Miracle Day

THE OTHER NIGHT I zipped open a plastic box of spinach and lifted out some leaves only to find big green wads of rotten spinach-mush lurking within. Sigh.

I’ll admit, I was consternated. Then I stopped myself.

Out the kitchen window, our garden was locked beneath a stratum of ice. Yet here sat plenty of still-edible young leaves, native to ancient Persia, grown in California, triple-washed by high-pressure sprayers, laid into a box made of translucent petroleum, trucked safely through blizzards and over mountain passes to my local Albertsons? And I was consternated that 30 percent of it had gone smooshy?

When did utter miracles start becoming banalities? Is this what turning forty is about? I resolved silently, over spinach salad, to make the following day—random Wednesday in January—Miracle Day. I would devote myself to identifying the miraculous. I would pay attention.

One way to celebrate Miracle Day is to imagine that one of your ancestors, a version of yourself that lived, say, twenty-seven thousand years ago—a caveman, if you must—is hanging out with you for the day.

Before dawn, my caveman and I bend to get the newspaper in the driveway when I notice six or seven white splotches of bird poop at the edge of the lawn, directly below the public streetlight. I look closer: a piece of a bird’s wing, feathers still attached, sits nearby. On the rim of the streetlight twenty feet above: more feathers.

An owl—gone now—must have eaten a songbird in the night. Inside, I was sweating through another night, and out here an owl was using the streetlight as his kitchen table. Miracle Number One.

My caveman, of course—far more engaged in the natural world than I could ever hope to be—noticed the bird carnage immediately. He’s more interested in modern wonders.

Yes, Mr. Caveman, this newspaper we’re holding contains color photographs of events that happened in Pakistan yesterday. Yes, I’m wearing socks fabricated by someone I’ve never met. Yes, I have lots of pairs of them!

Ten minutes later, my publicist e-mails me an itinerary. That’s correct, I receive in Idaho, instantaneously, a seven-page communiqué from a woman in New York City that arrives within a half second of her completing it. In your time, Mr. Caveman, the Late Pleistocene, she would have needed papermakers, holy men, soldiers, wagons, domesticated oxen, prayers, bribes, a shared language, fortitude, and lots of jerky to get that thing to me.

Now? Instantaneous! Miracle Number Seventeen.

Also: I don’t have polio. And my teeth are intact.

I brew tea grown in South Africa. My children leave for school in clothes made in Bangladesh. My caveman, by this point, will have had to take a brief spell in a dark closet. On Miracle Day, one can see too much.

After lunch, my caveman and I clamber onto a twin-engine turboprop bound for Seattle. Window seat, 9A. Propelled by the concentrated remains of ancient plants, the airplane hurtles down the runway at over one hundred miles per hour, soars through a thick layer of freezing mist, and slowly, beautifully, incredibly, rises toward the sun. For a half hour we ascend into a peacock blue sky while an ever-changing mat of clouds roils below.

Then a woman brings us ginger ale. With ice! Beside us a pregnant lady does Sudoku. We are going 220 miles per hour. I hear Louis C.K. in my head: You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now.

Eighty minutes later the plane door opens and we smell the sea. We have teleported into an altogether different climate. Miracle Number 21,315.

Within seconds of setting foot on the Seattle tarmac, I use my telephone (which also contains several novels written by dead Russians) to text my wife: Safe and sound on the ground. Eight seconds later, carried on light our eyes cannot see, nine smiley faces come winging back.

At a downtown hotel, a man with Alfonso on his name tag gives us a paper-thin magnet embedded in a stripe on a card. Elevators rocket us to the forty-sixth floor. I use the magnet to unlock a door. I take a shower. Remove all the steel, plastic, and glass around me, and I’m standing naked 450 feet above Westlake Square being pelted with hot water.

What are miracles? Miracles are avocados in winter and starling swarms and the handwriting of children. They’re bridges that let trucks carrying toilet paper for thousands zip across uncrossable rivers and books that contain the voices of the dead.

Once, my scientist brother showed me a housefly under an electron microscope. Savannahs of small hairs grew out of the fly’s nose. Rows of perfect domes arced over each compound eye. There was as much intricacy in a barb on one of the fly’s legs as there is in a Shakespearean sonnet.

The towels in my hotel room are deeply, amazingly white. The lotion smells like paradise.

We sit for a minute on the bed, my caveman and I, dusk on Miracle Day, the lamps off, and watch the Seattle skyline bloom out of the fog. Gulls cry invisibly. Out there, beyond my windows, people are eating ground-up cows from Argentina. They’re reading Whitman: Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs! They’re building towers of glass, dreaming of mackerel, studying gridlock, falling in love. Above us, above the mist, 50 sextillion Earth-like planets swing around 50 sextillion Sun-like suns. Galaxies fly away from us. Mica glitters on a trillion rocks.

My telephone rings, and I study it for a moment before answering. It’s as much curse as marvel: a wafer of glass and plastic that embodies rare mineral mining, carbon emissions, slave labor. And yet, when I answer, my sons want to show me, in real-time, the snow falling in our backyard five hundred miles away.

They hold the phone out into the darkness. I can just make out clumps of flakes falling on the foothills. Everything, if you study it closely enough, is a miracle.

Anthony Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho. He is the recipient of the Rome Prize, the Discover Prize, and four O. Henry Awards. He is the author of both fiction (The Shell Collector: Stories) and nonfiction(Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World). His most recent novels are About Grace (2004) and All the Light We Cannot See (2014) which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award. Doerr has also won such prestigious awards as the 2010 Story Prize and Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.


  1. “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

    ~ Albert Einstein

  2. “It’s a question of seeing so much clearer,
    Of doing to things what light does to them.”

    Translated by D. Levertov

  3. This gives a perfect description of mindfulness.

    A day in the life of one who minds the leaf of grass growing as the whirl of our worldly world goes.

  4. This column is a miracle. As is “All the light we cannot see.” Thank you, Mr. Doer.

  5. What a beautiful way to be lifted out of the daily mundane. Thank you Mr. Doerr, for never failing to place the small joys of life under the literary microscope to be realized as the huge miracles they are.

  6. Someone asked a Zen teacher I knew if Buddhists believed in miracles. He said, “Absolutely. I flush one down the toilet every morning.”

    My take away is that we ourselves are the original miracles. (We are in return responsible for all the technical miracles that Doer so beautifully describes.) And the first step to a more compassionate and just world is to recognize each other as the miracles we are. Awareness of miracles is great. But miracle-inspired compassion is transformative.

  7. Thank you for the reminder to be aware and grateful. I found this essay very moving. Life *is* a miracle. If only we open our eyes to see…

  8. My great-granddaughter, born on 7/14/14, is a miracle! She is true to the original design of a human baby, and I saw her in the arms of my daughter, her grandmother, via “Skype”, which is also a miracle. I am in Ohio and they are in Virginia.

  9. It reminds me of the scene from “Blast from the Past” when Adam (Brendan Fraser) was sitting in the rain, saying that rain is a miracle. He went on to say that his dad, (Christopher Walken) says that everything is a miracle!!

  10. Thank you Anthony for this granular journey with you, reminding us in each place or moment all that it takes to bring us vegetables out of season, cell phones…you reminded me to make this a practice. When I do, life becomes a dazzling wonder. I feel more connected to each person, plant, animal, the Earth herself.

    Made my day!

  11. As I stomped my boot on the weaklings that I had slaughtered, I felt a strange flicker of existential anxiety. Who am I? Then I reminded myself that I am a miracle and I continued on my path of havoc, carefully being mindful of the beautiful things in life instead of the stressful surreality of my actions and responsibilities. Sure, I had done it a million times before, but I should not forget that getting away with murder is a miracle. There is pain here, but none of it is mine. That is a miracle!
    Sigh… Needing a new, more detached and self absorbed perspective on ‘getting a letter from my promoter’ is a sad place, for sure.

  12. Oh, I love this. The Einstein quote that John shared came immediately to mind. Sometimes the miracles of the world come so fast and thick at me that, like your caveman, I feel like I need a moment in a dark closet. But I’m so grateful that I can see them. xo

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