A Singular Focus on the Eternal

“Seek only light and freedom and do not immerse yourself too deeply in the worldly mire.”
Vincent van Gogh

We might think of existence as an indeterminate force bounded by body, entranced at birth, and exited at death. And that definition would certainly hold formidable value to tide us over until our own dear exit. (Especially with all the trails to walk and pets to love.)

Except, we want more. To exist outside of existence. All this talk of “mindfulness” and “presence”—I think what we really seek is the eternal.

“Eternal” is not my word. I borrowed it from Mary Oliver. “Keep a focus on the eternal,” she advised herself.

It’s a concept I often see. It has many names. The most prescient cultures name it directly, others dance around it.

Jungfrau range, Swiss Alps. ~65 million years old. Mountains keep a different time. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In English, “eternal” connotes a faith-based concept of space unbounded by time, generally post-death and usually at the hands of God. There is perhaps a spiritual element to my usage of the word, but it’s less a space we enter than a spiritual reckoning we achieve.1

An Australian aboriginal dialect names it beautifully.2

Dadirri implies a sense of wonder and humility, and [an] almost mystical awareness of one’s individual place in the great mystery of Creation. It focuses attention on both the vastness of the external worlds of time and space, and on the inner thoughts and emotions of the individual as a part of that greater whole.

Andes Mountains, Chile.  ~20 million years old. “Thirty years in the life of a mountain is nothing – the flicker of an eyelid.” wrote Nan Shepard in The Living Mountain. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Perhaps that is why I don’t want to call it just eternal but rather a focus on the eternal. In the Western cultural cannon, sight being our primary sense of orientation, we often give it a physical quality.

Like Oliver’s stream.

Or Virginia Woolf’s pattern (which she thought lay under everything). Nabokov saw it without form but as a wall of darkness. Joseph Brodsky found it a physical space: “that infinity I beheld on the steps of the stazione” he wrote in his love letter to Venice.3

I love Robert Macfarlane’s equation of physical, natural space with eternity; “In a valley of such age, you feel compelled to relinquish your habitual methods of timekeeping, to abandon the measures and audits that enable normal life” he writes in his book that explores beyond society to areas untouched, unknown.

Atlas mountains, Morocco. ~15 million years old. Against this remarkable age, we can throw our pithy existence and it returns volumes of reimagined imminence. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

German poet and novelist, Hermann Hesse thought of it as music. In his poem “The Glass Bead Game,” a profound philosophical piece on achieving meaningful connection, Hesse writes:

We are ready to receive in reverence
the music of the masters, the symphonies of the spheres,
and invoke in sacred celebrations
the ancient holy spirits of the blessed ages.

We let ourselves be exalted
by magic, sacred secrets
that capture life’s wild, stormy vigor,
to transform it into revealing symbols.

I cannot give this feeling a name. But I’m consoled when I remember that even Thoreau, a man of incumbent writing, fell short. The “Something” he called it in one of his earliest writings.

The Appalachian Mountains, Maine. ~480 million years old.  To see, to touch something as old as this is to brush with that eternal. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

This Something we seek sub-consciously, consciously, and at times over-consciously.

“The need is for nothing less than the infinite and the miraculous,” Vincent van Gogh writes in a letter to his beloved brother. The need is for nothing less, van Gogh insists, and “a man does well to be satisfied with nothing less […].”4

This need, which penetrated van Gogh thoroughly and perforated his often difficult life with bright meaning, is the same need mentioned a century later by Mary Oliver in her last book, Upstream.

Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into a packet of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. […] May I stay forever in the stream.

Getting into the stream, stepping into the eternal, is simply the act of existing beyond our bounded self. In terms of not just our body but also our consciousness.

To reach the eternal, even briefly, travel writer and wondrous thinker Pico Iyer admitted:

I discovered, almost instantly, [that] as soon as I was in one place, undistracted, the world lit up and I was as happy as when I forgot about myself. Heaven is the place where you think of nowhere else.

Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand. ~.2 million years old.  Mountains are my nearest form of eternal, I seek them like a home. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It’s fascinating that achieving this eternal is both a form of withdrawal (like Iyer and van Gogh propose) and an entering (Oliver went into the stream).

There is yet another form of reaching that eternal that defies both.

A writer of rare beauty, Italo Calvino found the concept of eternity in a grain of sand and a collector of sand as someone seeking that eternity

Perhaps this was her precise aim, to remove from herself the distorting, aggressive sensations, the confused wind of being, and to have at last for herself the sandy substance of all things, to touch the flinty structure of existence.

I collect sand. Sand and rocks. I keep them nearby and inculcate them with meaning. Even now, they gather. I skim their sides and hold their weight.

I imagine eternity in mountains. Rock and ice on a cadence of exhaustive time.

I imagine eternity as a presence felt when we connect to flinty structures, to each other, to the continuations of humanity. Love, humor, hope, landscapes, family, a feeling of “home.” The things we share with those who have come before and will follow.

Or maybe eternity is simply sitting in loving contemplation of the things that are heavier than Earth, wider than the sky, and brighter than the Sun.

However you find your eternal, may you feel forever welcome.