In Swimming to Cambodia, monologist Spaulding Gray explained that he could never happily end a vacation unless said vacation had included a Perfect Moment. Luckily for him, the stay in Thailand he describes in the movie included a fleeting Perfect Moment, which came to him while he was floating in the Indian Ocean.
I feel the same way about summers. If it’s been a good summer, I might be able to think back on two or three Perfect Moments: that time I played guitar with friends visiting from Pennsylvania, sitting around the sparking chiminea beside our back porch, singing under the stars. Or just having a beer, barefoot, on the still-warm patio stones, looking out over the gardens, kid in bed already, Red Sox game humming unintelligibly inside the house, my wife finishing up the dishes, the sun going down.
I don’t want to insult actual practicing Buddhists by saying the quest for Perfect Moments involves more than a little bit of Zen. I really don’t know what Zen is, except that I’d like to think it means not looking directly at the thing you’re trying to find. That it means you can’t stage Perfect Moments, can’t arrange the chairs in a circle around the chiminea, can’t buy just the right beer and invite just the right friends and wait for the Perfect Moment to arrive, right on schedule.
That never works.
Instead, the Perfect Moments find you, catch you unaware. You may be thinking too much about work, grumpy about some interpersonal slight, pissed off in general, but for a moment, something pulls you out of your own skull and causes you to feel a hint of gratitude. If you’re like me, you whisper Thanks, even though you’re on-record as not believing that there is anyone to say Thanks to anyway, but still: garden, Red Sox, beer, sleeping kid, warm stones.
One of last summer’s Perfect Moments came during June, after we’d endured day after day of downpours, enough to make me question the essential fairness of the whole Northern New England deal: we suffer through six months of winter so we can get six glorious months of outdoor living. We ate with the door closed every night for two weeks, watched Netflix even though that’s what we do in the winter, glumly drove to work with the wipers on and returned to cocoa-brown runoff from the dirt road carving a channel through our driveway. Building earth dams with a shovel and a digging iron instead of drinking beer in our bare feet. Feeling beset and cheated instead of pleased and grateful.
It was raining the morning of the final day of the Roots on the River festival, held in and around Bellows Falls, Vermont, and we’d promised our friend – who used to run the festival – that finally, after years of attempts, we were going to drive down and see the Canadian folksinger Fred Eaglesmith play a Sunday morning, un-amplified set in the Rockingham Meeting House. This same friend had given us a half-dozen Eaglesmith CDs over the years, and one in particular – Balin, Eaglesmith’s bluegrass record – had struck a chord with me, reminding me of the good parts of my father’s hired-hand upbringing: the way his family loved to sing together, the way they built their own house with logs they skidded from the scant five acres my grandfather saved for and eventually bought from his boss.
We drove in the rain to Rockingham – our daughter with a friend for the afternoon – parked at the base of a steep, grassy hill, and joined the crowd walking up the two-track driveway to the Meeting House.
Now, I spent enough time in churches growing up to keep me from being a connoisseur of religious architecture. But this building was amazing, and not just because it was built in the late 1700s, or because in the worship area, the benches face each other in small squares, the congregants looking at one another instead of the pastor. It was amazing to me because it felt used, and essential, instead of being preserved. The wood wasn’t varnished. The walls were dingy with age. The place had a dignity about it without any suffocating reverence. It was of its place, and had changed less than the hills that surround it, which began in forest, were converted to farmland, and reverted to forest again.
The opener was a guitarist named Jeffrey Foucault. He was in his mid-30s, wore a flannel shirt, spoke softly but sang loud, closed his eyes as he played. In anticipation of his performance, I had downloaded his outstanding collection of John Prine covers, Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes, and I was pleased when he played one of those tracks.
At intermission, we mingled outside, waiting in the port-a-potty line, watching, skeptical, as a farmer maneuvered his tractor and mower onto the hay meadow across the road. He pulled back onto the road after a single, squelching pass around the perimeter of the field, and we returned to the concert.
Eaglesmith was hoarse. He’d played long shows the two nights prior, and a drive back to Canada waited for him after this show. The chain of his trucker’s wallet swung as he attacked the songs. I sat beside my wife in the balcony, on the steep ancient pew, looking at the verdant field framed by the six-over-six window panes, listening. The sun came out then, the first time we had seen it in two weeks, and the Perfect Moment came and found me, and I knew then the summer would have its share of these moments, and I couldn’t predict them, or even chase them.
The thought filled me with hope.
I don’t know if I’m going to find any Perfect Moments as I drive around New England and Pennsylvania this summer, attending ballgames. I’d *like* to experience one, the way I had at Fenway Park in 1996, back before the Red Sox became good again, when I was in town for a conference and got a single standing-room-only ticket for a night game against the Yankees (as I said, back before the Red Sox became good).
The sound of the ball hitting Darryl Strawberry’s bat as he doubled off The Wall had filled me with hope that night. Strawberry was on the wrong team, and I was there by myself, and I had to keep moving around because I didn’t have a seat. But I was being sent to a conference for my new job, after nearly four years of un- and under-employment, and I was watching baseball. The sound of wood and horsehide told me I was going to be alright.