A Certain Number of Times

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” – Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky)

I walked out to the garage to say goodbye to my wife’s parents who were visiting us for Easter. I found my wife and her mother holding hands and crying through her folk’s car window. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the tears were not of sorrow but of joy and had something to do with the Joni Mitchell song “Circle Game” that was playing on the stereo.

I like to describe my wife’s family by saying, “There is never a dull moment even if occasionally a dull moment would be welcomed with open arms and given a seat at the head of the table”. There are six kids (now all with families) coming and going through her folk’s household. Their house would also attract what I would call “strays” that were friends who ended up calling Pam’s mother “Mom” and hanging out at their house as well.

When Pam was growing up whoever was around in the summer would pile in the family conversion van and head out on the open road to her grandfather’s place in the mountains in Upstate New York (about a 20 hour drive). On the way there they would inevitable pop one of just a dozen or so well played 8-track tapes into the van’s stereo. Since they are a lively bunch they would all sing along with the various performers as they bopped down the road. One of these recordings included Joni Mitchell’s song “The Circle Game”.

A song linked to these formative memories was bound to evoke sentimental feelings. Making matters even more bittersweet the lyrics to Circle Game happen to be about how fast time moves forward with the years being added like trips around a merry go round. Additionally, they were both remembering a particular point in time where Pam’s Mom sang this song to her on a stormy night at her Uncle Tucker’s house.

When I noticed them sharing this moment, I couldn’t help thinking of the above quote by Paul Bowles. It is a great example of the phenomenon he is talking about. How many more times will Pam and her Mom get to share this particular memory? This led me to think about other moments happening right now that are special and only available for a limited time.

Just this last week I got to see my son Jake, a junior at Middleton High School, perform with his band Autumn Underground to a full house at the MHS commons. How many more times will I get to see him sing a song he wrote with a group of kids that rehearse in our basement? Also last week I got to see my son Tucker play his first Lacrosse game ever. That was likely the last time I will see him try a new sport for the first time. I am not particularly sad about either moment. They are growing and their lives are changing, and it is only natural that they will do some things for the first time as they do other things for the last time.

I think the point the quote is trying to make is not that we should hold tightly on to the past and let go reluctantly, but it is rather that we should be mindful of and savor the experiences we are having right now, even if some of those experiences are simply remembering a special moment in time with a loved one.

I will leave you with the same chorus from Joni Mitchell’s song the Circle Game where I left Pam and her Mom, “And the seasons go round and round; and the painted ponies go up and down; we’re captive on the carousel of time; we can’t return we can only look behind, from where we came; And go round and round and round; in the circle game.”

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