The San Diego County Fair comes around every June and wraps up right after the 4th of July. An annual summer ritual, the fair brings over a million people together on a prime piece of real estate in a coastal estuary just north of Del Mar, California. Warm sun and cool ocean breezes play tag while fairgoers part ways with their hard-earned cash in exchange for wildly inappropriate and oddly compelling food items like chocolate covered bacon and deep-dried butter.
The fair, like the top car on a Ferris wheel, comes around every year without fail and we file in knowing that everything will be exactly as it was the year before – the same sheep in a row, the same magic mop demonstrations, the same greybeards in Hawaiian shirts playing geezer rock – and yet we keep coming back year after year. There’s something comforting, even beautiful about the symmetry of it all. Going to the fair is like stepping into a time machine, a very particular time machine – not one that delivers you to the past or the future but one that delivers you to a realm completely outside of linear time. The fair is an eternal, changeless moment that we fall into summer after summer. We don’t go to the fair to return to our childhood. We go to the fair to stop the wheel of time entirely and experience, for a while, the wide open freedom of timelessness. “Time,” Plato wrote, “is a moving image of eternity.” And I think I saw him on the midway in a Harley-Davidson bandana handing out cotton candy to kids, beaming with joy, the kids and Plato.
I have a friend who never goes to the fair. “It’s just the same old crap year after year,” he says.
“That’s why I like it,” I say.
Not going to the fair because it’s the same old crap year after year is like saying why go to the beach, I’ve seen waves breaking before, or why go to the forest, you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen ‘em all.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” wrote Thoreau. “I drink at it; but while I drink, I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” Beneath time’s shimmering surface there lies a depth that goes down and down and down. We long to swim in those waters, but the only way to them is through the surface. Only by letting go of the rope swing and plunging through to the depths will we know the full measure of the beauty of our own ephemeral lives.
The fair, like any hash mark on the wheel of time, is a sticky-sweet reminder of the simple pleasures, the bounty of the land and the chance to come together as a community to celebrate each other. And besides, it’s fun. “The secret of life,” sang James Taylor, “is enjoying the passage of time.”
There is an innate human tendency to celebrate and honor the recurring moments in the annual cycle of time. Lent, Yom Kippur, Ramadan and Groundhog Day are just a few examples. As with the fair, we don’t celebrate these events year after year in order to return to the past. We celebrate them in order to move into a deeper consciousness of the fundamental unreality of linear time. We celebrate them in order liberate ourselves from the tyranny of time. “The distinction between past, present and future,” said Einstein, “is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” The apparent relentless march of time, which we normally allow to tyrannize and torment us, is temporarily lifted when we enter into the joyful celebration of these annually recurring events. Birthdays, anniversaries and the like restore us to our original purity as beings of infinite awareness and infinite value. That sort of thing gets washed away by the torrent of time.
The same pattern, the same apparent, but ultimately illusory dichotomy between motion and stillness occurs in music. A good song has to accomplish two contradictory aims – it must be fresh and familiar. It must be rooted in the known while breaking new ground. If new music does not somehow fall within the parameters of familiar tonal and rhythmic spectrums while also delighting and surprising us with something novel and unique, we turn away. From Bach, Handel and Haydn Mozart learned where the boundaries were, and then he pushed them. Carl Perkins, Little Richard and Bob Dylan showed the Beatles the road to their own genius, and they never looked back. Everyone who’s ever written a song or played in a cover band knows that if you really want to move an audience you must take them on a journey, but you must also always bring them home, home to the heart of their own lives. People want to be moved. But when it’s over they want to sleep in their own beds.
Life itself turns on these same illimitable laws. All forms arise and fade but the totality remains unchanged. Each year we grow older. Our faces continue to change right before our eyes. But the I within, the silent witness, knows nothing of the passage of time. Past, present and future are all continually occurring in this eternal moment. The mind cannot understand this. The mind is just a squirrel strapped to a rocket, convinced that it’s steering. Poor squirrel.
I turned fifty two last month and am, on my better days, deeply grateful to be alive. I’ve been to too many funerals of friends my age and younger whose lives were cut short by hard living, heart defects or the vagaries of cancer. I’m also grateful to my parents for many things, foremost among them good genes. Bollands tend to stick around awhile. When I talk to my eighty eight year old father I feel the full width and breadth of his life – the maddening struggles, the heroic choices, the simple beauties – and I know that none of us has forever. And yet we do. These transient forms around us – that song on the radio, these vibrant bodies, the warmth of the hand we hold as we walk through the midway of our lives – these will all slip from our grasp. But behind the shimmering veil there is a constancy far more real than any passing image. Developing the ears to hear it, the eyes to see it and the heart to feel it is the lifework of any lover of wisdom. Only then, in the timelessness of this eternal moment, are we freed from the wrenching sorrow of the world with its endless cycles of birth and death. The fair, like a good song, can only last so long. Like a long, slow ride on the Ferris wheel, life winds down. Below you the midway lights shine on clusters of teenagers careening though the barkers and the colored balloons. The sun is sinking into the sea. It’s time to go home. It’s time. But if you let it, time opens a door through which the flood waters of eternity pour, holding us and nourishing us like amniotic fluid in the wombs of our endless becoming.