It’s officially the start of Autumn – in my part of the world the air is cooler in the mornings and the days have started drawing in. Even though my children are long grown, the start of the school year is still a marker. My heart still bounces seeing children, full of anticipation heading to their first day back. I know their confidence spring-boards from the caring hands and smiles that usher them forth.
I have been reflecting on care these last months, on how we might elevate our understanding of caring – for, about, with – to something more than the unsung work of many hearts and hands, to become an ethic, a framework for our lives…
Feeling grim, hopeless and angry one Sunday not long ago, I walked down through our local park to the river. A gate, normally closed, was propped open with an A-frame chalkboard on which was written: Community Garden – Open day – All welcome – Come in and look around. So I did.
I met friendly smiles, a welcome, an offer to be shown around, and a cup of tea. I was asked no questions beyond my name. Wandering around this modest, even scruffy, piece of land, I began to take in its semi-cultivated wildness: cherry, walnut, apple and plum trees, rough beds for salad, some vegetables, herbs and other plants that no one could name, dandelion, burdock and love-in-the-mist rampant. A shed tucked into the fence, stocked with tools cleaned and hung in neat rows, a compost heap, an old garden table and Bunsen burner for making tea. The unkempt air of gentle wilderness mixed with some enthusiastic but casual gardening was unthreatening.
This was not an allotment. It was a place to enjoy flexing your gardening skills if you had them, to plant what you loved, or to potter, help out or just hang out. I joined the WhatsApp group, curiously drawn to follow regulars’ notifications about making rocket pesto and comfrey muscle salve from garden produce, of unusual butterflies, of lettuces birthed in the garden growing on kitchen windowsills.
I go when I can, watering, weeding a bit (to weed or not to weed? I am of the not-too-much persuasion), asking what needs doing, and doing it. I try to bring my attention to the task, to be careful. One Sunday I was struck by a woman I’d previously seen gardening, spending the afternoon reading peacefully on a bench. No pressure. This was a place to regenerate: a place, that is, of care and kinship.
We care for what we value – our loved ones, our work, our community, or nation. But the converse carries a deeper truth: we come to value what we care for. It is in the daily, small actions of caring – of tending, planting, watering, fixing, mending, building – that we expand our sense of self. In Love and the Novel Christina Lupton tells us that fiction ‘rarely does justice to the quality of days and weeks and years spent together, to the rhythms that comfort, the agreed-upon ways of folding laundry, roasting potatoes, running a bath.’
Stories focus on heroes. It is the singular, the wild, the extraordinary that grabs our attention and dominates our media. Care is ordinary. Often repetitive, sometimes boring, arduous, or unpleasant, caring can also be meditative, soothing, deeply satisfying. Either way the daily actions of care alter us. It is in caring that we mature from the ‘little emperors’ of our babyhood to consider and occupy ourselves with the well-being of other beings – human and more-than-human. This expands our sense of self, it reminds our beingness that there is no such thing as ‘I’ only ‘I-in-relationship’.
Caring is the route through which we shift our ‘allegiance from the abstractions of “known relationship” to the presence of “felt relationship”.’ as Phillip Shepherd puts it in his eloquent elegy to our interconnectedness and how we might re-cultivate this in a world made narrow with fences and defences. Being a part of someone’s flourishing, whether child, plant or animal, swells not just our hearts but also our aliveness.
Care brings sense to being alive. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on how we can amplify these personal moments into a way of being and an ethical stance, in an essay soon!
Christina Lupton, Love and the Novel
Phillip Shepherd, Radical Wholeness