Walking back to our rural home after a dog walk, I was struck by how a leafless oak tree at the edge of our yard looked against the late afternoon sky. It was a lesson in fractals, those amazing shapes that repeat at many levels.
Each twig was a reflection of each branch which was a reflection of the entire tree.
Which got me to thinking about how the small things in life are a reflection of the big things in life. To put it another way, the meaning we get from small things is the same meaning we get from big things.
Even more: arguably those big things can't exist without the small things, just as the beautiful shape of the entire oak tree wouldn't exist without each small twig and branch.
We say, "look at that tree." But tree is an abstraction, really.
A necessary abstraction, given how human language works, yet that high-level word, tree, can blind us to the reality of the many miniature "trees" that make up the twigs and branches without which the tree wouldn't be what it is.
Yesterday I wrote a post on my HinesSight blog, "Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved" is a great book.
The author, Kate Bowler, has been diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer. Her book is a marvelous description of how she rebelled against the Prosperity Gospel foolishness of many of her fellow Christians, who tried to find meanings in her struggle against cancer that were both inhumane and unwanted by her.
This is one of my favorite passages in the book:
Beverly lived in the apocalyptic future, and the scholar lived in the past. I think I believed that I was living in the center, but I rarely let my feet rest on solid ground, rooting me in the present. My eyes shifted to look for that thing just beyond, the next deadline, the next hurdle, the next plan.... I would not say it was simply that I didn't stop to smell the roses. It was the sin of arrogance, of being impervious to life itself. I failed to love what was present and decided to love what was possible instead. I must learn to live in ordinary time, but I don't know how.
Below I've shared a more extensive additional passage from her book that I quoted more briefly in my previous post. Bowler's words kept rambling through my mind today. I found myself paying more attention than usual to all the small things that make up my life, as they do every life.
My day went more pleasantly as a result. I guess you could call what I did mindfulness, but it was mindfulness absent a purpose. Meaning, I wasn't trying to generate more meaning in my life by attending to the innumerable little things I did today: spooning coffee into a filter, brushing my teeth, making a (large) pancake for breakfast, picking up our dog's poop at a park, etc. etc.
Adding up all of these little things produced a meaningful big thing -- my day. In fact, there really is no such thing as my day. That's an abstraction I use as shorthand for all of those real concrete little things.
Here's the quote from Bowler's book:
This is the problem, I suppose, with formulas. They are generic. But there is nothing generic about a human life.
When I was little, to get to my bus stop, I had to cross a field that had so much snow my parents fitted me with ski pants and knee-high thermal boots that were toasty to forty degrees below zero. I am excellent in the stern of a canoe, but I never got the hang of riding a bike with no hands. I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color. I love the smell of clover and chamomile because my sister and I used to pick both on the way home from swimming lessons. I spent weeks of my childhood riding around on my bike saving drowning worms after a heavy rain. My hair is my favorite feature even though it's too heavy for most ponytails and I still can't parallel park.
There is no life in general. Each day has been a collection of trivial details -- little intimacies and jokes and screw-ups and realizations. My problems can't be solved by those formulas -- those cliches -- when my life was never generic to begin with.
God may be universal but I am not. I am Toban's wife and Zach's mom and Karen and Gerry's daughter. I am here now, bolted in time and place, to the busy sounds of a blonde boy in dinosaur pajamas crashing into every piece of furniture.