Life consists of moments. First one moment, then another, then another, each one as unique as the one before. Once a moment has passed, it is gone, and will never return again. The closest thing we can do to recover it is to remember it, or to replicate the conditions which prevailed during it. Yet the second pass will only ever be a replica, an attempt – the experience of that first instance wasn’t there the first time around, and will color any future moments.
Of course, most moments are relatively undramatic, and large portions of our lives consist of moments that are of little note. While each moment is unique, the elements of repetition and routine make sure to add a certain predictability to the state of things – we know how to act in most situations, and those around us also know, and our mutual understanding of the particular moment we’re in assure that nothing in particular will happen right here, right then. We live in terms of iterations upon themes.
A key portion of any given moment is the intentionality with which a subject enters into it. These words somewhat obfuscate the simple idea they convey – that the act of going to the store with the intention of buying milk is a different experience than going there with the intent of armed robbery. Both intentionalities are possible, yet the lived moment is different depending on which you adopt. And human beings are capable of adopting a vast range of intentionalities when they are out and about in the world, assuring that no two moments will ever be alike, no matter how similar they might be in material terms.
Suzanne Vega’s famous song Tom’s Diner is a description of a particular moment at a particular time. It describes an unnamed protagonist getting a morning coffee at the aforementioned diner, and the momentary thought processes occurring as they occur. A quick summary of what actually happens would be both quick and uninteresting – the man behind the counter only pours half a cup of coffee as he becomes distracted by a woman entering, and instead of arguing about it, our protagonist retreats into a newspaper, and a moment later notices another woman outside the diner, watches her for a spell and then finishes their coffee in order to set off for the train. These are the things that happen, but they are not the interesting things.
The interesting things are the implied intentionalities of the various actors of the scene. The setting itself implies various intentionalities – a diner is a place to get food, and the information that this all takes place in the morning adds additional information. The time and place in and of themselves suggests that this is not a place where our protagonist is likely to spend an extended amount of time, and the last lines hints at the overall intention of our protagonist: to grab a quick coffee before boarding a train to destination unknown. A transitory moment in transit, as it were.
Most moments are of this nature. We do not exist in the world in general, nor do we interact with people in their abstract particularity. We always find ourselves at a particular place at a particular time, and navigate the situation accordingly. There are things to be done, places to be, people to meet and deadline to complete – things on our minds that define what we’re about right there and then. Things that preclude us from being in the moment, as it is.
Of course, the least interesting lesson to take from this is to try to shed these states of mind. While intuitive and culturally resonant (“live in the moment”), it falls into the regressive trap of being a state of mind in its own right, which rather defeats the point. A more interesting lesson is to take note of the intentionalities with which we approach situations – and of those of our peers. Knowing ourselves and what we are about is universally useful; knowing others more so.
Vega’s downscaled description of an ordinary, in many ways unremarkable everyday scene puts subjectivity at the fore. While we are not told much about the people involved in this scene, we are given enough information to understand their general situation and what they are about in the moment. It’s subtle and efficient, and suggests a more general point: the possibility of squeezing many points of empathy into small signifiers. The smol things.
All we have to do is pay attention.