By Jack A. Urquhart
©2012 (1400 words)
“Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?”—Emily, in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”
I’ve often lingered over those lines from Wilder’s play. That is because I think they sum up the tragedy of being human and alive. It seems we Homo sapiens suffer attention deficit disorder when it comes to apprehending our own lives, and that the vast majority of our time on this earth gets away from us—the seconds, minutes, hours sifting like beach sand through the fingers of our consciousness—usually while we’re not paying attention.
That has certainly been my story. No matter how hard I try to attend the days of my life, I am able to appreciate only a sprinkling of the moments I’ve been allotted.
Take last Friday, November 16, for example—the day my partner and I met friends in NYC for a special occasion. I distinctly remember telling myself as the five of us ambled around Manhattan that I needed to pay attention—that I needed to focus.
Just be here, Jack. Be here now, I kept reminding myself.
That was because I wanted, on that special day, to perceive what was going on around me, to relish the brief hours we friends had together.
It helped that it was one of those gorgeous, bone-chillingly crisp autumn days—the kind of day you want to notice. A day when the colors can move from a gray water-color wash to breath-taking brilliance in no more time than it takes for the sun to emerge from the cloud cover.
Don’t let these moments get away unmarked, I told myself.
But of course, they did get away. As they always do.
Yet, now and then, a few runaways come home again for a visit. Embellished in dreams, in moments of deja-vu, in the quiet of a sleepless night, they return one-at-a time, or in clutches, all dressed up and ready to give us another look at the finery we didn’t notice the first time around.
So it was for me half-a-day later as I lay abed in our mid-town hotel in the small hours of another morning. A little of what I’d missed in the rush and whirlwind of the Big Apple’s eight-million plus distractions came home all shiny and bright and gussied up.
Like the traipsing recollection of my friend, ‘M’ laughing over drinks the previous day as she retold a favorite family story. Like how, in my mind’s eye, I could see again the way M’s head snapped back over the slender stem of her neck as she cackled and how that physical response suited the subject matter.
Lying there in the dark it seemed of a sudden that my friend’s laughter demonstrated how all that stuff we endure—all the absurdity, and the misery, and the tragedy, and the utter joy of what it means to be alive and stumbling around on this planet—is enough to bowl a person over. Which it is! Only she wasn’t boo-hooing about it; rather, she’d go down chortling, thank you very much. So then I remembered anew how there is enough life and curiosity and sheer determined compassion in one of M’s manicured nails to encompass all of NYC, and I wanted to weep that I hadn’t appreciated her genius anywhere near enough.
Which got me started on ‘B’, M’s engineer husband, a darling of a man who tempers his wife’s spice with sweetness, M’s volubility with quietude—and, from thence, I was off on the marvel of their happy pairing via the route of another recalled moment.
Actually it was an expression, the one I’d seen on B’s face the previous day at lunch—studious, determined, delighted. It was, it occurred to me as I lay there on the far side of sleep, the look of a man who knew just what he was here to do. And that was to eat it all up—and I mean absolutely every last morsel—starting with the six inches plus of hot pastrami on rye set before him courtesy of the Carnegie Deli. Oh my god, I wondered tossing and turning abed, how had I not attended that? How had I failed to mark that much pleasure taken in a simple act? How had I failed to recognize B’s splendid appetite for what it really is—an appetite for life! A taste for everything it takes to keep going, to keep experiencing and enjoying the varied flavors of human existence—not at all unlike the ever so eminently alive woman to whom he’s been married for ‘lo these twenty-something years! And wasn’t that a revelation—to be able to sense, however half-assed, the subtle commonalities that feed the fires of attraction. And love.
So you see how slow I am at fathoming the mysteries of the human heart and mind. So slow that it has taken me years to sense something (and I emphasize that word, for it would be presumptuous to claim more) of what lies at the deepest, beating core of even the people I love most.
Like the child that perhaps still lives within our professorial friend ‘J’? Like how the other morning, in the sleepless last hour before dawn, a remembered story fragment, a small piece of J’s childhood returned for a visit, arriving with a to-this-day salience so palpable that I can still sense something of how it might’ve been for him—to be a child, a boy forever doggedly following after a less than welcoming older sibling. And all that longing. And with that, the smallest notion of how the childhood experience of wanting to belong might help shape a life; how it might play a role in forging and polishing the natural resources of a brilliant mind—until that mind is razor-sharp, keen with a feeling for the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. Until it has attained and embraced a rigorous academic discipline. And Wow! Wouldn’t that bit of theoretical empathy, if only a little accurate, be a leap forward!
Which brings me home (literally) to the “special occasion” referenced earlier in this longer-than-I-thought-it-would-be love letter—because that’s what it is, a love letter—and the person who for fifteen years has been responsible for much of what is ‘special’ in my life.
That would be Ray. The man who last Friday morning, November 16, 2012, became my lawfully wedded husband under the laws of the Great State of New York.
But here’s the thing—the embarrassing truth: I had a terrible time staying focused last Friday on much of anything leading up to and including our marriage ceremony, so busy was I stressing over minutiae, like: Would the ‘Q’ line take us all the way to City Hall? (No!) Would we find long lines waiting at the marriage bureau when we finally arrived? (Again, No!) Would our friends find their way to 141 Worth Street? (Of course!) Would they be able to snap a few decent photographs? (It’s not smart to push your luck!)
It seemed all my damned affirmations, my will to presence had been washed away in a tidal wave of worry—until, in the midst of the ceremony, when the Celebrant began “the Declaration,” Ray took my hand. And right away, I stopped worrying.
I suppose that sounds romantic, or perhaps saccharin, but the truth is that it didn’t feel that way. Not then. Not yet.
It wasn’t until much later—not until the wee hours of another Manhattan morning when that little golden grain of memory came back to me all dressed up and lovely—that I began to fathom why a small act had such power. Why Ray’s sweet familiar face, all pink and flushed, eyes brimming with feeling, and patience, and happiness, and (oh my god!) love—why his hand in mine had brought me back into the moment. Because, I think, there it was: real presence. Another one of those rare realized moments—like a grain of beach sand in the palm of my hand.
And dear god, wasn’t that a little wonder—not that I believe we need a god to realize miracles.
Sometimes, it turns out—despite the inevitability of distraction and loss—one lucid moment at a time, or even just the one, can get the job done.