The Power of Life’s Tiny Triumphs

Three years ago, freshly transplanted to Rochester, N.Y., I bought my first pair of snowshoes. What was the point of living in a place like this—a town that could practically host the Iditarod—if I didn’t join the burly throngs who went stomping around it in gigantic footwear?

One year ago, the snowshoes still sat in my closet in their original plastic. Each time I opened the door to get a shirt, I imagined them yelling at me in nasal upstate accents: “Hey, wimp! Try us on, already! Are you from Brooklyn or something?” I am from Brooklyn—followed by cities in California, Connecticut and Virginia—but the real problem was my knack for living in lazy ruts. How were the snowshoes supposed to attach to my actual shoes? Figuring it out seemed like a pain (I had lost the instructions), so I kept putting on ordinary boots and taking ordinary, un-burly walks on shoveled paths.

And the snowshoes continued their taunts. So did my magazines. Not to bite the hand that feeds me, but there’s such a thing as too many subscriptions—in my case, a number that exceeded the sum of years lived by my teenager. “Money waster!” hissed the unread monthlies and weeklies in my kitchen, bedroom, front hall and bathroom. “Intellectual fraud! Don’t think we haven’t seen you ignoring us while you watch The Mindy Project!” On top of all this, I was being guilt-tripped by my cookbooks (“You haven’t cooked one new thing in months!”), the beads I’d been planning to make jewelry with (“That’s right, just let your crafty skills die!”) and my shelves of games for family game nights that never seemed to happen (“You don’t deserve to even have children”).

It was getting so I couldn’t go from one room to another without feeling worse about myself. Maybe, I began to think, it’s not just the big failures that sap your hope and energy—the novels unwritten, the owl habitats unsaved. Maybe it’s also the little failures, the kind that get in your face 80 times a day.

“New policy,” I informed my husband one morning with a dramatic hand flourish. “I’m reading at least a magazine a day until I catch up.” This lasted two days. Nonetheless, over the next few weeks, I did read dozens of articles and the prose piles began to shrink. To help keep from becoming overwhelmed again, I let a handful of subscriptions lapse (not SUCCESS, of course!) and donated some magazines that I knew I’d never get around to. And I reveled in my new, reading-acquired knowledge of jellyfish, pitaya fruit and Sarah Palin’s ghostwriter—and the fact that I could see my kitchen table again.

Next: Instead of making the usual baked French toast when friends came for brunch, I opened How to Cook Everything. The resulting dill-and-bell-pepper frittata was, I’m happy to say, a huge hit and the reason I expect to be called any minute by the Food Network and offered my own show.

Soon afterward, when my kids received Apples to Apples as a gift, I made sure we played it that same night—and the next. Dweebies and Operation weren’t far behind.

I did not, I admit, get around to making jewelry. But I did fix a couple of old necklaces that had been lying in a depressing tangle. Also—bonus points!—I helped my 8-year-old get started at last on some of her own craft kits.

The guilt-and-shame chorus was growing softer. At the same time, I was pleased to discover, a new chorus had started up—one sung by a host of big writing and editing projects that I suddenly felt like tackling. (“Hey, Wonder Woman! If you can get all those little things done, maybe you’re not too lame to manage us, too.”)

To fully galvanize myself, though, there was one more thing I had to try.

Early one Monday after roughly the hundredth snowfall since I moved to Rochester, I bundled up and dragged my snowshoes outside. It took some frozen-fingered fiddling, but in about five minutes I had them strapped on. Then I was off, walking like Daffy Duck past an amused neighbor, slapping my way across the street, and—ultimately—slogging through snowfields while envying the people who kept passing me on cross-country skis.

Has snowshoeing grown on me since then? Has it become my favorite sport after all? No. But there’s still the satisfaction of having tried it—and of knowing that if I never put those things on my feet again, it’s not because I’m a wimp. It’s because snowshoeing stinks.

Do you have "little failures" following you around? Shake off the laziness and set priorities to knock out your to-do list.


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