Column: Little Things Mean a Lot

  • Shawn Braley Illustration

For the Valley News
Saturday, June 02, 2018

Even in the relatively safe and compassionate world of the Upper Valley, those old bugaboos stress and uncertainty can still sneak into our daily lives.

Have you ever found yourself asking, “Where should I focus more: on my marriage, my children, my health, my career, my friendships, my hobbies, my finances, my mistakes, my passions, my car, my senators, my regrets, my cooking, my accomplishments, my appearance, my reputation, my flossing, my feelings, my house, my past, my clothes, my dreams, my problems, or my future?”

If you are anything like me, this train of thought is not unfamiliar. I advise against contemplating the question at 2:17 a.m., an hour that is definitively no longer yesterday, is still way too early to be tomorrow, and is just too darn dark to permit you to get up and start today.

Additionally, I am not sure it is wise to tackle all of those nouns simultaneously. Your brain may explode.

The avalanche doesn’t often overwhelm my thoughts, thankfully. When it does, I don’t panic. Instead, I lean on experience only time can give. Mainly, I try to remember that a little thing will clear up my confusion soon enough. While sweeping solutions to life’s complex challenges can be elusive in the dead of night, little things have a charming ability to ease my mind back into slumber. My head lets go of the big jumbled mess, instead embracing a ray of moonlight through the window, the hoot of an owl, or the memory of a child’s laugh.

For whatever reason, the little things have been captivating me lately.

One of my favorites was a big thing for a little person. My youngest son just mastered a pedal bike, later than some of his contemporaries, and earlier than others. In the big picture, it was a little thing. I didn’t even witness it; our kids take instruction better from my wife than from me, so she handled it.

When he showed off his new skill for me, he was positively bursting with accomplishment. If you could package and sell the pride that he felt (“World Domination in a Box!”), well, “my finances” wouldn’t be a concern for you ever again.

Speaking of transportation, I recently learned that every car has an arrow on the dashboard display pointing to which side the fuel filler door is on.

As someone who frequently rolls down his window at the gas station and asks strangers, “Is my tank on this side?” this was big news.

But that little thing wasn’t as important as the next, which occurred when I shared my newfound knowledge with a fellow dad. He told me that he, too, had recently figured out the same thing! We had a good laugh when we realized we both thought this was super-cool, life-changing intelligence. I told my wife about telling the other dad and — bam! — one little thing had snowballed into several little things.

As I was brushing my teeth the other day, something moved in the corner of my eye. I turned, and had a good 2- or 3-second staring contest with a hummingbird. It floated right outside the bathroom window, its beak pointed straight at me. The bird was probably admiring its own good looks in the reflection off the glass. To my eye, however, it was a magical moment and put me in a peaceful place for the rest of the morning. It was so fleeting, there was no way I could tell anyone to come look in time; it was as if Mother Nature had decided I needed a little something special, just for me, and coaxed the bird over my way, wings spreading serenity at 50 beats per second.

Not all avian news is good news. We have phoebes that like to build a nest above one of our windows. I let it happen last spring, and the excrement quickly overwhelmed the deck and the pane of glass. This year, I was determined not to let them set up camp, so I rubbed out their efforts with a pole of bamboo, scraping away the mud and moss two, three, four times. The birds, I hoped, finally had it figured it out.

Until my wife sent me a picture of an egg, balanced on a strip of wood, where last spring’s brood had fledged. The egg just hung there, alone, with no nest to protect it. When I got home a couple of hours later, I went out to look.

There was nothing up there.

So I looked down.

Sayonara, phoebe bird.

Little things, it turns out, can also break your heart.

Last weekend, the phoebes started building a new nest in the same spot. For a while I thought about fighting them, but I surrendered. After all, poop is my children’s favorite topic anyway.

Let’s be honest: each of us — every one of us — has our own “stuff” that can pollute our thoughts, our moods, and our outlook. Letting go of our stuff is one of life’s greatest challenges. The power of Little Things is that they can distract us from our stuff, and allow us to marvel and wonder at this existence.

My wife told me about a sign in her dentist’s office. It said, “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.” She laughed about it. Her optimism infected me.

It was an observation that had every chance to join countless other forgotten brush strokes on the landscape of our lives. Instead, I recognized it as a Little Thing.

And it made me fall in love with her all over again.

Mark Lilienthal lives in Norwich. He can be reached at mlilient@gmail.com.