A million snowflakes.

September 20, 2012 § 12 Comments

We all remember moments when life turned a sharp corner.

We walked out a door, and when it closed behind us we knew we’d heard that sound for the last time.

We left a place called home, never to return.

We said a goodbye that was never followed by a hello.

Last times, first times. Those are the moments we remember as we look back over our lives.

But there is another kind of time that shapes us. It gathers quietly, imperceptibly, like dust on a windowsill.

The bulk of a life is made up of this kind of time, time we fill with the things we do over and over.

Many of these repeated acts are benign. I drink coffee out of the same heavy china mug each morning. I fold laundry in a certain way. These repetitions are comfortable, familiar, harmless.

Some repetitions are done with an eye toward the long haul of life. Put aside a little money from this week’s paycheck. If it is a single act you don’t have much, but do it with every paycheck and it adds up.

Slogging through “War and Peace” once is not as effective as reading something every day. Keeping up with what’s going on in the world is a daily act, as is keeping up with neighbors, including the spider that has built a web on the clothes line and the junebug that thinks your porch light is nirvana.

And then there are the acts we do that have consequences that accrue so slowly it is only after the consequence has happened that the certainty it would becomes clear.

We smoke. We help ourselves to seconds. But we get to the lung cancer, the heart attack, so slowly it takes us by surprise. The outcome printed on warning labels couldn’t possibly apply to us.

Sometimes we are called upon to do heroic acts in the service of others. These are usually moments of life–defining change and in all honesty, we hope someone else will answer the call. But every day we have opportunities for small acts of kindness, and those small act add up, the way a million snowflakes add up to give a kid a snow day.

Something, done repeatedly, becomes habit, becomes who we are. We walk by the homeless guy who needs a buck. We tell ourselves he’ll just waste it on cigarettes or beer. We walk by the next homeless guy too.

A few days ago my daughter saw a young couple with two small children begging outside a shopping center. Women pushing strollers walked briskly past them, women with children of their own. Josie stopped and opened her wallet. She had no illusions that she was fixing things, but she couldn’t walk past.

We protect ourselves from the difficulties of this life by walking past, by not looking, but we do so at our own risk. One small inaction at a time, we become someone who doesn’t care, who doesn’t see.

The big turning points are rarely dismissed so easily. Before you take the kids and walk out on that mistake-of-a-man you married you think long and hard. Before accepting a job in a distant city you’ll take a good hard look at what you’re leaving behind. Moments of critical change capture our attention.

But what about the moment that seems, in no way, singular or important? Each is a stitch in the tapestry we work on day after day. And when we step back, there it is. A life.

“Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.” I’ve always found the expression glib and simplistic, but maybe there’s some truth in it.

Or maybe the expression should be, take care of the little things; they are the big things.

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