At the end of their elementary school journey, all students at Old Donation Center write autobiographies. In these, each child tells his or her story from birth to the present, includes quotations and poems, gathers book reviews from friends and family, and looks forward into the future. The teachers have the books bound, and with self-portraits drawn in art class, they are presented on the students’ graduation day.
When my son was gathering ideas for his autobiography, it was pretty easy to pick out the high points of his life, the ones he was excited to write about. And these high points – as well as the dramatically low ones – do shape us and make us the people we are. They are a dramatic landscape, high cliffs, deep oceans. But what really form us and feed us are the quiet moments, the times that do not stand out as spectacular memories. These are the everyday landscape of our lives, the rolling hills, the valley meadows, the creek through the woods, the gentle farmland. So I recommended to him that he think about some of those quieter times to write about, and that when he chose a couple, to be sure to take advantage of all his senses when he wrote about them, to really immerse himself and his readers into the moment.
He wrote one short piece about his grandfather. Whenever we visited his grandparents’ house, Grandpa would jump up from his chair to greet us at the door, and to enfold each of us in a big hug. Then he would spend the entire visit slipping the children treats – cookies, candy. And when we got ready to say good-bye, he would give each child a little baggie full of candy, usually caramels, as if they hadn’t already had plenty! And Robbie wrote that hugs from his Grandpa were like soaking in a warm bath when you are tired. The next story in his autobiography was about his Grandpa’s death in June 2002, and it was even more powerful for being told after those small, sweet, quiet memories about hugs and caramels.
In the sermon we heard this morning, our rector made a very similar observation:
This is part of why, on our J2A pilgrimage, the times almost everyone recorded as the best of times were the quieter times. Rather than the busy tours of Westminster Abbey or Edinburgh Castle, the best times were more likely to be on the shore of Loch Ness, surveying God’s raw beauty; by ourselves in a castle on the Loch near midnight; or just talking honestly in a park in Mull. Or journalling at the holy abbey of Iona; or when a priest in Drumnadrochit welcomed us into her tiny church, listened to who we were, and shared with us about the spirituality of Scottish people. We valued those smaller, quieter times, when we were able to pay attention to God’s presence, in the place, and in each other.
There is a moment in the movie The Parent Trap that always stands out for me. The girls have switched places, and the California twin (please don’t make me remember which is which! – plus, Disney changed their names when they remade it) is just meeting her grandfather in England for the first time. She leans close to him and inhales deeply, and he asks her what she’s doing. “I’m making a memory,” she says. “All my life, when I’m quite grown up, I will always remember my grandfather and how he smelled of tobacco and peppermint.” While flying to another country and meeting her mother and grandparents for the first time she could remember were huge, life-changing events in her life, this girl knew that this quiet little memory would be far more important than the rest of her adventure.
I have been striving to remember and record these small, quiet moments. The hundreds of little stories that have done more to make me me than all the high-flying (or darkness-dwelling) adventures and experiences put together. And I know that God is very much in these quiet moments. When we notice, in the everyday homeliness of our lives – really look and listen and notice – what’s happening around us and to us and by us and with us, we are open to that breathy whisper of the Holy Spirit. And we become ourselves.
Update: Sunday’s sermon text is now hot-linked, as promised.