He sat alone in a quiet, open room. In front of him, on the far corner of the table, lay a small jumble of unsorted papers, next to which burned a small candle. The space was not bright, but not quite so dim as if the candle had been the only source of light, for a bulb or two had been left on in the next room. Behind him and against the wall were some shelves, filled mostly with books. Some were on their sides, others lined up neatly and in order, and a few were propped on the top shelf between two bookends. People always noticed the bookends. They were crafted such that one could almost believe they were not two objects with thousands of pages between them, but instead were really one wide piece, one long bridge spanning the entire distance, that removing a few books would reveal the structure joining either end... But no, they really were just two bookends, squeezing the various philosophy and science fiction books in the space between them.
He was very still. He hadn't moved, except to blink, for many minutes. However, the calm of his exterior belied the rushing activity of his mind. As was common, there was music bouncing around his temporal lobe, but this evening it was not the heavy and progressive compositions that he usually listened to. No, on this day the melody that ghosted in his mental hearing was buzzy rock, a favorite from his late teenage years. Sounds and lyrics that had once been new and exciting, burning permanent synaptic pathways in his brain as he reveled in the anxiety and frustration, had over time become familiar and comforting, like a well worn pair of sneakers (but without all the dirt). Had it really been a decade since he was that confused young man, the one he still sometimes half expected to return his gaze in the mirror?
And still he had not moved. But his thoughts continued to hurtle forwards. He often thought that the memories life was made up of, and the act of thinking back on them, made him feel as if he were stuck on a fixed point careening down the river of time, frequently straining to reach back and grab something he'd dropped in the water. But no matter how far he extended his arm, he could not fight the forward momentum of the river, and even though the dropped objects eternally bobbed up and down in the exact spot on the timeline he had dropped them, they still appeared to be just barely out of his reach. Imagination told him that if he could close that short, infinite gap and grasp one of those dropped moments, just once, that singular success would allow him to freeze time. This was how some of his thoughts felt tonight.
Abruptly his mind's eye cleared and, like a curtain had been pulled back, his eyes took in his present surroundings. He remained motionless, though his gaze wandered around the view before him, his eyes coming to rest their attention on an ordinary coffee mug perched atop a small coaster, over on the other side of the room. He tried to remember what church it was that had given it to him. It occurred to him that he had been drinking coffee out of that mug for years now, without ever thinking of where he'd gotten it from. Countless trips through the dishwasher had so worn the outside that the design and lettering once proudly declaring the cup's allegiance were now reduced to a few random flecks of color spread across the otherwise blank, smooth surface. He pondered the juxtaposition of a coffee mug obtained from a church sometime during his second decade, and the beliefs obtained from a church sometime during his first. Now in his third, he contemplated the many dissimilar coffee cups owned by innumerable people in the world. He'd never considered his particular mug to be perfect: it probably did not have the ideally shaped handle, it was not the perfect size, it was not his favorite color. He liked it and enjoyed using it, but the compulsion to convince others that his inherited coffee mug was superior to theirs―that they should discard their mug and get one just like his own―was of course unknown to him. His reasoning mind could envision a more aesthetically pleasing shape for a mug to have, a larger and more comfortable handle, a thicker material for more efficient insulation. What had happened in his brain to make him see that the beliefs he'd been given were more accordant with the mug than his younger self had thought possible?
Without stirring, he knew that the what of scrutiny and reasoned inquiry was easier to pinpoint than the when of it all. The common impulse seemed to be to assign changes to specific moments, precise instants when a choice is made and "before" and "after" are created. He felt this urge, yet knew that the truth was closer to a slow process, a gradual paradigm shift of the mind with causes stretching back into the twisting path of his life, a confluence of ideas and situations and inputs all simultaneously arriving at the present. It seemed mysterious, but it was true, and for now he'd spent enough time ruminating about it. A sudden intake of breath, an imperceptible shrug of the shoulders, then he rose from his seat and walked out the door.