Tuesday, June 18, 2013


-- Up above the misty morning here, a single touch of thunder, as absently as a fat man rolls over in bed, marks the day.

-- Better than knowing that something is good is the courage to find out if it is good.

-- Backstory on the above, I guess:

I was talking with my 90-year-old stepmother yesterday. We chatted about people we knew, about our relative frailties, about kids, grand-kids and great-grand-kids, about a funeral she didn't really want to go to because she had never liked the woman who died, and came around eventually to her new doctor, a woman she liked quite a bit.

In the course of signing on with a new primary care physician, my stepmother said she had wanted to say thank you to the former physician she had had -- a man whom she seldom saw because he was so busy. My stepmother had been content to see a nurse practitioner, one of those individuals who often seems to outshine the doctors for whom they work. But when the nurse practitioners moved on, her replacement was less sympathetic and by chance, my stepmother happened on a replacement, the new primary care doctor.

Anyway, my stepmother wanted to say her thank-you's to her former doctor. The doctor wished her all the best and then, according to my stepmother, "said something very unusual. He said, 'You're a good woman.'"

The fact is that my stepmother is a good woman. Her life has been rife with caring about others, whether on a wide social scale or on an individualized stage. She cared ... and in a world that can sometimes seem to be destitute of caring, who could fault her?

The answer was that, with dwindling energies, she could fault her. My stepmother is a good woman, but trying to be a good woman is extra -- a freight and weight that can be lauded by those smitten with virtue, but requiring ... what?... something that was too much of a muchness.

The upcoming funeral was a good example. My stepmother described it as "a death in the family," a phrase that carries with it a certain social imperative. Families partake in family touchstones -- births, marriages, birthdays and deaths. A part of my stepmother's caring was exemplified by her observance of such times. She was a thread in the fabric of family touchstones.

Only this time, she really didn't have the energy. Aside from the trip from the East Coast to Ohio, there was the inevitable climbing of stairs in the place where she would lodge. And on top of all that was the fact that she didn't much like the woman who had died. She liked the woman's family in varying degrees, but the woman herself had been a pill.

Still, there was the family imperative mixed with some wispy nagging conscience: If she didn't perform this act of caring, how could she know that, as her former doctor put it, she was "a good woman?" And so, besides the car trip and the stairs to climb, there was this additional burden of trying to be good. At 90, trying to be good was pushing an envelope she was in no mood to have pushed. Her aches, pains and fragilities were enough for any 90-year-old... or, when I think about it, for any person.

As our conversation progressed, I urged my stepmother to skip the funeral. "You didn't like the woman," I said. "People die all the time," I said. "Take care of your own ass," I said. And I suspect she called me up in the first place because she knew I would say things like this and give her some social permission to dismiss a nagging conscience that relied on "goodness" and "caring" as perceived by others.

My stepmother is a good woman ... if only she'd stop trying to be good. The knife-edged treacle of a 'caring' conscience may be better than its nasty counterparts, but once having more or less emplaced the habits of a lifetime -- including whatever decency may seem to adhere -- well ... give it a rest. Being who you are is more important and more reliable in the end than being who you want to be or who you think you ought to be. Sure, make whatever efforts a 'caring' conscience may dictate, but then, relax ... find out how 'good' or 'caring' anything might actually be and make the necessary corrections.

Things are lighter that way. Spooky and daring, perhaps, but lighter.

As the Zen teacher Rinzai once counseled his students, "Your whole problem is that you do not trust yourselves enough."

My stepmother is a good woman. I like her much better when she stops trying to be a 'good woman.'

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