“Before we crash
I reach over
and place my right arm
against Grandmother’s chest
the very moment
she reaches over
-Janet S. Wong, Behind the Wheel
I keep coming back to that moment: a woman reaching out to protect her grandmother, a woman reaching back to protect her granddaughter.
There are so many people who need help. Taking care of children shows that: little humans totter along wonderfully, but my niece would totter in dangerous directions without anyone else nearby, and she doesn’t pack her own snacks. Paying attention to my heart shows that: I used to have this American individualist idea that I should be able to sit alone and Be Great, but that never worked out. Whatever’s strong in me is a response to those around me. Looking around shows that: I keep seeing people who so obviously need a hand reaching out to them. I find myself wondering, so who?
If you squint at human history, maybe it starts looking like experiments with that question: who gets support, who offers it, and how is it given? Are kids raised by parents, or governesses, or the community? Are grandparents taken care of by paid professionals (if the grandparents can pay), or by their children, or by the community? The apples from that tree—who gets them? Angeles Arrien comments somewhere that healthy adults will be fine in most societies, so the measure of a society is how its people takes care of those who aren’t healthy adults.
All this can get pretty transactional: the school counselor is responsible for this group, but not that one. My professors can choose to help me, but should not ask for help from me. I’m socially bound to help my housemate with the sink, but not with his tears. Those rules are set up for a reason, or at least for different reasons: so the people make the rules get as much as possible, so we don’t have to be uncomfortable about asking for or offering support, or so support is offered fairly and equally and safely. Some of those rules have their place. Adults take care of kids because kids need it. Kids grow up and take care of others, because then it’s their turn. Lives have stages, and if we get the gears right, maybe all these lives can fit together, tic tic, like a good clock.
All the same, I keep going back to Wong’s image. If we need rules to make sure that everyone is offered support, maybe we need poems to remind us how offering that support could feel. A woman reaches out to her grandmother. A woman reaches out to her granddaughter. Someone’s just coming into their time of leading, of taking care of the garden we share. Someone’s been leading for a long time, and her hands are probably tireder than once they were. They protect each other, or support each other, or share the wish of support with each other. It’s not a trade or a transaction. It’s not taking turns. It’s vulnerable and tender. Perhaps we could call that kind of support love, and living.