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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the closest distance

Tell the story that’s been growing in your heart, the characters you can’t keep out of your head, the story that speaks to you, that pops into your head during your daily commute, that wakes you up in the morning.

~ Jennifer Weiner

The Closest Distance  A project by Larissa Board, a recent Studio Art graduate of Lewis & Clark College and an aspiring filmmaker.


As a mother of two creative kids, it’s hard to see the arts and literature fall away with the Common Core Standards.  My oldest middle schooler has not read one novel this year in her English class but has been assigned a biography and non-fiction book report.  My youngest is still in Catholic Schools, which in my opinion tend to nourish the painters and storytellers among us more than other schools do.  With an overt emphasis on the practical at the expense of the imagined, how can we inspire anyone to dream?  Encourage those who make art and support them with your time and treasure.  Buy books.  Watch movies.  Go to art galleries and hang whatever you can afford.  Take your beloved to the symphony.  Or just drop a dollar in that open guitar case next time you’re downtown.  And most importantly, support the creative life in our schools.

Support Arts Education through the National Endowment for Arts

Thank Heaven for Artists! NEA staffers thank artists who have inspired them

Who inspires you?

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awards season movie reviews

I love stories.  Big surprise, I know.  I love to read them, of course, but I also love to live them.  At home in front of my little laptop screen streaming Amazon Instant Video.  Sunk into my sofa with the loose down-filled cushions littlest is always smooshing into lumpy clods, scrolling through Netflix with a cup of tea and a bowl of biscotti.  Perhaps my most indulgent guilty pleasure is to spend my quiet time at the movies.

And I’ve seen many over the past year from vintage Audrey Hepburn to Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig’s sleeper indie hit The Skeleton Twins, which I just watched this morning (it’s good!).  Here’s my take on a few Oscar contenders:

boyhoodBoyhood is a brilliant feat of creative storytelling.  Director Richard Linklater shot this film over the course of twelve years — with the same actors.  As the title suggests, we watch a child (Ellar Coltrane) grow from boy to man before our eyes over the course of a whopping three hours, and as a storytelling viewer, I was amazed that Linklater could keep such a tight cast of characters and clean narrative arc together for over more than a decade of filming.  Ethan Hawke, who some would gasp to learn I’m not a huge fan of despite his tousled good looks, shines in this movie.  In many respects for me, the film is as much about his coming of age as it is his son’s, and his was my favorite character in the movie.  I loved the way he showed up and in many unconventional ways offered his kids a stability you wouldn’t expect from him.  I don’t want to give anything away but will say Hawke’s character development will surprise you, especially if you are a child of divorce.  Boyhood was one of my favorite movies of the year, and I think it’s a contender for Best Picture or Direction.

big-eyesBig Eyes should really be titled, Big Weird Eyes.  Going to this movie was a little for me like ordering the Seared Ahi Salad special at a greasy spoon.  You do it because it sounds delicious and stands out on an otherwise mundane menu.  It comes to the table, and it’s like all of a sudden you notice the weary waitress in the worn uniform for the first time.  The cracked red vinyl booth scratching your thigh.  A few belly up flies in the window.  If it weren’t for the barricade of wilted yellow iceberg lettuce and glop of mayonnaise your lunch would nearly slither back into the water.  You’re at a diner for crissakes!  You should have just ordered a burger.  But you never do.  This was my experience with Big Eyes.  I saw the trailer and was immediately intrigued.  The paintings alone are gawk-worthy.  Waifish children with large heads and oversized eyes, rendered in those 1970s hues reminiscent of birthday cards my grandmother would send to me.  You know . . . those Precious Moments dolls.  Kitschy . . . weird.  Yeah, I’ll order that, please.

But what was I thinking?!  It’s Tim Burton.  Order a burger!  Just order a burger!  Burton’s film tells the true-life story of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose schlocky husband (Chrisoph Waltz) aggressively markets her work, going so far as to take credit for it himself.  Despite all reason she remains devoted to him and to this lie for ten years, churning out these big-eyed paintings from an attic studio she keeps secret from her daughter.  More paintings!  her husband demands.  I need more paintings!  Then one day the Jehovah’s Witnesses hand her a Watch Tower and just like that a chorus of blue birds starts singing and lifting her skirts right out of there.  The movie’s premise was a weird enough roadside attraction to lure me in, but the Künstlerroman (Smarty pants for an artist’s coming of age, OK.  Write that down.) . . . the feminist transformation I was hoping for?  . . .  Trust me this never happens in the movie.  In the end you’ll wish you went for the burger.

theoryofeverythingThe Theory of Everything.  I hate to admit it but a Stephen Hawking biopic?  You had me running for the door with the first math problem.  About 15 years ago Hawking gave a lecture at the little ol’ community college where I teach, and even as math-phobic as I am, I sensed this was a momentous occasion I would not want to miss.  THE Stephen Hawking.  In the college dining hall.  All I had to do was get up from my stack of essays and wander across the quad and there he’d be, a living genius with an incredible story.  Sadly I don’t remember anything he said.  I only remember him lying immobile on a stage in the center of the room, with young students and wide-eyed faculty gathered around anticipating his every word.  And anticipate they did.  He began with his characteristic humor and made a joke about the voice software he used having an American accent (he’s British).  From there, he answered questions from the audience.  What I mostly remember is that it took him about five minutes to compose his response, during which time everyone waited in uncomfortable silence.  It was fascinating!  It was macabre, and perhaps like that Big Eyes movie, I was keen to wonder and stare.  But fifteen minutes was all I could take.  I’m still praying for patience . . . .

The Theory of Everything tells Hawking’s story from his first wife’s point of view and is based on her book “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.”  It’s a touching film in so many ways, and again, as in Boyhood, in ways that surprise you.  The characters are playful and good humored and the story is one filled with kindness, generosity, sacrifice, laughter, courage and love.  It delves not only into Hawking’s personal struggle with his debilitating disease, first diagnosed while he and Jane were students at Cambridge and just falling in love.  Its subject matter is not so much the physics of time and space so much as of the heart and that mysterious theory of human connection no one seems able to decode.  What draws us to one another?  My favorite scene in the movie is an incredible moment filled with heartache and tenderness, when Hawking admits to Jane for the first time there just may be a God.  A God who at just the right moment in time brings into our lives the people we need most.

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