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The Long End Of The Stick

I am recovering from surgery. It kind of sucks. I am not used to not being able to do things, and I don’t particularly like it. As I write this, I can hear a dear friend downstairs vacuuming my house. Earlier today I watched her take a toothbrush to the inside creasey-foldy bit of the soft stuff that keeps the freezer door sealed. That blew my mind.

She told me a week ago that she was going to do this for me. And I believed her. I am even very grateful, but I did have a hard time letting her. Not so hard that I would stop her. Because I get it. I love helping people. I do it all the time. Because it feels good. I would never deny someone that feeling.

But it’s larger than that.

I want to live in a world in which people just help each other out, for no “real” reason. At least for no immediate quid pro quo. Just because they, too, want to live in a world in which people help each other out.

When our daughter was first born, we lived in a magical Fairy Tale neighborhood of winding streets and old brick houses, filled either with adorable ancient people who had been there for what seemed like centuries, or couples in their 20’s who were having babies. There were about 10 families who all had babies at the same time.

Before we all got pregnant, this was the kind of neighborhood where we had BBQs and people came, we raked each others paths if we were out doing our own, shoveled snow, that kind of thing. I’ve never lived anywhere like it before or since, it was paradise, because of the people. We had clothing swaps 17 years ago, when no one I knew was doing it. We had progressive dinners through the neighborhood for all the holidays, and some that I think we just made up.

When we got pregnant, we started a babysitting co-op. This was the most official thing we had ever done. There was a binder and everything. I think there were 10 families. Everyone started with 10 Popsicle sticks, each of which represented half an hour, or something like that. The details are fuzzy now, and I am sure there are hi-tech ways to do it now, but you’ll get the gist.

We were just a community. If you babysat for someone, they gave you the corresponding sticks. And vice versa. It didn’t have to be direct, the sticks were good to be used for anyone, we all just fed sticks to the system, and consumed sticks when we needed them, and the system rewarded us by being there and working. If you were out of sticks, you knew it was your time to do some sitting. If you knew you had a big need coming up, you did a lot of babysitting and got a lot of sticks, then you could cash them in with anyone who had time when you needed it.

And SOMEONE always had time.

There was no score keeping between specific people, just a generalized balance in the stick eco-system.

Once a month someone did the accounting, which was really nothing, and we all checked in to see how the system was working. I don’t ever recall any discussion of anything, because it just worked.

I long for this neighborhood on a regular basis. I’ve got something close now, but it’s not the same. Although, today, it kinda seems like it might be.

Because, generally speaking, if you have a need, I am there. You know when people post on Facebook, “hey, I need a ride from A to B, can anyone do it?” I actually do it. When I can. If you tell me you have no food, I will feed you. Need your kid watched so you can work out, I will do it. And I never ask anything in return. Because I want to live in the world where if you have a problem and I have a solution, then offering you my solution is the only logical thing to do. And vice versa. So I just choose to live here. And I choose not to keep score, because I’m lazy. And because I have that kind of unquestioning faith in people.

Sure, eventually, if I keep putting out for you and you don’t find some way to return it to me or someone else, I’ll probably notice.

But, so far, I have a lot of sticks. And as I lay here in bed, in pain, listening to my house get cleaned, I know it works. And I know I am not alone in this world. There are a lot of us, and we always manage to find each other.

And when you get right down to it, that’s what makes me feel safe in this world. I honestly, genuinely and truly know that if I needed it, there is a network of people who are there for me. One phone call after a disaster and I’d have my own personal Red Cross. THAT is what community is. And you build it one favor at a time. One selfless act at a time. Not asking “what are you going to do for me in exchange.” Just knowing that there is an exchange, and you are part of it.

Yes, it feels good to help someone. The minute you do it, it feels good. That’s a reward. Yes, you are building into a system that will eventually have your back, and that is a reward. But this is all greater than the sum of its parts. Being good and doing good is its own reward. Sometimes it’s tangible, sometimes it’s not.

As soon as I’m up and able again, I’ll be back at it. But right now, listening to the vacuum, I have renewed faith in the magic of this world. And the magic of people. It just works. Sure, she cleaned my house, which I really can’t do with one hand. But she also totally restored my faith in the world I want to live in.

And I’m sure, if you asked her, she’d say she’s doing it because people have always been there for her when she needed it.


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