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.

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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.

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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/

Something That May Or May Not Exist

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Wallace Wilhoit Jr. has a Master of Arts in Teaching from George Washington University, Washington D.C.; a Master of Arts in Speech Communication and Theatre from California State University, Fresno; and, a Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting from Goddard College, Vermont. Wally’s writing career began with his two-person show, Songs My Voice Teacher Won’t Let Me Sing!, with composer Duane Boutte. His most current project is the opera, Stillwaters, with composer Bettina Sheppard. In addition to Stillwaters, he is collaborating on the rock musical, Gods, with Turkish composer Ayhan Sahin. His other on-going projects are: La Trout Lily, an opera; Bayou Teche, a musical; and Family Ties … That Bind, a play. Wally is a member of the Dramatists’ Guild of America (DGA), the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG), American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA), and Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).

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Two Kindnesses from Two Strangers on a Train

Essays are not my normal means of communication. I’m a playwright. I write in dialogue or lyric. If I were really clever, I’d compose a scene or a song to illustrate my views on Q4K. But, I’m not that clever and it would be pretentious. So here goes!

I’ve been thinking a lot about this essay for Matt and Alicia; and, through my musings I’ve concluded that I don’t really have to search for kindness. It’s been, and is, all around me. How do I pick just one to hold above all others? The answer is, I don’t. There are no large versus small kindnesses. A kindness is a kindness.

Writing this essay reminds me of the “thank you for all you did for me” email I received recently from a former fourth grade student who, after twenty years, tracked me down via Facebook. The lunches, dinners, bottles of wine, or beds in which to sleep that I’ve been treated to over the years by friends because they knew I was short on funds. The trips that ranged in distance or length anywhere from three hours to 500 miles that my family made to bring me home from an airport or a train station.

I would like to think that I’m a kind person in return, but, sometimes I question it. Do I receive more than I give? I know there have been times when I have not been kind. There are phone calls not made. There are friends taken for granted and allowed to slip away. I have been lucky on occasion and found a lost friend. I have not been so lucky on other occasions.

A kindness isn’t always warm and fuzzy. Sometimes it hurts. And, sometimes it’s not given in a kind way. But, if that “kindness” spurs you to greater things, then it was well given. It truly is “in the eye of the beholder.” I say thank you to the two people who spurred me to a higher level of achievement.

My dad was a very kind person. Most of his acts of kindness were delivered with no fanfare and no recognition. When he passed away earlier this year, we found letters of thanks to him, from as far back as the 1950s, for blood that he donated through the American Red Cross. His blood saved people’s lives. Dad was honored by the Red Cross for the seventeen gallons of blood that he gave to the organization throughout his lifetime.

I was on an Amtrak train to return home when my youngest brother, Stephen, called to say, “Dad is gone.” During our conversation, the gentleman seated beside me got up and left. He returned several hours later. “I felt you needed your privacy,” he told me. The gentleman seated across the aisle, Brian, passed me his Bible, which was open to a passage that he’d selected for me to read. Two kindnesses from two strangers on a train.

A quest is a journey in search of something that may, or may not, exist. Kindness exists. The key is to be open. To give … and to receive.

~Wallace Wilhoit Jr.

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

The kind season

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Alia Yunis’ novel, The Night Counter (Random House), has been critically acclaimed by the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and several other publications. It was also chosen as a top summer read by the Chicago Tribune and Boston Phoenix. The Boston Globe has called it “wonderfully imaginative … poignant, hilarious.” Alia was born in Chicago and grew up in the U.S., Greece, and the Middle East, particularly Beirut during its civil war. She has worked as a filmmaker and journalist in several cities, especially Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including The Robert Olen Butler Best Short Stories collection, and her nonfiction work includes articles for The Los Angeles Times, Saveur, SportsTravel Magazine, and Aramco World. She currently teaches film and television at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

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My Nuremberg Knights

This is just a short story about two tall guys. It’s not about life and death, although I suppose it could have been. Last month, I did an eight-day, six city tour for Aufbau, the German publisher of The Night Counter. The enthusiasm Aufbau has shown me is so rare in publishing that I would literally travel great lengths to help them with promoting the translation.

By my fifth day in Germany, I woke up not quite sure where I was. When I figured out from the hotel key that it was Munich, I remembered that I had to go to the train station that evening for Nuremberg. I got to Nuremberg in the perpetual fog that has been in my head all this year, due to an assortment of personal and professional challenges. Nuremberg was as foggy as my head — and very dark and rainy, the night before its famous Christmas market was supposed to open.

I was met at the train by Christina Hein of the German American Cultural Institute, the organization sponsoring my reading. We walked through the city’s cobbled streets to the library, built in the 13th century, a breathtaking setting for any current vampire series or book. Thomas, the librarian, had round wireframes that fitted his demeanor, which was quite shy. The shyness struck me as Thomas was a well-built, 6.5 feet, the kind of person I usually felt intimidated around. He was also the most gracious host, and felt so compelled to apologize over and over again when the hoped for crowd turned out to be more like a handful.

Towards the end of the evening, an equally tall and broad shouldered man came and sat next to Thomas. This was Heiko, I would later learn, Thomas’ partner. After the reading, Christina and her friend were heading back to the train station to catch their own train home, and Thomas and Heiko walked us all there in the rain before saying goodbye. It was pretty late at night as Christina, her friend, and I sat chatting in the almost empty train station as they waited for their train, which was due to leave about one half hour before mine.

Suddenly, just as Christina and her friend were about to leave, Thomas and Heiko were standing next to us. “We came back for you,” Heiko told me. “We were almost home and we got worried that you would be alone here. What if the train is late? And here you are dressed like it’s April, and this station is pretty shut down at this time.”

I was indeed a little short of winter clothes and I was shaking from the cold. I thanked them but said they didn’t have to do that — this was Germany after all. Everything is always right on schedule. “Yeah, but what if this one of those times that it’s not? Things like that happen even in Germany,” he said. Just about then, it was announced that my train back to Munich would be an hour late. I wouldn’t have known that if they hadn’t been there to translate. I could tell they had had a long day too, but they walked around that deserted station with me until the train finally did come an hour and half later.

Cocooned between the sheer safety of their size, I wasn’t lost, confused cold or worried. As I boarded, they hugged me goodbye, this short person whose name they weren’t sure how to say, who they hadn’t particularly had anything in common with, whom they were in no way responsible for, who had made their day much longer and whose year they had made much better. It really did feel like the beginning of the Christmas season, although I suspect it is always the kind season when Thomas and Heiko are around.

~Alia Yunis

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

Homeless in a foreign land

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Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is the author of the American Book Award-winning novel, Why She Left Us. Her memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, about her experience living at the original ground zero during the September 11th terrorist attacks, will be published by the Feminist Press on September 11th and was named by Publisher’s Weekly as an “Indie Sleeper.” She is a recipient of the U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the associate editor of The NuyorAsian Anthology: Asian American Writings About New York City. Her essays and short stories have appeared in anthologies, journals and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, Salon Magazine, the Crab Creek Review, Mothers Who Think, Because I Said So, and Topography of War, among others. She is a faculty member in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College. She can be found at: www.rahnareikorizzuto.com.

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A New Life

I was homeless.

I had been warned, but still it came as a shock.

When I arrived in Hiroshima in 2001, I had two telephone numbers in my pocket and not enough Japanese in my head to understand which “mutter mutter gozaimasu” meant that this was my stop and I should get off the train. I was there on a generous grant from the Japanese government and the NEA; I had a cell phone and a bank account, but beyond that I was on my own. It was up to me to get an apartment, conduct my research, live my life however I wanted. I was thirty-seven years old, a mother of two, and confident.

I could do this.

One of my phone numbers was for Kimiko Uchida. She was a stranger, the former student of a man I had been referred to by a friend who was suddenly in the hospital, and I was her last minute problem. I was hers to greet (she was standing on the train platform in the exact spot where my window pulled up and stopped) and to deposit in the hotel she had reserved for five days. A room – like every hotel room in Japan I could ever afford – that was barely big enough for my luggage. After she treated me to a tiny cup of coffee, her obligation was over. She was ready to be on her way.

I lingered on my last mouthful, trying to get a sense of what I was facing. How could I get an apartment? I asked. I would be here for half a year, and my children and husband would be coming soon.

In Japan, I was about to find out, foreigners need a sponsor to rent an apartment. Some unlucky soul who will vouch for the fact that they will pay their rent and recycle their garbage on the correct days, and that they won’t leave half-empty bottles of shampoo in the shower when they move out. Kimiko suggested I ask the Japanese government, and she barely seemed to hear me say that the government didn’t want anything more to do with my shampoo than she did.

As my first days in Hiroshima dragged on, I kept leaning on Kimiko. She kindly took my calls. After a week in the hotel, she found me a room for another five days in a hostel for peace activists. After that, I could rent a weekly mansion, which was a hotel room much like the one I had begun in. Or do what most foreign visitors to Hiroshima did: leave.

“Do you think, is it possible…” I asked each day, “is there any possibility of an apartment?”

“Oh,” she would say, as if I had surprised her. “Perhaps. I don’t know.”

And though this means “no” in Japan, and it was clear that I was a pest and this sponsorship was a huge burden, I had no options.

I was desperate.

I was homeless in a foreign place. Unable to start my research in the stubbornly wrinkled clothing I could extract out of my suitcase; I could barely reach my family between my inability to figure out the internet cafes and the phone cards. In ten short days, I was crying myself to sleep every night and beginning to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake. Could she tell how miserable I was?

Then my cell phone rang with the unheralded news that she was picking me up in an hour to see my new apartment.

My new home was in a building owned by a friend of hers and directly across the river from her own, so close we would be able to wave to each other from our balconies. It was a palace by Hiroshima standards, with two tatami rooms and a large living area and kitchen. My landlady even threw in air-conditioning units to save me from the 100 plus degree Hiroshima heat. Another friend of Kimiko’s who lived in the building had already come in to measure all of the windows and made me curtains, with thick brocade material and little hookie things.

I was stunned by their kindness. It was more than I could have asked for. But Kimiko wasn’t done with me yet.

On moving day, she picked me up in her red sports car, cramming my bag into the back in a rush. We had to be at the apartment in ten minutes, and we were late. She had arranged for a few things to be loaned to me. She had friends, more people she had helped over the years, and now they were standing by to help me. We walked into my new home just before the washer and dryer arrived, and the refrigerator. Then, as she whirled in the center of the floor like an elf making magic, in came the gasman, the water man, the electric man.

After they left, the next delivery was the futons, sheets, pillows and covers for four. The book cases, the desk and chair, the low coffee table and pillows for one of the tatami rooms. I got a microwave oven that doubled as a toaster (a fabulous appliance I have never been able to find again), a rice cooker, and an out-of-the-box coffee maker. By the end of the day, I was also the proud owner of three toothbrushes, six different bars of soap, five medium-sized plastic buckets for washing myself before I took a bath, an electric wok for making shabu shabu, and enough chopsticks to throw a party.

I never asked for another thing after that day. I didn’t have to. Kimiko’s kindness to this poor, overwhelmed foreigner was magnified by the fact that every item that walked through my door was a gift to her – for who was I? – she tested her place in the web she had spun and found thick ropes of friendship. I was not the first person she’d been so generous with – she worked regularly into the single digits of the morning for clients, colleagues and friends – and this was her thanks.

A new life for me.

~ Reiko Rizzuto

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

Alicia Bessette’s first novel, Simply From Scratch, debuted yesterday from Dutton. Alicia was born and raised in central Massachusetts and graduated from La Salle University in Philadelphia. A pianist and freelance writer, she and her husband, novelist Matthew Quick, live near Philadelphia. Alicia will be speaking, signing books, and serving cupcakes at the Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square, 18th & Walnut, at 6 p.m. Wednesday, August 11. She hopes to see you there! For more information on contests and appearances, join her Facebook page or follow her on Twitter.

It’s not too late to win a signed copy of Simply From Scratch by sharing your worst-ever baking disaster. Click here and leave a comment on that post before 9 p.m. EST Thursday, August 12 (thanks to popular demand, the deadline was extended).

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Joyride

As I wrote Simply From Scratch, I followed my characters wherever they went. It took something more than loyalty. It took devotion; devotion like a dog’s.

Let’s celebrate Simply From Scratch by remembering Stella B. Quick, who not only inspired a key character, but ushered the book’s creation.

I’d say Stella was special, but really, isn’t every dog?

***

When Matt and I adopted our retired racing greyhound in 1999, we were in our mid twenties, and Stella — statuesque and genteel — was two years old. With her between us, we strode across the shelter parking lot to our creaky old Pathfinder. Matt lifted the back gate, and immediately, Stella leaped inside.

From the very beginning, she wanted us.

***

In the early days, she had two favorite activities: lounging near the piano while I played, and dashing across the fenced-in baseball diamond a few blocks from where we lived. She used to spin around, a three-foot-tall black cyclone; then sprint to centerfield; then lope back to the gate, spent.

She liked Matt, but she preferred me. She followed me from room to room. She leaned on me after I came home from work. Often, when watching TV or reading books, I glanced over to find her gazing at me from the floor.

Matt and I marveled at how well-suited Stella was for us. We took her everywhere. The beach in North Carolina. The hills in New England. Like us, she loved a road trip, an excursion, and the scents of the countryside.

Through the years, Stella slept at the foot of our bed, settling herself down with a thud and a contented grunt, and falling asleep easily. That’s the only time she barked — in her dreams.

She sat only once, in protest, the moonlit night I took her snowshoeing, and her boots filled with slush.

Stella taught me the simple pleasure of strolling with no particular destination, and no curfew.

She taught me that there’s nothing wrong with being quiet.

She taught me that, if it comes naturally, you should wag your head, and not worry if most other dogs wag their tails instead.

Above all, she taught me: Cling to your people.

***

In 2008 I found myself writing a novel about a married couple, a man and a woman who’d been high school sweethearts, who are still totally in love. This couple cares for an aging greyhound. It was the beginning of Simply From Scratch.

While I wrote, day after day, Stella curled up near my desk. When I thought I’d go cross-eyed from too much computer time, or crazy with inability to find the right words, I leashed her up, and we strolled around town. Stella stopped every few feet to sniff something. The sidewalk, a weed, the air.

Back at home, Stella resumed her nap at my feet, and I — inspired by her — clung to my characters. Eventually I sniffed out the chief literary problem at the heart of Simply From Scratch: the husband has died during a rebuilding mission in post-Katrina New Orleans, and the wife needs to move on. But how?

A few people have asked, Why so sad?

Because sadness heightens joy.

Rose-Ellen, my widowed narrator, is almost completely broken. And yet, she wants to stay, to invite joie de vivre to creep back into her voice, even though it’s shaky with tears. She leans back into the community that raised her, and finds solace, rediscovers laughter, savors humor and flavor and light.

Simply From Scratch is about how to take joyrides, even when that seems impossible.

***

Lately, Stella resembled nothing of that leaping, deerlike beauty we first met on a hot July day in 1999. She was half-blind, mostly deaf, arthritic, underweight. Her toenail was busted after a terrifying spill down the stairs. Last Wednesday, when Matt took her outside for a meander, she collapsed.

He carried her home.

She was nearing the end.

He loaded her into the back of our Forester (our Pathfinder was long gone), and we headed for the veterinary hospital. A block from home, I was suddenly horrified to be riding up front, separated from Stella … but maybe I’d needed to pretend this trip wouldn’t be her last. I was just about to tell Matt to pull over so I could hop in the back, when he glanced at the rearview mirror and said, “She’s getting up.”

Behind us, Stella unfolded her lanky limbs from underneath her body. She heaved herself to standing and surfed for a moment, getting her balance, like a newborn foal testing her legs. Then she wobbled to the front passenger seat. She poked her nose in my ear and panted. Please open the back window. I’d like to stick my head out.

For the last mile of her life — her body quaking with weakness — Stella sniffed the breeze. Her ears flapped. The wind pushed her cheeks away from her teeth, so it looked like she was grinning.

Grinning and flying.

She was almost completely broken. And yet, she wanted to stay.

***

I like to think that somewhere, Stella’s sticking her sleek, feather-soft head out the back window, savoring the warm breeze on her face.

She’s behind us, like she always was.

Behind us, no matter what.

~Alicia Bessette

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

Strangers’ hands

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Hilary Parkinson is a writer and editor for the National Archives in Washington, DC. She contributes to the quarterly magazine Prologue, the National Archives blog Pieces of History, and the National Archives Facebook page. She also has a (rather neglected) blog of her own, QueStreetGirl.

In high school she edited and stapled together a fine literary magazine called Mud Pie with Alicia Bessette and several other word-loving friends. Over a decade later, she is attempting to write a YA novel.

She is a compulsive reader of anything printed and hopes never to be cured of it.

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Hands

I was just out of college, and just three days into my graduate year in England. I was overloaded with a heavy backpack, and I was dragging a suitcase through the London Underground.

I was crying uncontrollably.

Now, I really hate to cry, mostly because I cry when I am angry, and it’s very embarrassing. I can easily remember the handful of times I have cried this past year. Mostly, I was mad. If I cry, and I am not angry at you, things are very, very bad.

And things were bad.

As I struggled to get the suitcase down another flight of steps, I was also struggling to understand how other things had become smashed apart. The day before, my uncle had informed me that I was never to speak to him, his wife, or my two cousins again.

I had spent the previous evening crying in an ugly new blue English telephone phone booth. People had tapped on the glass, and I had waved them away. I held that telephone in a death grip for over an hour as our English family friend, miles north of London, tried to help me gather the strength to go back to my uncle’s house and make it through the night.

Earlier that afternoon, I had made a silly, joking remark, never meant to hurt my aunt’s feelings. A few hours later when my uncle came home, my apologies and explanations were unaccepted and I ended up in a phone booth, weeping.

Now, the most foolish part was that I did not immediately call my parents. As a 22-year-old who had been raised to respect and trust adults, I believed my aunt and uncle when they told me that I had ruined the relationship between themselves and my family. As a 34-year-old, I look back and know this was ridiculous. My off-the-cuff comment had hurt my aunt deeply, but was unintentional. Their reaction was all out of proportion. But at the time, it was as if I had razed everything my family had built.

When I left the telephone booth, I went back to a silent house with three closed bedroom doors. I did not sleep. In the morning, I heard everyone get up. I heard them leave for work and school. No one knocked on my door. When it was quiet, I wrote a note of apology and left it in my uncle’s bedroom. I couldn’t find a phonebook, so I couldn’t call a cab. I dragged my bags the mile to the train station. When I got into London, I had to get to Angel station.

I was—and still am—very familiar with the Tube. But at the time it was a tube of endless white tiles. I had a terrible secret. I was exhausted. Coming to England seemed like a bad decision. Worst of all, no elevators were working. Crying yet again, I tried to lift my suitcase down the stairs.

Suddenly, there were hands. I’m not sure when it started, but at some point in my long slog, people began to help me. No one said anything, but each time I faced another set of steps, a hand would grip onto the suitcase handle and help me lift. At the bottom of the steps, the hand would let go, and I would pull the suitcase along to the next set. And just as I was about to struggle again, another hand would materialize.

It happened several times. I never looked up, because I could not stop crying. I do remember thinking, through the haze of grief, that each hand was different. That many different people had helped me, without saying anything, without asking if I needed anything. They just helped, right up to the top of the last flight of stairs that exited the station.

I couldn’t look up. I wasn’t able to say thank you.

I did go on to have an amazing year: studying stained glass through binoculars in a cathedral, acting (badly!) in a medieval play, making friendships that continue to sustain me.

But that was the last time I saw or spoke to any of these four family members. Still, when I think about that terrible loss in 1998, I remember those strangers’ hands. They were there when I needed them.

Even now, they pull me through the sadness of that memory.

I think of them when I ride the Metro, and I watch the crowds of commuters and tourists surging by, just in case someone needs a hand.

~Hilary Parkinson

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

Last week, Matt and I were returning home from Vermont, where we spent the Fourth of July holiday. I was driving. The sky was bright and clear, and the tree-lined roads took us through quaint towns. Every now and then I glanced into the rear-view mirror to see Stella, our greyhound, snoozing in the backseat, positioned strategically in front of the air conditioning vent.

We headed south on Route 12, through southwestern New Hampshire. As we approached the town of Troy, I knew I would soon pass a little green sign that pointed the way to Jaffrey, a neighboring town to the east.

And right then, I resolved to do something I had intended to do for twenty years, something that seemed inevitable. (I’d do it someday; it was just a matter of when.)

“We’re about to pass the sign for Jaffrey,” I said, turning the music down.

I kept my eyes on the road, but I felt Matt, next to me in the passenger seat, studying my profile. He knew what I had in mind. He also knew I wasn’t asking for his blessing, but merely informing him that he was to accompany me on this particular detour; I was determined.

“Al, it’s ninety-five degrees out,” he said.

“You can stay in the car with the air conditioning running.”

“You have no idea where you’re going, once you get there.”

“Right.” I put my turn signal on and slowed down. The little green sign was just ahead.

Matt grinned and turned up the music, and I took the road to Jaffrey.

Like writing, it was something I needed to do.

***

I read Shadows on the Rock when I was fourteen, after my French teacher mentioned it in class: it was an absorbing novel, he said, written by an American, about the early settlers of Quebec. I don’t remember many details about the book, but I remember the effect it had on me: I felt transported. I felt like time travel was possible.

Then I read The Song of the Lark and was moved by the protagonist’s pursuit of art, by her quest to fulfill a dream and her commitment to music and voice.

Next I read My Antonia. I didn’t really begin to grasp what being an immigrant meant, what being American meant, until I read this book.

During these years, as I was discovering Willa Cather’s novels, I learned that she — literary great, American legend — wrote My Antonia while “vacationing” in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, a little town about an hour north of where I lived. And she was buried in Jaffrey, too.

Junior year, I got my driver’s license. My friends and I were fond of road trips. We drove all over the place: Cape Cod, Maine, Newport. We often set out with no particular destination, nor maps. We simply drove, usually in the warm weather, in someone’s half-falling-apart car, feeling free. We stuck our arms out the windows and let the wind push our hands up and down, like waves. We were proud to live in New England, because in an hour’s drive we could be in a different state, the sea wind in our hair or a dense pine forest at our feet.

I assumed my friends and I would someday make a pilgrimage to Willa Cather’s grave. After all, it was only forty miles away, and we could reach it almost entirely on bumpy, narrow back roads — our favorite.

But we never did.

Since those days, several times a year, I’ve driven through southwestern New Hampshire on the way to or from Vermont, past the little green sign pointing the way to Jaffrey. And each trip, I’ve thought, Someday I’m going to follow that sign and visit Willa Cather’s grave.

But it always looked like rain. Or I didn’t feel like searching. Or it was going to be dark soon.

***

“I think we’re lost,” Matt said.

The road was hilly and twisty. I accelerated. “We’re not lost. We’re on the road to Jaffrey.”

We passed a state park entrance and several 1800s farmhouses that backed up to Mount Monadnock. We glimpsed its rocky peak flashing by, through the treetops. We passed pastures and weather-beaten mailboxes and winding driveways.

Finally, we reached the town center: war memorial, park benches, bookshop. We circled a church, figuring, How many cemeteries can a tiny town have? But we didn’t find a cemetery.

“I’m going to ask at the library,” I said, pulling up to a magisterial brick building.

Inside, a woman with long white hair and black glasses greeted me, and seemed pleased by my question. Willa Cather’s grave was about a mile or two back up the road, the librarian said, in the old burying ground. She rummaged in a drawer and gave me a couple pamphlets.

Another librarian emerged from an office. “Let’s show her the big map.”

They led me to a huge wall map, pointed out a few landmarks, and explained where I needed to go. “There’s a diagram on the side of the old horse shed that shows exactly where her gravestone is,” one of them said.

I thanked them. Envisioning a horse shed and tilted mossy gravestones, I skipped back to our banged-up Subaru in the heat.

***

A half-hour later, Matt and I were parked alongside a wavy-glassed meetinghouse, lost.

“You can’t give up, Al. You’ve always wanted to do this.” Matt took the pamphlet from me and studied its little map.

“I thought they said the old burying ground was right there,” I said, gesturing to a nearby cluster of historical buildings. “I could have sworn.”

“Let’s look again.”

A second time, we drove around the buildings: an old schoolhouse, a few homes, a church. No cemetery.

It was dinnertime, we were running out of gas, and I couldn’t make head or tails of a simple walking-tour map.

Worst, I hadn’t accomplished what I’d finally, finally set out to do: the pilgrimage that had been in my heart for twenty years, the homage I wanted to pay to a writer I loved, whose words moved and shaped me, gave me order and purpose during a time when I was confused and emotional.

Defeated, I let my head drop on the steering wheel. On the way down, I caught a flash of rounded stones behind the white lines of a fence. “Dude,” I said, lifting my head and pointing behind the meetinghouse, where the end of a horse shed was visible.

Matt saw it at the same time. “We’re right here.”

***

We found Willa Cather’s gravestone in a shady corner, surrounded by pink and purple and white impatiens. Matt left me alone for a while; he went back to the car to give Stella some water, while I took a few photos of the sun slanting through the leaves.

I didn’t stay too long, but long enough to appreciate the irony: Willa Cather has been here all along, but it took me years — decades — to find her.

Kind of like writing a book.

We writers know we have books inside us. The actual writing of a book might take ten months, a year or two. But the obstacles and delays, the back roads and detours — we travel those for decades. In the meantime, we read. We absorb. We feel inspired and antsy and bursting with love and need, and we try to figure out why. We meet the people we’re supposed to. We visit the places we’ll never forget. We let the road push us closer to our destination.

And one day — maybe when it’s ninety-five degrees out, and we’re in the company of a good spouse, and a good dog — one day, we take the road to Jaffrey: we start to write. And we don’t stop until the book is done.

It’s true what they say: everything — everything – in its own good time.

Even pilgrimages to Willa Cather’s grave.

~Alicia Bessette

Q4K publishes every Tuesday & Thursday. Check back Thursday, July 15, for a very moving kindness essay by Evan James Roskos.

During NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage a few months ago, Tom Brokaw did a special 45-minute report on the small town of Gander, Newfoundland. On September 11, 2001, Gander’s normally quiet airport received several thousand passengers whose flights had been grounded after the terrorist attacks.

Gander’s schools, recreation halls, churches, and other public buildings quickly became temporary shelters. Many residents who brought food and supplies to the shelters ended up taking travelers back home with them, cooking for them, and inviting them to sleep on couches or spare bedrooms. Because the travelers couldn’t access their luggage, local pharmacies filled prescriptions free of charge, and families and shops donated clothing and other necessities.

One traveler, moved by the generosity and goodness she experienced while stranded in Gander, returned home to Ohio and started a fund to benefit college-bound Gander high school students. That fund is now worth close to a million dollars.

Many unlikely bonds formed during the few days Gander hosted the stranded travelers. For me, the most moving was the friendship between a Gander widow and a traveling couple from New York City who couldn’t get a hold of their son back home, a firefighter. The widow opened her home to the couple, walked them to and from the church every day, and cooked for them. And when the couple received heartbreaking news about their son, the widow bore silent steady witness to their grief.

After a few days, the planes got clearance, and the trio said goodbye. The widow continued her unassuming life in Gander; the couple returned to New York City, to plan a memorial service for their son.

Since then, nine years have passed, during which the Gander woman and the grieving couple have exchanged letters and gifts, becoming something much more than pen-pals or friends; they are three former strangers who, against a backdrop of devastation, shared a few days of almost unimaginable giving and receiving, trust and intimacy.

As he was filming the special report and unearthing these and countless other stories of humanity, Brokaw arranged for the couple to revisit Gander and be reunited in person with the widow. By the time the two women were embracing in the driveway, while the husband looked away and wiped tears from his eyes, I was crying so hard I couldn’t see.

I’m always impacted by stories like these, in which unlikely strangers do good for each other in the wake of tragedy. Simply From Scratch (Dutton, August) tells that kind of story.

To win an advance copy of Simply From Scratch, comment briefly in the space below about kindness and communities. A short sentence or two will do, but if you’re moved to write more, feel free. I’ll announce the winners next Tuesday on Q4K.

Thanks for reading, and good luck!

~Alicia Bessette

Scott Humfeld is an Arizonan who has lived in the Peruvian Amazon for seventeen years. A psychiatric nurse by training, he established a free clinic in the Amazon River town of Pevas. He also operated a small jungle lodge and managed a band in Pevas. Now living in Iquitos, Peru, his interests are writing (but he admits to being chronically lazy and undisciplined), photography, and the history of Iquitos. His Photographic Record of Iquitos can be seen here. He also produces a blog for GreenTracks. His short story Capt. Spaulding and the Missing Motor was published in Quay – A Journal of the Arts.

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Kindness By The Roadside

In 1971 a friend and I took a two-week road trip from Phoenix to Mexico City. This was one of the best road trips I’ve ever done. We body surfed in Mazatlan, tasted the local product over a very long lunch in the town of Tequila (resaca is the Spanish word for hangover, by the way), and were mercilessly attacked by mosquitoes in Culican. We came across an ambulance blocking the road on a lonely stretch of highway, where two Federales stood with rifles. They asked us if we would like to donate some money to the local clinic. We smiled, said yes and handed over a wad of pesos. We spent a few days at the funky little tropical town of San Blas, where we took a boat ride through a tunnel cut into the mangroves to a natural spring where we drank beer and snorkeled. We spent a day that was not long enough at the spectacular National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Every day was something new and interesting.

Heading back, we were driving along the shore of Lake Chapala on our way from Mexico City to Guadalajara. It was dusk and the crimson sky was reflected on the water. A few islands appeared like peaks poking out above dark clouds. There was no traffic at all until we came across an old pickup truck parked on the side of the road.

A man and a woman and a small child were standing behind the truck. As we drove by we noticed the truck had a flat tire. Without any discussion we stopped and walked back to where these folks were standing. They wore clean, but old, clothes and the two adults had the resigned look you see on people who find life to be a struggle. The little girl wasn’t quite sure what to make of the two gringos.

We didn’t speak much of any Spanish and this family didn’t speak any English, but it didn’t take long to determine that they didn’t have a jack or a lug wrench with which to change their tire. We got the wrench and jack from our truck and changed the tire for them. With a look of great relief on their faces they thanked us and shook our hands and we were on our way once again.

When I think back on that trip that is always my first memory. It was a small thing, changing that tire, but knowing that that family would be able to get home that night and wouldn’t have to sleep on the side of the road was a very good feeling.

All the other things I experienced on that trip were about me, but in changing that tire I made a connection with another person, one with whom I could not communicate with words, but could connect with by a simple act of kindness.

********

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

The pic on the right: Q and Scott having drinks aboard an Amazonian riverboat in the summer of 2004, right after an indigenous Peruvian gave Q a cool necklace.