Relationships

When the Small Things Are Everything

catherine newman essay

Every day, I print the New York Times crossword puzzle in duplicate, fold the pages into thirds, put them in an envelope, seal the envelope with a heart sticker, and put it in the mail…

I skip one day a week, because my white-haired parents are still going out for the Sunday paper. Every other day I write their address, I choose a stamp, and what’s in my head is something like, “Love love love.” It’s the tiniest act of devotion, like the poet Billy Collins braiding a lanyard for his mother in return for his very life and breath. Everyone in the house makes gentle fun of my nano-heroism. But still, the envelope should be bursting apart at the seams.

People are on the front lines. Doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, essential staff and first responders of all kinds. I can’t even imagine, though I do try to imagine. I bring a small jar of yeast to an older neighbor and, later, he texts me a grateful photograph of his Parker House rolls. “You’re more of a second responder,” my husband teases. The back lines, as it were. Still, pouring out that bit of yeast I had thought, “Be well,” like a mantra.

I make terrible, lumpy masks for friends and family — accidentally sewing the cuff of my flannel shirt into the seams while I push the fabric through my clattery old machine. The elastic bulges. Be well be well be well. I renew our membership to the nonprofit indie movie house that’s not showing any movies. I write a check to the food bank, even though half of our family’s wage earners are earning no wages. Love. Neuroscientists I’ve interviewed have explained the way our brains release feel-good dopamine when we do useful things with our hands, when we volunteer, when we give it away, give it away, give it away now. I am awash in dopamine. Also fear. “That’s nice,” my husband says when he sees me at my machine, and I shake my head, drink deeply from a large jar of red wine, think: “I am actually saving my own life.”

Later that night there’s a knock on the door and my daughter and I, who seem to have grown more batshit feral than we’d realized, run screaming to hide behind the couch, laughing so hard we can’t breathe. My husband answers the door like an actual human being. It’s our neighbor, with a mask on and a loaf of still-warm cinnamon raisin bread for us. Everything feels like Little House on the Prairie crossed with Mad Max. 

Our sunny son is home from college, and we are all so guiltily delighted about this that if our guilty delight were helium, you’d look up and see our house float past. For dinner I make buttery mashed potatoes, his favorite, and he says “Oooh, yum!” I fry him pork chops (“Oooh, yum!”) and then we feed tiny, illicit bites to the cats who are purring around our legs. They climb up into our laps to get closer to the meat, but then forget why they’re there and fall asleep on their backs while we stroke their cheeks and tummies. Our own hearts beat slowly and steadily.

In her book The Rabbit Effect, Kelli Harding writes about a pair of lab assistants who feed rabbits deliberately high-cholesterol diets in order to study heart disease. But only half the rabbits end up manifesting any evidence of illness. It turns out that one of the assistants talks to her bunnies while she’s feeding them — she cuddles them and coos. And those rabbits stay well, even though they shouldn’t. I put food on the table every night and my love for these people is falling out of my eyeballs.

Our son’s college is nearby, and a couple of his friends are stuck there. We make them dinner every Sunday, meticulously packaging up stew or enchiladas, slabs of pound cake, dropping it all off with gloved hands and full hearts. We pick up apples and kale for one neighbor, a baguette for another, wearing our own lumpy masks to the market. It all feels like perfection in miniature. But then the hospice where I (usually) volunteer needs someone to pick up a gallon of vinegar, and I stall until another person offers to do it, a weird smallness of spirit, a drumbeat of anxiety, drowning out my better self. This is not a big deal, to be clear, but I experience the absence of what would have felt good, doing the needed thing. Fear. Love’s shadow is always loss, and it is darkening some of my days.

But I’m putting on my own oxygen mask by helping other people on with theirs, if you understand what I’m trying to say. That’s not actually it, though. It’s so much smaller than an essential molecule. A different plane metaphor: I can breathe at all because I get to open someone’s little bag of pretzels or read to them from the inflight magazine. Nothing that matters — and still it feels, somehow, like my whole life. I’m not a religious person, but sealing those envelopes is pretty much like prayer.


Catherine Newman is the author of the upcoming How to Be a Person, a guide for kids and teenagers.

P.S. 21 completely subjective rules for raising teenage boys and what inspires you these days?

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow.)

  1. Jessica Hampton says...

    New to your blog but so happy I found it. This is beautiful.

  2. Cassandra McGrath says...

    You reach right inside my heart. Thank you.

  3. You’ve made me cry, but it’s a good cry. Bless you.

  4. Cassie says...

    I’m so so glad that you feature Catherine Newman occasionally. What a gift to have her among your talented team of contributors! I’ve always loved her writing <3.

  5. Emily says...

    This was so lovely.

  6. Vani says...

    What a beautiful essay, I’m in tears. Thank you for sharing. ❤️

  7. Joy says...

    Tears. Thank you for everything that you are doing.

  8. Lisa says...

    Best part might be “the vinegar insight,” for those of us who tend to draw inward in times of stress. Adding my thanks to the chorus of CN admirers.

  9. Erika Galan says...

    In tears. “Love’s shadow is always loss, and it is darkening some of my days.”

    I read most of this beautiful post with a smile on my face. I too, am addicted to the dopamine release. I want to believe that with every whispered prayer before a good deed I am contributing and changing the world in some small way.

    This was so wonderful, thanks for the continued inspiration. Stay well everyone xxxxxxxxx

  10. Lee says...

    i accidentally happened to click on this and start reading just as the opening notes of Clair De Lune were playing, reaching the end as the piece closed quietly. If you want a good soundtrack to this beautifully touching, wonderfully unsentimental essay, I recommend it. There might be a tear or two.
    Thank you.
    Be well.

  11. Such a lovely essay. There are no small gestures of kindness. Bless you.

  12. Cay says...

    Catherine, thank you for putting down in words what I was feeling and hadn’t quite become conscious of. Again. xo

  13. Hannah says...

    Such beautiful words and very well said. So many of us can relate <3

  14. Heather says...

    I love you so much, Catherine Newman!! You are the best at writing out my feelings. xo

  15. Bethy says...

    Oh my goodness. This is the most lovely thing I’ve ever read. Just splendid. Took my breath away.

  16. Sheila says...

    I needed this today. Thank you

  17. Maureen D says...

    I am having a pretty crappy day/ week . I have a horrific case of shingles and it is painful and I’m crabby and sleep deprived . This essay put a smile on my face and lifted my spirits when I needed it most. Thanks for always posting relevant beautifully written material. You just can’t imagine what it means some days .

  18. Helena says...

    I really, really adored this piece.

  19. Beatriz says...

    This is absolutely marvelous, both the essay and what’s behind it! Thank you <3

  20. alexia says...

    love love love.

  21. Niamh says...

    What a beautiful essay – thank you so much.

  22. Joanne says...

    This brought tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat, what a beautiful sentiment. Be well x

  23. Catherine, your writing makes me smile every. single. time. So now you can add “crafting sentences” to your list of nano-heroisms. (Or not so nano, depending on whether the writing is actually as easy as it reads.) Thank you!

  24. Debbie says...

    Such a lovely essay. There are no small gestures of kindness. Bless you.

  25. Kelly says...

    Such a beautifully written article. I’m in awe.

  26. S says...

    I need to re-read this to remind myself to show up, even if the gesture is small. Thank you.

  27. marcy says...

    So beautifully said…I have a big lump in my throat now. Thank you for sharing. I’ve been a big fan of your writing for years. Be well

  28. Posting those envelopes is definitely prayer!
    We had a similar doorbell experience – cookies were delivered from a dear friend who lives an hour away.
    My favorite line: “Everything feels like Little House on the Prairie crossed with Mad Max.” Truth.

  29. Michelle says...

    Really loved this. Such beautiful writing and so thoughtful. Catherine, your new book looks wonderful – I’m curious what the recommended age range is? Thank you :)

  30. Ashley says...

    This was beautiful, and so calming to read. Thank you for sharing!

  31. Cara says...

    I love this. Thank you Catherine.

    Dumbledore was right, love really is the most powerful thing in the world.

  32. Gunn S says...

    Here I live in Northern Norway, just by the russian border, I feel nearly isolated from the rest of the world. It breaks my heart to read the news from the US and other countries in the world who are so more affected by the virus than us, but reading this about the small kindnesses between the fellowmen fills it with joy and hope. And fills my eyes with tears, but this of the good kind. Thank you.

  33. I awake and read your beautiful, poignant, moving post. A mother’s love, with all your chickadees home. You’re the neighbor I always dreamed of having next door. I chuckle when you sew yourself into your project! Your crinkly masks. You share YEAST! ( does this one act sanctify your sainthood?) I remember when I lost my own Son. I felt so lost and in shock. I started to bake and cook and deliver food to strangers, those in need. I would donate blankets, socks, etc. In my grief, I felt needed while I was giving. I was not aware at the time, this would be the start of healing . God was taking care of me, showing me the light and the way. So are you! Thank you for all you do.

    • Melissa says...

      I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you so much for sharing this! Beautiful. :)

    • Nicole H says...

      I feel for your loss and your Inspiring example. I’m so sorry you had to experience this. Sending you love.

  34. gemma says...

    What a beautiful read. Thank you so much!

  35. Love this heartwarming article!

  36. Love this heartwarming article!

  37. Daisy says...

    This was so beautifully written. My almost 10 year old had a huge meltdown today and wrote a letter saying that he hates me and that I have betrayed him and I never listen to him. I tried my best to be calm and just let him get it out of his system and took him out for a drive. It was his first drive out in more than a month. He calmed down quite a bit and later shared the roasted potatoes that I made for him with me and said this is “Kindness Boomerang, Mom”. I savored the moment and yes it is the little kindness that gets us through.

  38. Amy says...

    I absolutely adored this essay. It’s so easy to feel powerless during this time, and while most of us will continue to struggle with this, there are moments where we do look out for each other, and those moments are significant. Thank you for sharing!

  39. I grew up pinching pennies, which has been excellent training for these pandemic days when I must pinch minutes as if they were money. I am proud that I return to my painting practice every day, even though time is scarce with my little one being home from school. I have had to steal hours from the night and beg from the early morning and barter with movies, but every day I piece together enough time to paint and keep my creativity nourished.

  40. Marya says...

    This was gorgeously written. So beautiful I had to read it twice. And the part about the rabbits <3 <3. And that poem you linked to (I swoon.). Just lovely. I will read it again.

  41. Em says...

    Catherine Newman’s beautiful essays have buoyed me through so many dark times in my life – the quiet loneliness of grappling with a newborn, the tumultuous and exhausting reality of parenting toddlers. And now this. She has put into words what I am feeling throughout this pandemic and for the first time in weeks (months!) I feel a bit of peace, like things will be okay. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Caitlin says...

      Yes!

  42. You just filled my heart with love and eyes with tears. Thank you for that. The gestures are small but they show something much bigger. Faith in times of hopeless. Light in times of darkness. So thank you, so much.

  43. lk says...

    Wow! and thank you!- I love the image of the second line worker- cause even though I am a nurse, I am a second line worker…. I am not in the ICU mix of NYC and have so many feelings about it and your essay has given me some language to hold those feelings- and to give myself some credit- I made the masks, I organized the neighborhood so everyone had a way to connect, I put the bears in the windows for the children to find, I emptied the dishwasher again and again, I keep washing the hand towels in the bathroom so our clean hands are dried on clean towels, I got up at 6 to go to the grocery store so there would be supplies, I spoke with other healthcare providers to learn more and shared my knowledge with others- but the thing is – being part of community, taking care of others, finding a moment to paint my own toenails- it is just what we do….. and keeping on doing what we have always done, despite the situation- that is the work of being human- and what a gift of this time is that we are sharing and honoring our humanity with stories and awareness- so many gifts of basic connection

  44. Diane Overmann says...

    Glad to have a glimpse of some of my favorite people as they come together with others as we get through this. A joy for a senior citizen sheltered at home for the 7th week

  45. Cynthia says...

    Such a touching post.

  46. Joanna F says...

    This really resonated with me. Love is also falling out of my eyeballs on the daily. Thank you.

  47. Rachel Hauge says...

    This was beautiful. Thank you.

  48. Erin Suzanne Patterson says...

    This truly took my breath away.

  49. Stacie Miller says...

    This is the most poignant article I have read on the feelings during a pandemic.
    Be well be well be well.

  50. Flora says...

    Beautiful; my heart is full.

  51. Karine says...

    Thank you. These paragraphs are medicine.