It’s an early evening in late March in Los Angeles.
I’ve been running in La Cienega Park, around and around that dusty dirt track, spurred on by pop music pulsating through my ear buds and the excitement of a little league baseball game nearby. The sounds that echo through the spring evening – the crack of the bat smacking the baseball and launching it into the outfield, children’s voices cheering, parents clapping – give me an extra spark of energy to keep going, to keep running, to keep pushing my body forward.
I finish my last lap and leave the track. Tired and sweaty, I run across Olympic Boulevard and turn down Alfred Street, slowing to a jog and then to a fast walk as I enter one of my favorite enclaves in this historic South Carthay neighborhood. iTunes skips to the next song – The Lady is a Tramp – and suddenly everything slows down. As Sinatra croons into my ear buds, I take in the soft blue watercolor sky melting into pale yellow, the amber rays of the waning sun casting their golden glow across the tiled rooftops of stately Spanish style homes, the statuesque palms, the immaculate gardens carefully landscaped with delicately blooming roses and cactus flowers. I feel my steps getting easier, almost as though I’m gliding down the sidewalk, and the air rises in my chest and catches somewhere near the back of my throat in a sharp tingle.
Water springs to my eyes and though I don’t cry, I am overwhelmed with emotion as I realize that everything in this moment is perfect.
It’s as though I’ve been transported back to a Los Angeles of 60 or 70 years ago, frozen in time, nestled away on this perfect street, at the perfect time of day, with the perfect song creating my soundtrack.
I want to hold on to this moment – and how I feel in it – forever, but even as I’m aware of it, I know it’s almost gone. I think about my Dad. There’s a word he would have used to describe this type of evening: halcyon. It means peaceful, tranquil, carefree. In this one moment, I am all those things. And I’m also grateful: grateful for the memory of a word that comes to me like magic at a moment when time seems to stand still.
And just like that, traffic starts buzzing down the street, the sky grows darker as early evening inches toward night, and the moment is gone. And I head home.
For most of my life, I’ve been moving too fast to notice moments like these. Always in a hurry to get to the next big thing. Ever looking forward to the next exciting date on my calendar, the next time I’d get on a plane to travel somewhere new, the next creative project on the horizon, the next vacation or holiday. Ever looking forward as I skipped over all the “boring” day-to-day moments in the process.
And then when my life started to unravel and people I loved started getting sick and dying, all I wanted was to be on the other side of it. I wanted so badly for things to be the way they used to be, to feel “normal” again, that I threw myself at life as hard as I could. I pushed myself to “get through it” by working hard and setting ambitious goals. My intentions were good – realizing how short and precious life was, I was driven by an internal fire to make the most of it – but my efforts were futile. I learned the hard way that life unfolds as it will, despite my stubborn refusal to accept what it had in store for me, and despite all my best laid plans.
I’m a control freak by nature, and learning to let go has been difficult for me. But little by little, I’m getting there. I’ve started paying closer attention to the here and now, and I’ve become more comfortable living there. And I’ve started realizing the truth in these words from Julia Cameron’s beautiful book The Artist’s Way:
It may be different for others, but pain is what it took to teach me to pay attention. In times of pain, when the future is too terrifying to contemplate and the past too painful to remember, I have learned to pay attention to right now. The precise moment I was in was always the only safe place for me. Each moment, taken alone, was always bearable. In the exact now, we are all, always, all right.
I am no longer in a place where the future is too terrifying to contemplate, and the past, while painful, is getting easier for me to remember. Yet it is still the present moment, most of the time, where I feel most OK. There’s a freedom that comes from not trying so hard, from not pushing so desperately to make my life conform to some idea of what I thought it was supposed to be, and instead, to let it be what it is. I still crave adventure and travel to far-flung locales. I still aim my arrow toward the challenge of tackling the loftiest goals. I still want the big moments in life, with all their excitement and (sometimes) heartbreak.
But in between all those things, there are many, many smaller things: the small moments that make up a day, and that make up a life. Moments like catching the perfect sunset at the perfect time of day in the perfect place to witness it.
Those little moments are worth holding on to. Those little moments are where happiness resides.