Denmark

My mother calls to talk about my father. He’s been having trouble walking for years and is now bedridden and losing weight. The doctors say the nerves in his legs are damaged from blood clots: a rare condition. She asks us to visit. I cup the phone with my hand, call S. over and ask her if she wants to go to Denmark. She says yes. After I hang up, we buy train and flight tickets for next week. I’ve been feeling a nostalgic urge to see my old places in Denmark for a few weeks anyway; it occurs to me now that it must be to do with all this talk about repetition and returning.

*

The week passes with work, housework (we clean the pantry and take the fruit and veg sign off the road), gardening, cooking, doing the dishes, making love, watching films and lazing about with Rookie. I’m comfortable, too comfortable maybe, but it’s a good change. I sense the power of the moment and the eternal God always in the backdrop of our everyday life.

*

Arriving at the airport in Copenhagen, it always strikes me how much cleaner and well-made everything is. We buy trays of sushi on the way to my parents. My father eats with shaking hands. In the morning we fix their bikes, which they no longer use. S. cycles to the library to work while I cycle to the central station and take the coastal train up to my old hometown. I’ve wanted to retrace the little groove of my life that I left there. I told S. it would bore her and that we can do something fun for her the other days, find some museums. Everything’s more or less the same, except that all the vegetation has grown and as a result the place seems to have matured, come into its own. It’s lovely. When I lived here as a child it was a rather sterile, newly built suburb. I go into the library where I used to sit and read, cycle down the old paths. The hills seem smaller, as I thought. I cycle through the old beech forest where we used to play as kids, and down to the harbour where I eat a crab sandwich, which tastes just like it used to. This kind of thing used to give me what Burroughs called the ‘fear of stasis’, of being ‘just where I am and nowhere else’ under the ‘dead weight of time’. Today it’s deeply satisfying.

It’s common to sniff at nostalgia. We’re taught – indoctrinated – to look forward, be proactive and innovative, shape our own futures, never stand still. But don’t nostalgia and the fear of stasis have their places as feelings to be undergone, as ways into the Open?

Heidegger says our origin always comes to meet us from the future. Strange saying. What does it mean? Perhaps that time, rather than moving in a straight line from past to future, or from here to the afterlife, describes a kind of circle that always completes itself in the moment and whispers to us of our silent origin. Perhaps that time in a sense happens on its own, as a gift.

The next day we go to Lejre, near Roskilde, where there’s a Viking museum. I’ve never been and know next to nothing about it. We take the bikes on the train and cycle through the countryside to the museum, stopping to pick apples from trees along the way. It’s the landscape that impresses most, with its glacier-formed hills and valleys, prehistoric passage graves and the stone remains of Viking longhouses and gravesites in the shape of large ships, designed to carry the dead to Hel. It doesn’t look very Danish but it turns out this is in a sense the mythical and historical centre of Denmark, the seat of the legendary Skjöldung dynasty mentioned in Beowulf, as well as real medieval kings and bishops who presided over busy settlements on the fertile land. I’ve never felt the presence of ancient history as strongly, even when seeing the bog bodies in the Aarhus and Copenhagen museums (carefully preserved and displayed in shiny cases): there’s something about it being left alone in the open, still-farmed landscape that’s surprisingly moving. The star exhibit of the museum itself is a tiny statuette of Odin – or perhaps a Viking goddess – seated on a throne flanked by raven messengers. As we set off on our bikes to go back to the station we pass an unusual number of rooks, jackdaws and hooded crows in the fields. It’s still sunny, they can’t be starting to roost. It occurs to me these may well be the descendants of birds that scavenged Iron Age and Viking fields and middens (møddinger in Danish). Is it possible that they have some ancient attachment to the place?

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Gift

The slow arc of your life, sustained by a continual return to the lifegiving moment, which holds you in your course and shows you the breadth and depth and height of time. I call it a return, but isn’t it more like a repetition? A repetition of the same that makes the same new and lets you face the newness of the future – that lets you function in the world.

Kierkegaard wrote a lot about repetiion. The Danish word for repetition, gentagelse, literally means ‘taking back’, but for Kierkegaard it means more than wresting the past into the present. True repetition for Kierkegaard points both backwards and forwards in time, it renews the past while opening it up to the unknown. It has a mysterious relation to the moment, and in a sense is the moment: a kind of suspension of time that gives you back the past as the new for no good reason, just as Job was given back his life and more for no good reason. Repetition happens: it’s experienced as a gift, not taken.

Still here now always

What was the ‘planetary’ time, the time of the day you tried to understand when you first came out to the countryside, when you started this journal? Didn’t you see it in the indifferent sea, the fields, the slow drifts of clouds, the way Rookie sat on the windowsill for hours with his eyes closed? Didn’t time seem monstrously long? A time of changing seasons, stars, the orbits of moons. Nothing to do with you, yet hanging over you like a cloud at dusk. The dreaded boredom of the day… strange inversion of time. And alongside it the depthless dispersals of everyday life under the cloud of capital: assaults on time you were happy to sign up to, as if you could escape so easily… And now the hard-to-reach moment, still here now always, waiting at the heart of time to hint at eternity.

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

— T.S. Eliot

Only through time is time conquered, Eliot also wrote. The moment as the world’s opening to God.

Unzerstörbar

‘A person cannot live without a steady faith in something indestructible within him.’ Das Unzerstörbare… Isn’t that what you felt, that day in the chapel? An overwhelming power, gathering you up, making everything you are both meaningless and meaningful. The impersonal light through the stained-glass window. Your smallness and the greatness of God. Room to breathe. A sense of dignity.

Indestructible, that’s as good a word as any. Always already here, inside and outside you, before and after you. Not by works and not imputed. You feel it sometimes, like today. You can come to it or not, fall away from it and return, it will renew you. Unzerstörbar: there’s hope in that word, which sounds so harsh in German.

Held in being

We are held in being, and no matter how tenuous the thread attaching us to presence – for example in fainting or dreamless sleep – we are never, as long as we are, released into pure nothingness.

— Michel Haar

Monotonous moments

Existence is never neutral. No moment is insignificant or lacking in tonality. Each one can shine with a singular light, vibrate intensely, and suddenly can seem to unveil the ultimate depth of things. Leaden grey is, after all, a colour of the sky just as much as turquoise – and yet, how many monotonous, atonal moments, their singularity flown, are reduced to nothing! How many moments become colourless, their music silent! Has the call of Being deserted us then? From what sphere does this uncanny indifference descend upon us with all its weight? Where does this uncanniness itself come from?

– Michel Haar (tr. Brick)