reminded me of the last of the summer murmuring through the open windows. A fly buzzed on the edge of the table.  The balance of the cream and coffee together was perfect.

 

Taylor Field

Upside Down Devotion

Published in: on September 13, 2014 at 7:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Best Cup of Coffee

best cup of coffee

It’s not really about the acidity or the origin or the undertones or the aftertaste or the barista. Not really. Coffee became something different long ago. Speak, memory, about my own first full cup of coffee ever. I was a skinny sixteen year old and I had been given a summer job working with some small-time ranchers. We were out building fence on the plains. On the first day, the foreman gave me a roll of barb wire that I was supposed to carry across a field, laying down the line as I went. In my flabby, television-conditioned, thin-muscled arms, the roll felt as though it weighed 200 pounds. I didn’t think I could carry it a step. The foreman saw me totter, and said something to me that has stayed with me for over forty years. “The secret is this,” he said in a steady voice as he looked at me directly, “every step, you take, it gets lighter.”

He was right. Somehow I made it through the day, sweating, tasting dust, having grasshoppers bounce off my pale arms, listening to the workers curse each other with a laugh. The next morning, for the first time in my life, I felt as though I was a part of a group of men, rather than part of a group of kids. My dad or my older brother weren’t there to lighten the load–I guess that I worked hard enough that they let me stay. At sunrise on the second day, we went to the small town diner. The smell of the dew on the grass of the plains at sunrise, when you have worked hard the day before, is one of sweetest highs I have ever known. That high is far beyond any alcohol or drug intoxication one can talk or write about in the city.

On the other hand, the smells of the diner, once we arrived, were different from the smells of the morning outside. Sweat and dust, because the workers only washed once a week, cigarette smoke, frying bacon, eggs, pancakes, and most of all, coffee. The booths had aged plastic on the seats, with metal rims around the sides of the tables, curving at the corners. The plastic cups, crystalized with overuse, held water and crushed ice. Somewhere in the background, country music played on a juke box. The men, with their skin as brown as a boot, made good-natured jokes at my expense and at the expense of my other friends who were also working there for the first time. I was so skinny, they called me “husky.” Before I knew it, a plate of scrambled eggs, hash browns, fat pieces of bacon were set before me. I gulped down the food, seasoned by laughter, loud laughter, men’s laughter–the easy roar of workers after a joke. No church chorus had ever sounded so good, or so holy.

I had never had coffee before. Dare I order a cup, like everyone else? Would the large waitress refuse, and call me “honey”? Would I wither in humiliation at the awkward silence? I took the chance. The waitress hesitated for the slightest blink, and then brought me a weathered cup on a beat-up saucer, and poured out the steaming black liquid. I put in milk and sugar as if I had been doing it all my life, and lifted the heavy cup to my lips. The coffee snapped the back of my brain like a bull whip. As I left the diner for another day of work, I strutted in my work boots like a rooster.

So that cup of coffee in a diner in Oklahoma was the best cup of coffee I have ever had. Portland, or Williamsburg for that matter, could never compete.

Taylor Field
Upside Down Devotion

Published in: on September 4, 2014 at 3:02 pm  Comments (1)  

Train Coffee

train coffee

We got up early to go to Grand Central Station. We found a booth on the lower floor there that served Irving Farm coffee. Irving Farm roasts its own coffee and has one location that is just about my favorite place to drink coffee in all of New York City. This booth on the lower floor was quite different from my beloved location, yet offered a pour-over, even in Grand Central. It was a bit dissonant to watch the kind barista slowly pour hot water over the coffee filter in the midst of the hustle and lines at Grand Central–like smoking a pipe while standing in a hurricane. But any day I can get a pour-over at a train station is a good day. The coffee was from Guatemala and had chocolate tones as well as a lemony tang.

We rode in the train, and, as always, I thought of the writer Thomas Wolfe. Thomas Wolfe loved train rides. He is quite out of fashion now, but was well-loved by readers in the middle of the last century. Six foot seven inches, he wrote his first novel just a few blocks from where we live in Manhattan. Legend has it that he was so tall he wrote the book standing and using the top of a refrigerator as a desk. His appetite for life was more than titanic. For example, when he wrote about riding a train, he wanted to communicate everything about what it felt like to ride in a train–the click of the wheels, the sound of the whistle, the moving countryside, the passage of time, the play of lights on the seats, the smell of the fresh newspaper, the voice of the conductor, the inner sense of being in between places, and on and on. His manuscripts on one experience often got totally out of hand, filling boxes.

I remember the view of my literature professor, forty years ago, surely a minority report. It’s funny what we remember. We were comparing Thomas Wolfe and his peer F. Scott Fitzgerald. The professor said that Fitzgerald accomplished his aim as a writer and Wolfe failed to achieve his goal as a writer. However, Wolfe was the greater novelist because Wolfe dared to do something so much greater.

Failing in order to achieve. I read yesterday a reminder that half of every successful resurrection is a death. Something to think about while drinking coffee on a train north of New York City, watching the old deteriorating buildings pass by like graves in the high grass.

Taylor Field
Upside Down Devotion

Published in: on August 30, 2014 at 3:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Baby Coffee

baby coffee

We got the call at 5:25 am in the morning. My son said that he and his wife were in the hospital, waiting to get a place on the delivery ward. We showered and came uptown and went to eat breakfast at one of our “baby diners”– diners around the hospital where we had awaited other babies. This one is one of those upper Manhattan diners, where every waiter is courteous, quick, and efficient. The place runs like a machine, especially at sunrise. I ordered a big breakfast, which came almost immediately. Then I slowed down and drank some “baby coffee”–coffee you drink while you are awaiting a birth. “Baby coffee,” in a diner, at sunrise, is some of the best coffee in the world. I remember very clearly the day that the baby’s father was born in San Francisco. Someone probably drank coffee and waited the day I was born in Enid, Oklahoma. Someone waited the day my father was born in Hobart, Oklahoma. I wondered what my other grandfather felt the day he helped my grandmother give birth to my mother in Yang Chow, China. In the generations before my grandparents, who sat at sunrise and who waited then? Somebody did.

We have to be knocked off our normal routine to think about time. We have to be forced to the hospital at dawn. Otherwise we seem blind to time. Psychologists tell us that the problem with blindness is that sometimes we are blind to the fact that we are blind. The new baby arrived at 1:06 pm that afternoon. Time.

Taylor Field
Upside Down Devotion

Published in: on August 25, 2014 at 4:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Please No Rats on the Table

Please No Rats on the Table

This picture is perhaps my favorite coffee picture of all time. The “Please No Rats on the Table” sign is real, the coffee is real, as well as the other “No Smokes No Booze” sign. Can you guess the context?

The sign was on a table in front of Graffiti Church–and is part of a ministry called Collide. Collide works with a group of people who call themselves “Travelers.” Appropriately, Travelers travel around, have a certain life style, and often have dogs. Their dogs are very important to them (as mine is to me). Sometimes they have other pets, such as rats. The pet rats are really wonderful, and very loving. They are fun to hold. They just look creepy to people who are walking by on the streets.

Thanks to a strong team, the Travelers like to hang out at Graffiti on Wednesday nights during the summer. This picture shows one of the tables where they eat their food and drink their coffee. Heidi, the Director of Collide, is a no-nonsense person. On Wednesday night, the signs make perfect sense.

Many people will remind me that context is everything. I don’t know. When I read the book of Isaiah, I notice that God starts out with a bang. For God, worship without the context of service is disgusting. Those are God’s words. It’s worse than rats on the table. I just wrote a book about that–not rats. Upside down worship. It’s coming out in May.

Taylor Field
Upside Down Devotion: Extreme Action for a Remarkable God

Published in: on April 30, 2014 at 1:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Take the Other Way to Work

Take the Other Way to Work

Even a coffee cup that is upside down looks different. The handle looks more like a nose. Then as I stare, the upside down hieroglyphics look more like an email. Later the base of the cup looks more and more massive, like a silo on a farm. I drink from this cup almost every day, but rarely look at it.

Tonight I walked back to the office and felt a compelling urge to walk around the block and come at the main door from the other direction. I never do that, even though I walk here twice a day. It takes about six minutes longer to walk that way.

It’s just that I never walk this way. The familiar streets looked alien to me once again, as when I first visited my friend here. I remembered the abandoned buildings that used to be upon this street. I actually looked at the new building on the once vacant lot where empty men and hopeless prostitutes used to gather, bartering in desperation. I saw the old gabled building where I stayed up all night helping with a shelter there–now it looks like luxury apartments. I paid attention. Every brick, every sign buzzed with electric clarity under the street lights. It felt like an empty movie set, and I was the only one left on the planet.

I turned the corner, and noticed the new bars and restaurants, right next to the older corner stores and the preschool. Everything seemed interesting once again. Because my eyes were not on the ground, I saw an old friend walking her dog, talking on her cell phone. I had to really look to recognize her as she emerged from the shadows of the building. I hadn’t seen her in years. She used to be in our children’s program. She is a grown woman now. I remembered that she lived on this block. It’s just that I never walk this way.

It’s just that I never walk this way. I came to the church building from the other side. Every doorway, from this angle, looked brand new. The windows, from this direction, shone above me like stars on the first night. I just never looked at them anymore.

I approached the doorway of my office from the other way. I put the key in with my other hand for a change. It felt different, as if it were the golden key to the iron door of life, and the door swung open–in the opposite direction. It’s just that I never walk this way anymore. It takes six extra minutes to walk this way, and I have other things to do.

Now I stare at my upside down coffee cup here in the office, at the handle pointing in the opposite direction. It’s profile looks less and less like a old coffee cup, and more and more like a
face.

Taylor Field
Upside Down Devotion

Published in: on March 18, 2014 at 2:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Leonard Bernstein’s Personal Gift to Us

Leonard Bernstein's Personal Gift to Us

Many years ago I met a woman in our mission who had read more books than anyone I had ever known. She lived in an apartment on the Lower East Side and before that she had lived in an abandoned building in the same area. She loved classical music, and particularly the idea of conducting music. She had always wanted to meet Leonard Bernstein. When I met her, she had just been diagnosed with cancer. The doctor had given her six months to live.
My wife wrote a letter to Leonard Bernstein, explaining our friend’s situation, and requesting a chance for her to meet him. Consequently, my wife and my friend were invited to a rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic–such a gracious response. Of course, my friend was exhilarated and a little giddy at the rehearsal. Afterwards, they were led to an area and were allowed to meet personally with Leonard Bernstein. He was kind and cordial to my friend with cancer.
It turned out that my friend with cancer survived and lived another fourteen years. Go figure. Leonard Bernstein, on the other hand, died soon thereafter. This is the circle of randomness and purpose in life that fascinates me. I will get back to Leonard.
So I have included a picture of some Armenian coffee, brewed in a gift that a friend gave me. I loved it, with the very strong taste and the foam on top. Susan and I drank some, then we packed more coffee in a thermos and made a trek to one of our favorite places in New York. Remember, we live on a very crowded street in Manhattan with densely packed buildings and very little greenery. Consequently, we went to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, one of the great city attractions of the nineteenth century. A little weird, I admit, but no crowds, and lots of huge old trees…and gravestones. We climbed to the highest point in the cemetery, pulled out our coffee, and looked at the stunning view of the Manhattan skyline. So much urban life brewing all around outside our quiet space. We prayed for our city.
We looked around the place where we had been sitting. Guess what we found–Leonard Bernstein’s grave–surrounded by some little trees (rhododendrons, I think). The little trees were lush, even in winter. It gave us a chance to be quiet for a moment, to remember our remarkable friend with cancer, a survivor, to remember Leonard Bernstein, the coffee we had drunk, the view, the trees. Heraclitus would have loved that moment of reflection–life comes from death, death comes from life, freedom from confinement, confinement from freedom, trees from a grave, a coffin made out of trees, a cemetery in the middle of a thriving city, a thriving memory in the middle of a cemetery. As the Christian poets hundreds of years ago would say, the tomb is a womb and the womb is a tomb.
With Leonard on our mind, Susan and I went to a huge bakery right next to the cemetery. They sell three loaves of fresh-baked bread for two dollars. The whole area smells of fresh baking. We sat down outside the bakery, next to the cemetery and ate the best hot bread I have ever eaten. Of course, we drank a little more coffee.

Taylor Field
Upside Down Freedom

Published in: on January 8, 2014 at 6:36 pm  Comments (3)