I recently read a short story by Arthur Krystal in The New Yorker about an old man ruminating on his life. He had the sudden realization that most of what had happened during his 70-odd years on the planet was gone from his memory bank. He was left with fragments of occurrences, like still portraits or maybe three-second films.
The concept has stuck with me. Most of what happens to us in life will be forgotten, as real and sharp in the moment as glass, but then gradually crushed back into sand and sifted into the rest of the complicated contents of our brains.
It’s a somewhat comforting thought, since I’ve long lamented my inability to remember certain times in my life. Most of college, for example. I had blamed it on my habitual partying, and certainly that played a role. I can’t remember what happened after challenging a guy to a beer bong contest one night, or the numerous times I inadvisedly drank the Flanner punch.
But I have those fragments, both good and bad. Because I have a tendency to sabotage my well-being, the bad ones pop up regularly. I’ve been trying, though, to push those down, hammer them down, actually, like they’re the culprits in a game of Whack-A-Mole. They’re not worth going into, at least not here, because almost all of them involve drinking to excess then doing something unfathomable like agreeing at midnight to leave for the Kentucky Derby with a bunch of guys I just met and sneaking an ice chest full of vodka into the infield where we lost ourselves for hours. If my own daughter did that, I would obviously have a geo-tracker surgically implanted in her arm and take away her vehicle. Back then, however, parents had no real way of knowing what their young adult children did. If my mother is reading this, she’s probably taking a break right now to breathe into a paper bag.
When I went away to college, my Southern bones were unprepared for the snowy winters of Indiana. God, it was cold. After the first snowfall of my freshman year, I went outside with my new friends to admire the quiet beauty. It was lovely and magical, and I nearly froze to death. I called my father that night and told him I couldn’t stay. “I just can’t do it,” I said.
The next day, I received a box from L.L. Bean. It was a bright cerulean blue marshmallow puff of a down jacket, knee-length with a silver faux fur hood. The card inside read: You can do it.
I wore that coat for the next four years, and it did help keep me warm.
I can’t say I acclimated to the weather. A few years later, I was diagnosed with Raynaud’s Syndrome, meaning I had decreased blood flow to my fingers and feet. So I came by my cold complaints honestly. But I did learn to appreciate, even love the snow in small doses. The way it piles precariously on tiny branches; how it insulates the woods from the noise of civilization. The billions of falling flakes visible in a streetlight, looking like an army of tiny white angels raining down. The taste of it.
The first time it snowed my sophomore year – that would have been 1982 – I watched it accumulate on the campus quad. It was nighttime.
When it was late enough that the quad had mostly cleared of people, I ventured outside and off of the sidewalks, onto the snowy green, and I began to dance.
I took ballet as a child. One year I was a spumoni ice cream cone in a recital. I wasn’t any good, but I knew how to jete and plie and kind of pirouette, and that’s what I did that night. Amidst the utter silence, moving like a ghost across the dark landscape, I ran and leaped and spun. That moment does indeed remain as sharp as glass in my memory, for it was the first time I remember being utterly me, wild and light, so much a part of the world I would have been happy if it had utterly absorbed me.
After a few minutes, I paused, out of breath and awed by my own authenticity.
“Don’t stop,” called a voice. I whirled my head around and saw a boy standing at the edge of the quad, watching me.
Both thrilled and embarrassed, I began running away from him through the deep swells of snow. “Hey,” he shouted. “Wait!” I was laughing and sprinting, and didn’t stop until I arrived at the side door of my dorm. I burst through the doors and went straight to my room, giddy.
It had been a perfect moment, me on that quad alone. But for years, I have thought with deep regret about my failure to stand still and wait for that boy to approach me. Perhaps he would have been my soulmate! Maybe, having seen me in what felt like the truest, best moment of my life, he would have loved me. And I blew it.
Why am I like this, I often wonder. Why would I take a perfect moment, one in which I felt so content and in tune with the universe, and twist it into a personal failure based on the voice of a boy?
Because that’s what I do.
Perhaps that moment will always be tinged with the salt of regret. But surely I can manage to push the regret down, Whack-A-Mole it until it’s a tiny grain of sand, and refocus instead on that beautiful vista of me as me. .
“Snow falling soundlessly in the middle of the night will always fill my heart with sweet clarity,” wrote Japanese author Novel Takemoto.
Yes. Snow – freezing and light and wet and beautiful and dangerous, can do that. Flitting, laughing, dancing like a fairy even as a cold wind spins and blows and threatens – there’s a clarity there.
I have only this moment of which I’m sure. In it, I’ll jete.