You would think that an epiphany would last, since the moment itself is defined by clarity—like a high resolution photo in a blurry world—and a sense of significance so profound that time and space may feel altered. But for me, the most important realizations—those unanesthetized moments in which I wake up to what really matters—seem also to be ephemeral, at odds with the inertia of ordinary life, work, and responsibility that can so easily swallow us up.
When I was in my early thirties, I moved with my husband and our newborn son to a remote property in western Oregon where we planned to build a house—a new endeavor that was not beyond the scope of that good man’s considerable skills, because in a long career that involved everything from blacksmithing to machining parts for the space shuttle, he’d built a lot of things. I was his apprentice in construction, and in life, being much younger than he was, and very much in love.
I had never been north of San Francisco, so when we first drove into the dense tangle of Oregon rainforest, it seemed otherworldly, a lush wilderness I had only imagined in fairy tales. We turned right from a two-lane highway onto a trestle bridge, then left onto a narrow gravel road that ran along the Siuslaw River, a shining jade ribbon trimmed with lacy rapids, pulled down tight into the crevasse of a steep, forested canyon. The cliff on our right overhung the road in places, netted tight with a wonderful profusion of pine green and chartreuse that shimmered in the sun; blackberries dripped from tangled vines, and every hundred feet or so there was a creek, or a little waterfall cascading right down the rock face. As we went on, the road narrowed, hugging the cliff, and began to seem more like an animal trail. Deer stood in the road in the middle of the day.
It was fantastic, and yet as we approached the dilapidated old house where we would live while building the new one, I also felt the kind of premonition that defines a fairy tale: the sunny glades, the murmuring stream, the almond honey cakes made by elves in magic cloaks, even the prince and his splendid castle next the enchanted forest—all serve only to suggest the unseen presence of some terrible lurking giant.
Even so, right next to that premonition in my memory lives an image of my husband that still brings a smile. He always liked to wear an old hat when he worked that was cut like a baseball cap, though he’d never had anything to do with sports; it was made of tan, narrow-wale corduroy with a red cotton liner. He wore it backwards, so the bill would be out of the way, and though he had taken good care of it, over the years it had become stained with sweat from his forehead, so there was a dark brown dome in the corduroy. As we worked on building the new house and summer stretched into winter and back again, I watched him snug that cap down every morning as we got ready to go to work. His predictability made me happy, as did his smile, spontaneous and genuine as a child’s, even though his hair was starting to go grey.
He taught me things like how to use a level, how to drill a straight hole by sighting in two dimensions, and how to set a nail without leaving hammer marks, all of which had deep psychological and moral implications. There was nothing fancy about the house he laid out, but it was built to last. It had three-foot eaves to protect the cedar siding; the roof was steep enough to shed snow, but not too steep to walk on; the pipes were copper, and the insulation well above code.
We worked hard, which involved a fair amount of discomfort and sacrifice. While we put together the plumbing system, for instance, our son Jay—still in a baby backpack—took his naps in the crawlspace under the house, with my jacket for a pillow on one of the concrete pads. We hauled a six-hundred gallon water tank up the canyon behind the house to the spring using a complicated arrangement of ropes and pulleys, with me carrying Jay on my back. Before we put it in place, we spent a week or two preparing the site—an ordinary man would have just hauled it up there and hooked up the pipes, but my husband wanted to make sure we wouldn’t have problems with it later. So we used pry bars to dig out every rock that might eventually, with the settling factor and all, poke into the bottom of the plastic tank and possibly weaken it. Then we tamped dirt back into the holes, waited for it to settle, and tamped in some more. We canted the ground to discourage erosion, added a layer of sand to smooth out any irregularities we might have missed, and laid black plastic over it all to keep it stable under the filigree of alders shading the creek, and the huge old firs clawed to the canyon walls so that their canopy closed the sky.
One day—this is where the epiphany comes in—as I was on my way back down the canyon, I stopped to rest for a minute and put Jay, who was just learning to walk, down off my back. As we stood there by a bend in the creek where a fallen tree made a natural dam, we saw a salmon as big as my forearm curling around itself in one of the little rocky, shaded side pools, as if to catch her breath. The salmon looked up at us, and I wondered how we appeared to her from the other side of that glassy surface beneath which she waited to lay her eggs, or to die. Jay, even as young as he was, seemed to be taken into the stillness of this moment, and we stood there holding hands as if we were the same age—or as if age didn’t matter.
As time slowed down and the light intensified, as it does in such moments, the elements of the scene became almost holographic. You know how dry stones that appear common in the sun of everyday life suddenly roil with glorious color when they’re immersed in water? It’s like that in these moments when we find ourselves so fully immersed in the present that we also intuitively grasp the past and future that it implies.
I wonder now if what was driving my husband while we built that house was some knowledge in the body of what was about to befall him, some built-in sense of a long, personal winter approaching that made him oblivious to the less pressing needs of making our current life pleasant. He didn’t drive me, ever—but he drove himself, and as Jay and I tried to keep up, I noticed I was always telling myself that life would be better when… when we got the roof on, when we had electricity in the house, when the drywall was up… —and that when never came.
I knew suddenly, as that salmon and I locked eyes, that life would never be any better than it was right now.
As revelations go, the idea that we should live in the present, or stop to smell the roses because life is short, isn’t anything new—and as a child of the sixties, I’d been exposed to even more than the usual cliché versions of it, everything from Alan Watts’ interpretation of Zen Buddhism to Janis Joplin singing “Get It While You Can.” But the thing about epiphanies is that they happen to you. It doesn’t matter that there’s nothing new under the sun—what matters is the moment that you become aware of some piece of truth.
So the next day, I took Jay down to the river instead of going to work at the house, and we splashed and played and looked at crawdads and ate peanut butter sandwiches in the sun. There was a special place where, in summer, when the river was low, you could walk out to the middle of it on a big, smooth, rocky flat where the water was either rushing cold and clear in deep channels into which you could dangle your feet, or lying about in warm, mossy pools filled with tiny fish. I rolled up the legs of my overalls and, for the first time in a long while, we enjoyed ourselves.
When we got home, I told my husband that I was going to do that more, and he smiled and said, “Fine. That’s a fine thing to do.”
Later that year, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and during the seven years that followed, as well as the decades that followed his death in 1988, I have had many occasions to remember, and to reach again, for the kind of insight that gave our son a childhood even while I took him by the hand into the long work of building a future without his father.
But I think the more important lesson is not the content of any particular moment of insight. Like Dorothy in Oz, the world of our human journey—no matter how vivid the adventure, how terrifying the dangers, how sweet the rewards—isn’t the only world we have access to. Revelations occur when we need something beyond the limitations of what we know, beyond our uninformed personal agenda, beyond what we think we’re capable of; they occur when we reach for home.
Note: thanks to Tom Titus, whose description of collecting agates on the beach and “the little clink that each stone makes when it lands in an old canning jar” reminded me that I’d once written something about stones immersed in water. When I searched my computer for those words, I found this piece that I had put together years ago and then just forgotten about. I decided to post it since I’m pretty sure Tom and I aren’t the only ones who have looked at rocks closely enough to see them as a metaphor worth saving.