Brian Jay Stanley

Dec 31, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

The Electric Present

Nothing is clear, but everything is significant.
-Martin Heidegger

I open my eyes to a flash of lightning: colors and forms filling the room, a sensory explosion of matter and elements. Nightstand, dresser, curtain, window. And through the window: earth, air, ocean water, fire of the sun. Light meeting eye, world meeting sensation in perfect complementarity. I sit up in bed. The ancients said that light was made for the eye and the eye for light: the doctrine of teleology. Today we say that light came first and the eye caught up with it later: the doctrine of evolution. In the deep primeval past, as sluggish organisms groped for their environment, the first eye opened and beheld the never seen world. Morning was streaming through my window while I slept in darkness, but I lifted my lids and shook away sleep so I too could glimpse this blazing incandescence.

A walk on the beach begins my day. Down the hillside path I send my two feet and five senses, past creaking, wind-gnarled trees with moss-draped limbs, amid verdant ferns and glistening rocks and blooming wildflowers whose names I do not know. Better that I do not know them, for if I knew I would say foxglove or lupine and think I knew what flowers were, whereas, untricked by names, I see stalk-shapes and leaf-shapes and purple-and-pink-dappled-greenness rising wildly and unaccountably from the ground. Stalks sucking dirt up their roots and sending delicate pink petals out their buds—a magic chemistry. The ground is growing green stalks and pretty petals in woods no path cuts through. So beauty, like light, does not await the appreciative eye. But if not mine, whose world have I stumbled into? Did God abandon creation to me? Did blind chance splatter matter into this miracle? I’d unfurl the flowers’ petals and uncoil their stems to know, for they seem like signs, but no signatures are engraved within, not in characters I can read.

The gravel crunches under my feet. Weeds wet with fog-drip overhang the path. They brush my pants leg, I feel the dampness there, begin to feel it seeping through my shoes, through my socks, between my toes. I stop for a snail in the path. Its toes would be wet too, if its foot had toes. Careful I don’t crunch you like the gravel, loitering in the path like that. Crunch and squish in the same step.

My guidebook calls the beach here a strip of desert between the ocean and coastal forest—a strip of barrenness between two zones of teeming life. Once on the beach, act and sensation: I pull off my shoes and socks, feel my wet feet sink in the dry, cool sand. I suck salt-air hard through my nostrils, close my eyes to feed on it in my brain. The flowers were silent: what will this shell say? I press it to my ear but hear only huuummmmmmmmmm. I press harder, and seem to catch a faint word in the hum: I come from across the sea. I throw the cryptic oracle down, and turn from sensation and feckless interpretation back to action: onward. Crossing a desert is toilsome, this thick sand sucks at your feet, like running in a dream. A wonder camels ever make it across Arabia. Human feet do better on this sea-packed sand. The tide covered this spot a few hours ago: hence look at me, I am standing on the bottom of the ocean.

These clouds and fog will burn off soon. Sunlight already breaking through. Portholes of blue in a steel-gray sky. Splashes of glitter on a slate-gray sea. Over the beach, mist ascending and descending. Shafts of sunlight slicing the mist sideways. Fog concentrates perception—I see better in fog. It is a veil wrapped around this moment in space and time. It tells me, there is more out there, but I am here.

Who else is here with me? I peek in a tide pool to see. Mostly anemones in this one. A strange animal to share the earth with: a slimy hole rimmed with tentacles. Fools search the skies for alien life when they could look in tide pools. Yet, if it had eyes and a slimy brain down its tentacled hole, might not this anemone say: fools search in tide pools for aliens when they could look in mirrors. Look down at these naked, knuckled, pore-pocked hands cleft into nailed fingers, at these bony, knee-capped legs bent and flattened at the bottom into feet then split at the end into stubby toes. Is this forked form any norm for measuring weirdness? Everything is weird if you look at it. In high school I would stare at my friends’ faces until their eyes, nose, and mouth seemed to unfix themselves and hover freely in place, so that I could move them around in imagination and realized how arbitrary their actual arrangement was. If an anemone did have consciousness, it would be conscious of an intolerably boring existence—an animal living a plant’s life. Waving your tentacles, waiting to see what crumbs the sea will throw you. And what if mother sea threw you nothing? You would starve upon her dry teat. We finned and winged and legged creatures deceive ourselves, thinking us masters of our fate because we have movement. Where can we move but within the world’s four walls? What can we chase but the crumbs mother fate throws in?

Nevertheless, I am glad for legs, and would be gladder for wings. If I had them you wouldn’t catch me lounging on the shore like these gulls, acquiescing to gravity. A huge gathering of them. What will they do if I run at them? They look at me lazily, assess me, begin to waddle, now flap, flap, flap, a commotion of wings, and now hundreds taking flight!—and I am running with outspread arms, I am flying with them, I am laughing and ecstatic! Already they land so close by? Foolish gulls. I will run at you again: and again waddle, wings, flight, ecstasy. Is it wrong to bother them? No matter: look at their faces, they’ve already forgotten.

No footprints in the sand. I must be the first on the beach this morning. I made footprints yesterday, but the tide washed them away. I was here yesterday, but time washed yesterday away, swapped it with today while I was sleeping. See this driftwood where it lies in the sand. It was once a proud tree. Rains felled it, rivers carried it to the sea, the sea spat it back on the shore—puppet of the water cycle. Time makes something into nothing and nothing into something, for it destroys the tree on the riverbank and creates the driftwood on the beach. It destroys and creates me too. Like the driftwood, I did not exist yesterday, for I was the tree on the river, which is to say I was another me, was that whoever-I-was that I was yesterday, not this whoever-I-am that I am today. And the world blathers and talks stupidly of time, saying “time flies” and “time is money” and hasn’t a clue what time is, this invisible medium enfolding the visible world.

I am walking forward through time as well as through space, along the beach and into the future. I can see the ground ahead but not the moment ahead. The next moment does not exist until I get there. Every second I stand at the edge of a precipice and blindly step forward, and new reality appears below me as I walk.

I cannot see where I go, while behind me I see but cannot go where I went. This present moment is malleable: I could walk north up the shore or south; put a pebble in my pocket or throw it in the sea; step on a sand flea or let it live: I hold the power of life and death over different options. Yesterday I squashed a flea for sport, saying Thus it shall be and it was, and now I cannot revoke the deed of death. Every choice I make, I am pouring possibility into actuality, and it instantly hardens.

The past is solid, the future is air, the present is liquid. I cannot move through solid; it is impervious; I am not a ghost. I cannot move through air; it does not hold up my weight; I am not a bird. I am a fish; I swim in the liquid present.

Thales of Miletus, the first philosopher, believed that everything is composed of water. Heraclitus similarly taught that everything flows. Not only earth’s oceans are liquid, but its solid parts too. Look at the wave-beaten, time-smoothed rocks: they are flowing like slow lava, they are pouring their sharp corners and rough edges into silt.

I too am liquid, both my body and mind. My cells are compartments of saline. (Try to feel them sloshing as you walk.) My consciousness dances like the whitecaps from one day to the next. I pop my crest up here, now here, now here, and I only know is, not was, for memory is not the past but merely another part of the present—an idea in the present mind-state labeled “past.” So then, I am not a fish, for a fish has bones and structure: phylum Chordata. I am a drop of oil in this world of water (or else a drop of water in this world of oil). I float on the water, I try to walk on water, but the water is slippery and so mainly I squirt about, as fate or God or the gods tilt and spin the container.

This shore crab scuttling past me is a drop of oil too. In search of a meal or a mate or safety, I presume—what other instincts are there? Noticing me, the crab pauses nervously, waiting to see what I will do, wondering am I friend or foe. At ease, I am friend. Do we not share something rare in common—this moment of existence? One by one, earth’s days fell from heaven’s hand since time’s beginning. Days accumulated into years, years into eons. Throughout the ages, you and I were but the shadow of a dream, two wisps of smoke in the phantom future. Other crabs scoured the beach, other mortals pondered the waves’ meaning. The shells of your ancestors are seafloor sediment now, and the bones of mine are humus under their graves. The present is a current of electricity flowing through the wire of time, and the current is passing here, and we are charged and glowing. Only briefly, for the current keeps flowing, the ancestral lines wind onward to raise from dust and sediment other crabs, other sea-visitors.

The crab, no longer anxious of me, scuttles off. A pelican lands on a salt-sprayed rock. A wave breaks. Look around, eyes, everything is on fire with existence. Say the date. This day has never before appeared in the history of the world nor will again. There is no such thing as an ordinary day.


Brian’s essays have appeared in The Antioch Review, North American Review, The Hudson Review, Pleiades, The Dalhousie Review, The Laurel Review, and others. They were selected as notable essays in Best American Essays 2006 and Best American Essays 2010, and have been anthologized in The Writer’s Presence (7th ed., forthcoming) and America Now(9th ed.), from Bedford/St. Martin’s Press. He holds a master’s degree in theology from Duke University and a master’s in library and information science from the University of Illinois. Brian lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

Adrift, Hibernal 2012

About the Editors

Casey R. Schulke grew up along the Kuskokwim River in a rural Athabascan village in Alaska fishing for king salmon and mushing her sled dog team. She now resides on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. Casey's a poet, a naturalist, a dog-lover, has two birds, and is married to a wonderful man.
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