Before I started teaching elementary school, I was under the impression that eternity was a really long time. Then at the end of one school day, I walked my class outside to meet their parents, who would escort them away one by one in their sport utility vehicles that idled in a stately procession wrapping around the block. As the first children high-fived me goodbye, a strange sound began to emanate from down the street.
It was a wailing sound. A siren voice, slicing the chilly winter air with its vocal blade. The kids and I craned our necks to better take in the sound, which we could now make out as a woman screaming.
“What is she yelling?” a student asked.
“Not sure,” I said. “It sounds like she’s just yelling”.
We squinted at the figure of a woman – a tiny speck of a person at that distance, wearing all white with a pile of something dark on top of her dark head. She walked slowly towards us with what appeared to be considerable effort judging from the way her arms drew small sideways arcs in the air as though she were wading through deep, viscous fluid. She shouted the same phrase at a five step interval, repeating her mysterious holler like a bewildered shaman.
“Eternity!” she bellowed.
Five lumbering steps.
“Eternity!”, now with more fire to her breath.
Step. Step. Step. Step. Step.
The children and I watched with rapt attention, squinting our eyes into the sinking afternoon sun as the curious apparition grew closer. My gawking peers and I forgot about the idling parent parade for the time being.
“Eternityyy!” was the holler again, the last syllable stretching longer with each progressively fiery recitation. She now stepped just a few hundred feet away, close enough that her ringing voice echoed off the school building behind us and made its hurtled return over our heads. She was close enough now that we could tell that she was wearing a sweatsuit.
“What’s she saying?” asked Sergio from under his green stocking cap, keeping his eyes fixed on the still approaching woman.
“She’s saying Eternity,” I answered, knowing full well what question was to follow.
“What’s Eternity?” asked another third grader Alice.
Simple question, I thought. And yet not easy to answer. A kneejerk response came to mind: Eternity is a really, really long time. Longer than forever. But did I really know what eternity was? Was I about to squander a bona fide teachable moment by spitting out a canned explanation without opening the door to a more nuanced discussion?
What would the famed mythologist Joseph Campbell say?
Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now that all thinking in temporal terms cuts off. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere.
Had I been brave enough to summon my inner Joseph, I would illustrate this impromptu mini-lesson on nontemporal thinking by citing his explanation of William Blake’s quote, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time”:
The source of temporal life is eternity. Eternity pours itself into the world. It is a basic mythic idea of the god who becomes many in us.
Or something more illustrative, like his description of the Buddha figure Manjushri, who holds a flaming sword over his head:
And what is the sword for? It’s to distinguish the merely temporal from the eternal. It’s the sword that distinguishes that which is enduring from that which is merely passing. The tick-tick-tick of time shuts out eternity, and we live in the field of time. But what is living in the field of time is an eternal principle that’s inflected this way.
Or even more concrete, his account of a sculpture found on an island in the harbor of Bombay:
This is a wonderful cave. You enter the cave from a bright sky. Of course, moving into the darkness, your eyes are blacked out. But if you just keep walking slowly, gradually the eyes adjust, and this enormous thing, it’s about 19-feet high and 19-feet across, the central head is the mask of eternity. This is the mask of God.
Whenever one moves out of the transcendent, one comes into a field of opposites. These two pairs of opposites come forth as male and female from the two sides. What has eaten of the tree of the knowledge, not only of good and evil, but of male and female, of right and wrong, of this and that, and light and dark. Everything in the field of time is dual, past and future, dead and alive. All this, being and nonbeing, is, isn’t.
You’re in the field of time when you’re man, and one of the problems of life is to live in the realization of both terms. That is to say, I know the center and I know that good and evil are simply temporal apparitions.
The gravity of this moment – the ghostlike woman, her ponderous advance from one realm into the next, her strange mystic proclamation – all of it hung in the brittle air between us. The now heavy afternoon sun cast elongated shadows that reached like fingers groping for an answer.
We had entered into the cave of Bombay. Our eyes had adjusted to the mask of God now inching ever closer, past and future splayed out on the sidewalk before and behind her.
I needed to provide a satisfactory response to Alice’s inquiry before the moment slipped out of our grasp. I needed to transcend the duality of our existence, to cast light on the eternal space outside of time. Instead, out of fear of seeming out of touch, I defaulted to pre-Campbellian laziness.
“You know what forever means?” I asked.
“Mmm Hmm”, said a couple kids in unison.
“Similar to infinity?” guessed another.
I said, “Yeah, it’s kind of like that.”
Our small congregation breathed miniature icy clouds as we considered what on earth would compel a person to holler such a thing.
Once more the woman chanted her bewildering call, now close enough that we could make out the shape of her huge hooped earrings and the pink stripes running the length of her sweatpants.
“Eternity!” She chanted with increased impatience, as though her temper had reached a dangerous threshold.
Just then, a young girl bolted from the doors of a building adjacent to ours. She ran toward the woman in white wildly, her lanky legs flailing, pink book bag flopping loosely on her bony shoulder.
“That’s Eternity”. Said one of my students, and the rest of them groaned and laughed.
Indeed, there went Eternity, pouring herself into the world, neither here nor there, crossing evening shadows with each step, grasping her mother’s hand as they both drifted away beyond the idling line of cars.
(painting by Sabina Espinet)