I want to write about small things. Not that big things don’t interest me. I’ve had big ideas; I’ve fought in big fights. I’ve struggled to see the big picture and find the important truths. But even when I’m winning, the effort leaves me feeling empty, feeble and unsatisfied.
Something happened the other day that gave me pause. It was a small thing, and it got me thinking.
Bedell came in the post office to have me write a money order. She teased me some, and I aggravated her the way folks do when they’re comfortable with each other. At some point, she asked if I had anything in my truck to pull weeds with. I asked why, and she said the weeds around her husband Clyde’s stone had grown up and she wanted to cut them. She couldn’t use a weed eater, and her brother Floyd was getting too feeble to get out much.
I said: “Bedell, let me bring my weed eater to work tomorrow, and I’ll come after work and get you and we can go up to the cemetery. I’ll fix it up however you like. Would that be all right?” She just smiled, and I thought I saw a little tear.
Later that day, Caleb and Tyler brought the mail, as they do every day. Caleb, all of 4, has red hair and a rubber face that shows the pride of a job well done as he hauls in the mail tub that’s bigger than he is. Tyler — all grown up at 6 and getting ready for “big” school this year — brings in the letters that need stamps and hands me the money, all serious.
They announce themselves loudly, proclaiming, “Mark, Mark, Mail, Mail!” And I violate some big security directive and let them in the back room so they can do their jobs and then run to where I keep the suckers. Caleb likes “boo” (blue) but I’ve run out, so he’s agreed to expand his horizons and try purple. Along with the mail, they bring their joy and exuberance, plus news of their day.
The night before, I’d done a big thing: standing in front of 100 people waiting for a state board of inquiry to determine whether a quarry would go in their community. I felt exhausted by the effort and frustrated about having to fight a big fight just so a community could continue as a small thing.
Bedell and Caleb and Tyler brought me back. I thought of my wife, Deb, who carries the mail out of Sylva. She works hard and tries to do the job right, but her efforts are often frustrated by managers with big ideas who have all the right answers at their fingertips.
Deb doesn’t think that way; she thinks about getting the right mail in the box, the right package to the door. And in the course of doing that, she does a small thing that just comes naturally to her: She adopts people who cross her path.
First she’s friends with Weaver, the kindhearted old fellow who lives in a house without electricity. She brings him soup because she loves to cook, and he trades stuff from his garden because life works best as an even swap, and we all have something to give.
Next there’s Mr. and Mrs. S. She’s blind and he’s 90, so once a week for several months Deb’s brought them a home-cooked meal, because that’s something everybody ought to have once in a while.
And now she gets invited to all the parties at Jackson Village, swapping books with one person and taking another out to breakfast on her day off. All these exchanges get woven into Deb’s day — effortless evidence of essential humanity working at its smallest level.
The folks at my post office also benefit from Deb’s cooking frenzies. Now there’s a list, and every week or so I bring a box of food to work for Bedell and Floyd, George, Tommy E., April, Sam and Joe and whoever else looks hungry or needs some cheer. Some get food because I love to hear their stories. Tom E. flew in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He built an airplane and a helicopter in his garage, but his best stories may be the ones about hard times in New Jersey growing up.
All these folks get something, and I get more back. I’m still warm from the hugs and smiles I got on Ms. Robinson’s birthday. Who would have thought that $5 worth of Wal-Mart flowers and an off-key version of “Happy Birthday” could make two people feel so good?
These small things are the small truths we build our lives around. So after a day that starts with me feeling frustrated because big things often leave so many folks behind, I focus on one last small thing: Kelsey’s bell, a fancy brass-and-walnut thing with a loud, clear tone that summons me for service. Some folks are afraid to ring it; others make no bones about the fact that they need attention.
Kelsey’s family used to get their mail at my post office. Day by day, I watched her grow from a pretty little toddler to a young lady. She would come in full of sunshine and promise, full of the wonders of discovery a new day could bring. How could I not be her friend?
When Kelsey’s family moved away, she made her mother take her to the store so she could buy me a present; she made me unwrap it in front of her. The bell, she said, was also a reminder: Every time it rang I should think of her, and there would never be another angry person at my counter.
Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and politician, said, “Keep the company of those who seek the truth, and run away from those who have found it.”
So today I will write about small things, and I will ring a bell that tells a small but important truth.
[Mark Jamison lives on 67 acres in Jackson County’s Speedwell Community with his wife, Deb, and their five dogs. When not tending the land, he tends the mail and the people of Webster, N.C., as postmaster.]