In learning to play piano at the age of forty-one, I worked my fingers far enough into that uncanny dimension that all pianists know, regardless of their level of skill, where the hands, briefly, beyond all logic, start to behave more quickly than the mind that tries to read the notes or position the fingers. I had practiced enough weeks that I was ready to tackle my first piece of Bach, a minuet taken from a collection he created for his wife, a book that she herself copied, which has come to be known as Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena.
In the eighth measure of that minuet there appears a note smaller than the rest. Almost ghost-like, it hovers very near the others like a barely seeable angel or a hummingbird whose path is more readily seen than its body. It surprised me. My teacher called it a grace note; a note that though played has no time; a note that though heard takes up no time in the measure of the song; a note that matters, though it is timeless. And therein lies its grace.
Now, eighteen years later, I realize this is another means to understand the paradox of epiphany; of moments that open and transcend their sense of ordinary time. In truth, every glimpse of eternity I have ever encountered has forever affected how I see and hear though it has taken up no time in the measure of the song. And seeking out the great sages and mystics throughout history, listening to their wisdom as it reverberates in the moments they are indistinguishable from life itself, I find over and over that the humbling instant in which we are washed along with the swell of the Universe is a note of grace.
When such a moment occurs, when the mind is touched by something larger than its ability to understand, when the heart is moved by something deeper than its capacity to dive, when the impulse to speak is stirred by the presence of something that cannot be named, things happen that defy the boundaries of time. In such moments we are made aware of a unity that is always present but seldom clearly known, and the flood of that presence, even when its conscious wave has passed, changes the life of the being who encounters it.
Moments like the moon, full and stark, rising over the garage between the oak and maple in the urban backyard of a friend as we barbecue and suddenly, the moon is calling in its white silence, drawing the smoke and fragrance out of the meat into the sky, and we, without a word, feel coated with a timeless film of light from another world, the same as cavemen preparing their game at the mouth of their cave.
Moments like the morning of my annual cat-scan since having cancer, and just as I leave the house, I walk the garden to see a cardinal splashing water on itself in the birdbath, and I am struck at our role since the beginning of civilization, at how we place things in the earth to collect water that will attract birds of color, how we really want something to call us to our thirst. How in the wet redness of the cardinal’s throat against the yellow of the primrose, I somehow know that everything will be alright.
Moments like watching my friend’s oldest cat adjust to being blind. How all at once, the cat’s attempt to make its way around a single room is clearly the hidden patch of softness we keep tucked behind our heart. How the soft attempts of the cat to find its dish without a clue so mirrors the soul groping within us for a life to carry it.
Moments of soft, relentless grace like the other night, celebrating one of our birthdays, the cake put between us, the lights turned off, all of us caught watching the sparkler on the cake, each of us peering from our own personal seat of darkness, gathering as we do, fixed by the hiss of light flaring between us, feeling the sparks fly, afraid one might burn us, hoping it does.