Small Things of Consequence
We tend to admire the longer, larger things in life: the tallest building, the longest bridge, the highest mountain, the furthest distance travelled, the relationships that go way back. Today I want to pay tribute to the small and the brief.
The smallest bone in the human body is the stapes. It’s part of a chain of three tiny bones that transmit sound energy from the external ear to the inner ear. The hammer-shaped malleus strikes the anvil-shaped incus, and these vibrations travel through the stapes, which is like a tuning fork. The stapes is smaller than the head of a safety pin, but without it, you wouldn’t be able to hear.
In case you’re wondering, our biggest bone is the femur, or thighbone. Comparing the femur to the stapes is like looking at an elephant next to a flea.
Some people take exception to being a cog in the system. I understand, I do – the desire to stand out, to be autonomous, to feel substantial. But when I look at things like the stapes – a delicate, infinitesimal cog in the vast landscape of the human body – my respect for the microcosm grows. The stapes is miniscule but important. Without it, things would not be heard.
Small things of consequence also exist outside the body. Haven’t there been relationships or events that were fleeting or random, but affected you mightily? Who were those visitors who appeared only briefly in your life, but left their mark?
My most recent such encounter, which brought me to this whole subject in the first place, was Jana, who owned the gluten-free café a few blocks from my office. Great food, incredible coffee, but I also went for the cozy, neighborhood atmosphere and Jana’s wiry, energetic presence. She became my friend. I would run over when I had a long enough break between clients. It became a regular, timeless pause in my day, a happy habit. She would make me a cup of coffee with her serious machine, shiny and silver on the counter, and carry this coffee and a piece of carrot cake like treasures to where I sat, usually the table closest to the kitchen. If it wasn’t too busy, she would bring a coffee for herself in a fluted glass, and pull up a chair.
When the weather was good we’d sit on the plain wooden stools just in front of the café with our backs to the window, faces tilted up to the afternoon sun. We talked to each other side by side, Jana sometimes angled toward the window to keep an eye on the customers, me looking out at the shopfronts across the way: the “reggae and smoke shop,” Elijah; the metalworks; Tonton Luigi and other bars waiting dark and idle until evening. Roughly half the people who walked by knew her and stopped to say hello. Our talk was surprisingly intimate, given the sporadic nature of our visits. We laughed a lot too. Every time I showed up for coffee and carrot cake, we would pick up the threads of our conversation and our lives, check in with each other, vent, encourage, sympathize, listen.
It was not the femur bone of the friendship world, the weighty kind formed by years of shared experience. I am blessed with a few femur bones among my friends, and without them I would no doubt be less steady on my feet. This was a stapes relationship: remarkable in its delicacy and its significance.
Jana closed her café earlier this month. I hope we will remain friends. But I know she’s leaving, and her leaving will leave a hole like the space of a stapes gone missing. Some things will go unheard. Our relationship moved me tremendously, as it gave proof that the ability to make friends is perennial, if we follow our instincts with open eyes and hearts (and sometimes stomachs). However brief, it has its place among the experiences that have made a lasting impression on me: two women talking outside a café on a backstreet, small cogs in the vast terrain of this earth, sipping coffee in the afternoon sun.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management. You can also join her for Write & Breathe: regular meetups combining writing for wellbeing and conscious breathing.
Motivating, thought-provoking, informative: The Attentive Body monthly newsletter. It’s free and your privacy is respected. Sign up here.