Not Quite Barn Raising

After a mere seven years, my house is now officially painted. OK, with the exception of the downstairs closet and one bathroom door that needs to be replaced anyway, but I’m calling it done.

The final two stages were completed in large part thanks to my mom and three cheerful and generous friends, two of whom, miraculously, actually like painting. Discovering this fact was a little like discovering that some people enjoy being accountants. Who knew such marvels existed?

It’s important to note that this wasn’t only rolling and brushing. In my usual impressively foresightful manner, I had prepped exactly one of three rooms, which means some people washed walls and others taped, definitely the least fun parts of the painting process, yet they did it, as previously noted, cheerfully.

Perhaps the reason communities used to have barn raisings is not only that it made it a lot easier to get your barn built but also that it made the process a lot more fun. I have a pretty clear vision of what painting by myself would have looked like, and it involves a good deal of self-pity, like in the comics when a character walks around with a rain cloud over her head all the time.

But this was enjoyable—maybe not as enjoyable as if we’d all gone out to dinner or the movies but maybe more so. We had a chance to catch up, chat about life possibilities, eat really good watermelon, listen to the Beatles, admire each others’ handiwork, and laugh over our mistakes.

It might not matter so much what we do as who we do it with. Thank you, painting crew, for your help, your good humor, and the reminder that so many things in life are better shared.

A Gathering

This is not what I planned to write this week. I planned to write it sometime in the very safe future when everything was prepared and under control. You know that future, the one where hot fudge sundaes are good for you and lemon drops grow on trees.

When I went to my Living School intensive in Albuquerque in June, I learned, among other things, that my writing can be a help in the world. This is probably not a news flash to anyone except me. I know and am grateful that some people find this blog useful, but I never thought of it as service, not like working in a soup kitchen or a prison.

So I decided to gather some of these posts into a book and put it out into the world in some as yet undecided format. I need to give a shout out to Delores, who has been telling me to do this for years and without whose encouragement I might never have considered it, and Bardwell, who suggested it more recently.

It’s interestingly terrifying to tell you I plan to write this book for two reasons: First, you might ask how it’s going at a time when it’s not going at all. Second, there is something revelatory—that is, self-revealing—about claiming to be the one who best knows my form of service in the world and that I know it’s this deep part of me. As David Whyte says in his poem “Revelation Must Be Terrible,”

…revelation must be terrible
knowing you can
never hide your voice again.

A teacher of mine once said that completely different intentions can look the same externally. I used to write to prove myself. Now I’m beginning to see that I can choose to write to be myself, and being our true selves—not our small, accomplishment-driven selves—is not only all that’s asked of us but also all that’s needed.

I would love to have your help in the collection process. If there’s a post you particularly like or a topic you think is important to include, leave a comment or email me at rachelrhenry@gmail.com. There’s a schnazzy new search box in the upper right to help with this endeavor.

Thank you for reading, for your support over the years, for knowing me better than I know myself, and for any suggestions you may have.

Open Up the Door

In case you didn’t know, The Beatles were really, really smart. They summed up what I learned this week:

When I was younger so much younger than today
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors

Last weekend, I was staring at a pallet full of wood flooring held together with two impressive steel bands. Over the phone, my dad recommended using a Sawzall to cut them because I didn’t have a tin snips. I had used a Sawzall before, so it was no longer in the category of scary power tool. But then he said, “You might want to put on some safety glasses if you have them.” At that moment, it became very relevant to my life that my neighbor’s garage door was open.

I had watched my neighbors build a bunk bed frame and so concluded that they probably owned many tools, including, perhaps, a tin snips, a tool that does not require safety glasses. I wandered into the garage and after calling some hellos met not my neighbor but a friend of theirs who lived around the corner.

There were no tin snips, but this young man knew all about Sawzalls. He could tell a blade designed to cut metal from one that cut wood in a single glance. He quickly noted that the metal blade I had inserted was old and dull and therefore might fly apart mid-cut. And then he volunteered to do the sawing for me. I said yes.

I’m happy to report that no shrapnel flew, no one was rushed to the emergency room. I’m even happier to report that a few minutes later, the young man came back to borrow some aluminum foil for barbecueing corn and stayed for a few minutes to ask me about my water softener.

It struck me that it took such a small letting go of self-assurance “open up the door,” to transform our relationship from “people who live next to each other” to “neighbors.” I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself and others that I can do it on my own, but The Beatles have it right: Help!


 

Note: The blog may be sacrificed to the home improvement gods the next couple of weeks as my dad and I install the above-mentioned flooring. If you know of any other sacrifices that appease these particular gods, please don’t hesitate to perform them on our behalf.

You Can Do It Random Stranger

I ran a half marathon last Sunday. In 2:05:59, just for the record, which of course is very different from 2:06.

Rachel and Katie running
Me, my running buddy Katie, and many kind volunteers at the water station

To make this event happen, an amazing number of women and men got up early on a Sunday morning not to run but to volunteer or to stand by the side of the road and cheer for the runners, most of whom they didn’t know. True, most of them came for a friend or family member, but they were generous with their applause and encouragement. I am not sure I could have finished the race without them, and I am sure it would not have been as enjoyable.

Running past them, I wondered why we don’t do this more often, why we don’t support each other so freely most of the time. But maybe people are willing to help and we simply don’t ask.

A half marathon is a societally acknowledged hard thing, which makes it easier to ask for support. Everyone knows you’re going to need it, and we’ve all agreed—for unknown reasons—that running thirteen miles is a worthwhile goal to pursue.

On the other hand, when we go through equally hard things as part of our daily lives, hard in the emotional rather than the physical realm, it’s often difficult to ask for help. Or if someone assigns us a task or a role, it becomes our job, and we may feel that asking for help is the same as failure.

I am not much good at it myself. I fear people will see me as weak or incompetent or needy. The truth is, I am sometimes all of these things. None of us is always strong, good at everything, and always capable of going it alone.

I met Bill Bellows once, who pointed out that none of us has achieved anything in our lives, from a grade in a class to a well-cooked meal to a Nobel Prize, by ourselves. Everything in our lives is a group effort, and if we have the confidence and humility to ask for help, we might find there’s a whole crowd of people cheering us on.

Help Matters

Sometimes crappy things just happen. I did not come up with this idea. Someone has made millions of dollars marketing products espousing various forms of that sentiment.

I recently watched a Zulu language film called Yesterday about a woman in a tribal village in South Africa who contracts AIDS. Though not based on any one person’s true story, I’m sure it’s a true story many times over.

The main character, Yesterday, is patient and wonderful and gets this disease that entails more suffering than those of us with access to hospitals and morphine will ever guess at. It’s hard not to wonder why the world is not more justly constructed after watching this story.

As the priest Anne Lamott quotes in one of her essays says, why is not a useful question, though I still want to know the answer. Seeing as I am not likely to get it, I decided to review what I think I know.

Here are some things I don’t believe:

  • God tests us.
  • God gives us trials to strengthen us.
  • Bad things happen so that good things can come from them.
  • We attract—through our attitudes, beliefs, or ways of living—everything that happens to us. Some things, sure, but not everything.

Here are some things I do believe:

  • Grace happens.
  • There are things that help.
  • These things are extremely important even though they appear small.

It helps to cry or yell or beat the pillow. It helps to lay all the crappiness before God and say, “What the hell? Would you do something about this please?” It helps to eat a hot fudge sundae with a friend or go for a hike.

Help doesn’t mean that the situation changes, that a miraculous healing occurs, that the next day a job offer arrives out of the blue. Those things may happen, but a lot of the time they don’t. More often, we feel less alone and more able to keep going.

That seems insufficient in the face of the AIDS epidemic in Africa or any number of other global disasters, but an epidemic is composed of individuals. In the movie, one person stands by Yesterday. When they are together the awfulness lifts a little. Bring on the hot fudge.