Long, long ago, in a state far away, there was a small, screaming infant being baptized by her father, a pastor, on the Sunday that fell on this very date, his birthday. I can only assume that my ornery howling was not the most perfect birthday present he’d ever had, but since Dad didn’t toss me in the dustbin either on the occasion or shortly thereafter is testament to a tiny fraction of the loving kindness he showed me then and continued to shower upon me, no matter how fractious I might have been at times, throughout the following years. That sort of tolerance alone is a good reason I’ve been very fond of the fella from the start. I’d say it’s also a good indicator that Dad always tended to have an excellent sense of humor about the silliness of real life.Commemorating that day is likely a good enough sampling all on its own of the man-of-many-parts that is my father, but it’s far from all. His long career as a Lutheran pastor and then bishop was complemented by plenty of stellar adventures as a leader, chairman and member of innumerable committees and boards from university to seminary to hospital and community. He traveled to and worked in dangerous and war-torn places like Honduras and El Salvador and early-1970s Chicago but still managed to come back regularly and be Dad at home to four daughters and help Mom keep the home fires burning while donning his ecumenical-superdude cape for quick service in his myriad day jobs.Between his understandable popularity with many folk—even, I daresay, thanks to his unpopularity with a small contingent of people who didn’t approve of his frankness or his willingness to stand up for certain causes, a trait of courage and/or foolhardiness I would happily have had him pass to me genetically—and the careful scholarship that underpinned his good-humored to life, he’s always been a major influence on me. You can certainly see why I would consider Dad as fine a first Valentine as anyone could have. Happy Birthday, dear Dad!
My superpower, if I could be said to have any, is being supremely ordinary. Yeah, I’m really, really good at that. Now, you may think it’s not impressive that I’m good at being so-so, and you could be forgiven for thinking it. And yet . . .
Besides that it requires massive numbers of us mid-range sorts to keep nature in a sort of balance with the various human outliers at the top (and bottom) of the spectrum, there’s also the comfort and safety of being able to travel under the radar of scrutiny and pressure to which both kinds of exceptional people are exposed.
What on earth does this mean I am good at doing, at being? Why, I do what’s expected. I go to sleep; I wake up. I eat and I walk and I get dressed and undressed, and the world carries right on around me. And though I don’t at the moment have employment outside of our home, my current occupation being Homemaker, I spend myself and my efforts, rather, on doing the small and yet significant things that might not be essential to keeping the world operational but grease the gears, instead. And keeping the cogs working relatively smoothly is as useful in its own way as being the driver, the engineer or a cog myself. I go to meetings and do Projects, too, to be sure, but mostly what I do nowadays is fix a meal, repair a door-jamb, ferry my spouse and a student to a rehearsal. I do laundry; I prune the plantings near the window. Glamorous? Just exactly enough.
Because the luster of the day comes not from being admired and lauded but from being appreciated, even if it’s hardly necessary to hear that announced constantly–after all, the proof of its value is in plain view if the needful things get done. Any reward lies in the belief that I make life that one tiny iota smoother and pleasanter for that one brief instant, even if only for this one other person. It’s borne on the smile of relief worn by him whose sheaf of office paperwork got filed at last when he couldn’t get to it himself, or whose old slippers have been mended by the time he gets home from the office at the end of the day. It’s in the neighbor being glad to have the excess garden supplies or box of art materials I’ve collected to send to school with her. It’s with me when I arrange the chairs alongside the singers before a rehearsal when I come by to listen to their work. It’s mostly in knowing that the stuff needed to keep quotidian action on course is being looked after, bit by little bit. And that I’m the person for the job.
I don’t do this selflessly, of course, because I would hardly keep it up for long if it weren’t so simply and inherently rewarding. And it certainly bespeaks no genius or courage on my part that I do it, for clearly it takes greater skill and ingenuity and bravery to do all of the shiny, showy things for which I provide my atoms of encouragement from the periphery. Maybe a jot of courage only to admit to being a homemaker and loving it. So many who haven’t the privilege of the life seem to disdain it and misconstrue its meaning, especially if it doesn’t have either children or wealth as part of the equation. I am far more fearful of having no sense of purpose than of being thought unimportant by anyone else; I care more about feeling my own worth than having it validated by any outside agents.
So if I seem to anyone to be afraid of taking a larger role in the Real World as they see it, I suppose I ought to admit that in one sense I am. I know that having this Job for a few years has given me new strength and the ability to go out in the wider world for a so-called Real one again when the time comes, yet I do dread leaving this role that has given me a feeling of vocation more than anything else I’ve ever done and risking the dimming of any of the self-worth I’ve garnered or the value I’ve learned to impute to the tasks of being normal and simple and everyday, which I’ve learned to see as so much deeper and richer than they’d seemed until I tried on the role of their custodian myself. I do, at the end of it, think that if I’m a dull, bland or unimportant grease-monkey to the cogs of the world, I’m a damn good one, and if I’m scared of giving up that high honor, then I at least credit myself with being a superior variety of chicken.
That little old four-letter word Work has challenged the finest among us to test the limits of endurance, wisdom, hope and courage for as long as there’s been such a thing as a job on this planet. We agonize and weep over our work as though doing unspeakable heroics every single minute, even when we know perfectly well that every living thing has faced challenges of his, her or its own since the first moment there were, well, living things. It didn’t take employers and employees to bring this tension to full expression. If I think I’m sitting on a powder-keg just because I’ve tackled something that pushes me to my limits (or, to be more precise, because it has tackled me), it’s time to step back, take a deep breath, and remember my compatriots of every sort striving and struggling and facing greater odds than I have ever faced, accepting them as the inevitable price of existence.Not that any of this contemplation has the remotest chance of making me stop thinking myself both the greatest martyr and the finest superhero at work on the planet. I only get the smallest momentary glimpses of sanity through the veneer of my regular distorted self-image as the silly person I am, after all. Even though I know that in my own version of ‘cat and mouse’ the tiniest mouse could best me in the flick of a whisker.
In a comment on my gardening post last week, Ted reminded me of the inimitable Mary Poppins, and I was in turn moved to recollect her frank self-description as ‘Practically Perfect in Every Way‘. In the case of that charming fictional character, it was simply and inarguably the truth. The rest of us, mere mortals, can’t quite go that far if we’re honest.
Which is why I like saints. It’s doubtful I’d really enjoy meeting them in person, to be precise: it’s the nature, the character of them, that really fascinates me. Because, as I understand it, what separates the saints from the rest of us ordinary slouches is not that they were born or made saints but that they became saints by rising above the ordinary way they began. Unlike superheroes and the majority of fairytale protagonists, it’s not often a transformation that’s accomplished by the wave of a wand or inadvertent exposure to radioactive substances, but rather is brought about by internal change and will and choice.
There is hope for me in the idea that most saints–and I gather this is true of the heroines and heroes of many significant belief systems, along with many of the major religions–start out as plain, simple, unimpressive and very mortal humans and for one reason or another are moved to do the things they do that gradually re-shape them into extraordinary beings. Some of those avatars, indeed, start out as pretty sketchy characters, if not outright jerks, despots, and other first-rank varieties of meanies. It’s the process, the journey, and the ultimate commitment to do and be something else that makes them extraordinary.
Chances are beyond-excellent that I will never become a saint of any sort. But the real hope and inspiration in the lives of heroes, saints and exemplars is that nearly all of them began their lives as someone or something far less extraordinary than the way they ended them, and if so there’s always a possibility that with a little thoughtful effort I might actually improve along the way too. Don’t hold your breath, but I might just turn out slightly better than expected. Apparently, miracles do happen.
What’s that sound? Is’t the alarum-bells? A cry for aid? Say what, you texted me??? Sorry, wrong number!If you came here looking for heroism, you are decidedly on the wrong front porch, knocking on the wrong-est door ever. For saintliness, try someplace down the block or around the globe. Any superhero cape I’ve ever owned was made for Halloween out of an old bedsheet (and the accompanying tights are, ahem, waaaay too tight now), and my halo’s batteries ran out when I was about four seconds old and discovered how to scream. Not out of rottenness, mind you, just out of excessive sheer humanity. If there is such thing as having feet of clay, why then I’m a virtual Swamp Thing. Believe me, I’m not proud of this; I’m certainly not bragging about such lowliness. Just stating the facts.
What I see in my mirror is a craven coward and a self-centered dilettante, one who delights in not taking responsibility for others’ well being and who has not the skills, the innate gifts, nor the desire to be a caregiver. Even when those whom I adore most are ill or suffering, I have such tiny reserves of kindness and such a short attention span that even the people who know me are likely to be surprised to be reminded of the depth of my depravity in this regard. I come from a good and kindly stock of nurses and teachers and home caregivers and pastoral and community leaders, and all sorts of people who have taught me by their shining examples how to show compassion and patience, and yet it didn’t really ‘take’.But if I’m truly forthright, I must also say that I am very reluctant to change. There is a part of me that does participate in the festival of guilt that is so liberally sprinkled over much of humankind, those who have even the most modest codes of ethics or morals or simple consideration for the existence of others. But I do not enjoy the company of that humble and self-effacing part of me, not at all. I stare at it until I feel sufficiently gloomy to assure myself I’ve not yet lost all contact with my fellow beings–and then I hasten to hide from it as quickly as I can. My better self reviles the mean Me that, while it worries about the well-being of my family who are so very far away, especially when as now, they are dealing with genuinely traumatic things like Mom’s surgeries and recovery, is still not-so-secretly relieved that there is no easy way for me to be called upon from 2000 miles away to be physically present in a sickroom or assist with things-medical and daily caregiving tasks that intimidate and frankly, discomfit me. I am squeamish. I’m impatient. I’m afraid of all things I don’t understand and incredibly resistant to being called upon to attempt to understand them, let alone perform any helpful deeds based upon them. I am desperately fearful of seeing anyone I even like, let alone love, in pain or unhappy.
Sometimes I can suck it up and pretend to be better than I am. I embrace as best I can the skills and tricks that have been taught me over the years to overcome many of my lifelong social fears and inhibitions. Even the remove of a telephone call is sufficient to get some people through at least the emotional demands of others’ needs, but since I’ve told you I have a sizable and lifelong phobia and dread of telephones (yet another inexplicable, and not very helpful, character trait), that’s not a really big boost for me. In writing, I can pull off the disguise of a better person very slightly more convincingly.
This all leaves me with the rather bitter knowledge that I am no better than I absolutely have to be to get by in any situation. I have to direct you elsewhere if you come looking for an example of How to Do Things when it comes to generosity, selflessness or compassion in action. It’s all hard, hard work that, if anyone is genuinely predisposed or programmed to do it, failed to take root in my DNA, and has to be forced on me. Here I am, smudged face and all, and as dependent as a baby on the goodness of others to make the world a better place. Can I get around my own resistance to open-handedness and gracefulness enough to be a decent person? Only the rest of my life will tell. I’m an optimist, so I hope that I’ll turn out better in the long run. I’ll keep you posted. Meantime, if you’re looking for a Rock you can depend upon, I must send you elsewhere–but if you want to join with this paltry grain of sand to build a beachhead, I’ll gladly welcome the inspiration and the good company. As you can see, I can really use the reinforcements.