Audrey Villeneuve was everywhere. In the aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg for the Christmas cookies she must have baked, and the photos on the fridge, showing a grinning family camping, at a birthday party, at Disney World.Crayon drawings were framed. Drawings only a parent knew were works of art.This had been a happy home until a few days ago, when Audrey Villeneuve had left for work, and hadn't returned.
I've said before that the written word "haunts" me. I quickly perused the list of meals this morning and tried to find something that would fit what I had in my pantry (which is still a work in progress since when you're starting from scratch it's easy to forget to buy the basics that you kind of take for granted). I saw Cinnamon and Nutmeg Cookies and I thought, Perfect!
It was perfect because, like Audrey, I'm caught in this whirlwind of trying to keep up with day-to-day tasks (such as cooking for a family, laundry, child pickup and drop off, homework, etc), while still in the midst of huge tasks (things you usually do a little at a time like tackling all the windows, dusting ages old dust off of furniture, cleaning gunk from behind a stove that has probably never been cleaned in years and years, all the paperwork involved in moving to another country and applying to a graduate degree... you get the picture).
At the end of the day, the whole process of moving has been a process of finding a "new normal", as my new friend has been telling me repeatedly.
One thing that isn't new is the fact that we all have "roles" we play in any group or family dynamics. I'm a caretaker. I think I always have been.
As I was baking cookies (and, since I was in the kitchen and there never seems to be enough food for my husband and growing child, I ended up making other things, too), I was thinking.
I was thinking about how taking care of other people is a choice we make. A noble choice. Much of it is invisible. Most of it is taken for granted after awhile. That doesn't make it less important. Or less appreciated.
As I was doing all these things - the "invisible" things - I was reminding myself of how important those "invisible" tasks are. I was silently saying thanks for all the invisible things that are done for me by others in my life. I was praying I would not forget to be thankful.
I have talked of my desire to be kind. Or kinder.
I have another aspiration. It is to make a difference. Nothing grand. When I read George Elliot's Middlemarch, I found the perfect description of what I aspire to:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (MIDDLEMARCH - George Elliot)
I finished baking the cookies (and other things) and enjoyed them with a perfect mug of tea while doing another round of "invisible" tasks. Once I was done, I sought the scene that related to the cookies I was to blog about. What could be more perfect than this one? It was an illustration of what
I'd been thinking about all morning.
Audrey Villeneuve was everywhere.
And yet, it wasn't because of the big things. She was everywhere and she would be remembered most not for the monumental task she had set for herself (and managed to complete from beyond the grave). Her continued presence - and her loss - was felt most by those who were blessed by her little everyday kindnesses and dedication.
I think there is wisdom in the concept of being faithful in the little things. It's easy to cut corners. I do it every day. When I challenge myself to give my best in the little things, it builds character. I think. At least I hope so. It makes me aware of how it is possible to be better. To exceed my own expectations. And, slowly, what seemed challenging becomes the norm. As you gain experience in anything - even character - you also gain competence. And, with competence, comes confidence.
Competence is the ability to know how to handle situations effectively. It is not a vague feeling or hunch that "I can do this". Competence is acquired through actual experience. Children can't become competent without first developing a set of skills that allows them to trust their judgments, make responsible choices, and face difficult situations. (BUILDING RESILIENCE IN CHILDREN AND TEENS - Kenneth G Ginsbert)
It works for kids. It's the same for kids of any age. You start with little things and you gain experience and competence.
Being faithful in the little things is about becoming competent in effort. It means defining "your best" as the norm. It doesn't mean you're awesome at everything - or even anything. It does mean you'll improve at everything you do. Even if only you can tell the difference.
Yesterday my eight-year-old went to his first Martial Arts class. He loved it. He thinks he's on his way to become a superhero. I loved it, too. The teacher was incredible. He'd teach them a skill. They'd all do it together, then he'd walk from child to child and watch each one repeat the task and give them individual pointers. At one point he called them in and told them to take a knee. He then proceeded to say something like this:
You guys are doing a good job. I'm glad you keep training even when I'm not looking. That's what good training is all about. Keep going. And keep doing your best. Even when no one is looking. It doesn't matter if no one sees. What matters is that you know you're doing your best.Gotta love a teacher like that, right?
And he's right. Not just for martial arts.
Neil Gaiman was once asked, by a self-entitled "horrible person" how to become a better person. His answer HERE is priceless. Fake it. Or, in other words, do what a better person would do. Maybe, when we "force" ourselves to to what we wish we naturally did, slowly we'll grow into that better person we'd like to be. Hopefully.
We will fail, I'm sure. Or at least I will fail.
That's what grace is for. That's why forgiveness and kindness to ourselves and our own shortcomings is such a balm.
Being faithful in the little things is good practice. It builds up competence and stamina for big things that may come. Audrey never would have realized something was wrong if she weren't competent at her job - in the little, "invisible", frequently repetitive work she did every day.
Audrey Villeneuve had almost certainly realized something was wrong, as she'd entered the reports. After years and years of working on repair files, she knew the difference between work genuinely done, or badly done. Or not done at all.Finding the error was only the first step. She went the extra mile. The woman who cared enough to bake her family cookies was the same woman who cared enough to do something about what she'd found.
It was possible she'd even turned a blind eye, like so many of her colleagues. Until finally she couldn't anymore. Then what would Audrey Villeneuve have done? She was organized, disciplined. she'd have gathered proof before saying anything. And, in doing that, she'd have found things she shouldn't have. Worse things than willful neglect, than corruption, than desperately needed repairs not done. She'd have found suggestions of a plan to hurry the collapse.
Audrey Villeneuve was faithful. She was true to herself against incredible odds. The same woman who sewed her own party dress (what an unbelievable accomplishment) was the woman who painstakingly, slowly, meticulously sewed together an airtight case.
"I can tell you that your wife died trying to stop something horrible from happening. I want you and your girls to know that."
Little things can become big things. Little habits can add up. Being faithful can become a habit. Being a loyal friend, a good caretaker, a homemaker, a parent, a employee, a creator, an artists... There are a series of little things that add up. Gamache is a good example of someone who is faithful in the small things, yes, but also on a larger scale. This scene ends with an act of loyalty against the odds. Beauvoir hasn't exactly been a good friend to him lately, but...
He paused before he spoke again. "Can you find Jean-Guy, Isabelle? Make sure he's all right today?"
Sugar cookies are among the easiest things in the world to make. They're hard to get wrong. It's also hard to just eat one of them. They aren't incredibly exotic. They aren't even all that memorable sometimes. And, like so many other little things, they can be taken for granted.
But life is made up of the little things. Right? Oh! Flashback moment! I just heard John Denver in my mind (my dad loved listening to him on road trips when I was a kid), "It's the little things that make a house a home..."
As I seek my new normal, I seek to also remain true to who I am while enjoying the adventure inherent in discovering these little things that will turn this new house into our home. The smell of spicy cookies did wonders in that regard.
I used a basic Sugar Cookie recipe. Since I tend to always change things a little bit, I made half a batch with sugar and cinnamon coating and the other half I coated with cocoa powder and sugar instead. And I added a pinch of pumpkin spice. I think. I'm not sure. I seem to add pumpkin spice mix to so many things that sometimes I confuse myself. They were perfect with tea. Perfect. The house also smells amazing now.
Also, it received universal accolades. That is a rare, rare, rare thing in my family. Although we are a small three person family, we have such different palates that it's hard to really please all three of us at the same time. These cookies, like so many universal little things, guaranteed a unanimous vote.
RECIPE FROM ALL RECIPES
Blend together 1 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 cup of white sugar (although I ended up using all brown sugar because I like it less sweet and chewier) and 1 cup of softened butter. Add two eggs and 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and mix until fluffy. Add to that 2 1/2 cups of flour, 3/4 teaspoons of baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Mix. Roll into approximately 1 inch balls, then roll the balls in the cinnamon (3 tablespoons of sugar + 1 tablespoon of cinnamon) or cocoa (1 tablespoon of cocoa + 2 tablespoons of sugar) mixture. Place balls on baking sheet and press down. Bake at 300 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Try not to eat them all while they're still hot.