Give and Take

Single words are delicious morsels of information.  They are rich with history and meaning.  Despite differences of perspective or language, a word can communicate across vast spaces of time and culture.  We know a lot about things because of the words that make up the intricate embroidery of their descriptions.  There is plenty to be known outside of language, of course, but if we experience or learn something non-verbally, chances are the first thing we do is put that experience into words so we can turn right around and tell someone else about it.  And how we do just that!  It is no accident that humans are the only creatures associated with the verb to blather.

It is always important not to confuse the word with the thing it represents.  A word doesn’t ultimately define that to which it is attached, and so names of things are conveniences, not truths.  Still, words are very important.  Not only for how they sound, but also for how they let us sound off.  Equally important is how words make us feel, above and beyond what they might actually mean.

So, several words have come under my scrutiny lately.  They have been coming up a lot in my life, and they are making me feel things which I want to tell someone about.  Please indulge me as I blather.

The words are give, take, and care.  As words and as verbs,  give and care have a lot in common.  They both imply things like altruism, empathy, and sympathy.  Whichever order you put them in, give care or care give,  they sound nice.  To take seems like the odd man out here, almost connoting the opposite of the other two.  However, when you combine give and take, you get the benevolent idea of parity, of sharing.  When you combine care and take, you get an action that is kindly in an especially deliberate way.  When you switch the order to take care, you get a blessing.

Because of my father’s dementia, I am now officially what the health care industry calls a caregiver. It’s a good enough word; it means good things.  I don’t like it for me, though.  I prefer caretaker.  I know that makes me sound more like a janitor or gardener, but I do all that for my father anyway, so it’s not an incorrect description.  Both titles mean the same thing in this context, so this sounds nitpicky, I know.   Probably no one else cares about this little taxonomical issue except me.  Lord knows my father doesn’t care.  But I do, and if I am going to be burdened with a title on top of everything else, I want it to be right.

Care-giving sounds a little impersonal to me.  Like an obligation.   Like one can be somehow detached from the care itself.  It doesn’t have to be part of you, and won’t be part of you once it is given.  We give things away.  That’s what we say when we want to detach ourselves from our cares – we give them away, toss them, release them.  We give things up for good.  Or we give them a whirl.  We give a shit.  Something gives us the creeps.  The concept of giving can seem so superficial.  Want to give? Just write a check.  We give up.

Care-taking sounds like complete absorption to me.  When you take care, it’s personal.  There is no space between you and your care.  It is a choice, not an obligation, to take care.  You take part in the caring.  You take a stand.  You take your place.  You can take a hike.  When you take action, you do it on purpose and you mean something by it.  If you take ill, it’s serious.  Ditto if you take a fall.  If you are taken by something, it has all of your attention.   If you take a pill, you ingest it into your being.  If you take an object, you take on responsibility for it.  If you take a chance, your whole life can hang in the balance.   A second take can change everything.  I’d rather take someone by the hand than just give them a hand.  Taking is active, involved, personal.  Take a number, and when it’s your turn, you are taken care of.

When I picture a caregiver, I picture someone in a white uniform and thick squeaky shoes. Someone who smells medicine-y.  Someone with an education  certificate and a reasonable car.  Someone who was interviewed and hired.  Someone who was given a job.

When I picture a caretaker, I see someone in practical work clothes with a little grime under their fingernails.  Someone with a set of important keys.  Someone who smells of physical labor, either rigorous or plodding.   Someone who can fix things.  Someone who evolved into the job through hard work and determination.  Someone who takes on challenges.

I’ll concede that caregiver implies an animate recipient of the care being given, like my father, while caretaker connotes care directed towards an inanimate object, like his house.  I think this is just a trick.  Caregiver is a professional term only recently applied to nonprofessionals like me, but caretaker has always represented folks who just rolled up their sleeves and got the job done, no matter who or whatever was on the receiving end.

One cannot define the care giver-taker-doer-provider by way of the recipient, anyway.  As in my father’s case, the animate recipient is just the tiny visible tip of the iceberg that you crash into when you take on this job.  The real treacheries are inanimate and deeply submerged; a lifetime of assumptions (and thus many misconceptions) you have to rodeo and deal with, a minefield of not-very-good choices you have to finesse, and the awkwardness of being stuck in a small lifeboat with someone you thought you knew but who now turns out to be a total stranger.  You become hopelessly entangled in what you thought was a lifeline you were tossing, but which, as often as not, morphs into an anchor chain instead.  Ultimately, the most critical thing the caretaker cares for is not the point person, the parent or whomever, that everyone is focused on.  The real job is to expose and care for all the murky submerged stuff that has buoyed that person up their whole life.  In other words, to best care for the person, you identify and care for all that which constitutes them; their  history and their relationship to it, not yours, thank you very much.  You care for, take care of, that which they care about, the depth and breadth of who they are in their world, however they experience it.  You take care of them, for them.  It’s hard work, but on a good day, you might be tempted to call it a blessing.

I know it’s only semantics, but to me, this is not a job about giving.  It is all about taking.  Taking care, of course, but also taking it on the chin; taking your medicine, the bull by the horns, the last train to Clarksville – or  whatever it takes.

My Hybrid Life

My Hybrid Life

After seeing the Al Gore movie, An Inconvenient Truth, I traded in my car for a hybrid.  I love it.  I love spending half as much as I used to on gas and decreasing my own dependence upon oil.  I love reducing my carbon footprint.  I love being able to squeeze into parking places I never could have before, and sometimes I am even able to create parking spaces where none existed.  Everything about this car is better than any other car I’ve ever owned.  I think the whole idea of hybridism is better – two or more diverse elements combining to become more than the sum of their parts.  My car is a final formal manifestation of what I realize now I’ve preferred all long in all things, the hybrid.  Without thinking within that specific concept, before popular use of the term itself, hybrids have always been appealing to me.

Thirty years ago, I chose my first hybrid – my husband.  I grew up as a Southern, white, middle class Protestant in a homogeneous community of pretty much the same description.  The boys I grew up with and dated were very sweet, but ultimately, all too similar and not very interesting.  My  husband is half Jewish, half Irish Catholic from New York City, and the first Yankee to marry into the family.  He was like an exotic alien when I met him; thrilling in a weird way, like a kindly two-headed visitor from a far away galaxy.  I remember my older sister commenting after meeting him, that “he‘s nice, but he sure is different from all of us.”  He is indeed one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  And different not only from us, but, as I eventually found out, even from his own family.  He gets along with everyone, miraculously survived the seventies fairly uncompromised, and he never gets sick, not even a cold or a hangnail.  The double cultures of guilt he should have inherited from both sides of his gene pool canceled themselves out,  and he is an emotionally efficient and happy person.   He has absolutely no neurotic footprint.

My next hybrid was a dog.  I had always owned purebreds, and when this cutely unattractive puppy of indeterminate heritage showed up on my doorstep, my only thought was to find him a good home.  When that didn’t happen after a few days, I stopped looking.  There was something different about this puppy, something I had never experienced with purebreds.  That something turned out to be the smartest, funniest, sweetest, most poetic dog I have ever known.  And the healthiest.  He could climb anything, open anything, catch anything, and eat anything with no ill effect.  Unlike my purebreds, he did not come with allergies or attitude.  He never did get pretty, but he possessed breathtaking canine efficiency of every stripe.  I have had nothing but highly functional hybrid dogs ever since.

Twenty-five years ago, my art began to morph into hybridism.  What began as “oil on canvas” is now mostly not.  Technically, my work is known by the common term “mixed media”, but what’s uncommon about it is that much of those media aren’t even normal artists’ materials.  Although I still use oil paints and canvas in many of my pieces, “domestic detritus” better describes what I work with, and there is a deliberate  recycling component to my process.  I’ll never forget an artist friend lamenting, upon seeing my first hybrid work, that I “used to be such a good painter”.  I guess I moved away from traditional media and application because they just weren’t giving me enough creative mileage.

I now live in an outrageously hybrid neighborhood.  It was once a white, middle-class neighborhood, and yet when we moved in fifteen years ago it was aging towards run down rentals and crack houses.  Thankfully, it has since evolved into a better neighborhood of you-name-it.  It is hard to imagine a richer mix of race, nationality, age, income bracket, sexual orientation, and lifestyle.  We have multimillion dollar homes across the street from modest blue-collar ones.  We have low-income apartments, historic garden homes, and at least one suspiciously meth-like house.  We have a local policeman, a Buddhist cell, and several cat ladies.  We even have an older couple living in a parked RV.  We have people with walkers and electric wheelchairs, and kids on skateboards.  We have mockingbirds and parrots.  Many of us walk, with and without dogs, and when we pass each other we all smile and greet each other.  We know each other and each other’s dogs by name.  Even the people in the neighborhood who only drive wave and smile as they go by.  I believe everyone means it, too.  It is a disparately beautiful neighborhood, both physically and culturally; a community far greater than ever for the sum of it’s current parts.  It’s a great place to park oneself.

It is encouraging that I am also living in an increasingly hybrid country.  If my limited but positive experience with mixing it up holds consistent, then I think we can all look forward to a country that is less attitudinal for being as diverse and inclusive as it can be.  A country where people are not allergic to each other.  This is, after all, the kind of footprint our country was meant to have, wasn’t it?

Considering  all this, I guess it was inevitable that I eventually become a hybrid myself.  For fifty plus years, I have been father’s child, and now I am also his parent.  This isn’t what any of us would have wanted, but I have to admit that it’s improving me in ways I never anticipated.  Because my father has dementia, I am finally learning about living in the moment.  I have espoused that for years, but it was all naive new-age rhetoric; I had no clue what it really meant until now.  Living in the moment is not easy when my mind still wants to go in any direction it likes, but my father has shown me how to achieve that simple focus, and indeed it is lovely.  Because my father’s food tastes run to the basics now, a protein and two vegetables for dinner, I am preparing and eating less yummy but healthier meals.  I find I don’t miss the cream sauces that much, and I’ve lost that nagging ten pounds I hated.  I am getting more exercise, too, some from running up and down the stairs more often, and some from taking him out for a bike ride everyday.  I have developed absolutely profound patience; who knew I had that in me?  I have learned that there is more than the normal 24-hour-clock kind of time to live by, and I think some of the other kinds are just as good, if not better.  I am much more energy efficient these days, having no time for apathy or frustration, only for caring and kindness.   As a hybrid I am getting much better consciousness mileage than ever before.  I like to think I have dramatically reduced my selfishness footprint.