In my job as an editor, some days are big picture days and some days are detail days. Today was the latter. I spent most of it making sure certain words were where they were supposed to be, page after page. It’s not the most glamorous work, but one of the reasons I know I’m in the right job is it was boring either, because the details matter. If we get them right (I’m not the only one immersed in this project), then whoever uses the book will have what they need to their job well. So, I suppose another way to look at it is I spent the day doing stuff that matters, even if it was the small stuff.
Once we both got home from work, Ginger and I caught up on This Is Us while we ate dinner (that show does amazing things with details), and then we took the pups for a walk around the town Green, a detail that matters a great deal to them. When I sat down to write, I began by reading The Writer’s Almanac and I found in the details there that today is Willa Cather’s birthday. I love a number of her books, but my favorite by far is Death Comes for the Archbishop, which is the story of two priests who start churches in the American Southwest. More than anything, it is the story of a lifelong friendship, which means it is a story of significant details.
At one point in the story, the Bishop speaks.
“Where there is great love there are always miracles,” he said at length. “One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.” (50)
“What is there about us always”—the details.
Right now, more days than not, I spend about five hours a day on trains between Guilford and New York. I am fascinated by the conductors because I think their job is somewhat unique. They are in only a few rooms all day, but the rooms keep moving, and the people in the room with them keep changing, and their job is to keep up with who comes and goes and make sure people pay for the trip and get where they are going. Some of them move up and down the train without saying much except, “Tickets, please.” They don’t appear to be looking for anything more than the proper pieces of paper and plastic. Then there are those who focus on faces, who engage in conversation, work the car as though they were responsible for us.
I was on the early train this morning, which means we left New Haven at 6:02. Four guys sat down around me. One had on a Dallas Cowboys hat. When the conductor saw him, she lit up and said, “Now that’s what I’m talking about,” and proceeded to bring the whole section of our car to life. I more often take the later train, which means I leave New Haven at 6:32, and Joe is the conductor.
One morning, after he checked my pass, he took the ticket from the woman sitting next to me and said, “Well—how did it go?”
She smiled. “Okay,” she answered. “He was a little nervous, but he didn’t cry when I left.” Then she looked at me and said, “My little boy started preschool yesterday.”
And Joe remembered the detail. I watch him play similar scenes up and down the car on a daily basis, making sure to see what is there about him always.
We have been conditioned to think getting wrapped up in details means not being able to see the forest for the trees and getting overwhelmed by little things that don’t matter. Tonight, thanks to Willa Cather, the good bishop reminds me that when I see the world through my affection for the world, the small stuff shines with significance. There’s not a bigger picture than that.