“Sounds like a good exercise in self-affirmation.” That’s what my wife told me when I mentioned I was going to write about what I do best. But it has not been that for me. I keep thinking about how much time I spend doing what I don’t do best: mending fences, cutting wood, hauling hay, spreading manure. Although I do these things better than I did three years ago, the skills and physical strength they require do not come naturally to me.
What I do best? There was a time I might have said write, or act, or make music. But it’s been three years since I’ve written a poem, seven years since I’ve been on stage, and when I sit down at the piano, I cannot make my fingers do what they used to do.
So what is a skinny person who loves words and ideas doing up to his elbows in manure and diesel fuel? Burying his talents? I certainly did not think so when I came to this farm three years ago full of romantic dreams and high ambition. Working the farm was going to inspire rather than consume my creative energy. And somehow my liberal education was going to be useful in making me a better farmer. I quickly found out what a silly idea that was. A broken hay baler, an eroding hillside, and drought-stressed crops are not the least bit impressed that I can recite Hopkins or Yeats.
In China, they used to force intellectuals to work the farms, hoping to purge them of elitist notions. Most everyone now agrees that this was a bad idea.
I chose to come here and I want to stay. Yet part of me thinks it was a bad idea, feels tyrannized, is tired of always being tired and never being done, wants an end to this self-imposed Cultural Revolution.
Yesterday, while hoeing the garden with my toddler son strapped to my back, I thought of all the African women who do this and don’t have the luxury to sit and wonder whether or not it’s what they do best. Sometimes I almost envy them. If it’s true, as Hegel said, that “freedom is the recognition of necessity,” then they are freer than I am. I don’t have to do this. I could get a job, buy all my groceries, and pay someone to look after my child.
But I don’t want to do that. I want to be here in this garden with my son. Raising children and vegetables may not be what I do best, but I know I do these things better than any day-care center or industrial farm. And no babysitter or migrant worker can feel the joy that I feel from this child and these plants. Then why am I so discontented, why do I sometimes feel as if I am throwing my life away?
I used to think that I needed to find the one single thing that I do best, my calling, my vocation; once I discovered that, I would pursue it with an all-consuming passion and be happy. I had in mind the great artists or athletes whose concentrated focus makes their lives burn with such brilliant energy. I guess we all want what we do best to be something grand, something to make other people sit up and take notice.
What do I do best? I can only answer within the context of this life I have chosen: this family and this farm to which I devote my energy, energy which is neither focused nor brilliant, but diffused and dissipated by the contradictory claims of all the many things I want to do, have to do, feel I ought to do. I grow spinach. I bake bread. I make love with my wife. I sing my daughter to sleep. These things do not make many people sit up and take notice, and they do nothing for my unpurged elitist notions. But they are what I do best. This is the best I can do. Sometimes this is enough.
Writing is the thing I do best. Many people may envy such a statement, but I worry about it because writing is the only thing I can do well. I find it hard to talk with people. I’m always trying to figure out what it is they want me to say. I listen so much that I can’t hear what I’m thinking. I fear that if I talk too much, the other person will discover how stupid, insensitive, or confused I am, and he or she will hate me. Joking, I told a friend that my face looks terrified when I talk with people. Quite seriously, she said yes, that’s just how you look.
When I’m typing on my computer, no one can see what I’m writing unless and until I print it and show it to him. I can write anything I feel like without fearing that someone will criticize it, at least not right away. My journal entries, which no one else ever reads, are filled with cruel and incoherent thoughts that I would never dare to utter.
I’m trying to bring my speech up to the level of my writing. I’ve tried pretending that the person I’m speaking with is a voice-activated computer, but that doesn’t work for long. Sooner or later, the other person says something I hadn’t expected, asks a question I can’t answer, and I’m thrown into a confusion expressed by a chaotic collage of monosyllables. All the fine circuitry in my writer’s mind melts and I say, “Uh, gee . . . I don’t know.”
Maybe my klutziness is a hiding place, where I can avoid the one person I fear most — myself. Often I’ve found that when I talk, I say something that I hadn’t expected myself to say. I think, “I said that?” and I feel uncomfortable in the mysterious presence of myself.
The thing I do best is to make the most of my old age.
For one thing, at eighty-one, 1 no longer feel shy with strangers. I think this began when we were living in Vermont and I was in my seventies. I still remember a beautiful day when I was standing in the hot sun waiting for the traffic light to change. Beside me stood a tousled boy in jeans. As the light turned green and we started across, I surprised myself by speaking to him. “Another hot day,” I said, and he answered as easily as if I were his grandmother. “I’m going fishing up on the Battenkill,” he said, his eyes shining. I had an instant picture of him sitting on a shady bank, the dappled brown water sliding by below. “I know you’ll get a big one,” I said. “The Battenkill is famous for its trout!’’ He ran off and I turned toward the post office, almost bumping into an older, rather elegant woman. “Sorry!” I said. “Another hot one, isn’t it?” She looked surprised, but she answered as if I were a friend. “Yes, I’m afraid so.” After that I spoke to anyone whenever it seemed appropriate.
But perhaps this pleasant change in myself had begun earlier, because I remember when we were living in Turkey, in my sixties, an American official once remarked, “I’m glad to be going to a Turkish village with you because I have heard your technique with the peasant women is very successful.”
I was outraged! Technique? It was simply seeing those strong, deprived, warm, friendly women as human beings. Technique? It was admiration, it was love! So it must have been in Turkey that I began to move from being centered on myself to seeing people as they are.
Basically, this is the way I see the role of a grandmother, a role I have assumed willingly, even eagerly. Being a grandmother isn’t only making cookies, reading aloud, playing Slap Jack, sending post cards; it is also loving uncritically and giving your full attention to other people’s troubles, not just listening till they are finished so you can tell them your own. I grandmother people of all ages these days, some older than I.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I have gained is to put things into perspective. Although I am aware my time may be short, I am taking the long view. If my husband wants to go somewhere when I had expected to be free to work — my first pleasure and first priority is writing — the whole universe flashes into my mind, the endless time of outer space, and I get into the car without even feeling disappointed; I know I will have time for everything. If I suggest a cheese souffle for supper and my husband prefers macaroni and cheese, it’s no effort to agree wholeheartedly. I enjoy good food, but I’m not addicted to it now.
Somewhere, I picked up the idea that it’s good to break a habit now and then. I recognized it would be easy to become rigid in old age, and I prefer to be flexible. So now if something prevents me from taking my usual after-lunch nap, or if my daily walk has to be to the post office instead of through Sonoma’s peaceful green vineyards, I accept this change in my routine happily. I also try to do a difficult thing every day. If one doesn’t confront me, I look for it. It may be walking a half mile farther than my usual two, or tackling a complicated recipe, or composing a letter to the editor of our paper.
I’ve learned that my body is not who I am. Of course I look after my body, but I am not a slave to it. I listen to it, I exercise it, I nourish it, but if I am tired or ill, I no longer think, “I’m tired! I’m ill!” because I know it’s my body that’s tired and ill, not I, not Rebecca.
What I do best is remember I’m going to die someday. Especially when my life seems to be sailing smoothly, this sense that I’ll end in nothing, that I’ll simply fall off the edge of the world, is the strongest in me.
My first realization of death was early and deep. I was four and was staying with my mother’s best friend, Auntie Audrey, who shared a house with and cared for an elderly grandmother. Audrey was doing dishes and I was playing with a toy tractor on the floor at her feet, when she said, out of the blue, “When Grandma dies, we’ll be able to do so much more together.”
It was the first moment in my little bud of a consciousness when I turned within: when Grandma dies, life will go on . . . when Grandma dies . . . when Grandma dies, she’ll stay dead and life will go on, without her, forever. . . . Suddenly the toy tractor was unrecognizable in my hand. There was something incredibly big and terrible about living that had never occurred to me before, and I felt myself turning dark blue and sick inside. I was going to die someday and be dead forever.
After that, I’d dream at night of being swallowed up by the dark rivers in and around my home town, sinking into heavy, lonely nothingness, and I became afraid of bridges, ducking my head in the car as we passed over these rivers.
Even though I now live more in the light of day, I always seem to remember that it all ends. Intellectually, I’ve come to understand the necessity of death; it’s easy to see that life and death are interdependent, irrevocably entwined. Certainly I’ve been attracted to the promise of life-after-death that was part of my boyhood church indoctrination.
But now I think that Christ’s victory over death (and that of Buddha and other transcendents) is something altogether different from what I was taught and hoped for and almost believed as a child. I now think that those who attain victory over death, each in his own style, do so through a deep emotional embrace of death’s finality. In this embrace all resistance to reality is broken, and acceptance of life (and through acceptance, love of life) becomes complete. Thus they are born into a realm of living that is so full, compared to that of those who are still resisting, that “eternal” and “immortal” seem apt descriptions.
So I am one who is cursed and blessed always to see “the skull beneath the skin.’’ Cursed because I can’t yet come into full embrace with this skull. And blessed because . . . well, who’s to say I won’t someday.
Petersburg, West Virginia
What I do best varies from moment to moment, but running through the generations of women in my family is one theme: managing. I remember my grandmother, with an air of stolid determination, moving with great speed through her daily list of things to do. I was twelve and she was sixty-four, but I could barely keep up with her. After her husband had a stroke during the Great Depression, leaving him paralyzed for the next twenty years, my grandmother worked every day from five in the morning to ten at night, baking bread and making meals for the old folks she tended and “the public” she fed. She managed, in a “head down and straight ahead” way, a retirement home and restaurant.
My mother managed also: a houseful of seven children, assorted animals, and a peripatetic professor. My father liked the challenge of finding an ever-better job, always in another state, and we moved quite often as I was growing up. My mother managed our moves.
The “head down and straight ahead” style of moving through Life was less attractive to me in my mother than in my grandmother. I wanted my mother to have time simply to be with me, and I grew up missing her.
So what I do best, a skill honed through the generations, is make lists. I discovered early in life the joy of crossing off completed items on a list. Whenever we go on a trip or have a big event, I write lists for everyone in my house. I wish I remembered more often to include some personally nurturing items, like “pat yourself on the back for a job well done,” or “go get a hug.”
Last year, while I was convalescing from an operation, my eldest daughter, age twelve, wrote me a list:
- Rest and get well.
- Make more lists for the rest of us.
- We all love you very much.
- Tell your family that you love them.
So the legacy passes on.
However, something new is beginning to happen. I heard someone say recently that he liked to do things immediately so they “didn’t get on a list.” That phrase seemed to open a door in my soul! I began to realize what a tremendous burden a list can be.
Without lists, what I seem to do best is to feel the pain of my grandmother’s and mother’s lives, and of everybody else’s too. Underneath my managerial lists is some deep sadness connected to the necessity of “managing” at all.
West Newton, Massachusetts
The thing I do best just happens. I could never do it consciously. I don’t think I could tell someone else how to do it. It’s a complete mystery to me and it was years before I realized exactly what was going on. Even now it’s hard to talk about or describe.
It has been happening since I was a child. Odd handfuls of neighborhood kids became Olympic-class kickball and hide ’n’ seek teams. School bus passengers became choirs. And it continues into adulthood: individuals become groups, strangers become friends, people become interconnected.
The dynamics elude me, and it was only after nearly forty years of watching it happen that I even noticed it. Sometimes I think it’s completely esoteric — that I run the energy of the group through my own energy field and return it unified, re-tuned. There have been times when I’ve experienced the right side of my body as emptied out, filled with stars and nebulae, resonating for the larger body of my people. Needless to say, this is the sort of thing one discusses with confidence only anonymously in the pages of a magazine like this one.
So I’m left with awe and confusion, appreciating the fruits of my work as groups become “family” and family becomes “church’’ around me. Although I don’t understand it, I seem to be able to create community, just by showing up. What I do best is unseen, subtle, has never been articulated or described to me in my culture by words like “leadership” or even “priest.” Could it be that many of us fill offices that we have forgotten exist, performing functions invisible to the eye? Are we maintaining ourselves through structures that we never consider? I feel like a sleepwalker in a mystery that laughs at our skyscrapers.