Column

The Little Things: a Partly Solved Mystery

23 April 2021

When I was younger, the saying, “it’s the little things in life,” used to both annoy and confuse me. As adults would patiently explain, the smallest moments—another leaf sprouting from a houseplant, slipping into crisp, clean bed sheets—were the stuffing of life. The sustenance, the good stuff—the point, really. These wise explanations fell on deaf ears. With a flash of a ponytail I was off, scaling the tree I had declared as my castle.

My mind was racing in a thousand directions, hurtling up for the stars and ricocheting outwards. I lay in the bathtub, planning every detail of my elaborate wedding-to-be. I could almost taste the texture of my seven-layered mud cake and feel the weight of my tulle train. On Christmas Eve, it was the impending arrival of Santa Clause through my chimney that constituted the joys of life. How could life be about a nice sunset when a large old man was about to pull up on a reindeer sleigh and bestow gifts at the end of my bed? 

In Year 12, I was having more trouble explaining what the little things were than at age 12. On a constant treadmill of study, I was aiming for one thing only: a good ATAR. Every day that I walked to school, my mind spun through the revolving checklist of assignments, revision and reading for the day. My diary entries from that year were militant notes-to-self:

Tomorrow:  Econ assignment—MUST BE DONE or 15 DAYS UNTIL EXAMS… KEEP ON TRACK. PUSH TO THE FINISH LINE. 

Small moments of distractions from study brought me momentary relief. Kicking the soccer ball with my brother and weekly dinners with my best friend allowed me to hold onto a thread of sanity. But only so I could again plunge into differential equations or the characterisation of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. 

Then, three years later, 2020 came and upended everything.

Long months of lockdown stretched out indefinitely in a haze of anxiety and uncertainty. We woke up to blue light and climbing cases globally, each news article delivering another jab of despair. As all routines and rhythm slipped away, I oscillated—like so many others—between a dull heaviness and a heightened, lucid panic. In this blur, I saw the little things. I saw them, and I held onto them for dear life. 

Every day, peace came to me in the form of my parents’ Bialetti coffee percolator. After all, there are entire mug collections that advertise “the little things in life”. I would sift the coffee grounds into the pot, heat the full cream milk on the stove, and watch the ingredients blend into liquid gold. Outside on the sunny deck, I closed my eyes and tasted each sip. Before sleep, I’d lie in bed looking forward to the morning purely so I could drink my coffee in the sun. My brother calls this a serious and excessive dependency. I call it bliss. The simple act of drinking a coffee in the sun formed a stitch in each day which helped hold me together. 

As time stretched and restrictions began to lift, the little things accumulated. There were weekly bike rides around the lake with my Dad, when we would shriek as we tried to dodge the swooping magpies. The rosy glow on my friends’ faces as we sat huddled around a dinner table, throwing stories over our drinks, catching them and spinning them like yarn. 

I found a handful of other little things through my job in after-school care. For four months, I was paid to kick around a soccer ball, make paper lanterns and bake strawberry cakes with a hundred primary schoolers. The little things could be the lopsided grin of a kid who just built a seven-storied Lego fortress. It could be a no-rules game of chess played against an eight-year-old, where each piece could fly, jump and flick their opponents off the board.  The attention that little kids pay to the present moment is both calming and infectious. 

Even now, I don’t fully believe the adage. I’d sooner stop drinking coffee than brandish a “little things” mug. I still can’t shake the glory of the big things; the one-time, glittery, explosive moments. The freefall your stomach does when you’re falling in love. Throwing a graduation cap into the sky, which your principal just told you is the limit. Seeing your favourite band in concert, confetti raining down on the sweat-matted heads of a crowd bursting with unfettered glee. In some ways, COVID-19 has made me long for these headline moments more. I want the movie reel, the stories-to-write-home-about. 

But I get it now. I see the quiet peacefulness of the little things. And I finally realise that if one’s life is a thread of simple but precious moments, the thread will be exquisite. Prettier and loftier than the tulle train on my wedding-dress-to-be.     


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