I’ve been helping the town historian inventory the town’s archives. Crammed into a small room on the second floor of the Town Hall are cases and shelves of stuff. A WWII army cap, 1890s copies of The Ladies’ Home Journal, metal ice skates you clamp on your shoes (if you have a key for it), 19th-century straight-edge razors that would make Sweeney Todd’s blood boil (or someone’s), Indian arrowheads, faded photos of someone’s homely relatives, a candle-drying rack, a brick from River Road that was “torn up in the Great Flood of 2007” (2007?? oh, yes, I remember it well), a torn fragment of a written description about a bullet that “went through the arm of Sam Miller during the Civil War.” Stuff like that. We also found a bullet in a new wooden box marked “Civil War Bullet,” but we had no way of telling if it was the same bullet that went through Sam Miller’s arm.
I’ve also been pondering a Breton folk tale about the lost city of Ys that was inundated when the gate to the sluices was opened and the sea rushed through. The gate was unlocked by the king’s daughter either out of mischief or carelessness. There’s a lot to ponder in this story: The motives of the daughter who might have been a Druid, or a Sovereignty Goddess, or both, or neither. The so-called debauchery that was going on in the town. The daughter’s father’s role in all this. The question of whether the citizens of the flooded town were being punished for their sins (the Christian abbe in the story said yes, but the Druid take on it would be no because the Old Religion had no concept of sin that offends God). The question of whether the daughter was being punished by being turned into a mermaid or was simply going back to her original habitat in the “Land beneath Waves” since her mother may have come from there. The possibility that the daughter’s real name was “Storm, Tempest, Whirlwind.” Lots of riddles here. Different versions of the legend reconstruct it in various ways.
As I put information about archival materials into a computer program, I’m intrigued by the notion of time being frozen or stopped. For the skaters, barbers, magazine readers, soldiers of yesteryear–and for the physical objects that were part of their world. No one is skating or shaving or drying candles with these items anymore. Time has stopped for the citizens of Ys also. There’s a Buddhist concept of “fourth time,” which is beyond the three common perceptions of time: past, present, and future. It is like absolute time or eternal “nowness.” It’s one of those concepts that’s extremely hard to wrap our minds around since we are seldom liberated from our ordinary-reality perceptions of time. But working with artefacts of people’s lives from years past makes you wonder about these things.
So I started wondering if the reason the legend says that the city of Ys still exists at the bottom of the sea is a way of suggesting that the city moved into fourth time. According to reports, on certain days you can see it beneath the waves, sometimes hear its bells ringing, or the voice of the mermaid singing to passing sailors. They say that one day it will re-emerge. So it has not been destroyed, it’s just resting somewhere outside of linear, three-dimensional time. Waiting. And maybe something’s going on there that we can’t see through the shimmery depths.
Water is a good image for this. Normally water flows and is always changing. Occasionally it freezes, and the water’s constant shifting comes to a halt. Then heat returns and the water melts, and it flows back into itself again. Something like this may have occurred at the birth of our universe. Physicists talk about the “melted universe” which is the world beyond time, or the conditions that existed before the universe began. It’s a realm where the laws of the universe exist in their perfect, ideal state. It’s like the “place” where mathematical principles dwell, waiting for human consciousness to discover them. Or where Plato’s ideal forms dwell waiting to shape our reality. Or Jung’s archetypes. The theory, if I understand it correctly, is that in the course of evolution after the big bang, the universe froze into its present state which to ordinary human senses is all that there is and so the universe seems fixed in its present structure. The primordial state, however, is that fluid, watery world where everything was and is still undifferentiated, unstructured, ideal, and where one thing can melt into another. It’s the place that mystics might regard as primal consciousness or the mind of God or the void from which everything emerges. And when it all emerges, it becomes this universe of frozen, hard, physical objects.
I wonder if the city of Ys is now residing in that primal consciousness, the watery world outside of ordinary time, in the fourth time, or no-time. Druids taught that the soul, like the universe, is immortal, but that “at times fire and water will prevail.” I don’t think they meant that at times fire and water would bring death or destruction to the universe or the human soul. How could they bring death if the soul and universe are immortal? But some kind of change prevails. Could it be that fire melts the rigidity of our world, and water pulls us back into that fluid state of undifferentiated consciousness? Buddhists believe that when we realize this primordial interdependence of all things, love and compassion automatically arise. If we can come to an understanding that everything is us, that there is no separation, then the love and compassion we feel for others, or everything, is an expression of mutual universal kinship. Hence, fire and water are not enemies but liberators, allowing us to move back into a state where love and compassion reign.
But here we are in a somewhat frozen state, staring at objects from another era in a display case, objects that themselves seem frozen, either in or out of time. Where is the life they once held or supported or played important parts in? These artefacts from the past still exist in the present, and information about them in a computer file will exist into the future. Of course the computer and its files are also frozen objects in our reality. Someday the historical artefacts will disappear, and fire and water will get even the computer and it too will “melt” and disappear. And then where will this information go? I’m not really sure where it is right now inside the computer. My lay man’s understanding of computers doesn’t give me a clear sense of where computer information resides. I’m even more uncertain about where it is when I turn the computer off. But the information is there somewhere. In some kind of time or maybe no-time, or in fourth time, the time before time. Perhaps it might be easier for me just to imagine that it’s at the bottom of the sea in the lost city of Ys.
Human consciousness plays an important part not only in how we experience the universe, but from what physicists tell us, it plays a part in creating the universe that we perceive. In other words, even the frozen world that seems totally fixed and other than us is really neither fixed nor other than us. We are active participants, not only observing, but shaping that world by our observing. On the cosmic scale, this too is hard to wrap one’s thoughts around. But every now and then I get a glimpse of it in some mundane way. When we found an empty little broken cardboard box in the archives on which someone had written “Bullet that went through my grandfather’s arm,” we concluded that the new wooden box was bought to replace the old cardboard box. So, yes, we decided that the Civil War Bullet in the archives is the same one that went through Sam Miller’s arm. And thus we saved, or created, a little piece of history.