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reflections

About Time

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Recently, I heard a First Nations philosopher muse that his people have a different understanding of time. You understand time as a river that runs past you, he said. For us, the river stands still and we walk up and down the riverbank.

It’s an intriguing concept, and it surfaced for me in June when Lawrence Hill was in Winnipeg reading from The Book of Negroes. A whole long river of time winds through that very powerful book, and a terrible and complex history.

The passages Lawrence chose took us back and forth along the timeline of Aminata’s life. She’s an old woman surrounded by abolitionists in London. She’s a vulnerable young girl, shivering in the slave encampment. She’s a pregnant woman, arriving at the free Loyalist settlement in Nova Scotia.

The novel itself moves back and forth in this way too, but it’s never disorienting. I think that’s because it’s actually highly realistic—even as we tramp along in the here and now, we are constantly shuttling back and forth, mapping our present according to a past we’ve experienced or learned about, and various futures we dream or dread. A storyteller just makes it shapely.

Lawrence’s passages that night were interwoven with music from the African-American tradition, and the result was a powerful dialogue between art forms. Aminata’s ironic presentation of the “jolly abolitionists” found a counterpoint in the discordant wit of Thelonious Monk. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” added even more poignancy to that forlorn and frightened girl facing an unspeakable future. The blind preacher Aminata meets when she arrives in Nova Scotia summoned the gospel sounds of “Mercy Mercy Mercy.” When the last strains of “God Bless the Child” drifted into silence, it was a long moment before applause erupted.

The performance felt sinuous and coherent, but when you think about it, we were experiencing a temporal mash-up. As well as the literal present, we were transported to various points along Aminata’s lifeline—1802, 1757, 1783. Those of us who were tracking the musical context felt the 1940s of Billie Holliday and the 1950s of Thelonious Monk, along with the resonance of the traditions those artists were drawing on. We heard the absolute present of improvisation and the deep musical memory of spirituals. Yet those disparate time zones coincided perfectly.

The image of walking along the riverbank where all time is present might give us a way of understanding what is both magical and healing about reading, listening to music, looking at images. If a piece of art draws you in, you are in its present, wherever that is. And being in that alternate present could remind us of the power and the preciousness of all the present moments that are embedded in our collective past. We might even give up our relentless race against time and realize it’s already ours….


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