Shopping Cart

Seeking Excellence: The Art of Taking Care

Posted by Theology of Home on
Seeking Excellence: The Art of Taking Care

By Denise Trull

Humility is a good thing! I murmured these words like a mantra all one winter when I decided I would at last conquer the mysterious world of “craft” with my own two hands even if it involved …. yarn. My epic, unnerving battle with the skeins ended in a small, perfect, yellow baby afghan. I am under no illusions that it would have won an award at the local lady's knitting circle, but I have kept it around now long after my babies snuggled under it with their satisfying little sighs. I keep it to remind myself that hard things can be finished and finished well, and that we must always practice what I have come to call the art of "taking care" -- from the simplest task to the most difficult. For those like me it is tempting to fudge things in impatience, or to always settle for an estimated "good enough." But demanding excellence from ourselves brings forth what is most human in us: taking pride and delight in something we have made. It is our way of entering into the creative wonder-world of God, who found all things He created -- good. And sometimes our individual efforts at excellence can change this world He has entrusted to our care. 

My pride and delight that winter came at a cost for my awkward fingers. You see, I can cook until the cows come home -- soups, cakes, whole Thanksgiving dinners without breaking a sweat. I can invent recipes and bake bread. But I cannot sew, not for the life of me. I always manage to mess up the thread tension on the bobbin of every sewing machine I have ever touched. Knitting and crocheting have not faired much better under my hands. My stitches are too tight and then they are too loose and I get to the point where I throw the whole mess over my face and growl in frustration. It's a humiliating mystery, but there it is. 

Enter now my sister. She can make anything with her hands. She can tat lace, she can knit intricate patterns and she can crochet like a dream. She taught me how to crochet. Oh, and did I mention she has patience? I had many failed and abandoned projects. But this afghan? I was determined that it would be finished and finished well.

My sister helped me achieve that goal. Sometimes I would slip a stitch in one row and not see that I had done it until about twelve rows down. There might have been expletives and some weeping on my part, but she would take my work in her hands, pull out the twelve rows, fix the stitch, and hand it back to me. Then she would sit there and watch carefully to see that I made it through the row with enough stitches. She made me take care and assured me that I would be happy I did so in the end. She was correct. When we laid out the finished product on my bed one evening and wrapped it around my first baby boy, I felt the joy of giving the best that was in me to my little son who was worthy of so much more than "good enough." This was one small lesson. But it made me think of all the people in the history of the world who took such patient care with their work. What if they hadn’t? The world would be a sadder place indeed.   

I returned to this thought one afternoon a few years later when I was cleaning my house. It’s an unwritten rule that if I straighten up a room, the bookshelves must come last or the rest of the room will never be touched by broom or dust rag. Inevitably, when I start moving and adjusting books on shelves, I always blow the dust off some re-discovered gems and maybe an hour later I am sitting on the floor in the center of a pile of books reading away and my dust rag is completely forgotten.

On this particular day, I fished out some old favorites and started leafing through them. They were quite different sorts of "fish." One was Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Another was a favorite book on education, Marva Collins Way, by Civia Tamarkin. The third was a large, lavish volume called The Book of Botanical Prints compiled by a 16th century apothecary, Basilius Besler. Three quite different books, but as I paged through them once again and looked at what I had underlined or written in the margins, I discovered a surprising and thought-provoking similarity between them all -- that important art of “taking care.”

When I first opened Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book on the history of cancer, I had just spent three weeks feeling first-hand the gut-wrenching fear produced by that word in my own life. I had my own cancer scare that was caught, “in time,” but had left me feeling somewhat fragile emotionally. So, when I heard Dr. Mukherjee speak by chance on an NPR program one day, I was mesmerized by his voice and his subject matter -- cancer. Since I am a firm believer that we fear less what we come to know better, I bought his book and was immersed in it for three days straight. In lyrical writing that captured my heart, he traced the historical path of cancer from ancient times up to our own.

As he introduced all the major players in the timeline of research, I was struck most by one young woman researcher who, before microscopic cameras and digital anything existed, painstakingly and meticulously drew by hand what she saw each time in the microscope mapping out the cell patterns revealed there. She conducted careful experiments by hand over a several month period, daily. Truth mattered to her, because it mattered most urgently to the patients who were waiting for her results. She could not hastily or lazily draw estimates. Her scientific and artistic accuracy were an almost sacred trust to those patients, because they placed their hope in it and in her.

It struck me so forcefully how we humans used to depend on one another much more organically for truth and light. Without computers or machines or technology of any kind, men and women had to be mentally and physically alert, honest, careful, hyper-observant and patient. It was a giving forth of the entire self -- a physical endurance as well as mental. A sacrifice of time, talent, sleep, leisure, and sometimes a whole lifetime -- for this hidden work of love for their fellow men. She was only one of many mentioned in that book that left me feeling less fragile and alone with my cancer diagnosis. I knew then that there were people who would never give up searching for an answer. This is an inestimable gift -- the generosity of love. It was the careful and meticulous art of taking care.

It's the kind of thing Civia Tamarkin experienced in a different way when she met the marvelous Marva Collins. Marva Collins was a teacher in the Chicago public school system during the 1970s who could not look away. She experienced firsthand all the children falling through the cracks because they were different -- eccentric, on the spectrum, or perhaps neglected by their parents. They were passed on from teacher to teacher who would pass them on again, quickly labeling them failures. Eventually, they would drop out of school. Nobody cared.

Well, Marva Collins cared. As a disheartened teacher in this broken Chicago public school system, she was determined to make a difference. She launched out on her own, and her brainchild, Westside Preparatory School was born in the slums of Chicago. She brought several of the misfit failures, the public school throwaways, with her. She had nothing except a couple of rooms, and a love of teaching. She started first on her students’ dignity. She would greet each child at the door and say something complimentary about each one. With a delicate charity, she would bring a set of clothes to give a student to put on, take their dirty clothes home to wash them, and quietly bring food for some who had not eaten breakfast that day. No one knew but she and the student.

She was demanding. She demanded combed hair, neat appearance, a decisive walk. No shuffling. No street-talk. They had to speak politely to one another and to her. She exemplified this behavior in her own meticulous dress and the wearing of beautiful and distinctive jewelry the children always loved looking at. They responded to her at first in a kind of confusion that someone was actually paying attention to them, and then with a love that turned into a dedicated work ethic.

She walked all day among the rows of desks, drilling, talking, making her students read aloud, stopping them to ask questions. She demanded that they memorize poetry, and lists of presidents, kings, states, capitals, countries. They learned to think clearly by imitating her. She made them state their opinions and no one was allowed to laugh. She patted them on the back as she passed, told them how brilliant they were for a correct answer, laughed at their jokes, and loved them deeply and tenderly. Then, miraculously, they started treating each other the same way. They started rooting for each other to succeed, and they did succeed! These misfits went to college to become lawyers, doctors, and teachers. They came back to thank her many, many times.

Marva’s kind of teaching is, if you have ever done it, exhausting. She used to say that if you were not mentally and physically exhausted at the end of a school day, then you had not taught. She demanded a physical and mental generosity in her teachers. They had to study and learn how to impart that knowledge carefully and successfully to their students. She taught them herself how to do this. They did not rely on gimmicks, learning aids, or videos. They were not carried away by the latest in educational theories. They conversed tirelessly, they drilled, they complimented, they patiently explained, infecting the students with their own excitement. Not one child was left behind. This too is the exquisite art of taking care and a generous emptying of self.

The third book was the magnum opus of Basilius Besler, a book of gorgeously meticulous botanical sketches of hundreds of flowers drawn in the 16th century with paints and pencils. These too were astoundingly accurate representations of the actual plants and flowers. For the sheer love of botany and the beauty of the created world, these artists preserved on paper the wonder of rare flowers that by necessity withered in real time, but could be shared with the public in meticulously correct drawings. This public might never be able to actually see the original. These botanical artists took this loving care for future scientists and for us all to enjoy and learn from. Here, too, there was a careful patience and observation of nature, a willingness to strive for perfection with a mere paintbrush and pencil, so that men might enjoy what God had made for them. The art of taking care.

So many things are this way. Things that call for human perfection, accuracy, and generosity. We learn to depend on it, and to trust our fellow human artists. Map makers, architects, builders, brick layers, plumbers, teachers, lab technicians, oncologists, painters, musicians. These artists teach and inspire us in turn to take care of those we love in our smaller realms. Perhaps to serve dinner in a pleasing way with a table cloth and napkins, to sew a special dress with meticulous care for a little girl who trusts our talents, to put flowers on the table just because, to smooth the sheets and pillows of an elderly person’s bed with extra care, to bake bread, or cook from scratch. All small things, but things that make us more human, more generous, more giving of self. It makes all the difference, this art of taking care.

My yellow afghan is laid across the back of my reading chair now. Every time I see it I ask myself “Have I taken care, today? Have I honored God with the best of me?” Over the years it has been the best question I have ever asked myself. It has made me aware to take care as God takes care. And for Him it is never just “good enough” -- it is excellent!

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri.

Older Post Newer Post