Small and On the Earth

There were moments in my childhood when I’d be sitting in the grass, spring or summer. The sky would be blue and high. I’d pull my knees up to my chest and balance on my bottom. Every so often, a distinct awareness would rush over me – an awareness that I was sitting on the earth.

In my mind’s eye, the grass would stretch out in every direction – farther and farther – wrapping itself around the enormous round planet, and there I’d be: sitting on it.

A girl, placed delicately on an immense, slowly-spinning globe.

Like a chess piece placed intelligently on a chess board.

Or a vase of flowers placed carefully on a table.

Like a housefly that lands nimbly on a countertop, or a bird that happily balances on a limb.

Years later – when childhood was my memory – I married a man and birthed our first child. Our daughter arrived 5 weeks early and weighed less than 6 pounds. I gently lay her on her stomach for a sponge bath and draped a warm washcloth over her back. I couldn’t help but think of a roaster chicken, those little elbows poking out like chicken wings. (I didn’t mean to think that. Some similes just rush through my mind without giving me a fair chance.) I dried her off and swaddled her up.

As it turns out, our baby was slightly jaundiced and the doctors wanted her to spend some time under the lights in the NICU. At our country hospital, the NICU is the size of a walk-in-closet with two or three incubators and a kitchenette.  I didn’t want to leave her side, so the nurses rearranged the NICU and pulled in a wooden rocking chair for me. It practically took up the entire room. I sat down in the rocker, scooting it close to her little bed, speaking and singing in a low voice so she’d know I was there.

I held her whenever the nurses would let me.

We both were brand new.

In that first week of life, I felt an awareness rush over me not unlike those moments in childhood when I’d be sitting on the sloping earth. This time though, I was holding a baby in my arms and balancing our bodies together in a large rocking chair.

And I remember: I felt our smallness.

In my mind’s eye, the rocking chair grew up behind me, massive and wooden, pushing its way through the ceiling, becoming as large as the universe. Yet, my daughter and I remained so small, swaddled together, on its large wooden seat. The holiness of the moment overtook me and I found myself appealing to God for help. Oh God! We are so small!

I think about that experience when I visit my parents’ church. There, hundreds of people gather on Sunday morning to worship God in a large sanctuary. Light streams in. The ceilings are vaulted high. The choir on stage is massive – one hundred? two hundred? – people stand side-by-side and sing glorious songs. An orchestra plays. Their faces are radiant and their sound is full.

The large building, the large crowd, the large choir with its glorious sound reminds me of that moment in the NICU rocking chair.

I sing along with the choir until something catches in my throat.

I pause under the weight of reality: we are so small.

What if I could look at all of us – the singers, the standers, the hand-raisers, the cymbal players – under a microscope? We’d look like a sampling of streptococci. (Have you ever seen the beautiful arrangement of strands and circles that appear at 5,000 x strength?)

Under a microscope – the tall, the petite, the fat, the thin, the old, the young – would mostly just seem… small.

Though we are hundreds of worshipers gathered under vaulted ceilings, we are a tiny gathering of tiny creatures expressing our wonder and thanks.

Psychologists say that we inadvertently seek this experience. They say people visit places like the Grand Canyon in order to feel… small. They say we make the trek across town, or across the country, or across the world in order to gaze upon something bigger than ourselves.

They say it’s good for us to remember our smallness.

Someday, I hope to pack our bags and seek out those big landmarks that people talk about – the Grand Canyon, the Redwoods, the Desert. My husband, our children, and I will look over the expanse, peer into the depth, and gaze upon the height of things that are bigger than we are.

And we’ll wonder.

(I also day-dream of buying a plane ticket for each of our teenagers: the gift of a few hours in a seat far above the earth. What will they realize when they look out the window and see the true size of clouds, houses, cars, people?)

In the meantime though – while I’m still birthing babies, swaddling them, and rocking them – the Grand Canyon comes to me in a million ways: in a child’s smile and an elder’s wisdom, in a nesting bird and a growing puppy, in a sunrise and a sunset, in every mundane, stereotypical, already-been-said wonder.

The bigness of every little thing in the universe…

These just-glimpses of God…

They overwhelm me with the assurance that it is a gift to be small on the earth.


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