Because neurotic is the new black....

Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols
East Lansing, Michigan,
December 31
I write, I read, I clean up after people and I worry about things. I have a chronic insufficiency of ironic detachment. My birthday isn't really December 31; it's March 22 but it won't let me change it.


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OCTOBER 17, 2011 11:11PM

Charity Begins at Home

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When I was seven, I loved to go to Natalie Redmond’s house. Her parents weren’t getting along (there was rumor that Mrs. had hurled a salt shaker at Mr. during a particularly heated exchange) and they were vying for the loyalty of the children by buying one each of everything that might spark some fever of loyalty and attachment. Consequently, Natalie had a miniature riding stable with tiny, flocked horses and a stable of working tack, as well as several shelves of Breyer horses, a harem of Barbies and not one but two Easy Bake ovens. My parents’ taste ran more towards the restrained and educational, and while I was certainly not materially deprived, Natalie’s house was, then, what a day at Barney’s with an Amex Black card would be today.

One morning I returned from a sleepover at Natalie’s tired and cranky, only to be told that we were all going to rake leaves and clean up the yard. “I can’t,” I explained to my parents as they sat at the kitchen table “I told Natalie I’d help her clean up the toys in their basement after lunch.”

“Charity,” said my mother, looking over the rims of her glasses, “begins at home,”

It didn’t make much sense at the time, but then my father was also given to telling us that “England expects every man to do his duty.” It seemed like a trap, a way to deprive oneself of the opportunity to do anything exciting or deserving of public acclaim. I could clean someone else’s basement and be told what a good girl I was, what a wonderful helper, or I could spend hours raking our leaves, jumping in trash cans to pack them into their black, plastic bags, and get nothing for my labor. Where was the joy in doing the expected, the mundane, the unnoticed good?

I am not much more evolved at forty nine; seven times the age when I first decided that doing good tasted better when it was chased with the heady feeling of looking good. I am quick to work in the community, to comfort someone outside my family who is bedeviled by loss or loneliness, or to donate to those in need. If I am honest, I have to admit that every time I pick up neighborhood trash after a big football game, sit with a recent widow or take a bag of practically new clothes to Volunteers of America, I see myself from somewhere outside my body. I see myself glowing ethereally, bathed in the golden light of being good, doing good, making a difference in a troubled world. Ignoring the secondary gain, I can believe, for a time, that I could do anything if I set my mind to it – make school lunches healthy, make my workplace “green,” and possibly even free Tibet in my spare time. I am cleaning the Redmond’s basement all over again, a nice girl helping out and giving her time so that others might feel some relief from piles of naked Barbies, hungry hippos and miniscule bridles.

The curse of seven times seven years is that I know in my marrow that charity really does begin at home. The public displays of goodness make some things better, but I have a hard time getting that self-righteous tingle if I have not spent time listening to my own kid explain why he loves dub step music, or read the story my husband thoughtfully sent to me because he knew I’d love it. It’s my duty as a compassionate human being to help where I can, give what I have, be a listening ear when it’s needed, but that duty includes time and attention for those who I love most. If I can listen to an elderly volunteer at work tell the same story five times, I must extend the same courtesy to my own mother. It is less impressive, and sometimes I want to be able to say to those who live in my heart that they, of all people, should cut me some slack – I shouldn’t have to “do” for everyone at home, and they should understand that a beneficent soul such as mine needs a break from time to time. I could never say to my elderly volunteer that I have a migraine and that if she tells that story one more goddamned time I will fall wordlessly to the floor in paroxysms of boredom and frustration. I can, and do get short with my mother when she launches into a story I have heard many times before. I can do it because we love each other so much, which seems…wrong, and right and normal and terrible.

The people who love me when I am a raging bitch, yelling about the pile of dirty socks or sulking because baseball has been on in the living room for three straight nights, those are people who deserve my love, attention and charity. No one will ever know the things that I do for the people I love in the private, intimate theater of home, and there will be no awards, acclaim or credit. At most, there will be a “thank you,” unseen, and unregistered by anyone in the greater world. It is not glamorous, it is not tingly, and I cannot imagine myself an angel among mankind because I step up and give the dog a bath. It is those small charities, though, the quiet, unseen acts, that build a foundation for every gesture made towards the greater world.

My mother was always right, and tomorrow I’ll call her and tell her. It won’t free Tibet, but it will make her very happy. 

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True. True. True. Found myself humming "Easy to be Hard" as I was reading this. I can be compassionate to others. I can even be compassionate with my family members. My biggest problem is practicing compassion toward myself.
I'm far more selfish, ann, because I'm much nicer and more forgiving with the small circle of the people I love than I am with strangers. It might be because I find myself thinking of how little time I might have with them or for the even more selfish reason that they love me back and that's a reinforcing circular thing. In my old age I've lost what small amount of patience I once had when I had a child in my house, so I tend to avoid situations with strangers where I might be required to pretend some. I enjoyed reading this, as always. I just did it with a kind of awe.
Truly great read, Ann. I wish my mom was around so I could tell her what you told your mom! Though, not sure my sweet mother was always right. What she was, was always sweet and empathetic.
First: what Fingerlakeswanderer said. Charity at home can also include yourself.

There is nothing wrong with feeling some pride at a good deed. I did a good deed for someone today who I barely know, and the fact that she doesn't even know about it, and thus won't feel obligated to reciprocate, makes me happy.
Yep. Teenaged twin sons at home. Yep. Sometimes I have to remind myself to give the buggers a hug before I open my mouth about the unfinished college applications and the laundry all over the downstairs couch. Maybe someday they'll be as wise as you are and call me and tell me I was right.
I relate. I want the accolades even as I know I need to put energy where it won't be 'acknowledged' ( which means no immediate outpouring, but a steady, consistent love).
There are few things in this world more important than making your mother happy; after all, "if mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."

Your mother taught you well.
Always the voice of reason-- you should be a syndicated columnist somewhere, sometime... are you working on the idea of a larger forum than here on OS? You could be/should be.
Nothing but Truth here. My daughter has always had plans to save various parts of the world. I believe she will. But I too,remind her that "charity begins at home." It isn't right to leave a pile of dirty dishes in the sink for your mother (me) to do while you are off saving the world.
It is too bad that it takes us all these years to recognize such important things, but it does, and that seems to be how wisdom works. We can be smart when we're young, but I'm not so sure we can be wise.

Early on in my mother's prolonged illness, I recognized that it was crucial to listen to every word of her thrice repeated stories, even the mother criticism, because the day would arrive where I would give anything to be able to listen to these stories I already knew by heart. I was right.
Yes it does, sometimes. And sometimes charity isn't what's needed at all.
Thank you for the beautifully written reminder - it all begins at home.
Well now we know, which should make you feel better. Not that we ever doubted. BTW, brace yourself for another baseball marathon in your living room as the World Series is (are) upon us.
"At most, there will be a “thank you,” unseen, and unregistered by anyone in the greater world." Isn't this pretty much a key part of a mitzvah?
Good on you. You can teach your children charity by doing it outside the home and dragging them along, but it will be hollow if they don't experience by your example at home. Understanding, patience, routine, tradition, love and a few rules serve. Great post and glad you can still call your mom and let her hear how good she did.
This post was simple and brilliant overall, but this bit of introspective honesty was downright delicious: "I am not much more evolved at forty nine; seven times the age when I first decided that doing good tasted better when it was chased with the heady feeling of looking good."
Ann, I've begun to feel foolish, such the groupie I've become of your work. The expression "pitch perfect" was invented for you.

My mother used to quote from Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn:
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty--that is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know."

And I think his words explain why your words resonate so: You speak the truth, so beautifully.
Ah, you've unmasked me, too! I want limelight, accolades, hugs, awards for being Good Friend or Thoughtful Person. Why don't they make Emmys and Oscars for us? Older than you are, my parents both gone, I'm still trying to learn how to be as kind to my brother as I am to friends.
Wow. Magnificent post. I'm slowly wading through your older posts and this caught my eye. Really well-written and not only did the etsy thing totally suck me in but we are about the same age and have similar writing styles.

Check out my post "My Angel From God" and my prison label on my "real blog", mylifeinthemiddleages.blogspot.com and let me know your opinion of those.

BTW, I essentially just begged an etsy seller to not make me wait until March to make me the most stunning bag I have ever seen.