They Also Serve

Why aren’t you helping?

I’m in the kitchen of extended family, watching two teenagers and two middle-aged couples make it look as if a dinner never happened here. As they somehow manage to not quite stumble over each other, dirty dishes are being cleared off the table and put in, or given to, the dishwasher as appropriate. Leftovers are being assessed for volume, packaged, and hidden in the fridge.

Do you want to throw this out now
or shall I put it in the fridge
so you can throw it out later?
The speaker in my head is my grandmother, addressing my mother about 55 years ago. The speaker in my ear is the Big Guy, addressing me only a few years ago.

Why aren’t you helping?
I look up and give him the look.
I’m helping by staying out of the way.

Where once I would have been in the fray up to my elbows, now more and more I stand back and let the young ones do it. The ones who really are as young as I think I am. In short, I help by staying out of the way, and not just when cleaning up after a dinner party.

Sadly, the previous generation no longer needs my support: I am now the aging parent.

Happily, the next generation no longer needs my earning power or my parenting skills, such as they were: My children have that age-and-stage well in hand.

Inevitably, society no longer needs my wisdom or experience, such as they are: Before I retired I found myself turning to new graduates for help with navigating new technologies on work projects; I now appeal to my children and grandchildren for similar help in my personal projects.

Getting old means getting useless, or that’s how it can feel.

God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Sonnet 19, John Milton

Milton and I likely don’t share much theology, but the oft-quoted final line certainly resonates for me increasingly, and no more so than now.

I’d love to help with the coronavirus pandemic. I could use my nursing skills, but I lack any. I could offer my project management skills, but it looks to me as if they have at least enough hands on the tiller, and it’s just possible that knowing something about public health measures would be important.

All that I can do is help by staying out of the way, avoiding situations that might expose me to the virus. So that I don’t get sick or get sick later. And so that I don’t unwittingly infect someone else.

They also serve who only stay at home.


This entry was posted in Feeling Clearly, Mortality, Politics and Policy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to They Also Serve

  1. Alison Uhrbach says:

    We’re doing our part! we’re staying home, and perhaps one of these days I’ll actually get around to doing some of the things I always avoid, like deep housework? or sorting photos? ?? . It’s the best we can do right now.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Bah! to deep cleaning. (Surfaces, well, OK.) It’s always revealing to have extra, unplanned time – all those projects I think I’d like to do somehow don’t get to the top of the list.

  2. Tom Watson says:

    I’m chuckling at your saying: “I’m helping by staying out of the way.”

    I won’t mention who but there are those in my family take that approach.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Hey, it’s a valid contribution. From some more than others, maybe.

      • Dave says:

        Well said. I also feel that way about the economic policy decisions that must be made by our leaders. While I have strong views about how we should run the country’s economic affairs I have no choice but to watch the drama and manage my own portfolio. Also the young no longer need my views regarding portfolio management ; well at least they feel they do not. So I guess I will preserve my estate as best as I can.


        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Dave – High drama indeed. Isn’t that the old (albeit likely untrue) attribution of the Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times.

  3. Isabel, you do this blog.

    You bring reason, beauty, humor, wit, experience, artistry, variety, grace, and your unique perspective on life into every page of this blog.

    I wonder if any of your readers are as much in need of all of your gifts as I, who lives at all times in nearly the isolation being asked of Canadians to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

    My sequestering in this lovely landscape and often chaotic household is not by choice, exactly, but because life has dished out a combination of problems and demands on my resources that have kept me extremely busy doing what I think are responsible things on this patch and with these people. I am connected to the “outside” world electronically and have found ways of being useful with my specialized learning. Even in the teeth of the current plague and at my age (nearing 79) I have big plans that I am working on every day.

    I had no inclination to become a nun, but the stories of religious women have helped me to endure the strictures of impoverishment, isolation, and routine. I had no inclination to stay so close to home, but the relationships with this small community have taught me more than I could have learned through the transient relationships of travel. I had no inclination to grow food for my family, raise chickens and turkeys, make our daily bread from scratch, or turn out preserves like a canning factory but I must say those skills are handy right now and probably raised healthier kids and have kept us in better shape than we deserve. Fresh air and clean well water are incalculable blessings, too.

    Only in a pared-down environment where I had to focus on the matters at hand and find my own solutions could I have made the discoveries that I now can share.

    You are much too young and too valuable to turn everything over to the younger generation!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – As always, you are very kind. And I don’t intend to pass all activity to the kidlets – but maybe to see more clearly where I can help and where I can’t. And not to feel badly when I do stay out of the way, especially when I’m enough slower that my help is less than, um, helpful. Your recounting of your life’s path reminds me delightfully of my old friend who used to talk about “blooming where you’re planted.” It’s not for everyone, maybe, but it’s a completely valid way to live, says me.

  4. barbara says:

    One thing we oldies do, though, in coping with this Plague is to take good advice and stay home. I hope the next generations down the line grow up and do the same.

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