Reliable Consolations

I’m thinking a lot about small pleasures. They start to crystallize for me especially when larger things are particularly hard, or just out of my control. And, well, here we all are. 

The train of thought took off a little before the present derailment of world affairs. My husband and a very dear friend (technically my cousin; for all intents and purposes my sister) were recently off with some friends on a Caribbean cruise. I love my solitude, but I don’t enjoy actually living alone. So I wasn’t expecting their absence to be easy on me, and it was not. And then COVID-19 hit the fan, and all our lives began changing overnight.* 

I had made myself a cup of pour-over coffee one morning (as indeed I do nearly every morning). I took the mug—my favorite, just the right size and a pleasing shape, illustrated with a tracery of winter branches and a great horned owl—to my favorite blue chair by the window. 

And suddenly I’d been just sitting there, doing nothing but cradling my perfect cup of coffee—inhaling its glorious sticky steam, soaking its warmth into my chilled fingers—for an untrackable number of minutes. Then I thought about the old boots I’d been wearing in the pre-dawn fields an hour earlier. They are soft and yet supportive; they go with everything. They resolutely refuse to leak, even as I drag them through miles of rain-slick grass. 

Then I thought about my loneliness, and about my dear ones. About sudden travel restrictions, and frightening diseases with no vaccine and no cure.

And that still hurt. The pleasures of good coffee and owl mugs and sturdy boots did not negate it. They did rather restore my baseline first. 

Something entirely normal happened next: I stumbled on exactly the right book right when I needed it. A favorite bookstore (Cloud & Leaf  in Manzanita, Oregon) had in stock a beautiful clothbound hardback with a gold-stamped title: Small Pleasures. It helped me both reaffirm and articulate my instinctive insistence on the importance of very small enjoyments. Finding and savoring small daily pleasures is, it reminds us, critical to mental health and happiness—and also a skill we can and should practice and improve. 

Most of the time, the big stuff isn’t really our call. Does that person love me back? Will I get that promotion? Will the people I love escape COVID-19? We can get all the big breaks we think we want—or none of them, or most likely, some and not others—and still be anxious or demanding or impatient, or whatever our particular response is to the uncertainty of securing anything really important in this life. But a good cup of coffee and a mug with a tiny owl inside the rim, who appears when you’ve drunk down your first few delicious sips? Most of us can have that, and we can learn to savor it. 

Sometimes I pray when I walk in the mornings. Sometimes I recite poems, and sometimes I compose them. Sometimes I do intentionally nothing but just walk and notice.** On a recent morning after the miniature coffee revelation, I made a mental list of my own preferred small pleasures. 

  • Walking outdoors just before or just after it’s light, when you cannot quite see color
  • Observing the phases of the moon and the movements of stars and planets through the seasons
  • The sound and feel of my own voice hitting a sequence of notes exactly right
  • The reliable—and occasionally surprising—succession of colors in a sunrise or sunset
  • Ignoring my mobile phone for hours at a time
  • Choosing not to speak for an hour, or a day
  • Knowing (or learning) the names of the birds singing the dawn chorus
  • Re-watching a film I’ve already seen and loved, paying attention to some particular aspect I haven’t explored—outdoor sounds, perhaps, or shot length, or what colors and styles each character tends to wear
  • Mixing the perfect small, strong cocktail, and sipping it slowly from a delicate glass

There are half a dozen pretty big, pretty out-of-my-control things I want in life. And there are many more small enjoyments I mostly can choose. At the least, I can choose to pay attention when they’re offered. Often, I can go find them when I have leisure. They’re the most reliable consolations I can think of. 

I wish for you—in addition to the big stuff you have little power to achieve, and I none to wish it—a dozen tiny, beautiful consolations, this day and every other. 

_______

*Our lives are always doing that; we just can’t usually see the shift in real time. But I’m not quite ready to reflect on slantwise blessings of the present situation. (Thanks, I hate it.)

**Sometimes my mind is whirling and I’m terrible at all of these things. Which is ok. The work is to try.

_______

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