Becca’s Book #4

Are moments of perfection good or bad things?

No doubt each of us has a catalogue of such occasions safely stored in the scrapbook of memory–a best meal, a perfect sunset, our team’s biggest victory, our favorite singer singing our favorite song at the ideal venue, a child in perfect pose, a parent by our bed when our fever breaks. And then of course there are our romances–one of them, all of them, any of them: maybe each with a moment of perfection planted, maybe one with many such moments, maybe just one with just one perfect moment. I had a friend once describe his sexual encounters in the following terms: The worst I ever experienced was the best I could’ve hoped for! Needless to say, he had lots of perfect, or at least very good, moments stored in his memory and body.

But what do we do with such moments? We cherish them, of course–honor them in our hearts and souls, honor those who granted them to us, even if the only one who granted the moment was God or Nature or Fate. But how often do we honor them? And is the occasion of such recall, such honoring, joyful or sad, or both? Is it like dusting off the photo album (presumably more joyful) or visiting the gravesite (presumably more sad)? And what if visiting a grave is more joyful than dusting off the photo album? Is that an inverted sensibility or a righted one?

Which leads back around to the initial question–are moments of perfection good or bad things?

The logic behind the question goes like this: Certainly we are delighted to have such moments. Once they are experienced, they are ours forever. Nobody, nothing can take them away. But then that’s also the problem–they are ours forever. We live the rest of our lives in the shadow of those moments, ever reminded (if we stop to think about it, if we honor the moment, the person, dust off memory’s photo album, visit the grave) that now is not then, that today’s occluded sunset is not THAT perfect sunset, that the singer is in a nursing home, the song an advertising jingle, the child grown, the parent deceased, the lover long since vanished. If we really honor the perfect past, we necessarily diminish the imperfect present. So maybe we safeguard the present by saying that the past, even those precious moments, weren’t really that perfect, are elevated and embellished by time and memory and nostalgia. But what if you know that isn’t true, have a photo or recording or journal entry that proves your memory accurate, that moment was THAT perfect? Maybe better then not to think about it, but in so doing you dishonor the memory and your life’s experience.

There are some wonderful lines from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that speak to this dilemma and also summarize the tension in all of Keats’s poetry between rightly honoring perfect beauty and acknowledging our rare or nonexistent participation in it:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal–yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Can we freeze the perfect memories in their perfect moment like those figures on Keats’s urn, both honoring their perfection and keeping them separate from our present life, the sun of memory from behind us, shining full light on the bygone moment but casting that moment’s shadow somewhere else, anywhere else, than across our present? If so, just how do we work that delicate alchemy? Then again, Keats died an excruciating death at age twenty-five, and his last words to the world are documented on his tombstone: Here lies One whose name was writ in Water.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
Play on, soft pipes; play on.
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