Still and Small

By J Washburn

washburn-strandsI STEPPED OUT the front door sporting a long black coat and one white earbud, my breath turning to fog in the morning air. Twenty minutes of audiobook transfusion awaited me. But as I lingered on the first stair, finger hovering over the play button, a thought came to me:

I should see if Bentley’s ready.

A few weeks before, Bentley and I had been standing behind the JFSB talking about G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis (and wishing we were those two old boys, I think, too), when he said to me, “You know, we should walk to class together in the mornings.”

I nodded and agreed. Of course it was a great idea. Except for one little (big) thing: I am addicted to audiobooks, and my morning walk to class is the main time I have to listen. So I’m always a little frustrated when Miriam or Carmen or Eric pop up right next to me on the sidewalk and there’s no way to pretend I haven’t seen them. In those moments, I can’t help but think, “Well, there’s twenty minutes wasted.” The truth is, it isn’t wasted at all. I know that life is really all about people—I know that the most valuable thing on the entire earth is one living soul. And yet, sometimes the proper order of things gets pushed out of my heart, which concerns itself instead with other things—mostly itself. And even though I know one of the most important things on earth is walking by, I wish I had a way to avoid its company. (I should admit here, though, that if I’m forced to waste twenty minutes on any one of these most-valuable-things-in-the-world, Bentley’s the one to waste it on.)

But there was a second reason for my hesitation today: Bentley was often late to class, bless his heart. (I can say stuff like this about him in an essay and publish it to the world as long as I say, “Bless his heart,” right?). Throwing in with him meant the risk of being late. And I didn’t like to be late.

So, on that cold morning, I stood on the first step of the stairs, just outside my own door, and considered: I should see if Bentley’s ready. This wasn’t the first morning the thought had occurred to me either, but it was the first morning it travelled from my mind to my heart.

I turned around and knocked on the door of apartment 307.

“Come in!”

Daniel sat on the couch eating cereal and watching politics on TV. I stepped in and shut the door. “Is Bentley here?”

He frowned. “No, I don’t think so.”

I nodded my head and turned, about to leave.

“Actually, hang on.”

We walked down the hall, opened a door, and there was Bentley, 11 a.m., nestled in his blankets, squinting, groggy, and smiling—disheveled through and through.

We are going to be late for sure.

But something in my heart told me to be calm. So I took a deep breath.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“Almost time for class. Sorry to wake you.”

“No, I’m really glad you came. You wanna hang on a sec? I’ll just throw on some pants and we’ll go.”

Five minutes later, we stepped out the door looking like a pair of vagabonds (one spiritual, one temporal). And, thanks to the eternal lack of close parking, we were soon darting through traffic on foot, still ten minutes away. Right then a tiny gray sedan pulled up next to us on the sidewalk. It was Jason. “You guys need a ride somewhere?” he asked (though, let it be known, Jason was mostly asking his true friend, Bentley, rather than the anti-social audiobook addict). He drove us onto campus and dropped us practically at our building’s front door. We ended up being five minutes early.

As we settled around the conference table, Bentley praised me for getting him there on time, and I admit that I let myself feel like a hero for a moment. But something more important was weighing on my mind: the thought that had travelled from my head to my heart that morning, the thought that had coaxed me to knock on Bentley’s door. It was a small intuition. A quiet one. And yet I had listened.

I wanted to call it coincidence that I had knocked on that particular day and that Bentley’s good humor and social graces had ferried us to class with five minutes to spare. But the better word is probably orchestration. Our journey seemed more like a tiny miracle—like the stars had aligned for our mutual good fortune.

The result of that miracle was mostly insignificant: Bentley attended class. That’s it. Oh, and I got a chance to embody the rare quality of friendship (rare for me, I mean). It was a small thing. A small thought. A small reaction. But this small thing lasted—it left an impression on me. (Enough than I thought it worth an essay.)

I recently had another of these changing moments. As a master’s student in an English program, I was supposed to invite three members of the faculty to be my guides (and critics) for my thesis. One of these three would be my primary mentor—my thesis chair. For several weeks, I’d been thinking about who I might ask. Grant loved my topic, but he was very theoretical (not my thing). Pat fully supported my cause (in short, “Look Your Reader in the Eye”), but he likely wouldn’t be approved since he was a creative writer. Brian, as far as I knew, would be ideal—if he could somehow find the time. All were good choices in their way, but none of them felt right to me. And the choice weighed on my mind, with no solution.

While stewing over it, I attended a meeting for graduate instructors where we sat around a wooden conference table chatting, taking notes, and discussing quixotic goals like grading fairly and making a lasting impact on our students. Then the guest speakers presented, one of whom was Kristine, a professor I didn’t know. She had poise, a clear voice, and (when she smiled at a joke) a look in her eye that told me she was trustworthy.

At first I just sat and listened to her, but then I became distracted by an unexpected thought:

I should ask her to be my thesis chair.

I didn’t know her. I didn’t know her academic specialty or if she knew anything about my thesis topic. And yet the thought was so certain. If you know me, you know I tend to hesitate over all big decisions (and most small ones, too). Yet without knowing the details or consequences of this thought, I felt that it was right—a confidence beyond my own knowledge.

I wouldn’t say that this had been my own thought, but neither had it been a voice or a set of words from outside me. It was external because it didn’t come from my knowledge or study or understanding, but it still came from deep inside me—from my heart and mind.

Just so you know, Kristine is now my thesis chair. She is excellent, having strengths in the areas of my weaknesses. I could not ask for a better complement.

I don’t understand this force—this spirit—that has affected me in small but powerful ways. But I know it’s real. I may be reading too many Stephen Hawking books, but when I try to conceptualize this force, I can’t help but think of it in terms of particles and flow.

Imagine a hundred thousand tiny strings floating very close to each other in space. Each is moving and spinning, vibrating in its own confused direction. As a whole, the mass is chaos—a nearly impenetrable jumble of strings. These hundred thousand strings are a person’s emotional and spiritual heart and mind. They make for a poor conduit; small bits of truth may bounce down through this tangle—like a ball moving down through the pegs of a Galton box, dancing back and forth till it loses enough momentum to drop between and to the next level— progress is slow and limited. There’s another force, though—a type of magnet, if you will—that can pull on these strings, polarizing them so that they all face the same direction—a single whole—forming an open conduit of parallel strings.

If you buy this metaphor, then spirit is indeed both internal and external. It’s a force outside a person, beyond the individual, but it changes the person on the inside. It aligns him with holiness. And the order it creates—the alignment itself—can be called spirit, too. Once holy—once magnetized by the spirit—the person is capable of thought and action previously impossible. For example, if I react to the spirit that tells me that walking with Bentley is more important than listening to twenty minutes of an audiobook, I’m changed by that choice. My soul becomes a little more aligned than it was the moment before.

If you act on an impression, you set yourself in a position to receive another, greater impression. If you deny an impression, your capability decreases, leaving you only able receive and respond to lesser impressions. So at each decision point, you’re either stepping higher or lower, becoming clearer or foggier. And even though a single intuition may be small and insignificant, it’s still a point on which the fate of your soul turns—one that’s either brightening or darkening your future. The pattern of quantum strings can quickly return to chaos (which is done by simply saying, “No, I’d rather walk alone today”).

Fortunately, there always seems to be another chance to feel the pull of this spirit and follow it. Sometimes it comes through everyday things, like reading a good story—the story of a timid prince who finally gets the courage to speak, or of a rebel who’d rather be gutted than submit to tyranny. These stories have that kind of aligning effect on me. They give me more boldness and courage than I might otherwise muster—an external endowment of internal spirit. When I have this spirit, I remember that eternal things (like friendship) matter. (It baffles me that I so frequently forget about it.) Each time I feel even the smallest hint of this changing power, it reminds me that the thoughts or actions that drive this spirit away are my literal enemies. And I look for ways to keep it with me, in every breathing moment.

When I’m not forgetful, I know that the most powerful spirit comes by way of holy acts: eating a piece of bread and promising to be less selfish, reading the history of a people who buried their weapons in the face of slaughter, being reminded in holy places that kingdoms and dominions await us, and, perhaps most importantly, reaching out in friendship to another human being.


  1. J Washburn says:

    Hey there. I just wanted to say thanks for reading. Seriously. It’s an honor to be able to share.

    Also, I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Just leave a comment. Come on, I know you have story…

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