They’re everywhere. No, it’s not a horror story – just an observation. I mean the Small Things; the cracks in the day, the glimpses of joy or grief out beyond the stories we tell ourselves.
My childhood was spent in a house approaching the century mark. I promise you again, this isn’t a horror story. We’re only stepping into the closet; come on, back here. Behind all the clothes. Yes, you have to come into the closet to see it – what are you looking at me like that for? There’s almost certainly no skeletons – ah. Here it is. They painted this house quite a few times, but they could never quite cover it.
It’s one of the Small Things. The layers of paint have cracked away just enough, giving up a revelation: a sliver of wallpaper, decades old and covered in flowers. I often forget it’s here. But it’s one of those invisible pushpins on my mental map of the worlds I move through. As long as it’s here, a piece of this world is still in place. If it should ever be covered again, or remodeled over – the memory will remain, a fragment snapped free from form, but still a sort of marker on a place in time.
The Small Things ring our lives. They mark out the boundaries, the edges, the familiar and uncertain; they form a sort of exoskeleton. No one has the same Small Things, but their essence is perfectly exemplified in the children’s book Madeline:
“…a crack on the ceiling had the habitMadeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans
Of sometimes looking like a rabbit.”
The cracks on the ceiling, or a particular chip on a particular cup; the feeling and pattern of linoleum kitchen tiles, the creak of a door, the smell of a tea tin, a clock ticking. These things barely impinge on our conscious mind. They are almost invisible. And yet, they form a baseline. They give us a world we can trust; a very small world, but the larger world of shared experience isn’t big enough for more. Sometimes it’s just enough to have one thing on which you can depend.
Most people like to think their lives are built on values. It’s a lovely idea. But large-scale concepts like Trust, Hope, Love, and Courage don’t have meaning unless you actually, well, value them. And things are easier to value when they have tangible form.
Patience is easier to grasp when a well-known clock ticks off the seconds. A chipped teacup holds acceptance of imperfection; a tea tin holds the gift of sharing. The creak of a particular door is a nudge towards openness, the ability to reach out; a crack on the ceiling shapes an understanding of empathy, other minds, other perspectives.
Like I said, Small Things mark the edges of our lives. Values may dwell out beyond the boundaries, in the magical realm of intangibility; most of our lives occur on the other side of the divide, where matter fronts for mind. The Small Things are sometimes a comforting routine, and sometimes the closest lifeline to sanity and the better parts of our nature.
While you have time – if you have time right now – take a few moments to look and listen for them. No matter what state of disarray your life is in, I guarantee you will find your Small Things there somewhere, even if only in memory. Conjure them up, hold them as close as you can; imagine them in detail; imagine what they might teach you.
As they say – it’s the Small Things in life.