Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Searching for Small

Growing up in social-justice-y type circles, I thought that one day, I should save the world. Anything less would fall short of the mark. The only puzzle was who, or what, to focus on. After all, there are thousands of issues which need urgent attention: indigenous health, war games, Iraq, mandatory detention, water usage, expanding cities... the list is endless. But which was I to work for? Which would be my Big Cause?

These situations are desperately important, but none of them felt close to my heart. I volunteered with this organisation and that, and wrote lots of letters, and longed for a different world. But I never relaxed into any cause. Instead, I had kids.

The polar ice caps are melting, and overpopulation looms. Perhaps we shouldn't have had them. But for the most part I've delighted in them, positively wallowed in the experience. I love to watch them grow. And they've been the catalyst for my own growing up, my blossoming. I never published an essay until I had a baby; I never even thought to try. But with the shattered self, the re-building, and the newfound confidence that a baby engenders, I found myself attempting different things, asking more of myself and of life.

And also less. For at one level, I still feel niggles of doubt. Is raising kids really so important? Are small actions each week enough? Or should we all be leading great movements a la Martin Luther King Jr or Gandhi? I have often heard Buechner's suggestion that our call, or vocation, lies at the intersection of our greatest joy and the world's deepest need. But most of us struggle to name our greatest joy, let alone align it with the world's needs. And the world's needs are so big, so desperate, that it is impossible to see how we might have an impact. No one of us will be able to effect drastic change, but rather than think small, we give up.

Yet we are mortal. We are all of us little people, frail people. How else should we think, but small?

Surely, just as our lives are small but good, so might our deeds be small but good. Whether it's a moment's hospitality or graciousness, or something more intentional, perhaps there are little spaces where our happiness overlaps with the needs of others.

Let me tell you a story. Over the last few years, in reading to my own children, I have realised that reading children's stories gives me enormous pleasure. After a long time, it occurred to me that children other than my own might like having stories read with them. I wondered about school reading, but my daughter's class has so many parent volunteers, at least one of whom is working on her PhD, that I had no real interest in offering to help. I wondered about reading at other places, but nothing really worked out. I even thought about reading at another school, where most of the students are refugees. But I didn't know how to approach it, or who to ask. I sat on the idea, like a chicken with an egg, and waited.

One day, a friend forwarded me an email from this school. They were seeking new books for the kids, because most of the students had no books in their homes. I wept for these kids who had so little, and the egg began to crack. Then I contacted the coordinator, and told her about my idea. She was delighted, and so now I go in to listen to kids reading. The egg has hatched.

For an hour or so each week, I lie on the carpet at the back of a classroom and get quizzed on Harry Potter by boys with gappy teeth, and share naughty smiles with shy girls over the antics of the father Berenstein bear. We struggle to spell out long words, and talk about meaning, irony, irregular verbs and whatever else crops up - in very simple language, of course. Meanwhile my baby empties the classroom rubbish bin, eats pencil shavings, and is adored by 20 little kids.

It's small, very small, and so much fun that I can't believe it's useful. I get to listen to children's stories, and make jokes, and laugh. The kids get one on one attention with an odd lady in stripy socks, and a baby to play peekaboo with. My love of stories overlaps with the kids' need for someone to listen. It's not big. It won't make shockwaves or change the world. I'm not the only volunteer there; I'm not necessary. But if I can be just one link in a chain of people who welcome a young boy into the world of books, if it makes school just that little bit easier for a traumatised girl, then it is more than enough. I don't even need to know if it has these hoped-for effects; given the joy of the weekly encounter, the sheer fun of it, it must be good.

I figure that, all things considered, this is what I am called to do - on Friday mornings, at least. It's not much. But it meshes my love for books with a child's need for a reading partner. And it is particular, local, small.

I hope that in doing this one small thing, and seeing where it takes me, then I too might grow. And if, as they say, one thing leads to another, I reckon a thousand small things might lead to a life transformed. And who knows where a few lives transformed might lead? Perhaps... but that's another story.


  1. That's so beautiful! Thank you for sharing that :-) I, too, always wanted to save the world, and instead I'm bed-bound with chronic illness and can't even care for myself. And in this extremis, I have learned much about valuing the small - be it small joys or small services, and have found a good life though it. Indeed, it comes as a shock when I hear people explaining my situation to others - that restricted person in that tragic situation - there's no way that can be me!

  2. Heather, don't let your situation constrain your spirit or your belief that you CAN change 'your corner' of the world! Very few of us can do great things, but if we all refuse to do what we can, the world WILL be poorer. We should do what we can where we are - that at least changes where we are! Then,combined with everyone else's little things, the world IS changed for so much better!

    I watched my mother in her days of chronic illness and helplessness - her spirit was so kind and her words so loving that she affected many, many lives and attitudes of those around her. And then the change in them affected those they came into contact with, and on, and on, and on! After witnessing that, I can never believe that I have no influence in the world, I just have to be certain that I influence the world in the right spirit - a spirit of joy and of love.

  3. Hi Heather and Ruth, I wonder too whether chronic illness, like every human situation, calls us to be authentically in the moment - which is difficult when the moment is one of endless hours of medical care, or extreme pain, or utter fatigue. A narrow path to tread, avoiding false cheerfulness or hopeless despair, but somehow I am sure it will lead to love. Peace and hope, Alison.

  4. How many people, no matter what their circumstances, and how they 'turn out', cherish the lifelong memory of a relationship with an adult at school who thought well of them, and gave their time or their warmth. Its so simple, and goes so far.


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