Lately, thanks to my friend Mary Jane, I have been on a binge of reading Louise Dickinson Rich, whose We Took to the Woods was a back-to- the-land anthem well before the 1970s, when the movement became a trend in Maine. (And what a welcome trend it was. Thanks to all the young people who moved here in the 1970s, we have a flourishing organic gardening community that nurtures young farmers.)
In We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich wrote a meandering but lively account of living in the backwoods of Maine with her husband Ralph Rich. Conditions were basic—no running water, no electricity—and money was often tight as Rich and her husband scrambled to earn a living through writing and various jobs associated with the backwoods. What comes through in We Took to the Woods is not only a zest for life but also a great desire to be useful. Living as she did, with her husband and children, Rich felt that she was essential to the well being of her family, that her work and effort, along with that of husband’s, kept the little family afloat.
After reading We Took to the Woods, I wanted to learn more about Louise Dickinson Rich. Therefore, I turned to Alice Arlen’s biography of Rich—She Took to the Woods—where Arlen not only writes about Rich’s life but also includes some of the author’s essays and letters.
Louise Dickinson Rich lived a long life—she died when she was eighty-seven—and in a letter to her friend Hortense, she writes movingly about one of the greatest losses that comes with old age. That is, of not being useful anymore. “Growing old is not easy, I have found. I, too, have twinges of regret when Dinah [Rich’s daughter] and her family take off on an expedition leaving me home alone….Alice [Rich’s sister] and I were talking the other day and both agreed that one of the hardest things about being old is that one feels so useless, with nothing to offer. But I guess that nothing can be done about that except to try to learn to adjust and accept gracefully. Which—for me at least—is damned difficult.”
Being useful, much like the freedom to be weird, sounds like faint praise. There are so many other things we could be: beautiful, kind, rich, athletic, artistic, good with our hands, a good cook. If someone said, “Laurie, you are so useful,” I might first wonder if the speaker was being ironic and then wonder if that was the nicest thing that could be said about me.
But if we think about it a little more, it doesn’t take long to realize that while being useful might be a modest, homely virtue, it is indeed a virtue. When a person is useful it means she is contributing something essential to home, work, or community. She is needed. Her usefulness means the work gets done and because of this there is less chaos, less stress. Being useful often means you can work as part of a team, where even more can be accomplished, especially if others on the team are also useful. (Unfortunately, I have had the misfortune of working on committees with people who, to put it mildly, were not useful. It was a real misery.)
Being useful also brings meaning to a life. I am convinced that one of the reasons why teenagers in this country have such a hard time is that they are not useful, and they know it. They are stuck in a sort of limbo—no longer a child, not yet an adult—with no sense of purpose to order their days. The very rich can have this problem, too, with day after boring day stretching ahead of them. Is it any wonder that drugs and alcohol are often used to relieve the tedium?
So lets hear it for being useful, and may we be useful for as long as we can.