Nostril Muscles and Other Secrets

“Watch this, Mom,” my red-haired, eleven-year-old son yelped yesterday, his brown eyes dancing with amusement. He yanked a white tissue from the Kleenex box and blew. Smiling largely, his drippy nose reddened to match his hair.
“Well,” I ventured, “very nice job, dear, blowing your nose.” As I cocked my head quizzically, he offered, “Mom, I didn’t use to do that, you know. My nose always just ran and ran and I couldn’t blow it like you told me to.”
“Yes?” I prompted. “What changed, honey?”
“I found my nostril muscles, Mom,” he crooned, flaring them wide to demonstrate. “It’s changed everything,” he added, grabbing another tissue and honking happily.
Sometimes, it is just that way. All of a sudden, you find a new place in yourself, opening a small surprise package you did not know was there. Children are best at this: They are willing to be surprised regularly.
I remember my own awe one evening, myself eleven years old. My father sat oddly silent at the head of the family dinner table, my mother and siblings spread around, uneasy. My typically light-hearted father stared ponderously at his plate, his eyes wide and wet, as though something there bewildered him. Quietly, he started crying.
I watched him, my fork hanging in the air, food sitting unchewed in my mouth. This was something I’d never seen before.
Dad looked up. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, cleared his throat, wiped at his tears, and added, “A fellow was badly injured at the plant today. Lost all the skin off his arms. They got caught in a press. And we just couldn’t get it turned off. He’s hurt so badly.” Dad’s voice drifted away as he fell back into a place of compassion that had suddenly opened in his heart.

Years later, I met another man who, I knew, had found a place inside himself that changed everything. A recovering heroin addict, Jake had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and unfairly charged with possession of marijuana. Though not a major predicament itself, the misdemeanor charge jeopardized Jake’s parole from earlier days of criminal involvement with hard drugs. He had, as we said in the trade, a long, long back-up time that would destroy the new life he had labored to build. He would spend his foreseeable future in a major penitentiary, far from the successes he had attained both physically and spiritually.
I represented Jake throughout the misdemeanor proceedings. He remained strangely calm in the face of a determined prosecutor unwilling to show mercy or admit police error. Jake was unfazed — he assured me that the case would end well, and he would not have to return to prison. I was doubtful.
Without a whisper of anger or resentment, Jake counseled me, “Just get as much delay as you can, Marjorie. You never know what’s going to happen.”
But I think Jake knew exactly what was going to happen. He had found a secret place of calm within his heart that changed everything. From that spot had blossomed a new life devoted to art, moderation, and his wife. I think Jake knew just how precious and fragile was that place — and he savored each day.
One night, arising in the comfort of the new life he had struggled to build, Jake stumbled into his bathroom and sunk to the floor, dead, from a type of heart attack not uncommon in former addicts. I got the call in the morning. Jake’s case was over; death ends criminal proceedings. He had been right all along.
It’s much harder, I thought, watching my son flare his nose proudly, to find these secret wonders in ourselves as we grow older. We stop opening windows and lean hard to close doors we find ajar. We fear what might enter our lives and hold tight to what we know, no matter how unreasonable or suffocating or repetitive.
This is not without cause. Many aspects of aging are, well, alarming. Recently, unaware of my own reflection, I noted the baggy arms of a middle-aged woman in the mirrored wall at a formal affair. Suddenly, I recognized my dress. I quickly turned away. I did not want to see a me I was not prepared to admire.
But this is just what God asks us to do: Don’t turn away — keep open our hearts for sudden discovery. Swinging fiercely in a hammock not long ago, stewing over a wrong done me by my husband’s family, I collapsed backward in frustrated exhaustion. My eyes were abruptly drawn upward, into a pool of shimmering sunlight caught and bounced about by the dense new growth atop the looming trees that held me. A gentle, steady breeze slowly stilled my motion. Like a child, I let down the tears and my nose started running. I took up a prayer to my Lord. I did not turn away.
“Be still,” I scolded, disarming my hardened determination to be angry. “Be still,” I repeated, lowering my force field of perceived injury. Suddenly, like a ray of sunlight escaping the thick tree canopy, I felt God enter and sooth my soul. I should not have been surprised — but I was. I smiled gratefully and blew my nose just like my son. It was just as He promised: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). That small package, I reminded myself, lies always within reach — it’s everyone’s secret.


Marjorie Campbell is an attorney and speaker on social issues from a Catholic perspective. She lives in San Francisco with her family and writes a regular column, "On the Way to the Kingdom," for Catholic Womanhood at CNA.

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