The Little Things

I say this all the time as I work with my rehab patients coming back from a stroke or a traumatic brain injury or a spinal cord injury, “The little things are the big things.” I say this to the woman that wiggled her fingers again, the man that said “hello” for the first time in a month, and of course to the constipated patient that finally pooped. “This is big. Way to go!” And when the patient starts to minimize their accomplishment, I drop my line, “The little things are the big things. You’re doing great!”

I think that sometimes, especially with the powers and curses of social media, we are under the impression that big things just happen. We see a simplified image, the face of a greater story. You may see a picture of a smiling mom and her sweet baby. It may invoke a feeling of ease and joy but it’s missing a pile of details. 
I want to remember that pile of details. I want to remember the mess underneath.
This is why I write- to remember it all and make sense of what I can. I want to remember feeling the start of contractions on Father’s Day morning, the sun shining through the windows matching my excitement. I want to remember my sister joining us with coffee in hand and Winnie’s relentless and loud cry when she joined the world.
I remember that grunting noise she made when she breathed five days later and how it brought us to the ER in the middle of the night. I remember Taylor, the nurse that reassured me and made me feel safe when I was scared to death. I went through orientation with Taylor three years earlier when we both started at that hospital. She was my orientation bestie, and I knew she’d be amazing; her tenacity inspired me then.
In this messy pile there were sleepless nights, postpartum anxiety, postpartum hemorrhage, and one scary panic attack. There was beauty even there- Michael hugging me as we sat outside at 2am until the panic passed, reassuring me repeatedly as the cycle of fear consumed me.
Some day, I might look at that picture of a smiling me and my happy baby and think it was all easy and beautiful. My memory might drop the mess- the bleeding, the panic, and all the pokes, lines, and oxygen the hospital brought to my newborn baby.
As blissful as selective amnesia sounds, I want to hold it all. I want to see that picture and be proud of us for smiling among the mess.
For the record, our little pile is a lot smaller than many piles. I know this well. I work on a unit that cares for people with a lot of undeserved baggage. In a surprising turn of events, this job has made me more of an optimist and not because everything has a happy ending, but because people live, really live, amidst their piles. More often than not, people find joy in the middle of their mess. They smile in it, grow in it, or celebrate their power within it. It’s quite beautiful.
I’ve begun to really appreciate the strong souls who haul their baggage around shamelessly- the storytellers, the helpers, and the friends. These are the people who live with resilience, joy and wisdom. They do not crumble under the weight of their mess. Instead, they get stronger. The pile gets easier to carry. They maintain their stories so they can learn, understand, and empathesize. They are better because of their big beautiful mess. They are our greatest teachers.
The little things are the big things. This is a sentence that carries Michael and me in many parts of our little life together. The little things are the big things in parenting, health, stewardship, friendship, happiness, and marriage.
In celebration of “the little things”, I thought it would be fun to pick three pictures that I have on Instagram and share the beautiful messy pile behind the snapshot. I encourage you to try it too.
Picture #1
I almost chose a picture of our completed boathouse shining in the light of a perfect sunset, but this picture tells more of the story. You can almost see the humidity in the air. It was thick and the cloudless sun beat on our backs all day until now. Now, the sun is setting behind the island and we are breathing easier as the shade covers us. The cooler is empty. My dad is a man of few words which means we don’t sit around and talk very much, but we do here. Dad is happiest when he’s working and even happier when he’s helping someone else with their work.
He’s outside too and on the river, a place we both feel most ourselves. Conversation flows easy like this, in jokes and witty comebacks. To be honest, this picture represents my relationship with my father more than any other picture I can think of. As always, it is Dad doing everything he can for my future. He makes it look easy even when it’s not.
It is us outside in our element. It is me asking questions and him giving me responses like “I ‘spose” and “sure”. It is us side by side, always understanding each other. It is loving the little things, something I learned from him.
Picture #2
Most of these flowers come from my Grandma and Papa Larson’s farm, the place that Michael and I got married. It is where my parents got married and my sister and brother-in-law too. The flowers in the top left are the ones that my sister-in-law lovingly weaved into my hair on the morning of our wedding.
The red flower in the middle looks like a cardinal flower which brings me straight to the island, puffs of red sprinkled between the cottonwoods giving life to the boathousers and hummingbirds alike.

Purple sage on the top right always reminding me of the sacred. Sage is a plant used by my Native American patients to promote healing. The burning of sage in a hospital room, a very important convergence of modern medicine and spiritual tradition.
Picture #3
There is so much feeling to this picture. My nephew and I are driving Neighbor Girl, Michael and my first home together (floating and otherwise). Driving Neighbor Girl reminds me of many firsts. I remember our first time out on this boat. Neither Michael nor I had ever driven a boat with twin engines before. Long story short- we scraped a neighboring boat almost immediately. We lived on this boat for four years after. We never bonked another boat again.
We had neighbors that were just like us- green. We had others that were salty old freshwater sailors.
I think back to us and the other fresh young liveaboards and there is a lot that makes me laugh. I think of Josie climbing up her mast and perching atop as Adam drives under a bridge; this big experiment was to see if the sailboat’s tall mast could make it under the bridge.
Spoiler alert- we did make it and Josie did survive. The survival piece would have been in jeopardy with a couple more inches. I think about running that same sailboat aground as we practiced sailing on a river with unannounced wingdams galore.
Another new liveaboard couple tied their boat off to a rope as they went through their first lock and dam. As the water dropped and pulled their boat sideways, they found a kitchen knife to free themselves from impending doom.
Neighbor Sam did a lot of weird moves. Some of his activities included swimming across the main channel for recreation midday on a Saturday. I remember waving at a boat cruising by as warning that, “Hey, my friend Sam is out there. I know he’s about as visible as a small fish but please don’t hit him.”
Of course, because we were all a bit underfinanced/ resourceful/ independent (amongst other adjectives like dumb and silly and also happy), we did our own boat repairs, especially Sam.
Sam’s passion projects and disimpassioned projects ranged from welding the whole keel to attempting to rebuild the 1946 engine to replacing the whole top deck. It was a boat that kept him tinkering. I guess that’s what you get when you buy a boat with a Bowie knife, grape flavored lubricant, and a love note all cached in the same spot of the ceiling. Oh yeah, he tore the ceiling apart too.
The flood season was always a memorable time with the floodiest year meaning we had to kayak to the nearest working toilet. Date night was driving downstream passed Saint Paul’s city lights and throwing an anchor while hoping no barge would wake us so hard that our bowl of fruit would hit the floor.
God, I love that sturdy little houseboat that rocked us to bed for four years and sometimes housed gatherings far too big for it’s little britches.
All of these memories flood me from just a little picture.
This picture was also taken during a really hard time. My nephew Olle was hospitalized at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. He had emergency surgery for an unexpected diaphragmatic hernia.
Hank spent nights on our boat while my sister and brother-in-law stayed at the hospital.
On this day, it was a special day during a hard time- it was my brother-in-law Sean’s birthday. We wanted to still make it special so my parents, Hank, and I boated through the one lock that separated us from Minneapolis. Sean and Jess met us there, and we surprised Sean with cake, balloons, and a little river time.
This picture reminds me of special time with family while fear and uncertainty lingered around us. It also reminds me of joy amidst heartache, living life fully in it’s valleys as well as at it’s peaks, and just being there for each other.
So, when my patient says the word “shit” clear as day for the first time since his stroke, I smile. It’s the little things.