JIM DODSON: Little Things Mean a Lot
This column is about absolutely nothing.
I thought I should warn you about this in case you've got more pressing matters to attend to this morning. Breakfast to make, say, or a nice spring walk to take with the dog.
You see, nothing I carefully planned for this space -- or much else -- worked out this week. Absolutely nothing. You may have had a week like this yourself.
My nothing week began on Monday evening, when I drove up to Robbins thinking I had a promising story to investigate for this space. My wife, Wendy, tagged along. But the subjects never showed, or maybe I simply somehow missed them. In any case, nobody was on Main Street in Robbins except for an elderly woman taking a walk at sunset.
"Hello," she said pleasantly as she ambled past. "How are you folks? Beautiful evening, isn't it? I think spring is finally here!"
Nice folks up in Robbins, I was reminded. I suddenly noticed all the daffodils and creeping phlox in bloom, too.
Because nothing else much was happening, we strolled down the block and ate supper at Carolina Chicken. I've passed that place probably three dozen times in my life but never taken the time to stop and eat.
Oddly, though, the restaurant was full of life for a quiet Monday night. There were teenagers in ball caps clustered around, talking about bass fishing and spring baseball. There were older couples sharing a meal over gardening catalogs, the local constable in blue stopping by for a quick evening feed.
Across from us sat a pair of star-crossed lovers, a Robbins Romeo and Juliet, sharing french fries and holding hands in a booth. The chicken was excellent. But I don't think they noticed.
"This was really nice," Wendy said as we left sleepy Robbins, heading for home through the countryside with the windows cranked down for the first time this year. "Like having an unplanned date. We should do this more often."
The next morning, though, my nothing work week continued. My hunt for a great Sunday column continued to turn up empty.
I phoned a woman who'd sent me a terrific column idea, only to discover she'd gone on vacation for two weeks and couldn't be reached. So once again, no story.
In frustration, following a morning of phone calls that basically yielded zilch, I gave up for the day and drove out to play golf in the annual Children's Center charity golf tournament at Pinehurst No. 8.
Between you and me, with time running out and no topic on the horizon, I really didn't have the time or energy to spend an entire afternoon playing golf with buddies, even in the name of a good cause.
To be sure, nothing terribly exciting happened in the tournament -- unless you take into account the thousands that were raised for the Children's Center and the fact that I was reminded of how much I enjoy playing No. 8. And I did have a lot of unexpected belly laughs with my teammates, Tom, Stan and Larry.
Last year, Larry went through the kind of unexpected medical ordeal that makes a guy stop and take stock of his life. His attitude was nothing shy of inspirational. He never stopped smiling or telling his cornball jokes. He even slapped a bumper sticker on his car that reads "No Bad Days." Now he passes out these upbeat stickers to his friends and clients.
These days, that's saying something. Larry is a Realtor.
When the heavens opened up on us and we were forced to make a mad dash for the clubhouse, our team failed to finish the golf tournament. A decent team effort came to nothing.
On the other hand, you could almost feel the gratitude of the earth as the heavens unleashed long-overdue rain. Hopi Indians call rain "heaven water."
That night, as the heaven water fell, I slept more soundly than I have in weeks. I can't explain why. My deadline was one day closer.
"Oh, my goodness," my wife said in the morning. "That was the loudest thunderstorm we've had in ages. Didn't you hear it?"
Nope, I admitted. Absolutely nothing. What bliss.
'Every Day a Gift'
When I was a kid, my mind used to wander so far into the future that my Mom said I would need a rocket ship to make it home in time for supper. The future, I used to think, was really going to be something.
"Don't get too far ahead of yourself, Flash Gordon," she would advise as I bolted past her, heading someplace new. "Otherwise you'll miss what's right in front of your nose."
But at age 9 or 10, see, I couldn't wait to be a Boy Scout so I could hike the Appalachian Trail and guide a canoe down the boiling rapids of a wild river or scale a mountain. After I did those things, I couldn't wait to see what came next.
At 13, I was fairly certain the Baltimore Orioles already had their eyes on me as the eventual successor to Brooks Robinson, the greatest third-baseman who ever lived, the "Human Vacuum Cleaner," baseball's perennial MVP.
Robinson played for the Orioles 23 years and earned 16 Golden Gloves. By the time he was ready to retire, I was out of high school and my own baseball dreams were over.
By then, I was ready to be the next Ernest Hemingway. After winning a short story contest in high school, I decided to skip college and move to France and find a job working for The International Herald-Tribune. If I met some smoky dark-eyed mademoiselle with lots of underarm hair and strong Gallic opinions, golly, all the better. At least I wouldn't wind up covering the garden club's annual spring petunia planting day back in Mayberry.
But nothing worked out as I had planned.
Instead of Paris, with a war still raging in Southeast Asia, I heeded my dad's advice and went to a college and became a newspaperman and writer like him. That job, funnily enough, eventually took me all the way to Paris after all.
Truthfully, though, I think it was reaching middle age and having children and making a garden of my own that finally made me stop and notice what nice things were growing right in front of my nose.
The other night at supper, my mother-in-law passed along something one of her scholars recently said to her on this very topic.
Miss Jan teaches pre-school art at Episcopal Day. Like Larry the Realtor, she seems to thrive on finding something to celebrate about every day she's alive.
"Every day is a gift," Miss Jan said as she passed the early squash. "That's why they call it the present."
As I look back on a week where not one of my careful work calculations and promising ideas panned out, I can see how it took a week of "nothing" happening and wisdom from the mouths of babes to help me -- yet again -- begin to get the message.
Thus, after a scheduled business meeting got canceled on Thursday, I took myself for a lunchtime walk instead and bumped into a friend from high school I hadn't seen in more than 30 years. She was just visiting town for the day. It was rather like the hand of Providence that we met. But we had a great time catching up.
"I remember when you were going off to Paris to write the Great American Novel," she said with a laugh. "What brought you back here?"
"I missed Mayberry," I admitted to her.
That afternoon, with nothing pressing scheduled, I drove up to Carthage and registered at the Moore County Board of Elections office so I could vote in a presidential primary season that's turned out nothing like the pundits could have predicted. Been meaning to do that for months.
"It's about time you showed up here," Elections Director Glenda Clendenin said, recognizing me as I walked in. "We were about to decide you were going to be the last person in Moore County to register."
That evening, unable to sleep -- still worrying about how I would fill this space -- I got up and finished reading a book about a woman who takes herself on a spiritual quest around the world to try finding God and inner happiness -- only to discover she'd had both things all along.
The next morning, I wrote this column in a Flash Gordon flash, suddenly realizing what all these nice people and events right in front of my nose were trying to tell me: It's the smallest things you think amount to nothing in the busyness of a day that give life its deepest grace and magic -- unexpected gifts that make every moment a "present."
Such as an unplanned chicken dinner date with your wife.
Or a complete stranger pointing out that spring has finally arrived.
Or laughter in a much-needed deluge with golf pals who no longer have bad days.
A good night of sleep and the return of baseball sure feel like a present of some kind. So did bumping into that old friend from high school, registering to vote, and realizing how grateful I am that I never became the next Ernest Hemingway.
Looking back, this week was really something. Excuse me now while I go plant some petunias.
Bestselling author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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