A Small, Good Thing
April 1, 2022
Raymond Carver’s seminal short story, “A Small, Good Thing,” pulls its readers to the darkest place of human experience, the kind of loss unfortunately so ubiquitous these days in which we live. Each day’s news round-up, overflowing inbox, and online posts are enough to overwhelm any one of us any day of the week, just as the tragedy that faces Carver’s characters has shut down the world for them. By the standards of even ten years ago, we’d be right to feel shut down by any one of the many events of these days—take your pick: covid, the Ukraine, assaults on Asian Americans in NYC, the Conger Ice Shelf, etc., etc., etc. The baker in “A Small, Good Thing” (an anti-hero if ever there were one—no, perhaps not even that—an only barely, last-minute-reformed villain) steps back from the great background static of the world and all its epic pulls and yanks, those demands on his attention, and comes to terms with the immediate need another’s tragedy presents him: to reduce everything to its barest necessity.
The world asks him to return to what at his very core he is—not a business owner, not a manager of people’s dreams, not a fulfiller of wishes, not a demander-of-payment nor a customer-is-always-right proprietor. But a baker, one who knows how to do the simplest thing for another human: to sit them down at a table and feed them.
I am suffering—this is the mother in the story—and you have brought me food to sustain me, to keep my body with enough in it at this very moment to keep me breathing, my heart beating, my step, each one slow, in front of the other, barely, one at a time, barely, forward. Despite what the world has thrown at me. It’s all you can do, this essential thing you know how to do, and you have done it. And then we rest in this simple moment, when you did this small, good thing for me, all else pushed away for a moment, not fixed, not undone, nor forgotten, your small graciousness the whole world briefly instead, “like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light.”
Dr. Susan Herlan, scholar in particular of Lusophone Africa, Zo Simli Na of Tamale, Ghana, and a dear friend and mentor, once spoke of a colleague by whom she was utterly impressed (and this was saying something, as Susan was one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met). She said that while no one had the opportunity to organize the entire world, this professor friend was more successful at organizing her own corner of it than anyone Susan knew. It’s the old “do what you can, when you can, where you are” approach. Probably our little school community’s internal debates and efforts about covid, the Ukraine, Asian-targeted hatred, climate change, etc., etc., etc. aren’t going to fix or resolve any of those problems. But not doing what we can, not trying to organize our own small corner of the world as best we can, well…if we aren’t doing our part, how can we, and why would we, expect someone else to?
I think sometimes things seem so big, the challenge so immense, that we subconsciously throw up our hands and don’t even try. Not Yu and Me Books, recently opened in Manhattan’s Chinatown. I read an article tonight in The Guardian about this enterprise, which will be my first stop the next time I’m in the City. It explains that Yu and Me’s owner is Lucy Yu, 27, who in response to the recent prolific hate crimes against Asians was moved to set aside her budding engineering career in order to “do things for communities that look like me – immigrant communities. Something that makes them feel a little less alone, a little less scared in the world.” And so she opened a bookstore “dedicated to carrying books by writers of color and immigrants, particularly Asian Americans.” Yu didn’t throw up her hands but instead stared tragedy in the face, looked within for what she at her most essential self could do, and opened a bookstore. A house of books, of thought, a university open to all, a reservoir of mind-changers. As simple—and potent—an act as feeding another person.
Last week Mark Keegan again organized a group of students who spent the night outside in solidarity with homeless youth in Chittenden County to raise funds for Spectrum Youth and Family Services, whose mission and work is to help those young folks in our metropolitan community get on their feet and stay there. Not throwing his hands up, not giving in or giving up. Instead organizing his small corner of the world, doing what he can, when he can, where he is, doing his part to push back against the chaos, to meet the ever-present need.
The baker, the bookseller, the teacher. Reminding us to turn the static down, sit in quiet, recall our own individual capacity for reducing the suffering of others and our world, and then get on with it.