Time on the Horizon

August 30, 2022

Every August some friends and I gather for an annual “Nighthawk Watch” at the top of Washington Tower at Mount Auburn with legendary bird observer extraordinaire Bob Stymeist.  While most of the attendees are skilled “birders,” I am more interested in just hanging back and loosely joining what always turns into an annual reverie on light – for the sunset, the cycles of life – a meditation on the horizon, as well as on the cusp of seasonal change set during the magic hour.

As I edge past half a century on this planet, I have begun to think that in addition to being on the neurodiversity spectrum, perhaps I am also crepuscular?

In his book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World Philosopher David Abram synthesizes ideas formulated by phenomenologists Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty with the ageless wisdom of indigenous cultures spanning the globe.  Abram also points out how that for thousands upon thousands of years, human beings have seen themselves as part and parcel of a broad collective in and of nature – reflected and in active correspondence with wildlife, plants, geography, topography and other people.

I originally moved to Cambridge to undertake a master’s degree at Harvard University Extension. The job at Mount Auburn was a position I initially believed would be temporary, however I have now reached a twenty-five-year milestone in my employment at the Cemetery!

Looking back, the unfolding path of my life and my work at Mount Auburn has been extremely meaningful. I have tried many roles in the last twenty-five years: greeting visitors, editing a printed magazine, making slideshow videos, and taking thousands of photos of horticulture, built structures, monuments, funerary artwork, visitors, staff, events, and wildlife. And photos that I have taken have been displayed all over the place – at hospitals and libraries, in magazines, and newspapers and in books and on websites.  Some mornings I awake to pinch myself as if having lived a dream.  What a lark to have found a calling in this unpredictable, unprecedented life and world!

I have felt blessed again and again to work at an organization of great natural beauty and with deep vertical values – of compassion and empathy for others – over the last two decades. I am not the only one, as I have said before, nearly all of us who work at the Cemetery take our charge of being the temporary guardians of this eternal space very seriously.

Over 100,000 individuals are buried or commemorated at Mount Auburn. Throughout the grounds are 50,000+ monuments which collectively tell the story of over 190 years of changing ideas about life and death. The Cemetery landscape functions as a multi-dimensional living document connecting one generation to the next back and forth across time – and the cycles of life and of time are never far from my mind.

As I mentioned in a Service of Commemoration address a few years ago, now that I am getting older, I find I spend a great deal of energy trying to hit the pause button on life. Trying to slow things down. Outside the gates of Mount Auburn, the world whizzes by with a furious pace. Every day, every minute, every hour seems to be accelerating and everyone I meet is “streaming on demand.”

Nearly every day I wonder, “Is there a way to slow things down in-order-to contemplate our lives, our mortality and the lives of loved ones who have gone before?” In a seemingly contradictory sense – we may feel the need to stop the passing of time, in-order-to contemplate the passing of time, or to imagine the future. How and where and when can I, we, us manage such an impulse? The desire to be present.

Like so many people I meet, I am increasingly troubled by a society racing ever faster towards the abyss or point of no return – with an imbalance and over-focus on “business as usual” tactics and jargon-talk at the expense of slower, more deliberate, and ultimately more collaborative and harmonious kinds of reasoning.  I feel dismayed at and somewhat paralyzed by what I see unfolding around me in terms of incivility and selfishness, as well as an over-focus on surface-level appearances, and the rewarding those who speak the loudest, proudest and most divisively in society.

I am the first person in my family to attend college and now at 54, I have decided to return to school. Taking classes in Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness, I am hoping to enrich and expand my thought processes with different ways of looking at and framing reality – so that I might be able to foster deeper, more creative, and positive dialogue with those I meet and engage with in life.

I wholeheartedly feel that a deeper understanding of different modes of being and relationships to time, as well as to the cosmos and to others – will be of great benefit in the aim of fostering meaningful conversations, connections, and possibilities for positive action(s) in the world during these challenging times. And I feel called to join others on this path who are working to develop their unique gifts and voices in service of this present moment in time, as well as the future.

As David Abram says in, The Spell of the Sensuous: “The “real world” in which we find ourselves… is not a “datum” from which all subjective qualities can be pared away, but is rather an intertwined matrix of sensations and perceptions, a collective field of experience lived through from many different angles…” He goes on, “…caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, [makes] it all too easy for us to forget our inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities…”

Walking among the trees and plants at the Cemetery, over rolling topography that occasionally surprises by revealing open vistas of enchantment and awe – we might take into consideration the interaction between sensation, perception, and reality beyond our contemporary society’s flattened digital, data-driven and otherwise technologically mediated experience of the world.  At Mount Auburn Cemetery as in the Abram book, “the past is in the earth, and the future is on the horizon.”  And the earth and horizon are connected, bound to and by our planet. 

We seem to be headed towards a dangerous precipice of late, where human time on planet earth is being overtaken by an over-emphasis on the strategic progression of itemizable probabilities.  We may be risking more than we realize by patting one another’s backs for being clever in our “leveraging of good intentions” solely via spreadsheets, logistics and technology.

Perhaps, as thinking creatures we might better serve the planet and one another if we not only thought about, made time every single day to greet life / time in the way that other humans have done for thousands of years before us, out in the world, away from our mediating devices, “tied to the earth beneath our feet, eyes scanning the horizon ahead.”

Returning to the Nighthawks event at the Cemetery, many of my friends have laughed at my semi-serious comment that when we are up there at sunset scanning the skies for birds, I can almost ascertain the faint sighting of next year’s Nighthawk watch approaching from the edge of the horizon.

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