Lately I’ve been collecting the small good things that happen over the course of my day. A joke with a stranger; an email from a friend; a happy caterpillar on the cover of my notebook.
I’m not superstitious (though I am a little stitious…) but there’s something about a well-timed talk or gift or moment that makes me want to describe it in terms of “meant to be.” I walk along the lakeshore on my lunch break, sunlight glaring off the lake into my eyes, and when I turn around, yellow leaves drifting earthward are catching in scattered sunbeams. It seems so perfect, a postcard moment, and it seems to me like it means something — like if my life was a movie, the music would swell here to indicate significance.
My life isn’t a movie. (If I’m trapped in some version of The Truman Show, I’m petitioning for a better soundtrack… Priorities.) And even though I know it’s just a leaf, just a gift, just a conversation, I always seem to decide that every good thing I have collected is a clue to the larger arc of the story, that each moment means something.
But I am learning — perhaps taking longer than most to learn — that the moments don’t mean anything on their own. We can collect as many moments as we like, but it’s up to us to order them in our own narratives. My leafy lunch break can be a peek into the timeless, or an existential crisis, or a trigger for scientific brilliance (à la Newton, didn’t he have his gravity epiphany under an apple tree?) or a deep breath to steel me for a long night. Maybe it’s just an excuse to get out the rakes. It means what I make of it.
Recently I told the same anecdote three times in a row (to a forgiving audience), rehashing an awkward moment of my week. The first time it was sassy, a nobody-tell-me-what-to-do story; the second time it was sad; the third it was funny. The facts of the story never changed; I was the only variable. We shift our own narratives.
It’s a bit scary to think about. I like thinking that I’m discovering the story, not writing it. And maybe at the end of our lives we’ll look back and see that what looked like scattered moments was really a path the whole time — but if so, it’s something you can only really see in retrospect. We can guess at where we should be and how we’re supposed to join up the moments, but ultimately it’s up to us.
And that’s why I’m collecting moments these days, catches of good things that happen, because I figure the days won’t always be good. I’ll need good things to work into my narrative in a way that I can make sense out of it. (Making meaning seems to be a messy process.)
Yesterday one of my neighbors left a string of colored Christmas lights rolled up on the newspaper outside my door. (It’s amazing how Christmas lights can make any story better — and a gift from a neighbor, at that.) A good hair-and-makeup day helps; and then there’s the joke I overhear while I’m getting coffee that makes me nearly burst with the effort of trying not to laugh because then they’ll know I heard and I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, I swear. I learn my first Burmese word — va-th-na, meaning “hobby” — and I know I’m pronouncing it with a thick Minnesotan accent, but my teacher smiles so encouragingly that I keep practicing. I find a package of chocolate chip cookies from my mom in my mailbox — even after shipping they still melt in my mouth. A few friends and I get one step closer to perfecting the Anna Kendrick Cups song rhythm. Another yellow leaf hits the sidewalk in front of my feet, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve been collecting them since autumn started, I tuck it between the pages of my notebook.
The pieces, strung together, start to mean something to me.