Last summer, I spent a month in Budapest, taking a class in Hungarian. This summer, I organized my taxes.
I’m not kidding, I really did organize my taxes. It’s such a relief, having all that paperwork organized into individual folders, appropriately labeled. I know, it’s a lot less exotic than flying to Budapest. But this summer has been about trying to catch up on all the ordinary things that, to be honest, I’ve neglected. I’ve lived in my apartment for a year, and it’s still not entirely decorated. Granted, decorating takes a while, at least the way I do it, but still . . . I’d like to have a nice place to live in. And that takes putting in the time, doing the work. So this summer is about doing the ordinary things: working, organizing, catching up.
What I’ve found, staying in Boston this summer, is the pleasure of the ordinary. The pleasure, for example, of watching the procession of flowers. Luckily, I live in the midst of gardens: there are gardens in front of the brownstones all up and down my street, more formal gardens in city squares or close to children’s playgrounds, and even conservation areas where I can go for walks beside rivers or ponds, under tall trees. Just now the roses and clematis are almost over, although this week I still found some perfect roses in a formal rose garden not too far from me. This was one of them:
The lilies have started blooming, and the linden trees are in flower. I’m lucky to live on a street with linden trees, so I can smell the sweet odor every time I step outdoors. It seems to fall from the trees . . . Every time one type of flower fades, I feel sad because it means that summer is passing. But at the same time, it’s fascinating to see them, like the best fashion show ever. Nothing we create is as beautiful as the flowers. Mother Nature is, after all, the greatest artist. And I love walking around the city, looking at the old buildings with their beautiful details. Architecture lost both beauty and detail for a while — we were poorer for that, and are just starting to find those two things again.
What we really lost, I think, is the understanding that beauty and joy come from the small, the ordinary. Take those enormous contraptions of steel and glass created by the most famous contemporary architects. They are rarely beautiful, and they rarely give us joy. If we got rid of every single one of them, it would not impact our lives in a significant way. Compare them to a honeybee, so small and intricate. Isn’t the bee more beautiful? And if we got rid of every single one of them . . . well then, we’d be in trouble.
I don’t know what happened to our sense of the small and ordinary, but I think we need to get it back. Recently, I started watching a television show from the 1960s, and I was startled by how small things were: hotel rooms, women’s clothes, international crime syndicates. (All right, if you must know, it’s Mission Impossible. I love watching a show that is almost pure plot . . .) There are ways in which we live in a better world. No Cold War, for one. But I think as we progress, we always lose something. In this case, at least, I think we can get it back.
After I went to the rose garden, I walked to the conservancy I mentioned, which is a wetland. There is a path through the woods . . . (I thought this would be a good place for a metaphor.)
We can make a conscious decision to reclaim the small, the ordinary. We can care more about honeybees than skyscrapers. Knitting than international finance. (Don’t get me wrong: you should try to understand international finance. We need to understand what is being done to our world, if only because voting intelligently is one of those small things that make a large impact, like honeybees.) We can learn to cook or play an instrument. We can organize our taxes. Clean our bathrooms. (That’s on the agenda for today.) There is so much meaning in those small acts, and the truth is, when we do something large, the meaning of it usually comes from the small components anyway. If we write a novel, the meaning comes from all those hours we spent at our computer, trying to find the right word. From each edit. From the lessons we learned about ourselves while writing.
Aren’t the ferns gorgeous? I had to take a picture of them as I walked through the forest. It was like walking through a green world, made up of all the small things: beech leaves rustling overhead, white trunks of birches, ferns by the path, rabbits hopping under the bushes, looking at me as though wondering what I was doing in their living room, and the magnificent blue heron that was standing in the pond, with a blue heron reflected in the pond water beneath him. I thought, I’d like to have something like this, a connection of this sort, every day of my life.
Then I went home and did the small things there: made dinner, finished some sewing I’d been putting off for a while, intimidated as always by my sewing machine because tension is so complicated . . . but no, my Singer behaved perfect. And then I did something I’m really quite proud of: I figured out how to use my new mat cutting board and cut some mats. It took a while to get used to, but look:
That’s a small card by the artist Virginia Lee, of a weeping Onion Man. I found the square frame at Goodwill, and I thought, it will be too small. But with a one-inch mat, it fit the picture quite well. (I had to cut the mat twice. The trick, I found, is to use a real mat board under the mat board you’re cutting, rather than the cardboard included with your mat cutter.) Virginia gave me the card when I visited her village, in England. So I’m not saying don’t do the large things — I would not have missed my trip to England for the world. But remember to do the small ones, because those are where we mostly find meaning . . . and joy.