Friday, while I was running on the treadmill, I felt my left knee lock up. I got off the treadmill and moved about until my knee felt fine again. I finished my run with no further difficulty until I got off the treadmill and had a pain in my hip, leg, and knee. Having experienced sciatica nerve pain before, I was pretty sure that was the culprit. I knew that meant a period of rest—no running until I can do so without pain—along with anti-inflammatories, heat, and stretching. I’m a person who has a tough time with not being able to exercise—so much of my energy and my physical and mental well-being relies on it—but age has taught me that when my body talks to me, I have no choice but to listen.
So on Saturday, Cathy and I, after a light breakfast, went to the apple orchard. I was moving gingerly, but it was the first day Honeycrisp apples were ready, and I wasn’t about to miss that. While we were at the orchard, we also picked up some of the best pumpkin donuts I’ve ever had. We then went to our favorite international food market and shopped for all our favorites. Then it was on to Trader Joe’s to do the same. Cathy enjoys such shopping because before she married me she lived in a county where the only place to buy groceries was the local Walmart. The first time I took her to a Giant Eagle Marketplace here in Columbus, she went up and down every aisle, taking in the wide selection of items. She said she could have lingered for hours. Deprivation can lead to either over-indulgence or reverence. For Cathy, it’s the latter, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to be with her when she’s delighted.
Small moments like buying Honeycrisp apples and pumpkin donuts, and sharing a donut in the car with the windows down and the breeze blowing, or being excited about finding the naan Cathy likes so much, or the crumpets we both love, or okra and new potatoes we know we’ll have for Sunday’s supper, are the moments that make a life. We can be so busy or so scared or so worried we forget to treasure them. I could have been so angry over my injury I might have denied the exquisite pleasure of sharing a Saturday shopping trip with my wife.
The ordinary moments are there to remind us of all we stand to lose one day when our lives come to an end. In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the deceased Emily Webb is granted her request to revisit one day of her life. She chooses her twelfth birthday. As she watches her mother in the kitchen, she says,
I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. All that was going on in life, and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners. Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking. And Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths. And sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
I’m sure you have your own ordinary pleasures—the coffee and the sunflowers, the Honeycrisp apples and pumpkin donuts. Such things are the small graces we often overlook in the shadows of the larger moments of our lives, but I’ve come to believe that, like Emily, such will be the blessings we’ll miss the most. We’ll miss, to borrow from Raymond Carver, the small, good things. The baker at the end of that remarkable Carver story, serves the grieving parents some of his hot rolls, and he says to them, “Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this.” We’re all looking for the small, good things that give us comfort and pleasure in what can often be a frightening, ugly world. Don’t forget that your characters are doing the same. Don’t forget to look at what sustains them in their darkest hours. Make space for new-ironed dresses and hot baths. Their inclusion alongside your characters’ troubles will make their plights more deeply felt. The small, good things are precious because they can be fleeting and so easily lost.