The British-born philosopher Alan Watts said “I have realised that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.”
I have a nostalgic personality. I am captivated by historical objects, entranced by old family photographs, and exist in a permanent state of heartache for days gone by. Likewise I am a dreamer, incessantly musing over what I hope my life will be once I have accomplished this that and the other, and a worrier, concerned about commitments in the coming weeks or months that give me anxiety. I imagine nearly everybody can relate to this to some degree.
Several years ago I took notice of these habits and resolved to combat them. To perceive the world through a wistful lense left me feeling that I had somehow reached a pinnacle, and that what remained were a series of lackluster experiences that would never be as important as what I had already lived. Similarly, to fantasize, or distress about a point in the future caused me to bypass the present moment. To recognise how suddenly time passed made me take closer notice of the subtleties of being. I began to immerse myself in the good ol’ days as they occurred rather than wait for them to fade away.
This was the impetus for my series Reflections on Transience. Diwali East London was the first of these. The subject is inspired by a recent period in which my husband and I spent two weeks living in a largely Indian neighborhood of the city where the local pub played South Asian classics rather than your typical top 40. Our stay coincided with the Hindu festival of Diwali, and for the first week fireworks lit up the night sky.
One evening as we walked home from dinner we passed a young boy in the middle of the road lighting a small firework as his family stood in the background and watched. It was the kind of moment that you recognise immediately as special. Not because it was momentous but because it was tender. Children cannot quite perceive the future in the way that we can, and they do not reminisce about the past. By default they live for the present. As such they cannot rationalise and remain thoroughly absorbed in their pursuits. I imagined it was the kind of occasion he might think back on romantically as he entered adulthood, and for me it was the kind of gentle beauty that I strive to appreciate. I struggled to plant myself firmly on the ground in order to feel utterly present with what was going on around me, while all the while it dissolved from my grasp. The flicker of light dissipated, and we continued on our way home.