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

4    Email This Post

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

6    Email This Post

in a dark, dark wood (no spoilers)

darkwoodruthwareMy summer is now complete. One romance? Check! One thriller? Check!

I recently began this audiobook in a dark, dark wood by Ruth Ware and could not resume my life until I made it through the last two nail biting hours. I pulled into my driveway one evening, reluctant to shut the story off, and made my way through the close of the day, but first thing the next morning, I grabbed my cell phone and gripped my blankets until it was over, stopping only for a few minutes to pad into the kitchen for a coffee refill or, well, air. I needed air because this is the kind of story that’s hard to listen to by yourself. You want to grab someone’s wrist or scream en masse in a dark theater.  Aaaack!! There is someone in the house? THERE’S SOMEONE IN THE HOUSE!! Who IS it? Get out of there! What are you DOing? Ware skillfully, slowly builds tension and sustains the mystery right up until the last two chapters. And for someone who seems quite good at detective-ing, I did not figure this one out! I had my suspicions and enjoyed the detective game, but while some of my hunches proved true, most fundamentally did not. It was WONDERFUL! If you’re an Audible subscriber, I highly recommend this storyteller’s version as Imogen Church offers a chilling narration. She provides distinctive voices for all the characters, which again were skillfully done. I especially liked her Northumberland Nurse and plan to call all my best friends pet and duckie from now on. I’m not sure how the novel would read on the page, whether readers would get impatient with the protagonist’s amnesia or grow weary of the manic machinations of the “hen party” organizer, who like a plucky sorority girl pulls them reluctantly into all sorts of cringe-worthy bachelorette games, but the audio version is cake. Go get some!


 

In a Dark, Dark Wood, By Ruth Ware (hardcover 320 pp)

Who can I trust if I can’t even trust myself?

from IndieBound.org

What should be a cozy and fun-filled weekend deep in the English countryside takes a sinister turn in Ruth Ware’s suspenseful, compulsive, and darkly twisted psychological thriller.
Leonora, known to some as Lee and others as Nora, is a reclusive crime writer, unwilling to leave her “nest” of an apartment unless it is absolutely necessary. When a friend she hasn’t seen or spoken to in years unexpectedly invites Nora (“Lee””?”) to a weekend away in an eerie glass house deep in the English countryside, she reluctantly agrees to make the trip. Forty-eight hours later, she wakes up in a hospital bed injured but alive, with the knowledge that someone is dead. Wondering not “what happened?” but “what have I done?,” Nora (“Lee””?”) tries to piece together the events of the past weekend. Working to uncover secrets, reveal motives, and find answers, Nora (“Lee””?”) must revisit parts of herself that she would much rather leave buried where they belong: in the past.

from an NPR Interview with author, Ruth Ware

On the book’s geographic setting

It’s Northumberland, which is quite far north, so it’s a cold place to live and it’s quite an isolated place to live. You know, it’s not like America — there’s not, you know, huge swaths of wilderness. But you can definitely be a long way from civilization and a long way from help. And a big part of — which I think is one of my own phobias — a big part of the book is that they’re out of mobile contact. Their cellphones don’t work. So immediately they’re kind of in this isolated situation where they can’t get help even if they want to.

On the glass house where the bachelorette party takes place, and the constant feeling the guests have of being watched

I think it came from having watched a lot of movies as a kid. Things like, you know, the Scream movies where there are teens and people in an isolated location and the camera is the eyes of the killer. And very often you get those shots where the camera is circling the house looking in through the windows. And it’s incredibly creepy to be sort of outside looking in at people who are being watched unawares. And as I was watching, my instinct would always be: “Close the curtains!” This whole movie would never happen if you just had blinds. And I suppose it was born out of that — the idea that you might want to shut the blinds, and not be able to.

On the mystery writers who have influenced her

I read a huge amount of it as a kid. You know, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers, Sherlock Holmes. And I didn’t consciously channel that when I was writing, but when I finished and reread the book, I did suddenly realize how much this kind of structure owed to … Agatha Christie. And it wasn’t consciously done, but … I would say I definitely owe a debt to Christie.

“NEW YORK TIMES,” “USA TODAY,” AND “LOS ANGELES TIMES” BESTSELLER
An “Entertainment Weekly “Summer Books Pick
A “Buzzfeed” “31 Books to Get Excited About this Summer” Pick
A “Publishers Weekly “”Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers” Pick
A “BookReporter” Summer Reading Pick
A “New York Post “”Best Novels to Read this Summer” Pick
A “Shelf Awareness “”Book Expo America 2015 Buzz Book” Pick

Shop Indie Bookstores

2    Email This Post