The Power of Joy

The marvels of the inner life.

Posted Feb 20, 2018

I have no idea where the present moment will end up as I am living it.  I'm barely even aware that I am living it. Eating my buttermilk biscuit, two fried eggs over medium, three slices of crisp bacon, and a square block of home fries that must have come out of a mold on the grill, I had no idea where they'd end up later on, mentally. I knew full well where they'd end up biologically—I am an M.D., after all, and we are trained to know where food goes and what happens to it as it gets there—but I had no idea where the experience would go once it entered my mind and became the past, lodged in my memory. "Memory is metaphor," my high school English teacher, Mr. Tremallo used to tell us. I didn't quite get it at age 18, but I do now, fifty years later.

For me, you see, and I suspect for most of us, the present happens too fast to mean much or be savored. Only after I live the present moment, eat it if you will, and take it into my mind where my imagination can work on it, only then does it take on the complexity and drama it will come to swell with. Once it gets seeded into the immense and magical soil of my inner life (this is not special to me, everyone has such soil) does it spring to life and get my attention—or it disappears forever like a castoff banana peel.

In my imagination, in my roaming, reflective brain, life lights up in its many shades and colors and takes on its romance, its meaning, its inspiration, its rhapsody. The present isn't rhapsodic. Only when it is recalled does it become so—sometimes only seconds after it's been lived, sometimes many years later. Present life is jumbled and episodic. Prosaic. Pedestrian. Only when the mind works on it does it take on the qualities commensurate with our ability to wonder, to use Nick Caraway's turn of phrase.

How we—alchemists, every one of us—transform the lives we live! We pick up any stray detail, any chance encounter, with a dog, a flower, a piece of paper floating on the wind down Fifth Avenue, and we turn it into something, well, memorable. Life seen through the refractory prism of the imagination turns the daylight of ordinary experience into the glorious rainbows we all carry around.

"Where did we leave off yesterday?" Mr. Tremallo would often ask at the start of class. Off into that metaphor-making machine called memory we'd all plunge, each of us with a different vision, a different feeling, a different story to tell, but all of those stories so much better than what "really" happened.