Saturday, July 20, 2013

Small Miracles

Paul Gallico has a book called The Small Miracle, about a boy whose beloved donkey falls ill, leading him to seek an audience with the pope, hoping for—that's right, a small miracle. Not a dramatic miracle, the kind that leads to interesting and confusing press coverage; not the sort of thing, probably, that would get anyone canonized, or beatified, or even venerabled.  In fact, the sort of miracle that probably isn't a miracle at all, even by strict Roman Catholic standards.

Well, I had one of those miracles today.  The past few months, and indeed the whole past year, have been one of those frustrating periods when an incredible success, or an unexpected gift, or a breath-taking escape (it is a breathtaking escape when you finally decide to resign from a time-eating part-time non-paying job, right?  Or do they just call that "coming to your senses"?)—when, in short, something rather wonderful is followed by a very small, very silly adverse circumstance, or worse yet, a concatenation of circumstances, that serves to erase good temper and gratitude both.  It is most unreasonable, but it's how we're made.  A millionaire with a bunion is unhappy, and a lucky girl who just broke her roommate's french press ... or pinked another red light ... or spent thirty laborious minutes on the wrong spread sheet ... or got stood up for brunch ... or stepped on in the metro ... is unhappy too.

The oddest thing about it is that the same millionaire (or girl, since we're dealing in hypotheticals here) might well have striven virtuously against much more serious temptations than mere loss of temper at inconveniences which are, as often as not, her—er, his—fault; and the millionaire is not alone in this regard.  Most people can be heroic when the need arises.  That is why it always seemed to me to be a foolish saying, that people who were faithful in small things would be faithful in great ones.  When the stakes are obvious and high, it's easy to be good.  When the choice is heaven or hell, only an idiot would choose badly.  (We'll leave aside that nasty question of habits for the moment.)

But of course, the saying makes sense precisely because being faithful in little things is harder than being faithful in great ones.  It's quite easy to convince yourself that you're doing nothing wrong by taking an extra long smoke break at work; it's much more difficult to convince yourself that stealing from the till is OK.  That's why the man who doesn't extend his smoke break is such a safe bet: because he's passed what is actually the harder test, the one most of us fail.  He is another kind of small miracle.

One of the things that helps me in battling those smoke breaks (figuratively speaking of course; one cannot, after all, stab smoke), not to mention the endless stream of broken kitchen items and endlessly bad traffic, is the first kind of small miracle.  What better to throw in the face of the devil?  He plays a rabbit-chomped bean plant, I play a new novel; he plays a post-wash-spattered car, I deal a note from mom.  It's God's pack of cards, so I'm not too worried about the final outcome here.

Today it was the strawberries.  Actually, it was a lot of things, but the strawberries were the last straw.  Expensive, over-priced (like everything in Arlington), and bound to take up too much room in the fridge.  But I hadn't had fruit in a couple of days, and they looked perfect—until I opened the package for breakfast, and found that the ripest ones were also the fuzziest.  Which means discarding a lot of them and eating the rest quickly, or going back to the store for a refund (and consuming time), or ... 

Did I mention I bought them this morning?  (And please, don't tell me about shopping before breakfast.  I went to Mass first.  Mass is more effective than breakfast.  Mass is even more effective than coffee.  OK?  OK.)

I packed the stawberries back into the bag, grumbling internally, and maybe a little externally too, and retrieved the receipt (fortunately undiscarded) and put it all on the counter to take back this evening, when work and other chores will be done.  Then I went to my room to get started writing.  It was dark, because I had left in such a hurry for Mass; I opened the blinds (still curtainless after a year—must put those things together!)—

There it was.  The twig I had cut this spring.  It came from the most beautiful flowering shrub, red flowered and reminiscent of roses, but a little more old fashioned, and thornless—or at least, having the kind of thorns that are barely more than spurs stuck close in line with the stem.  Probably it began in someone's backyard, and had grown wild over the years and down the bank of the trail; when I found it, it was growing rampant in between honeysuckle bushes and tall, still half-unleaved trees.  It was so beautiful, I broke off a branch.  I'd never tried to take a cutting before, but it seemed worth a shot.

There is a great deal of conflicting information on the internet about cuttings, did you know?  Read up and still fairly unsure of what I was doing, I clipped off all the blossoms on the branch, recut it above my original break on a diagonal, plunked it into a homemade container made from a yogurt dish and lid, filled the container with rich-but-not-too-rich sandy soil, set it in a window that got only morning sun, and waited.

The leaves fell off, sometimes one at a time, and sometimes by threes or fours.  I would forget to water it for days, and then water it too heavily.  A few of the stems became brittle, but as long as there were two or three green leaves out of an original thirty, I was prepared to leave it in the window.  The blinds pouched out around the redneck container every time they were shut, which was maddening, but there was no better place to put it.  I wanted to shake off the dirt and check to see if any roots were forming, but everything I read told me it was better to wait.

Then I opened the blinds this morning, "and what to my wondering eyes did appear"?

New leaves.  New leaves, chartreuse in color and crinkling, like the faces of new born babies—a little too highly colored for their surroundings, but that will change.  Not in one place on the branch, nor in two, but in three, pushing up from a barren nodule, and out from where the old leaves died.  I don't think I have seen something this beautiful, so small a miracle, in days.

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