Attention to the Small, Fleeting, and Sweet

In her most recent novel, Payback, Mary Gordon writes of a woman leaving Italy after making it her home for 40 years, and weeping. “She was crying for the passing of dearness. Of those moments in a life that show its goodness, that have nothing to do with, have not the slightest tincture of, greatness. What might pejoratively be called habit. She was crying because never again would she swim in that gentle sea of small pleasures whose repetition is so nourishing.” (p. 169)

Most of us would admit that our lives rarely veer into greatness. But we have an abundance of small pleasures, some rarely appreciated until we lose them. In his keen attention to birds, vines, wheat and wine, Jesus surely knew the value of such goodness. Indeed, he based his teaching on those images rather than doctrines or rules.

So too, if we take inventory, might be astonished by this steady stream, this sturdy fabric that makes up most days. Each will have a personal list of small pleasures, but mine includes: grandchildren’s heads pressed close as we read Harry Potter on the couch under blankets, birds building nests in the hanging baskets of flowers outside my window, the lovely stretch in limbs walking or doing yoga, a pile of new library books, the cushioned oomph of good tennis shoes, a grand-daughter in bikini, sitting on small stool and silently munching cherries, crimson bougainvillea against dove-grey skies, the silken feel of swim on skin, the quiet fidelity of the newspaper delivered to the driveway each morning, tantalizing flavors of ice cream in the freezer, a bouquet of roses whose scent fills the room, a 7-year old helping his 5-year old sister carefully pull her first, loose baby tooth, going unmasked where it’s allowed now, thus feeling unconstrained, like wild public nudity.

The poet Li-Young Lee captures the precious beauty of such brief moments, in “Black Petal”:

   “the unmistakable fragrance

   our human days afford.”

And in “The Well”:

   “our very looking is the light feasting on the light.”

How sad if, valiantly focused on greatness, we were to miss goodness.

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