Let me locate myself.
I’m sitting on a sand dune, three hundred feet above the blue-as-a-swimmer-crab water of Lake Michigan. I’m so high above the surface that the sound of the waves flopping onto the beach is as quiet as wind easing through a screen door. Around me are several tourists, all talking in low voices like they’re in church, not wanting to be the first to disturb the silence.
The lake is huge. Somehow, the knowledge that Minnesota is sitting there on the other side of that blue expanse makes it feel bigger than an ocean. Outer space never feels as large as when you’re looking at an object far, far away – the moon, say, or Mercury crossing the face of the sun.
I weigh two tales in my mind. Both are stories about time and its effects. Is time the shepherd that moves us all impersonally along the narrow path between crag and chasm? Or is time a canvas created to display acts too large to show in any other way? Does it shove the world along? Or is it more like the music that we all dance to?
The first tale: this enormous blue-filled scoop out of the landscape is the work of the slow fists of a prehistoric glacier. The downy sand around my feet that cascades all the way down to the water’s edge, a football kick away, was created by the inexorable push of water and time. One rock became five hundred thousand grains. One more rock. One more. Until finally, a sand dune big enough to hold up a village.
This first tale makes me feel small, less than a radar blip, because the movement of time carries no radar and wouldn’t care about the blips if it did. The tourists around me, flecks on a petri dish. Made of star stuff, to be sure, but the same star stuff that made the grass under our feet, the gulls above our heads, the eggs I had for breakfast.
There’s something romantic about being insignificant. It can be humbling, which is a rare feeling in this age of endless personal curation. What makes a man think he’s more important than a blade of dune grass? After all, he’s younger than the grass by several thousand years or more. It’s a complicated feeling, too, though. Dune grasses don’t build airplanes. They don’t have comedy clubs. They don’t attend their daughters’ high school graduations. We have more feeling than the grasses, don’t we? Are we not then slightly less insignificant than they?
The second tale is shorter, punchier, less stream-lined. It involves decisions, rather than chance. It says that the reason rocks became sand dunes is that, once upon a time, every man and woman on the earth was full of hatred and lust, with no chance for salvation. In every forest, on every mountain, by every river, human beings cursed and killed one another. In all the world, there was just one man who lived as he ought to, not for himself. Because he didn’t live for himself, he got advance notice when the earth turned inside-out and swallowed everything in water.
The planet was shaken of life like a placemat of crumbs. The seas surged, delirious. Death and fire reigned. But, like everything except mercy, the destruction was temporary. The ocean was called back to its kennel. The lakes settled. The sand ceased swirling. A skyscraper-sized dune was left on the shore of a fat, blue lake.
The first tale is one I can wrap my mind around. There’s a reason evolutionary timelines are so neat and scientific. They are products of science, so of course, science can make sense of them. Time expands and contracts to fit the needs of the story. A few hundred million years oughta be enough to make the story gel. Throw it in.
The second tale sends my finger to my scalp to engage in some heavy scratching. Can lava and waves crush rocks into sand in a mere forty days and forty nights? Can one of the largest freshwater lakes on earth be the result of a worldwide flood that included, one assumes, the seas and all the salt therein? How long does the work of God take? How swift is re-creation?
Which is harder to believe? That this ball of water, whipping through space like it was launched from an astral slingshot, built itself up on its own, as slowly and predictably as the sand falls through an hourglass? Or that this ball was set spinning by the hand of God, the same Person who guides the wind over the wings of a seagull and pushes each wave against the beach to gently knock down the sandcastles we’re trying to build?
Both tales are miraculous, there’s no denying it. Both are enough to make you fall to your knees on top of a windswept dune. The question is, where does time come into each story? In the first, time is the yardstick the world is measured against. A tree can’t turn back into a seed, burnt toast stays burnt, and the only way to build a planet is very, very slowly.
In the second, time is a servant, willing to bend if necessary to allow light to skip from star to Eden without worrying about the intervening distance. The sea retreats and dry land appears. Water becomes wine at a word. A man sits on a throne and says with complete authority, “I am the beginning and the end.”
I’ve been up here long enough. It’s time to descend. The blue water won’t miss me, and neither will the wind, the sand, or the seagulls. They were here when I arrived and they’ll stay when I leave. How long? I don’t know. It’s easy to imagine Lake Michigan and the surrounding dunes sitting undisturbed, like an abandoned Monopoly board, for the next ten thousand years. But if we live in a tale where the dead are raised to life, then we can expect some familiar surprises.
Time will tell.
Christian Leithart is studying English literature at Villanova University. He and his wife live in Philadelphia.
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