There was a moment last week when I found myself standing on a beach I never could have imagined. Bookended by two cliffs was a great, smooth expanse of the most otherworldly sand. It was like a Neapolitan ice cream of fine golden sand, exotic black obsidian grains, and clear, saltlike crystals.
In the distance, perhaps a hundred metres away, a ferocious surf pounded, sending the occasional sheet of water sliding halfway up the beach and back into the sea, leaving different artwork in the sand each time.
Further up the bank lay dry, rippled dunes of the same sand, topped with colorless grass that made it look like a monochrome TV, only its background was a deep green mountain of ferns and palms.
The pictures, as always, fail to do it justice, but they may give you an idea of the unique backdrop to that spectacular setting.
Most incredibly, there was nobody but me and my Kiwi host — who to me was still essentially a stranger — on this fantastic, alien beachscape. In Thailand I felt like the most beautiful places could not be enjoyed without sharing them with at least a small crowd of other beauty-seekers.
As I was pondering what cosmic fortune had brought me there, I noticed the ocean getting closer. A huge wave had broken and sent a vast sheet of seawater sweeping across hundred meters of sand towards us.
As it approached, I realized it wasn’t going to stop, and took off my shoes in a hurry. Without a moment to spare, the water gushed over our ankles and beyond, and suddenly we were standing the sea.
It was a powerful moment. In terms of conventional, raw beauty, it was staggering, but I was more overwhelmed by the realization that this breathtaking scene was precisely where my life was at that moment. I knew in that instant that I would look back on that moment for the rest of my life.
I don’t think those “Wow, this is life right now” moments are necessarily rare, nor do they need to occur in such an epic setting. Sometimes I look back on unexpected conversations, bizarre situations or even the plainer moments with the same sense of amazement that my life somehow managed to take on such a completely unique and unpredictable form, if only for that moment. There is something divine to be found there, beneath the haze of preoccupation and thought. Alan Ball illustrated it perfectly in a plastic bag caught in a whirlwind in American Beauty.
But it is rare that you see it right while it’s happening.
Things We Said Today
One of my very favorite songs is a rather obscure Beatles song called Things We Said Today. It is a dark and brooding, quite out of place at a time when the Beatles albums were still almost entirely saccharine teenage love songs.
It tells the story of a couple who are constantly too busy to make dedicated, quality time for each other. In a moment of clarity, the narrator realizes that one day he will look upon the mundane, everyday conversations the two shared as the priceless moments they really were.
Someday when I’m lonely,
Wishing you weren’t so far away,
Then I will remember
Things we said today
At the time the passing words may have seemed unimportant, at best a means to an end — to some more ideal and more powerful moment. It may only be years later, when the relationship is dead, that the ordinary moments of years past will surface as powerful memories of a completely different season in one’s life.
The refrain “Then we will remember / things we said today” always puts a lump in my throat. It makes me think of past relationships and old friends, and how one time they were neither past nor old. They were right now.
Once in a while, when I’m doing something utterly ordinary, making toast or sitting on a bus, and a moment from the past pops into my head that I hadn’t thought of since it happened.
It could be anything: skipping stones on the creek with people I just met in Invermere, telling jokes in the dark at a sleepover in grade seven, or folding laundry on a Sunday with an ex-girlfriend. Most often they involve somebody who is no longer in my life. With it comes a hint of the unique, nameless emotion that belongs only to that moment.
No matter how you look at it, “right now” is tomorrow’s past. In the context of the moments leading up to and away from it, right now’s meaning is usually lost among the needs and desires of the moment. Looked at from some time later, the distracting noise of moment-to-moment attachments that might have eclipsed it then are no longer in the picture, and the simple beauty and life-affirming power of the moment radiates in a way it never did before.
Imagine if we could place the moment’s repetitive (and completely temporary) mental chatter on the backburner and see its lasting meaning as it occurs.
Finding Meaning in Real Time
Someday when we’re dreaming,
Deep in love, not a lot to say.
Then we will remember
Things we said today.
When the “money shots” are happening — the fresh excitement of vacations, the euphoria of new love — it is easy to spot the profound and memorable.
But to locate that thread of meaning in your life as it is at this moment, with its little worries, mental chatter, bizarre details, and unremarkable dialogues, is quite an art indeed.
A good place to start is to look at the people in your life, the whole cast that happens to be playing a part in your reality as it is this moment. The bit players — the passing acquaintances, friends of friends and casual co-workers that just happen to be on the roster right now — do add much of the color and character to life. It’s the long-term people, though, whose long-term meaning in your life can be most easily found in the present. But only when you look for it.
This is a bit of a somber exercise, but it’s very powerful:
When you are with your spouse, significant other, best friend or a close relative, picture the moment, in all its mundane detail, as if you’re looking back on it from a point in life where that person is no longer around. No need to imagine any upsetting explanations for their absence; the part of your life that includes that special person is just over, and you are happy to have been with them while your lives overlapped.
Observe them as if you’ve been shipped back from the future, to see them once again on an ordinary day, with absolutely no reason to take it for granted.
You will probably feel a heavy sensation of gratitude, and you’ll find it difficult not to pay attention to the things that were said today.
Photos by David Cain and A whisper of unremitting demand