I’ve been mulling over one sentence that I carried away from the Evening with Garrison Keillor the other night. I remember much more of the evening, but his closing word on one story has stayed with me in a more disquieting way as I have wondered how to write about it. He told us about a woman he met when he left Minnesota as a young man and moved to New York City to become a writer. They fell in love and he imagined a wonderful and successful life far away from his roots. Then came the day when she challenged him to go back: “Write about what scares you most: that you will turn out just like them.” He returned to Minnesota and found his way to writing and talking about Lake Wobegon. As he finished the story he said, “I thank her for that important slight change in my life.”
Somewhere in my youth I first read the poem that begins:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
The losses mount up from there:
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
An important slight change. The place where that phrase has taken me the most is back to other words central in my Lenten journey, as I pray for forgiveness for the things I have done and the things I have left undone — the slight motions of my hands and heart as I both heal and hurt. The changes that matter often begin in incremental incidents.
I think on these things, and the movie Sliding Doors comes to mind. The film shows the two different lives a woman would have had all based on whether or not she beats the closing of the sliding doors on the subway. An important slight change.
The difference between important and slight is often difficult to discern. What seems enormous in one moment shrinks in perspective; what seems dispensable now grows into necessity in retrospect. The bottom line is life has no discards. Each word, each motion matters. The things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone are each an important slight change. Life is important and slight in the same moment.
Perhaps the most tangible metaphor for me right now in understanding this idea is my weight. The lesson learned is I have to be mindful of every bite in order to lessen my presence on the planet (which is the goal). I don’t mean I have to totally deprive myself of everything that tastes good to me, yet I do have to remember what I have eaten both in quantity and quality and find a way to balance it out into a series of important small changes. If I can lose a pound a week, the small changes add up to an significant impact on both my blood pressure and my pant size. If I don’t attend to the things I eat and I don’t eat, I will shorten my life even as I widen my shadow.
I know that’s somewhat elementary, yet the physicality of my daily food choices remind me of the spirituality of my choices in general. When Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken,” he did so with a strong sense of irony. He went for a walk in the woods and picked one path over another on a journey back to the barn. “And that,” he wrote, “has made all the difference.” I imagine him smiling as he penned those words. Sometimes a walk in the woods is a walk in the woods. And that walk brought him to the place where he wrote a poem that has touched many readers since, whether or not they understood the irony. When people ask how Ginger and I met, the short answer is we were at the same Midwinter Retreat for the Southwest Baptist Camping Group in January of 1989 at Camp Olympia. The longer version involves both of us looking back at choices we had made independently of each other such that we both ended up in Texas, with ties to Royal Lane Baptist Church, and on that retreat – all slight changes that grew in importance. In the days since, we’ve both been intentional about the slight ways we remind each other of our love, all of which are important.
Lent, like most of the Christian life, is not a grand gesture but a collection of slight and intentional movements. Even the grandest cathedrals were put together brick by brick, which means every brick counts, every word matters, for each holds the possibility of an important slight change.