Life gives us an interesting plate. As an undergraduate I majored in business administration and minored in philosophy. A religious experience in my early twenties prompted three years of post-graduate work in theology and a brief career as a youth minister. Religious disillusionment was followed by a semester of journalism, 15 years as an editor and writer for an assortment of magazines and journals and three years as a radio news reporter and news director. All of this topped off by two years of managing a political campaign for a friend.
And now along comes what could well be my final career choice: janitor. Yes, you read correctly. After all those years of pushing a pencil I am now pushing a broom and vacuum cleaner and finding it more exciting and fulfilling than anything I’ve ever done! For nearly four years I worked with a commercial janitorial company cleaning a variety of businesses in Loveland, Colorado. I am now employed by the Loveland school district as a “night custodian” at an elementary school.
Why do I find it exciting and fulfilling? First and foremost because, from a spiritual standpoint, I’ve always framed my mission in life in terms of cleaning up the mess on earth. Admittedly, sweeping the floor of a school building doesn’t make much of a dent in the ocean of trash now on the planet. But the symbolic value is there. The physical act of cleaning has its spiritual counterpart. As I clean something up externally, I am very aware that something is happening internally: a cleansing, purifying process in my own mind and heart and a simultaneous cleaning at some level of collective consciousness.
Of course this happens with any work fittingly and honestly done. But with cleaning, the link is so obvious and immediate. I also strongly sense as I work that I am not just cleaning up physical dirt and clutter. The day’s activities also deposit dirt and clutter in the vibrational field: petty resentments, bickerings, pressures of all sorts—these things cloud and clog the atmosphere of the school at the end of the day. If I work with the right spirit, many of these patterns can be cleared.
Janitorial work is wonderfully relaxing to the mind. At the end of a day of radio news work, my mind was so exhausted that just to read a newspaper in the evening required Herculean effort. But I find the simple repetitive motions involved in cleaning almost a mental tonic, sharpening the thinking processes for the reading and writing I do during nonworking hours. Plus I get all the physical exercise I need every day just doing my job. It involves bending, lifting, stretching, pulling and walking about three miles each night. No health club for me.
Cleaning is a service occupation, but this service aspect really comes to the fore in a school setting. A clean classroom serves the teacher, the students and the whole educational process. And there are so many opportunities to serve beyond the requirements of the job—the fourth-grade boy who needs his basketball pumped up, the teacher who needs a jump-start for her car, the principal who asks me to stay a few minutes extra to help clean up after a school party. I love it.
Shortly after I arrive at work, school is dismissed for the day. Many teachers linger in their classrooms putting things in order, grading papers and preparing the next day’s lessons. When I come into a classroom to clean, a teacher will often show me what projects the class is working on; we talk about learning techniques and educational philosophy, about world and personal issues. Some substantial friendships have resulted, even involving contact beyond the school setting.
Schools in Loveland are implementing “site-based management,” essentially meaning that teachers and parents take primary responsibility for running individual schools, not central administration. As part of this, custodians are invited to attend staff meetings and even to provide input on matters of curriculum and instruction. Not long ago I was allowed to make a presentation to the entire staff of the school at their biweekly staff meeting. I spoke at length about such things as excellence in performance and qualities of true character.
One teacher approached me later and said it was the most wonderful and meaningful talk she had ever experienced at a staff meeting. The Loveland school district has a Total Quality Management program involving support staff and administrators. Not long after its inception I began attending meetings of the TQM custodial group and shortly after became its recording secretary, responsible for preparing and distributing a detailed report of each meeting. This has acquainted me with every phase of custodial and maintenance operations in the district and put me in touch with department heads, supervisors and other custodians. It is also an excellent opportunity to exercise writing skills.
But let’s get back to the nitty-gritty work of dusting, cleaning sinks, emptying trash and vacuuming which, after all, is what I mostly do and what I enjoy the most. With regard to any work, what is done matters far less than how it is done; what is accomplished externally is less important than the internal process of the person doing the work. Elucidating the teachings of Carlos Castaneda in the Quest magazine, David Copeland describes this dual function as“doing one thing, anything in fact, and doing it impeccably, and yet knowing that you are actually doing something else—practicing the warrior’s path by exercising impeccable action and unbending intent.” In other words, as I give absolute attention to my cleaning responsibilities, doing everything precisely as it should be done, pouring my very being into the handling of each detail, a refined quality of warrior substance is generated on an invisible level and something powerful forms within myself that impacts the cosmic whole.
Now who would ever suspect, as they observe me polishing a sink or cleaning a blackboard, that all of this is going on? Probably no one, and that’s just fine. But I know it’s happening and that as I work into the evening the school is transformed from an inert collection of hallways, desks and blackboards into a gleaming, pulsating creative field. The word janitor is derived from Janus, a god in Greek and Roman mythology. Janus, with eyes both in front and back, was protector of the treasures of the palace. The school is my palace, and everything in it—the tools of learning, the people, the atmosphere. It is the treasure I zealously protect and bless in each moment of what for me is an enterprise of cosmic dimensions.