Monday, August 3, 2009

A Moment of Joy

I subscribe to NY Times' emails and along with daily headlines, an afternoon update and news alerts, I also get the opinion section. Typically, I scan the first couple of editorials and delete the email (it comes in midday and I'm usually caught up in whatever I'm doing to go in depth if it isn't a new Friedman column), but this piece from the Happy Days blog caught my eye the other day.

Averted Vision, by Tim Kreider, started out as a piece about travel, which is why I read it (I've been back from Italy for six weeks and already I'm ready for the next adventure). In the article, Kreider nailed something that I've thought about quite a bit:

"I wonder, sometimes, whether it is a perversity peculiar to my own mind or just the common lot of humanity to experience happiness mainly in retrospect. I have of course considered the theory that I am an idiot who fails to appreciate anything when he actually has it and only loves what he’s lost...We do each have a handful of those moments, the ones we only take out to treasure rarely, like jewels, when we looked up from our lives and realized: 'I’m happy.'" - Tim Kreider

Happiness -- however you define it -- is elusive. And those moments of perfect happiness, what Kreider calls "jewels" and C.S. Lewis details in his memoir Surprised by Joy (one of my favorite books), come rarely if at all.

There are those, I believe, who spend their entire lives searching for these momentary glimpses of joy, to feel their heart leap within their chest and the fates align, only to have the experience of a moment of perfect happiness slip away.

But there are others who know what it means to view the world on pause. They have felt time slow, a smile spread, and have known they have found -- or been granted -- a moment meant only for them at that time and in that place. Like the sun breaking through the clouds and illuminating one small patch in a beam of warm light, joy invades their soul and lingers there. It only comes for a moment. A moment only. Then, it is gone, but its kiss remains. Forever.

Perhaps this is why we (I?) travel? We're searching for the sublime. We press on, visiting cities, tasting food, sampling life, always pushing further, hoping that by turning the next corner or taking the next step, we'll get a glimpse of that brief moment of joy. It's not something that the travel books tell you where you can find your personal share (although that's why we buy them). It's something you can only find yourself.

When Sonja and I visited Florence, I knew there was one place we had to go. I'd been there once before, seven years earlier, and had taken with me an image when I left. I had kept a picture in my mind of Italy ever since that first visit, knowing it was a place I'd somehow return, and when I did, I knew where I'd go.


The Piazza Michelangelo overlooks the Arno from a point high above and just south and east of the city's center. Though it's not far from the river's edge, it's a steep climb to the top, first through winding Florentine streets, then up several staircases. The cobblestones are uneven, the steps spaced too far apart, and if you visit in the summer like we did, you'll be sweating and thirsty when you reach the top.

But when you do, you'll be rewarded by what is possibly the greatest landscape view in Western Europe. As you stand atop the Piazza, all of Florence spreads out below you -- walls of earthy yellows and browns and burned red tile rooftops. Towers poke up here and there, with the Duomo's massive dome dominating the city scape. Beyond the city are the rolling, green hills of Tuscany. To your back is a tall stone tower where bells chime out the hours. Past that roll more hills, one after another, criss-crossed by lines of olive trees and grape vines.

There's a staircase there that points almost directly west. On a summer night in June, the marble steps are warm from a day spent in the sun, and so are you. I remembered from my first visit to Florence that people gather there every evening, talk softly, and watch the sun go down. And I knew that's where I wanted to be.

We climbed the hill and found a spot on the stairs, just a few feet away from a young Italian man gently strumming an acoustic guitar. On our way, we had stopped at a small grocery store and bought cups and a bottle of wine. I pulled the cork and poured each of us a glassful. We sipped, the thin plastic of the cups crinkling under our fingers, talked in low tones about the day, and listened to the guitar. We clapped after ever song, not loudly but politely, exchanging smiles with the guitarists and the other couple dozen people on the steps.

I don't remember what we talked about, exactly, what we said or how we said it. I just remember never wanting to leave and that though the sun set slowly, it wasn't slow enough. And I can recall, in complete clarity, the feeling of perfect contentment -- the warmth of a heart at rest -- that overwhelmed me in that moment.

It only lasted a few minutes. The sun eventually set and we walked back down the hill, holding hands and heading back to our hotel. But I know there's a part of me still on that hill, still watching the sunset with the music in the background and Sonja sitting next to me.