Winter as Moment

How long is a moment? I think the assumption has been that it’s not very long at all, a brief and passing thing that comes and goes in little more than the blinking of an eye; and if you want to make the most of it you better seize it while you can.

The problem with that, first of all, is there are moments; and then there are moments. The one is a ‘thing,’ a rather uncertain way to describe a measure of time, as in “give me a moment.” The other is a ‘thou,’ a special, even wonderful experience that when appreciated to the fullest extent possible is timeless.

I knew a man years ago who understood that perfectly. His name was Dan. I believe I’ve mentioned him before in this blog, a not very big man physically, but wise in the ways of the world and humanity. That summer of 1962, my friends and I were a group of usually five or six young men, just finished our first year of post-secondary education. We would drive downtown from our suburban Toronto homes every Saturday evening. We soon found a special place in the old, downtown ‘village’ to drink expresso coffee and talk about weighty matters. I’m not sure how it happened – maybe he was sitting at a nearby table and was amused and interested by our discussion one evening and couldn’t resist leaning over with a comment – but, in any event, Dan became a regular at our table, and in fact was often the focal point. Not that he was that talkative, or trying to be the center of attention; on the contrary he would sit and listen, until inevitably we would here him say, “boys, I tell you something,” in his unusual European accent.

At some point Dan told us he was originally from Luxembourg, a small country surrounded by France, Belgium and Germany. But, really, he was a ‘man of the world’ who had travelled much and done many things, though he didn’t talk much about them. However, one time he happened to mention he had been a talent agent in Los Angeles and that one of his clients was the well-known, Hollywood star, Tony Curtis. In Toronto at the time he had a travel agency. We came to believe there was more to it than travel, though again, he didn’t say anything more. What Dan’s academic credentials were, if any, he never said, but clearly he was a philosopher. Without any doubt he was the best, the most profound philosopher I’ve ever met; and yet he spoke in a way that was remarkably clear and understandable, while at the same time powerful and inspiring. Many’s the time I was high on inspiration as I walked the many blocks home to my garrett room in a rooming house near Cabbagetown.

But I digress. I guess I got into ‘the moment’ there, reminiscing about Dan when I set out to recall one of those times when he would lean forward a little (our signal to listen) and say, “Boys, I tell you something.”

And, this one time, that was followed by, “the man who invented time was a fool.”

“Hah!” my old friend Roger exclaimed. He got it right away, while the rest of us didn’t, not even Bill, who would go on to become one of Canada’s most prestigious academics. Around about the same time, I was reading a book of Zen Bhuddist stories. One stands out in memory, about a man walking alone in nature when he suddenly discovers he is being stalked by a tiger. He tries to run away but of course the tiger is getting closer. The man comes to the edge of a cliff, so high that there would be no hope of survival if he jumps. He notices a bush growing out of the side of the cliff not very far down. He jumps down and desperately grabs hold of the bush, which soon begins to pull out by the roots. He looks back up to the cliff edge. The tiger is there now, snarling hungrily down at him. The man notices berries are growing on the bush as it tears away from the cliff. As he is falling to his death, the bush still in his hands, the man picks and eats some of the berries. He is amazed how wonderful they taste.

That story has stayed with me all those years; but I confess, even so, I didn’t really understand it, not until some years ago when I told it to an angel-woman I had just met. “Well, of course, it’s about living in the moment,” she said, rather dismissively, I thought, my precious little ego bruised.

By then, and still now, ‘living in the moment’ had become a byword for how to live one’s life. I confess, again, only in recent years have I really understood the vital truth of the expression, though I give myself some credit for intuitively sensing it. As my old friend Roger once said after he struggled through a personal, existential crisis, “One of the hardest things for a man to accept is his own limitations.” So true too, Roger, wherever you are.

But trust me, my children, and anyone else who might need to know, you don’t have to be the brightest star in the heavens, nor is it ever too late to understand the big stuff, like living in the moment or becoming the person you really are. I thank goodness, and count my blessing, that I’ve lived long enough to know both of those things finally. Coming to an understanding of living in the moment is mostly a function of the spirit, and becoming who you really are by embracing the child within is the key that helps unlock that door.

These thoughts arose from the morning walk with the dogs after a fresh snowfall. I had found myself falling into that old trap of thinking of a Canadian winter as something to be endured. I saw another dark, snow-squall cloud coming off nearby Lake Huron; but still, blue skies breaking through, and my dogs burying their noses into the snow and savouring fresh scents left overnight by various creatures. Their excitement put me to shame, for not embracing ‘winter as moment.’

It must also be said that for many people winter is surely something to be endured, on top of the tragedy they’re already suffering. The people of Ukraine come readily to mind, as Putin’s Russia seeks to destroy essential infrastructure and make winter unbearable for them. Meanwhile, there are people not that far away in Canada who are cold and homeless this winter. Those are also examples of ‘winter as moment,’ but in the worst sense of the expression.

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