LAST May, three of us were bouncing along the flat, endless highway near Moab, Utah, in the front seat of a battered pickup. We were on our way to hike in the canyons. A popular song from our teen-age pasts, one that captured the feeling of carefree youth, ``Runnin' down the road, trying to loosen my load ...,'' was playing. The hot, dry weather was an enormous relief to us after a soggy New England spring. The desert colors (dusty red dirt, deep azure sky) dazzled our dulled eyes. I had started out five hours before not knowing the driver, but by now the three of us were developing the peculiar silent unity that comes with long trips. Music, adventure, friends. I felt an overwhelming sense of being perfectly happy, right there, doing what we were doing. I think the beauty of the moment hit us all at the same time. One sighed contentedly; the other murmured, ``This is as good as it gets.''
It's a phrase I've heard often but never thought too much about. I've been thinking about it ever since. At first it dismayed me: As perfect as the elements were, I didn't want to think that that was the last high point I'd ever have. But my friend told me that she didn't mean it to be a ceiling on how good things could be, but more as an acknowledgment that right now life is full and complete. That, I think, was what was different about this moment. Sure I had been in cars with friends before and heard favorite songs while having adventures, but I hadn't stopped to let the magnitude of all that good sink in. I was, for the first time, living my life.
I wanted more. And I've gotten it. The more alert I've become to watching for these kind of experiences, the more they've occurred.
A few weeks later I decided to wait in a small park while my car was getting fixed. It was the loveliest of summer days; the kind of day I call ``early Pasadena days,'' because they remind me of my youth in Southern California before the smog took over: clear blue skies, fluffy clouds, the kind of bucolic peace known only to kids free for the whole summer. Because of the Victorian houses surrounding the park, and a man strolling by in a hat and cane, and the fresh purity of the day, I felt transported to ``The Music Man.'' But there was a quirkiness to it, too. The peaceful park was surrounded by speeding cars, with the sun glinting off the chrome. And the dignified man was walking past some very contemporary sunbathing women, whose bodies also glinted in the sun. So it was old and new, movies and real life, all jumbled up together.
But it all worked. And again, something about it made me suddenly very happy. I felt as if life was marvelous and I was blessed to be right there and to be taking part in it.
Now, I have to admit that this scene was guaranteed to win me over: the Victorian architecture, the whole ``Music Man'' small-townness, and crystal-clear day.
But there was something else. I was primed to watch for it. Who knows, if I were daydreaming I might have just sat there for a while and gone back to pick up my car and left. I could easily have ``slept'' through it, probably have many times before.
Maybe that readiness to appreciate small moments is what an involved life is about. All I know is that I saw and then appreciated it. And it's stayed with me. It's made me wonder what my mother's sense of a perfect day was say, in the '40s. Instead of hearing the Eagles bringing back life a decade ago, perhaps for her it was hearing the sudden blast of horns that heralds ``In the Mood'' while riding with her friends in a convertible.
It happened again recently when I was waiting for a friend to get off the phone. I sat down next to her eight-year-old son who was reading on the couch. He ignored me, so I picked up one of his books and started reading, too. After about 15 minutes I looked up. While a solo guitarist played on the stereo in the background, I realized that the two of us had been totally unconscious of each other, sitting side by side on the couch, reading in perfect contentment.
THESE epiphanies are happening so regularly now that they are starting to feel like pearls on a necklace instead of the amazing bolts from the blue, as they were at first. Perhaps all the moments of life could be enjoyed. I mean, how far could I take this? Could I feel that same delighted sense on the fourth rainy weekend in a row, or in the midst of gridlock? That may take a bit more doing, although I have felt it in the subway, after looking up and seeing that the green and white tiles were newly cleaned.
Perhaps if I get really good at this, I'll wake up bounding out of bed every day, wondering what marvelous experience will be in store. And then again, maybe I won't. I don't want to start asking, ``Are we having fun yet?'' I don't think this is something you can force yourself to do, something to put on your list or kick yourself because you forgot.
I see it more as a muscle that gets exercised, a capacity that increases, a readiness to accept joy. But it's also a gift you give yourself. And when it happens out of the blue, it's a gift that is given you.