Monday, September 13, 2010

moment of reflection: reflection of moment

I had been thinking about what a moment is ever since hearing Hillary Clinton talking about "a new American moment" a week or two ago. I think she was referring to a moment as an opportunity, in this case to make a difference in global politics. And on "The Takeaway," a radio show I half-listen to most mornings, they were asking listeners to offer their own suggestions for America's defining moments. Civil Rights, Obama, women's suffrage, Nixon's resignation were some responses. Others suggested that America ought to take a moment to wise up. I wondered if we were the only country in the world quite this obsessed with defining ourselves, like a teenager primping in front of a mirror, frowning at our acne, our hair, and our clothes.

Anyway, a few days later I had a moment of my own. This past Monday, September weather at its sweetest, I took a walk along River St. to the opposite side of Mystic River than the side I'm used to. A kind of unknown land. Shady overhanging river trees. An open grassy area alongside, hemmed in on the other side by dowdy Medford houses. A private enclave of river and glade—not exactly a clearing in a woods, but influenced by those river trees, a consort between them and the houses. (Lucky people. They must hear owls.)

I passed a pair of cormorants perched on a half-submerged tree limb. One slipped into the river at my approach. Came upon a group of mallards, simlilarly arrayed on the limbs of a waterlogged tree. They ignored me. Private property.

The river bent left, the angle between houses and river narrowed. I was behind a row of backyards, nobody home, just stacks of wood, wheelbarrow of branches, chicken wire fencing, a kid's pink playhouse. Ahead another road loomed, crossing the river. But before that, still shaded by the trees, was a small wooden stairway, nine steps down to the water's edge. Someone's makeshift jetty. Don't mind if I do.

So I sat and I looked at the surface of the river, which had settled into a glassy stillness. And in it, or on it, of course, was the reflection of the sky. A perfect mirror image. Just as blue, the sky. Just as white and in slow motion, the clouds. Just as correct in texture and hue the upside down trees. And I was seeing this phenomenon as if for the first time. How was it I never noticed this before? That the skin of the water—really nothing, if you tried to catch it in your hands—could recreate the sky, its color, its movement, its altitude, in perfect duplication? What was the physics here? (I didn't really want to know, but I felt I should wonder) How did water become a mirror? Fantastic.

It was one of those jamais vu moments: as if you've never seen the often-seen before. You have them from time to time. But it got me to thinking about that kind of moment as opposed to Hillary's American moment as opposed to a fleeting moment in time. And how a moment could be the smallest, sub-atomic, microsecond or a monumental, immortal moment: time stopped forever. "I have a dream." "President Kennedy has been shot." One moment, please. Momentary or momentous. Depending, perhaps, on how much momentum it has.

Here's my glib definition that maybe Hillary could get behind, too. A moment is when time becomes a place. Something you can inhabit, whether it's a glance or a historical opportunity or ten minutes regarding the reflection of sky in water (which I sort of know is a kind of illusion created by light bouncing off the surface, like a lens, but it's still amazing).

I described this reflection on reflection to my friend Bill, a psychologist, and he immediately remarked, "As above, so below." Which turns out to be not just a Jungian creed but this ancient mystical tenet to the effect that the macrocosm is a reflection of the microcosm: the universe is a cell, a cell is the universe. Hmm.

My head is starting to buzz. Fortunately, it is Yom Kippur tomorrow. Another good day for reflection.

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