The Angel of Now

A meditation on the nature of time and a visit from an owl
The night was cool, too cool to stand outside very long, yet a slight mildness in the air pledged warmer evenings to come. In the twilight I could make out the long rectangle of my lawn and a dark strip of earth where winter flower beds ran along the east fence toward the silhouette of the garage with its peaked roof. Two stubborn patches of snow glowed whitely at its foot. Then something stirred, close to me. Something gathered and clotted in the darkness near the top of the fence. It fluttered with an inky, infinitely soft movement that was made more precise by its silence.

A bird had alighted. I couldn’t see it at first. I searched along the top rail and there it was — I met the full intensity of its eyes before I could name it — an owl, a small one, perched atop a fence post less than four metres from where I stood. We stared at each other, both motionless, me in spellbound astonishment and the owl broadcasting its hooded, imperious, and unblinking gaze. I wanted to get closer — I think I even had the naive idea that the owl might hop onto my arm if I proffered it. But after I had taken a few cautious steps, it rose up as soundlessly as it had arrived, floating up into the stars above a neighbour’s house and disappearing into the night. How marvellous! This mysterious bird had blessed my yard. After all, how often do you see owls in the city?

That evening, the owl and I became aware of each other — we met — and each regarded the other in an enchanted encounter that ended too quickly for me. Something ancient bonded us. Blood and miracle and twilight had combined in a single charged alchemy and I had, briefly, been in the presence of magnificence, of night’s own beak and talons. Time stood still.

The next day, I got out my old set of vinyl transfer letters and stuck the word “owl” in stamp-sized letters at the top of the fence post. I wanted to fix the actual place where the owl had landed — and I wanted to memorialize this special moment in time.

Time gives, and time takes away. That evening has been carried away along with all the other events of that day and that week. The snow that lingered for a few more days in the shadow of the garage, like the terminal moraine of a diminutive glacier, has disappeared, and the green tongues of crocuses have begun to poke through the surface of my garden. A new season has started — it is March 20, 2005, and at 7:34 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, spring will officially begin. Our timekeepers, who have refined their accuracy over the millennia to capture the exact instant of equinoxes and solstices, will announce the subtle moment of transition — the beginning of a new season and a signpost along earth’s 940-million-kilometre journey around the sun. Yet the cycles of the seasons themselves roll through the calendar like cogs caught in time’s great wheel.

The incremental passage from winter to spring seems stately enough, but I’m already behind the seasonal schedule. My yard needs raking and I see that the bricks that line the flower beds have buckled in the frost and need resetting.”O time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing!” as the English playwright George Peele wrote in 1590. I tell myself that I can do these chores next week, though the rising greenery in my garden has an urgent timetable that will eventually force me to act. I can hear spring ticking like a clock.

But I’m in no hurry. Friends have told me that I behave as if I have all the time in the world, and I suppose they’re right. I tarry over life-changing decisions: whether to move, whether to marry or divorce. I tell myself that I can wait it out. I tell myself that time is on my side.

To check this tendency, I have a digital Olympic clock posted over my desk that measures not just hours, minutes, and seconds, but tenths and even hundredths of seconds. It’s a sliding scale of time — on the left, the unmoving hours are posted like newspaper headlines. Next comes the stately procession of minutes, and then the seconds ticking by. To the right are the tenths of seconds. They worry me a little, with their molecular onward rush. But it is the hundredths of seconds that I find fascinating. They’re hypnotic, like a waterfall or a light show. They dance furiously, flashing by so quickly I can’t read them. Most clocks move stealthily, almost imperceptibly, but this one gushes time.

The Olympic clock is my chronographic mascot, reminding me that my leisurely perspective on time is an illusion. The days are whipping by more quickly than I like to imagine.

Is time really on my side? What does it have in mind for me? “To every thing there is a season,” Ecclesiastes tells us, “and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” But time is more than an orderly sequence of events. Without time, there is nothing. Time is both the dance floor and the music. Everything that moves and everything that seems unmoved is choreographed by time — it is everywhere.

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