It wasn't the worst job in the world. The pay was solid, and in cash. You got to intrude upon the homes of people across the whole socioeconomic spectrum, up to and including Uma Thurman. It was a little dangerous, especially on slate roofs and especially in bad weather, but nothing common sense couldn't deal with. The big downside was extensive exposure to creosote, probably the most carcinogenic substance occurring in nature.
Here's what made chimney-sweeping so much less unpleasant than Dickens readers might imagine: we didn't actually climb into the chimneys. This is very important. We cleaned them from the fireplace below, or the roof above, using wire brushes, attached to fiberglass rods or weighted ropes. After all, chimneys are dirty and dangerous places, very narrow, and often home to dead animals.
Like Jacquelyn Kotarac, MD.
Apparently, this California internist didn't get the memo about chimneys being narrow places. Maybe she took A Visit from St. Nicholas too literally, and imagined that the average chimney was large enough to accommodate a jolly old elf, it could easily offer passage to a slender young physician. So, after failing to force open the door to her (estranged) boyfriend's house, she climbed up on the roof, removed the chimney cap, and went feet-first down the chimney. At least part of the way.
He corpse was found several days later, lodged a few feet above the firebox.
Okay, we've made our jokes, and we are the first to acknowledge that Dr. Kotarac is a candidate for the Darwin Awards. (Not to mention the Alexandra Forrest Award for scary girlfriends). But underneath the hard-heartedness, this story interests us for another reason: it is a reminder of what love can do to us all.
Kotarac was 49 years old, a respected professional in early middle age. If she was like us, she probably had some pain in her joints, more gray hairs than she realized, and new creases every time she checked the bathroom mirror. She was not, in other words, a hormone-drunk adolescent, prone unchecked emotions and theatrical displays. And yet.
There is an old understanding of sin that treats it as the failure or perversion of love. Hatred is the absence of love; greed is love for the wrong thing, and so forth. We remember this, each time we hear about a person doing something terrible, shameful, painful or foolish. Because, more often than not, they did it for "love."