In addition to PURE, Julianna Baggott is the author of seventeen books which appear under her own name as well as Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode; there are over fifty overseas editions of her books. Most notably, she’s the author of the National Bestseller Girl Talk, The Madam, and The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, for adult readers; and The Anybodies Trilogy and The Prince of Fenway Park for younger readers; as well as three collections of poetry, including Lizzie Borden in Love. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, Best Creative Nonfiction, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She teaches at Florida State University, and is co-founder of the nonprofit Kids in Need – Books in Deed, getting free books to underprivileged kids in Florida.

Film rights for PURE (Grand Central Publishing), published today, have been acquired by Fox 2000. For more information visit http://www.juliannabaggott.com/bio.htm. For the official book trailer, click here.

* * * * * * * *

After the Apocalypse, Does Kindness Endure?

My latest novel, PURE, is a post-apocalyptic thriller. I’ve thought a great deal about our self-destructive nature, but also about what endures. And so here is a question. After the apocalypse that few have survived, does kindness endure? Can it?

One of greatest most ordinary, daily cruelties — to my mind — is passing people by without considering them as full human beings. And one of the greatest kindnesses is to pay attention to others, to listen.

As a writer, this is a kindness that I’ve been rewarded for so many times that it’s almost a selfish desire to listen to others. It’s not that I’m just trawling for good narratives, though I love a good story. It comes from a deep desire in me to hold onto the past, to preserve lives, to keep.

This past week, I was at the American Library Association’s conference and was lucky enough to hear Robert Leleux talk about his upcoming memoir, The Living End. Although he worked his way toward the  strange, inexplicable, and unexpected joys that came through toward the end of his grandmother’s life — reconciliations and forgiveness, the tapping of a well of love — he started by talking about the devastation of losing his grandmother’s brilliant mind to Alzheimer’s. I’ll paraphrase — It was like someone had thrown a match into the Smithsonian.

I was sitting on a panel, facing the audience, willing myself not to cry into my mic. His story hit home. My grandmother’s senility — which became profound — was an essential part of my childhood, and contributed, undoubtedly, to my becoming a writer. As I watched her forget, day in and day out, the simplest things and finally the faces around her, I felt the strong sense of loss. All of her memories — a vast storehouse of a life — were slipping away. I wanted to hold onto that life, that accumulation of memory.

This is why I love to listen to stories and why I like to write them down — ink them so they’re not simply lost into the air, adrift. One of the things that always makes me cry is footage of the passage of time set to music. (I think of the film Same Time Next Year.) It’s all so fleeting.

In life, it’s efficient not to walk around considering every person’s full humanity. But it isn’t kind. And, moreover, when you do consider someone’s full humanity and acknowledge it, you are also living more fully. Your empathy expands — and so does the world’s collective empathy.

There are studies now that show that acts of kindness — and self sacrifice — are more common than we thought in the animal world. We are all tied together. We aren’t simply trying to survive for the sake of sole survival. We want to survive, together. When we pass each other by, when we don’t take the time to listen (whether we jot about it or not), we’re denying the humanity of others and in so doing we deny our own.

My answer to the question of whether kindness survives post-apocalyptically is yes. Hope, faith, love. They’re all inside of us — wired in. I need to believe that this is the truth — even in light of our darkest motives and most brutal acts. Yes, kindness is with us for good.

~Julianna Baggott

Good news: A Pinch Of Love (the paperback version of Simply From Scratch) is on sale at physical bookstores and Internet retailers. Thanks so very much to my readers who have made it an internationally bestselling novel.

Here are some related links. First, an interview with me on the blog of Julianna Baggott, where I dish about love, writing and other obsessions: http://bridgetasher.blogspot.com/2011/10/12-dozen-for-alicia-bessette.html

And second, the blog of Matthew Quick, my husband, who interviews himself with amazing objectivity about A Pinch Of Love: http://theofficialblogofmatthewquick.blogspot.com/2011/10/q-with-amazing-objectivity-interviews.html

Happy fall, everyone! And happy reading, too.

~Alicia

Q4K is on hiatus. There’s a lot of kindness to be found in these pages, so please come & poke around any time you need a little light! And too, check out The Official Blog of Matthew Quick, in full swing.

Claire Cook wrote her first novel in her minivan at 45, and at 50 she walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere of the adaptation of her second novel, Must Love Dogs, starring Diane Lane and John Cusack. She is now the bestselling author of eight novels, including Seven Year Switch, now in paperback. Best Staged Plans, a June Indie Next pick, received a starred Library Journal review and comes out today from Hyperion Voice. Claire shares tips on writing and reinvention at ClaireCook.com, and also hangs out on Facebook and Twitter.

* * * * * * * *

The Kindest Gift

On a Saturday morning, I knocked at my friend’s front door.

“My mother died,” I said the second she opened it.

“No, sir,” she said, though since this was a Boston suburb, it sounded more like “No, suh.” Today, she would have said: No way.

“Swear to gawd,” I said. Translation: Way.

“Liah,” she said. “You’re making it up.”

Sadly, I wasn’t. The day before, my healthy mother’s flu had turned into sepsis. She slipped into a coma at the hospital and never came out, leaving five children under the age of twelve motherless. Neighbors gathered up the toddlers, met the rest of us in our driveway after school, and brought us home with them. They didn’t say much, but I knew my first pajama party, scheduled for that evening, was definitely not going to happen.

The funeral took place on Valentine’s Day, also my birthday. Back at the house afterwards, someone put candles on a dull chocolate cake, so unlike the heart-shaped candy-studded pink ones my mother had baked for my other ten birthdays, and mourners dressed in black sang Happy Birthday to me.

Even though I’d only been eleven for a few hours, I knew my mother would have found this incredibly tacky, and would never have let it happened if she were alive. I can’t remember blowing out the candles, but I must have. After that people started tucking birthday bills in the pocket of my dress, as if I were a prepubescent stripper-in-training. Most were ones and fives, but my godfather, whom I never saw again, gave me a hundred
dollar bill. It seemed like a fortune to me, but I would have traded it for my mother in a heartbeat.

Time heals most wounds, and the rest you compartmentalize. Over the years, I’ve talked to other women who lost their mothers at an age when their mother was still the sun and the moon and their favorite hula hoop all rolled into one, yet they were also old enough to know they were on the cusp of really needing her to walk them through that first bra and period. The loss becomes the defining sadness of your life, and long after everyone else would imagine you’re over it, you’re still numb.

By the time I came out of my post traumatic fog, I was an adult and I really wanted to know what my mother had been like — as a person, a woman, a friend. But the people who might have told me were now either dead or long gone.

Then one night decades later on book tour near my mother’s hometown of Holyoke, Massachusetts, a woman about my age waited in my signing line with an older woman in a wheelchair. As the younger woman handed me a copy of my latest novel, she told me her mother had something to say to me.

I leaned over the wheelchair and smiled.

“I went into labor with my son, Jimmy, in the middle of a blizzard,” she began.

It was August, but a winter chill ran down my spine.

“The snow came on so fast, my husband couldn’t get home. I called the ambulance. I called the police. Nobody came. Then I called your mother. She walked through the snow to my house. ‘Put your coat on,’ she said. ‘It will be the adventure of a lifetime.’ And she walked me all the way to the hospital, laughing and joking the whole time. She was Jimmy’s godmother, you know.”

I reached out to hold her cool, dry hand, and it felt lighter than air.

She giggled. “Your mother had more godchildren than you could shake a stick at. She was the kindest and most generous friend in the world.”

The child inside me felt my mother’s loss all over again. But the woman I’d become took a deep breath and let in the kindest gift of all: my mother’s spirit reaching out to me through the heart of a friend.

~Claire Cook

Q4K is going on hiatus. There’s a lot of kindness to be found in these pages, so please come & poke around any time you need a little light! And too, check out The Official Blog of Matthew Quick, now in full swing.

Kindness In The Morning

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Paul King is a twenty-four year old American who has been living and working in Thailand for a year and a half. For his first nine months in the country, he studied Thai at a university in Bangkok while bouncing around much of Southeast Asia during his time off. Now he teaches English at a public high school in the southern coastal province of Trang. It is here that he also pursues his passion for writing fiction and travel pieces, while deftly avoiding hogs on his motorbike. A former student of author Matthew Quick, he has been continually inspired by the books, words, and life choices of his former American Lit. teacher. You can read Paul’s blog here, as well as follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

* * * * * * * *

Something real, something human

“GOOD MORNING TEACHER,” they all say when I walk in.

“GOOD MORNING!” I say back. I am smiling, very animated. I have to be, because they are seventh graders, and it’s important to engage them. But I’m not faking it, either. This is one of my best groups, and seeing their forty-seven smiling faces, I’m happy to be there.

“Teacher Paul, why did you get a haircut?” asks Neung. We have been doing this thing where every day a different student asks me a new question.

“Because it’s important that Americans look handsome,” I say.

“THANK YOU TEACHER,” they say, and we begin our lesson.

* * *

When I first started teaching here, I did not like GOOD MORNING TEACHER. After the first few times when it was novel and kind of cute, I got pretty tired of hearing it and saying it. I began to think it was stupid, since most of the kids just parrot it like robots. With some classes, especially the group I nicknamed “the Darlings” – because they had this darling way of dumping white-out all over the floor, clapping the chalkboard erasers into each other’s hair, and destroying all the handouts I would give to them – I found it especially difficult to be enthusiastic when saying, “Good morning.” There were many days when I did not want to say it at all. I wished I could just give the Darlings a worksheet to do and then make some small conversation with the couple of girls that actually were very sweet – there were always a few shining stars, even in a large class of Darlings.

These few girls – Mot, Tou, and Som – would always really enjoy it when I said “Good morning!” really loudly with a big smile on my face. They would laugh when I would say it like GOOD MOR-NING! and wave at them. On days when I was less than thrilled to be there – perhaps because I walked into the classroom as one particular Darling was throwing a knife into the blackboard – I would say, “Good morning,” to the students with no enthusiasm, no energy. After all, what was the point? These were lower level kids who didn’t care about me or about learning English. They would just roll their eyes or laugh if I tried to engage them with a big, welcoming, “GOOD MOR-NING!” So instead, I would just passively hand out the worksheet and tell the kids to get to work, and if I had any problems I would send them to Ajarn Jaran, the school disciplinarian.

But I could tell that when I did this, Mot, Tou, and Som were disappointed. They didn’t speak my language, but they could read my tone of voice and my body language. For whatever reason, they loved it when I came to their classroom twice a week to give a lesson, even if they didn’t understand a word I said – other than, “Good morning.” It occurred to me that maybe they looked forward to that, “Good morning.” Maybe in this overcrowded public school, where Mot, Tou, and Som are just numbers in a system waiting to be passed unnoticed from one grade to the next, maybe GOOD MOR-NING! was something real, something human. As small as it seemed, maybe it mattered.

Once I realized this, I became defiant in my good mornings. Even if I didn’t feel like it on the inside, I would force myself to say it anyway, loud, smiling, and enthused. Even if it was with a lower level group where most of the kids thought it was stupid, I knew there were a few who appreciated it, and so I did it for them. I didn’t care who laughed or who thought it was lame. I started doing this every day, which went on for many months, and over time I got quite used to saying, “Good morning” in this way.

* * *

Eventually I had to go down to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to apply for the proper visa. This involves going down to the Thai embassy there, applying for the visa, picking it up the next day, and heading back to Thailand. To the uninitiated, this might sound like a nice two-day getaway to KL, but it’s not a fun trip – just a lot of travel, red tape, and sitting around.

On the day I was to go pick up my visa, my mind was distracted, worrying about some unseen bureaucratic loophole that would prevent me from getting the visa and keep me here in KL. This had happened to my co-worker Tom, who had left Thailand without all the proper paperwork and then had a hell of a time getting the staff at school, who don’t speak any English, to fax down what was needed. I had checked and double-checked the documents I had from my school with the list on the embassy website, but these things were always changing.

Feeling stressed and a bit hungover from a later night out at the bar than I had expected, I showered and went down to the small breakfast café across the street from my guesthouse. I sat down, and the server came over with the menu. My mind was elsewhere, and it just happened with the kind of instinct that occurs when you’ve practiced something to the point of exhaustion.

“GOOD MOR-NING!” I said to the guy.

We were both kind of shocked. I had said it very loudly. I hadn’t meant to sound so happy, so enthused. It was only seven in the morning – would he think I was a freak?

For a few seconds we just sort of stared at each other, wondering what exactly was happening. But then, maybe after judging that my good morning was sincere – it had been honed, after all, amidst the fire and harsh criticism of a classroom of Darling Thai seventh graders – he smiled.

“GOOD MOR-NING!” he said back to me. It was as a greeting as loud and as enthusiastic as the one I had given him.

We both started to laugh then, partly because it was all a little unexpected and bizarre to be so upbeat that early in the morning, but mainly because being greeted like this by a total stranger just feels good.

After picking up my visa, I headed to the airport, looking forward to seeing my students again. Mot, Tou, Som – even the Darlings. The irony hit me that the kids who were the poorest students of English were the best teachers of simple truths. They had shown me – first in the classroom, then in Malaysia – that the simple act of saying good morning can transcend language barriers and cultural differences, because a smile is universal. That as small a thing as it might seem, it might matter a great deal to someone else out there.  That if you take a chance on saying it to people, you might brighten someone’s day and get a really positive reaction, and that this is always worth it.

Back in Thailand now to teach for another year, I think I’ll keep saying it.

~Paul King

Q4K is going on hiatus. But The Official Blog of Matthew Quick begins next week. Please follow Q here: http://theofficialblogofmatthewquick.blogspot.com/

After completing her B.A. in English and Philosophy at the University of Richmond, Brigid Duffy left the capital of the Confederacy to pursue a career in book publishing in New York City. While she’s not copy editing computer science books, Brigid writes for Being for the Benefit, an online arts and culture magazine which she founded in the Fall of 2010. An avid runner, Brigid is a member of the New York Harriers, a competitive running team based in Manhattan. She completed her fourth New York City Marathon last November, and she hopes to one day write a novel about running. As a former student of Matthew Quick, Brigid is delighted to contribute to Q4K.

* * * * * * * *

My Uncle Gutta

I have a habit of looking up the etymology of words when I don’t know what to write about. Usually this ritual is just a stylized method of procrastination. But sometimes, when I know where a word has been, I feel more equipped to take my own words where they need to go.

When I set out to write an essay for Q and Alicia, I learned that kindness comes from “kin.” To be treated kindly is to be treated as if one were a relative, a part of a family. It is to be recognized as one-with; to be welcomed-in, to be claimed as one’s own. How funny, then, that the kindness that we bestow upon family members is often the most difficult kind of kindness to impart.

My Uncle Gutta was not always treated kindly by my family, but he still called often, persistent in winning over our affection. I suppose he thought that love is a reflection of one’s phone bill. Whenever the familiar 717 area code lit up our caller ID, my two sisters and I tossed around the portable phone like a game of hot potato. You answer it!… I answered it last time. It’s your turn! It wasn’t that we disliked Uncle Gutta, but the man could talk. Pick up a call unsuspectingly, and poof! the next 90 minutes of your life could dissipate like snowflakes in an ocean.

One dog day in late July, Uncle Gutta rang. It was a particularly hazardous time of year to answer the phone, as Uncle Gutta would inevitably urge my sisters and me to make the long drive out to his home in Lancaster County and attend the nearby Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. (He already had all the necessary gear). After seven years of politely saying, “I’m busy all twelve of those weekends,” you start to run out of excuses.

“Hey Uncle Gutta. What’s up?”

“Well, I’m sorry to say that Ballsey just passed away unexpectedly.”

“Oh wow…I’m so sorry.” Who the hell was Ballsey?

“He was a cat that no doubt lived up to his namesake. But he’s in a place of peace now.” That was Uncle Gutta, always given to born-again Christian rhetoric ever since he got sober several years prior.

“Of course.”

“So when are you guys gonna come out to my pad? I tell you what, the Celtic Fling at the Renaissance Faire is this Saturday, how bout you guys come for that?”

“That sounds great,” I said, my tongue doing the talking without consent. “This weekend could work.”

“Really? Great. I’ll see you on Saturday around 8am.”

He hung up before I had the chance to change my mind. It was the shortest phone call of Uncle Gutta’s life.

When my younger sister and I set out to Lancaster the following Saturday morning, it was already a sultry 96 degrees. I looked at my sister, whom I had mercilessly thrown into this visit. Scorn emanated from her small frame.

L’enfer, c’est la ren faire,” I quipped, faux-dramatic. I knew my sister appreciated the pun because even the worst of siblings have a knack for nailing each other’s sense of humor. She did a damn good job of keeping a straight face.

After a long drive up West 76, we were met by Uncle Gutta, a beefy six-foot marine with nine-and-a-half fingers. Wearing an authentic Scottish kilt, a body-hugging Irish flag shirt, a do-rag, and a 30 inch sword buckled to his side, I couldn’t tell if he was going for “Pirate” or “Renaissance Guy.” The distinction was negligible. He proceeded to show us around his backyard: part enchanted garden, part junkyard.

“This is a scratching post that Ballsey preferred. But he also liked that one,” he said, pointing across the heap of outdoor knickknacks. “And this is where Ballsey used to take naps a lot,” steering us towards an undifferentiated mark in the ground. No doubt, in Uncle Gutta’s mind, the whole mound of stuff in the yard emanated Ballsey’s spirit at the height of his powers, embodying all of the time-honored and much-loved Ballsey characteristics and quirks.

“This is a special rock that I dedicated to Ballsey. He liked it here a lot too. And this is a spot where I come to pray for our family…and for Ballsey.” He paused, and I noticed he tilted his head back, slightly, hoping his eye would reabsorb the single tear that fell slowly down his cheek.

“You know, it’s really great you guys came here.” It was the only statement I’ve ever heard him say without that goofy-uncle undertone. And I realized that here was a simple guy who lived in the boonies and missed the hell out of his cat.

“I’m glad we came too, Uncle Gutta.” The moment the words left my lips, I realized they were true.

“Me too,” my sister chimed in. And I saw that she too had softened.

But the moment passed, and it was back to business.

“Ok then, let’s see what’s on the agenda for the day. We got the Tartan Terrors performing at 10, jousting at 11, Irish step dancing at 12:30, Her Majesty’s Royal Performers at 3, and then the Tartan Terrors again at 6.”

“Ok then,” I said. “We’ll make a day of it.”

On the long ride home, as near-heat stroke subsided into exhaustion, I thought a lot about why, out of all of the times that Uncle Gutta begged us to visit, I was so quick to say, “yes” this time. I’m still not sure, but perhaps being part of a family is to recognize—even subliminally—when one of your kin is in need of some familial care. We monitor our actions so painstakingly with friends, co-workers, and even strangers. But family members, for better or worse, often get our auto-pilot selves. Within families, showing kindness is not often a deliberate act. Rather, it is an instinctive reaching out, a recognition of a need in our kin, and we will do our best to fill it—even if it’s done while kicking and screaming.

When my sister and I saw Uncle Gutta the following holiday, he presented us each with our very own broadsword. They were the kind of shiny, single-edged serious weapon that any good parent would not allow in the house. My mother took one look at them and muttered, “What the hell are you gonna do with that?”

But to Uncle Gutta, the broadswords were a crucial accessory for next year’s Celtic Fling. “Last year you got your feet wet, but next year you guys gotta go all out.”

We smiled graciously, knowing it was his only way of saying, “Thanks for coming.”

~Brigid Duffy

Next Thursday, an essay by Paul King.

Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters, debuting from Crown/Random House this week. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, The Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in fiction from the Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter and teaches at Fontbonne University. You can find her and her novel at www.thebirdsisters.com.

* * * * * * * *

There’s a Whale in the Room

For the last two years, I have taught a class called Food & Culture at my little university. I love this course for so many reasons, one of which is that I strive to teach my students about what is basic nutrition to me, but what is not so basic to them. Along the way, we watch videos like Food, Inc. and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. We talk about Michael Pollen’s approach to eating only things that our great-grandmothers would recognize as food and Eric Schlossler’s ideas about Why the Fries Taste So Good. Along the way, if I am lucky, for every moment we are appalled by the industrial food system, we are also learning that we can vote every time we go to the grocery store. We learn that not everyone has to picket multinational corporations and feed lots. By the end of the semester, we turn our attention to food-related advertisements, especially ones that are geared toward women. And here’s the thing: this is the time in the semester when I end up learning that my students, particularly the women, really struggle on a daily basis with their body image. Many of my women end up writing their final essays about grappling with eating disorders, with the scale, with the mirror, and all of these essays have broken my heart in one way or another.

Here they are: bright and lovely women who think they are fat and stupid, and I always want to know why, although why isn’t necessarily a satisfying thing to figure out. One of my most recent students calls herself a whale. She’s five feet five inches tall, weighs about 120 pounds, and plays every sport a person can play both for fun and on the collegiate level. When I asked her why she calls herself this, she told me that’s what she sees when she looks in the mirror each morning and each evening. When I asked her to write more about the subject, she revealed that her mother calls herself a whale and has for as long as she can remember.

Her mother would say things like, “I’m a whale, but you’re beautiful.”

This sounded pretty familiar to me. My mother used to say the same exact thing. And I, too, struggled to view myself in a kind and healthful way for many years.

This student ended up writing a paper about how she felt about herself and how she didn’t want her little sister to feel this same way. This student wrote about her acne, about her denying herself food, about wanting boys to notice and like her, about cutting the soft flesh of her arms to gain some control.

She wrote, “I’m just ugly. That’s all.”

If ever sentences could break my heart, these were the ones to do it.

After class that day, when I handed back the papers, I asked her to stay for a minute, and there in the nondescript classroom on the second floor of the English building, I pulled her close to me and held her chin in my hand. I asked her to look me in the eyes, which she did.

“I want to tell you something, ” I said.

“Okay,” she said meekly, but she kept looking directly into my eyes. (I didn’t realize then how much she needed someone to do this–I suspected, but I didn’t realize.)

“You have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. They have such goodness in them, such passion and light. I want you to know what I see when I look at you. I want you to know how lovely you are, how sweet, how smart.”

I leaned in and kissed her forehead the way I kiss my own daughter’s and I hugged her close for a long time.

And this lovely girl started crying and hugging me back.

“Thank you so much,” she said.

**********

This young woman and I are still in contact. She emails me when she sees something food-related, and I email her when I want to see how her soccer game went or a tough math exam went.

Is she healing?

I don’t know.

Is she looking in the mirror and seeing what I see?

I don’t know.

All I know is that when I see her in the hallway at school, she bounds toward me the way I hope my daughter will when she’s her age. All I see is her potential, the flush of her cheeks. And I hope. I hope.

~Rebecca Rasmussen

Next week, an essay by Brigid Duffy. Please submit your questions and / or Q4K essays (no longer than 1,000 words, and no attachments please) to questforkindness[at]gmail.com

Barbara Brockway lives in Morningside, Georgia, with her husband, a teen, a tween, and two feral cats. She is the creator of frugalfootprint.com.

* * * * * * * *

‘ … You are in London, have been robbed, and need money ….’

My cell phone display showed my friend Shin Jeong was calling. The tone of her voice told me something was wrong.

“Are you home right now? It sounds like you are in the car.”

“We’re headed to the Silver Comet Trail to do some biking,” I answer, now a little anxious. “Why, what’s up?”

“I just received an email from you. It says you are in London and have been robbed and need money.”

Relieved that no one is hurt or has died, I answer that it must be some kind of scam.

“I figured it was, but thought you would like to know right away.”

“Thanks for the heads up. By the way, how much money are they asking for?”

“Eighteen hundred pounds,” she answers, laughing. “Are you flying back first class?”

By the time we pull into the parking lot and start off-loading our bikes, I’ve received four more calls. Several years ago we lived in England, and have traveled back there a few times. The London mention gives people pause when they read the email. I try to access my email and find my password won’t work; the hackers must have changed it. My husband Matt’s phone has started to ring now, too. “Should we head home and deal with this?” he asks.

I survey our bikes all primed to roll down a shady, flat trail for a few hours. It is the last day of Fourth of July weekend and Atlanta is out in force, enjoying the unusually mild weather.

“No,” I reply. “There’s nothing we can do. Let’s not let this ruin our day.”

“Why don’t you both change your voicemail messages and turn off your phones?” my daughter suggests, zipping back and forth on her bike.

Matt and I lock eyes with each over her head with an ‘out of the mouths of babes’ look between us. He also makes a quick post on Facebook. We strap on our helmets and head down the trail.

During the car ride home I flip through my phone and count twenty-six calls to my cell. Some folks have left funny messages; flying home first class is a big theme. The family grapevine has been officially activated, and there has been a spirited exchange on Facebook. Our answering machine at home is completely full, with mostly funny messages. We receive calls from our kids’ school, our church, our broker. We even receive messages from three people to whom we’ve rented a house on VRBO. Matt and I joke about the complicated hierarchy of friendships. With so many people calling, should we assume the ones who don’t call just don’t care?

Matt and I start to get nervous about the security of our financial information, so we spend over an hour changing all the passwords on our accounts. I dread the next few days thinking of the time it will take to deal with this.

I spend the next day trying to get Gmail to suspend my account. The hackers are still sending emails to my contacts and posing as me if someone responds to them. I find message boards online with a lot of hacking victims saying they never recovered their accounts. So much of what I do everyday is tied to my email account. My contacts, calendar, information stored in folders; the thought of losing all of it gives me a stomachache.

The phone keeps ringing. I have numerous short conversations, several ten-minute ones with friends I haven’t seen in a while and three really long ones with people I haven’t talked to in over a year. I find myself saying, over and over, “if this is the worst thing that happens to me this year, I am very blessed” and I truly believe it. Having this many people reach out to us is downright touching. The annoyance of having no email is more than offset by the connection with loved ones. I realize that this feeling may diminish in a couple of days, when the phones go silent, but for now I feel very loved.

My father died of Hodgkin’s disease when I was sixteen. A lot of people know that about me. What they may not know is what a financially perilous existence my family had because of it. Back then insurance companies could drop sick patients, and the medical bills were overwhelming. Twice our small town in Michigan had pancake breakfasts as a fundraiser, turning over the proceeds to my family. I don’t remember the first one and as an embarrassed teen did not attend the second, but a family friend told me they had to run out to get more flour, eggs and bacon, not just once, but twice, it was so well attended. People flocked to spend a Saturday morning at the VFW hall visiting with friends and neighbors and helping out a family in need, laughing and reminiscing over a stack of hotcakes and a cup of joe. The money raised was important, crucial even, but more than that, the fact that half the town turned out to support us meant everything to my parents.

I see a parallel between those caring folks of my youth and the ones in my life now, even though the expression is completely different. Nowadays not many people can spare time on a Saturday morning, never mind the distance between friends and families. Yet our friends circled us when they thought they might be needed, not with actual arms but with electronic ones, things that not only were not invented, but not even fathomed in the time of my childhood. Sure, we didn’t need help this time, but knowing our family and friends would surround us at the first sign of trouble, that was my George Bailey moment. A celebration of sorts took place as surely as if we’d gathered together to raise our coffee mugs in a toast to friendship.

Suddenly I have a craving for pancakes.

~Barbara Brockway

Next week, an essay by Rebecca Rasmussen.

The greatest acts of kindness

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Bent Road, Lori Roy’s debut novel, is published today by Dutton. Lori Roy was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas, where she attended and graduated from Kansas State University. Her work has appeared in the Chattahoochee Review. She currently lives with her family in west central Florida.

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Strength and selflessness

We come this day from many different directions. Some of us have left a job early to be here. Others have dropped off younger children at a sitter before making the journey. Still others picked up high schoolers early from classes so that we could bring them along.

Walking up the church steps toward a set of double doors, we wear dark suits, knee-length skirts, freshly pressed shirts. Our children—most of us have brought sons—wear ties and beige pants we have pressed and belts we have fished out of the backs of closets.

We come because a friend of ours has died.

I recognize many of the faces, particularly the adults. Years ago, I sat on bleachers with them, a little league game unfolding before us. We yelled at umpires together, cheered for a stand-up triple, patted backs when our sons lost. I sat across a basketball court from some, lounged on a beach chair next to many, scanned baseball rosters and registered players with a few. I recognize the sons only because I know the parents. The boys have
grown since I last saw them. Their necks have thickened, shoulders widened, voices dipped an octave. A few probably shaved before coming.

We give each other small nods, shake hands, don’t really say anything. We are remembering little boys with round cheeks and dimpled chins and are shocked that they have turned into young men. We are shocked our friend is gone. As we filter through the double doors, all of us wondering where the time went, we wait to greet the woman whose husband has died.

She reaches out with both hands as each of us approaches her. She wraps us in a hug and thanks us for coming. Her eyes are clear, her long black hair is smooth, she stands with a straight back, her chin high. When it is my turn, I can’t speak. She wraps me in her hug and then looks up at my son. She smiles because she can’t believe how he has grown, how they have all grown. On this day, she extends herself by thanking all of us, putting us at ease, welcoming us. On this day, perhaps her worst day, she knows we are frightened and she comforts us. She is kind.

Six weeks ago, I was asked if I would contribute something to this blog about kindness, and for six weeks, I have considered all the different things I could write about. I am fortunate enough to have been the recipient of many acts of kindness, and I hope I have extended a few. But what occurred to me after six weeks of thinking is that, while all acts of kindness are considerable and worthwhile, the greatest acts display the strength and selflessness that I witness that day and will remember always.

~Lori Roy

Next week, Barbara Brockway visits Quest For Kindness.

A few unsung heroes

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Elise Allen’s writing credits include TV, DVDs, internet shows, and books. She co-wrote Hilary Duff’s novel Elixir, which hit Number 10 on the New York Times Bestseller List. Elise’s debut solo young adult novel, Populazzi, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on August 1, 2011. She is a marathoner and lives with her family in southern California.

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It’ s probably cliché to say that nurses are the unsung heroes of our society, but when a loved one is hospitalized, you realize how incredibly true it is.

I’ve owed this post to Alicia and Matt for about three months now, and while I would never minimize my talent for procrastinating, in this case I was doing something else. I wasn’t writing about Kindness because I was too busy experiencing it.

Back in late October, my 91-year-old grandmother was diagnosed with a medical issue that required surgery. Surgery is never an easy choice for an elderly patient, but in this case it made sense, and it was what she wanted. She went into the hospital early in November, had a very successful procedure (yay!), and spent the next several days in the hospital recuperating.

It’ s not easy for an older senior to deal with anesthesia and its after-effects. As she slowly recovered, my grandmother was often delirious, and spun vast conspiracy theories that encompassed not only every employee at the hospital, but also my sister and I, who were with her every day. For awhile, she was convinced the entire staff was acting out roles I had written for them, and the entire hospital experience was actually a massive role-playing event I had engineered to test a plot for a new psychological thriller. As proof, she pointed to nurses at the station outside her door flipping through sheets of paper – clearly their script for the upcoming scene.

In other words, she was living Shutter Island. Her mind was a very trippy place. And it didn’t always make her the easiest patient. Yet nearly every nurse and aid went out of their way to make my grandmother feel safe, comfortable, and happy. She wasn’t just a body to them, but a frightened woman who needed their understanding and compassion even more than their medical expertise.

My sister is an RN, and she told me what a nurse’s workload is like. As a general rule, they’ re rewarded for their efficiency, not their bedside manner. There’ s tremendous pressure to get into a room, do what needs to be done, then get back out and on to the next patient. I knew this, and yet time and again I saw nurses who stopped everything to listen. I distinctly remember one nurse who spent – it felt like ages, though it was probably more like five minutes – at my grandmother’ s bedside. The nurse had already done everything medically necessary for my grandmother; now she just wanted to touch base and let my grandmother know someone in charge was listening.

My grandmother took this nurse’ s hand, looked into her eyes, and told her a long story about all her concerns … like the fact that she was being kept in the basement, which frightened her (she was on the top floor); the fact that there was no way she could go down to the dining room in a hospital gown (she thought she was home in the assisted living complex); and the fact that the other nurses were pressuring her to hire them as private staff, which wasn’t right (or true).

As my grandmother spoke, the nurse remained locked onto her eyes. She didn’t show the slightest sign of impatience or frustration. She smiled and nodded with deep understanding, assured her everything would be fine, and promised to take care of things. She didn’t leave the room until my grandmother was smiling, calm, and reassured.

“She’s so good,” my grandmother told me when the woman left. “That’ s why I hired her to be my private nurse.”

Yet while that nurse and so many others were lovely, no one compared to Ricardo, a.k.a. “her boyfriend.” He was the only male nurse we saw, and he doted on her (and on everyone else, I’m sure – he was just that kind of guy). Ricardo himself had just undergone major heart surgery less than a year ago, so he knew what it was like to be a patient. Every time he walked into my grandmother’s room, he made her feel like seeing her was the highlight of his day. There was no delirium when my grandmother was with him – they laughed and kibitzed like old friends, and when she was too embarrassed by her catheter to get up and walk for anyone else, she did it with Ricardo. They’ d stroll the halls together, chatting about every little thing, and for that short while, my grandmother felt almost back to normal.

It was a tough road for my grandmother even after she got out of the hospital. The delirium didn’t go away at first, and a frightening fall sent her to the emergency room on Thanksgiving day, where I was again moved to tears by the kindness of everyone around me. Though my grandmother hadn’t seriously hurt herself in the fall, she couldn’t be released without constant qualified care, and I didn’t want her to stay in the hospital a minute more than necessary. I had to track down a quality caregiver on no notice, in the middle of a major holiday. I did it … but only because several hospital staff members dropped everything to help me.

As for the caregivers themselves … I’ d need a whole new post to even scratch the surface of Dina, Marilu and Sahara, some of the most patient and compassionate women I have ever met in my life.

My grandmother moved to Los Angeles only six months ago, and since then every day has been a revelation. The circumstances of her move were less than ideal, but in the wild scramble to get her settled, I have met one beautiful stranger after another, all of whom were happy to go out of their way for a fellow human being. The nurses during her hospital stay and convalescence were only the latest in a long line of kind souls, and I’ m so grateful for the gift of their grace.

Oh – just so you know, my grandmother came through her recovery with flying colors. The delirium is gone completely, she’ s back to herself, living life on her own terms, and she’s absolutely unstoppable.

~Elise Allen

Next week, Lori Roy visits Quest For Kindness.

The Dogs Who Rescued Me

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Danita Berg is an assistant professor of writing at Oklahoma City University, where she chairs the annual Creative Writing Festival and directs the new Red Earth Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing. She’s published or has upcoming creative works in journals such as Redivider, Southern Women’s Review, Sugar Mule, Quay: A Journal for the Arts, and The Houston Literary Review, among others, as well as the non-fiction collections Press Pause Moments: Essays about Life Transitions by Women Writers and Ain’t Nobody That Can Sing Like Me: An Oklahoma Writing Anthology. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College and Ph.D. in English at the University of South Florida.

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The Dogs Who Rescued Me

Oliver is in a pen with several other critters, all barking for attention from the passersby at the local pet adoption event. I poke my friend in the ribs. “There he is,” I said. “A pug. Can you believe he’s still here?”

I’d just moved to Oklahoma. I was starting over, again, at age 37, freshly divorced, in a new job, and in need of the friends and family I’d just left behind in Florida. My friend Randy had helped me move but was about to drive home to Texas, more than eight hours away. I needed a local. The adoption event had been advertised online.

I approach one of the animal rescue volunteers. “Has someone already spoken for the pug?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “Would you like to meet him?”

“Why, yes. Yes, I would.”

We move to a quieter space for a meet-n-greet. Oliver chases his tail in glee. He is chosen. My self-importance swells; I am going to give this little guy a new home, a second chance at life, just like me, just by paying his adoption fee. He doesn’t seem to mind when I accidentally drop him on his head while shopping for his travel crate.

When Randy leaves, I try to settle into my new house with its unfamiliar night noises. I lie in bed with my eyes open, listening to the roof creak. I change my mind about the no-pets-in bed policy and call to Oliver. He sleeps with his Wonder Bread body pressed up against mine, snoring like a fat grandfather. Now I can sleep too.

***

I wake up mid-winter to find Chloe, my 17-year-old Pomeranian who saw me through five moves, marriage, and divorce, lying on her rug in the kitchen. She can’t lift her head. I pick her up. Her head lolls. She tries to look at me out of the corners of her eyes. I pretend this is not happening and take her outside where Oliver frolics happily in the snow. I kick a bare spot into the ground and set Chloe in it, silently pleading with her to do her business as normal. She flounders then lies quietly in the snow, resigned. Oliver runs over, gives her a lick, and runs off again. I pick up Chloe and rest her head against my chest so I don’t have to acknowledge that she can no longer hold it up herself.

“Let’s say goodbye to the trees, sweetheart,” I tell her, walking through the frozen backyard. I don’t want to believe she had a stroke until she begins crying softly, then more loudly, until I realize I’m not going to be able to ignore this. While waiting for the vet to come to the house, I discover that you can cry hard enough to create a puddle on the floor.

***

When an old shih tzu with a lame leg and crooked grin arrives at the local Humane Society, I’m asked to foster her. Her nipples are elongated from overbreeding; her eyes are dim from age. I can’t resist. I name her Zoey, a rhyming reminder of Chloe. Zoey likes to warm my feet.

***

The people at the Humane Society recognize a sucker when they see one. They call about a Pekingese puppy. Can I just foster him until he finds a new home?

It has been eight months since my move. I am two weeks from flying back to Florida to defend my dissertation. I am knee deep in revision, my coffee table is a library of reference books and student papers I need to grade. “Sure,” I say.

At the shelter I hear high-pitched barking coming from the back room. “Tell me that’s not my foster,” I say. The volunteers look at one another guiltily.

“This is only temporary,” I say. I am led to the back, where the barking gets even louder. One of the volunteers procures the wall-eyed puppy from a crate. His frightened barks reach a fever pitch. I hold him close. He wraps his front legs around my neck, buries his head in my neck, and whimpers.

“Dammit,” I say. I do not need a third dog. This is only temporary.

At home Oliver and the puppy greet each other like long-lost brothers, fall asleep nose to nose. Zoey watches from her corner of the couch and harrumphs. “Dammit,” I say. I name him Murphy.

***

I can’t keep the latest one. He’s sleeping pressed against my arm, his arm over mine as though he can hold me here. The others are camped out around me on the couch, jockeying for position.

I’ll give this one up for adoption next week. He was also picked from the shelter where dozens of scared dogs whined, scratched at the cage doors, and turned cute circles, hoping to get my attention. They seem to know their fate. This one, a poodle with long legs he’s not quite sure what to do with, leapt in the air when I looped the leash around his neck. He’s been chosen; he’s lucky. “C’mon buddy, let’s go home and get spoiled,” I told him at the shelter. He’s in.

He’ll hang with my pets for two weeks while I assess him and make sure he’s a good dog. He will sleep on my bed with the other pets, eat alongside them, learn his place in the pack. He’ll decide Murphy is his new best friend. He’ll wonder what he’s done when I pack him up at the end of his two-week quarantine and take him to the Humane Society, where he will again wait to find another home.

I will try to explain to him that he’s done nothing wrong, that soon someone else will pick him. I will plug my ears when he paws at the door in the adoption center room where he will wait for someone else’s turn to offer him kindness. I will miss him when someone else offers him that kindness, the kind that continues to warm and break my heart.

~Danita Berg

Next week, an essay by Elise Allen.