(In "Small Stones (Part I--The Lie of the Land)" I mused about accomplishments big and small, and how the shrinking nature of accomplishments can be hard to accept for those with chronic illness. I concluded by wondering if a model that measure accomplishments in terms of their apparent size might be at fault. In "Part II--Tillage" I considered three case studies: a conductor, a dog, and Dad. Part III--Percolation suggested that any solution would not be a linear, once-and-done process of overcoming, but a repetitive process of rehearsal--a process of deepening, like tree roots. In this fourth and final part we revisit the Lie of the Land.)
I collected a new pebble on a Christmas Day walk. It was damp underneath, dusted with the silt of an ancient river bed, and winter-cold. I liked the fit of it in my hand. As my fingers closed on it I felt like an infant curling its hand around a grown-up's thumb--one set of bones gripping another with blind instinct.
I walked home past all the new buildings of an urban in-fill development: quirky loft apartments and live-work townhouses, a brewpub and a fitness studio. My mind's eye, though, was casting back a few centuries to picture the slow spread of sandstone-red river water across the valley during snowmelt. In its thousands of years of flooding that water would have nourished a bosque of cottonwood trees and coyote willows and all the lives they sheltered. I could almost see them: dragonflies, porcupines, raccoons, hawks, eagles--
A pigeon strutted on the sidewalk in front of me pecking at some discarded pretzels, and I came thudding back to the present. For a while my mind zoomed back and forth between geologic and human scales of time and activity. The pebble in my hand was the product of untold years of work by wind and water. Its story was eons in the making. Then the story it belonged to was wiped away by urban planning and downstream water rights. By people with typewriters and ideas. I had found the pebble in the "hell strip" between sidewalk and street where nothing grows but goat-heads.
Back in the garden I set it alone on a thoughtful corner of the brick raised bed. From river pebble to landscape art in 15 minutes.
* * * * *
What do "big" and "small" really mean? I'm no longer certain. When I think of actions or accomplishments, what do I think of as big? Something that makes a lasting impact--that moves riverbeds and levels mountains? Something that resonates beyond itself? That meets lofty goals? Measures up to high standards? Or even just something that lets me cross big chunks off an ambitious to-do list? What I generally have in mind is something of value in a competitive, market-driven culture. I make peace with the "small" life of illness by balancing it with something else of value; by adjusting expectations within the model.
But I'm not sure that hits the mark. I think of effective behavior I've witnessed: of Herbert von Karajan trusting his orchestra with a large, sprawling symphony, and then focusing their efforts with one gesture when it counted. Of Luther T. Dog, choosing not to waste energy in a snarl when a Look would do.
Such minimal actions. They worked in those circumstances, though they might not have in others. Von Karajan would not have trusted a middle school orchestra the same way; a look would not have served Luther well against a rabid Rottweiler. But they were the right things at the time.
I think of Dad learning the difference between being busy and being useful. His stepdad had orchestrated a whole process, and Dad messed it up by working instead of waiting. In his way Granddad was a Herbert von Karajan. I imagine what an orchestra would sound like if everyone wanted to accomplish great things, if they felt like they had to work hard by staying busy--if the French horn player chipped in to help the second violinists during a lull; if the tympanist wandered over to give the cellos a hand. No one thinks worse of a musician for resting when a rest is called for. We're all good with the tympanist milking the clock. It's incredibly inefficient in a way, and yet it all works out in the end. The goal isn't individual achievement--it's to make a piece of music. Together.
Competition may be fierce among professional musicians. But inside the music, it's a different world: one of interdependence.
Interdependence. That makes me thoughtful. In interdependence I catch a whiff of the "realm of God"--a place where generosity is the law of the land; generosity from each to all. Interdependence makes a fine shambles of our structures of status and power. "Blessed are the humble, for theirs is the realm of God." I wonder if the humble are blessed because they can play their part--big or small--with neither vanity nor insecurity and enjoy it. Because they recognize that the point is not whether the actions are big or small. The point is whether they give what's needed. Whether the actions are right--the right ones at the right time.
I begin to understand this as a process of discernment--a spiritual process rather than a psychological one. It's less about perspective or spin or self-talk than it is about gifts, vocation, and responsibility. It's about understanding what life is asking of you. I don't think that's easy, mind you: it demands a certain rigor and a capacity for unflinching truth. But it is, I suspect, a task that offers respite. Maybe the questions stop being, "Am I doing enough? Am I measuring up?" (To which the answer often seems to be "No.") And maybe they become, "Am I giving what is needed? Is this what Life is asking of me in this time and place?" To which the answer, often, blessedly, seems to be "Yes." If that's the case, then anything beyond is extra. Window-dressing. Busy-work. Puppy-like bobbance and bounce. You might enjoy it, but if it is not your calling, you can feel free to let it go. Let the poor cellists play their part in peace. Rest up, tympanist, and save your resources to play your own part with gusto. Enjoy what your co-creators are doing.
A few years ago, I would have been excited at this change in paradigm. I would have cast the shift from "big or small" to "right and called for" as a Grand Realization of Truth. I would have put it in a bullet-pointed list of coping strategies. It would have been The Answer. Even six months ago, I would have said, "I've started down the right path," as if once started I would be sure (despite the occasional detour) not to lose my way again. Now I think I am more like a tree whose roots have found a trickle of underground water. It might turn out to be a stream, but it will take time for the roots to reach it, to stretch down and grow the fine, sensitive hairs that can make use of it. Meanwhile, above ground, seasons will come and go, leaves green and fall, a few branches get broken. Nothing will change for a while. But perhaps the tree will begin to grow more strongly as it taps deeper into this source of life.