My first introduction to speckitude was just over 20 years ago.
I was at a summer writing conference on the lush campus of Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley. I was thrilled to be at this program; I thought this is where my writing life would begin. Our teacher, a well-known author, would read my work, get his agent on the line right away to pick up this sassy new talent, and I would have arrived.
None of that happened, but I did get to meet another writer, Hugh, who would become a lifelong friend.
One beautiful starry night during the conference, Hugh and I got the chance to ride in the back of a pickup truck to attend a nearby picnic and open air reading. As the truck bounced along, we gazed up at the stars. Out of nowhere, Hugh launched into the most stunning speech about the universe I'd ever heard.
He talked about time, space, the vastness of the universe—things I'd never really pondered before—but listening to him, I could feel myself starting to grasp the infinitesimal slice of time we are actually alive on this earth, and how very small one life really is.
Hugh said: "Do you realize just how miniscule we are? We're specks! All of us: Madonna, Hillary Clinton, my neighbor, Marjorie Jones, lifelong librarian and champion knitter—all specks! Our lifetimes are a blip on the giant screen of life. You're a speck, I'm a speck. Think about it, Erica, you could be the smartest and the prettiest and the richest and the first to cross the ocean in a bottle, but guess what? You're still a speck."
And to think I was just going to watch for falling stars and make a wish or two during the ride. Anyway, my head was spinning. If we are just specks, I thought, then how does what any of us do matter?
I sighed, hoping there would be wine at the picnic.
Years later, I read the book "Alive" about the plane that crashed in the Andes, and listened to a subsequent interview with one of the survivors, Fernando. He said that when he was finally rescued and came home—months after he and his fellow passengers were presumed dead—he was stunned to see that the world was carrying on just fine without him, even though he had "died." All of his clothes and personal items had been given away; his bedroom was as bare as if he had never existed.
It's the speckitude, I wanted to tell him.
Fernando's life went into stall mode for a few years from the shock of the crash and its notorious aftermath; in fact, he only found his stride when he began to speak to audiences about everything that had happened during those horrific weeks, inspiring millions to overcome the obstacles in their own lives.
My third brush with nano-tiny-ness happened just last year; the moment I stepped inside the Notre Dame in Paris. The Notre Dame took over a thousand years to build. Think about that. Fathers labored over a 10-by-10 foot section of stone foundation; their sons built a piece of the nave, while their sons' sons balanced between heaven and earth from a flying buttress. Specks, every one of them. But who can help gasping as they turn toward the beauty of the rose window, afternoon sun rainbowing in?
Maybe it all adds up, I thought. Maybe we're more like pebbles tossed in a pond, disappearing in a flash, but leaving ripples that count in ways we will never know.
Last night I watched "Horton Hears a Who." If there was ever a story about specks, this is it. An elephant hears a cry from a speck of dust that houses a whole community: the Whos of Whoville. He protects his tiny friends even though his neighbors ridicule him. Horton is a guy who gets speckitude; that a person's a person, no matter how small.
This past year, Hugh and his husband Tom adopted two children, something that—to me—is incredibly brave. Two children who will take into the unimaginable future the gifts of love and fine parenting. For Hugh's birthday this month, Tom gave him a telescope. I couldn't help smiling as I pictured Hugh setting up his gift and peering skyward, without a moment's hesitation, at all those stars.