When The Small Things Are Everything

catherine newman essay

Every day, I print the New York Times crossword puzzle in duplicate, fold the pages into thirds, put them in an envelope, seal the envelope with a heart sticker, and put it in the mail…

I skip one day a week, because my white-haired parents are still going out for the Sunday paper. Every other day I write their address, I choose a stamp, and what’s in my head is something like, “Love love love.” It’s the tiniest act of devotion, like the poet Billy Collins braiding a lanyard for his mother in return for his very life and breath. Everyone in the house makes gentle fun of my nano-heroism. But still, the envelope should be bursting apart at the seams.

People are on the front lines. Doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, essential staff and first responders of all kinds. I can’t even imagine, though I do try to imagine. I bring a small jar of yeast to an older neighbor and, later, he texts me a grateful photograph of his Parker House rolls. “You’re more of a second responder,” my husband teases. The back lines, as it were. Still, pouring out that bit of yeast I had thought, “Be well,” like a mantra.

I make terrible, lumpy masks for friends and family — accidentally sewing the cuff of my flannel shirt into the seams while I push the fabric through my clattery old machine. The elastic bulges. Be well be well be well. I renew our membership to the nonprofit indie movie house that’s not showing any movies. I write a check to the food bank, even though half of our family’s wage earners are earning no wages. Love. Neuroscientists I’ve interviewed have explained the way our brains release feel-good dopamine when we do useful things with our hands, when we volunteer, when we give it away, give it away, give it away now. I am awash in dopamine. Also fear. “That’s nice,” my husband says when he sees me at my machine, and I shake my head, drink deeply from a large jar of red wine, think: “I am actually saving my own life.”

Later that night there’s a knock on the door and my daughter and I, who seem to have grown more batshit feral than we’d realized, run screaming to hide behind the couch, laughing so hard we can’t breathe. My husband answers the door like an actual human being. It’s our neighbor, with a mask on and a loaf of still-warm cinnamon raisin bread for us. Everything feels like Little House on the Prairie crossed with Mad Max. 

Our sunny son is home from college, and we are all so guiltily delighted about this that if our guilty delight were helium, you’d look up and see our house float past. For dinner I make buttery mashed potatoes, his favorite, and he says “Oooh, yum!” I fry him pork chops (“Oooh, yum!”) and then we feed tiny, illicit bites to the cats who are purring around our legs. They climb up into our laps to get closer to the meat, but then forget why they’re there and fall asleep on their backs while we stroke their cheeks and tummies. Our own hearts beat slowly and steadily.

In her book The Rabbit Effect, Kelli Harding writes about a pair of lab assistants who feed rabbits deliberately high-cholesterol diets in order to study heart disease. But only half the rabbits end up manifesting any evidence of illness. It turns out that one of the assistants talks to her bunnies while she’s feeding them — she cuddles them and coos. And those rabbits stay well, even though they shouldn’t. I put food on the table every night and my love for these people is falling out of my eyeballs.

Our son’s college is nearby, and a couple of his friends are stuck there. We make them dinner every Sunday, meticulously packaging up stew or enchiladas, slabs of pound cake, dropping it all off with gloved hands and full hearts. We pick up apples and kale for one neighbor, a baguette for another, wearing our own lumpy masks to the market. It all feels like perfection in miniature. But then the hospice where I (usually) volunteer needs someone to pick up a gallon of vinegar, and I stall until another person offers to do it, a weird smallness of spirit, a drumbeat of anxiety, drowning out my better self. This is not a big deal, to be clear, but I experience the absence of what would have felt good, doing the needed thing. Fear. Love’s shadow is always loss, and it is darkening some of my days.

But I’m putting on my own oxygen mask by helping other people on with theirs, if you understand what I’m trying to say. That’s not actually it, though. It’s so much smaller than an essential molecule. A different plane metaphor: I can breathe at all because I get to open someone’s little bag of pretzels or read to them from the inflight magazine. Nothing that matters — and still it feels, somehow, like my whole life. I’m not a religious person, but sealing those envelopes is pretty much like prayer.

P.S. Reader thoughts on kindness, and what inspires you these days?

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow.)

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