Small Wonders

As our family watched “The Fellowship of the Ring” together, Boromir lifted up the small golden chain that held the Ring and marveled at it.

“It is a strange fate,” he mused, “that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing. Such a little thing.”

In the film, of course, those words are an early hint that Boromir is beginning to become entranced by the Ring’s cursed power and that yet again, a character played by Sean Bean is not going to come to a good end. But this time around, the words hit me a little harder.

Maybe because this time around, we’ve seen the danger and life-altering transformation that small things can bring.

A reminder came just a few days ago from Kit Yates, a mathematics expert at Baths University in the United Kingdom. According to Reuters, Yates calculated that all the COVID-19 virus that currently exists in the world could fit inside a can of cola.

No joke – it’s the real thing.

“It’s astonishing to think that all the trouble, the disruption, the hardship and the loss of life that has resulted over the last year could constitute just a few mouthfuls,” Yates said in a statement.

Think about it. Nearly 2.4 million deaths worldwide (as of Saturday). Populations wearing masks, quarantining, keeping their distance. The very way we live, learn and do business utterly transformed. All of it packed into a space that would make the world’s worst Coke.

It sounds impossible. But most of us know the reality. As the great philosopher Yoda once put it, size matters not.

A single nail in the wrong place can bring a two-ton automobile to a stop.

A single tweet at the wrong time can set a nation aflame.

A single sentence with the wrong intent can end a relationship that’s lasted years. Decades.

A strange fate indeed. But as the saying goes, it’s the little things that’ll get you.

And lately the consequences seem to come with lightning speed.

That’s not an argument to live lives of timidity, sitting motionless and silent in the living room lest we say or do anything wrong. But it is a useful reminder to be aware that what we say or do has effects beyond ourselves, and that preventing trouble is a lot easier than fixing it.

That’s why we take cars in for maintenance. It’s why we treat other people with courtesy and respect (or should). It’s why we wear masks and wash hands and look out for our neighbors.

Sure, sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes we just want to cast it all aside and do whatever comes in our mind. Most of the time we hold it in, because we know we’re not the only ones who could get hurt.

But there’s another side to it that’s worth remembering. It’s not just the bad things that echo.

Good things add up, too.

They don’t get as much play. But I can still remember every unexpected gift from a neighbor. Every helping hand from a relative. Every stranger who stepped off the sidewalk to make room because Missy’s wheelchair couldn’t social distance. And each act living in my memory helps give me more encouragement to do the same.

When we reach out, when we heal, when we defend from the wrongs of others – it makes a difference. To others. To ourselves.

It takes longer to resonate, of course. It always takes more time to build than it does to destroy. But if we look to help where we can, when we can, as we can and keep doing it … that persistence can also change the world.

Avoid harm. Build help. It seems like such a simple thing, doesn’t it? Such a little thing.

But together, we can make it go viral.

And when we do, I’ll bring some Coke to celebrate.

Making It All Click

It was a Missy night in Chez Rochat. John Travolta would have been proud.

Anyone who knows our developmentally disabled ward Missy also knows her idea of a night well spent: loud music, strong beats and enough space for her favorite dance moves. Since she also has cerebral palsy, these tend to be fairly simple moves — including a carefully turned full-body spin — but no less heartfelt for all that.

One night the joint was jumping especially well when I noticed Missy shaking her hands back and forth. I looked more closely.

No. Not shaking.

Missy was trying to snap her fingers.

She couldn’t quite get enough friction. Sometimes it was even the wrong two fingers. But there was no doubt what she was trying to do. It was the same emphatic gesture I always used to keep the beat — and make her giggle — during a high-energy song.

“All right, Missy!”

There’s been quite a few moments like that lately. Moments with our mostly silent young lady where something just seems to … well, go “click.”

Like another dance step, one foot crossing over the other to point, despite her balance issues.

Or looking at a word list when I ask her to find “Blake” and picking out “Dog” — which he is, indeed.

Or even just the chattiness we’ve been hearing about from her day program, the stream of emphatic words, syllables and phrases that both surprise and delight the folks working with her. (One newer employee used to think she didn’t speak at all; not a surprising conclusion when you consider that Missy spends words the way Ebenezer Scrooge used to spend shillings.)

None of it is a huge spotlight moment, like Helen Keller signing “water” in The Miracle Worker. But small steps matter, too. Especially to the person on the inside.

That one, I know very well.

For me, too, it wasn’t exactly a snap. I showed signs of epilepsy as a young kid, and even after medicine brought it under control, there was still a lot to do. Physical therapy helped my balance and cross-body coordination. Games of chess in the school resource room focused my concentration and memory. But some skills took a long while.

And the one that I remember best, oddly enough, is snapping my fingers.

I couldn’t do it. Could not. I was embarrassed enough that in music class, if a song required snapping, I’d click my fingernails together so it would at least look right.

One night in fourth grade, I somehow decided I’d had it. With the door closed so no one would hear me, I sat up in bed, trying and trying and trying again, pressing and releasing my fingers until I thought they’d fall off.


I’m not sure what time it was. But I remember the relief and amazement when I finally heard that first sharp “snap.” To be honest, I almost couldn’t stop.

It was a small milestone. Maybe even more of a yardstone. But to me, it was huge.

It was an acknowledgment that I wasn’t that different.

I think most of us need that assurance at one point or another. Even those without disabilities. And the way we get it usually isn’t through brass bands and bright marquees. It’s by small gestures, even tiny ones, that affirm we’re worthwhile.

Think of it from the other direction. Most of us can still remember small wounds and humiliations we got in junior high school, tossed off without thinking. Why shouldn’t a small kindness last just as long?

Any of us can do it. More of us should. Some of us probably have without realizing how much we were doing.

Some things really are bigger on the inside.

Missy’s dance goes on. The steps look small. But each one is a celebration, a subtle triumph. Nothing flashy, true. Nothing you could lay your finger on.

But maybe someday she will.

Gone to (Tea) Pot

There are things that must happen in a Missy morning. But the greatest of these is tea.

Get the kettle singing. Ready the Tetley’s – always Tetley’s, never any flavored stuff. Mix it up with a bit of milk, enough to turn a black cup into the beige of a Volvo station wagon.

Oh. And make a full pot. There will be refills.

“I wan’ m’ tea.”

“Coming right up.”

For all her disabilities, both physical and mental, Missy is still the daughter of an English mother. And that means a cup of tea is as much a reflex for her as her puzzle ball or her 120-decibel stereo. It launches her off to her day program in the morning and it greets her on her return in the afternoon, a cup of liquid welcome. A sip of home.

Often, it’s a sip of memory, too.

In my mind, the memories are always of Val, who was Missy’s mom and my grandmother-in-law. One of Longmont’s ubiquitous “English ladies,” Val passed on many things to Missy, including a small stature, a love of dancing and a steaming teapot. I never visited the house for long before a cup found its way to me – though I picked up my share of wry looks for taking my own tea black, without milk or sugar.

I know. American barbarian, that’s me.

Val’s gone now. But the tea remains, the cup held carefully in her daughter’s shaky hand. It’s a space in the day, one where nothing has to happen, where it’s OK to just be.

That’s a small accomplishment by itself.

“Being” isn’t something that’s greatly prized in our country today. We’re a nation of doers, where who you are is measured by what you’ve accomplished, or at least whether you have the decency to look busy. We treat absence of activity like a mom faced with bored children: “If you don’t have anything to do, I can find you something.”

No time for reflection. No time for discovery. No time for second thought, or maybe even a first one.

That’s a great way for a piston to live. For a person? Not so much. Having that small space in the day is like having a period in a sentence: essential for any clarity and meaning.

But there’s more to it as well. At a very basic level, a cup of tea is a small act of caring.

I lived for nine years in Kansas. Not once in those nine years did I enter a home without being offered a glass of water or a cup of coffee in the first minute. It was the fundamental decency of a host or a neighbor, welcoming another with something of your own.

It was a small ritual. But it had a big message behind it. Stay a while. There’s no rush. You’re among friends.

It’s those little, almost routine acts that can mean the most.

Love doesn’t have to be big or elaborate. It can be – I still remember the newlywed obsession that led me to organize a “12 Days of Christmas” onslaught of surprise gifts for my wife Heather – but truth to tell, the saintly and the passionate can be a bit intimidating for the rest of us. Fearing not to be perfect, we can fail to be merely good.

But a life lived with love can find a voice even through the everyday and the mundane. Maybe especially through them.

Maybe it’s in the things we do without thought that we see who we truly are.

And once in a while, the ripples of those small efforts for another come back in a wave.

This morning, after getting ready for the day, Missy looked up at me with a sweet smile. She reached out with both arms.

“Love me?” she asked, eyes sparkling.

The hug that followed was warm and long.

And then, we went downstairs for tea.