I have always had a strong aversion to books written in the present tense. In fact, I have been known to completely avoid books I would otherwise love to read because the author chose a first or third person present tense POV. And I remember being royally pissed off upon discovering that a book I was really looking forward to reading was off the list because of what I've always thought of as an annoying pretentiousness on the part of the author. Once again, however, I've had to reexamine the stories I tell myself to preserve my own self-righteousness. This is one of those occasions. First came the Hunger Games trilogy, which I felt compelled to read so that I could join the conversation about this cultural phenom. Now it's Lilo J. Abernathy's The Light Who Shines that has grabbed my attention and won't let go. And as I felt the compulsion to keep reading the book, despite its grammatical gaffe (at least in my view), I started to think about why this literary device bothered me so much. As they say, when we are distressed or annoyed or angry with someone or something, we need to look to ourselves for the causes and solutions to the problem. I seriously hate when “they” are right. It makes me seriously distressed, annoyed and angry. On the other hand, I’m guessing no one really cares about that, so onward and upward. Hoo-ha!
OK—back to the subject at hand, after my little departure from my usual laser-like focus. Well, maybe that is a teensy exaggeration. Maybe my focus is more like a defective laser. So, the question on the table is, why is it so hard to live in the present? I'm not sure, truth be told, although I've thought about it a lot.
Apparently, there are more compelling things to do besides live in the moment, and I’ve written about this phenomenon before. Instead of living in the moment, I can sit at a red light and wish it were green, thinking about how much faster I would get there if it were. I can read catalogues and fantasize about what a particular dress would look like if I wore it out to dinner, or how a new couch would look in my living room. I can even remove myself one more step from the reality of the present moment and think about what that dress would look like on me if I lost ten pounds or about how that new couch would look in my new house.
What do all of these examples have in common? They imagine a reality that doesn't exist--and in this projected reality, my imagined life is better in some ways than my actual life. It may be as seemingly benign as wishing the traffic light were a different color. But it's not. And I don't weigh ten pounds less, at least in this moment, and I live in my present house, not some future fantasy version. At least right now. Which is all we have, really. Right now. The present tense. Just like Lilo Abernathy. Damn.
Because that seems to be the rub, right? I spend precious time projecting into an imagined future in which everything is arranged exactly as I think I want it to be. At which point, I tell myself, I will be content to live in that moment, because then it will be perfect and I won't have to project any more. Right?
There is an alternative, and very popular, method for escaping the present tense that is actually reflected in most novels--we can superimpose an idealized past onto our present moment. So instead of thinking about an alternative future, I can sit at that red light and think about how it was green last week when I drove through it, and wasn't that so much better than this stinking present moment. Or I can remember when I was ten pounds lighter and sigh with regret that the best days are behind me.
Either way, I'm absolutely not living in the present moment. Because the moment I am living now is somehow defective. It's not working for me. It's not quite good enough for me to spend my time here. When I'm at work, I'd rather be home. When I'm at home, I'd rather be on vacation. When I'm eating at a certain restaurant, I think about whether it would be better elsewhere.
Clearly, I don't do this all the time. I do spend time in the present moment. I can get caught up in what I'm doing (like right now, as this blog flows out of me like my hand is being chased across the page). In fact, I seek out experiences and activities that motivate me to be in the moment, and so do many others. It's why roller coasters and extreme sports are so popular. It's why people take mind-altering substances--alcohol and drugs tend to focus the mind, or make us lose so much focus and mental function we can't go anywhere but where we are.
So, we flee from the present when we are perfectly capable of embracing it, and drug ourselves to prevent our escape from reality, which paradoxically serves to ensure our escape from reality. So confusing. We're all pretty screwed up. Or maybe it's just me. I'll speak for myself here and let you do the same. Am I the only one who likes to time travel?
So, maybe I will seek out more books written in the present tense to remind me to be where I am, not in my future or in my past. If all such books are as good as Ms. Abernathy's, it will be a joy, not a hardship.