Imagine a plate, a lettuce leaf, and a pineapple ring on the leaf with half a banana standing in the hole like a candle. Put a dab of mayonnaise on the tip of the banana and a maraschino cherry on the top. OK, I made that “salad” for my parents at dinner when I was about 10. I earnestly wanted to make things in our harsh household better. I must have seen a photo of this thing in a magazine and thought it would make my parents happy. Maybe it did because my dad laughed. My mother made fun of me. I remember feeling shamed.
Such setbacks didn’t stop me from a lifetime of compulsively trying to make things better. Wash it, fix it, brush it, organize it…and “it” would be better. Is this a woman thing, an instinct to clean up the cave—or a control thing, a way to feel safer? I think for me it was the desire for safety through the control of what could be controlled.
I collected snow globes for years. They were perfect worlds that even when shaken, returned to themselves. My favorite was a black and white cat sitting in a comfy red chair, unperturbed by the snow falling. I wanted to be that cat without the snow. I wanted to change my life and the world in big ways with speeches, writing, counseling, and political campaigns. I thought I could create a clean, good, and just world for myself and others.
I figured out at about 60, when my husband died, that control is fleeting and being shaken is life. Unexpected snow will fall. We can work hard, do our best, give what we can and clean up messes, but the world will always be confusing and chaotic, uncontrollable. We can only truly control our own behavior. I try to change the world now in smaller ways. I have retreated to a more or less peaceful haven for myself—home, friends, garden, animals.
I admire my senior friends who are still willing to work in big ways for our greater good. Kate is an environmental powerhouse. Amal resettles refugees. Carla rescues and houses abused animals, usually horses. Terry brings the sacraments to those who are unable to leave their homes. Debby advocates for homeless women. There are many more I do not have space to name.
My options are now quiet ones. I volunteered a few years ago as a baby washer at a center for at risk children aged from birth to 5. My job was to receive a child, wash him or her, put on clean clothes, cuddle and pass this sweet being on to the teachers and counselors. I made things better, for a few moments. Encouragement is easy to offer whether it is for a child, a parent, or a young adult struggling to get an education.
Small gestures are available to all of us. On the road—patience, no honking, giving way, noticing pedestrians and bicyclists, getting out of the way of aggressive drivers (maybe he is rushing to the bedside of a sick child). It is easy to smile, notice, compliment. I encountered a charming young girl at the post office, maybe a new immigrant, and told her shy father how beautiful she was. He smiled from ear to ear and I still feel good remembering.
I am careful about when to help and when not to help. Children and animals, picking up litter, yes, recycling, yes. Learning to leave well enough alone, maybe. People don’t like do-gooders or busy bodies. I know that any impulsive gesture I think is helpful needs to be genuine, thoughtful, and practical. It is important to be respectful, regardless.
It is easy to compliment, appreciate, and thank all who service or help us and tell the manager when we are treated well. Last week I went to the dump to sort all my debris into appropriate recycling piles. An old toilet rode shotgun on the trip, complete with a seatbelt, on its way to porcelain heaven. Two men saw me struggling with it and laughed as they lifted it out of the car. I get help from strangers at the gas pump when my hands aren’t strong enough. They never hesitate.
I asked my friends how they make things better in small ways. One loves to cook for family and church groups, one provides work and encouragement for millennials who are struggling, one drives friends to the airport, another organizes potlucks. What is on your list for making things better?
Yes, there will always be snow falling in our world, even on sunny days. Yes, we will be shaken, but it is no longer scary snow, just life and we now know it will eventually settle again. As elders we are finally free to sit in that big red comfy chair as often as we want to—as long as we continue to make room for everyone else.
Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and master’s degrees in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.