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You can close your eyes (and it's gone)

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To inaugurate our newly finished basement, named Cinema Moretti (in honor of my mother), which Dan has outfitted with a screen, a projector and about six hundred and thirteen speakers, we watched a terribly long and sad documentary. It is called Nostalgia for the Light, by Patricio Guzmàn, a Chilean director who was particularly taken by the parallels between archeologists’ search for the past, astronomers’ search for the past and the sad, sifting search for the remains of victims of the Pinochet regime conducted by their relatives. At a first glance, the connection seems a bit random, but all three occur in the same physical space; the Atacama desert, which is the driest in the world.

I liked the film better after I had thought about it for a while, and maybe I should watch it again because it is filled with a lot of stuff. Despite the large number of things to think about, what struck me the most was a simple sentence spoken by an astronomer during an interview. He claims that the present doesn’t exist, and that there is really only past and future. At the exact moment in which something happens, it has already passed.

It almost seems like an abstract concept, a philosophical one that really shouldn’t have much impact on our daily lives. It could almost be an issue of semantics: call it “present”, “past”, “Alfred”, “cappuccino”, but it’s really always the same thing - time. Yet the astronomer’s comment really hit me, because the idea that there is no present destroys everything that I think of when I say, “now”, or “today”. And that’s not all - it immediately makes me sad, because the past has that effect on me; and it makes me anxious, because the future is always uncertain, like walking around with your eyes shut.

But especially because I miss the present, I miss it like I would miss the air around me. If there is, in fact, no present we are hanging in the balance between what we have been and what we will be. It means that what we are now doesn’t exist.

Last night it was my turn to put Emma to bed. We went upstairs, knocked on Sofia’s door to give her a goodnight kiss, knocked on Luca’s door to give him one as well, and then we climbed another set of stairs and arrived at her room, which is full of many beautiful things - all hers. She has a string of lights shaped like flowers around her toy closet, where she stores naked Barbie dolls, dirty and half chewed-up by the dog, a remote control car, a robot that spits little rubber disks and her science experiment kit. Her bookcase has thousands of books, and above it, she hung a white board where she writes things like, ‘Good morning, Emma!’ or ‘Have a nice day, Emma!’ On her blue night table she keeps her necklaces and her bracelets.

There is a book she put together on her desk, in which she wrote that her dream is to move to Paris and become a hairdresser. Next to it is her experiment; a failed attempt to make strawberry perfume. It’s been there since early August, and the strawberries inside the plastic beaker are by now totally decomposed, but she insists that they have to stay there in order to turn into essential oils. We’ll see about that.

She put on her PJs, went to pee (without flushing, as usual), and brushed her teeth twice because, she said, she had forgotten to brush them that morning, even though I told her that that is not how it works. In the meantime, I chose a book which she rejected in favor of a Dr. Seuss book. She slid under the covers, while Lola, the dog, found a comfy spot at the foot of the bed.

We read the book, and talked about it for a bit, then I turned off the light and she asked me to sing her her favorite song (You Can Close Your Eyes, by James Taylor) and to lightly tickle her back, but a little higher up toward the shoulders, please. While singing and tickling, it occurred to me that the first part of the song that I had just sung was already part of the past. Even that very thought was already in the past. I was desperately trying to catch the present by surprise, but each time I tried, it had already turned into the past. There is no fleeting moment that lasts; it all already happened the moment it occurs. It goes by, it ends and it never comes back.

At the end of the two minute song, it felt like an hour had passed since ten minutes earlier, when I had told Emma to come to bed, and suddenly I was filled with a terrible sadness for the loss of that very small moment that had just passed. Also for all of my movements, my observations of Emma’s room, of Emma’s world: it had all already passed, forever. And the past is not somehow “more past” if it happened thirty years ago: it all gets stored in the same container. Except I will never have any memory of that small moment of me tickling her, because I was not concentrating on trying to remember it since it seemed so insignificant.

At any rate, this thing of the present not existing has totally destabilized me; it feels like a coup d’état in my life. It reminded me that, just like astronomers, archeologists and the parents of the victims, I should also start to dig into my life to try and find my past - insignificant and yet essential.

Also, I should just forget about the present, which seems to be outdated anyway.


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