Editor’s Note: We continue our occasional series on “How do we come to be the ones we are?” with this reflection from April Fiet.
I learned to pay attention to little things in my grandma’s kitchen. As a young child, I sat on my knees on a kitchen chair next to the pull-out cutting board. I dusted a rolling pin with flour and slowly pressed dough into a thin sheet. While my grandma set to work cutting strips of dough for our egg noodles, she whistled like a songbird with a hint of vibrato, reminiscent of Bing Crosby whistling “White Christmas.” Delicate, blown glass hummingbirds gently swayed on their invisible strings near the back door, where they caught the light streaming through the glass. Each sound, sight, and touch was reminiscent of the divine coming close.
Decades later, I find that little things still have the power to draw me closer to what’s holy. The emerging of a monarch butterfly from its chrysalis. The smell of fresh baked bread. A word from a friend on a difficult day. Yet, as I’ve grown and changed over the course of my life, I have struggled to remember to pause and listen for the sacred, everyday moments that make life meaningful. I’ve distracted myself with busyness and with worry over what others might think of me. I’ve despaired when I didn’t measure up to the arbitrary measures of success I created for myself. And still, even as I’ve moved in and out of the rhythm of slowness and attentiveness over the course of the years, I have found that God has never given up on me.
My family moved frequently with my dad’s job as I was growing up. As a quiet, routine-oriented child, I struggled to adjust to each new place and make friends. My mom encouraged me to view each new community as an opportunity to explore life from a fresh perspective. Each new person, each unique school and town, had something positive to offer. When we moved to a new place, the first thing my mom did was bake banana bread because, even if everything in our home was different, we could still have familiar smells and tastes to anchor us and remind us of what was important.
I first realized I wanted to write a book when I was in fourth grade. I had started reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and I discovered that words had the power to create entire worlds for the reader to enter into. That experience made me want to create worlds for other people, and I started writing poetry and short stories. I was afraid to let other people know I was writing, so I hid my work behind pen names and kept my writing in a folder that no one else was allowed to open. Words were small things, but they were also vulnerable. They were little, but they were capable of transforming people and situations.
In middle school, my great grandmother taught me how to make crochet chains. I could feel the pulse and rhythm of wholeness as I sat in her living room with a crochet hook. She rocked in her chair and crocheted. Her cuckoo clock ticked rhythmically. I fumbled clumsily with the hook and the yarn as I made seemingly endless chains, and I realized that making things with my hands was a way I could remain connected to the small rhythms and blessings of life. Each loop, each strand, each color was an intricate part of the tapestry of beauty God was inviting me to participate in making.
As a teenager, I became dissatisfied with little things. I was convinced that I needed to do something profound in order for my life to have meaning. I measured my worth based on my grades, based on the affirmations I received from others, and based on tangible results. I channeled my frustration and anxiety into more writing and into music. The more I pursued “importance,” the less happy I became. I poured this sadness into words and songs, and these little things grounded me.
As a college student, my life was transformed again by something small: a whisper and a journal entry. While I was sitting in my 8am Theology of Culture class at Wheaton College, I felt a nudge encouraging me to write in my reflection journal, “Today I feel called into ministry. I don’t know what that means for me.” This was especially puzzling for me as I had fully immersed myself in a worldview that maintained church leadership was for men only.
About a year later, I met my husband Jeff, who was seminary-bound. He had discerned a calling to ministry, and I decided that my calling into ministry must have been a call to support my future husband who was going to be a pastor. But, the closer we got to the start of his seminary journey, the more that tiny whisper of calling turned into something I couldn’t ignore. Jeff and I took a trip to visit Western Theological Seminary, and while we were there, I said out loud, “I wish I could be a student here, too,” to which the admissions director said, “Why can’t you?”
During my three years in seminary, I continued to wrestle with the little whisper of calling. I made excuses for my calling. I asked to be called to anything other than parish ministry, like a ministry of writing or a ministry in the academic world. Yet, the more I struggled with it, the more I experienced little affirmations, little encouragements, and timely, little pushes toward ministry in the church.
I graduated from seminary 37 weeks pregnant with my first child, and within another month’s time, I had my first child, moved to a new state, and began co-pastoring ministry with my husband. This collision of so many firsts was a difficult season for me. I experienced postpartum depression and a season of overwhelm. Many people expect postpartum depression to be intense sadness, but I experienced it as a hazy time where little things brought me frustration and anger rather than delight. That first year of ministry felt oppressive, not because of what I was doing or where I was living but because all those “firsts” made it difficult for me to find my footing.
After that difficult season, my husband and I spent seven more years in our first church in rural Iowa. We raised our two children through their first milestones, and when we received the call to move to a new church in western Nebraska, we felt the delicate balance of grief in leaving things behind and joy in the new adventure that was ahead. The most challenging part of that transition was attending well to the tension of emotions, in both myself and in my children as they made the first big transition in their young lives.
When I told people we were moving to Nebraska, they imagined us relocating to a place with flat land and a boring, interminable interstate. What many people didn’t realize is that western Nebraska looks a lot more like Wyoming than it does the rest of the state. In my area, we have badlands formations, Chimney Rock, remains of the old Oregon Trail, and blue sky that extends for miles. In this place, I have once again found my place as a student in the school of small, delightful things.
Over the course of my seven years here in old Oregon Trail territory, I have discovered the spiritual discipline of pulling weeds in my garden and the joy of rainfall after a months-long drought. I have tended an unruly patch of milkweed and flattened my bike tire on sandburs and goatheads. I have discovered the uniqueness of the gifts and perspectives of each person in my congregation, and I’ve made new connections and relationships with people in my community. My ministry and life in western Nebraska has reinforced to me the importance of the small things in shaping our lives.
Since moving to Nebraska, I have published my first traditionally published book, gone viral online twice, and raised my kids into their teenage years. Yet, as I look back on the seasons of my life when I felt dissatisfied with the little things, I realize how painfully little I understood. Publishing my first book hasn’t made me any more of a writer than I was when I wrote poems under pen names almost thirty years ago. But, it has opened the door for me for wider conversations with others. The most satisfying part of writing a book has not been holding the physical copy in my hands (as I used to dream about doing), but the interactions with people who have read my words.
The first time I went viral on Twitter was not for one of my blog posts, like I used to hope would happen, but for a crochet, stuffed Wordle. I used to believe that if I could get a piece of my writing to go viral, a publisher would take a chance on me and publish my work. Things didn’t happen that way. Instead, in the middle of a pandemic, I saw a picture of a crochet Wordle and it made my day. The joy it brought me compelled me to make one for myself. The process of making the Wordle brought happiness into my life, and for the first time in months, I felt my shoulders relax just a little bit.
I posted the Wordle on Twitter because I knew how happy it made me to see one, and I knew how much joy I felt as I made one. I had no idea almost 167,000 other people would feel the same way. If I had to go viral for something, I’m glad it was for something that made other people happy.
This winter, I had a crash course in the power of small things when a feral, black cat decided to take up residence in my attic. It was February and bitterly cold outside when my husband heard meowing coming from our attic in the middle of the night. We caught the cat, but he was terrified of us. We brought him to the vet, and the vet told us that feral cats can sometimes become house cats, but it was not a guarantee. The positives in our favor were that this cat was only 8 months old (give or take), and he was not aggressive, just afraid.
For the next two months, our cat (now named Atticus) lived behind our washing machine and would not come out into the room when we were in it. I visited him a few times a day, and I talked softly to him. I offered him treats and I petted him with a telescoping back scratcher. When he finally trusted me enough to let me pet him, I felt tears run down my cheeks. Hours of love, patience, and affection were teaching Atticus that the world was a safe place for him now.
I created a Facebook page for him, where people from all over the world offered me encouragement and advice born out of their own experience working with feral cats. We celebrated together every milestone of trust, every surprise, and every silly moment. His story made its way to TheDodo (a website and Facebook page dedicated to heartwarming stories about animals), where it went viral. People have asked me how I managed to go viral twice in one year, and my response is that I didn’t go viral at all. A crochet piece of whimsy and a brave cat who learned to love people went viral, and I just happened to be in delightful proximity.
How have I become who I am to this point? I can’t point to any single event or moment, but to an overflowing pile of little experiences. I suspect that these small things, these holy ordinary times will continue to be the ones that count the most.
St. Therese of Lisieux (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite saints) lived a short life and dedicated herself to “The Little Way.” Yet, even in her brief life, she transformed her corner of the world with little acts of faithfulness. She once wrote this, and it sums up the way I hope to live in however many remaining days I am given: “Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing.”