How to Help the World

Taking a walk on the wild side

Yesterday morning I wrote in my journal that I want to do more to help the world, but that I don’t know where to start. The world is so desperately in need of help just thinking about it made me feel bad that I’m not doing more. The feeling only became worse as the buffalo herd of “shoulds” charged at me in a stampede of shame. I should be involved with a cause. I should be volunteering for a homeless shelter, an immigration center, a women’s crisis hotline. I should be working with World Central Kitchen. No, I should have started World Central Kitchen. I should join the Peace Corps. I should be giving my time, my money, my plasma, my groceries, my winter coats, my life, to help others in need. It’s my civic duty as a human being to help others in need.

All this to say I made myself feel so overwhelmed, so unworthy of taking up space on this planet, I wanted to go back to bed. 

My casita (before I moved in)

Instead, I spent an hour cleaning the tiny house I’m renting for the winter on an Arizona horse ranch. My landlord is selling the property and informed me a photographer was coming at 5:30 to take photos for the real estate listing. All she requested is that I make my place tidy. Having spent a better part of the week looking at rentals and Airbnb listings in Los Angeles, where I’m heading next, I know what “sells” a place and that means no wet towels or sponges in the kitchen, no shampoo bottles in the shower, no pile of clutter on the desk, no ratty dog bed in the living room, no rumpled sheets on the bed. Luckily this place has ample storage space, so I hid my personal items in the cabinets and closets, down to the dwindling roll of paper towel, dish soap, reading glasses, and space heaters. I fluffed the pillows and smoothed out the duvet cover. I didn’t have to. But I know how important it is to her to find a buyer so I wanted do my small part to make it look enticing. By the time I was done it looked so immaculate and adorable even I would have wanted to buy the place!

Needing to be out of the house at 5:30 gave me a good excuse to take my niece, a sophomore at University of Arizona, out for an early dinner. We met at “our spot” in Tucson, Time Market, for pizza and kale salad. We talked about boys and school and careers, about family and dogs and dreams. It did both of us good to spend time together. 

On my way home I got a text from my landlord. “You get an A+ on the casita.” I wanted to text her back and tell her that I had been happy to do it, but I was driving, so I just smiled, glad that she appreciated my effort.

Later that evening, having just settled in on the couch to read, I heard yelling outside, not a normal occurrence on a ranch where approximately six people live within a six-mile radius. The only nighttime noise you hear is the coyotes howling and an occasional rooster crowing. I peeked past the curtains and saw the beam of a flashlight sweeping across the black desert landscape. There are a few RV parking spots about fifty yards away from my casita, one is occupied by a couple with a large motorhome and two dogs. It was the wife calling for one of their dogs, Buddy, a Jack Russell terrier. A small dog on the loose at night in this remote area is a death sentence. Even in daylight it can be dangerous as I know from losing my own Jack Russell mix, Daisy, six years ago. Predators don’t discriminate. 

I threw on my coat and boots, found my glasses, turned on my flashlight app, and went outside to see if I could help, grabbing a bag of dog treats on my way out the door. 

The ranch is surrounded by national forest and open range; it’s as wild as the Wild West gets. The only thing separating us from the wilderness is a saggy barbwire fence, and the woman (let’s call her Susan), as well as her wayward dog, were on the wild side of it. I crawled through the fence to join Susan, who was not wearing a coat, even though the temp was 40 degrees and dropping. 

“The more I call him, the more he runs away,” she said. “The only one he listens to is my husband.”

“Where is he?” I asked.

“He’s asleep in the camper.”

“Well, let’s go wake him up.”

“No,” she said. “He’s been drinking. You know how that is.”

The way she said it broke my heart a little. 

We stood in silence for a moment, listening for a clue as to Buddy’s whereabouts. I dreaded the sound of coyotes yipping, the way they do when circling in for a kill, but the only sound was the wind blowing over the mountains, across the rolling grasslands, and through the dried scrub. And then . . . a faint bark. I rattled the bag of dog treats and instantly, appearing in the beam of the flashlight, was Buddy. White and brown, macho and all attitude, he looked up at me with his big brown eyes as if to ask, “What’s the problem?” As if he hadn’t caused the heart rates of not one, but two people to spike.

Susan grabbed hold of his collar while I doled out treats.

“I ran after him in such a hurry I’m just in my slippers,” she said as we walked back to her motorhome. I pointed my flashlight at her feet. These weren’t slippers; they were nylon footies no more protective than if she’d had bare feet!

“I’m sure the adrenaline is keeping you from feeling any thorns,” I said.

“I haven’t stepped on any,” she replied, “but I just got poked in the face by a branch.” 

“Be careful. These mesquite trees are evil and can take an eye out.”

We reached the RV, but between Buddy and her flashlight she didn’t have a free hand to unlatch the door. I opened it for her, careful not to let her other dog out—part black lab, part antelope, a sprinter who would have traveled farther and faster than Buddy, and not one to be bribed back by a measly little dog treat. Susan wedged her body inside, while I blocked the door to prevent the other dog’s escape.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “Now I know how to get him to come.”

“Here, keep the dog treats,” I said.

On my way back to my casita, I thought about what I had written in my journal that morning: “I want to help the world.” I had been thinking on a grand scale, too grand. Because what I realized is that helping the world starts with small acts close to home. Be it supporting my landlord’s efforts to sell her property, treating my niece to a meal while listening to her concerns about becoming an adult, and saving a reckless dog from becoming a coyote snack, helping the world is about making the effort—better yet, the extra effort. To hide all your clutter in your cupboards for the photoshoot when you were basically asked to just make your bed. To drive an hour each way, down the mountain and back up again, for a conversation and a slice of pizza with a family member. To head out into the dark and dangerous wilderness to find a neighbor’s dog when you could have just stayed in your warm house reading on the couch.

Small acts of kindness. Every day. That’s how we help the world. That’s where we begin.

*****

You might also like to read my other blog posts:

Finding Solace in Solitaire 

What to Do With All That Privilege

There is ALWAYS Hope, Bea

What To Do With All That Privilege

This essay also appears on Huffington Post. 
 


 

On Saturday night I dreamed I was in the elegant living room of an older wealthy woman. I stood next to her delivering an emphatic, tearful plea, insisting, “When you are born into privilege it is your responsibility to help others less fortunate than you.” Man, I was really crying. The scene was so vivid and visceral—from the walnut paneled-walls and red leather Chesterfield armchair to the woman’s gray hair in a neatly trimmed bob, to the dramatic and forceful delivery of my statement—that, unlike most dreams, I remembered every detail of it when I woke up.

“Pay your civic rent” with a gift card with
the request it be regifted to someone in need.

Shaking off the heaviness left by the dream, I went downstairs to have coffee and read the Sunday paper. One of the first articles I read was the “One Nation: I am an American” column, syndicated by the USA Today Network. The person-of-the-week interviewed was Gregg Rochman, a developer in Louisville, Kentucky, and in the first paragraph he said, “I grew up in an affluent area and I could have done anything I wanted. But, because of that privilege, I have a duty to share and to give back.”

Oh, snap! His comments were my dream verbatim. In Rochman’s case, he renovates historic properties into affordable housing. “We have a land with vast resources and a people capable of anything. Our advantages are used of the good of the planet and all its creatures—all people, all living things,” he said, before adding a sobering caveat. “Currently, Americans are divided from one another. We do not do everything in our power to house the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe the cold, educate the poor and support each other with the goal of the betterment of everyone—even though it is within our reach.”

He is certainly right about that!

In addition to creating low-income housing, Rochman volunteers for New Roots, a nonprofit food justice organization that brings farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to food insecure communities. Essentially, it’s an affordable farmers market created because, according to the New Roots website, “Just like air and water, everyone has a right to fresh food” in order to be healthy and happy.

Then, in the business section of the paper, in between the outrage over the GOP tax bill and the Great Recession’s impact on economic disparity between urban and rural areas, there was an article about Suku Radia, the CEO of Bankers Trust, who is retiring. Based in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Radia is an Indian who was born and raised in Uganda and came to the U.S. as a young immigrant. While attending Iowa State University, his family fled Uganda after Idi Amin’s coup d’état leaving Radia with no home to return to. He stayed in Iowa, completed his education, and worked his way up to the C suite, achieving the status of “privileged.” The article was a tribute to how he used that privilege to help others. “Pay your civic rent,” Radia said, but not by simply writing a check. A philanthropist long before he had money, he understood the value of volunteering and, in 1976, began giving his time to help United Way. From there, “my feelings of duty, compassion and gratitude have only spiraled,” he said. As a board member in 2010, he visited 51 local agencies that received funding from United Way, with some of those visits causing him to weep in his car after seeing the vulnerable populations first-hand. He is quoted saying, “How can I be so lucky? I’m sitting there in a Lexus and my car’s probably worth more than the building in which the agency is housed. It was very difficult. Your heart just goes out to these folks.” Radia doesn’t only support United Way, he fundraises for numerous nonprofits—from Habitat for Humanity to the American Diabetes Association—and mentors 40 individuals to help them achieve their goals, and to pass along his message about the importance of giving back to the community, particularly to those in need.

 It felt a little eerie to read two articles in a row about using privilege to help others less fortunate—living examples portraying the exact sentiment of my dream immediately upon waking. Was it some kind of psychic message? A call to action? Or was it the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon—also known as frequency illusion—when, say, you buy a silver Volkswagen and suddenly you see silver Volkswagens everywhere you look?

The examples kept coming. Later in the day I stumbled upon an article online about a Korean couple in Salem, Oregon, who own a restaurant called Happy BiBim Bap House. Hillary Park and her husband close early on Mondays to cook for the homeless, paying for the ingredients themselves. They load their van with vats of prepared food, set up a buffet line underneath a concrete bridge, and serve hot meals of curry, yakisoba noodles, and corn dogs to up to 200 hungry people. Every week.

Another example showed up—in my own house.

I had been in a quandary over holiday gifts for my boyfriend’s family. They always have something wrapped up for us and I feel obligated to reciprocate in kind. Doug, my boyfriend, insists, “I don’t want to spend money on things they don’t need. I always give $500 to Camp Courageous in my family’s name. That’s my gift.” (Camp Courageous is a year-round camp with recreational activities and respite care for the disabled of all ages.)

“I know,” I replied, “but it’s awkward to not have any presents for them to open.”

While I scoured the internet for gift ideas, Doug came up with a solution. “You’re going to Aldi for groceries today, right? Here’s $100. Buy four $25 gift certificates. We’ll give them each one.” I wasn’t sold on the idea until he added, “We’ll tell them to give it to someone else in need. To pay their civic rent.” He smiled, acknowledging that he, too, had read the Sunday paper.

The words of my dream have stuck with me. When you are born into privilege it is your responsibility to help others less fortunate than you. I don’t earn much money, but I recognize my abundance of privilege—my college education, my comfortable home, my well-stocked refrigerator, my closet full of warm clothes, my lack of debt, and yes, my skin color. As we go forward into a new year, let’s all check our privilege by counting our blessings—and then share them. Let’s make a single resolution to take responsibility for helping others less fortunate and look for ways to give back, to improve our communities and our relationships within them. If we all do our part, we can begin to repair some of our divisions in the process. Like Gregg Rochman said, “We are privileged to live in this country. We are capable of anything.” There are positive examples to follow everywhere; all you have to do is look.