Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I'm afraid so

Also self-justifying, self-aggrandizing self-righteousness.
that too

And complacent do-gooderism.
okay, I've got the picture

There was something (possibly) interesting I was trying to think about in the last post (which I'm considering suspending for revision or deletion) - something about how unfinished and foolish it can feel trying to be a help to someone not convinced they want the help - but the thought didn't make it into any recognizable form. Even to me, reading it now, fully awake and rested - I come away merely irritated and mildly repulsed.

Maybe it is impossible to use examples of our own attempts at altruism without laying an emphasis on how it is our own example. And aren't we somethin'!

We (meaning I) are always so pleased by our tiny goodnesses. We marvel at our (meaning my own) momentary patience, raggy wisdom, barely-more-than-self regard. That for once I didn't feel resentful at having an evening and morning I would have written used up in symbolic action. That for once I actually carried through on a good intent - not just once, not just offering help, not just sitting down with this young woman to figure out options, not just driving her in for testing once, but actually carrying through with a beneficent plan.

But now reading the earlier post, awake and rested and fully arrived in the safest haven of my childhood, I'm ashamed at the smarmy self-satisfaction of that earlier account. Why should I impose such a thing on you? Why was that the story that occupied my mind last week and the one I had to tell?

Okay, I admit, it is satisfying to be the one to help. And a small pleasure to replay that satisfaction.

Yesterday, for example, I was pulling weeds out along the sidewalk of my parents' home. My dad was fixing cabinet doors in his garage. A little cluster of Navajo boys gathered at the end of the driveway, whispering.

Dad walked out to them, "What can I do for you boys?"

He said later, retelling his story with a clear and simple pleasure shining in his face, that he could tell they'd been building up courage to come ask him something. The tallest boy said, "We were wondering - could you help us fix his bike?"

One thing my dad can do is fix things.

Unfortunately, the tube, which had come free of the tire and wrapped around and around the spokes, was punctured as Dad worked it free. Dad shook his head, "Sorry, boys. Can you get it home like that? Or I can throw it in the back of my truck and drive you home if you'd like?" They just live up the road on the other side of the freeway and their parents know Dad.

One of the boys murmurs to his friend, "My mom is going to kill me."

"Don't you have any extra tubes?" I ask my dad. Because I can't fix things, but I am rather good at suggesting things for other people to do.

"No tubes at all," because Dad is not Fritz who has extra of everything bike-like.

"What size is it?" I start turning the tire over in my hands, thinking maybe I'll go into town and pick one up.

But Dad's already there. "Why don't you leave it here and I'll fix it for you," he says.

And then does. Dad has no trouble following through on things, even when he's supposed to be taking things easy. He runs into town to get the tube and also washers and bolts to put the dining room table back together, and a length of metal he can machine into the missing part to fix the futon, and my mom's shopping list for dinner because the first of my siblings are arriving this evening.

My brother and his wife and their incredible newly-walking, soft-cheeked baby drive in. My cousin's wife stops by (lean and blonde with her spurs still on - they've been chasing bulls all day who broke into the corral with the heifers) to pick up her son who's been scootering with my son up and down the sidewalk. All the while Dad's putting the new tube in the bike. He retells the story to each arrival - with simple pleasure.

That evening the boy comes back with his little brother - wide-eyed and solemn. "Your bike's in the garage," I say when I open the door and walk over with them. Dad has gone on another errand with my brother.

"Thank you very much," says the boy, very serious. "Thank you very much."

"I wish I'd been there when those boys came by," Dad said this morning, choking up a little - in the way our family does - over songs we like on the radio or almost anything, "I was going to put my arm around him and say, 'Anytime you boys need anything, you be sure you stop by.'"

"I'm sorry," I say. "I know," because I do.

Dad sniffs, shrugs, "It's okay. I'll see them again. I'll tell them then." Dad wants to be called on to help, I can see, and will put himself in the way of being called on again. Because it is a pleasure to be able to help. It is especially a pleasure to be useful doing something you do well.

During this past week among cousins and connections on both sides of my family - always a little like looking in a funhouse mirror - all these fractured and exaggerated views of familiar traits - I've been reminded of one family connection who is forever telling stories about being strong-mindedly right.

And indeed, she is often in the right. Always strong-mindedly so. But it struck me that for some reason - it can't be that she doubts her rightness? - these stories MUST BE told over and over.

Are there stories of myself I have to tell over and over?

Stories of being useful and good, despite an inherent flakiness and self-involvement and what I so gently call, preoccupation. I know I am unreliable too often. I forget people are waiting for me, depending on me, I forget to make meals, forget to do things I really don't want to do . . .

So I tell these stories, why? To excuse the "momentary" lapses? Because you know, at heart, I really am a fine human being? Or to encourage myself? See, you can do useful things? Just try a little harder, can't you?

A month ago Fritz's only and older and rather footloose brother called: "Mom and Dad want to sell their house and move in with you. Only they're afraid it will be too hard on Emma."

Hm. The indirect channel of communication is not uncharacteristic.

I don't say much about this. Except, "Of course they can come if they need to." Except, "Maybe before they sell their house they should come stay with us for a month and make sure that's what they want."

Do I let myself wonder if their hesitation is as much that they know my intermittent meals of strange spices and plenty beans and excess greens may be a little hard on them? Maybe they're hoping I'll change to take better care of them? Adopt a global regularity? Learn to cook without so much olive oil and garlic?

Could I?

Would I?

Will I?

Because I want to be able to do what is needed. It has always been our plan, Fritz's and mine, to be able to take care of our parents. His are older and likely to need us first. (Because my dad is fine, despite continued bouts of angina. He is going to be fine.) But Fritz and I had imagined the caretaking time a little further along - with maybe only a single parent, a little less able-bodied, a little less independent. After the girls go to college we can make an apartment out of the family room and downstairs bathroom. I can move my computer and desk upstairs and still have privacy to write (and time?).

And so let's assume for now that these stories (of being good rather more sustainedly than is my wont) are meant as self-encouragement. Can we?

Though it's too bad I couldn't write them a sonnet, or proofread something for them, instead.


Lisa B. said...

a. Don't take the other post down.
b. I like to tell myself stories about how things have worked out and therefore, perhaps, the selfish, self-involved, preoccupied person I believe myself to be . . . well, maybe I'm not so bad after all.

I love the story about your dad. And I loved the story about the young woman. These kindnesses are a part of your life and the lives of the people you love, why shouldn't you share them? They help and you helped. I am surprised all the time when one of my kids tells me that they ran into this or that friend from so long ago, and they asked about me and said how nice I always was. And I'm all, when was that? when was I nice? But even these small things matter. And it's okay--it's good--to tell the stories about when you were kind. It helps to remind the rest of us to follow through on a plan to help, and that these small things add up to life--both for you, and for the people you touch.

(that was sermon-ish. Rude! Sermonizing in your comments!)

Mrs. Organic said...

What Lisa said. And that's it. I like these examples and sharing the good.

B said...


Well, I am not sure what to say, exactly. I know I blog about my own do-gooder-ism. It is not in the spirit of being boastful, although that is probably how it looks.

When my friends did good works and told me about it, I never felt anything but inspired, and maybe, when I speak of such things, I hope to be spreading those same impulses. Who knows though.......

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