Love Everyone

Phil Bailey is a lot like Jesus—if Jesus had to have a rum and Coke and half a ham sandwich on white bread every day. I don’t know whether Phil, who has little interest in religion, will appreciate being compared to Jesus, but he’ll surely let me know if he doesn’t.

How can I explain that I thoroughly admire and respect a boss with whom my main mode of communication is an exchange of insults? Perhaps with another question—how many people in high ranking positions are secure enough with who they are to welcome such a relationship?

Phil more than lives up to his responsibilities as dean of the college without considering himself more important than anyone else. While working with him has sharpened my tongue, it has also taught me humility. Phil knows who he is and knows that both is and isn’t a big deal. Jesus knew he was the son of God and he washed the disciples’ feet.

Which brings us to the second way Phil is like Jesus—he is first and foremost a servant. Though in a position of power, he uses every ounce of his privilege on behalf of the powerless. He and his wife, Tina, have invited many students in dire financial need to live with them. He mentioned to the university’s top donors that some students can’t afford to eat, and now we have a meal voucher program and a food bank. Though I don’t know whether I’ll ever have the capacity to emulate what Phil and Tina do, simply knowing someone does it has enlarged my view of what is possible in this world.

Jesus came to show us the divinity of our humanity, our own incarnate nature. Though Phil will undoubtedly find that last sentence too high-falutin’ (he’s from Texas), he, too, delights in his humanity and the humanity of those around him. Whether playing penny ante poker, watching football, or reporting with glee on some particularly stupid comment he heard on the news, he enjoys this world and enters fully into life rather than trying to escape from it.

And finally, Phil loves everyone, without exception and with incomparable generosity, which is really all Jesus ever asked us to do. I would gladly follow both of these men, not—as Phil will be the first to tell you—in blind obedience but rather in hopes of learning to live as they do.

In Memoriam

Looking back, it appears that sometimes in life, the Divine has picked me up and placed me where I needed to be without my having much to do with it. That’s how I feel about having landed my first full-time job in the office of one W. David Conn, vice provost for academic programs at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

At thirty-one, uncertain that I had any marketable skills but in need of a steadier income, I took an administrative assistant job in David’s office. Universities, I would learn, are very hierarchical places, and administrative assistants are near the bottom. I didn’t learn this from David, however.

Instead, when I’d been there only a few months, he asked me to take a crack at rewriting the university mission statement. He didn’t take my work to his meeting with the vice presidents—he took me and my work. I had no idea at the time how unusual this approach was.

David expanded my concept of generosity. When a decision needed to be made, he always focused on how it would affect the students rather than whether it meant more work for him. He championed causes like diversity and student advising when they had no home in the official university structure, not because it was his job but because he was passionate about doing the right thing. And he didn’t say a word the time I almost sent an important university report off without letting the president review it.

When we no longer worked in the same office, I saw him a few times a year to share a meal, and he always brought a tangible joy to the gathering. To be the kind of boss with whom it is easy to have a graceful transition into friendship is no small thing.

David recently passed over to whatever comes after this life, a far too early exit for such a wonderful human being. It’s hard to believe I knew him less than twelve years—his presence in my life and the beauty he brought to it seem larger than could have fit in that time.

Here are some other things I loved about David:

  • His eyes twinkled, never more so than when his grandchildren came to visit.
  • He laughed often.
  • He remained thoroughly British—at least to my American sensibilities—despite having spent most of his adult life in the U.S.
  • He never took himself too seriously. He always said, “The battles in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low,” even though he was a lifelong academic.
  • He worked hard but maintained a healthy perspective on life. Both for himself and for those he worked with, family always came first.

I’m a better person for having known David. As they say in the Jewish tradition to which he belonged, may his memory be for a blessing. It certainly is for me.

Election Heroes

I confess that election season makes me somewhat world weary, but every November—or every other as the case may be—there is a bright, shining star in the firmament: the writing in the Official Voter Information Guide. I want to pause and applaud the men and women in the Secretary of State’s Office who consistently produce something truly remarkable.

First remarkable quality: this is a truly unbiased document. Few things in this world are free from judgment, especially the inside of my brain. Not only do I have opinions about each ballot proposition, I have opinions about each piece of each proposition, about every person who walks past me on any given day, about the cookie I ate this afternoon (stale, in case you were wondering).

But not these folks, not while they’re writing this guide at least. They say only what a bill means—often not an easy task in and of itself—and what its effects will or might be. The known effects, not the ones they make up in their heads.

Second remarkable quality: some of them must read the actual legislation. I tried that with one proposition this year and made it to the second paragraph.

Third remarkable quality: they explain terms I probably should know without being condescending. They always know which terms voters are not going to know. Without fail, if I think, “What’s a wobbler?” the next sentence will say, “Some crimes can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. These crimes are known as ‘wobblers.’” They don’t preface it with, “For those of you who haven’t been paying attention”; they just tell you.

You might say, well, that’s their job; but it’s a hard job and they do it well and I am grateful. I wonder if it might be useful to live the way these people write, with no expectation of what people should know, looking at the world not with the intention of figuring out whether it is good or bad, right or wrong but just to see it clearly.

So to you anonymous explainers of propositions, thank you.

When I Was Your Age

Seen on a book flap this week: “Hailed as the most prominent lyrical poet of his time, [Dylan Thomas] made four trips to the United States and died in New York in 1953 at the age of 39.”

New Yorker cartoon recounted to me by a friend: An obituary page with captions under the pictures that said, “A little older than you,” “A little younger than you,” and then in the middle “Your age exactly.” Thirty-nine is my age exactly.

 I generally hate hypothetical questions because they pit things against each other needlessly, but this book flap made me wonder whether I’d rather be a really successful writer, as Thomas was a poet, or likely to be alive at 40. I would rather, of course, be both, but unlike choosing between your parents being run over by a mac truck or your sister being eaten by sharks, this decision was easy—I’d rather be alive. Because there’s a lot more to life than writing.

Which I’m not sure I could have said without feeling guilty ten years ago. Not that I didn’t value the other parts of my life, but in my head, I earned my existence through my accomplishments.

I’m more and more certain that existence isn’t available to be earned—it’s a gift. People don’t bring you more gifts on your seventh birthday than your sixth because you learned multiplication in second grade and that’s a bigger accomplishment than addition and subtraction. We can receive or reject gifts but can’t do anything about the giving of them. (OK, you can invite more people to your birthday party, but you can’t control whether they give you the stupid brush and comb set or the cool Batman action figure.)

Entering mid-life reduced the urgency of accomplishment for me. I still sometimes think that just means I’ve failed—a possible explanation but not a good one. A better one may be that aging allows us to recognize the wonder of existence, pay attention to it, and enjoy it.

There are small mysteries in this life, like why no one can create a generic Ban-Aid that actually sticks to your skin. Then there are the larger mysteries.

Like this one: Did you know that for every kernel in an ear of corn, there’s a strand of silk that brings the pollen to that kernel? Each individual kernel is important enough to warrant its very own pollen delivery system.

corn plant showing silk
By Pollinator at en.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons

Those tufts of silk coming out the top of an ear of corn don’t appear all that well organized. It seems altogether possible that one if not many strands would be missed, yet in all the corn I’ve eaten in my life, I’ve seen very few unpollinated kernels. And it’s not as if corn sellers can pick out the cobs with a few unpollinated kernels here and there.

I don’t think understanding the corn fertilization mechanism down to the mitochondria or the molecular exchange across cell walls reduces the mystery of such an intricate system—for every ear in the history of corn!—one bit. If anything, the biological complexity provides more of a sense of wonder, one more opportunity to say how on Earth did it develop the ability to do that?

We sometimes think that if we know the how, we understand the whole, and if we understand it, there’s nothing to marvel at anymore. If we can explain it, we’ve mastered it, and it’s no longer worthy of the same level of respect. We can move on to figuring out the next thing.

But I think that the more we know, the more amazing and mysterious something can become. Corn silk can be transformed from those annoying strings that insist on clinging to your corn to a source of life. How cool is that?

Entering Triple Digits

This is post 101, which means it’s time to pause for some reader appreciation. Without you, Being Finite would never have reached a milestone worthy of a Disney movie title.

A friend said we’re never so happy as when we’re accomplishing something that’s meaningful to us, even if the something is standing still and enjoying a tree whose leaves are bursting forth after a long winter.

It’s often hard for me to remember this at the beginning, though, whether I’m staring at the blank page or trying to convince myself to roll out of bed to exercise in the morning. Even if I will likely enjoy the activity—or the results of the activity—my mental inertia wins. I feel confident I could place in the top five if anyone ever held a mental inertia contest.

Most of the time, other people help with this. If I’m meeting a friend to run, my odds of actually putting on my shoes increase a hundred fold—if that’s a number odds can increase by.

And many Tuesday nights, I sit down in front of the computer, lock the cat out of the room, and ignore his destruction of the door because by some miracle, you all have been kind enough to let me know that these musings are helpful to you. You’ve given me an astonishing gift.

I know some of you but not others. Some of us are alike, and some of us couldn’t be more different; yet we share enough of being human that a few words about life’s ups and downs can connect us. Miracle indeed. Thank you for reading, for liking, for commenting, for expecting me to show up, and for sticking with me.

This particular entry was finished early Wednesday morning, and a tree full of songbirds greeted me as I opened my laptop. They were surely singing for you.

Getting Un-Busy

When someone asks us how we are, there are so many responses we never use: ecstatic, grieving, lonely, joyful, sad, afraid, pensive, loved, happy. The acceptable emotional range runs from pretty good to fine on the positive side and can’t complain to hanging in there on the negative side. But if we want to make it clear that we are suffering nobly we say, “Busy!”

I hear busy more often than any other answer at work. It is accurate. Most people wear more hats than comfortably fit on their heads and have been tasked with more than can be accomplished in forty hours a week, or fifty or sixty.

I sometimes feel myself competing to be busier than others because it equates to working harder and being a more responsible, valuable employee and therefore a clearly superior human being. Because that’s the point of life, really—to be better than everyone else. That will lead to fulfillment and a sense of profound peace every time.

A few months ago, I decided to stop focusing on the busy-ness, stop comparing overwhelmingly behind horror stories, and find some other way to describe my state of being. I was doing pretty well. Until last week.

Then I got really busy. Emails went unanswered. Projects fell off my plate, pushed off by more urgent projects. When people asked me how I was, I didn’t say overwhelmed or distracted or struggling to enjoy my accomplishments because the next task is always looming. I said busy. I’ve been saying it ever since.

The week before last, a hummingbird came and hovered in front of my window and commenced turning flips in the air. This is the kind of thing I don’t notice when I’m caught up in having too much to do. This is the kind of thing I think is most important to notice in this life.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here is another one from William Stafford that suggests a possible alternative to a constant focus on our ever-growing to-do list.

You Reading This, Be Ready
by William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?