21 March 2014

You can't go home again. Or can you?

"Danae" by Gustave Klimt
Once upon a time a king shut up his daughter, named Danae, in a tower so she'd never bear children, all because an oracle told him he would be slain by her son.

The story goes that she caught the attention of the Greek god Zeus, who never shied away from a challenge. Since he couldn't reach her in the normal way to woo her, he came to her in a shower of golden rain and impregnated her. Their son became the hero Perseus, who went on to perform many great feats, as well as to slay his grandfather, as prophesied, albeit accidentally.

The gnostics and the alchemists also had interesting ideas about gold. Alchemists tried to turn base substances, like lead, into gold. The psychiatrist Carl Jung studied alchemy and felt this was always meant to be a symbolic process, with the "base substance" being the self.The gnostics believed we had somehow lost the gold of ourselves within creation at the time the earth was set into motion, and life was a journey to rediscover it, that when we did so we "reassembled" Eden somehow.

In a dream I described upon waking as "a purple place," I, too, experienced a shower of gold. The air (dream air) was electric with it. In the dream with me, sleeping, were two people from my waking life. One was a minister and the other a photographer. Like Danae, I felt impregnated when I woke by something divine--the gifts of ministering to others and of seeing in a unique way. These gifts had been asleep in me and would, in the days/weeks/months/years that followed, reawaken.

So what does all this have to do with going home again?

During this time of transition in my life I attempted to revisit parts of my past--time periods when I felt whole and free. We moved a lot when I was growing up, and I often felt disconnected and at home nowhere because of it.

"Danae" by Eunice San Miguel
The two places I liked best were in upstate New York. We lived only a year and a half in Rochester, NY (fifth- and part of my sixth-grade year), but I always idealized it and thought my life would have turned out differently--better somehow--had we stayed there. I would have been more popular in high school, had more friends, dated more, chosen a different career, gone to a different college--you name it.

So through the graces (or curses) of the Internet, I looked for and found my best friend from that time. We had some great long-distance phone chats, and she suggested I come back for the 30th reunion of the high school class I would have graduated with had we not moved.

I went, expecting wonderful outcomes, and it was a disaster in the worst way.

Hardly anyone remembered me, for one. Most of the kids I was close to had also moved away before graduating, as various businesses closed offices or transferred their dads somewhere else.

To make matters worse, my friend's current best friend felt threatened by my presence and told her I'd said something about her I had not said, and so I was shunned for the rest of the reunion. It was a little like being back in junior high, and it caught me unaware. I wondered why in the world I'd gone back there.

I pondered all this, fighting back tears, while crowded onto a boat with all these people who didn't know me, floating down the Erie Canal. The once-abandoned canal had been a playground for me and some of my friends back in the day, and I saw the backyards of my former neighborhood as we drifted by.

It was dusk, and the setting sun filled the sky with orange threads.

It was early June, and cottonwood seeds sifted down, backlit, collecting in drifts along the canal banks. It reminded me of snow.

Indeed, why in the world had I gone back?

I remembered climbing across the rusty locks of the canal in the summer on dares and sledding down its banks in the winter.

"Amorous Adventures of Zeus: Danae"
by Gubdaillin Raushan
I remembered scavenging the construction dumps as
new homes went up nearby, looking for treasure in the form of scrap tile, linoleum, Formica, stone, brick, wood.

I remembered neighborhood soccer games that spanned three backyards (ours in the middle).

I remembered the horse farm a street over behind our house, the slurp and drool of the horses as they crunched the carrots I took them, and how my cat Mittens climbed the big tree just inside the horse farm fence and was afraid to come down. I could hear her mews from our patio all one day and into the next before my dad set up a ladder and carried her down.

I remembered when Mittens was born to a neighbor's cat and I visited the kittens daily, picking out the one I wanted to adopt, talking my dad into our first family pet. I still have the "contract" my mom made me sign, pledging to take care of Mittens.

I remembered Mittens going to a new home when we moved, and I felt again the hole her absence left in me. The hole that grew bigger when I learned she'd been hit by a car and killed.

I remembered teachers I'd loved there who gave me a bigger idea of who I could become. Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Marcone and even crabby old Mrs. Knowles. And suddenly I realized I hadn't gone back there to find anyone or anything. I'd gone back to re-collect My Self.

The pain of reunion day took a while to go away, but now when I think about it I smile because of what I really found: the young me who lived with abandon and joy, who felt things so intensely it ached, whether the ache was good or bad. She walked back inside me then, and I pledged to hold onto her.

There's a sad song that when I hear it makes me smile for the same reason. "Blame It On My Youth" by Oscar Levant and Edward Heyman reminds me of my first grown-up love affair, which was as ill-fated as my reunion trip.


But the passage of time--and this song--has turned the memory into another one of those golden showers. It didn't take long to lose my idealization of the guy, but learning to treasure the part of me who risked everything took a bit longer, and SHE was who really mattered. That she loved and lost and survived gave me the courage when I finally met the RIGHT guy to tell him how I felt about him. She helped me win Him.

I've found you CAN go home again, though it won't be what you expect. But chances are it could one day become so much better than you imagine--the golden shower of your own beautiful, feeling self, knowing that it's finally arrived home, sweet home.

It's like T. S. Eliot said in his poem Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.





08 February 2014

Meanwhile, at MY pond...

At writing group today we read together Mary Oliver's poem At the Pond (see below). Then I asked those present to write about a life experience or an observation of nature with a severity attached to it, as in the poem. I asked them to concentrate only on description and to stop without drawing conclusions.

When all had done so, I asked them to write as the beginning of their next sentence the phrase from the poem, "And this is what I think / everything is about..." Now, I said, draw your conclusion. What universal principal emerges from your experience or observation? Add it to your piece.

I think this prompt works best when the second part is a surprise. But you can do it on your own if you focus. What I wrote follows. I knew ahead of time I would write about this event, but the part that comes after--And this is what I think everything is about...--occured to me strictly in the moment.

. . .

The Cat that Didn't Get Away
by Susan Lawson

My daughter went south at spring break, as college students everywhere do every year. Her cat, Howie, was alone, except for my husband and I coming every other day to top off his food and water bowls.

But this wasn't enough for me. I wanted Howie to sleep over at our house. I already had two cats of my own who would most definitely NOT appreciate his company, but my mind was made up. My husband Chris tried to talk me out of it but, in the end, went along with me to keep the peace.

I knew Howie didn't like pet carriers, so I carried him in my arms down the stairs of the apartment building. Just as we reached ground level and exited the building, a motorcycle engine roared up in a parking lot on the other side of a thicket of trees, and Howie freaked.

Howie is a big boy--close to 20 pounds--and I couldn't control him, so Chris took him from me before he got loose, but he continued to squirm in Chris' stronger arms. "Run," Chris shouted, "and unlock the car before I lose him."

I ran on command, ran as I hadn't run in years and didn't think I still could, until I ran out of one of my shoes and fell forward onto the concrete in the parking lot. My left knee exploded in a hot rush of pain.

Chris had to hold onto Howie, so he could not help me up. In fact, he was so caught up in trying to hold onto Howie that he does not see me go down. And there were no bumpers close enough to grab onto for support. I willed myself up. I still don't know how. I still flinch recalling the pain of it.

That was the day life changed for me forever.

What followed was pain, bruising, swelling from a torn meniscus. Arthroscopic surgery. Physical therapy. More pain, shots, drugs, more shots, more pain, more therapy.

Another injury, after which the shots no longer work and my body will not tolerate the medication.

Five years pass before a new orthopedist finds an undetected foot fracture, probably from the initial fall, the foot now corroded with arthritis so severe the x-ray would frighten off a Halloween skeleton. Debilitating pain. A brace. Different medication, much of which does no good.

A drawing in. As I do less and less, I become capable of less and less.

When I can stand the pain and the isolation no longer, more surgery. This time major, invasive and restrictive--fusion of three of the foot joints, four incisions, three screws, scraping of the arthritis, bone grafts and contouring. Four different casts. This is what my foot looks like now (the fourth screw is a much older injury):

 


Seven years have passed from that day with the cat in the parking lot, and still I am not done with swelling and pain, wheelchairs and walkers, braces and canes.

And this is what I think everything is about...

Some outcomes rush toward us with such force we cannot escape them. Our very nature--the insistence of who we are and what we want--is what sends us tumbling down.

Chris says, "If only I hadn't said, 'Run!'"

I say, "If only I hadn't insisted we bring Howie to our house."

But we did, and so here is where we are. Where I am.

I had a dream a full year before all this happened. I am in a wheelchair, and Chris wheels me to the entrance of what looks like an enormous, wondrous, endless spa. I know in the dream it is a place of expression that goes on and on and on.

And this is what I think everything is about...

I must put my own hands to the wheels and take my limitations in with me.

. . .


At the Pond
by Mary Oliver

One summer
   I went every morning
      to the edge of a pond where
         a huddle of just-hatched geese

would paddle to me
   and clamber
      up the marshy slope
         and over my body,

peeping and staring—
   such sweetness every day
      which the grown ones watched,
         for whatever reason,

serenely.
   Not there, however, but here
      is where the story begins.
         Nature has many mysteries,

some of them severe.
   Five of the young geese grew
      heavy of chest and
         bold of wing

while the sixth waited and waited
   in its gauze-feathers, its body
      that would not grow.
         And then it was fall.

And this is what I think
   everything is about:
      the way
         I was glad

for those five and two
   that flew away,
      and the way I hold in my heart the wingless one
         that had to stay.

30 January 2014

Kindness tells a story

I believe stories can change the world. I posted this quote that captures that very idea a few days ago on a Facebook page on writing I administer. It's been whispering in my ear ever since, so I posted it again here:


You won't find the word kindness in it, no matter how many times you read it over, because the kindness is in the story that follows, a story about a kindess that changed my world. The universe, in its puzzling wisdom even gave me a nudge to write this Wednesday morning, when one of our neighbors, an elderly woman, slipped on ice and fell out by our mailboxes. You see, a similar thing happened to me once.

My husband and I couldn't see exactly what happened from our window, but he saw a lady across the street, still in her bathrobe, run this way, followed by her husband driving a pickup truck. Another vehicle later pulled into the neighbor's garage. A firetruck and ambulance arrived soon after, and from another window he saw our neighbor sitting in her garage with a blanket around her. The EMTs removed her shoe, splinted her ankle, loaded her into the ambulance and left.

It's 14 degrees F. as I write this--warmer than Tuesday but still plenty nippy. Thank goodness there were people who DID see what happened and responded quickly to help someone they likely didn't know, given that the lady in question is somewhat reclusive.

When something similar happened to me, I had youth on my side. I was 27, an unmarried teacher living in an apartment complex in New Castle, Ind., my parents 55 miles away on the south side of Indianapolis. I was adviser for the high school newspaper, and I was off to work early that day. The school newspapers had come from the printer on a bus the evening before and were in the trunk of my car. My student staff was to meet me at the school so we could count out papers for distribution through homerooms. 

I don't remember snow on the ground, but it was January and it was cold--just like now. My car was parked outside, so I started it first to let it warm up, then went to the trunk either to get something out or put something in. My foot slipped on some black ice and I slid under the car, the exhaust pipe spewing carbon monoxide inches from my face. I mustered all my courage and crawled out from under the car, around its side, and up onto a grassy area.

I was thinking, but not all that clearly, and crawled to the side where I was least likely to be seen by other tenants. But someone did finally find me (thanks to my cries for help), knocked on the door of another neighbor, who called the ambulance and my parents. The two men tried to help me up and out of the cold while we waited, but the pain and nausea were too much; I knew I'd broken something. 

The break required surgery, and I was off work for about two weeks, staying with my parents. When I finally went back to work, I couldn't have made it without the kindness of one of my students--a young woman on the school newspaper staff who delivered regular newspapers in my apartment complex. I can't remember now whether she delivered papers mornings or evenings or both, but for two months she worked around her part-time job so she could help me. She came to my apartment each weekday morning, helped me into my car, drove it to school and parked it, then helped me into the school. At the end of each day, she helped me back home.

If I remember correctly, one day when it snowed and the maintenance guy refused to shovel the walks and steps so I could get safely from my apartment to my car on crutches, she even took care of that. He was "kind" enough to lend her the shovel.

I always found it puzzling that none of my coworkers asked if I needed anything or if they could help. Afterward, one told me they assumed my parents were taking care of me. On the weekends, yes. My parents drove out every Friday evening and took me back to Indianapolis, then every Sunday evening they drove me back to New Castle. Both my parents still had jobs, and during the week they worked too. 

It was my student, Sarah, who kept me going in-between, and I don't know what I would have done without her. I don't remember how she came to offer her services, I only know that I never had to ask. She was magically there for me.

I taught in New Castle for three years. When I left the town I left teaching for a job that paid more. Many people assume a teacher gets burned out because the students are tough to deal with, but that wasn't the case for me. The students were the best part. Many of them helped me during this time. I am still in touch with some, including Sarah, thanks to the wonders of social media.

Sarah is having a tough time right now. She deserves better than she's getting. I would like to be with her today because she needs some moral support, but I can't drive yet because of my surgery and rehab. So here's hoping she reads this early in her difficult day and it gives her the confidence she needs to speak up for herself and those she loves most. I hope that reading her own story will show her "belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul." 

She was my light when the world put me in a dark place, and I want to do the same for her. The kindness Sarah extended me 30 years ago--practically to the day--I will never, ever, EVER forget. All I can say to her today is...


...because that's The Real You, Sarah. Knock 'em dead.

29 January 2014

Kindness Says It 'Once More, With Feeling'

Feelings get a bad rep in our culture. We tend to divide people into "thinking" and "feeling" camps, where the former is valued as right, reliable and appropriate and the latter is discounted as selfish, useless and out-of-place. 

But I believe genuine kindness carves its path only through feeling and calls us to rethink how we view and value these parts of ourself we can't always control.

HIT:


The above HIT is an excerpt from the closing speech of Charlie Chaplin's first talkie and most commercially successful film, The Great Dictator. It came out in 1940 and parodies the rise of Germany's Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Chaplin plays both main characters--a Jewish barber and the anti-semitic dictator of the allegorical country of Tomainia, Adenoid Hynckel. Through a comedy of errors, the two men find themselves thrust into the other's position (since they look alike), and the barber, in the end, reverses the actions of his fascist predecessor in the rousing speech of which this excerpt is a part. You can watch and listen to the full speech here and stream the full movie here.

The film is, of course, a parody, but the ending speech is nothing if not serious. Some people have called it the greatest speech ever given. I like it because it says, "We think too much and feel too little...More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness." 

Yes, kindness, I think, begins in feeling. We cannot be kind without a strong feeling connection within ourselves.

But what exactly is feeling? It's not quite the same as emotion, though the two are related and often confused. Feeling refers more closely to sensation or information gathered in through our senses. Its etymology connects it to touch, stroke, shake and "set in motion with a push." To me, feeling is the information our bodies gather through our senses and the bodily reactions this process ignites.

Have you ever trembled with fear or had your cheeks, neck or chest flush red and warm? Perhaps you've felt the fine hair on your arms, the back of your neck or your spine tingle, only to turn and see something unexpected. I perceived a fox in this way one evening in my backyard. The fox was at least as scared as I, skid to a halt not six feet away from where I sat, and stared quizically before he took off in a wide arc fashioned to avoid me. He stopped across the street and looked back at me, as I stared at him, and we each felt, I imagine, a sense of wonder at drawing so close to the other, as well as a sense of potential danger.

Emotion, on the other hand, tends to be an outpouring of some sort--often set in motion by the push of feeling, an overload of sensory information. It is more often emotion we label as "out-of-place" rather than "feelings," though I believe we need to develop a greater tolerance of the value of emotion since it leads us in a straight line back to feeling.

Because feeling is information-based, I believe it's at least as valuable as our thinking faculties; quite probably more so. Conclusions drawn based merely on thinking may or may not have any basis in fact, in spite of what we "think," but feelings ARE facts, albeit without valuing attached. Feelings are neither "right" nor "wrong"; they simply exist. Their value is individual and discrete, of course: They are one person's bodily experience at a particular moment. The key here is to know you may feel differently at a different moment, so feelings should lead us into thought (not exactly the same as thinking) as well as, eventually, into action.

I was raised to hide my real feelings. I suppose because the emotion they generated was inconvenient or embarrassing for those around me, or perhaps my caretakers were busy suppressing feelings of their own. But what happens when you try to ignore something as basic as a feeling? It wells up all the more fervently! Let's just say for me that meant I cried easily. Still do. The only difference is I don't try to control it anymore. It's just who I am.

HIT:


I searched and couldn't find any attribution for this statement, but I did find lots of versions of it with lots of cute pictures. This photo looks just like my Maisie when she was a kitten, so it's the one I went with. It's important to be kind to animals, of course, but it's also important to look to their example for guidance. They are all about relying on their bodies to give them good information about their environment. It's not only how they navigate; it can determine whether they live or die. In therapy I dreamed a lot about cats--still do--because I need to be more like a cat: independent, immersed in the moment, and the hell with what other people want from me.

I admit I like being "right." I think most of us do, whatever "right" is. I have strong opinions about religion, free speech, gun control and women's reproductive rights; that is "my" right. But most of the people out there whose views oppose mine won't be swayed by intellect or skill with words. 

So where does that leave the world?
HIT:


Millions of small things that begin in feeling. Kindness burrows its way through us along paths excavated by feeling. If it comes along a logical "thinking" path, and we "do" kindness like work on a merit badge or a puzzle, it's sure to backfire. 

Pete knew that. May he rest in peace. 

28 January 2014

Kindness Makes the Coffee & More!

I can't circumambulate kindness without thinking of the kindest person I know: my husband, Chris. Living with him the past 25 years has made me kinder and more patient. I've taught him a few things, too, if you know what I mean. But since I was already in my early 30s when we met, I'm still trying to catch up with him in the kindness department. 

No one before or since has been a better friend. He's the only person I've ever known who I feel sure has my best interests at heart. Chris sees what's in my heart, and it helps me become that person on the outside, though I will always be a work in progress. He's that kind of father, business person and citizen, too.

No wonder when I saw this kindness quote, I thought of him...

HIT:


Chris didn't propose to me romantically by hiding a diamond in my dessert at a fancy restaurant or skywriting the question in the clouds. In fact, he didn't really propose at all. One day he just gave me a big hug and said, "We're going to end up married, aren't we?" and I nodded. From then on we just talked places and times.

Chris is not much for those overly romanticized holidays, Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve (nor am I), big diamonds and bigger weddings (same here), but he knows how to nurture me with kindness.

For the first seven years of our marriage we worked at the same place (where we met). Then I worked from home for the next 16 years until he retired and started his own business. During most of that time, we lived in a two-storey house, and he would get up, get dressed and leave for work without waking me. I awoke about the time he was leaving to the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee wafting up through the stairwell to our bedroom.

So he made the coffee. Big deal. Probably because HE wanted some, right? But there's more.

When I dressed and went downstairs, I would always find that he set out a clean mug for me to use. He also left me little post-it notes. One said, "I love you." Another said, "Have a great day." Still another was just a smiley face, like the cream in the cup in the photo.

Kindness not only made the coffee, but it said good morning, too!

Now that Chris works from home as I do (a room away), he performs any number of kindnesses without a thought. Like lunch, for example. When I worked at home by myself, I often ate late, poorly or not at all. By the time he got home, my blood sugar was doing scary stuff. He now makes lunch everyday for us, in addition to dinner, and he enjoys doing it--really. Lucky me!!

I have a lot of arthritic problems and last fall had reconstructive foot surgery. My foot was in a hard cast for two months with no weight-bearing allowed and a walking cast for another month with gradual weight-bearing. I can't count the number of kindnesses he rendered. Caregiving is a tough job, but the minister said, "For better or worse, in sickness and in health," right? This is what was meant, I'm sure. 

I knew I needed this surgery for a couple years, and because the recovery is pretty tough, I put it off as long as I could. Last August, as we prepared to go together to my six-month appointment with the orthopedist, we knew it was to tell her I was finally ready to schedule the operation, that the pain had become unbearable. Part of what kept me from doing it sooner was knowing how it would impact Chris' life. But on the way to the doctor's we had a joint apparition that got me thinking about it differently.

As we approached an intersection between our home and the interstate, we both saw a deer lying limp in the middle of the road, as if struck down by a vehicle. Brake lights of cars ahead went on and off and on again as people tried to steer around. We both commented to the other, nearly at the same time, "Look at the deer; it's been hit!" or something to that effect. But as the light turned red and we pulled into the right turn lane, stopped alongside the "deer," we both gasped.

What was really in that intersection was a bunch of cardboard boxes that had fallen off someone's truck in such a way as to resemble the body of a deer, if you can imagine. It had been raining, so the boxes were soaked, which softened the angles and added to the effect. We both chuckled at what we thought we'd seen, then almost immediately realized how odd it was that we had the same apparition at the same time. 

I knew almost immediately I was that "deer." After some thought I said, "It means we're in this together--the surgery thing; doesn't it?"

"That's the way I see it," he replied. I breathed a sigh of relief. No deer was dead that day at that intersection. I would get up and walk again too, with Chris' help and care.

It isn't glamorous, but that's what marriage is. And glamor isn't all it's cracked up to be anyway. 

Sometimes I was a pretty grumpy patient. It's no fun being confined and needing help when you're used to doing what you want when you want it. Chris usually broke the tension with humor.  Here's an example: In preparation for surgery, the doctor required me to scrub my foot for three days prior with an antibacterial wash, including using a toothbrush in-between my toes and under the nails. It still makes me shiver to think of it! Chris did the toothbrush part for me, and it was nearly unbearable--like nails on a blackboard, except that I was the one being screeched and scratched in a very sensitive spot. During my recovery, when I was especially grumpy, he always threatened to get out that toothbrush and work on my toes again (and more) if I didn't lighten up.

It did the trick. We both laughed, tension dispelled. What a kind man I found. What a kind man found me! Isn't it romantic? Even makes me feel a tad glamorous now that I can walk again, loop my arm through his and go out to dinner for the first time in three months!

I'll close with this
HIT:





27 January 2014

What's Kindness Coming To?

Consider yourself warned: Life lived by the inspiration of greeting cards (Internet or the old-fashioned printed kind) and aphorisms is headed for a train wreck. 

You just can’t trust the folks who make up all those cards and screensavers to reproduce the quote accurately or in context. And the pictures they choose--puppies, babies, seashores and the like--are only meant to suck you in rather than add meaning to the electronically super-imposed words. 

“Ay-yi-yi!”  as Lucy might say to Ethel, with a hard smack to her own forehead and a jaw dangling in disgust. A few small words can make a HUGE difference. See if you agree...

MISS:



HIT:


When I first found this quote, some Internet hack had sliced off the opening words "A part of," which completely altered the context--as if ANYONE could say they knew the whole of kindness!!--and super-imposed it over a crystalline snow scene, whatever that was supposed to add to the meaning. In that condition, this quote infuriated me. Who was this Joubert character anyway? 

Turns out he was a teacher who wrote essays and short, pithy statements like the one above--aphorisms. In the 21st century he probably would have made a fortune promulgating e-cards as long as he found better pictures to accompany them than ones of himself. But in 19th century France it took his widow cajoling a younger and more famous friend, the writer and diplomat Francois Rene de Chateaubriand (yes, the same one who gave his name to a particular preparation of beef tenderloin) to edit his sayings into a book. 

Wikipedia describes Joubert as a "moralist," which may explain his pinched face in this etching. I was all set to dislike him for that reason alone until I read a few of his other sayings I really like, such as:

"To teach is to learn twice."
"When you go in search of honey you must expect to be stung by bees."
"All gardeners live in beautiful places because they make them so."

I think I know what Joubert is trying to say in his kindness quote. At a time when people are doing the most unappealing sorts of things, true kindness overlooks that. To be treated with kindness will perhaps help them through their misery and make for a better outcome. I agree with this, though it doesn't work out 100 percent of the time (remember, kindness is a crapshoot). After all, it's easy to reciprocate when someone's being nice. The less "deserving" someone behaves likely means they are in greater need of true kindness.

What makes me wince in this quote is the idea that love is or isn't deserved. There's a whole group in society who will tell you humans as a race are basically wicked and don't deserve love or forgiveness or anything good. They usually will add something like, "but God loves them anyway." While it isn't difficult to find evidence of humanity's wickedness, I think this is a skewed way of looking at life. And when we move into a specific discussion of kindness, deserving or not deserving distorts the discussion even more.

Doesn't every living thing on this earth deserve love? Doesn't the whole of creation deserve our respect and honor? Don't most of the world's ills go back to a deficit of love? I know the kind of behavior and person Joubert is referring to here; heck, once or twice I've BEEN that kind of person. But doesn't lack of love contribute more than anything to bitterness and unkindness? I think it's dangerous and just plain not helpful to get into discussions of what others do and don't deserve; better to dwell on that other aphorism--"There but for the grace of God go I."

What really saves this quote this quote (in its correct form) is it ties kindness to idea of love, because I can't think of a better synonym. Even the Bible says "love is kind" in that famous passage in I Corinthians 13. Maybe you remember it being read at your wedding, but religious or not, Christian or not, it's a good passage to reread now and again.

Kindness is also love, an important quality to give and to receive. I think Jo-Jo would agree. It might even put a smile on that sour puss of his.

24 January 2014

A Kindess Poem to Start Your Weekend

One of the techniques I want to use for circumabulating this idea of kindness is writing poems. I teach creative writing workshops and so have a storehouse of "techniques" for helping the conscious mind jump past the obvious. One of those is magnetic poetry--a technique that often helps me find relationships and ideas that would never occur to me using a more linear writing approach.

I've collected A LOT of word magnets through the years, and I keep them organized in muffin tins by initial letters. Often as a warm-up exercise in my own, personal writing time, I choose a letter to start with, scoop out a handful of words and search through the pile for words that strike me. This gives me the advantage of alliteration up front, and I build my poem around it.

With this series on kindness, I want to go through the alphabet eventually (though Q and V may give me problems when I get there!), so today I pulled out words beginning with A. Here's what I came up with:

At Peniel
Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God
by Jacob Baumgartner
by Susan Lawson

Dark angel or animal?
Kindness, like all things, is always both.

Ask ask ask and the answer
always comes back ache.

Picture a wing limp from struggle.
Feel the shoulder dis-

locate, the hope for flight
flee. Hear weary I am

so weary
as the only prayer.

Only when all fight is gone
will the animal dare draw near.

Almost it whispers
Almost another, almost a way.

Fog settling into frost
makes a restless bed yet

a whole race depends on
a dream of two brothers.

See one limp toward the other.
See the other receive him.

Dark angel or animal?
Which is whom?

Kindness like all things
is always both.


Something to ponder over the weekend...Happy Friday!

23 January 2014

Where does kindness come from?

I’m taking a break today from the “hit-and-miss” format to explore where kindness comes from, that is, its etymology. No, I promise this is not leading to a discussion of insects; that’s entomology (what a difference two letters can make!). Etymology is the study of the history of words, their derivations, where they came from and how they changed.

Most dictionaries contain hints of a word's history, but etymological dictionaries provide more detailed information. These, of course, vary in quality, too. I have a disintegrating copy of Chambers Dictionary of Etymology in my home library because it is relatively thorough, condensed (only 1,254 pages) and affordable, compared to the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is hands-down the most exhaustive source. Most library reference sections stock either the encyclopedic set or the "compact," two-volume version that comes with a magnifying glass. Some libraries may offer an online version to cardholders, which can also be purchased for use on an individual computer.

As well as being a word buff, I am also a psychology buff, and those two interests intersect in the writings of the late Jungian psychiatrist Edward Edinger (a native Hoosier, I might add). His idea that a word’s etymology was its “unconscious” side is the only “bug” I want to put in your ear. Like digging up and learning about our own unconscious thoughts and desires, as well as the collective unconscious of the universe, knowing the derivation of a word can more deeply inform us about its true meaning and intention.

Yes, words have intention, because words have life. Why do you think writers write? Because their words, which may fall into stillness or silence at some point, come to life again and move when another reads or speaks them, and life is nothing if not motion. This is what it means when we speak of writing as making an author immortal.

In English, whenever one adds -ness to the end of the word, a more concrete descriptive word gets turned into not only a noun (person, place or thing) but also an abstraction. To explore the root of the concept and thus turn the idea back into something we can experience with our senses, we need to slice off the suffix and look at the history of the root, in this case the word kind.

Without going back in history at all, kind is already a word in present-day German that hints at its derivation. Pronounced with a short rather than a long "i" sound, it is the German word for “child.” This is probably most familiar to us in the word kindergarten, which made its way into English straight from the German in the 1800s when the idea of a preschool class that resembled a "child’s garden" (the literal translation) developed.

That kind still means “child” in German tells us that our present-day concept of kindness is related somehow to qualities present in a child. Now you don’t have to be a parent to know that while children are quite natural and innocent beings mostly, instinctive until the world of adults teaches them to be otherwise, and often charming, they can also be tyrants. So we don’t want to rest too much of our argument on that relationship; just keep it in mind. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that kindness is meant to be natural and instinctive--that is, done with purity of motives and not calculated--and maybe even playful and done with the eagerness of a child undertaking a new adventure.

The German word for child, as well as the derivation of kindness, both go back to words in various languages related to kin, meaning family or tribe. It seems that to be kind to someone initially meant to have the same feelings toward them as toward a family member. The idea grew out of the original meaning of kind as “sort,” “class,” “race” or “variety.” Kindred—literally, relatives who advise or can read us—has the same history.

Of course I know families don’t always treat each other well. But even dysfunctional families (which in all honesty would be all of them, at least in some way) display characteristics of hanging together in more reliable (though not always helpful) ways than other groups in society. As a parent, it’s hard for me to imagine my daughter doing something I couldn’t forgive her for eventually; no matter what, she could always turn to me, she could always come home. 

Some families carry this a bit further: Consider those parents who help their children flee the law when they're suspected of a crime. When I taught high school I witnessed parents who stood up for their children in appropriate and inappropriate ways; one told me the B grade I gave her son must have been my mistake because he was an A student! We only have to look back at the Romans and their ideas and practices within tribes to know the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, in my own family of origin, my parents were there to support me and protect me; but if I did something wrong, they made sure I owned up to it, took my (fair) punishment and did what I could to make amends.





So what does all this "psychology" tell us about the real life of kindness? Definitely that it’s reliable and durable. But beyond that, perhaps that it wants a positive outcome for the recipient, even if that’s uncomfortable in the short term. Kindness, I think, focuses on the long haul. In modern-day lingo, it keeps its eye on the prize.

Also crossing the kind path in its etymology is the word kindle, whose origins are not as clear but may be related and, at least, seem so to me. Kindle originally was a noun and meant a candle or a torch—it is Scandinavian—but today we use it in English as a verb meaning “to light or set afire.” The noun form we use today, kindling, refers instead to the material we use to start a fire—rags, paper, sticks put in contact with a spark.

Whether or not etymology intends it, I think kindle and kindling are related to kindness. The standing by others we do, as if they were family, is a sort of torch, or sign, of what it is to be not merely human, but humane. It lights the way! Small acts of kindness are the rags, paper and sticks that get the blaze going. We may never know all who found warmth at the fire we kindled anymore than we always know the ramifications of the hurt we cause. For just as a fire warms, it also burns and consumes. The fire of kindness can get out of hand when motives are less than pure, less than instinctual, more contrived, more drawn from grand intentions, left untended, overfed.

In closing, please understand I don’t pretend to know anymore about kindness (or anything else) than any of you. I am searching, and etymology is one place I always look--a favorite stone I like to turn over, if you will; this post is what I think I found underneath about kindness. All my posts on kindness represent what Edinger and his predecessor Carl Jung would call "circumambulation," which, psychologically speaking, bears some relation to the folkloric tradition of drawing a magic circle. By going around and around a subject, we come closer to understanding it, and that knowledge acts as a sort of protection, insofar as it increases consciousness.

But what do you think? Did I go too far or in the wrong direction? Your comments, stories and opinions are always welcome in the comments section, as long as you, too, remember to be kind.


22 January 2014

Kindness for Appearance's Sake

Here are some more "hits & misses" from the more than 7.5 million results to my Google search on kindness quotes, this time with a focus on the unspoken "why" behind kindness.

I'm no expert on anyone's motives, but I do try to examine my own. Sometimes when we want to be "do-gooders" we do more harm than good and our reasons, while not vile, are less than pure.

HIT:


That Oscar Wilde says this speaks to its truth for me, since he was a man who understood how to command grand attention, which is related to intention. I'll stretch what he says a bit further by saying that the grander the intention, the less actual kindness is involved. That doesn't mean it's bad, but I think it does mean it's not really about kindness. 

Then what IS it about?
HIT:


Please don't misunderstand: I'm not bad-mouthing niceness! I'd much rather people be nice than not, most of the time. However, it's important to understand the difference in others and in ourselves. Sometimes if you're nice long enough it may turn into genuine kindness; be beware it doesn't turn into empty self-satisfaction. Niceness on its own, you see fails. 

I'll illustrate that with a
MISS:


This sounds "nice," but I had an all-too-literal experience with this one that fell far below the "nice" bar. For several years the library system paid me to present creative writing workshops. One year, I hosted a group at the same location on the same day and time each month. The goal was to draw a lot of the same people each time so we could get to know each other and each other's writing voice.

At the same time, a friend of mine was studying for her yoga instructor's license. We had talked informally about the benefits of combining yoga and writing. She needed opportunities to practice as an instructor, and I offered one month's session of my repeat group to give it a try. We worked together to plan yoga exercises anyone could do from their chair and writing prompts to complement them; it was fun. When the day came, she showed up with a huge bouquet of roses to dress the sign-in table; how beautiful, I thought! At the end of the workshop, she said they were for me, to say thank-you. Though not necessary, I was touched.

This same person had encouraged me to start a blog to supplement my website. As I got my blog going, conscious of the importance of links, I approached her about each of us listing the other on our blog roll. I had already listed her on mine, and I asked if she would do the same for me. Her response was very odd: She did not reply. At that time I also hosted a forum linked to my website, and I noticed she had joined it, though not contributed. When I didn't hear back about the blog roll, I followed up. She refused to address it, but said, "Well I joined your forum!" The unheard part was, "So what more do you want?" Well, the forum isn't visible in any way to anyone but members. I wanted a visible link, equal to what I'd given.

Yes, I wanted something in return for my link, so I didn't do it out of kindness. But it wasn't selfish either; both of us might benefit from the reciprocity; certainly neither of us had anything to lose. When I offered my workshop as a practice platform for her, it was out of real kindness--perhaps even love. Based on the discussions that followed regarding reciprocal links, it became obvious she gave me the flowers to "pay" me for this gift, so she wouldn't owe me the link I was bound to ask for. She had, in fact, only encouraged me in my blog because she thought it would keep me busy and make me a less-demanding friend because she was too busy to answer my emails, which, as I recall, weren't all that frequent and I never demanded answers to. 

She hoped for the fragrance of the roses she gave to cling to her hands. Instead, it ended our friendship. Sounds silly, I know. Which brings me to another

HIT:


What we choose to give without hesitation--a kindness--is a treasure we would do well to guard. That means care in how and with whom we share it. I gave without hesitation, but after it all played out I felt some regret at my losses. I did not regret opening the writing session to her--I still do not regret that--but it was hurtful to realize how little substance held the relationship together, and both she and I shared some blame in that. I was disappointed in myself for not seeing it all more clearly, sooner; however, I did learn from it.

This sums it up pretty well...
MISS:


Why a miss? Kindness may or may not "pay off" for the giver or the receiver. It's a crapshoot. It may be completely rejected, regardless of the purity of the giver's motives. That's not a reason not to do it; just something to keep in mind, because it just as surely ISN'T a reason TO do it. It isn't a kindness if you expect a return of any sort; it's a transaction. And many of our relationships that pretend to be love-based are, in fact, transaction-based; but that's a topic for another blog post.

All that said, practicing kindness, even when it begins in "niceness," can change a person over time. Not that we do it thinking, like Little Jack Horner of nursery rhyme fame, "What a good boy am I!" But in the hope that the repeated process of looking into the other person helps us really see (them and ourselves), respond accordingly and thus evolve.

If we do nothing, most assuredly nothing will change.

I would love to hear your stories, comments, opinions. As always, try to be specific and, most importantly, KIND.


21 January 2014

Kindness According to Hits and Misses

A Google search of "kindness quotes" yields more than 7.5 million results. Only a few are true "hits" because they illuminate the concept of kindness in a new or different way. 

Others seem like true hits at first, but then register as "misses" when you think them through. My hope is that as we circle round and round the idea of kindness in the coming weeks, what it truly is and is not will begin to emerge. 

With that in mind, here are the "hits" and "misses" of my Google search to date...

HIT: 


I like that Twain describes kindness as a language, which tells me two things: 1.) It can be learned, and 2.) it has its roots in instinctual behavior and could once again become something we learn so well that its practice is automatic. We know that people who lose one sense--perhaps vision or hearing--experience a strengthening of other senses. Also, the portion of the human brain used to produce language is, in other animals, given over to instinctual processes. That’s not to say we don’t have any instincts since we developed language. We do, but they aren’t as sharply honed as in other animals because our brains are busy doing other stuff, like writing blogs and performing brain surgery.

Which brings me to another
HIT:



We can, of course, learn to tune into our instincts better and use that knowledge that comes up through our bodily sensations to inform our behavior, including our language-based responses. Though don’t expect your fellow humans to let you get away with behavior you’d tolerate in your cat (like tearing a mouse up for dinner). 

MISS:


While this is true, it doesn't go far enough. It assumes kindness is just for us homo sapiens, who are often the unkindest members of the animal kingdom, to each other and to other animals. Other animals do seem to have a natural instinct toward kindness when it's required. Reference all the stories of one breed of animal caring for another's babies, and revisit the photo above of the little dog on the horse's back as it swims to safety. These behaviors are a sort of instinctual kindness, and my guess is the animals don't think twice about it, which is proof in my book that they deserve at least as much kindness from us humans as we would show each other; actually, more. Reference all those other stories about serial killers who started out killing neighborhood pets.

That brings me to one that’s
HIT & MISS



When I saw the attribution on this one, it made me laugh. Like Capone, I don’t think we should let ourselves be doormats. I'm not very good at the doormat thing, though I don't maintain a squad of thugs to take out anyone who crosses me (but it's an interesting thought, wink-wink). There are socially acceptable, legal, and even KIND ways of making a stand, though we don't always sort them out in time to put them to use. At least I don't. 

I think the answer lies somewhere along the lines laid out in the Bible's book of Proverbs, chapter 15: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger...The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but the perverse tongue crushes the spirit.” People learn what they experience, and life has already versed me well in the language of the harsh word and the perverse tongue. I’m still working on the soothing language that is a tree of life. I tend to be direct. Sometimes that comes across as abrupt. Sometimes it IS abrupt.

Like I said, I'm working on it, so I see in what Capone says a classic human dilemma. To use tree of life language AND not get trampled by others is really tough, but it’s where the rubber of kindness meets the road of life. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I do believe both are simultaneous possibilities, which is why my focus on kindness this year. I know I want to do both, to find that middle pathway of seasoned response. Such concentration and consciousness it will take though!

And finally, another
MISS:


I personally like this one because I love the beauty of snow and winter; I just don't think anybody experiencing winter in the Midwest U.S. this year will buy it. And to be honest, I think the metaphor fails because kindness isn't cold and it can't be a mere cover; it's something that has to go the whole way through, if you get my drift (yes, I love puns!).

I have more "hits & misses," but that's probably enough for this post.

If you have stories about times you’ve straddled this great divide successfully or fallen by one or the other wayside, please have the courage to share in the comments section and help us all grow. If you don't agree, please feel free to voice your opinion. But explain WHY and be kind, okay?

20 January 2014

Kindness: My Word for 2014

Prompted by Facebook posts of some friends from student days, I decided to choose a word to take into my heart in a new way this year. One of them chose thankful, another chose explore, while a third picked liberality--all good words, all rich concepts.

I chose kindness.

I chose it because sometimes I have trouble feeling it and living it, and yet I believe it has the potential to solve a great many of the world's ills. That is, if we come to understand what it really is. Because I believe it's more than common courtesy and good manners, though both of those are lacking in our world and could go a long way toward improving things. Perhaps manners are a cousin of kindness, but what I'm searching for is a path of response that changes outcomes, without being dishonest or faked or a kind of candymaking, that registers as kindness.

So please join me in the coming months as I catalog, ponder, collect and wonder over kindness. I hope to write also about other topics on my blog this year, but I will mark all the kindness posts with the word magnet photo at right and compile them in a special post link on the sidebar.

That way you can take a single dose of kindness or a mega-dose, depending on what you feel you need at any particular time in your life. Some of the posts may be orderly and well-thought-out, while others may be chaotic and random (just thought I'd warn you).

So stay tuned and send me (email, Facebook message or use the comment form here) your thoughts and stories, any quotes you come across about kindness, any suggested readings that further illuminate the concept. I leave you with this one that started it all--a poem, of course. A good friend left this for me to find on my coffee table one day after writing group. Or maybe it was tucked in her notebook and simply fell out. Either way, it was an unexpected experience of kindness that will always stay with me, so thank you, Sandra Gutridge Harris...


Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes any sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.