The Small Things

August 9, 2006 at 3:18 pm (Uncategorized)

Last night, when Andrew was talking to his Grandma and Grandpa S., he told them about the Chippewa-Cree powwow we attended a few days ago. “There were dancers and drummers,” he said nonchalantly, before pausing for a breath and dramatic effect. “And there was even a garbage truck,” he concluded in a tone of reverence.

You can’t accuse the boy of not appreciating the small things in life (as long as they have large engines.)

The other night, I was watching television with Jay while I was holding my thinking rock. This is an ordinary white rock that I found on a searingly beautiful beach in New Zealand in 2001. There is nothing really special about this rock, except for the fact that it fits perfectly in my hand, almost as if the wind and the tides and the sand fashioned it for my specifications. I hold it when I get stuck writing and am searching for words. Sometimes I hold it while I talk on the phone. After a few minutes in my hands, the alabaster stone warms to flesh temperature. The rock helps me think, much as I imagine meditation beads center people. My thinking rock is concrete and tactile, yet subtle in its power. It is also a totem from a simpler time in my life. Holding the rock makes me happy.

I made Jay stop the TV program so I could tell him, “You know, this rock is probably one of my favorite possessions. I would feel awful if it were lost.” This is kind of silly because, well, it’s just a rock, and I have a house stuffed full of valuable things: racing bicycles from my glory days, jewelry, a computer.

But I would feel lost if the rock went missing, almost as if I had been cut off from the young woman who stood on a beach in New Zealand on startlingly white sand, beneath jagged cliffs. We were looking for penguins that day, but the only wildlife we found were ravenous mosquitos. We had drenched ourselves in deet, and I was expecting a bad time. Instead, we had this pristine beach to ourselves. Forget the penguins; the sky alone was worth flying across the world.

I’ve thought about the other things that are priceless to me. I keep every birthday card and letter, going back to when I was a kid. I have jewelry from both my grandmothers. I never wear this stuff much because I’m terrified I’ll lose it, and I would hate myself if I did. My journals, my college papers, every scrap of writing and drawing Andrew has done. Seashells from Palau – sand dollars that are already disintegrating back into dust; speckled conch shells that are so shiny they look lacquered; glass bottles left over from the Japanese colonization era that we dug up in the jungle. A large, plastic gold cat that is supposed to bring luck. My mortar and pestle from a market in Laos that I still use to pulverize garlic and ginger when I’m making Thai food. The beaded purse that my mother used for her wedding and I used for mine. My wedding ring. A sandalwood bracelet I bought in the shadow of Angkor Wat.

These things are small in value, probably worth less than a couple of hundred dollars. But they are me. What they have in common is that they remind me of where I came from, where I have been, who I was, and who I am. Some of these mementos are tacky, especially the gold cat with its happy grin, but they serve as a physical connection to the past. Like my rock, if I touch them, it is like following a knotted rope back to another time, place, and sometimes person.

Not to be morbid, but having a chronic illness that involves heart damage has made me contemplate my mortality probably more than the average 34-year-old does. Thinking about leaving this earth makes me wonder about what I will leave behind. I told the Jay the other day that no matter what else I do in my life, I will go to my grave knowing that I had one smashing success – my beautiful and brilliant son. But what else? What do a rock, a glinting cat, and some dissipating sea shells mean? They mean everything. They mean that I walked along a beach and had the sense to bring back a rock that was hewn from the earth for my hand; they mean I saw the world with my eyes on the lookout for bright colors; they mean I appreciated the small things.

I let Andrew hold my thinking rock from time to time. He’ll come down and stand beside me at my desk in our oversized laundry room and ask for the rock. He clutches it as if it something priceless. “I am thinking,” he told me the other day, when he had my rock in his hands. “Good,” I said. “What are you thinking about?” “My trucks,” he answered, before relinquishing the rock. It’s good to love the small stuff.

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