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”

 

Add Craigslist Joe to your Netflix queue

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burning the old year

Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, Faith looks up

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

How will you spend the next few days?  Looking back, looking around.  Or . . . looking up?  “So much of any year is flammable,” as the poet below most beautifully expresses.  And if I looked around at my own work spaces, at all the baskets I’ve crammed with notes and slips of paper saved, photographs sent to me by someone wanting me to remember a moment we shared, in all of that what I suppose I’m keeping most is not the things themselves, but love and hope and the promise of good things to come.

 

Burning the Old Year

By Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

 

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

 

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

 

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

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love song for galway kinnell

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

gkinnellWhen Shakespeare wrote in his Sonnet 18 that loveliness lives on in the immortal lines of the poet, I think he was writing about Galway Kinnell, the American poet who died Wednesday of this week at the age of 87.  As a passionate reader, Kinnell is one of those writers I longed to sit under trees with.  To sit under a tree on a summer afternoon, listening to him talk or tell stories.  To notice perhaps his gentle eyes tracing the flight of birds overhead or his strong wrinkled and freckled hands trembling a little as they smooth down the grass along the edge of our blanket.  I’d tell him how I never could get the man I keep to like the name Maud, how I can’t stop dreaming about hair sprouting in the moonlight, how haunted I am by the wind crying across stones.  The wages of dying is love, he’d say.  We’d read from a book I’ve brought, his Selected Poems.  And we’d start with the first poem “Two Seasons” and read straight through sunset to the last poem, “Flying Home.”  Mine is a 1982 paperback, black with creased corners and pencil-marked pages.  Would he linger at all over my notes, I doubt.  In the margin on page 129 nothing stays the same    impermanence   A faded blue post-it note on page 115 The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell

When a beautiful soul departs the earth there’s always that sad reminder of our own mortality, but when we share pieces of ourselves with others, when we extend our hands and utter words, when we write them down, especially, a part of us lives on.

 

Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens,
and those who lead many to righteousness,
like the stars for ever and ever.

~ Daniel 12:3


 

Two Seasons (1946)

I

The stars were wild that summer evening
As on the low lake shore stood you and I
And every time I caught your flashing eye
Or heard your voice discourse on anything
It seemed a star went burning down the sky.

I looked into your heart that dying summer
And found your silent woman’s heart grown wild
Whereupon you turned to me and smiled
Saying you felt afraid but that you were
Weary of being mute and undefiled

II

I spoke to you that last winter morning
Watching the wind smoke snow across the ice
Told of how the beauty of your spirit, flesh,
And smile had made day break at night and spring
Burst beauty in the wasting winter’s place.

You did not answer when I spoke, but stood
As if that wistful part of you, your sorrow,
Were blown about in fitful winds below;
Your eyes replied your worn heart wished it could
Again be white and silent as the snow.

 

Flying Home (1980)
1

It is good for strangers
of few nights to love each other
(as she and I did, eighteen years ago,
strangers of a single night)
and merge in natural rapture—
though it isn’t exactly each other
but through each other some
force in existence they don’t acknowledge
yet propitiate, no matter where,
in the least faithful of beds,
and by the quick dopplering of horns
of trucks plunging down Delancey,
and next to the iron rumblings
of outlived technology, subways up for air,
which blunder past every ten minutes
and botch the TV screen in the next apartment,
where the man in his beer
has to get up from his chair over and over
to soothe the bewildered jerking
things dance with internally,
and under the dead-light of neon,
and among the mating of cockroaches,
and like the mating of cockroaches,
who were etched before the daybreak
of the gods with compulsions to repeat
that drive them, too, to union
by starlight, without will or choice.

It is also good—and harder—
for lovers who live many years together
to feel their way toward
the one they know completely
and don’t ever quite know,
and to be with each other
and to increase what light may shine
in their ashes and let it go out
toward the other, and to need
the whole presence of the other
so badly that the two together
wrench their souls from the future
in which each mostly wanders alone

and in this familiar strange room,
for this night which lives
amid daily life past and to come
and lights it, find they hold,
perhaps shimmering a little,
or perhaps almost spectral, only the loved
other in their arms.

2

Flying home, looking about
in this swollen airplane, every seat
of it squashed full with one of us,
it occurs to me I might be the luckiest
in this planeload of the species;
for earlier,
in the airport men’s room, seeing
the middle-aged men my age,
as they washed their hands after touching
their penises—when it might have been more in accord
with the lost order to wash first, then touch—
peer into the mirror
and then stand back, as if asking, who is this?
I could only think
that one looks relieved to be getting away,
that one dreads going where he goes;
while as for me, at the very same moment
I feel regret at leaving
and happiness to be flying home.

3

As this plane dragging
its track of used ozone half the world long
thrusts some four hundred of us
toward places where actual known people
live and may wait,
we diminish down into our seats,
disappeared into novels of lives clearer than ours,
and yet we do not forget for a moment
the life down there, the doorway each will soon enter:
where I will meet her again
and know her again,
dark radiance with, and then mostly without, the stars.

Very likely she has always understood
what I have slowly learned
and which only now, after being away, almost as far away
as one can get on this globe, almost
as far as thoughts can carry—yet still in her presence,
still surrounded not so much by reminders of her
as by things she had already reminded me of,
shadows of her
cast forward and waiting—can I try to express:

that love is hard,
that while many good things are easy, true love is not,
because love is first of all a power,
its own power,
which continually must make its way forward, from night
into day, from transcending union always forward into difficult
day.
And as the plane descends, it comes to me,
in the space
where tears stream down across the stars,
tears fallen on the actual earth
where their shining is what we call spirit,
that once the lover
recognizes the other, knows for the first time
what is most to be valued in another,
from then on, love is very much like courage,
perhaps it is courage, and even
perhaps
only courage. Squashed
out of old selves, smearing the darkness
of expectation across experience, all of us little
thinkers it brings home having similar thoughts
of landing to the imponderable world,
the transcontinental airliner,
resisting its huge weight down, comes in almost lightly,
to where
with sudden, tiny, white puffs and long, black, rubberish smears
all its tires know the home ground.

originally published in New York Review of Books, July 17, 1980 • Volume 27, Number 12

Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/eternal-life,-nature-of#sthash.lor6ya4c.dpuf
Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/eternal-life,-nature-of#sthash.lor6ya4c.dpuf
Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/eternal-life,-nature-of#sthash.lor6ya4c.dpuf

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