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Be the Change #24 – Random Acts of Kindness at Work

We spend more time at work than most us do with our families.  For many of us, co-workers are a family away from home – and sometimes they can get on our nerves or hurt our feelings just like family members.  It can be hard to be kind.  It’s so easy to form cliques, or hold onto grudges and resentments. This week, following a nice, relaxing long holiday weekend, I challenge you to break out of the mold and practice at least one random act of kindness at work.

These 10 ideas assume that you work in an office.  Even if you don’t most, of these actions can still work for you.  Or think of your own!

  1. Bring in snacks to share. Bake cookies of muffins, or bring in a basket of juicy strawberries
  2. Offer to do a lunch, or coffee or tea, run for a co-worker who is heads-down on a deadline.
  3. Bring in flowers to brighten up the whole office. Put them in an area where everyone can enjoy them.
  4. Buy a couple of cheap umbrellas to keep in your desk to offer to co-workers who are going out to lunch or leaving for the day and have not brought one.
  5. When someone does great work, tell their boss, in person or via e-mail.
  6. Invite the new person to have lunch with you.
  7. Clean out the microwave, even if you aren’t the one who made the mess – and don’t complain to everyone in earshot about it. Just quietly clean it.
  8. Start a library in the break room by bringing in books or magazines that you’ve finished. (As a writer, this is my favorite one)
  9. Set yourself the goal of learning one new thing about one of your co-workers each day.
  10. Just generally treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Would you like to be greeted with a smile and a “good morning” at the beginning of the day?  Would you like to be cut a break when you make a mistake?  Would you like someone to ask how your weekend was, or how your sick dog is doing?  Well, then….

Be the Change #23 – Be Like Jane

We’re going back in time this week, to 19th-century Pittsburgh.  If you’re a Pittsburgher, the name Swisshelm will ring a bell with you.  That’s right:  the namesake of Swisshelm Park and Swissvale Borough.

Jane Grey Swisshelm was born in Pittsburgh in 1815.  A committed Covenanter Presbyterian, Jane took her Christianity very seriously – and actively.  While still a child growing up in Wilkinsburg, she circulated a petition advocating the abolition of slavery.  As a young wife, she began submitting articles and poems to abolitionist newspapers. That alone would have been unusual for a woman of her time, but Jane took it a step further.  In 1847, at age 32, Jane founded her own newspaper, the Saturday Visiter (sic), funding it with her small inheritance. She was the first woman to sit in the US Senate press gallery.

The perspective of the the Visiter was feminist and fiercely abolitionist.   Jane was an adamant opponent of the Fugitive Slave act, and her passionate editorials were so influential on Allegheny County judges that no fugitive slaves were sent back South from Allegheny County after 1848.

As you might imagine of such a strong-minded woman, Jane’s marriage didn’t last.  In 1857, she left her husband, and in 1860 he divorced her on the grounds of desertion. She continued to publish the Visiter, and began another career as a public speaker advocating abolition of slavery and women’s property rights.  During the Civil War, she volunteered as a battlefield nurse.

Jane died in 1884 and is buried in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery.

You don’t have to be a Presbyterian or a journalist or a feminist or a civil rights activist to be like Jane.  What I love about Jane, and the reason she is the subject of my next book, is her passion and commitment. She states in her autobiography that when she was confirmed at age 16, she made a covenant with God to “spend my whole life in any labor he should appoint, without a sign of the approval of God or men.”  She was, by all accounts (including her own), a difficult, stubborn woman.  But she had a deep moral passion that we could all emulate.  Be like Jane:  find a cause outside yourself that you are passionate about and commit yourself to action – even in the face of disagreement and disapproval.


Be the Change #22 – Be Like Carol

This is Sadie.  She’s the granddaughter of my cousin Carol.  Sadie takes ballet lessons, plays the cello and was voted Most Respectful Student last year.  She also has cystic fibrosis.  Like many people with a family member who has a chronic illness, Carol has become involved in raising awareness about CF and raising money for a cure.  Carol is a board member of the Western PA Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and she and Sadie’s many other supporters have formed Sadie’s Soldiers, which stages and participates in fund-raising events.  Check out Sadie’s recent newsletter Great Strides Walk Letter 2017 to learn about upcoming events.


What Would Saint Augustine Eat?

I’ve written before about how much the people of the Ancient World were like us.  One of my more surprising discoveries, in researching The Saint’s Mistress, was that they had fast food. There was a good reason for this:  many apartments, particularly in the poor areas of the cities, lacked kitchens.  So, small stands selling quick foods thrived, serving lentils, porridge, bread, sausages, poultry, even an ancient forerunner of pizza! They didn’t have Styrofoam containers, of course.  The fast-food meal of the Ancient citizen of Rome or Carthage or Hippo would have been provided in cheap clay pottery, which ended up in massive landfills not so different from our own.

The first two meals of the day, what we call breakfast and lunch, would have been quick and simple for most people:  bread and cheese, perhaps some fruit or a little cold meat, some watered-down wine.

Dinner was eaten in the late afternoon, after a visit to the public baths, and would have been more substantial.  Wealthier people in the Roman Empire did eat reclining on cushions, just as they are portrayed.  Only children sat.  Forks were unknown; they ate with knives, toothpicks, spoons – and their fingers, which entailed a lot of hand-washing between courses.

Ancient Romans of the upper or upper middle class would have had access to many of the same foods familiar to us today.  Their fresh fruits and vegetables would have included grapes, figs, apples, leeks, asparagus, beets, gourds and lettuce. An evening meal might include one or more servings of protein: pork, eggs, fish and shellfish, goat meat, and various kinds of poultry.  The rich could afford roasted boar or peacock.  Those Mediterranean staples, olives and wine, would have been served with every meal.

The poor had to satisfy themselves with the same food for dinner that they had at breakfast time:  bread, porridge, perhaps some fruit or cheese

Augustine and his contemporaries would have known many of the same spices and flavorings the we use, such as pepper, cinnamon, and anise.

Honey was their only sweetener, so beekeeping was big business.  Hives were tall and domed, made of bark and dried dung, or willow reeds tightly woven and daubed with mud and leaves.  Honey was harvested twice a year.  The right time in spring was whenever the Pleiades were visible.  If the bees who made the honey had fed on poisonous plants like mountain laurel, the honey was poison, causing madness or even death due to heart failure or nervous system collapse.

In The Saint’s Mistress, I portray Augustine’s friend Nebridius as being especially fond of garum.  Garum was a sauce that was popular throughout the Roman Empire.  There were probably many variations, but it is believed to have been made from fish entrails, blood, salt and spices, and fermented for 20-30 days.  My sources said it probably tasted like Worcestershire sauce.

The biggest difference between how we eat and how Saint Augustine and has contemporaries ate, is the amount of labor that it took to produce food.  North Africa was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire in Augustine’s time and large-scale, corporate-style farms, like our modern ones, were not unknown. The difference was that ancient farms relied on human and animal labor, rather than on combustion-engine machinery.  Food was therefore more expensive, relative to the average income, than it is for us today.  Surrounded by abundance, peasants and the urban poor nevertheless knew periods of hunger and even famine.


Be the Change #21 – Be Like Joyce

When I wrote the first in this series of “Be Like…” posts, I mentioned all the good friends we have made by dancing with the Pittsburgh Ceili Club.  This fourth in my series of posts about people I know who are dedicated volunteers, is the third to feature a Ceili Club member.

Our friend Joyce Rothermel is a board member of the Thomas Merton center.  The Merton Center began in a store front office on the Southside in 1972 to protest the continuation of the war in Vietnam, and expanded their mission over the years to provide information and resources to combat poverty, racism and war, and advocate simplicity as a lifestyle.

Through the years, the Center has educated and organized against world and local hunger, exploitation of workers, militarism, and racial discrimination in Pittsburgh. Members have been arrested protesting the B-1 bomber, nuclear weapons, and apartheid in South Africa. They have organized fasts and vigils. The first Pittsburgh chapter of Amnesty International and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank were organized by Thomas Merton Center staff members.

Their many projects include advocating for public transit, promoting sustainable environmental practices, the Book ‘Em Books for Prisoners project, and the Greater Pittsburgh Interfaith Coalition.  Their Protect Our Parks campaign fights to keep our state parks fracking-free.  They even run a volunteer-staffed thrift store as both a fund-raiser and a clothing charity. And that’s just a partial list.  Where peace and justice are the goals, the Merton Center stands ready with partnership and support.

Like Theresa (see my bog post a few weeks ago), Joyce’s activism started with teaching.  She was teaching at a Catholic School in the 1970s, and began to feel compelled to put Catholic Social Justice teachings into action.  She was on the staff of the Center from 1977-87, and went on to become director of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (1987-2011), but has remained an active Merton Center volunteer.

Joyce and her husband Michael are kind and nurturing spirits at the Harp & Fiddle, quick to welcome strangers and to show a compassionate interest in others.  Joyce says of her longtime commitment to peace and justice, “It is a privilege to put my faith into action within a communal environment.  Working with kindred spirits of all ages, races, religious backgrounds in efforts to make the world more peaceful and just gives meaning and fulfillment to my life.”

Learn more about the Merton Center HERE.


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