Tuesday, February 15, 2011

One Fine Thing

Everyone has a first novel, as a Booksmith publisher's rep used to say; everyone has a first novel because everyone has their own story to tell. True novelists are born storytellers, who have many more than that one best-known and most intimately understood tale. By this standard it's easy to recognize storytellers in those second and third novels that succeed for their authenticity and resonance with readers. But let us not dismiss those who have only that one great and deeply honest tale to tell. Each person's personal story is of interest, though some are made more so by the embellishment of good writing. Occasionally you come across one which is much more than interesting. Now and then, you may be fortunate to hear a personal story so compelling as to transcend any dependence on the telling itself.

On a very ordinary day, I crossed from the building where I work to an adjacent building in search of some insight into a technical problem. I'd worked with Nash* for several years, not every day, but on several large projects where my understanding - and therefore success - had been enhanced by his knowledge and the generosity with which he shared it. Among a sea of cubicles, I found him and pulled a chair into his cube to ask questions, preparing myself to listen as Nash translated highly technical answers into more or less layman's language for my benefit. I posed my set of questions. In a moment during which he quickly considered how to frame his answers in such a way that they'd be helpful to me, I passed a casual eye around his cube, noticing framed awards and certificates of recognition and personal family photos. I focused on a photo of his young son; we chatted about kids, about boys, about having boys who were 5 or 6 years old: homework, headstrong behavior, whether or not to coach soccer or baseball, how to get them to listen. We laughed, enjoying the contrast of common ground and diversity of our connection. I was a middle-aged woman of Irish and English extraction, raised a Catholic in the southern U.S., with all the psychic wrinkles that implies. Nash had emigrated from India, where a deep value for education had been instilled in him. He spoke more than 5 languages comfortably. His dark eyes flashed with inteliigence and humor, and his early education had come from priests and brothers in a Catholic school. They'd seen his abilities quite early on, he told me: when he visited the school of his youth as a grown man, the walls were still hung with certificates of achievement he'd been awarded, records which hadn't been surpassed despite the passing of years.

He began to answer my immediate work-related questions, but I continued to be distracted by the photos on his desk. When I made out the details on one of them, I interrupted him rather rudely to ask about the faces looking out from the photo. Who were they? Did I know any of them? Was the small woman in the middle someone who would be recognizable in the western world? It was a bit of a story, he said, a bit shyly. Could we have lunch together so he could tell me?, I asked. Yes, of course, he said.

When we sat to eat, the tale flowed quickly and with a subtle note of pride. The photo that had caught my interest showed a group of young men, most of them (Nash would tell me) from Indian or Pakistani families. They were college students who'd been relaxing together in a common area, sharing a meal, talking inconsequentially, when their casual talk turned to speculation about the future. What will we do, one of them wondered, What great deed will we do that will define us and make us memorable? As they talked, one of them said, What if we set ourselves a task? What great and fine objective could we challenge ourselves with? They talked a long time together. Nash had been reading a newspaper before the long philosophical discussion began and he picked it up now. Looking out from the paper was a photo of Mother Theresa. It seemed to be a gentle inspiration, and before the evening turned to morning, the group of young students had decided: they would take up a collection of money and perhaps other donations, and they would take these to Mother Theresa herself, wherever she was, far, far away in Calcutta. And they would do it during a break so that no classes would be missed.

What began as a well-intentioned but impulsive, youthful, almost off-handed generous impulse became an informal mission. Because of the physical distance between their university and Mother Theresa's mission, the friends agreed they would bicycle to her with whatever collection of donations they were able to amass. Nash had no bicycle, but circumstances aligned themselves so that a bicycle found its way to him, and the mechanical fixes the bike needed were somehow managed. As the group of friends reached out for donations, they found such an outpouring of generosity that the logistics of delivery became another challenge: it was a long trip, they had a school schedule to keep and they had no money or arrangements for hotels or transportation. And yet it seemed that each question was answered with every step. When they needed to rest for the night, villages opened with hospitality. When they needed to continue their trek by night, word had spread so that truck drivers followed the bicycles at a distance with their headlights on, lighting the way for the riders. In truth, Nash told me, his eyes bright, they felt as though this simple, youthful idea to do just one fine thing had gotten some special celestial notice. Their One Fine Thing was being helped along by an energy they hadn't expected. And before they knew it, they'd arrived in the city and been directed to the facility run by Mother Theresa. Perhaps most remarkably of all, someone had spoken to her and she would be delighted to meet with this group of young men, most of them students of engineering and technology, none of them unusually religious or particularly idealistic. Interestingly, in Nash's telling of the tale religion played almost no part. This had been a mission of kindness. If any of the friends had a particularly relgious motivation, it seemed that was a completely private matter.

On Nash's desk was captured that moment: 8 or 10 young students of varied backgrounds and destinies, towering in a rough circle around the tiny, wizened and perfectly beautiful woman who had touched thousands directly and millions indirectly. Here was a glimpse of his One Fine Thing, he told me, the One Fine Thing he would be able to tell his son about, the thing he would be able to challenge his son to achieve for himself. This was how he saw the conclusion of his brief moment, really. It was his own effort to do something good to make a small but unforgettable change to the world, and it is his enduring effort to pass that human requirement on to his children, whose job it is to find - and do - One Fine Thing.

My own cube, whether or not it really is a literal cube (after all, who doesn't feel at least a little bit at home with Dilbert?) certainly shares latitude and longitude with someone else who has A Story, and maybe someone with a fine thing they've done or are just about to do. I just have to remind myself to listen.

*Nash is not his real name.


  1. Everybody has an interesting story to tell. As you say, some tell the interesting story in an interesting way, and that's why we believe those people to be more interesting than the next person.

    This was a fine story in itself, of course, and well-told. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Coming from a writer whose work I've come to enjoy and admire, that's a fine compliment, sir, and I accept with thanks!

  3. Update: my kind friend and subject read this piece and pointed out one of my mistakes. I recalled the group of students as being Indian and Pakistani kids; he reminded me that they were actually from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The error was completely mine.


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