We Know Time

Eric O. Scott —  April 11, 2014 — 8 Comments
"Prosperine," Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1874.

“Prosperine,” Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1874.

I woke up this morning – one of the first mornings where I was able to sleep with the window open, the surest sign that Spring has finally arrived – and found it was still dark. I rarely wake up so early, and I took a moment – well, more like fifteen minutes – to lay there in the darkness, still beneath the covers, and listen to the birds calling in the dawn. After a few minutes in which my universe consisted only of birdsong and darkness, a sentence came into my head and began swirling around, like a song with an inescapable tune. “We know time.” It’s a koan that Dean Moriarty, Jack Kerouac’s trickster saint, repeats again and again throughout On the Road. “Everything is fine,” says Dean. “God exists, we know time.”

It shouldn’t be a big surprise that I am a devotee of Jack Kerouac – like many writers, my first encounter with On the Road filled me with shock and liberation, awakened me to possibilities of language and structure that I would not have thought possible. Over the years, I’ve come to think of The Dharma Bums as the better work in Kerouac’s oeuvre, the Apollonian remedy to the Dionysian morass of On the Road, but On the Road is the one everybody remembers best, including me. The peculiar draw of that book is Dean, who is charming and fickle, loving but selfish, and the spots of wisdom to be found among the chaos of his existence. “We know time.” An exhortation to remember how quickly life slips past, perhaps; or a reminder of how human existence depends on the progression towards its own end; or just a bit of truthful-sounding nonsense from a man who, viewed objectively, was an irresponsible, callous exile.

“We know time.”

I came into St. Louis a few weeks ago for my family’s Ostara. It was still cold here in Missouri, and snow flurries continued to fall until the 25th of March; it did not feel much like Spring had begun. Before the ritual, we mostly sat around the fire pit and tried to keep warm; after the ritual, most of us went inside and stayed there for the rest of the evening.

The ritual itself contained a passion play, as many of my family’s rituals do – Kore and Demeter, that foundational myth of the seasons. I called a quarter – West, which is the one I always choose – but otherwise had no special role in this ritual. Instead, I watched as my friend Megan bounced on her toes in anticipation of her cue to speak with the voice of Persephone. But before Persephone can return, Demeter must mourn; the mother must speak before the daughter. And in that moment, I saw one of the more powerful things I’ve ever seen in ritual.

I watched as Therese invoked Demeter. Therese is the high priestess of Watershade, the sister coven to my family’s Pleiades coven; I have known her my entire life. One of my earliest memories is of a sabbat held at her house – one of the Spring festivals, I think, maybe Beltane – where a food fight broke out. My friend Joe and I, only three or four years old at that point, didn’t understand the implicit rules, and started throwing apples. (My dad claims we started asking for canned goods.) When we talk about Therese, we talk about her as a mischief maker, a prankster, a trickster saint in her own right. That is our collective vision of her.

But she was not that person at Ostara. Her son had passed away between Candlemas and the equinox. I don’t want to get into it any more than that – I know how raw that feeling is for me, and cannot imagine how it must be for her. Demeter is a goddess who grieves for a lost child; Therese was a woman who had just lost a child. In the ritual, I saw the duality of the invocation – how Therese was not just a woman, nor even “just” a goddess. In that moment, I saw her, and I understood Demeter in a way I never had before. I was about to write that, in her, I saw the grief made flesh, but that isn’t right; the grief is the flesh. The myth is life.

The only difference is that, in the myth, Kore comes back.

“We know time,” I found myself whispering, still listening to the sound of the birds. I wondered how Therese had felt about playing that role in the ritual, whether she had identified consciously with the myth, whether it brought her any catharsis. I hadn’t thought to ask at the festival; I wished that I had.

My bedroom began to lighten, the black turning slowly to blue. I dug out clothes from the closet and dressed in the dark.

Time in Wicca, as I’ve explained over the years, is about circles, not lines; the wheel of the year turns, but in turning, it comes back around. It’s different than the linear progression of events inherent in the march from creation to fall to salvation to Armageddon. But there is no escaping the linear nature of the individual experience, either, even to one who believes in that cycle. A human life does proceed from birth to death with no backwards steps. Perhaps there are children who follow and continue the cycle – but not always. Sometimes, there’s just the line.

I got upstairs, made breakfast, sat down at my writing desk. Daylight had come, and the birds of the dawn had been replaced by the birds of the morning. I saw them dart from branch to branch in the trees outside my window. New green leaves had formed on branches that were barren a week before. Spring, here at last.

I found myself thinking of the nervous Kore, waiting to say her lines. I found myself wondering if even mighty Persephone truly knows time.

Author’s note: Some names have been changed.

Cheap plug note: Many thanks to my readers for helping to fund my research visit to Iceland! I’m really looking forward the columns that will come out of the experience. There’s still 22 days left in the campaign, so if you want to get your hot little hands on an ebook of my Iceland writings, and maybe a postcard from Reykjavik or other swag, head over to my Indiegogo page and donate a buck or three.

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Eric O. Scott

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Eric Scott writes fiction and creative nonfiction from the unique perspective of a second-generation Wiccan. He earned his MFA from the University of Missouri - Kansas City and is a current PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Missouri - Columbia. He has published in a number of magazines and anthologies. He serves as a Contributing Editor at Killing the Buddha and writes the Real Pagan Geek blog at PaganSquare. His first book, "The Lives of the Apostates," was recently published by Moon Books. He once played guitar in a Taoist glam rock band.
  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    People often forget that Demeter also lost a (foster) son: Demophoon. And, in the oldest literary version of this myth that we have, it is only after she loses Demophoon that she brings about the worldwide famine; certainly, she’s upset that Persephone has been taken from her, but her mourning on that occasion takes a slightly different form (i.e. her dissheveled wanderings, etc.).
    All of that to say: the myth may be even more relevant to Therese’s experience in that light.

    • Eric Scott

      As always, my friend, your words bring light into unknown corners.

  • Sarah Geimer

    When you walk from one place to another on Earth “in a straight line” you are still walking along a curved arc that is the surface of the sphere of the Earth. It just appears linear because the scale is so much larger than us. We are tiny with respect to the Earth and the Earth is tiny with respect to the galaxy. Just a tiny little blip of time we have here. Best appreciate it while we can.

    • Eric Scott

      True… But even the universe, apparently, begins in one state and ends in another, which is a line of sorts. My real point, I suppose, is that time is both a circle and a line and neither of those things; our linguistic constructs can’t really do the concept justice.

  • Diana Brown

    (I love your writing!)

  • Crystal Hope Kendrick

    Thank you so much for this, Eric. I always enjoy reading what you have to say.

  • Ae

    Can I be amused that the painting is of a man?
    Nice writing. Most of the female dieties are stories of grief and immense disconnection. The male dieties in these stories seem so busy, and without any understanding or connection to the female ones. They exist in the same stories, but as you noticed there the thing said or depicted about the females is almost impossible to grasp without compassion. For a moment, a moment of compassion, you identified and felt the edges of it.

    • Nick Ritter

      “Can I be amused that the painting is of a man?”

      Speaking as an admirer of pre-Raphaelite painting, both the subject (Proserpine) and the model (Alexa Wilding) are female.