The Way of Smallness

writing, reading, books

I never had a crush on any of my high school or college professors. There is no writer that I’ve dreamt of stalking. Deep down, J.M. Coetzee’s thin, tragic eyes give me the chills, and Jeffrey Sachs’s boyish, world-saving smile is just too pure. But, I’ve always had a thing for New York Times columnist David Brooks.

He may not be a looker but his columns are works of beauty, consistently so. Somehow, he manages to give deep advice without being annoying. When he talks politics, his middle ground, realistic views carve sense out of senseless debates. And, he is not afraid to touch abstract, self-help-y topics, like he did in his last column titled “The Small, Happy Life.”

In this piece, he summarizes essays sent in by thousands of readers in response to his question: “What gives your life purpose and how did you find it?”  The excerpt above is from one reader. Below, is what 85-year-old Hans Pitch wrote:

“I am thankful to be alive. I have a responsibility to myself and those around me to give meaning to my life from day to day. I enjoy my family (not all of them) and the shrinking number of old friends. You use the term ‘organizing frame’ in one’s life. I am not sure if I want to be framed by an organizing principle, but if there is one thing that keeps me focused, it’s the garden. Lots of plants died during the harsh winter, but, amazingly, the clematises and the roses are back, and lettuce, spinach and tomatoes are thriving in the new greenhouse. The weeping cherry tree in front of the house succumbed to old age. I still have to plant a new tree this year.”

Brooks’s article struck a chord in me because of other books I am currently reading that also encourage a departure from the idea of greatness as purpose. His readers did not find purpose by curing cancer or becoming billionaires. Instead, they found meaning in apparently small gestures like gratitude, being generous to others with their time, planting trees.

In my case, I often think that once a certain number of my poems get published in a certain type of publications, I will have attained a purposeful life. Then, my life will mean something. But it is in the onerous writing, in the hopeful sending out of the poems, in the very many rejections I receive that life is rich.

I am in the process of convincing my mind that I write just to write. That I hang out with my son because he is the coolest person I know. That I surprise my husband because I like to see his happy face.  If greatness miraculously becomes part of the equation, well, great. But removing the “great writer,” “great mom,” “great wife,” “great friend,” “great family member” from the equation also removes the need for an end result. The equation ceases to be an equation and becomes a statement of fact, a statement of what already very much is.

The trick it seems is only to believe it.



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