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by Susan Cruickshank

The insulation of a fall jacket wasn’t quite enough to keep the bite in the air from delivering a chill to the skin. But Jenny and I were going to be raking leaves so it wouldn’t be long before the heat of activity had warmed us up from the inside.

Being late autumn, the high winds of the season had blown most of the leaves off the trees, leaving a thick carpet of red and yellow foliage that covered the back garden. The few places where grass could be seen showed brown and brittle from the previous night’s frost.

In the mudroom, our sluggish movements and silence betrayed the apathy that we both felt. Raking leaves was the last thing either of us wanted to do.

Jenny and I lived together. We lived in an agricultural community for developmentally delayed people in upstate New York. I was filled with idealism, and passionate about making the world a better place, but learning how to walk it out in a real-life setting. Jenny was a youthful twenty-something whose personality bounced like her ponytail. She had thick glasses that slipped down the bridge of her nose that she forever had to push back into place. Her laugh was infectious, and her heart was warm with melting affection.

I loved her. But I also feared her.

She was prone to angry outbursts that sometimes turned violent, and whenever I was around her, my body tensed, on guard, ready to react if she suddenly went off. And like most of the folks I worked with, she was impossible to keep on task.

As we trudged out to the garden, rakes in hand, I began to psyche myself up for the chore before us. Halfway through, I looked up to see that I had done most of the work. A wave of frustration that had been building broke. Here I was constantly coaxing this woman, to ‘help me’ do the job that we both needed to do, and she was just standing there, AGAIN, rake limp in hand, looking at —now biting— the cuticles of her right hand. This was hopeless.

And then I looked at Jenny in her rose-colored fall jacket, looked at her ponytail and thick glasses, as she munched on her cuticles, and a whole new idea occurred to me.

“She’s giving you a gift,” said the still small voice within.

“Pardon?”

“Don’t you see she is giving you a gift?”

No, I didn’t see this. As a matter of fact, I felt the complete opposite. Jenny was the reason this job was not done.

The thought continued, “If you were here by yourself, you would have accomplished only a fraction of what you’ve done. Jenny may not be doing as much as you’d like her to do, but she is giving you the energy to do more, just by standing beside you.

“By occupying the weaker position, Jenny is also allowing you to take the lead and see your strength. In your humanity you are equal, but by being your subordinate, she is helping you experience being the best, the most capable, even if it is just raking leaves.”

I looked over at Jenny; she didn’t want to be here either, that was clear. But she was here, and because she was, I was doing more than I would have done if I were alone.

I had never noticed this before.

When working with others, if I thought I was on the losing end of work division, a wave of resentment and arrogant pride would settle over me. But as I stood holding my rake up under my chin, feeling a blister beginning to form in the fold of skin between my thumb and index finger, and as I looked at Jenny, I realized her presence was helping me get the job done.

Before this realization, I sincerely believed that I valued people’s differing abilities, but when it came time to completing a task, I desired working with someone who labored like me.

Memories of being on the other side of this dynamic, which I recollected as being just as irritating, came rushing back as well. The side where my presence, rather than my physical efforts, was needed by another. A particular friend came to mind.

Whenever we made plans to do something, Jill would inevitably insist on doing half a dozen things around the house as we were scheduled to walk out the door. A flaw that frustrated me beyond belief. For years, I had secretly judged her, thinking her time management skills abysmal, harshly accusing her under my breath of being selfish. In those moments I felt as if she wasn’t respecting my time, but here, now, standing in the backyard with Jenny, it began to dawn on me that Jill’s motivation was not entirely selfish. Although the tasks were simple enough for her to complete on her own, Jill needed the encouragement of my physical proximity, my energy, to follow through and complete them.

Jill had needed me, the way I needed Jenny now. Not to do anything, but just to be there. In a world obsessed with physical results, these subtleties of help and support, so nuanced and delicate, had escaped my awareness.

I felt myself being pulled out of my reverie, back into the present moment, as my eyes came back into focus and rested on Jenny’s inert stance. It was still frustrating watching her just stand there.

My need to see tangible results was having difficulty accepting what the deeper part of me knew to be true.

I sighed. ‘Grrrrr.’

“FINE!” I said in a half shout.

Jenny looked up from her cuticles, her face showing surprise at the break in silence. I asked Jenny to start raking again. When we finished, Jenny helped to bag the leaves and move them to the edge of the driveway.

As we walked back to the house, I asked, “Should we have a cookie, Jenny?”

Jenny responded through her irresistible giggle, “But of course, Susan.”

Image: Nature’s Painting by Paul Bica via Flickr.