I had one of those moments over the holidays.
You know the ones – when a phone call brings news so terrible that it stops you in your tracks – the kind of news and the kind of call that will stay with you forever. News for the receipt of which you will always remember exactly what you were doing, where you were standing, and whom you were with. You’ll remember that you were drinking the last few lukewarm sips of coffee from your favorite mug, the red brick-colored one with two small chips out of the rim, and that you never set it down nor drank from it, but clutched it tightly during the conversation. You’ll remember the sound of your wife’s bare feet moving across the cold wood floor and you’ll remember telling her what happened. And, as she reaches out to offer her comfort, you’ll remember the strangely dissonant image of the Christmas lights still twinkling on the tree beside you…
It was that kind of news.
Now, just a few days into the new year, on a morning where I am taking refuge from the bitter cold, work cancelled and car battery dead in the driveway, all final rights and ceremonies having been performed and all relatives safely returned home, I’m thinking about the nature of these peculiar moments in our lives – some intensely private and others nearly universal – the ones that seem to have the power to stop time.
We’ve shared many of these moments, as a nation and a world, over the course of my lifetime. As a Gen X kid, the Challenger disaster was likely the most formative of these experiences. We watched the news on one of the ancient public school TVs that Mr. Hay, my 6th grade teacher, rolled into the classroom just before lunchtime after the principal’s crackly voice had come over the intercom with the tragic announcement. 8 years later, I was sitting in a coffee shop a block away from my dormitory at the University of Minnesota, halfway through an extra-shot mocha and a cigarette, bleary-eyed and cramming for a sociology test, when I heard that Kurt Cobain was dead. 5 years after that I was stuck at the airport in Houston, returning home from Guatemala, when I first saw the grainy, haunting images of two angry young men stalking the halls of Columbine. 2 years later I was standing shocked and dumbfounded with my classmates in the atrium of the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs as the second plane hit the second tower. Just over a year ago, I was sitting in the lobby of the doctor’s office when a place called Newtown quickly overwhelmed my Facebook newsfeed.
Every generation has these shared moments. For my parents, it was the Kennedy and King assassinations and the Cuban missile crisis. For their parents, it was Black Tuesday and an end to the War. These are moments that are seared into our collective experience and consciousness – moments that serve as permanent timestamps on our shared lives.
And then there are those moments we may never share with anyone, when someone or something so precious to us was suddenly gone. Just like that. Gone. Like the moment I returned an urgent phone call from an old friend at 10:53 am on February 2nd, 2009.
Just like that.
I’ve really started to wonder, lately, whether it’s only tragedy that has this unique power to stop time, to force us to remember every detail, to burn itself permanently into our beings.
Sitting here on this cold January morning, just a few days into the new year and just a few days after another one of those calls, I think I’m starting to piece together an answer.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see a band play – one which we’d seen a number of times before in different venues. This time, they were playing an intimate acoustic show in a small theatre, and we had been lucky enough to snatch a couple of the highly coveted tickets. It was the last performance of a 3-show stand, on a late Sunday afternoon, and it was being recorded for live album to be released in the spring. We arrived early enough to squeeze ourselves close to the stage and wait for them to come on. They emerged from backstage to hearty applause and raucous cheers and took up their instruments to play.
And then a beautiful and amazing thing happened.
The crowd fell absolutely silent and listened.
Not to just one song, but to all of the songs.
Those of you who go to shows these days know that this simply doesn’t happen anymore. Nobody was talking. Nobody was checking their phones. Nobody was getting up to go to the bar. They were listening to every single note and hearing every single word. Some had their eyes closed. Some were soundlessly mouthing the words. All were completely present and undistracted.
When we reemerged, blissfully disoriented, into the snowy Minneapolis streets some time later, it might have been hours or days or maybe just a split second. We didn’t know and we didn’t care. We wanted the experience to cling to us for as long as possible. We wanted it to have changed us in some profound and lasting way. We wanted to remember it forever.
Therein lies at least a partial answer to the question.
If tragedy can halt the wheels of time, so too can beauty.
I’ve got my long list of resolutions again this year, scrawled in another brand new notebook and sitting open on my desk while I write this. It looks pretty familiar to me after trying to live out the same words for so many years. It’s all so firm and finite. It says I’ve got 359 days left this year to get in shape, get my projects done, get my head straight, be a better husband, be a more productive employee, be a more dependable friend. It says each day that passes will either bring me closer to my goals or leave me stranded. It says I must race the calendar pages as they turn and the minutes as they tick inexorably away.
It says I’m running out of time and there’s nothing I can do about it.
But I know that’s a lie.
I’ve seen time stop in its tracks, out of tragedy, out of beauty, out of nowhere.
This year, I say to hell with this perennial list of resolutions. I’m replacing it with one simple admonition:
Let it in.
The sadness, the joy, the fear, the inspiration, the ecstatic ruin and the divine heartbreak of this life.
Let it in.
All of it.
Each and every moment.
That’s how you learn to stop time.