Plod on, you Angels say, do better aspire higher
And one day you may be like us, or those next below us,
Or nearer the lowest,
Doing their best
—Stevie Smith, from “No Categories,” 1950
“The way up and the way down are one and the same.”
—Heraclitus, Fragment 69
The last kid had barely walked out our front door when my husband popped the top off a Dogfish Head ale, the bottle cap pinging onto the kitchen countertop, the cold beer sighing, as he lifted the bottle to his lips.
“Frankly,” my husband said, more or less, “I think we suck at this.”
Going on three years now, my husband and I have been the volunteer co-leaders of a life skills and mentoring program for young children. These days, the phrase “life skills and mentoring program” seems almost inevitably to be accompanied by the phrase “children at risk,” but these young people cross all the social and economic strata in our area, though that spectrum is narrower in our middle-class town than the class inequality gulf we keep hearing about in the news. This being the diverse DC metro area, there are kids whose parents are immigrants from Africa and Iowa alike.
What I’ve found is that both they, and we, are equally in need of life skills and mentoring: I am forty-four years old, but it wasn’t until we were well into leading this group that I learned how to correctly do a push-up, or hammer a nail. I knew nothing about the Maryland state flag, nor had I hiked a trail in the nearby woods. Together we have learned how to play catch, how to avoid Internet predators, and most recently, how to wash vegetables safely and cut them elegantly.
I read what I’ve just written above, and have to laugh: These sound like the kinds of things one might learn in occupational therapy, in a rehabilitation hospital. (Remember teenaged, hospitalized Warren Beatty in the movie Splendor in the Grass, pounding away his frustrations in the carpentry shop? Go watch it!)
But isn’t it the case that we are all in need of rehabilitation, from contemporary life? We talk all the time about getting young people away from video games and other kinds of screen time—à la Last Child in the Woods—but what about ourselves?
Each week is also an encounter with our own patience, and its limitations: Crowd management. Short attention spans. Sometimes we feel like yelling “Shut up!”—or worse—at the top of our lungs. Afterward, we collapse onto the sofa, Dogfish in hand and think, we suck.
And the worst of it is the creeping feeling—despite the fact that we believe in this work, are committed to it, and actually enjoy it, most of the time—that it is, in the end, of miniscule significance. We live in an atmosphere where the talking about doing something, its framing and representation, the distillation of targets and benchmarks and best practices, all in service toward some desired social goal, far exceeds in importance the task itself.
Nobody, we have realized with dismay, is ever going to give us a MacArthur genius grant for leading this little group.
Think of how elite students seem to package their experiences these days: There’s the requisite trip to Africa or Central America to dig wells, but that’s not sufficient: Rather, one has to “develop a mechanism for creating more sustainable wells,” preferably one that is replicable and can be brought to scale, monetized, and ultimately, distilled into “Lessons Learned” that can be reflected on at length on All Things Considered or Charlie Rose.
Somewhere in this story, though, is a cup of cold water. Someone offering it, and someone receiving it.
The other day at the bakery in the lobby of my office building, I saw New York Times columnist David Brooks having coffee with former D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee—both of them the apotheoses of this very kind of achievement. I imagined them having an epic, quasi-orgasmic confab about achievement and how best to measure it. The need to specialize, the need to be professional.
On the very day I write this, Brooks has an essay in the Times that talks about the ways that the beneficiaries of Meritocracy—whether from “Nebraska or Newark”—find themselves isolated from the rest of their peers:
They’ve been raised in an atmosphere of social equality and now find themselves in a culture that emphasizes the relentless quest for distinction — to be more accomplished, more enlightened and more cutting edge.
As I read that, once again, that Mephistophelean voice creeps up inside my head: If you stopped doing all these volunteer things, then maybe you could do something really professional and really important. And it’s hard to deny that this is the truth: Because of this group, because of teaching Sunday School, because of my husband’s guitar lessons for neighborhood kids, and the meals sign-ups I chair for the sick and shut-ins at the church, we are not recording trenchantly innovative albums or completing breakthrough cycles of Abstract Expressionist paintings—much less talking about the lessons learned in the process of doing so.
For some months now, I have been reading, savoring, The Duty of Delight, the collected journals of Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. It’s heartening to read, even decades after she had become a national figure, how quotidian her preoccupations continued to be: Keeping control of her tongue. Having enough food to feed the daily breadline the Catholic Worker ran. Dealing with the hassle of the indigent who thronged to her door.
The root of amateur is nothing less than to love. Day continued to be an amateur even as she helped build the community of the Catholic Worker around her.
Let me love, love, continue to love like this. Even if I suck at it.