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This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the February 13,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

It’s Time to Give Here’s How

Even millions of dollars in market research may not

have come up with a book title more opportune for today’s emotional

climate than Meredith Gould’s new "Deliberate Acts of Kindness:

Service as a Spiritual Practice."

How did she do it?

Gould, at age 50, would probably tell you it grew naturally from her

life experiences, her sociological training, a bit of market research

spiced with intuition, plus a little nudge from the divine. As

Americans

of all stripes heard George Bush’s State of the Union Address last

month in which they were asked to quantify their service to others

in terms of lifetime volunteer hours, Gould offers them her own small

act of service — a handbook for people who want to help others,

but don’t know how to get started.

Gould will share her ideas for people who feel called to serve, and

sign copies of "Deliberate Acts of Kindness," published this

month by Image Books, a division of Doubleday, at Barnes & Noble in

MarketFair, on Wednesday, February 20, at 7 p.m.

Service and social action have permeated Gould’s own life and that

of her family. "I come from a long tradition of rabble

rousers,"

she says. Her great-grandfather Moses Gold, a rabbi and founder of

the Workmen’s Circle, was a social welfare activist for new immigrants

in the 1920s. Her father was a marketing executive and her mother

was a non-fiction writer and copyeditor.

As early as high school, Gould herself got involved in social justice.

She remembers leading a "revolt" of sorts, after Martin Luther

King was shot, by lowering the flag to half mast before school

officials

granted permission. And even the sorority she admits to joining in

college, Alpha Xi Delta, "was very big on service."

In the late 1960s, Gould began to question her involvement in graphic

art and illustration. The Vietnam War was in progress; the United

States had just bombed Cambodia; and she recalls thinking, "People

are dying, and what am I doing? There is nothing political about art.

I need to be doing something socially relevant." So she dropped

out of college.

In the workaday world, Gould’s opportunities for social involvement

widened. As a secretary for a small multinational corporation, she

organized clerical workers and was fired. Then in the early 1970s,

while she was a clerk typist for AT&T Long Lines, "there was a

wildcat strike of the line workers." Raised by her parents never

to cross a picket line, she automatically picked up her purse to

follow

the shop steward out. Ignoring the comment that "traditionally,

the girls in the office don’t walk with the boys on the line,"

she — with only two other women — found herself standing in

a hallway lined with men: "I walked out; they looked at me; and

they all started clapping," she says. Their reason: "Because

no clerical worker has ever walked with us."

Gould finished her undergraduate degree at Queens College. During

graduate school at NYU, Gould felt very fortunate to be among the

last of the sociology students to use the participant-observer

methodology

— before quantitative methods gained ascendancy. And indeed her

book reads almost like an edited set of notes made by a

participant-observer

sociologist working in a variety of community service environments.

Coming of age in the turmoil of early feminism —

she got her doctorate in 1980 — Gould studied the social

construction

of roles and the distinction between sex and gender. In the 1980s,

she says, sociology departments were leery of hiring feminists like

her who were challenging the theoretical constructs of academic

sociology.

The result, she says, was "the lost generation of

sociologists,"

those women who came up for tenure between about 1984 and 1987 and

eventually moved out of academe. Gould, teaching at Rutgers in Camden,

did not get tenure. She was told her work was too popular and not

sufficiently rigorous. "My additional sin," she adds, "was

that I decided that I wanted to be Gail Sheehy when I grew up. I

wanted

to be a pop sociologist, and that doesn’t fly in academia."

Gould moved into government work, working on the Business Humanities

Project of the state Department of Higher Education. When the

government

job ended, Gould moved into advertising and public relations. But

in 1989 her business career ended in the face of what she dubs "a

call to write." She sold her house, intending to live off the

proceeds, and told herself, "I’m just going to trust that this

will come out O.K."

She got involved in yoga, hoping the gentle exercise might relieve

her chronic fatigue syndrome. "I was not interested in the

inspirational

part," she says, but yoga "opened up a whole world of

spiritual

schlepping." As she was immersing herself in a personal spiritual

search, the sociologist observer in her noted that her experience

was part and parcel of her age cohort: "We came out of the Vietnam

era interested in political action, then became completely

narcissistic

and got interested in navel gazing." However, by their late 30s,

this group had gotten burned out on big jobs, and their lives were

not going quite as planned.

"All of a sudden things spiritual looked like they might be more

interesting or more productive than political activity," says

Gould, so they turned inward.

Gould’s own spiritual exploration intensified with a move to Lenox,

Massachusetts, for a two-year "soul sabbatical" at the Kripalu

Center for Yoga and Health. Her motivation: "I’m 40, and I’ve

got to find out about this God thing." She supported herself by

freelancing and marketing consulting and eventually became director

of marketing for Kripalu.

When Gould moved back to New Jersey, she experienced an earth-shaking

spiritual intervention that confirmed writing as her chosen vocation.

She had ruptured a disc and remembers lying flat on her back,

thinking,

praying, talking to God and asking, "OK, you’ve got my attention

— what am I supposed to be doing?" And a small, still voice

responded, "Get it, stupid. You’re supposed to be writing. This

is your gift. Write!"

Although Gould’s move from freelance articles to books may seem

serendipitous,

Gould believes God had a role. It started when she became friends

with a writer who contacted her after reading one of her articles.

He had a friend at Storey Publishing who sometimes looked for writers

to pursue particular ideas. Gould met the editor, but Storey’s book

list just didn’t seem up her alley.

Around 1996, back in her role as spiritual seeker, Gould signed up

for a workshop on icon painting. She found herself at a silent

retreat,

painting icons with religious and Orthodox priests, and attending

daily mass. She responded deeply, thinking: "I’m smitten with

this. This is the most powerful form of prayer that I’ve ever

encountered."

Driving home, it occurred to Gould that she "really should call

this woman at Storey to try to keep the connection alive." When

she got home, she found on her answering machine that very woman,

offering her a book project that ended up as "Working at Home:

Making it Work for You." Remarking on the amazing

"coincidence"

and the fact that the editor let her write a funny business book in

her own voice, Gould observed, "It was the hand of God made

visible."

Having been bitten once by the book bug, Gould was soon looking for

another book idea, and she found it in her own life experience. She

wrote "Staying Sober: Tips for working a 12-step program for

recovery."

Her agent sold it to Hazleton, the biggest recovery publisher; and

she is now into royalties for it.

The fan mail in response to the book, says Gould, "got me thinking

about service." Being a good sociologist, she did a little

research.

She asked herself, "What’s going on out there, and what’s going

on with me?" She also did an unscientific survey of her "smart

women friends," asking what they thought would be the next big

trend. Although none mentioned service per se, they predicted an

increasing

interest in spiritual issues.

"Combining what I knew about myself and my cohort of aging Baby

Boomers, my best guess was that service was going to be next big

thing,"

she observes. She surmised that her "generation of malcontents

and navel gazers," who know that social action feels good and

that spiritual traditions require it "to move up the spiritual

food chain," were beginning to experience "the call to

service."

In the same time frame, around 1999, Gould experienced the spiritual

side of service while caring for a dying friend. She believes this

"rabidly atheist" friend asked her to be on his care team

at the end precisely because she believed in God. The experience of

being with a dying person was immensely moving: "I realized I

was in the presence of the most luminous, numinous moment," she

says. "You can’t be with someone dying, starving, or bleeding,

or pick through the remains of the World Trade Center and not be

changed

by that service."

From her own cumulative experience with service, says Gould, "I

realized that serving is in and of itself a spiritual practice. It

demands discipline, intentionality, paying attention, giving up the

self, and annihilating the ego."

"Deliberate Acts of Kindness" is an easy-reading handbook

of spiritual and sociological tips, writing exercises, and quotes

from spiritual masters. The first chapter explores the central role

of service in different spiritual traditions; the second focuses on

the "call to service;" the third on deciding where to serve;

the fourth on adapting the self to the organizational culture; and

the last on the "shadow side" of service.

For many readers, Gould’s book may provide the nudge that gets them

into the door of a service organization. For those already

volunteering,

and especially those from an established religious tradition, the

book may strike a discordant note.

Gould takes a humorous approach that some may finds at odds with her

point that service is a spiritual path. The book "may be offensive

to people who take religion very seriously," says Gould. But she

justifies her style: "I don’t think spiritual stuff has to be

grim. Look at God’s creation. He has to have a sense of humor. I’m

created in the image of God, and I like to poke fun at the ponderous,

self-important aspects of religion."

What is truly amazing about Gould’s latest book is how appropriate

it is for today’s post-September 11 environment. Gould herself was

a little horrified at how well she had picked a trend this time. She

remembers watching President Bush’s first speech after September 11,

having just finished looking at the book’s galleys: "I just sat

there with chills. I sat in the dining room and started crying because

I so believed in service. I know what it has done for me, and all

of a sudden there was this global attention to what we need to do

as humans for one another!"

— Michele Alperin

Meredith Gould , Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,

609-897-9250.

Free. Wednesday, February 20, 7 p.m.


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