I’ve written about this subject in passing before, most recently in a short essay I posted here called “When the Sun Shines Brighter,” but in the last few days I’ve felt inclined to expand on it…maybe because this has been a challenging year and I’ve gained greater personal perspective about certain things, maybe because I’ve had moments this summer that approach what I’m about to describe, or maybe simply because it’s July again.
Regardless, during my first year of college at Penn State, over 20 years ago, I had a perfect day.
It was on July 4th, and I spent it with my girlfriend. That morning, early, we went out and had breakfast at The Corner Room, on the corner (fittingly) of Allen Street and College Avenue. I remember sitting across from her in the old wooden booth as we sipped our coffee and talked (probably repeating ourselves, because, as Kurt Vonnegut once said so accurately, “Lovers do nothing but repeat themselves” – especially, I should add, young lovers), and thinking, simply, “That’s my girl.” Outside, the sun shone down through a cloudless sky, the morning began to warm, and people began staking out their spaces for the parade on College Avenue.
That afternoon, skipping the parade, we drove a short way out of town to one of my favorite places: Spring Creek Park, where, when I was little, my parents used to let me splash around in the stream and clamber over the hollow castle blocks in the playground. In 1976, two years before I was born, Boy Scouts built a covered bridge across the creek. To this day, it’s still there, and still looks exactly the same as it did when I was a kid.
Together we waded in the stream, sat beneath the Weeping Willows, and kissed on that covered bridge before I added our initials to those already carved there.
Then, as darkness began to fall, we set off sparklers in the back yard, walked up to the Bryce Jordan Center with a picnic basket and a blanket, found a spot on the evening-damp grass, and joined the throngs for the fireworks. I had never seen a fireworks display that close before – actually, I haven’t since either – and it dazzled. Like everyone has at one time or another, I tried taking some pictures of it…and like everyone has at one time or another, I later looked at them and sighed. A universal truth is that no one ever wants to see pictures of fireworks – not even the people who take them.
Thankfully, I remember more: damp grass, a blanket around our shoulders, my arm around her shoulder, her hand on my knee, the sparklers, the glimmer of fireflies under the bleachers off to our left, the screams of kids chasing each other, the smell of picnic lunches, and the static of megaphoned radio station voices followed by synced music and blazes of gunpowder created only to entertain.
Finally, once it was all over, we walked back home for ice cream and late-night TV, and I was hit hard by the realization, even then, that it had been a perfect day. I didn’t want it to end, and I was fully, almost profoundly aware that even as the clock struck midnight and the day passed away into the next, the experience – and recognizing it – was an occurrence both rare and precious.
To this day, my memory of that particular July 4th, now over 20 years in the past, remains vibrant – untainted by future context, and largely unfaded by the vicissitudes and relentless passage of time.
I’ve taught The Great Gatsby in my English class for 17 years. It’s the only book in the curriculum that never gets boring. It always maintains its “melancholy beauty.”
And the heart of the book, the great revelation of everything that makes Jay Gatsby tick, that drives him and has driven him toward his goal for years, can be found at the end of Chapter 6. Gatsby has invited Daisy and Tom to one of his “little parties,” since Daisy never appeared at one by chance. There’s a reason she hasn’t…It isn’t her scene. Gatsby, having grown up in poverty, and therefore without an understanding of the social class difference between Old and New Money, doesn’t grasp that, so is frustrated and upset when she obviously doesn’t care for it. It had been for her – all of them had been for her – and she’d left “appalled.”
So after all the “sparkling hundreds” have departed, and night gives way to a vague notion of approaching dawn, Gatsby asks Nick Carraway to remain behind to talk. And it is during this quiet exchange, as Gatsby attempts to work out what went wrong and what he can do to fix it, that we are graced with one of the most beautifully-written sequences I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Nick reminds Gatsby that “You can’t repeat the past.” And Gatsby, with the universal optimism that made him great in Nick’s eyes, disagrees.
He then describes his one perfect moment, five years before, when he kissed Daisy Buchanan for the first time as the dying autumn leaves fell around them in the white moonlight of a crisp Louisville evening.
This is the moment he wants to recapture; the moment that has motivated him and given him purpose for half a decade. And ultimately, of course, he fails in his goal. For even as he’s kissing Daisy, the symbols of Time’s inevitability – the autumn leaves – cascade from the surrounding trees. And even as he looks back on that moment and says, “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before…She’ll see,” he walks over “a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers.”
You can’t stuff streamers back in a party favor. You can’t fix a peeled orange or mend a crushed flower.
Gatsby’s failure – his naïve, magnificent, and heartbreaking failure – is his inability to realize this…or at least accept it.
Moments can be treasured, but not, as Nick well knows, repeated. Nick notices the fruit rinds and party favors and crushed flowers. Gatsby does not. But even Nick, pragmatic and down-to-earth, feels a shiver of Gatsby’s noble ambition, “an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words,” and is moved by it.
That is one of the bittersweet truths of living. The greatest things life has to offer can be aspired to, prompted, and proactively sought – but they can never be forced. Nor can they be kept. And they can never, ever be relived.
They can, however, be remembered.
Another hard truth is that for all life gifts us, it also harvests us for tragedy. That is the price that has to be paid. And the longer we live, the more we are harvested, in ways both big and small.
When we pass through those times of hardship, whether minor or calamitous, one of the great sources of comfort, inspiration, and hope is the first-hand knowledge that life can also be beautiful. And in order to know that, we need reminders; glimmers of light flickering in the darkness.
Each of our perfect moments is a candle, giving us direction and helping us find our way forward. And once we do, we will, at certain unexpected times, experience new days that awe us with their beauty – both different and unique from those that have come before.
Would we really want it any other way?
In Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road, McCarthy sparingly shares tiny but powerful slivers of the unnamed father’s pre-apocalyptic memories as he and his son trek toward the shore of an unnamed sea. But very close to the beginning of the book, he describes a slightly longer and much more significant one, which also coincidentally (or perhaps not) takes place during a long-ago autumn: going stump hunting for firewood with his uncle on the bank of a lake at dusk. McCarthy devotes about as much space – a page or so – to this memory as Fitzgerald devotes to Gatsby’s. And it is, like Gatsby’s is to him, one of the lynchpins of The Man’s life.
As it concludes, McCarthy writes, “This was the perfect day of his childhood. This the day to shape the days upon.”
It is the one great memory – the most precious treasure from his past – that The Man takes with him when the end of the world comes.
And after the world ends, The Man, refusing to end with it, continues on with his son, carrying with him the fire of hope.