One Small Thing

I Rely on My Incomprehension is a column inspired by Clarice Lispector’s Crônicas, which she wrote weekly for the Jornal do Brasil between 1967 and 1973. On April 17, 1971, Lispector wrote, “I rely on my incomprehension, which has given me an instinctive and intuitive life, whereas so-called comprehension is so limited.”


One Small Thing 


On my desk, I keep a handful of creamy, diaphanous shells. 

Someone I love picked them for me. 

Really, he picked them for himself, but I kept them.

In the palm of his hand, they were cool to the touch. 

I clatter them together, listening as they call me back to that other place. 

“They lived since they were, and were since they lived.”*

Some are from the Sound, others from Lake Michigan—but in truth, all shells, like all angels, come from the same place. 

In their minute rivulets, I look for lifelines. Suddenly my own skin seems far too soft, smooth, washed out into oblivion. Where will I hold my memories if not in the grooves of a shell? 


In the morning, I re-read an Emily Dickinson poem about a spider dangling from a housewife’s broom. “And dancing softly to Himself / His Yarn of Pearl — unwinds—.”  Where does one find the time to notice things like that? Between today and tomorrow (especially in the endless hour between seven and eight, when I watch the clock), I couldn’t possibly keep track of an image so small. 

These small things, like seconds, are perhaps quite useless. Because I keep so many shells in my room, I’ve accidentally crushed a few. A piercing scrape against my heel or the sound of a crunch as I set my laptop down; always, I say a regretful prayer. 

It takes time to notice small things. Saints like Dickinson are best-equipped for watching the roundness of time dilate, for pressing a careful hand against the swelling moment. 


Shells remember everything that there is to forget, and they forget everything that there is to remember. 

I remember the tooth-like shells underfoot at Loyola Beach. I remember that it ached to crush them. They would shatter in your ears, but they would sing too. Break it and break it and break it again; someone ought to put a stop to all that. 


Q. What do you call the shard of light that cracks between two curtains and shatters on the ground? 

A. An angel.

And what of desire, which gets smaller and smaller every day? 


Once, I stood rapt on the corner, watching a butterfly raid the stamen of a dahlia. It was in the spring, the season of small things. 

*from Foraminifera by Wisława Szymborska

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