One afternoon a year or so ago, after a particularly rough day in the office, I was standing at a set of traffic lights opposite King George Square station in Queen Street Mall. As the post-work crowds waited impatiently for the pedestrian light to turn green, I felt my eyes flood with the tears I'd been holding back all day, and I lifted a hand to my face to stem the flow.
In that moment, a man ahead of me in the rabble suddenly turned around. Our eyes met. A second passed. And then he smiled at me. It could have been my imagination, but in that peculiar instant, I felt seen and somehow reassured. There was a spark of recognition and kindness in the curl of his mouth, a friendly grimace that seemed to say: 'Life, huh?' Thank you thank you, I repeated in my head as we shuffled from one side of the zebra crossing to the other, people disappearing as if by magic as they descended the escalators below street level. Thank you.
A little pulse of humanity like this belongs to a genre I call 'shiny moments', bright spots in an otherwise bleak or ordinary day that smooth over the crumpled soul and restore a sense of joy and wonder.
As the name suggests, a shiny moment is typically only brief and seemingly inconsequential, unless you're paying attention. And so I try to pay attention, collecting shiny moments as often as I can, like a kid scavenging the beach for pretty shells.
Shiny moments don't always have to be personally affirming — or personal in any way all. To me, a shiny moment is any glimpse of connection, tenderness, beauty, or humour that glimmers when held up to your consciousness at the right angle: a stranger commenting on your shoes as you wait in the lift together, an elderly couple tenderly holding hands as they dismount a bus outside a hospital, turning a corner to discover three frangipani trees all in a row, each crown of flowers a different shade of sunset pink.
There's no logical way to catalogue these shiny moments, and I'm not sure why I remember some and not others. But a powerful shiny moment is a bit like a shiny coin, something small to hold on to, to cup in the palm of your hand and protect from the wearing forces of inattention and taken-for-grantedness.
I remember, for example, seeing two men dressed in business suits hugging in a shopping plaza near my office one lunch hour. 'I love you, bro!' one called out as the other ambled off, straightening his jacket. For some reason, this fleeting display of affection, so different from typical public displays of male mateship, remains seared upon my otherwise unreliable memory as a shiny moment to revisit often. More recently, on an afternoon walk as I was huffing and puffing my way up the street where a big orange cathedral occupies the corner of the block, I noticed a cassocked priest in the courtyard surrounded by magpies. Was he feeding them? Or was it sheer coincidence? The scene brought St Francis of Assisi to mind, and I couldn't help but laugh to myself as I crested the hill. Last week, a stripy ginger cat joined me as I walked the same stretch of cracked sidewalk. When I crouched to check its name tag, all I could see was a phone number on one side and 'DO NOT FEED' on the other. It always cheers me up when a Japanese barista in a nearby cafe transliterates my name as 'Emboru' on the takeaway cup, sometimes adding a little Niko smiley face drawn over the final letter U.
Shiny moments are important, I believe, because life is really just a series of moments — and it's easy to get caught in the daily sludge of banality, decay, and microaggression: being cut off in peak-hour traffic when you're running late for a scary medical appointment, receiving a snarky email from a colleague even though you've done them a favour, not being able to zip up your favourite skirt, confiding in a friend only to have them blast you with a backlog of their own outrage and anxieties, waking up on Saturday with a splitting headache for no obvious reason, seeing a dead bird on the kerb after a storm, a gust of wind lifting its wing in a heartbreaking salute to the indifferent sky.
When I consider some of the most painful or demoralising experiences of my life so far, it's not only the big-ticket griefs and grievances that come to mind but also mere instances of acute shame and suffering: the boy on my school bus who shattered my confidence with one nasty comment about my nose, the look of sheer disgust on my boss's face when she overheard me laughing about how nervous I was before delivering my very first university lecture, the way my doctor gripped my wrists and told me I needed to 'get past this' when I confessed I was feeling suicidal. And, of course, it's often the cumulative effect of these ostensibly tiny moments that eventually does you in, a reality rendered meaningfully in idioms such as 'the straw that broke the camel's back' and a 'death by a thousand cuts'.
The human brain is attuned to negativity — we're much more likely to register and remember these evanescent moments of damage and despair.
But if we experience life in terms of straws and cuts, then I believe the opposite is also true: shiny moments are the antidote to the dull and corrosive micro-experiences that could otherwise dominate and define a life.
Vive le shiny moment, I say.
Catch them like Pokémon.