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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send my regards to book club

I haven’t had any time for reading this past month and am about to send my regards to Book Club.  Sure.  I picked the book.  It’s a good one — Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena — and this was going to be my last meeting for the forseeable future, but there’s no way I can go fifty pages in and lead the discussion.  Well, I could but I wouldn’t feel very good about it.  So it’s sayonara sister.  Either I will need to pick this book up in earnest after the last wave of essays or start listening to an audio version in my car!

odysseyThe silver lining in all this is that littlest love keeps searching me out these last few nights for some bedtime reading, and get this, she has requested my copy of Homer.  Get out!  you say.  I know.  I know!  And she’s even trying to correct some of my Greek pronunciations.  Tonight we read more of the beginning, where Athena disguises herself as a man and goes to Odysseus house — overrun in his absence with lazy and gluttonous suitors — because she wants to stir his son Telemachus into action.  We snuggle in her bed, her head resting on my chest and I making the story come to life with different voices, and always there is this backdrop of kindness and hospitality demonstrated in these Homeric epics that I never tire of, the way strangers are welcomed and honored as guests.  They’re always offered basins for washing, they’re anointed with fragrant oils and given the best seats.  They are provided a meal and wine, and then they tell stories.  Stories layered with honor and humility.  And if this is all I read this month, brief snippets of Homer shared with my sweet daughter, it’s more than enough.

 

Daydreaming so as he sat among the suitors,

he glimpsed Athena now

and straight to the porch he went, mortified

that a guest might still be standing at the doors.

Pausing beside her there, he clasped her right hand

and relieving her at once of her long bronze spear,

met her with winged words: “Greetings, stranger!

Here in our house you’ll find a royal welcome.

Have supper first, then tell us what you need.

He led the way and Pallas Athena followed.

Once in the high-roofed hall, he took her lance

and fixed it firm in a burnished rack against

a sturdy pillar, there where row on row of spears,

embattled Odysseus’ spears, stood stacked and waiting.

Then he escorted her to a high, elaborate chair of honor,

over it draped a cloth, and here he placed his guest

with a stool to rest her feet. But for himself

he drew up a low reclining chair beside her,

richly painted, clear of the press of suitors,

concerned his guest, offended by their uproar,

might shrink from food in the midst of such a mob.

He hoped, what’s more, to ask him about his long-lost father.

A maid brought water soon in a graceful golden pitcher

and over a silver basin tipped it out

so they might rinse their hands,

then pulled a gleaming table to their side.

A staid housekeeper brought on bread to serve them,

appetizers aplenty too, lavish with her bounty.

A carver lifted platters of meat toward them,

meats of every sort, and set beside them golden cups

and time and again a page came round and poured them wine.

 

~ Book 1, Robert Fagles translation

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