It has always been there

This week, we add a new chapter to the Doors series with a wonderful essay by William Van Hecke — creator of quality things, Uncommon member, and purveyor of empathy.

At the Basement door, I stopped dead. What should have been on the other side just… wasn’t. The resilient blue-and-beige carpet, ’70s fake wood paneling, foam ceiling tiles: all of it had been there since before I could remember, and now it was simply gone. What remained was the exposed concrete floor and wooden studs that must have been beneath the surface all along, I guess. I’d certainly never thought of the house as having bones, because it was home long before I wondered how buildings were made.

My brain wanted nothing to do with this nonsense. When you look through that door, the Basement is always there. It has always been there. Sure, the rest of the house I grew up in was remodeled room by room over the decades. But the Basement was constant. The Basement was sacred.

Five generations of video game consoles had lived down there, providing portals to countless other worlds. It’s where Lego empires thrived. Cousins and friends came down to build forts and haunted houses, to film claymation features and music videos. I stewed down there as a teenager, filling notebooks with grandiosely miserable song lyrics. Even after all my siblings and I moved out, the nieces and nephews took over the Basement on every visit. Toward the end, Dad had his trains set up there. The Basement was the subterranean retreat of anyone who wanted to get away from the din and the teasing of the whole huge (really, really huge) family for a while.

Now: No more interior walls to define its rooms. No more utility room door, bedroom door, or secret storage room door. How many friends had I impressed with the secret door! Paradoxically, without those boundaries the space felt tiny. Five distinct territories had become a single space. What seemed to me as a child like a world to explore was now just a room I could walk across in four paces.

Turns out my handy brother-in-law volunteered to “clean up” the Basement as part of our family’s huge project of adjusting to a world without Dad. It took a while to get over the shock of looking through that door and seeing an unfamiliar space, something that seemed to belong to some other house. Then it became symbolic of all the weird and unexpected ways that things have changed now that Dad is gone. It’s strange to go down there. It’s cold and unfamiliar and eerie. But the new wiring is good. They put in an entertainment center. The old bookshelves have been painted. And you know… it’ll probably be fine. — William


The latest dispatch asked, What are your favorite organizations that do the hard work of making things better?

Jenny wrote:

Generally I'd say charities and third sectors like Amnesty that work to promote equality and freedom, and to improve human rights. For the past two months however my head is pre-occupied with one thing - Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. I was born in Hong Kong and although I've been living elsewhere for a third of my life so far, I care a lot about Hong Kong.
The main organisations behind the movement are Scholarism and Hong Kong Federation of Students. These kids between 14-18 years old are more mature and than many of us would think. They are committed students who spend their spare time in the evening and weekends to work on the David & Goliath task to bring Hong Kong free and open elections. These kids are sound and authentic in what they ask for, unlike the politicians who sadly usually have their own agendas and can't be trusted.
Reading the news online from London, I had a number of sleepless nights worried about the violence that might happen to the protestors. I'm so glad I could finally jump on a plane to come to Hong Kong to be witness of this historical movement.
I spent just under 12 hours outside the government building Sunday (see photos). A lot of emotions everywhere. I couldn't stop my tears rolling down when seeing the first (first for me) few injured teenagers lying on the ground. It's so surreal and I kept asking myself why so brutal, and how have things developed to this stage (albeit it's amazing to witness a modern revolution being born). This is an experience I'll never forget and I really hope it will inspire many many people around the world to fight for genuine freedom and democracy.

Carrie wrote:

I am in awe of what Skateistan is accomplishing. What started as some guys wanting to spread the joy of skateboarding to the most at-risk, forgotten children, has become an incredible force for empowerment and barrier breaking. They are bringing confidence, self-worth, friendship, community, education, and play to children that would never have such things otherwise. I think they are sparking an incredible cultural revolution in the communities they serve, with an impact that will reach through generations.
Their ability to shift perceptions about the role of girls and women in society by showing kindness, love, and generosity is such important work. It is well worth your time to explore their website and watch some of the student created videos.

Drew wrote:

​My favorite organizations are Medecins Sans Frontieres (aka. Doctors Without Borders), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Campaign.
More locally, Princeton Nursery School (non-profit nursery school providing pre-K education and childcare for the working poor in the heart of one of the most wealthy towns in the USA - I sit on the Board), Homefront (seeking to end homelessness in Central NJ), and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.

Steve wrote:

Warby Parker is primarily an eyewear company that makes it easy and enjoyable to buy their great products online. But one reason I love the company is that they work with a nonprofit, VisionSpring, to provide eye care and glasses to developing countries. Buying a pair for myself means that someone who needs it more than me is getting (potentially life-changing) corrective lenses.

Ryan wrote:

This is low-hanging fruit, but I’m pretty impressed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Above all, I appreciate their optimism; they seem to thoroughly believe they can make the world a better place, and that comes through in the way they write about their work.
But I guess the organization I believe in the most, after my local church, must be New Tribes Mission, which sends Christian missionaries to people groups who have never heard of Jesus before. Specifically, my friends Chris and Evie, whom my wife and I support, have been living among the Pei people in Papua New Guinea for about three years now. In addition to talking about Christianity with their neighbors—which some might not regard as a worthy endeavor—missionaries from New Tribes often do the work of developing an alphabet and written language for the people among whom they live, and they frequently build infrastructure such as plumbing and airstrips. Of course, I do believe in the value of teaching the Christian gospel, so I think that adds up to some pretty exciting world-changing work.

Brad wrote:

Everyone has their own story to tell through the organizations they support. A narrative of where you've been and what has captured your attention in life are wrapped up in tiny corners of the do-good world. They provide an interesting perspective on a person.
My favorite organizations that are making things better fall into roughly two major categories: those that help children and advance medical science, and those that advocate for people who have had their rights ignored or trampled. Examples of the former are the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation, March of Dimes and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the latter include The Innocence Project, the Institute for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union.
There are many more organizations that I think are indispensable and which do great work, like the Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Black Girls Code, The Naturist Society and countless others, but my primary focus and resources are put into organizations which try to provide tools for survival and justice in our imperfect society.

Uncommon reads

On Permission by Craig Mod:

There is no good network or bad network. No right disconnectivity or wrong connectivity. The best we can do—the most important thing we can do—is to cultivate awareness of the rules we inhabit. To understand the language they produce, and with that, the permissions granted.

The Knowledge, London’s Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS by Jody Rosen:

To support the Knowledge is to make the unfashionable argument that there’s something dystopian about the outsourcing of humanity’s hard-won erudition to gizmos.

Tiffani Jones Brown on storytelling and empathy:

We’re all having fun. We’re all laughing. Nobody wants to do anything next.

Your turn

What's the best thing you read this year?