Small but Steadfast

photo-7

“I’ll start with small things…”  Vincent Van Gogh

Most mornings, we walk the few blocks to my daughter’s school.   On the way, a crossing guard helps us cross a busy street.  Anyone who has had to use a crossing guard on a daily basis knows that one develops that everyday familiarity with a person who you know little about except maybe a first name eventually.  We talk about the cold weather or the fact that it’s Friday- mostly small talk, but genuine small talk nonetheless.  Our crossing guard is a man in his 60’s or even 70’s with clear blue eyes, skin that looks like it’s gotten a lot of sun, and as is especially apparent this winter, a man with a very high tolerance for the cold weather.  He’s always smiling, and quite bravely stepping right into that street of commuters in a hurry with his Stop sign.  His name, I overheard another mother call out to him once, is Ron.

A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed an interesting exchange between Ron and another woman who crosses the street on her way to the school.  This woman comes from down the hill, pushing a stroller upwards, sometimes with another small child at her side.  She is a nanny or a grandmother- also in her 60’s or 70’s.  She wears scarves around her head, long dresses and coats and reminds me a little bit of the children’s book character, Strega Nona.  I’m not sure if she speaks any English.

On one of our recent arctic days, I see her quickly hand something to the crossing guard ahead of me, and he calls back, “Thanks,” as she keeps walking without turning back.

“What was that all about?” I ask Ron, curious.

“Oh, once a week she always brings me pancakes.”

“That’s so nice,” I say as I cross.

It was such a subtle exchange I might have missed it, but I didn’t, and something about the exchange has stayed with me, and I think the Lenten season is a perfect time to meditate on why that was.

First, it is a small and simple thing.  Pancakes.  A random thing really.  Who gives their crossing guard pancakes once a week?  Well, this woman does.  Whether the crossing guard has a penchant for pancakes or not, this is what she has to offer, and so she does.  Secondly, she made the exchange with such little fanfare.  There was no small talk, and as I said, her walking was uninterrupted, and her generosity, almost imperceptible to someone walking directly behind as I was.  A subtle but important acknowledgement of his work- that she sees him.  We all need to feel seen.  And finally, this isn’t a one time thing.  It’s a weekly, dependable thing.  Every week.

Small.  Subtle.  Steadfast.

These aren’t words that are popular in our society.  We want to be big, not small.  The gifts we give are even wrapped to impress, and we expect thank you notes afterwards.  We want to be successful and revered.  We want people to see the work we’ve done and appreciate it.  How hard it is to offer something anonymously without the warm fuzzy feeling of watching the recipient receive it.   This past Christmas my daughter and I chose a little girl who is also 6 from a board of cards with local needy children’s gift requests at church.  We bought her toys and clothes and got them all ready, but Audrey was disappointed she wouldn’t get to actually hand it to the child.  “But I want to see her open it…” she bemoaned.  A difficult first lesson in giving without any expectation of return.

And steadfast?  This is a word that seems to be mostly out of style with the advent of other words like “conscious uncoupling.”   We can squint over the human landscape for a long time before we come across steadfastness.  We live in a world where marriage vows dissolve as people “outgrow” each other, where people move to new locations and new jobs many times in their careers and lifetimes, and we are quick to discard last year’s phone model for this year’s.  We are not a society of consumers who are too attached to their material items, but rather completely detached.  Gone are the days where my grandmother, having lived and worked through the Great Depression, kept a stockpile of every empty jar or container on her porch rather than throw it out.  We are prone to dispose of rather than mend, to move on rather than mourn, to edit out rather than preserve.  Steadfast.  Stead coming from “place” and “fast” to hold onto.

I remember knowing almost immediately after my husband died that most of the people surrounding me would disappear shortly after the funeral.  I spoke to a pastor on the phone about this in the first few weeks.  He had lost his wife and children in a car accident years ago.  “Some will stay though, some will stay,” he told me, recounting an old woman who left soup outside his door every single week for more than a year.

My “old woman with soup” turned out to be a friend, really an acquaintance I’m not sure I’d ever even had a conversation with, a young mother of two herself, from our old church in Brooklyn.  But after my husband died, there she was suddenly.  She sent me a simple email message every single day for at least 2-3 years.  She expected no response, and rarely did I give one.  Her subject line was always just the day’s date, “March 20, 2011”  and her messages were brief, but genuine.  Small, but not small talk.  In that simple way, unnoticed by anyone else but me, she literally walked with me, acknowledging my pain, quietly seeing me there.  Here are just a few of her precious notes:

Dear Julia,
Thinking of you today.
We are getting a warmer day today.
Hope you are, too!
Love,

Dear Julia,
Thinking of you today.
It’s so sad that Dan is not with you anymore.
Love,

Dear Julia,
Thinking of you today.
How is your health these days?
Love,

Dear Julia,
Thinking of you today.
It’s a rainy week.  I hope you can get your spirits up.
Love,

Dear Julia,
Thinking of you today.  When does preschool start for Audrey?
Love,

Dear Julia,
Thinking of you today.
What are you guys doing this weekend?
Love,

Dear Julia,
Thinking of you today.
Read your blog.
So sorry Dan died.  So sorry you are going through this.
Love,

Thinking of you today, Julia.
Wish Dan was here with you.
love,

Dear Julia,
Thinking of you today.
I saw your blog.  You are on your 11th month, then.
Thinking of you.
Tomorrow is mother’s day.
Happy Mother’s Day to you.  Audrey’s wonderful mom.
love,

Dear Julia,
Thinking of you today.
The weather is beautiful here today.  I hope it is the same for you.
Lots of love,

This friend taught me about steadfastness.   A simple “Thinking of you,” becomes powerful when compounded day after day.  At times, her messages became so “everyday,” so commonplace, it seemed I hardly noticed them.  But they were there.  And they made a difference in my healing, and they still make a difference to me now.  I have since tried to do the same for new young widows and I can tell you, it’s surprisingly hard!  I too forget and get busy with the everyday details of my own life.  Just because something appears “simple” does not mean it is easy.  Simple and easy are two very different things.

In actuality, there’s risk involved in giving of ourselves in this way.  My friend risked talking about my husband- something many people were too afraid to do.  The old woman handing out pancakes is risking that maybe Ron doesn’t like pancakes at all.  But the risks we incur when we choose to do nothing turn out to be far greater and much more long-term.  “I can’t do everything, but I can do something” has become my mantra of late when I’m overwhelmed (which is all the time).

And then I wonder what small, subtle, and steadfast exchange with another human being I have right now in my life, and I come up empty.  I think and think.  I do things here and there, send a package to a friend, a card to someone in pain, but nothing consistent.  Nothing that demands that steadfast quality.  Once a week, every week.  And then it occurs to me, I write here once a week.  I show up, whether inspiration strikes or not, because I know this is all I have to offer.  Sometimes it is hard to send off my words with little acknowledgement or feedback, “But I want to see her open it,” said Audrey about the gift.  But for the most part, unless we are famous, that is the quiet job of a writer.  Best to hand over our words and keep walking as the woman did after her wordless exchange. For me, words provide enormous comfort, and I feel most “seen” when I read something that resonates.   So, these words are my subtle exchange with readers that are mostly unknown to me, but to whom I hope they offer some sustenance, some insight, some certainty that you are seen and not forgotten.

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25 thoughts on “Small but Steadfast

  1. I have tears in my eyes over those notes. Simple but not easy, what keen insight.

    There are so many phrases here that made me pause, like “we are prone to dispose of rather than mend, to move on rather than mourn.” This is so sadly true, but what a vital reminder, thank you for this and all the gifts of this post.

    Steadfast is a word you don’t hear often, a you note here. Integrity is another. I used to think of my father whenever I heard that word. My mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 40 (I am nearly that age now) and he stayed steadfast in their marriage for the eighteen years she had left in her life. When so many left, he remained, and with love in his heart.

    I love reading your words here. See you next week.

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  2. Thank you Dana for receiving them. I too had tears in my eyes rereading her notes…and thank you for sharing your dad’s beautiful example of steadfastness.

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  3. So do enjoy reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your life as you do. I am so curious what is the glittery gold spot on your thumb nail in the picture of your hands that opens your email each time?
    Judy

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    1. Hi Judy, Thank you for reading. If you mean the fingers holding the tiny flower, that’s actually my daughter’s hand. I’m not sure about the glitter spot you’re referring to, but little girls always seem to have glitter on them somehow.

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    2. Judy, I think you might be referring to the flower held in her hand? The yellow, nubbly centre of a daisy that has lost pretty much all its petals? At least, that’s what I see there 🙂

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      1. Thanks! I didn’t realize that’s what she meant. Yes, that was actually a teeny tiny flower my daughter picked on the anniversary of my husband’s death last year. She loves little things, and I thought it was beautiful when she showed it to me.

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  4. Good Morning, Julia,

    Grace all over your insights and writings. Thank you for showing up steadfastly. For it is such small, but significant lessons, that remind us to be watchful for our own opportunities to love.
    Pondering….

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  5. I just wanted to say hello. I can’t remember where I first came here from, but I have been following your blog for a month or so now, and have read a lot of your archive too. I love your writing because your words are beautifully crafted, and I also love the thoughts you make me think. God bless you.

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  6. Thank you “sparklepetal” (always feel weird calling people by those names!) Thanks for reading and for your encouraging comment. May God bless you also.

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  7. Im a new reader referred by hands free mama. Your words are so thought provoking, so moving, so real. I look forward to opening your post every time I see it in my inbox. I wait for the perfect moment to read it. Which is Usually when I am nursing my sweet baby boy. Thank you for sharing your life and your perspective with us. It helps me want to BE and DO better.

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  8. I, too, thank you for your steadfastness in writing each week. I am not good at dramatic gestures, I am not going to turn up on your doorstep with a three course meal in times of trouble. But I take home-made cookies to my hairdresser, I bake cakes for birthdays, I post a card to my 2-year-old grandson every week so he can collect something from the mailbox with HIS name on it, when my daughter was going through a very difficult time I text messaged her every day. Like your friend those texts were nothing profound on the face of it. But they arrived every.single.day. Sometimes they were a quote I had seen and screenshot for her, sometimes it was a line about what my day looked like. Mostly they were I love you, I am thinking of you right this minute. And today she tells me they would inevitably arrive at just the right time for her. I think, as you said, in this world of drama and spectacle and instant celebrity that steadfastness and constancy are undervalued. And yet those small gestures, done consistently and with love, are the most encouraging to all of us.

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  9. I’m so glad that you write. I’ve been reading your words for about 3 months I think, (I’m still savoring the Groundhog Day post, only reading the next parts when I’m likely not to be interrupted!) I feel exactly the same way — ‘seen’ the most when I read something that resonates. I love that you said how much it meant that your acquaintance was willing to talk about your husband in her emails. And I’m grateful that you are willing to write about even painful moments and memories. I have 2 children, ages 6 an 10, and I like for them to see my cry once in awhile. It’s a big part of the human experience, and I want them to not be startled by it — even mom is human, even mom feels sad sometimes, she can handle it, and so can we. I write a lot as well and I hope that, years from now, my kids (and your daughter) will read our writings and know us a little more deeply.

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  10. Dear Julia, Thanks for much for this post. It reminded me of a long-time friend who is getting ready to settle his wife of 40-plus years in a nursing home because her Alzheimer’s has gotten worse. He has been so “steadfast” in his care of her these last 10 years and we (their friends) are so in awe of the way he has taken care of her. His love for her and his persistence in their marriage inspires all of us who know them. We are all trying to support them (he lives far away from the rest of us) and your post will help me as I try to remember to send him notes and cards just to tell him that we are all thinking of him at this difficult time.

    Anne

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  11. Steadfast. What a perfect description. Thank you for this post! It made me cry and inspired me to be more present and steadfast for others. It also reminded me of a dear friend who brought me breakfast every Tuesday for six months when my daughter was in the hospital. She would meet me in the hospital lobby with breakfast, a hug, and a quick exchange of encouragement, and then continue on to work. How I looked forward to those Tuesdays, though! It is amazing how sometimes the everyday, simple gestures meant the most.

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  12. Julia, your words and the way you express them are such a gift to me (and to many others). So insightful. I have been reading your words since your husband died and I have never commented until now. I just want you to know how much you make a difference. Ever since reading your flower post I have been “feeding my soul” by purchasing flowers for my boring work cubicle and for home too. You are incredible and wish you much happiness and love in your life. Love reading your words and feel like I know you; although we’ve never met.

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    1. Wow- thank you Janet for being with me through my words for all that time- that is steadfast! Thank you for telling me I make a difference- I literally just finished journaling and praying and then opening up email to find this comment encouraged my soul so much. I’m so glad you’re brightening up your cube and home with flowers. Thanks for taking the time to leave this comment and brighten my day.

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  13. Julia,
    Your writing touches something so deep and true – the only word I can think of is numinous. I feel like a better person just for having read this! I suppose it’s more correct to say that your writing inspires me to try to BE better. You bring so much hope with your voice, I’m so uplifted when I come here. I just shared your Groundhog Day post with my dearest friend, so much there that we all need to hear. Thank you for sharing your heart.

    Blessings to you and your daughter.

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  14. Don’t know how I missed this, but it is really beautiful. A friend recently lost her mom. And I thought, for a moment, that although we really connected in the short time we’ve known each other, I wish I knew her longer and could really be there for her. But then, as I was reading some of your Dear Audrey entries, I came across this friend, who you said you didn’t know well before. And, although I wasn’t nearly as steadfast, I tried to do the same. Letting her know I was thinking of her, without expecting any kind of response. You’re totally right. It is hard. Thank you for being so open. And even though you don’t always see the effects, your writing means a lot to a lot of people.

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