seeking human kindness

People are overwhelmingly trustworthy and generous.  ~ Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist

holding-handsSo as I mentioned in a recent post, littlest love and I have been reading The Odyssey together.  (Her idea, I swear!)  As much as this is an epic poem chronicling Odysseus’ adventures on his return home to his family in Ithaca, it is also a story of its people and their culture–the palpable interconnectedness between them and the divine, their sense of fate, destiny, their own humility and their obligation to honor one another with kindness and hospitality.  Part of the joy of any story is that imaginative act of being transported–and we are loving journeying through this mythical land of kings and goddesses, gilded palaces and warm Aegean breezes.  Homer’s seductive Dawn, with her rose-red fingers . . . .

So we’ve finally reached Book 4–the last chapter of Telemachus’ journey–and littlest has been attentively listening each night as Telemachus travels from one kingdom to the next in search of news of his father.  She loves the interplay between Athena and the mortals and I suspect enjoys imagining her in disguise among the courtly atmosphere.  And perhaps she’s even enjoying the language and the other-worldliness as much as I am.  The way Telemachus is cared for and welcomed. The way his hosts greet him with wide open arms and offer him seats of honor at their tables, the best cuts of meat, their finest wines.  Why, he’s even bathed and anointed by his royal hosts’ most beautiful daughters–and they don’t even know who he is!  He’s an uninvited guest–a complete stranger–and even when wandering into an elaborate wedding feast, the hosts drop everything they are doing and rush to greet him and offer him hospitality.  Help yourselves to food, and welcome! says Menelaus.  Once you’ve dined we’ll ask you who you are.  Does that even happen anymore?!  I suspect if you crashed a wedding banquet in Beverly Hills today, you’d be swiftly escorted to the curb.  No Cristal and caviar for you, and certainly no hot oil rub downs so sorry Charley.  Buh bye.  And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

We certainly have devolved into a culture that is immediately suspicious of strangers and selective with our generosity, haven’t we?  I don’t pretend to offer any theories but only know that, even though I like to think of myself as charitable and kind, I have grown hardened to that woman walking up and down the median with the sign reading Help! Need bus ticket home. Only $50 short.  I look in her eyes and see the dark circles of addiction.  A hooded sweatshirt covers her stringy hair, but I can tell she’s only about twenty years old.  A bus ticket my ass, I’m thinking.  And I can watch everyone else thinking the same thing, too, as they turn away from her.  We tell ourselves,  If I give her money, she’s going to spend it on drugs.  But as I type this right now I know that I should be more generous with her, that even if I gave her money and she did spend it on drugs, the gesture alone would extend some kindness to her.  And if enough people did that, maybe she’d grow more hopeful . . . .  But yet I never roll the window down.  She’ll just mock me and call me a sucker,  I tell myself as I pull out of the grocery store parking lot and head off to pick up my daughter from school, a brown paper bag in the backseat piled high with canned goods bound for the local food bank.  As I drive past women like her, I often wonder, if only she held an honest sign that read Forgotten: need drugs to numb the pain, anything helps, would I be more generous?

I think we are a suspicious cynical people when it comes to strangers, especially strangers that seem in the most need of our help.  We are selective and direct our acts of charity to known communities and organizations rather than to unfamiliar people, I think because we don’t want to feel cheated or duped or vulnerable.  Reading Homer with my littlest love is making me wonder if there isn’t some small way we can try to let go of some of that fear and be more hospitable, kind and generous.  To look at the Homeless Vet Needs Work sign and see instead, Lonely and Cast Aside.

I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called Craigslist Joe, which was about this very notion of hospitality.  In the film, unemployed twentysomething Joe Garner decides to travel the country for a month with no money or car or cell phone contacts.  He vows only to use the internet swap meet site Craigslist to connect with people in hopes he will find work, food and shelter from the strangers he meets.  It’s a spiritual quest of sorts intended to test our capacity for kindness and generosity.  Now, Joe looks nothing like a wan-eyed meth addict.  There’s nothing counterculture about him–no tattoos, no piercings, no patchouli or dread locks.  He’s a clean, well-educated suburban kid with a cameraman in tow, not to mention a two-parent safety net and a living room full of friends to welcome him home after this experiment is over, so of course he’s not bound to draw suspicion on the road.  While this may be a small flaw in the film, I don’t think it detracts from his journey in any way because what you see much more than him are the strangers he meets.

His plan is simple:  he looks for community on Craigslist, and once he connects with a person or group, he asks for their hospitality.  He answers all kinds of ads–advertisements for free dance classes, calls for open mic comedians, requests for tutoring or soup kitchen volunteers.  He shows up and participates in the activity and then hopes he can find someone willing to put him up for the night and share a meal with him.  What you see in the film is stranger after stranger inviting him into their home.  He also uses Craigslist to locate drivers looking for travel companions, and these take him from LA to Portland and Seattle, across to Chicago and then on to New York, down through Florida and New Orleans, and then back to San Francisco, which I am sad to say is the only city that shut him down and forced him to sleep on the street.  In each of these other cities, he meets kind and generous people who shelter and feed him.

Are we at a place in our society with you know the technology of the internet and websites and human interaction where we can take care of each other? ~ Joe Garner

It’s a remarkable concept for a documentary, and as I watched the film, I was conscious of how each of his hosts seemed a little off the grid, some more so than others.  They were eccentric or lonely or cast aside in some way and perhaps in need of his companionship.  They were people I would be suspicious of–POWs as I have been known to call them– pieces of work I’d size up and dismiss as too much trouble.  But Craigslist Joe was forced to put his trust in them and opened himself up to their stories, and we see instead of their strangeness, their kindness and humor and generosity.

Some of their interactions were deeply moving.  In New York at Christmastime, Joe decides to begin placing his own ads for volunteers so that he can provide assistance to anyone who needs it, and one of the best portions of the film is a scene where he and another volunteer visit the home of a woman dying of cancer who posted an ad asking for help of any kind.  They have no idea what they have signed up for and arrive at her apartment ready for anything, only to discover she is not only suffering from cancer but is a mentally ill hoarder with quite a story to tell.  When you witness the kindness they show one another, it will remind you that these sorts of meaningful encounters can only happen if we put aside judgment and instead are open and trusting and generous with one another.  Because aren’t we all in some way, each of us, holding a sign that reads Seeking Human Kindness?

Craigslist JoeThis was by far and away the most inspiring experience of my life–the generosity of people–the stories they shared–the connections I made in one month were so deep . . . just meeting everyone and telling them my story and the journey–having people invite a complete stranger into their homes and feed me and invite me to go out–it was truly inspiring to know that we can take care of each other.  ~ Joe Garner AKA “Craigslist Joe”

 

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here i am

I must first tell you I have not been writing in this blog because I’ve been devoting my rare moments of solitude to daily prayer and writing down the fruits of this contemplation in a journal. In case you don’t remember, a journal is a bound blank book you write in. With a pen. On paper.

About a year ago the deacon at my church asked if I would help him complete the second year of a spiritual direction program that would train him in The Spiritual Exercises of St. IgnatiusThe Spiritual Exercises is a scripted, guided sequence of meditations and contemplative prayer developed by the 16th century saint Ignatius of Loyola and most often offered as a 30 day silent retreat at a lovely chef-staffed facility with lush gardens teeming with flower beds filled with songbirds, but as the deacon explained it to me, he would need to lead someone through a modified version, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life, which would extend over the course of a school year or about 30 weeks September to June. Daily scripture reading, prayer, reflection, writing on my own. One weekly meeting with him at the church. There would be no cell for me in a remote stone-walled monastery. No confiscation of electronic devices. No silence. No solemn-faced sisters I could cajole into smiles. In fact, not even a steady sequence of ringing bells to call me to prayer. I would need to find a chisel and carve out space in my busy schedule to commit to this strict, scripted regimen for almost an entire year. Of course, if you know me at all, when he eventually returned to our conversation several months later to finalize his plans, despite all my reservations and praying he’d forgotten or found someone else, I said . . . Sure.  Why not?  If it will help.  YES!

Yes.

I smiled and said, yes. And I wish I could say, yes, I am becoming more holy and loving with all this prayer, but I don’t feel any different spiritually. I suspect I am also somewhat of a disappointment to the deacon because I do not bring him profound epiphanies or spiritual crises each week or give him much opportunity to practice direction. Yes, we have thoughtful discussions about scripture and theology and share with one another the fruits of the week’s contemplation, but my sense of mission and my conversation with God was pretty well-honed before we began, and if anything, over and over again, week after week, I bring him the same fruit: I bring him my tears of gratitude. I bring him awe and wonder and why me, God?  Why choose me?  Why give ME this faith, this hope, this love?  I tell him about the student who crouched down behind my lectern during class and cried as he told me how he wanted to write about choosing not to join a gang but didn’t know how to begin. I tell him about the woman with razor cuts lining her forearms like a Native American feather tattoo who writes to me in her midterm bluebook I have nothing to live for but keeps coming to my class every day anyway. I wonder with him why my own children are compassionate, kind peacemakers who stand up for the lonely and rejected, who seek out the widow they had never met at a funeral we recently attended and wrap her in tiny, tender arms of consolation. How every day, when I’m asked to pray for grace and contemplate the particulars of our unfolding story with God, to imagine myself there, written into the story, I’m the one on her knees weeping.

 

Now the Work of Christmas Begins

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken.
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people.
To make music in the heart.

~ Howard Thurman, African-American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader

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euphoria

EuphoriaLilyKingHe is wine and bread and deep in my stomach. ~ Lily King

There are so many beautiful things to say about this book, but perhaps the greatest praise I can offer is this: I read it in three days, and once I finished, I picked it up and read it again. It’s magical, so magical in fact, that it passed my perfection test perfectly — like that first flutter of friendship, that quick spark of energy between kindred spirits, this book takes you in smack exactly on page 50. One paragraph in, right on cue, page 50. Perfection.

Now we readers are a hopeful people, but we are not always forgiving. It’s okay to admit it. We are a little judgy. We pick up a book, longing for that seductive pull that promises to take our imagination to a fabulous dinner party. We walk into the room with wide-eyed expectation. We wait graciously with our host as the cast of characters is introduced, and while we are full of questions, we watch patiently as events begin to unfold. But around page 50, if pieces are not falling into place, we stifle yawns and quickly begin to fashion our excuses. Maybe you’re a page 75er. Maybe you’re a 100. And if you are the determined sort to hold out for dessert after three hours of bad conversation over cold gruel, God help you. It’s page 50 for me because I just know. I can feel a connection with someone within a few minutes, and I tend to read books the same way. And right on cue, this book enchanted me.

Lily King’s Euphoria, loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead, is the story of three anthropologists who get tangled up studying the tribes of New Guinea in the 1930s. The American Nell Stone has written a bestselling book on ethnography, which has made her famous and well-respected among her peers and has afforded her sufficient grant money to finance her excursions. She is drawn into relationship with the women and children of the tribes she inhabits while Fen, her embittered husband, is almost a Kurtz-like character on the hunt for virile rituals, sacred objects and warfare. The pair are at odds over her professional success, and Fen’s character is driven throughout the novel to one up her and restore what he perceives as an imbalance of power in their relationship. At the start of the narrative, Nell has successfully pulled him back from a murderous tribe, and as they float through an atmospheric riverscape in search of a new village, they come across Bankson, a college rival who soon comes between them in wonderful ways . . . right on page 50!

Nell is in bad shape. Fen has broken her glasses, she also has broken her ankle and is covered in festering lesions, and the attentive reader is quick to observe that it is Bankson who notices. Granted he is telling the story at this point, but King takes pains to show the reader that Bankson is tender and thoughtful . . . and drawn to Nell. I won’t give away all the details of their friendship but will simply cast them as two caring kindred spirits connected by a great love in this wonderfully seductive story, with the feel of Isak Dineson’s Out of Africa but full of intelligent commentary on gender, ethnography and the struggle for power or peace, for spiritual connection and intimacy.

After you read it, please do come back here and tell me your favorite parts. And because I am still under its spell and can’t bring myself to admit that fall classes begin this week, I’m going to go read it again.

I try not to return to these moments very often, for I end up lacerating my young self for not simply kissing the girl. I thought we had time. Despite everything, I believed there was time. Love’s first mistake. Perhaps love’s only mistake. Time for you and time for me, though I never did warm to Eliot. She was married. She was pregnant. And what would it have mattered in the end? What would it have altered to have kissed her then, that night? Everything. Nothing. Impossible to know. We fell asleep reciting. Who was speaking or what poem I am not certain. We woke to little Sema and Amini poking us in the leg.

She told me the Tam believed that love grows in the stomach and that they went around clutching their bellies when their hearts were broken. You are in my stomach was their most intimate expression of love.


 

Euphoria, By Lily King (288 pp)

Atmospheric and sensual, with startling images throughout, Euphoria, is an intellectually stimulating tour de force. NPR

A New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the 2014 Kirkus Prize
Winner of the 2014 New England Book Award for Fiction
A Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award
A Best Book of the Year for 2014:
“New York Times Book Review,” “Time,” NPR, “Washington Post,” “Entertainment Weekly,” “Newsday,” “Vogue,” “New York Magazine,” “Seattle Times,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Wall Street Journal,” “Boston Globe,” “The Guardian,” “Kirkus Reviews,” Amazon, “Publishers Weekly,” Oprah.com, Salon

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