Oliver Gilan

Visceral Moments

There are distinct memories in life, like birthdays or breakups, but then there are moments that are far more real. They stay with me only as a feeling. For some of those moments I will never experience them again such as the last day of school before summer break with all the apprehension and excitement in the air before hearing the final bell ring and running out of the air conditioned building to feel the warm air on my face knowing that for two months, I was free. But for many of these moments I can and do experience them again now as an adult and when they happen I find myself anchored in the present. They do more than just remind of specific memories and events they make me remember what it’s like to live every moment totally absorbed in reality rather than living in the abstract space created by my prefrontal cortex. They are memories stored in the body itself, reminding me about the physical world rather than the world of information.

Many of these moments are felt most strongly when getting ready for sleep. Watching the snow fall outside in the waning light as I sit cozy in a cabin, the only sound coming from the crackling and popping of the fire and the breathing of my family. The stillness and quiet that accompanies a snowfall has a way of putting me at ease better than any meditation ever could. The warmth of a fire and its soft glow activates a mechanism in me that I can only assume to be a primal conditioning that extends to my ancestors thousands of years ago. It tells me to pull my family close and quiet my thoughts and sleep peacefully knowing that I am safe.

Or laying in bed during a thunderstorm with the slow rolling percussion and the brown noise of rainfall is something I experienced many times as a kid. Now those stormy nights transport me back to my childhood. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that I am dry and warm and safe that make those nights feel so satisfying or maybe it’s just that bedtime is when I had the opportunity to take a breath and exist in the moment. Even waking up on a winter weekend morning to a howling northeastern wind and knowing that I could sleep in and take my time in the warmth of my blankets would fill me with comfort and gratitude.

And sometimes a bed wasn’t even involved such as the many moments driving home after a long day in the city with my parents and pretending to be asleep in the back of the car so that they would have to carry me inside. I would map out every turn and traffic light and stop sign so that I could pretend to sleep from miles away and still know how close we were to home without needing to open my eyes. And sometimes I would even fall asleep for real only to wake up just before arriving at home but those were the times I had to pretend I was sleeping extra hard. I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to be carried to bed after having legitimately slept!

Not all these moments involve sleep, though. There’s something distinctly unique about a hot day at the beach. Running and swimming. Working up a sweat and then washing it off with a dip in the ocean and then drying off in the heat of the sun. But it’s the moment after that sticks with me. Heading back to the house and taking an outdoor shower to wash off all the sand and salt. Feeling the lukewarm freshwater clean and cool me down feels like a day well spent.

There were long summer days without a single responsibility and only a giant book to read were a staple of my childhood. I finished multiple 500-page books on days like that, usually while finding some new way to arrange myself on the couch every hour.

And the class right after a big lunch and long recess full of running where I had to prop my head in one hand while leaning over my desk so I could try to pay just enough attention so the teacher wouldn’t call me out. It was always these moments when I was physically exhausted and content when I had the most boring classes with a teacher that would drone on and on in just the right way to make me fall asleep. I think the school system designs the curriculum in such a way to be a challenge for students in those moments.

And there were the days after the first big snowfall of the year when the snowplows would come down our street and pile snow into big dunes 10 feet high! Gearing up and running out to play king of the hill on those giant snow mounds with my siblings was one of the best parts of winter followed by digging tunnel networks and little caves that we play in and then summarily destroy.

But perhaps the best feeling is the first warm day of spring. When finally after months of gray skies and biting winds the sun comes out and the breeze carries warm air and suddenly you realize there’s been a shift and it’s officially spring, regardless of what the calendar says. That day is still my favorite even as an adult and anyone who lives in NYC is acutely aware of it because the whole city seems to go mad with optimism and hope. The energy is palpable and infectious.

So many of these moments are specific to the weather and the nature of changing seasons and that is perhaps the best blessing of growing up in the American Northeast and being exposed to the ultimate form of each season. As I’ve grown older I’ve grown to appreciate it so much more and it’s why I do not think I could live the rest of my life in the endless mild spring of a San Francisco.

I’m sure there are many visceral moments such as these that I’ve forgotten and I hope to experience more as I age. The beauty of these feelings is that they are stored deep within the cells of my body and all it takes is one experience to bring them back to the forefront of my conscious mind. They are not lost. I believe the fullness of a life can be measured by the frequency of these moments and I hope to be able to give my own children these experiences so that they can grow up knowing a world full of wonder and contentment.