Caritas II

I have made a strong effort to apply caritas (brotherly love) in the workplace. I believe in the value of humble work. Though I’d be hard-pressed to describe myself as humble, I am willing to provide the fundamental labor that creates a comfortable community environment.

For example, I spent eight years working at a start-up company where the hours were long and the work was hard. I got permission for a small freezer, and kept it stocked with frozen meals and other treats as part of a ‘cantina’ to keep staff from getting hungry as they missed dinner at home — again.

My experience was that the people who used the service were very respectful and grateful that I provided it. Nobody ever complained about any aspect, though they often thanked me when I had bought their favorites. We only charged enough to cover the cost of the purchases, and in five years, we were NEVER short. That kind of thing is only possible in small companies, but I like to think it also reflected a willingness on the part of all of us, to create a workplace that was somewhere we wanted to be.

In addition to my official workload, I made a concerted effort to provide comfort to my colleagues. I am not naturally outgoing, but it turns out that being personable can be learned as a skill. Now it feels natural to use people’s names, to smile and make eye contact, to assume a listening posture and provide my whole attention when someone is looking for connection.

By focusing on the interests of each individual, I kept everyone’s trust, and was therefore able to help us all get farther.


Last night a big piece of our fence blew over in the storm.

I heard the rotting posts snap off about three o’clock in the morning, breaking where the wind hit strongest, funneled towards that single panel by the currents forming around the garage and the house.

I am a little afraid of storms because they make me restless. I long to stretch my arms and feel the wind pick me up by the armpits and hurl me through the air like a cedar bough snapped off from a tree. I had a similar feeling once at the top of a large waterfall, with gravity beckoning me onto the rocks far below. The reckless part of me wants to know what it would be like, to soar through the air.

The certain knowledge that I cannot soar without crashing is all that keeps me on the ground.

After a quick peek to see that the fence had truly come down, I pulled a sweatshirt on over my pajamas and crept into the basement to find my gardening boots. I eased myself out the back door into the storm.

The night was black and cold, and full of flying debris. A grocery bag went looping by under the streetlight, as exotic and beautiful as a dancer. I felt my heart pick up as the wind whipped around the corner of the garage and dove under the black plastic I keep weighted down over the vegetable garden to prevent weeds. The edges rattled in the wind, transformed into the oscillations of a six hundred square foot amoeba.

I could hear the cedar boughs in the hedge behind me, and I turned around to see them stiff with ecstasy, streaming in the wind. The hedge ebbed and flowed like an ocean in heat. With every gust, each branch turned to follow the current, then floated back exhausted when the wind paused to draw another breath.

The fence panel lay in the grass over the embankment, where the wind had dropped it. I couldn’t pick it up against the wind that still gusted without risking that it would again become airborne and crash into the neighbor’s van, so I left it where it was and wandered around the side of the house.

Moonlight appeared sporadically from behind the whipping clouds. I stood alone in the street in my pajamas and sweater, standing in a puddle of light from the street lamp filtered by maples. Leaves from trees up the street drifted into the lee of the house, resting from the wind.

The wind ran in mumbles, building like an incantation. In the lull between gusts, I could stand in the stillness and hear the pressure building down the block. The wind came directly from the ocean, pouring up the hill on all the streets at once. Standing on my corner I could hear it approach, then feel it hit forcefully on my skin and in my bones.

I walked back around to the vegetable garden, and stood again in the tidy concrete of my yard. A flap from the cover over the garden worked loose and tore itself up from the bed, twenty feet of wet black plastic covered in leaf mold rearing up into the night with a snap. It cavorted over the roof of the garage, anchored only at one end. I grappled with a corner, trying to step on it so my weight would pull it down to where I could grab it.

The plastic bucked and twisted under my foot, slapping at my arms and trying to cover my eyes. I cornered enough of it to pull it back into the lee of the garage, and dragged a garbage can over the bulk of it to hold it until morning.

Wet and cold from my battle with the tarp, I went back inside to bed. I opened the venetian blinds in our bedroom window and lay awake for another hour in the striped light, listening to the storm.

Fly Free

She awoke slowly from her warm nap-time cocoon to the buzz of a fly circling around her yellow walls and over her flowered carpet, looking for the way back to fresh air. The fly circled endlessly, touring the room again and again, always visiting the same places where some mysterious signal indicated the exit might be.

She lay on the couch and watched the dark shape, a small thick body flying around the room, now up at the ceiling, now just inches above the carpet. The fly was careful and meticulous, hovering over every surface, disappearing behind chairs and around pictures, searching in an organized fashion for the exit that must be there. Several times, seized by intuition, the fly flew straight into the window, bouncing off the glass with a thud like a grape. The buzzing would cease while the fly collected itself for another fruitless turn of the room.

After a while she threw back the cover and sat up, slowly, pushing up on one elbow and sweeping the phone aside from where it lay on the floor so she could roll over onto her knees.

“It’s there,” she admonished, pointing to the open window. The fly flew along her outstretched arm but veered off before discovering the opening. “How can I help you if you won’t listen to me?” Freedom beckoned from beyond the glass. The buzzing seemed to drop a note, as though its tiny battery was running low.

Dragging herself to her feet, she stretched out her back and waited for the fly to settle. At last the fly landed at another window, this one still closed but not shielded by a curtain, and she opened the screen and guided the creature outside.

When she had finished, she looked around feeling strangely proud of herself. A pleasant room, a nice nap, a life saved. A sense of accomplishment often eluded her these days, but she was pleased by the happy ending for the fly.

She crept upstairs to see if she had any new email.

Twist Me and Turn Me

browniesAnother book I loved as a child was the Brownie Handbook, especially the story about Anne and Jenny, who discovered personal responsibility in terms suitable for a eight year old to grasp.

Even at that early age, I was a control freak. The idea that I could handle things by myself really appealed to me. I remember re-reading that story many times.

For those who haven’t read it, Anne and Jenny make friends by smiling at each other, and join Brownies together. They read a story about some thoughtless little girls who never help around the house, and they meet this talking owl… oh, never mind.

I can’t share the magic of this, you’ll have to trust me that I loved the idea of working “quietly and alone, without being told what to do.”

I still do.

Caritas I

What I ultimately took from the Bible, besides a better developed love of story, was the value of a lifelong struggle to be the right person and do the right thing, and a sense that I owed something to others.

In particular, I was struck by the story of Cain, when God is asking him where his slain brother Abel is. Cain famously retorts, Am I my brother’s keeper?

Yes, I realized. (Even at twelve years old.)

Yes, we are supposed to look out for those around us. And it’s not enough to avoid slaying them, we are supposed to love them as far as we can.

It doesn’t mean you have to be a sucker, but I believe we are meant to look for the good in people, to try to understand their background and perspectives, and to draw out everyone’s best side when we can.

I have a lot of great interactions this way, with people I would never have expected to be able to offer me anything.

To me, caritas also means that you should keep your eyes open for the things you can do, large or small, to have a positive impact on the life of someone else. A willing ear and a helpful hint when a colleague needs to vent. Passing down things from high shelves, for the shorter lady who can’t reach, without making her ask you. Holding doors for people, even if they clearly know how to work a door for themselves. Making playful faces at babies in a line up. Returning stray dogs. Buying a sausage roll for a homeless guy.

When you see some small courtesy or gift that is in your grasp, you are supposed to take the trouble. And if someone offers you a favor or shows you consideration, take a half second to make eye contact and thank them sincerely with a smile.

I’ve noticed it feels great. And to me, it also feels like… You’re supposed to.

Good News

For my twelfth birthday, I had chicken pox. I was on the cusp of puberty and they hit me very hard, right before my birthday. In an attempt to calm the scratching, my mother sat me in a bath of baking soda, which made my skin feel awful. I was as physically miserable as I had ever been. And there was almost nothing to read in the house!

So I picked up the Good News Bible. (Now stay with me, I promise I was not converted.)

You may remember this very popular 1973 edition, with its modern “newsprint” cover, orange highlights and Roman text. Inside there were clever little line drawings that I used to look for as a break from the long rivers of text. I had a rule that I had to read all the way to the picture before I could look at it — I have always been very big on rules.

goliathI don’t imagine I read every single word, as I was just barely 12. I’m sure I skipped anything I found boring, for example. But it takes a while to recover from chicken pox and I think I got through most of it.

All this reading did not engender a love of religion in me, but I did immediately love the stories. The House of Saul, troubled by an evil spirit. David, who struggled and triumphed and failed, and triumphed again, like all of us do, although he was a great king. How the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David. Queen Esther and Mordecai — and Haman, who was hanged on the scaffold he built for Mordecai. Goliath and Samson, whose great strengths were not enough to save them. Bathsheba, whose beauty led to murder and a royal curse. (Even then I could see none of that was her fault.) Judith, who cut the head off a man! Salome, who asked for the same thing!

I was astonished that my mother was letting me read about all this. Maybe anything was better than having me complain about the scratching.

david_saulAnd then, in the New Testament: Jesus. Coming to it fresh from the Old Testament, and with no particular religious training, I could immediately feel the power of the idea.

I was probably also feeling better by then.

Religion comes wrapped in so much context, and we all know you’re supposed to pick sides, but step back and just think about the life recorded for this man. The prostitutes and lepers, the moneylenders in the temple, the loaves and the fishes, the raising of Lazarus… the death flanked by thieves, in humiliation and terrible pain.

It did not make me a believer, but it did make me an English major and a lifelong lover of powerful stories. And the stories that come from that time and that place are humanity’s greatest stories, no matter which text you read them in.

Being Good

I think the issues which interest me most from a writing perspective tend to be areas of moral thought or discovery. I try to consciously live a good life and be a good person, but my own subjectivity makes it hard for me to judge whether I am successful.

I am only a philosopher in a very practical sense – abstract conclusions are only temporarily interesting, and I have never found a book on philosophy I could read all the way through. But I do agree that an unexamined life is not worth living, and that the best life for each of us to examine is our own.

So I will consider my influences: family, reading, life experiences, and so forth. I’ll see if I can discover what experiences and turning points have led me to the beliefs that I currently hold.

Writing on the Side

It seemed like a good idea at the time – get established, buy a house and a car, settle into a job, and then write on the side. I have a good life, and no regrets, but I haven’t done a lot of the writing that I meant to.

Like adults everywhere, I have found that ” being established” takes over, and there isn’t enough energy left to do the stuff I thought I would.

But every day when you wake up, you’re a new person — and you can’t go back to the person you were before. So there won’t be a better time than now.

(I feel very fortunate that “Writing on the Side” was an available domain name. I think it’s an excellent name for this blog! Magical thinking, I know… but maybe it’s a Good Sign.)