Mark Nepo writes in The One Life We’re Given of finding grace and wonder in the act of spoon feeding his invalid father. It’s a beautifully rendered scene of love and, of course, there is grace and wonder in tender moments like these. But having been a stay-at-home mom for almost 22 years, I’m ready to find grace and wonder in something other than taking care of people.
Nepo writes “To be relied on, to be leaned on, to be asked to give something we didn’t think we could give, to be asked to listen beyond our edge of patience, to be asked to carry what others have trouble carrying - these are hard blessings that have us grow for being of use.” These are hard blessings that every mother (in fact, every parent) knows. But it seems to me that this role can be too confining and that it’s possible to do it too long, until the only reward is the meager one Barbara Sher calls the “good person badge.”
MFK Fisher expresses her frustration with caretaking in Last House, where she describes her experience of tending her aged father, painting the scene with almost sickening realism. Her situation is different from Nepo’s - Fisher’s father is not an invalid and could choose, if he thought of it, to be less demanding than he is. But Fisher’s rage is much more relatable to me than Nepo’s grace and wonder. Describing the nightly ritual of rubbing her father’s feet, Fisher writes, “I held my breath, and rightly. I flushed the yellow water down the toilet, and pushed the rug over the splashes of urine on the floor. I saw the teeth in the glass bowl, with flecks of food rising slowly in the water… I thought he’d bathed yesterday, but already he smelled like Wednesday instead of only Monday. I felt his toenails, like pieces of savage carving. He must go soon to the podiatrist - I must call for an appointment, and see that he puts it in his book, and then remind him and remind him. All the time I was trying not to breathe, and increasingly, I thought about hatred…”
Carol Lee Flinders, in her book At the Root of This Longing, woke me to the friction between the spiritual impulse to transcend ego and a woman’s understandable tendency to be “wary of selflessness.” Flinders agrees that egolessness or “self-noughting,” or putting other people first, “is perhaps the bedrock spiritual discipline.” She writes that in meditation workshops, after describing to participants the importance of reducing self-will (and the important distinction that reducing self-will doesn’t mean becoming a doormat), she will often have a woman approach her to “explain privately that she really had not been able to see herself in our characterization of rampant self-will, riding roughshod over the needs of neighbors and family… on the contrary, she is already acquiescing to the needs or desire of people around her to the point where she feels sometimes like a rag doll: the person whose needs are there expressly to be overlooked… the angel in the house… Surely, women insist today, this couldn't be what spiritual teachers ask of us.”
Flinders suggests that other Western women can model the way to navigate this tension between selflessness and self-abandonment. I’m using Shirley Valentine as one of my models. I saw that movie when it came out in 1989. I was 17. I remember loving it and telling my mom about it. She said mothers can’t leave their children and run away from their lives and families (although in Shirley’s case, her children are grown and her husband is habit-bound and demanding.) I am grateful that my mom didn’t run away to Greece, but she did claim the right and autonomy to go to law school when I was 6 and to start her own political organization once her nest had emptied - so she is herself a model of possibilities beyond selfless acquiescence to others’ needs.
I also love Liz Lightsey as a model. She’s the heroine of Kerry Anne King’s A Borrowed Life. Her husband’s death releases her from a tightly bound world as the wife of a conservative minister. She learns that she doesn’t have to orient her life around the needs of the church, her husband, her daughter. She can say yes to what life offers. As Liz writes in her journal, “Every time I catch myself saying, ‘I can’t do that.’ I ask myself why. Why can’t I?”
And then there's that fireball of will and determination, V.I. Warshawski who declares, “I would not be turned into a eunuch, be driven to living my life in the margins designed by someone else’s will.”
Navigating the desire to serve without becoming a eunuch or drudge is the domain of Virgo and the 6th house. Virgo conditions us to develop the skills that fulfill us. Once we have developed those skills, we are able to offer them in meaningful service to others. As Mark Nepo writes in The One Life We’re Given (it really is a good book, even if I quibble with parts of it), “When we can love what we do, it keeps our lamp lit, which lets us bring light to everything we touch.” The key here, though, is keeping the lamp lit. Service that feels like soul-deadening drudgery is the shadow manifestation of Virgo and 6th house.
There's a marvelous example of meaningful service in a May 2021 L'uomo Vogue article on Skateistan, a nonprofit organization started by Oliver Percovich who'd moved with his girlfriend to Afghanistan in 2007 and was trying to figure out what to do with himself. As he skated around war-damaged Kabul, he found that kids were magnetically drawn to his skateboard. He started teaching kids to skate which lead, eventually, to his developing Skateistan, a nonprofit organization that offers educational opportunities and skateboarding lessons to girls and boys in several countries around the world. Having mastered a craft he loved (he started skating in 1980) lead him to a path of meaningful service.
"So what is your Spirit Path?" Mark Nepo asks. "How do you come alive and help keep the world together?... Discovering this, personalizing this, and relating to this is how we gather our being into a force that can be of use."