Tiny, Intricate Timepieces
The train passing reminds me to stop and take note of the moment. I’m sitting in the dark before dawn, watching through the window as poplar leaves, and the ginger plant, whip around at the wind’s mercy. Each small leaf is in the middle of an inevitable fall; all together they are making such a wondrous roar. There are distant sirens. The bare light from my string of bulbs in the kitchen throws itself into the shadows on the deck. Some time ago, I made a back-of-the-mind decision to take a mental snapshot of my surroundings each time the train went by. It has been mostly inconsequential each time, but each time links to the last time, and it is beginning to tell a story. A woman making coffee and all the day’s meals. A woman taping a child’s drawing to a wall. A woman getting out of the bath. Leaving for work. Paying the bills. I smile at these routine, microscopic moments. They underpin the life I have woven, just from questions, and bones. From thin strands of hope and remnants of the past.
Using the train to mark time passing is a self-made ritual to help me realize all the accidental rituals that make up my whole being. I have another self-made ritual, that involves sitting in the dark before dawn every morning, for at least 30 minutes. I’m not mediating, or working. I’m just sitting. I’m not allowed to talk to myself (which I am prone to doing) during this time. Coffee is allowed. Otherwise, it’s just time for sitting and thinking about whatever. I also have a ritual of making sure there is crème fraiche in the house, which is arguably necessary in a person’s life. I would obviously argue that it is. Making it, and the way it keeps itself alive, is a good project and a good process to witness. Over and over again, its richness is perfect. Its mild sourly flavor forever gratifies.
I remember writing once that the tiniest renewals that life requires—the making of one more meal, the washing of the plates again, the weekly watering of plants— these accidental rituals are the most restorative. The small iterations of progress and perseverance are the most shocking medicine for the soul. I challenge anyone with a broken heart, a tired resolve, a leaky faith, to assume the chores of a child, or begin paying attention to the small duties you may loathe. Sweep your stoop daily. Mother an orchid. Denounce your dishwasher. Befriend a cat. In these things I have found tiny, intricate timepieces, a world that is turning a bit more predictably, in shorter, more digestible courses.
It hit home for me one morning, after a night of grief, after I had awoken, made the bed without thinking, and then returned to the room sometime later. To my surprise, the den of my despair from the night before looked as if nothing had happened. The quilt was neatly tucked, the pillows were fluffed. Like a morning lake, I had written in my journal. No evidence there, except of the rolling on of time. I went and painted two small pictures that morning. One was of a huddled, hurting body. One was of the bed made up, and colorful. I hung them side by side in my kitchen, as a reminder.
I used to never make my bed. I’d say clever things like, “Making the bed takes five minutes I’d rather use to do something else,” or “You’re just going to un-make it later.” But for some odd reason, I have forced myself to do it, every single day, in my new life. Now, if it goes un-made, it bothers me. Imagine that. What all would I have known when I was younger, if only I had known that the act of making my bed might one day save me? The necessary piling and scattering of life, the turning over of everything, no matter how small, has been instrumental. In this new existence, I am reliably amazed at how much I relish the quotidian, tidy, thorough work of living.
To track and complete all the rituals of life alone, both those rituals that are necessary and those that are self-imposed, is astonishing. I’m sure I don’t want to do it like this forever, but I have seen a slice of what is possible. As I write this, I’m watching the wind take off all the leaves, both one by one and all-at-once, with this insane weather event. In a long, uncertain storm of my own, I have started to believe my own power.
I used to worry that I was expected to be made of iron, expected to endure sadnesses, trials, and mysteries with metal strength. But people are not made of steel, we are made of some other incredible stuff. Like clay, or glomalin, casein unfolding, or a spider’s silk. If I can make my bed reliably, striking into my room toward that task, even when I don’t want to do it, maybe I can get through another day. Week. Month. Or more. If I can link together all the pictures of this little, fractured family during the passing of the train, maybe I can pull out all the stops for these little boys in style. Maybe if I can sit in the dark every morning for thirty minutes, and be quiet with all these thoughts and fears, then I can learn to silently carry this crude contraption that’s on my heart, even as I work to dismantle it. If even souring cream can satisfy, what could possibly be missing?