Photo by Ralph Alswang

Maud Casey lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland. She is the author of two novels, The Shape of Things to Come and Genealogy, and a collection of stories, Drastic.

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It’s a private, quiet kindness

This past fall was rugged. There was the usual jumble of daily life, and then a long, important relationship ended. Life was supposed to have gone one way and then, as it often does, it went somewhere else entirely. Sadness, anger, guilt, the sensation of teetering on the edge of the earth with the possibility of, at any moment, spinning off into the ether. The usual fare.

As the days became shorter and shorter and shorter still, it seemed as if the whole world was shrinking to one cold, little dot of light. One particularly short day, I was driving along the back road that takes me from home to school and back again. On that particular day, the road seemed especially bleak and soul crushing. And then I looked up and saw the silhouettes of the naked tree branches against the sky. Such intricate varieties of shapes creating complex designs, carving out even more complex designs of negative space—they were mesmerizing. I was transfixed. How had I not noticed their eerie presence on my drive before? How had I not noticed their weird beauty? The pleasure was visceral. There was something deep and irrefutable, unselfconscious, about the naked branches and their patterns of seeming gesticulation.  Was it kindness? Maybe not, but it felt like kindness. And here in winter, the naked branches feel like kindness still. Fully aware of the anthropomorphizing involved here, I’d like to suggest it’s a variety of kindness.

I’m not the first to admire a tree, or to experience its power. There’s the Tree of Life in the Egyptian Book of the Dead; there’s the Bodhi tree in Buddhism; there’s Asvatha, the Cosmic tree in the Upanishads; there’s Yggdrassill, the tree in Norse mythology. I could go on. In Native Trees for North American Landscapes, a tree is defined quite loosely, and hilariously, as “a woody plant that when mature you can stand beneath….” I’ve recently turned to this book in order to learn the names of the trees that surround me now in Columbia County in New York: the shagbark maples, the white oak, the paper birch (the Latin name for this—Betulapapyrifera!—I particularly love because it sounds as though you are casting a spell). Every day, I walk among them, grateful for their existence, their good example, those strange, myriad configurations of branches cutting through the sky. They don’t care if I’m there. They go about their business with or without me and there’s something oddly comforting about that.

I should add here that during the fall when I finally looked up and noticed what the trees have been doing for, like, forever, there was also a bounty of human kindness. I mean, truly, an embarrassment of riches that came my way from family and friends. Recently, human kindness has even made the arboreal variety possible. Those shagbark maples, white oaks and Betulapapyriferas, for example, make up the woods that surround the guest cottage where I’ve been staying for a luxurious month due to the kindness of my aunt and uncle whose guest cottage it is.

A couple of weeks ago, I went with one of my very kind friends to an exhibit of the artist Petah Coyne’s work at MASS MoCA. One of the pieces was a sculpture whose centerpiece was a knotty apple tree. The tree—fourteen feet tall and nearly twenty-three feet in all other directions—was dying so the owner of the orchard allowed Coyne to dig it up and cart it off. She and her many assistants covered it with black sand; it looked as though it had been scorched in a magical fire, one that had turned it a glittering, gleaming black. Taxidermied peacocks hung in its branches. It was as mysterious as it sounds, magnificently so. The piece is called Scalapino Nu Shu. Scalpino refers to Leslie Scalpino, the poet, who was a friend of Coyne’s and nu shu refers to the ancient, exclusively female language used by women in the Hunan Province of China. They wrote it on fans and embroidered it on cloth and among women who were sworn sisters it was the language they used in the letters they wrote to one another, which were often buried with the woman who wrote them so she could take them with her into the next life.

There’s something in this exchange of letters that reminds me of the arboreal kindness I experienced for the first time last fall, and continue to experience now that I’m in the habit of following the upward reach of the naked branches. Look up! Look up! It’s a private, quiet kindness, transmitted silently in a secret language I’ve only just learned.

~Maud Casey

Next week, an essay by Danita Berg.

Keepers by Jeanne Mackin

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Jeanne Mackin is the author of several novels:  The Sweet By and By (St. Martin’s Press), Dreams of Empire (Kensington Books), The Queen’s War (St. Martin’s Press), and The Frenchwoman (St. Martin’s Press). She has published short fiction and creative nonfiction in several journals and periodicals including American Letters and Commentary and SNReview and is also the author of the Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers (Cornell University publications) and co-editor of The Norton Book of Love (W.W. Norton). She teaches creative writing at Goddard College in Vermont.

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We don’t earn our fates

The first time I saw him it was a sunny spring day and he had his wheelchair parked outside the shop where I go to buy my monthly fill of magazines and paperback mysteries. He looked to be in early middle-age, with short graying hair and strong cheekbones. He balanced a paper cup on his lap and seemed to be asleep there in the sun, on that busy street corner, but when I passed in front of him he looked up. I saw his eyes, and the confusion and pain in them, and the leg wrapped in white bandages, the foot missing. There were coins in the bottom of the cup, not coffee.

I walked a few steps past him, then paused. I dug a ten dollar bill out of my wallet, walked back, and put it in his cup. Have a nice day, I said. He smiled and thanked me. I felt better, and felt guilty about feeling better.

Charity – and what is charity but kindness from one stranger to another – is a complex issue. When I gave him the money I already knew all the arguments against my action: I was encouraging street begging, rewarding behavior that society does not want rewarded. I knew it was possible the money would not go for food. I knew he was eligible for Medicaid, food stamps, etc. But I also knew that this man had been put in my path, and that I had more, much more, than he had, and that the moment was a test of my humanity. There are so many reasons not to be generous, and only one in favor of generosity – because he was a man in need, and I had the means to help him.

I saw him often after that, and always gave him money. I watched his decline, that awful process of uncontrolled diabetes and how it literally, physically diminishes the body piece by piece, inch by inch. One day I walked out of the store and realized I hadn’t seen him in many months, and he was probably gone. My money had made no difference. Yet I was glad I had given it.

Once, when I was living in Rome, I did not give money to a street beggar. I spent my afternoons walking the ancient, beautiful streets, waiting for my husband to finish teaching his classes so that we might spend a little time together. I had a favorite section in this city, a small, fountainless piazza hidden behind a fashionable shopping area, where the cobbled street was uneven and crowded, where the buildings were exceptionally old even for this very old city, where the twentieth century seemed completely elbowed out by earlier eras. One day, during my long walk through this neighborhood, I saw a woman sleeping on the street, wrapped in the colorless, fraying rags of homelessness. Emptied bottles glistened around her. Pedestrians walked carefully around her. A few had put some coins on her shawl. I put no coins there. Those empty bottles repelled me, made me feel sanctimonious and better than she was. I walked by, cold and righteous, and she, still snoring in the noisy sleep of the alcoholic, took up residence in my imagination.

Some years after this, a good friend died of alcoholism. He did not die alone or impoverished, but his easier death was a set of accidents over which neither he nor she had any control. We don’t earn our fates. Kindness depends on our honoring of that fact. Every time I drink a little more than I should, I think of her, and what I did not give.

I now sponsor a little girl in the Philippines through one of those programs where, in exchange for a modest monthly fee, you get a photo, a letter, a sense of righteousness. In her last letter, my little girl said that some of the money I gave provided a turkey for her family, as well as her school books. I was happy they’d had a good meal, but part of me, the reasonable part, said she is one child among how many millions of hungry children. How can this possibly make a difference?

Yet it did make a difference to Lea and her family. And I have to be satisfied with that. Kindness is about the one-to-one of life, about acknowledging and honoring the individual. Kindness admits our paths have crossed, whether by chance or method doesn’t method, and we know we are connected. We owe each other. We are each other’s keeper.

~Jeanne Mackin

Next week, an essay by Maud Casey.

Life-changing generosity from Mother

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Sogol Baniahmad Gremi is an engineer and lives in Virginia.

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I grew up in a relatively financially well-off family in Iran. My parents were both working full time so they didn’t have enough time to spend with us during the day; therefore, we were raised by nannies. My mom, like any other responsible mother, was very particular about the nannies that she was hiring to take care of her three daughters.

She was somewhat lucky in finding good nannies for my older sister and me but for the little one she went through almost nine different nannies until she found a good person that allowed her to leave my little sister at home with peace of mind. Her name was Parvin.

Parvin was from a religious Muslim family and always had a scarf on, even in the house. She was a very sweet and nice lady and always spoke to us in a soft voice with respect, which made us, the kids, always ask her to do things for us extremely respectfully.

Parvin had two sons and a daughter. Her husband was in jail after the cops found a 10 kg, almost 22 lbs, bag of opium in his house and imprisoned him for drug charges. He was sentenced to spend 10 years in prison.

It is good to mention that in our culture getting divorced is not encouraged and divorced women have difficult times in the society. Therefore, Parvin’s oldest son, being very religious, was begging his mom not getting divorced and wait for his dad to come out of the jail. This put a lot of financial pressure on the family, which as a result both sons dropped out of school and went after handy work in order to be able to provide for the family.

My mother learned about her situation and gave her a decent raise and provided her with most of her monthly groceries to lower the financial pressure that was on the family.

Parvin worked for my mom more than 10 years. Once her daughter was old enough to either go to college or to get married, these are the two choices for young ladies in this culture, my mother asked Parvin about their decision. Parvin said that her daughter is talented and likes to go to college but since Parvin is not able to pay her tuition, she must get married maybe her husband provide for her.

My mother being an extremely kind, sweet, and helpful person, offered paying Parvin’s daughter tuition as long as she was in college if Parvin promised that neither Parvin nor her sons forced her daughter to get married for financial help.

Parvin was very thankful and promised my mother that she would never force her daughter to marry someone for financial support. Before Parvin’s daughter graduated from college, Parvin’s husband was released from the prison and did not allow her to work any longer; this is very common in lower class and some upper class families in Iran.

After years working for mother, one day Parvin called my mother and said that
she wouldn’t be able to come to work any longer and my mother needed to find another help. My mom was very surprised by the situation and called her a few times and asked for the reason. Even though Parvin was hesitant to tell the truth, she finally told my mother that her husband was not allowing her to work. She was very sad and embarrassed but there was nothing that she could do.

My mom didn’t hear from her for a few years but she kept depositing money to
Parvin’s account for her daughter’s college tuition until she graduated. Now she is attending a graduate school and has a good job as an accountant. Because of my mother’s support, she was never forced to marry a man, most likely an older man, whom she didn’t love, for financial support. She is an independent young lady who can support herself and make decisions on her own. My mother changed her life for the better.

~Sogol Baniahmad Gremi

Next week, an essay by Jeanne Mackin.

His Name Is Robert Downey Jr.

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Dana Reinhardt is the author of A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life, Harmless and How to Build a House. Her most recent novel, The Things a Brother Knows, was named a best book of the year by Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist and NPR. The Summer I Learned to Fly, a book that is partially about acts of kindness and very much about gourmet cheese, comes out in July 2011.

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the kindest of strangers

I’m willing to go out on a limb here and guess that most stories of kindness do not begin with drug addicted celebrity bad boys.

Mine does.

His name is Robert Downey Jr.

You’ve probably heard of him. You may or may not be a fan, but I am, and I was in the early 90’s when this story takes place.

It was at a garden party for the ACLU of Southern California. My stepmother was the executive director, which is why I was in attendance without having to pay the $150 fee. It’s not that I don’t support the ACLU, it’s that I was barely twenty and had no money to speak of.

I was escorting my grandmother. There isn’t enough room in this essay to explain to you everything she was, I would need volumes, so for the sake of brevity I will tell you that she was beautiful even in her eighties, vain as the day is long, and whip smart, though her particular sort of intelligence did not encompass recognizing young celebrities.

I pointed out Robert Downey Jr. to her when he arrived, in a gorgeous cream-colored linen suit, with Sarah Jessica Parker on his arm. My grandmother shrugged, far more interested in piling her paper plate with various unidentifiable cheeses cut into cubes. He wasn’t Carey Grant or Gregory Peck. What did she care?

The afternoon’s main honoree was Ron Kovic, whose story of his time in the Vietnam War that had left him confined to a wheelchair had recently been immortalized in the Oliver Stone film Born on the Fourth of July.

I mention the wheelchair because it played an unwitting role in what happened next.

We made our way to our folding chairs in the garden with our paper plates and cubed cheeses and we watched my stepmother give one of her eloquent speeches and a plea for donations, and there must have been a few other people who spoke but I can’t remember who, and then Ron Kovic took the podium, and he was mesmerizing, and when it was all over we stood up to leave, and my grandmother tripped.

We’d been sitting in the front row (nepotism has its privileges) and when she tripped she fell smack into the wheelchair ramp that provided Ron Kovic with access to the stage. I didn’t know that wheelchair ramps have sharp edges, but they do, at least this one did, and it sliced her shin right open.

The volume of blood was staggering.

I’d like to be able to tell you that I raced into action; that I quickly took control of the situation, tending to my grandmother and calling for the ambulance that was so obviously needed, but I didn’t. I sat down and put my head between my knees because I thought I was going to faint. Did I mention the blood?

Luckily, somebody did take control of the situation, and that person was Robert Downey Jr.

He ordered someone to call an ambulance. Another to bring a glass of water. Another to fetch a blanket. He took off his gorgeous linen jacket and he rolled up his sleeves and he grabbed hold of my grandmother’s leg, and then he took that jacket that I’d assumed he’d taken off only to it keep out of the way, and he tied it around her wound. I watched the cream colored linen turn scarlet with her blood.

He told her not to worry. He told her it would be alright. He knew, instinctively, how to speak to her, how to distract her, how to play to her vanity. He held onto her calf and he whistled. He told her how stunning her legs were.

She said to him, to my humiliation: “My granddaughter tells me you’re a famous actor but I’ve never heard of you.”

He stayed with her until the ambulance came and then he walked alongside the stretcher holding her hand and telling her she was breaking his heart by leaving the party so early, just as they were getting to know each other. He waved to her as they closed the doors. “Don’t forget to call me, Silvia,” he said. “We’ll do lunch.”

He was a movie star, after all.

Believe it or not, I hurried into the ambulance without saying a word. I was too embarrassed and too shy to thank him.

We all have things we wish we’d said. Moments we’d like to return to and do differently. Rarely do we get that chance to make up for those times that words failed us. But I did. Many years later.

I should mention here that when Robert Downey Jr. was in prison for being a drug addict (which strikes me as absurd and cruel, but that’s the topic for a different essay), I thought of writing to him. Of reminding him of that day when he was humanity personified. When he was the best of what we each can be. When he was the kindest of strangers.

But I didn’t.

Some fifteen years after that garden party, ten years after my grandmother had died and five since he’d been released from prison, I saw him in a restaurant.

I grew up in Los Angeles where celebrity sightings are commonplace and where I was raised to respect people’s privacy and never bother someone while they’re out having a meal, but on this day I decided to abandon the code of the native Angeleno, and my own shyness, and I approached his table.

I said to him, “I don’t have any idea if you remember this…” and I told him the story.

He remembered.

“I just wanted to thank you,” I said. “And I wanted to tell you that it was simply the kindest act I’ve ever witnessed.”

He stood up and he took both of my hands in his and he looked into my eyes and he said, “You have absolutely no idea how much I needed to hear that today.”

~Dana Reinhardt

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

Kindness in my pocket

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Allie Larkin lives in Rochester, New York, with her husband, Jeremy, their two German Shepherds, Argo and Stella, and a three-legged cat. She is the cofounder of TheGreenists.com, a site dedicated to helping readers take simple steps toward going green. Stay (Dutton), her first novel, is a story of friendship, love, and a German Shepherd named Joe. Allie’s essay about Stella will be in Wade Rouse’s dog anthology, I’m Not The Biggest Bitch In This Relationship, due out in November from NAL. For more information see www.allielarkinwrites.com

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My blue flannel heart

I met my Ladies during my freshman year at Ithaca College. We all lived on the same floor in the same dorm. Slowly, over that first year, we went from tentatively asking to borrow a hairdryer or a sweater, to eating dinner together every night, making late night popsicle runs, crashing parties at Cornell, and watching scary movies in our PJs. I never had to brave the cafeteria alone, I always had someone to laugh with, and I always had a shoulder to cry on. There were six of us – Sarah, Brenda, Julie, Lisa, Rainbow and me – and for the first time in my only-child existence, I felt like I had sisters. On Thursday night at dinner, someone always said, “So what are we doing this weekend?” and I cherished those words. I loved being a part of that we.

Two years and an ADD diagnosis later, when I left college to “find myself,” I went from living in the dorm with my Ladies, to living alone in a dark little basement apartment, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I hated the way it felt to come home at night and not have another door to knock on. There was no one down the hall who would ask how my day was, I ate fried eggs for dinner at my tiny kitchen counter, and when I watched movies in my PJs, I was alone.

At Christmas that year, Julie sent me an envelope stuffed with envelopes, blue flannel hearts, and an instruction sheet directing me to stitch a section on each of the hearts and then send them all on to the next lady on the list.  A few weeks later, Julie sent me back one of the hearts, stitched together by each of my ladies using different colored pieces of thread, with a big L for Ladies sewn into the front.

Thirteen years later, I still carry my blue flannel heart with me everywhere. It’s been in my purse for job interviews. I hold it in my hand to calm my nerves when I fly. I slip it in my pocket before I do a reading. Every time I look at all our stitches, I remember that no matter how old we get, or how long it’s been since we last talked, I will always be a part of that we. I will always have a shoulder to cry on, and I will always have ladies to laugh with.

~Allie Larkin

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

Get A Hobby (No, Really, Get One)

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Kalela Williams teaches creative writing at James Madison University, where she also serves as assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, organizing literary readings, conferences, and workshops that promote African American poetry. She is originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but she’s swapped a city life for the quieter pace of Staunton, Virginia, a small Shenandoah Valley town. She lives in the attic apartment of a beautiful old Victorian home with her husband and two cats, and she keeps busy working on a novel and practicing dégagés.

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Your Attitude Should Be Higher

I’ll never forget the day I wore my first tutu. It was the last ballet class of the winter term, and our teacher had promised us a surprise. We were infused with excitement because we’d learned the Sugar Plum Fairy dance—a lilting choreography of delicate, leaping pas de chats and flitting petite battements.

Our surprise was an armload of tutus, enough for everyone in the room to wear. When I saw the frilled layers of soft, white tulle, I was giddy with joy. We did the Sugar Plum Fairy dance in our tutus, and I felt as light as dandelion fluff, as lovely as a forest sylph or fairy-bride-princess-ballerina. I’ll never, ever forget that day. Gosh, it seems like it just happened.

That’s because it did just happen a few weeks ago. My first tutu. That’s right, I’m thirty-two-years old.

No, seriously … what?

I’ve always dreamed of dancing. When I was a little girl, my mother couldn’t afford lessons, but I never shook that ballerina fantasy. In the autumn of 2009, I enrolled in a beginner teen/adult ballet class at a local school. The tiny class mostly consisted of teenagers, and the instructor was a college student who never taught before, so I felt out of place. But our class time was spent at the barre learning basic exercises. It was simple, easy, and addictive.

This past fall, I was disappointed that the school wasn’t doing adult ballet again, but I learned that another dance academy, which happens to be a short walk from my apartment, was offering ballet for adults. I signed up for their intermediate/advanced class. And then I started hearing the rumors.

“Notorious,” a co-worker said. The school was said to be tough, and my first class gave credence to the gossip. It seemed the instructor only spoke French, rapidly tossing out instructions like tendu a la seconde or ronde de jambe en l’air, expecting us to know what she meant. I made a C in high school French; I had no clue. If she just would’ve said “stick your leg out to the side,” I’d be all set. And the center work—that’s a ballet term for dancing in the middle of the floor and making a fool of yourself—was killing me. The instructor would demonstrate a complicated routine and expect us to get it.

One of those routines called for a position known as an attitude, which is when a dancer cocks her leg at an angle.  You’ve seen it before—it’s far more graceful than I make it sound. So while we attituded (spell-check is telling me that’s not a word, but whatever) we also had to fouette (prounounced “fwah-tay”), which I think is French for rotating slowly and painfully on one foot.

The instructor zeroed in on me. “Kay, your attitude should be higher,” she said. “And bend your leg directly behind you.”

Straining to lift my leg and trying to picture what she meant, I asked, “Like a dog peeing on a fire hydrant?”

She drew herself up tall. “A dancer should never look like a dog peeing. Your calf should look like a turkey leg on a platter.” Grabbing my thigh and ankle, she pushed my leg back, then up, and up still higher. “Okay, now fouette,” she said.

There were two problems with this situation. One, I don’t like to think of my own limbs as food. Two, I was in pain and couldn’t move. Another student took my hand and fouetted me around in circles while the instructor held my aching leg up high like a prize. From then on, that class was known as “The Torture of Kay.”

But we laughed about it. And sure, our dance teacher prodded us for weaknesses, but she’d show us how to change them. When I lost confidence, she reminded me that most the other women in our class took ballet for years as children and teens. For them, ballet is a return to something they loved. My classmates range in age from their twenties to their fifties, and most have husbands, careers, and children. Ballet is something they do for themselves.  And as grueling as class is, it’s a small kindness I do for myself, too.

What a rare thing. Sure, plenty of teenagers are encouraged to pursue hobbies, the more, the better. Sports, dance, theatre, music, art—kids are shuttled back and forth from lesson to practice. But once they get to college, most kids drop these hobbies like a bad habit (which, to be fair, many college students pick up). Then real life hits, and career and family take over. How many adults do you know play soccer? Tap-dance? Take art lessons?

And here’s the thing: in our middle-class, professional culture, we actually claim bragging rights on being too busy to do anything fulfilling and self-rewarding. I once overheard a conversation where four women one-upped each other on how demanding their jobs were. One said, “You’re part of a book club? I wish I had time for that, but I spend too many hours at work.” Then another: “I can’t even find time to read a novel. I just read book reviews.”  Then a third: “Well, my career doesn’t allow for that.  I don’t have time to read anything.”

How have we gotten to a point where not having time to read is a status symbol? Why can’t we give ourselves the small kindness of leisure, of developing ourselves as individuals? If we don’t have time to do something for ourselves, we need to at least make time to re-examine our priorities. You’ve heard the saying: people don’t lie on their deathbeds wishing they worked more.

For me, there’s more waiting around the corner. Equestrian jumping, ballroom dancing, redeeming that C I made in high school French by becoming fluent. Continuing my ballet class, nailing those pirouettes, achieving spectacular turnout, incredible extension, a perfect turkey-leg of an attitude. Sometimes I even envision performing en pointe (French for dancing in those satin tippy-toe shoes). It could happen.

And I imagine wearing another tutu. A lavender one, with sparkles this time.

~Kalela Williams

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

Eleanor Brown’s first novel, The Weird Sisters (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam), is the story of three adult sisters who return home to the small college town where they grew up, partly because their mother is ill, but mostly because their lives have fallen apart and they don’t know where to go next. Publishers Weekly‘s starred review called it a “bright, literate debut,” and Library Journal said it is “creative and original.” You can find Eleanor online at her website or the group blog, The Debutante Ball, and on Facebook and Twitter.

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Be Good to Yourself

When was the last time you were kind to yourself?

A few months ago, Matthew and Alicia did an interview with The Rumpus about Quest for Kindness, in which Matthew referred to the idea that in order to be truly kind to others, we must first be kind to ourselves.

Women’s magazines are big on the idea of being kind to ourselves, but they usually define it as buying ourselves a latte, or a massage, or a really expensive handbag. Now, I’m all about lattes and massages and expensive handbags, but every time I see an article like that I just shake my head. For real? Is buying something the best we can do to be nice to ourselves?

Because, here’s the thing – I think most of us are cruel to ourselves on a daily basis, and we don’t even realize it.

I think we’re cruel because there’s a little voice in our heads that is designed to strike at our greatest fears and our weakest points. It tells us that we are not enough of something – not thin enough or young enough or good-looking enough or smart enough or talented enough or strong enough or whatever it is we need enough of to make it to the top of whatever mountain we are trying to climb.

Stopping that voice is one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves. There are enough people out there in the world who will make it their mission to make you feel bad about yourself. Why put yourself on that list?

Imagine what you could do if you took every moment of time and every bit of energy you spend into limiting yourself and instead used it to achieve the things you want to.

Imagine wearing clothes you love without calling your body ugly.

Imagine leaving a job that is making you miserable and promising yourself that you deserve and can achieve something better.

Imagine making the art you love – writing, singing, sculpting – and dreaming about an audience that loves it as passionately as you do.

Imagine dancing or doing yoga or running without wondering who is better at it than you are.

And now, imagine how that would make you feel. Imagine how that would change your reaction when the line at the post office is moving slowly, or the person making your fancy latte is in training and can’t seem to get it right, or even when something far more serious goes awry. Wouldn’t you feel calmer and kindler and gentler to others if you were only kind and gentle with yourself?

I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions, but if we could all make one this year, I’d have it be this: Be good to yourself. Who knows what will follow?

~Eleanor Brown

Check back next Thursday, February 3, for a kindness essay by Kalela Williams.

Catherine Kirkwood holds an MFA from Goddard College, a PhD in Women’s Studies from the University of York, England, and a BS in psychobiology. Her work has appeared in the Pitkin Review, and in the fiction anthology New Voices. Her acclaimed feminist work, Leaving Abusive Partners, has been translated and sold internationally. Cut Away is her first novel (Arktoi Books 2010). Catherine lives in Seattle in a yellow cottage with her partner Kayleen, a Border Collie, and a vintage cat. Visit her at CatherineKirkwood.net

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On Death and Kindness

Two weeks ago my nineteen and a half year old cat died. Usually when one of my pets begins decline I spring into frenzied action, calling on every reasonable resource to prolong their life and make their death bearable. My vet, a man made up of all sorts of kindness, once gave me a much appreciated rule I’ve come to count on: when the course is irreversible and they stop eating, it is merciful to put them down. This time, though, because of the cat’s easily spooked nature and her preference for quiet, familiar spaces, I just let her be. It took about a day and a half. She stopped eating then kept on slipping rapidly. She did not appear to be in pain. We lay with each other until it was time. I think this is what she would have wanted.

Was that kindness? Or was it simply that a year ago, almost exactly, my mother died and forced me to accept that death just comes. No matter how much you try to avoid it or dress it up, it just comes. Seemed like facing it head on was the only kindness I could give my old, feline friend with any honesty.

There were enormous, irrefutable kindnesses along the path of my mother’s death: Her caregivers bathed and cried over her still body. Although she was no longer able to respond, our cousins drove and flew hundreds of miles, gathering in her room to talk, reminisce, laugh, and be a family one last time. My partner flew up and down the west coast, gracefully torn between taking care of home and me. My brothers and father, exhausted with the lion’s share of the past year plus of care, sat by my mother’s side every hour of her final days.

These are the kindnesses I will not forget. Generous, heartfelt, freely offered, and sustaining. But there were also kindnesses that touched raw places. Their effects were more hit and miss. These make me wonder about the nature of kindness and, passing as it does through the layers within each of each of us, whether kindness is ever simple.

After the MRI in which it was determined the brain tumor had returned, an oncologist comes to our room – at our request – to discuss whether there is anything more we can do. Mom has not spoken for a day. She has not communicated at all since morning, when she declined surgery even if the tumor is operable. We know what the final outcome will be. But we are a family that covers all bases – something Mom has taught us – and we want to hear from the oncologist what he recommends. He comes in, does a cursory examination, and then taps her on the chest, asking in a loud, abrupt voice: “Anyone in there?” On her good days, a question like this would elicit a searing, smart retort or dismissive silence. When she does not move her lips, I can’t tell whether she is rising to occasion, or not. Our conversation with the doctor is odd. It slowly dawns on me that the doctor suspects we are considering putting a dying woman through surgery. He is doing his brutal best to dissuade us. So intent is he, so exhausted are we, this misapprehension is never set right. We just swallow the moment, get him out of the room, and go on. I don’t like him. But, in his own way, he is pushing kindness.

What makes something a kindness: the intent of its offering, how it is received, some specific chemistry between the two?

The day before, I am trying to feed Mom applesauce. She has a hard time letting me know what she wants. She says only yes and no, and not often. She is having trouble swallowing. Then she starts choking. They have to bring in this suction thing to get the food out of her mouth. The nurse is unhappy with me. He sets up an evaluation of her ability to eat. When the occupational therapist comes to perform the evaluation, Mom is sleeping. The therapist does not want to wake her. The nurse keeps on me. Every time he sees me, he insists that she needs to be evaluated before I try again. I feel stupid, over-zealous. I am only trying to help. Later, when I can muster gratitude over a welling sense of shame, I thank him. He looks relieved then confesses that the one thing that makes him gag is using that vacuum thing on a choking patient.

I believe the world is full of kindness. That, if we are not in a state of terror caused by our own dark places, it is the natural human state to perceive them in others and reach out, steady each other. But when the fall is certain and final, the reaching becomes less graceful. The grabbing for balance, clumsy. Painful. Are these attempts unkind?

The evening before, Mom is unable to lift food to her mouth. The nurses insist we must learn to feed her. They try to teach me. Nurses, it turns out, are not supposed to manually feed. The family must do it if she is to eat. But I am the youngest. I have no children of my own. I do not know when and how to be firm, how to get the food in without either slopping it everywhere or, worse, hurting her. One nurse tries to reassure me: even if she does not get much nutrition, the act of feeding is sustaining, an act of love. I wipe the entire contents of the tub from mom’s chin, then use a handy-wipe to make sure she doesn’t end up sticky.

Was this saccharin kindness? You can’t live on love. Later, in a desperate attempt to get the big picture on the screen, I blurt out to a doctor how feeding is an act of love. He looks at me, says nothing, and moves on to other topics. I feel betrayed, tripped up. My words sound stupid, even to me. At the time, though, they seemed like they might mean something. Does it count as kindness if its impact evaporates when exposed to air?

The night nurse comes on. She is no-nonsense. I am a little frightened of her – or, more honestly, I am frightened that I will not be strong enough to push for what Mom needs if this nurse doesn’t want to give it. I tell her Mom hasn’t eaten. She leaves and comes back with a small tub of chocolate pudding she has found in the kitchen. She stands over my mother with a full spoon says in a thick accent ‘Mrs. Keerkvood, open!’ Mom does and she deftly tucks the spoon in, slips it out, and fills it with more pudding while Mom slowly chews. She handles a few more bites then puts the cup in my hand: ‘Now. You will try.’ Mom’s in a rhythm. I steel myself, do exactly what I have just seen. Mom eats the whole little tub. Triumph. The nurse and I grin at each other. Mom lays back, chocolate on her lips, eyes closed.

Sometimes kindness isn’t meant to catch you. Instead, it reaches out and tucks a thing in your pocket for later, for the time after the fall that comes. Not words of wisdom about how it will be, or what is to come, just a moment that lights up in memory, reveals the threads that hold after to before. How do we know when we give these kindnesses? How do we recognize the moment when we receive them? Perhaps we can’t. Maybe that is what makes them different. Something that knits all the other moments into something whole.

Before I go, the nurse tucks Mom in and says to her, “Mrs Keerkvood. Repeat after me: Good night.” Mom does. “Sleep tight.” Does again. “Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Mom says these words, each of them, clearly. When I kiss my mother goodnight she is still smiling.

~Catherine Kirkwood

Next week, an essay by Eleanor Brown (on Tuesday, Jan. 25). Please submit your questions and / or Q4K essays (no longer than 1,000 words, and no attachments please) to questforkindness[at]gmail.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

Four kindnesses

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For over twenty years, Eve Brown-Waite followed her heart (and her husband) from Albania to Zanzibar. She lived and worked in Ecuador, Uganda, and Uzbekistan. Her hilarious memoir, First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third World Adventure Changed My Life (Broadway Books, 2009), recounts what it’s really like to be a (sometimes reluctant) globetrotting do-gooder. She got tired of waiting for Hollywood to option her book for a movie (yes, there’s been talk), so she went ahead and made her own. You can see it on her website: www.EveBrownWaite.com.

Eve is also Executive Director of ACT NOW! inc., a non-profit that empowers youth through improvised movie-making, as well as a volunteer for Hospice, the Community Crisis Response Team, and her local food pantry. Yes, she’s trying to save the world, but only if she can have a good time while doing it! Eve is also a wife and the mother of two teenagers, and is hard at work on her next book. (Whew! It’s exhausting just thinking about it!)

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Four Kindnesses

Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

One of the things that happens when you publish a book is that people find you. All kinds of people, including those you had long ago consigned to the compost heap of history. You know who I’m talking about: the old lovers. Yes, you’ve just published a book and now …  you’ve got mail! Another thing that happens when you publish a book is that you attend your high school reunion for the first time in 30 years. So, one way or another, that long lost love is coming back to find you from wherever you had him dead and buried all these years.

Or at least, that’s what happened to me.

I ignored the congratulatory note that the first love of my life sent to my website. Then, I politely declined his Facebook friend request. Then he showed up at the reunion. Later on, he told me that he had come – quite nervously – so that I could have my say; ream him out, dump all over him. He planned to let me do that and then, simply, to say he was sorry. But that’s not what happened.

What happened is, the two teenagers who were once very screwed up and very much in love, had now grown up. And they were able to communicate, to talk and to listen, like grown-ups. He said, please forgive me. And I said, I forgive you.

And then, surprisingly – and believe me, this threw me for a loop, because in my mind, for all these years HE had been the problem, and I was the righteous and wronged party – I was able to see a lot of things that I had managed to forget about my own behavior in our relationship. And I said, oh gosh, please forgive me. And he said, no need, you’re already forgiven.

Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

These, according to Dr. Ira Byock’s book, The Four Things That Matter Most, A Book About Living, are the four things we all need to take care of in our lives. We talk a lot about accomplishing these four things in hospice, where I am a volunteer. As you can imagine, this is really important business to take care of for those who are dying. Healing old relationships, it can make all the difference in the world, when you’re dying.

But here’s the thing: we are all dying. I hope that’s not too much of a shocker. But ain’t a one of us getting out of here alive. And we won’t all necessarily get our notice that the end is near so we can clean up our business before the ride is over. We have to be doing it as we go along.

I have a friend who calls it burning cleanly on the planet. I call it being in right relation. It’s not easy, because we have to be willing to re-open those difficult relationships, and we have to say those four things. Not just say them. But earn the right to say them honestly. And of course, you can’t do that without someone on the other end willing to engage with you. And often, you and that person would rather not engage in anything at all.

So you’ve asked me to write about a kindness. And in my awkward way, the kindness I’m writing about is the one extended to me from my old love. He reached out to me across many, many silent years. Knowing full well that I might not be happy to hear from him, he contacted me anyway. He knew before I did, that we had an unfinished relationship that could finally be mended. He risked my anger and wrath. He risked that my husband might be with me at the reunion and might punch him out (because of course, he had heard MY side of the story).

But he did it anyway. And he gave us both the chance to say, Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.

And it has made a world of difference.

~Eve Brown-Waite

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