It’s the Little Things

22 Mar

“It’s the little things.”  You could shrug your shoulders and leave it at that, I tell myself.  What does it mean?  Who knows what it means.  Next, and move on.  Accept.  Except that it is the little things that – what?  What’s the little things?  Is it to say it’s not big things that matter?  Earthquakes matter.  Invasions of countries matter.  So what does it mean to say “it’s the little things”?  And why say it?  Or think it, for that matter?

I was driving home today, and something came to mind.  I remembered before I learned to drive, my father beginning to point things out to me about the road.  I remember him teaching me about “blind spots” and the importance of looking behind and to the left before switching lanes to trick out that blind spot and catch any cars passing through that way.  I was far enough from the age where I’d have my license that I was still a smug young kid, and one day I caught him not checking his blind spot before he crossed over into the other lane.  Of course I called him out on it.  Normally, he was the type to just let me think I was right, whether I actually was or not.  But this time he pointed out that he didn’t need to check his blind spot because he’d already been looking over that way for awhile.  His point was that if you watch far enough ahead, there’s no blind spot that can pose a danger.  I didn’t think too much about what he was saying until today.  Wise man.  He turned 70 this week.

That moment has remained in my consciousness for, obviously, many years.  I doubt he or anyone else present in the car has a recollection of it.  There seems to be no particular reason to – just a random, every day, passing conversation.  He wasn’t trying to be philosophical, and I didn’t give it any more thought at the time.

I’ve often wondered why we remember the things we do.  My sister paints, or at least she used to.  She may still now but we haven’t talked for awhile.  I write poetry, and I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t.  I remember, when we were kids, seeing her tear things up she had made or drawn that she was unsatisfied with, and I never understood how she could or why she would do it.  I have kept many things I’ve written, even when they didn’t seem good enough to bother.  Years later, though, I’ve read things I wrote and suddenly understood them in a way I never had before.  I appreciated them then, even though I didn’t when I decided to keep them.  I’m not advocating keeping or letting go.  It’s more about the process, how we come back to things and understand them so much later — why we hold onto some things and let others go.  Like memories.  After all these years of retaining what seemed to be a random memory, my father’s passing comment about being able to see what’s in the blind spot if you have your eye on it the whole time, revealed its meaning to me.

My father was a soldier, a philanderer, a hot-tempered, and sometimes mean, fellow.  He is now a lover of the earth, a quiet dreamer, an anticipatory thinker, and very kind.  I’ve watched him go through the hell fire of regret.  I’ve seen the aftermath of the crashes he certainly wasn’t watching closely enough to foresee.  I’ve seen him heal, recover, and still carry enough of the pain to not make the same mistakes again.  He taught me how to drive, and I see myself to this day driving very much like him, perhaps with a little greater fearlessness, at least compared to how he drives today as a suddenly 70-year old man.

When we were kids, one of the family’s favorite pastimes was getting in the car on a Sunday and driving aimlessly through the back country roads of south central Wisconsin where I grew up.  I remember Dad taking Mom, my two sisters, and me out on those roads and when he saw a clear path, flooring it.  In today’s era of hyper-judgment of parenting styles and skills, this probably would be universally frowned upon.  At the time, it was nothing less than the height of adventure, and nothing more.  I had faith we were safe with him.  Despite his weaknesses and failings and occasional unevenness, I always had faith we were safe with him, even if he scared me sometimes.  It was just the way it was.

There is truth in random things, in the seemingly senseless way we collect memories.  There are nuggets of the essence of a person, in the way we remember them.  Sometime when I was around the same age as the “blind spot” moment, maybe a touch younger, I was sitting in the car in the seat next to my dad and as the car was running, I pulled the keys out of the ignition.  I don’t know what inspired me to do it, and I was surprised that he was surprised.  At first I thought he was surprised I had done it.  But then he explained that a car is not supposed to run without keys in the ignition.  It turned out to be a quirk in the way the keys had been worn down from so much use.  It was an anomaly, an everyday, meaningless miracle.

Dad is the one who told me about God and talked to me about what it meant to be Christian.  I was four years old, and we were sitting on the same old rocking chair that’s now in my living room, many miles and years away.  When we had this conversation, I remember him being careful to explain things in a way so that I understood what he was saying, and that it was clear that the choice was mine to make.  Now, someone can say that a four-year old is too young for religious consent.  But it wasn’t about religion.  “It” was about a personal relationship with Jesus that I could choose to have.  I didn’t feel at the time that I had to invite Him into my heart then.  It was clear to me I could do it at any time.  Maybe not every four-year old has the kind of mind that can make that kind of consent, although in my heart of hearts I believe so.  Regardless, I think my father understood me, and believed that I could.  I made the choice that day, and I’ve made it over and over again throughout my life — in a hospital bed after coming close to being killed in a car accident where I was a passenger when I was 18, and when I’ve grieved deeply in the face of some of my darkest loss when I was 25, and every time that something in my mind says “pray” and I drop to my knees when I am alone and reach out to the Known and Unknown, and with my four-year old daughter every night and before every meal.

It happened today that I was saying a prayer, Bless us Oh Lord and these Thy gifts which we are about to receive …. and realized that we say this not because the food is the gift but because God is giving us gifts every day.  The meal is just a bookmark to remind us to say thanks for those gifts, not just the ones we see on the table before us.  It occurred to me I’d been saying this prayer several times a day for many years.  Today was the first time its words carried this meaning to me.  Prayers, like poems and memories, unfold their meaning over time and with repetition.

There was something else I thought about today when I was thinking about my dad and cars.  One time – maybe more, but just once that I remember – we were in the car, and he put the key in the ignition and started it.  I was sitting next to him, and said, “Oh,” disappointed.  He looked at me to see what the problem was.  I reminded him that he usually let me turn the key in the ignition to start the car.  We were in somewhat of a hurry that day.  And he was always a stickler for conservation – turning off lights, not idling unnecessarily, and the like – so I was surprised when he turned the car off and let me restart it.  Kindness.

So what is it about the little things?  That saying that is so fragmented and bears no meaning on its own — “it’s the little things” — came to me today right as I was thinking about my dad and blind spots.  And I thought to myself, “What are the little things?”  What does that even mean – “It’s” the little things.  But the “it” isn’t what matters — what matters is what comes after.  The moment comes first – or the painting, the prayer or the poem – and the meaning comes after.  Life comes first: meaning, later.

It’s what’s unspoken, what’s not explicit, what’s left to be understood, that matters.  And that’s just it, I realized today.  It’s the little things that matter.  It’s the little things that are big.  And both the big and the little things matter.

“..faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.”  1 Corinthians 13:13.

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