My morning routine varies little from day to day. I walk the dog, eat breakfast at the kitchen counter with Katie and Matt, then settle in for a day at the computer. And because I work mostly from home, I have learned that little forays into the outside world are imperative for psychological well-being. So before I begin attempting to put sentences together, I stroll over to a quirky little coffee shop in my neighborhood, chat with the folks behind the counter, and get a large coffee to go. No sugar. No cream.
The coffee shop is on the other side of the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal from my house. In season, a mule-drawn barge is docked there, and tourists line up to take a slow boat, if not to China, at least into the 19th century. The men who work the boat wear what canal workers might have worn back then-broad-brimmed straw hats and suspenders that pull their scratchy-looking pants high above their boots.
One warm day last fall, I was on my morning outing when I turned the corner to see one of the men sitting alone on the boat, bathed in early-morning light. He was playing a tiny accordion, the kind such canal men squeezed as they floated down the inland waterways of a westward-expanding America. The sound was both melancholy and sweet. It was as if he were alone in the universe. The scene stopped me in my tracks. What I witnessed could only be described as a perfect moment. Ten seconds at most. But months later I still remember just standing there, watching, listening, taking it all in.
We all have such moments put before us. Little surprises. Whether we’re wise enough to see them is another thing.
I thought of the accordion man Sunday afternoon while reading the biographies of those killed in the Columbia tragedy. Mission specialist Laurel Clark, talking from the shuttle a few days before it was to land, said she was delighted by the simple unexpected wonders of space. Like a sunset. “There’s a flash; the whole payload bay turns this rosy pink,” she said. “It only lasts about 15 second and then it’s gone. It’s very ethereal and extremely beautiful.” A moment not lost on her.
In The Hour Meryl Streep and Ed Harris recall a moment they shared years before at a beach house on Cape Cod. It was nothing more than him watching her walk out into the early-morning light. But for that moment, everything was right with their world, everything was possible, everything aligned. They agreed it was the happiest they had ever been.
And in last month’s issue of her magazine, Oprah Winfrey confessed to a “moment” she had last summer. It was a walk down a Santa Barbara lane, a hummingbird and the smell of orange blossoms. She said it was one of those rare times she could say she was truly happy.
I once had a friend who had an odd habit that never ceased to amuse me, maybe because I never quite knew when she was going to spring it on me. It could be while sitting quietly at the end of a dock on Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks. Or it could come in the middle of a particularly lively dinner with old friends. Out of the blue, she’d say, “Stop! I want to remember this moment.”
I realize now, after her death, what wise advice that is.