The Small Moments That Save Us


There is an hour of the day that hurts the most, that pulls at your soul – the time before sunset where everything begins to darken, but switching on the kitchen light, the bedside lamp, the standing lamp in the living room won’t help make it brighter. You want to shut the blinds until it’s over and you can let a safer time in. It feels like the end: of the day, the season, your productivity, your hope – and it’s worse on Sundays.

The sun begins to sink, the shadows come, and all of tomorrow’s workers begin to think of dinner, laundry, errands, getting enough sleep. They shift into sad practicality; the clocklessness of the weekend fades, and they begin to count down the hours once again.

At this sinister golden hour on a Sunday not too far gone, I eyed the growing dark on the bricks of the surrounding buildings. I paced, thinking of that Dylan Thomas poem: “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I had a deadline – something to write, and the beginning drafts felt stilted, the tone drawn from mimicry instead of sincerity, and I had taken to combat – against my own work, against the time, simply against. Even the apartment felt stifling. The walls would close in with the passing hours and nothing new would come.

So I left, jammed the laptop into my purse, swapped the earbuds for obtrusive headphones, and stomped out into the incubating night.

In instances such as these, I don’t try to look pretty, but rough. Intimidating. In this case, worn jeans, cowboy boots, sports bra, t-shirt, and my husband’s sweater (also his coat – oversized, corduroy, with deep pockets in which to thrust my hands), and dark red lipstick, straight from the 90s, popping against my Nordic skin, like the promise of a kiss of death. Needless to say, I looked fierce, and not in the Tyra-Banks-Z-snap way. I felt quick stepping implosion with a face and gait to match.

I went in that way toward the city’s 50s car showroom cum trendy coffee house. The route follows the street in front of my apartment building for a couple blocks, passing the construction of the new bus terminal. It felt appropriate, the remembrance of jangling of metal on building materials, the violent stabs of a jackhammer in the morning, the orange mesh separating the work from the world.

The block that begins with the convenience store run by a middle eastern man who always complements my engagement ring is otherwise ghostly, haunted by businesses dragged under boards in the windows or across the doors. On the other side of the street is the old bus stop where people will ask to bum a cigarette. It’s also where the handicapped sit in their wheelchairs, and where old men talk to themselves. The city has seen better days.

But then, an amateur’s cliché, you turn a corner. There are more lights on this street, more people waking side by side by side, claiming the entire walkway as their own; I felt inconvenient stepping sideways through the reluctant hole they opened for me.

Here there once was a mall. I learned that from a professor of mine who’d seen it before they shut it down. She described it like Santa’s workshop, with a grandfather clock taller than your body as a child, your mother’s slim form, your father’s beanpole stalk. Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear – and the way she said it, you could stack one on top of the other without outgrowing the clock.

The real magic, though, came from the train. It was suspended from the ceiling, circling the stores and shoppers like a merry watchdog, a symbol of the old city, when industry was in full bloom.

I’ve lived here for six years and never saw the mall, only heard it spoken of like a long-ago miracle that glistens so long as people remember. Now the space is sterilized; apartment buildings or offices, I think, but I’ve never been inside.

Within sight is the Liberty Pole, a single white piece of metal jutting straight up with cables coming diagonally down from the top, like a picture-book sail. It seems unfinished, and no one seems to know what it has to do with liberty. Passing by it on a cold night makes a body colder, and my step slowed like winter sap in a maple; it’s easy to see how people freeze to death. The slowness is comforting, the gradual progression toward stillness right and true in the dark.

But then – a burst of warmth, not to the touch, but to the ear. The familiar and familial sound of a symphony orchestra practicing Christmas music, one of the melodies we all grew up with, but hardly anyone remembers the name, just the stirring of lift in the face, a shimmering in the fingertips and toes that feels like childhood: velvet dresses with overlarge bows reflected in a red ball ornament while dancing on an uncle’s feet – he stumbles and you giggle, too young to know the misstep came from the glass of eggnog in hand, ice clinking to the rhythm of your silly swaying, and he smiles down on your shining smile, both sets of cheeks rosy as the warm light in the room.

It combated the coldness in the air and metal, and my pace lightened, remembering the joy of walking somewhere with my mother in winter. I’d let go of her hand suddenly, face reddened with wind and chill, but otherwise swaddled in heavy tights, mittens, scarf, and pom-pom hat as I made a game of how to navigate the squares and cracks in the sidewalk until it was more dance than hops and steps. At first she’d call for me, but would stop when she realized I was still within reach, playing ballerina, or the-floor-is-lava, or something nameless and lovely all the same. Twenty years down the sidewalk from that girl, my feet remembered.

Then a second wave, but of light through glass as the orchestra panned into view from behind the blandness of brick. The conductor was subtly animated, wrist flicks and waves of the forearms never overmuch, yet expressive – of snow’s bassoon sorrows, bright flute twinkles of early sun on icicles, and the slow burn of wooden clarinet coals, the dearest sound lifting up from below children’s trumpeting games.

I began to play at eight years old, small hands struggling to reach every silver button, soft right thumb growing callused from boosting the instrument up from the back, mouth squeezing sour at the unfamiliarity of the embouchure. I continued ten years, through to senior year and second chair, occupied here by a grown man, fingers light, eyes filled with fervor that matched the conductor’s hands, and I realized I was nearly pressed to the glass like the Little Match Girl, but this was no fading mirage; it fed me.

I remained until the song’s triumphant conclusion without feeling the cold, the frustration, the deadness of the city; this corner, small as it was, was alive – expressive, warm, and alive. I may have lingered only a minute or two, but this small moment had expanded far beyond an enumeration of seconds into the reviving bath of memory.

Before anyone had a chance to awaken from their musical daze and see me, I turned from the window and began forward again, washed entirely clean. My step was light as being lifted on another’s shoes, as fingers over a delicate instrument – after all, the walk was not so terribly long.

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