A second installment on hope:
There are times when stamina runs out. It’s just flat out not there anymore.
One day many years ago, I was in the trough of one of those times, too exhausted to even know it. My son was very young. My husband was much-occupied with a new and demanding job. And for reasons that only the stars may someday tell me, my closest women friends had all moved away in the space of a few months.
I felt more deeply alone and unsupported than ever in my life.
Money was tight enough that extra child care, or even a massage, or a few days away was a distant dream. But by that time I’d lost the energy to dream.
The hours spanned without end, the house grew tight, the garden was a disaster. Despite my intense love for my son, I experienced a kind of spiritual and emotional claustrophobia that I suspect only another mother can understand. The ongoingness of care, the myriad daily details of tending to a young one, and the sudden sense of invisibility — even if one has stepped onto this path most willingly — that come from the lack of positive feedback, can batter one’s faith.
Parents — not only of children, but of troubled adolescents — and those who care for chronically depressed or ill relations — all know the isolation and chronic overload that shadows our caregiving.
This level of sacrificial service deeply challenges the message of self-giving that lies at the heart of every major religious tradition. When women (mainly) hear the message that the way to illumination and God is to forego their egos, to “pour themselves out” for others, it’s all too easy to go numb.
Egos? we ask. What egos?
They’ve gotten lost in the relentless demands of the days.
I hope to delve into this knotty churchy/Buddhist message in future blogs. For today, though, my own story of grace and hope, a mirror image of yesterday’s reflections.
In the midst of this time, one afternoon as I stood at the kitchen window, I saw my neighbor Phyllis in my backyard. Phyllis had moved into the house across the street several years earlier, marrying the bachelor doctor who lived there. Childless and in her fifties, she’d transformed the uncultivated shady lot that ran from their stone house to the edge of a small footpath, into a glen of extraordinary plantings and pathways, created a marvelous urban sanctuary. Word of her gifts spread. Cars paused as they drove past Phyllis’s garden. Others came down our lane just for a look-see.
That afternoon, I assumed that Phyllis was just venturing off her property for a break. But when I looked again, I saw that she’d brought over her rake and edger. Slowly and with a master’s touch, she started to take my depressingly unattended yard in hand. In little over an hour, it looked more like its old self than it had in years.
On her way home, she stopped by the back door. Words couldn’t convey my gratitude, relief, and sense of being cared for.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “I need something to do, and this gives me pleasure.”
The next day, she returned with graph paper and a measuring tape. She mapped out the entire yard, and left. Several days later, she appeared again, this time with a design plan. We would do this together, she suggested. We’d drive out to the nursery, select the plants, and I could supervise her plantings. With her landscaper’s discounts, a modest but vastly improved overhaul would be affordable.
I felt as if I’d just been handed back my life. That spring and summer, the garden gradually morphed into a place where I could take my son and feel a new contentment. More than that, I felt a new connection to life, to beauty, and — most importantly — to my own sense of agency.
In our garden project, Phyllis taught me something invaluable about the freeing heart of kindness that I have carried with me ever since. She gave me what gave her joy.
This isn’t always possible in life, but it may be so more often than we realize.
More than offering to help me juggle laundry and nursery books and put away the magnetic letters for the millionth time, she offered me her own deep gladness, something so out of the box that it shifted me out of my own rut.
The horizon grew much, much wider again. And in the space created by her good taste and skills and gift for beauty, gave me an opening to recognize these in myself again too.
Kindness, if it is real, is always about the life of the soul, and sometimes this means it’s about the unexpected, and sometimes what we’ve mistaken for the icing on the cake.