Ineffable Moments

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) from Namsskogan Wildlife Park, Norway, June 2006, Morten Olsen Haugen

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) from Namsskogan Wildlife Park, Norway, June 2006, Morten Olsen Haugen

There are, sometimes in our lives moments so shockingly intense that one can hardly describe them. Such moments are, as the adjective ineffable implies, almost beyond the capacity of words. When we are inside, inhabiting such a moment, it seems sharp-edged, charged with light and color, and filled with energy and vitality, almost too real to be real. It seems heavy with, charged with, significance; an unknown but powerful meaning seems to radiate from it.

When recalled from memory, the moment seems still charged, although the sheer clarity and powerful emotions evoked at the moment are lost and cannot be regained. We only feel a faint and declining echo of its presence.

Once, on a flight from the United States to Hong Kong, Joan and Greg flew over Siberia in the early hours of the dawn. Huddled in our seats, dozing fitfully and unsuccessfully, we were awakened by a touch on our shoulders from one of those ephemeral friends one sometimes makes on airplanes and long travels.

“Come to the back of the plane,” she said. “You have to see this.”

There, from the rear seat windows we looked out over a vast silver frosted expanse of Siberian forests and plains. How to describe what we saw? It is hardly possible. It was ineffable. We don’t have the words for the quality of the light, the sheer immensity of the expanse, the crystal-sharp reality of a landscape that seemed impossibly beautiful. It was like looking through reality to another world, even more real, lying just behind this one.

Once, on a bus trip in Norway, traveling between Trondheim and Bergen, Greg looked out a bus window and caught a fleeting glimpse of a red, red fox standing stock still in a Norwegian wood. A fast rushing mountain stream behind it, pines towering above it, the fox looked directly at him, mouth open and eyes wide, like it knew him. Then the bus moved on and the fleeting moment, so filled with power and sheer force, collapsed suddenly into memory.

Once, when Joan was eight or nine years old, she was attending a gathering sponsored by several Lutheran churches in the Pittsburgh area. The gathering had been held at a park on a quiet Sunday afternoon; but these details are unimportant. She, her friend Janet (they are close friends who see each other to this day), and a girl called Mary (whom she had just met and never saw again) had wandered off from the rest of the group. .

Joan remembers the three of them climbing to the top of a not so very steep hill. For a few minutes the girls stood quietly at the top, surveying the beautiful landscape around them. The quality of the light seemed other-wordly, and the grass was bright emerald green, as vivid as any grass Joan had ever seen, before or since.

Suddenly, without word or forethought, the three girls joined hands and ran down the hill together. It was a moment of sheer and unadulterated joy. In that act of running was the essence of childhood, of being alive in a moment.

We cherish these rare moments, now cradled in our rapidly filling store of memories. They are gone forever and cannot be repeated. They can only be recalled. They are surely dimmer now, seen only in retrospection, and filtered through an ever accumulating fog of time and intervening experience. Yet, and yet, their meaning seems as momentous as ever. They seem as impossibly real as ever.

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