The Little Things Make a Big Difference

by Maria Theresa Maggi on December 18, 2012

When my son began to skateboard at about age 10, he idolized the makers of a home-grown skate video made in our town.  Luckily these nearly young men were worth idolizing, and took their role of bringing young skaters along quite conscientiously. I still remember the Thanksgiving Travis, Michael’s favorite, handed him down the gift of a pile of T-shirts with various skateboarding logos on them. It might as well have been Christmas a month early. The video these older skateboarders made was a whimsical funny thing called Friends of Salmon. Inevitably, the VHS tape got enough constant play in our living room that I began to be familiar with the soundtrack, a hodge-podge of indy grunge punk stuff, most of it regional. One song became my favorite, by a band called, of all things, Sick-o. It is a little more slow in tempo than the others, reflective almost. I had to strain to listen to the words under the distortion (never a priority for the boys) but when I did I was delighted to sing along. The refrain is “ the little things make a big difference.” It is also the title.  Perhaps I recognized it as my own refrain. Although the song was about the little things someone else had done for the singer at a time he was down and out, and the things he did in return, I have found the biggest delight and surprise is in noticing what little things signify a very very big difference in the direction my health is going.

Here is one I wrote down in 2010, that made me think of the Sicko song, and start singing it:

“Wiping up the cutting board after lunch. I realized that a year ago (2009), and for many years before, and after starting the diet, I was so played out by preparing my lunch that I did not clean it off before laying down for a nap. The temporary residency of the mice made me change that, but there have been no mice for a long long time and now it’s standard.”

Testament to how tired I was when I first started learning to cook this way back in 2008: I fell asleep in the chair after lunch, leaving the non-stick pan on the heat and melting the serving spoon into itself.

It’s such an amazing piece of performance art that I  still keep it on the stovetop to remind me to check to make sure all the burners are turned off.

And here are a few other little things that  made a big difference:

August 16, 2010

Folding the bath towel:

“A ‘neat’ little victory: The other night after drying off, I suddenly realized my body temperature and attendant symptoms were calm enough that I could reach up comfortably to hang the big bath towel up folded, instead of just stuffing it onto the towel rack on the back of the door. And this is the epiphany: I became very acutely aware that the reason I did it that way all this time is that I was in enough physiological distress from trying to adjust to the change in my muscles from the hot or warm tub that I could not risk fussing with it, but just had to get it back up there and put my arms back down. But now I do have the choice, at least most nights. And an added bonus: it helps the towel dry out more efficiently for it to be folded rather than bunched! So, ‘Cleaner than it was’!”

August 29. 2010

“For years I’ve lit votive candles at night, tea lights, on the altar on my dresser, and more recently, in front of the huge image of Quan Yin photo above the table opposite my bed, in a salt lamp I have there. The last few weeks I’ve become aware of how to recognize when the wick is lit, that the quality of the flame I’m holding to it concentrates and brightens in a certain way, and that means the wick is lit.

I think I ‘ve seen this before, but what is different is that I recognize it so easily, instead of it being a mysterious surprise and wondering  how I can make it happen. I think it might be an improvement in eye-hand coordination that makes it more accessible and not so much like just taking a blind stab at something, as is so often with  eye-hand things

Now I’m remembering a very nice little thing my friend Carolyn did for me the summer my mother died and I was mostly on my bed. She and her husband Jim work in the woods every summer inventorying trees for the forest service. She brought me huckleberries still on the branch, so I could have the experience of picking a nominal few as if I were out there in the woods. It was a lovely gesture. Likewise, each season her husband Jim painstakingly splits old roof shingles and shakes for kindling in my masonry stove, which they built for me together. But then that is a BIG thing and that made a BIG difference.”

And this picture of a couple of months ago, the first week of October, 2012:

What?! A picture of the floor?  (And it isn’t even all that clean.) This is a picture of open space where a chair used to have to be. For years there was a chair in front of THIS chair, with a pillow on it, so that when I sat down, I could put my legs up and support them on the pillow. I just plain needed to do that in order to be able to get up and keep standing or walking around, even for a few minutes. When I had to replace my washer and dryer recently I realized that I wasn’t sitting there that way anymore, and maybe I could remove the extra chair. I was right, I don’t need it anymore. And there’s more space in my small kitchen.

The last several days after I first drafted this essay were a firestorm of mishap and error, mostly electrical. The highlights: the radio on my roof that provides me with internet went out, and could not be replaced for a couple of days. The computer misbehaved on several fronts, and was still not going to sleep properly. My hair dryer died. The power went out. And the Northwest was still besieged by forest fire, so when the winds blew, they blew in smoke and flame retardant, making the air quality poor and the whole atmosphere apocalyptic at times. Nevertheless, life went on, even if it felt a bit like life in a science fiction novel. Here is a blank verse sonnet I wrote about that time.

October Fire

Deep dusk accumulates, almost tactile:
I sit picking the last tomatoes.
I place them in a shoebox lined with old news.
Then I snip nasturtium leaves and stems
into a plastic bag, twist zucchini
away from the vine. The ground is hard, cold.
The dark is starting to stick to my sleeves.
To the west a cloud of smoke blocks sunset.
The dog and I hurry in and close the door.
Strong wind licks the whole house, hurling large objects
around the yard, spitting currents of smoke stung
with the chemicals sprayed on torching pines.
The green life I’ve saved keeps vigil with me.
In kitchen light, we wait this apocalypse out.

On a Monday after all this, I decided Romeo and I would try to walk to the mall to replace my hair dryer, following the path along the creek instead of walking the highway.  It’s at least a healthy two mile round trip. We had never walked all the way to the mall. The day was in the 70s (actually the last one we had like that) and there was no wind and no smoke. So we went. And made it.  We stopped and rested in the grass along the creek on the way home, and even found a few mushrooms. I got a cute new hair dryer, and a few other little goodies I’ve been needing, like hair ties for putting my hair back into ponytails. Some new fangled ones that don’t catch.

There was one that said “peace” on it that made me want to buy them all just for it. The next day, coming off of another surprise power outage, I wore it in my hair for my morning walk with Romeo. About three quarters of the way back, I felt that it had slipped from my hair. Oh no, I thought sadly, my favorite one. The reason I bought them. Then I thought, well, maybe I’ll find it tomorrow. And then I looked down. it was right there on the ground, beaming “peace” up at me. I put it back on.

Later, out in the garden, slowly scraping away dirt in an effort to dig out some of my potatoes, I  had stood up and noticed it had slipped out again. Oh no. Well, it’s got to be here in the yard, I thought.  There it was, again, with the words “peace” beaming up at me. I laughed. The message was clear. Be at peace. In the midst of the firestorm. A little tiny message making a big difference.

The improved “troubles” I’m writing about here are minscule compared to the tragedy the children and families at Sandyhook Elementary School in Connecticut just went through. The mourning will be long and deep, especially for those right there who have lost their children, their friends, their parents.  I don’t have TV, but the next morning, reading the NY Times coverage on line, I could not hold my own tears back. Another recent shooting at the Clackamas Mall in Portland is not very far from where my son Mike and his girlfriend Kelly live. Mike had not chosen to rush to tell me, probably wishing not to worry me. But I had had the feeling it might have been close, even as I reassured my sister it was not, so she (and I) wouldn’t worry about something that was over we could not change. As the significance of how unpredictable and fragile life is washed over me, I was glad to hear from Mike in e-mail, and wrote both he and Kelly back, grateful to be able to connect and say “I love you.”  As I read about the elementary school shooting, I thought of Kelly, in her own teaching job, head teacher in a classroom of autistic children aged 5-7, and how she might have felt when she heard the news.  Even without the unthinkable worry of a gunman suddenly appearing on the scene, her teaching day is more challenging than most of us could manage.  She wears no jewelry or scarves to school, for instance, since such things would be yanked, becoming dangerous. Yet she loves her job, and the kids she works with. When I wrote to run some Christmas plans by her, and see how she was, she responded on her iphone with this gem:

“That sounds great. Pizza and tree decorating. So sad that the world is messed up . Really difficult to hear the news during the school day, but I was able to hold it together and we had a popcorn movie afternoon for our last day before break. Kids really loved watching the air popcorn, the little things make it all worth while. See you soon.”

Just hearing about those children enjoying the popped kernels dancing in mid-air  in the corn popper was a ” little” thing that had a great power to help heal me in the face of something immensely horrifying.  It reminded me the little things ALWAYS help, and they are especially important to hold fast to in the face of heartbreaking and senseless tragedy. Such loving little touches are not so little. They call us back to our true selves.

So here are the words to the song from which this post gets its name. Along with my mottos “better than it was” and “cleaner than it was,” they sound like words to live by, as far as I’m concerned. And any grunge punk band bright enough to use the word “auspicious” has my ear.

A record box outside my door
coming home really late from work once more
and it made my day
such a little thing
It’s the thought that counts
and the hope it brings

A little further
A little bit longer
A little package is more condensed
the little things make a big difference

I tried to carry you home from the bar
but I’m out of shape and it’s a little too far
So far to go, so far apart
So far so good, an auspicious start

So take a moment to pause, and appreciate those little things, like Kelly and Romeo are in this moment Mike captured in front of the fire.

What little things have made a big difference in your healing journey?



Leave a Comment

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kathleen December 19, 2012 at 7:36 am

I am not a poet. I am a statistician and a computer programmer, much the antithesis. Yet your writing cuts through directly to my heart. Thank you so much for your openness and your sharing.


2 moonwatcher December 19, 2012 at 8:53 am

Thank you for your beautiful comment, Kathleen. It means a lot to me. It reminds me how I used to tell my students the logic of poetry is “both/and”–it includes everything.



3 alyne December 19, 2012 at 9:11 am

new to your blog. really enjoyed your thoughts today. inspired me to consider things I’ve forgotten


4 moonwatcher December 19, 2012 at 9:27 am

Thank you, alyne, and welcome!



5 Julie December 19, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Maria, you have such a beautiful way with words. We can all learn so much by just paying attention. You remind me to simply slow down and appreciate all things, big and small. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and poetry. I am always so excited to see one of your posts pop up in my email.


6 moonwatcher December 19, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Thank you so much, Julie. You made my afternoon. 🙂



7 Kiwi Fan December 19, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Thank you so much for your writings – they are truly delightful and inspirational. They also give me much hope as I struggle with worsening MS physically. Your gradual improvements make me determined to persevere with my healthy eating. I will celebrate the ‘little things’ that keep me going! I look forward to being able to cook some of your delicious recipes some time and also to reading your lovely thoughts. A blessed Christmas to you from summery New Zealand!!


8 moonwatcher December 20, 2012 at 8:56 am

Hi Kiwi Fan,

Thank you so much! Great to hear from summery New Zealand, since it’s definitely not summer HERE right now. I am so honored to know what I write gives you some encouragement to keep going with your healthy eating, welcoming gradual improvements and celebrating the little things that keep you going. And remember, by eating this way you’re no longer “feeding” the disease process, which is a HUGE thing that makes a HUGE difference, even if you don’t see evidence of dramatic improvement. I’ll be posting some ideas that will work in either season really soon. Wonderful to have you along!



9 Michelle December 20, 2012 at 10:00 am

You all have a Merry Christmas. Loved the update of this post. Especially the wonderful picture of Kelly, Romeo and you wonderful unique fireplace! Best always – Michelle


10 moonwatcher December 20, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Thanks, Michelle! You have a wonderful Christmas, too.



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