There are perks to straightening up. Mind you, if there is anything better to do, I will do it. Yet, I freely admit that there is an interesting and salutary upheaval of the “status quo” in a room when you begin to straighten up. You find that favorite earring you thought irretrievably lost and it suddenly feels a bit like a treasure hunt. You find a random sock, or an old picture of a friend and yourself at twenty laughing at something quite hilarious – you wish you knew! Or old pictures drawn by your kids stashed at the back of a drawer that make you sniff a bit.
This pleasant upheaval of memories is never more keenly felt than when approaching…the book shelves. It’s an unwritten rule that if I straighten up a room, the bookshelves must come last or the rest of the room will never be touched by broom or dust rag; because inevitably when I start moving and adjusting books on shelves I always blow the dust off some re-discovered gems. And most times, maybe an hour later, I am sitting on the floor in a moat of books saying things like, “Oh, that’s right,” or, “I remember where I was when I read this book,” or, “Sigh…Keats.”
I found myself floating in this familiar moat one afternoon recently. I fished out some old favorites and started leafing through them. They were quite different sorts of “fish.” One was Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Another was a favorite book on education, Marva Collins Way, by Civia Tamarkin. The third was a large, lavish volume called The Book of Botanical Prints compiled by a 16th Century apothecary, Basilius Besler. Three quite different books, but as I paged through them once again and looked at what I had underlined or written in the margins, I discovered a surprising and thought-provoking similarity between them all – the important art of taking care.
When I first opened Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book on the history of cancer, I had just spent three weeks feeling first-hand the gut-wrenching fear produced by that word in my own life. I had my own cancer scare that was caught, “in time,” but had left me feeling somewhat fragile emotionally. So, when I heard Dr. Mukherjee speak by chance on an NPR program one day, I was mesmerized by his voice and his subject matter – Cancer. Since I am a firm believer that we fear less what we come to know better, I bought his book and was immersed in it for three days straight. In lyrical writing that captured my heart, he traced the historical path of cancer from ancient times up to our own.
As he introduced all the major players in the timeline of research, I was struck most by one young woman researcher who, before microscopic cameras and digital anything existed, painstakingly and meticulously drew by hand what she saw each time in the microscope mapping out the cell patterns revealed there. She conducted careful experiments by hand over a several month period, daily. Truth mattered to her, because it mattered most urgently to the patients who were waiting for her results. She could not hastily or lazily draw estimates. Her scientific and artistic accuracy were an almost sacred trust to those patients, because they placed their hope in it and in her. It struck me so forcefully how we humans used to depend on one another much more organically for truth and light. Without computers or machines or technology of any kind, men and women had to be mentally and physically alert, honest, careful, hyper observant and patient. It was a giving forth of the entire self – a physical endurance as well as mental. A sacrifice of time, talent, sleep, leisure, and sometimes a whole lifetime – for this hidden work of love for their fellow men. She was only one of many mentioned in that book that left me feeling less fragile and alone. I knew then that there were people who would never give up searching for an answer. This is an inestimable gift – the generosity of love. It was the careful and meticulous art of taking care.
It’s the kind of thing Civia Tamarkin experienced in a different way when she met the marvelous Marva Collins. Marva Collins was a teacher in the Chicago public school system during the 1970’s who could not look away. She experienced firsthand all the children falling through the cracks because they were different – eccentric, on the spectrum, or perhaps neglected by their parents. They were passed on from teacher to teacher who would pass them on again, quickly labeling them failures. Eventually, they would drop out of school. Nobody cared.
Well, Marva Collins cared. As a disheartened teacher in this broken Chicago public school system, she determined to make a difference. She launched out on her own, and her brainchild, Westside Preparatory School was born in the slums of Chicago. She brought several of the misfit failures, the public school throwaways, with her. She had nothing except a couple of rooms, and a love of teaching. She started first on her students’ dignity. She would greet each child at the door and say something complimentary about each one. With a delicate charity, she would bring a set of clothes to give a student to put on, take their dirty clothes home to wash, and quietly bring food for some who had not eaten breakfast that day. No one knew but her and the student.
She was demanding. She demanded combed hair, neat appearance, a decisive walk. No shuffling. No street-talk. They had to speak politely to one another and to her. She exemplified this behavior in her own meticulous dress and the wearing of beautiful and distinctive jewelry the children always loved looking at. They responded to her at first in confusion that someone was actually paying attention to them, and then with a love that turned into a dedicated work ethic. She walked all day among the rows of desks, drilling, talking, making her students read aloud, stopping them to ask questions. She demanded that they memorize poetry, and lists of presidents, kings, states, capitals, countries. They learned to think clearly by imitating her. She made them state their opinions and no one was allowed to laugh. She patted them on the back as she passed, told them how brilliant they were for a correct answer, laughed at their jokes, and loved them deeply and tenderly. Then – miraculously – they started treating each other the same way. They started rooting for each other to succeed, and they did! These misfits went to college to become lawyers, doctors, and teachers. They came back to thank her many, many times.
Marva’s kind of teaching is, if you have ever done it, exhausting. She used to say that if you were not mentally and physically exhausted at the end of a school day, then you had not taught. She demanded a physical and mental generosity in her teachers. They had to study and learn how to impart that knowledge carefully and successfully to their students. She taught them herself how to do this. They did not rely on gimmicks, learning aids, or videos. They were not carried away by the latest in educational theories. They conversed tirelessly, they drilled, they complimented, they patiently explained, infecting the students with their own excitement. Not one child was left behind. This too is the exquisite art of taking care and a generous emptying of self.
The third book was the magnum opus of Basilius Besler, a book of gorgeously meticulous botanical sketches of hundreds of flowers drawn in the 16th century with paints and pencils. These too were astoundingly accurate representations of the actual plants and flowers. For the sheer love of botany and the beauty of the created world, these artists preserved on paper the wonder of rare flowers that by necessity withered in real time, but could be shared with the public who perhaps would never be able to see them in the original. These artists gathered all this for future scientists and US to enjoy and learn from. Here, too, there was a careful patience and observation of nature, a willingness to strive for perfection with a mere paintbrush and pencil, so that men might enjoy what God had made for them. The art of taking care.
So many things are this way. Things that call for human care, accuracy, and generosity. We learn to depend on it, and to trust our fellow human artists. Map makers, architects, builders, brick layers, plumbers, teachers, lab technicians, oncologists, painters, musicians. These artists teach and inspire us in turn to take care of those we love in our smaller realms. Perhaps to serve dinner in a pleasing way with a table cloth and napkins, to sew a special dress with meticulous care for a little girl who trusts our talents, to put flowers on the table just because, to smooth the sheets and pillows of an elderly person’s bed with extra care, to bake bread, or cook from scratch. All small things, but things that make us more human, more generous, more giving of self. It makes all the difference, this art of taking care. I learned to appreciate this truth while sitting in my moat of books, glad that I had decided to straighten the room.
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.