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 comes santa claus, fur reals

Santa Claus is a woman.  She is.  Oh, I know you’ve seen those Santas at the mall, those men in eco-friendly fake fur with their synthetic white beards.  Okay, so maybe your mall Santa is a retired motorcycle salesman with an authentic scraggly beard, but come on now.  We all know they’re imposters.  Leaders of all kinds have traditionally been men and so it goes with Santa, right?  It makes sense to dress him up in the suit, hand him the reigns of the sleigh and smile in your apron strings as he gets all the credit.  But we know.  We know.

Earlier this year after losing a few more teeth and scratching her head at the glitter trail left by the toothfairy, my littlest love — almost a middle schooler who’d be mercilessly teased for still believing in toothfairies —  finally figured out that I’ve been the magic all along.  We had a conversation in the car about it, and she conceded.  In the saddest voice, she turned her head towards me and gazed out over those glasses of hers and said, If you’re the toothfairy, then are you Santa, too?  Yup.

And that was it.  A huge rite of passage, done.  No more Santa!  Hooray!!!  We could all relax now.  We can tone this whole Christmas thing down and get to bed by midnight on Christmas Eve.  And I won’t need to stress over those Santa letters or steam them open anymore or listen to any, I don’t need to write a letter, mama, Santa will know what I want.  I can finally put my magic boots away and rest my tired, weary from shopping bones by the fire.

If you’ve been reading this blog over the years you know I have mixed feelings about Santa.  My father was the best Santa, which was wonderful, of course, but when you have a Dad like that, who late on Christmas Eve will actually scale a rickety step ladder, hoist himself up onto an icy roof and then stomp around over your bedroom ceiling so you’ll believe already and hurry off to sleep, well, it sets the bar pretty high.  To pass that magic on to my little loves, my Santa skills have had to become legendary.  Like the time I forgot to leave something under the tree, a small but coveted stuffed cheetah I’d bought too early to remember where I’d hid it.  When I discovered it stashed in a cupboard a few days after Christmas, I tossed it haphazardly in a potted plant beneath the chimney and brought little love outside, exclaiming innocently, Look!  What’s that?  Oh my goodness!  That must’ve fallen out of Santa’s sleigh.  You should have seen the huge eyes, the looking up toward the roof, and the smile.  Well-honed, legendary skills I tell you.  So legendary that until just this last year littlest still BELIEVED.

Now that we’re all clear there’s no fat man coming down the chimney with a sack full of presents, though, she wants to act like the game is still on.  Can we just make like there’s still a Santa?  Can we still wait until Christmas morning to put out all our presents?  Sure, love.  And by the way, what are you talking about?  There is a Santa: me.  She laughs.  Mom, Santa is a man.  Oh no, I insist, egging her on.  Santa is a woman.  You’re looking right at her.  Mom, I’ve seen Santa.  Santa is a man!  You mean all those phonies in the shopping malls?  Those guys are just dressing up and pretending to be Santa.  Santa’s a woman.

She giggles as she hops out of the car at school and just before she closes the door on me scrunches up her face and insists one last time, Santa is a man!  We’ve found a way to play like the game is still on, like Santa is still real somehow.  Still fun.  And after thinking all day of how to keep the game going and convince her he’s a woman, it suddenly dawns on me.  Once we’re back in the car together and on our way home, I ask if the Santa who came to her school for Red & Green day was a woman.  She laughs and takes the bait.  Of course not, mom.  Santa is a man.  And that’s when I hit her with my most convincing argument yet.  She goes to Catholic school, so I start by asking her demurely, so what does Santa mean?  Saint.  Duh.  Very good, I say.  Now what about all those cities over the hill from us.  What are they called again?  Let’s see?  San Jose.  Isn’t that Spanish for St. Joseph?  And what about San Francisco?  San Mateo.  And don’t forget San Diego down south.  She starts to laugh because she knows what’s coming next.  But we don’t say San Clara. No, it’s Santa Clara.  And Santa Barbara.  And Santa Rosa.  You know there’s no San Claus.  San Carlos, yes, but no San Claus.  It’s Santa Claus, pal.  And Santa . . . is a woman.

Merry Christmas!

If you want to tell people the truth [about Santa], make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.

~ Oscar Wilde


If you liked this post, you might enjoy believe or on (re)learning how to listen to trees

 

 

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holding hands

suitcaseorchard

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve been traveling.  By car.  Many miles of open road and wide sky.  And of all the images flooding my mind as I try to conjure up stories to tell, I keep coming back to this man I met on a passenger train between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  Not that kind of man, silly.  I know it’s summer, but perhaps you’ve been reading too many romance novels — or not enough.  This particular man could have been my father and he was traveling with a fidgety middle-aged man bearing the distinct characteristics of Down’s Syndrome.  I had taken an open seat a few rows ahead of them and when I initially glanced down the center aisle of the train I couldn’t help noticing the Down’s man tossing his head back and breaking open in laughter with the man beside him and another man in a well-worn cowboy hat who sat facing him across from a table.  Sometimes a story presents itself in unexpected ways.

My traveling companions had selected the four seats opposite this motley posse, and with a sigh of relief my brother and I took our seats a few rows away from our children.  As luck would have it, just as my little nephew began to make mischief the two aisle seats across from them became available and my brother was suddenly sitting next to the Down’s man.  I’d like to say I remained where I was because I fancy myself a practical person who makes moves only when absolutely necessary, but we all know that’s not true.  The truth is I didn’t want to find myself in such intimate space, on a train, facing a middle-aged man with Down’s Syndrome with only a flimsy formica tray table between us.  What an awkward situation to find myself in.  The insincere effort to not look away.  The patronizing conversation I’d force upon all of us.  Then the silence sure to follow.  Then the looking away.  I’ll just stay put and make it easy on all of us thank you.

My brother motioned me over soon enough, though, and I quickly surmised it would be more awkward to remain rooted where I was than to take that empty seat with my family.  And so it was that I found myself on a train sitting next to this man wrinkled by time and the desert sun no dusty cowboy hat could shade him from and across from his giggly companion.

I have been told that God’s grace takes us by surprise when we’re least expecting it, but when you listen to people talk about their encounters with the divine, their stories always seem to involve emergency vehicles, hospital rooms or sensations of light.  They’re swept up by a swoosh of wind, a clash of thunder, or a dramatic hush after hours of moaning misery.  They feel God’s presence in a community’s outpouring of support in times of tragedy — in candles, casseroles, a comforting hug through tears.  If you’re waiting for those big moments, though, I think you’re missing so much.

I took my seat and the man next to me gradually began a conversation typical while traveling.  Most people have some connection to where I’m from, and he was no different.  We talked about my recent sprint through the Mojave Desert, where he had lived once when his son — the Down’s man sitting across from me — was born at a Kaiser Hospital.  They were so advanced back then, that Kaiser there in California.  Look at him . . . most doctors told us he would never live this long.  Tell them how old you are.  The Down’s man turned to look at us quickly and said he was 45, the same age as my adopted brother and me, each of us born the same year, 1969, in different parts of California.  While we agreed there wasn’t much else out there in the Mojave but tumbling weeds, abandoned single-wide trailers and State prisons, his son returned his gaze toward the window and resumed his fidgeted smiling in his seat.  But at one moment during his conversation with me, the man took his son’s pale hand in his and held it gently, patting him softly with his other hand.  Their fingers seemed worn smooth with familiarity and they playfully intertwined as the man continued in his quiet way to tell me about visiting his brother one time in the prison I had passed just outside Bakersfield.  It was a seamless gesture of affection, but I noticed it, and I can’t seem to get the image out of my mind.  The way his son rested peacefully with his touch.  The love between this elderly father and his adult son traveling together on a train to spend the day in Santa Fe.

 

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two, who had never seen each other until that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marveled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I would go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

~ Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Stories


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