by Michael Grey.
Piping Today #85 • 2017.

It was the moon on nights like this, it was nights like this, it was the wind as it pawed at you or cried as it approached, the sound of the river, the clotted stars against the dark sky, the way a horse will snort at the sight of you, the way pine needles seemed to rust as they died. It was too much to be named. It was all that could not be taken away until it was taken away at last. It was given before you knew what to make of it and taken before you’d had a chance to understand its extent and beauty.

Those words above are by writer André Alexis and come from a short story of his ­— On Such a Night ­— published in Canada’s Globe & Mail. These beautiful words especially resonate; they passed through my screen only a couple of days after the passing of my old friend and mentor, Reay Mackay. The last line, in particular, stays with me and has caused me to reflect. Unless you’re a Buddhist monk or of that rare ilk — of the deeply thoughtful and self-aware — the norm, surely, is for us to not savour and appreciate the present. 

Damn you short attention spans, petty distractions and worries of the future. Mark Twain comes to mind: “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened”. It’s the here and now we so often let pass like something without value or of little consequence — or ordinary. Ordinary suggests humdrum and that without distinction. Where’s the joy in that? When we reflect on ordinary we can find it is not always as it first seems.

I say we but mean me. I don’t want to make any assumptions about your own perspective and way of being, so my apologies now for presuming to use the plural personal pronoun.

When Reay died, I found myself going through old photos. Old-school photos, the kind printed on paper, the kind you can hold without phone in hand and those most often pressed in pages held together by binding. Can you still buy photo albums? I know I have a good few and among them all are scant images of Reay — and me and Reay. I was surprised and then started flipping through the album’s pages looking for pics of teachers and other heroes of my past and present. There is no shortage of homogenous party scenes and failed attempts at replicating scenic photographic greats like an Ansell Adams (with my point-and-click camera). My cello-paged albums hold very few of time spent with John Wilson, George Walker, John MacLellan, John Walsh or even Bill Livingstone — a person I see and talk to a lot to this day. And certainly not many of Reay.

I reflect on what this might mean, to have photos (together forming a very personal book of records, really) that suggests value is placed on a boozy party selfie over, say, documenting time spent in an important way — time spent with your teacher, or other personally impactful individuals.

I wonder if it all has to do with timing: there are certain times when taking a picture is just not done — not cool, if not a bit awkward. A lesson with your teacher would probably count as one of those times. Smartphones and the digital world have softened the parameters related to when photos might be taken. I think of an extreme example, a recent Facebook posting I came across with someone’s smiling selfie taken under the front gates of Auschwitz and the words, “Arbeit macht frei”. I suspect that person would have a great many photos of his teacher — complete with pupil’s grinning mug. An example, too, of a parameter well crossed.  

And then there’s the bashful factor (mine may be low but I do have one, and as a young person it was much higher than today). After having spent a few moments talking to someone like a John D. Burgess or Pipe Major Angus MacDonald, who would have the brass neck to ask for a photo? Not me.

I think it’s all this and more. And I come back to being mindful of the present and savouring the moment. In those important times in your life — or times that on reflection come to be known as important — we take our moments for granted: “There’ll always be tomorrow; there’ll always be another time”.

Of course, we know: there will not always be another time. And if we were mindful of the singularity of any moment we might better understand those times that matter most — and experience them in a richer way.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her memoir Eat, Pray, Love about a friend who, whenever she sees a beautiful place, exclaims in near panic: “It’s so beautiful here! I want to come back here someday!”

“It takes all my persuasive powers,” writes Gilbert, “to try to convince her that she is already here.”      

The paradox of mindfulness, or living in and appreciating the moment, is that thinking too hard about what you’re doing or experiencing can wreck the moment.  Writer Jay Dixit discusses this in a Psychology Today article: “Thinking too hard about what you’re doing actually makes you do worse… 

“Focus less on what’s going on in your mind and more on what’s going on in the room, less on your mental chatter and more on yourself as part of something.”

I’m not sure a more mindful me of 20 or 30 years ago was possible. I have albums of random photos to prove it unlikely. And I’m not sure it’s possible today. But I can say I have mustered enough wisdom to know that time is fleeting. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it passes at the same pace for us all. 

And with that, your homework for the day is to bring your phone to your next piping lesson or meet-up with a treasured mentor and have a picture taken — and find a way to savour that time. You may not entirely know it today but in the context of a life, these “ordinary” occasions may be among the most special. 

“It was given before you knew what to make of it and taken before you’d had a chance to understand its extent and beauty.”