Unexpected Kindness

In 1982 writer Anne Herbert scrawled a few words on a placemat in a Sausalito, California restaurant. “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” Eventually her words set off a chain reaction of kindness. Just this morning the guy in front of me at the Wildflower café bought my coffee. I could not stop thinking how thoughtful this was as I headed back to my study to dig through my old files.

Today I awoke on a mission. I want to find my words. I am trying to thread together pieces that might form my next book. I have had a couple of false starts. It is a long and tedious task. Sometimes I feel like I am scaling Mount Everest, but if I get it right, my current scrawls will become a book. Writing helps me find meaning. Find wholeness. Explore my unique voice. Learn. The work gives me purpose, and I know I am driven to do it for others—not simply me. But I am unclear why I must tirelessly tunnel through mounds of old papers to do it .

Maybe I need to control the space around me? Maybe I need a sense of order?  But I realize that I simply need space to hold my new ideas when I am not tinkering with them or shuffling them into a different pattern or plan. I need a home for this creation as it evolves.

When I open the top drawer of my file cabinet, I find stacks of old tax papers that show how little money a writer can accrue in whole years. The first file drawer empties with ease as I stuff this papery mass into a plastic garbage bag that becomes so stretched it begins to split.

In the second drawer I discover the draft of an adolescent novel that I had titled Outcast. It is the story of a boy in high school trying to find himself while struggling with his obsessive-compulsive disorder. My friend Margot had quilted a potholder to celebrate the birth of this book. It frames all things writerly—paperclips, manuscripts, coffee cups, pens, and a huge sign that holds my mantra, “YOU CAN” —for she believed in the book even before I did. While my son would talk me out of publishing it because he feared it was his story, I would publish a truncated version of it later.  I hug the trivet to my heart knowing it is another kindness. I will put it to use in my kitchen!

In the bottom drawer I find two oil paintings that I had planned to hang. When the pandemic hit, my neighbor Candy could no longer volunteer to care and rock the babies in the nearby hospital’s NICU, and she decided to learn to paint.  Then a small tissue wrapped oil-painting of a green and pink-bellied hummingbird showed up at my doorstep.  After my mother’s death, I had told Candy that a hummingbird often seems to pause at my window where I write. In the note accompanying her painting, Candy  wrote, “Many believe when a hummingbird visits, it is a visit from a loved one who has passed.” The painting is small and delicate. Like the bird who visits me. I position it on my windowsill overlooking my garden because I will be able to see at least one hummingbird each morning.

But all the while I kept thinking of one word.: Kindness. One study from Emory University shows us that when you are kind to others, you raise the level of feel-good hormones created in your brain. In other words when you act altruistically toward others, you are rewarded with what is called a “helper’s high.”

Perhaps even more important is that when others are kind to us, we will be inspired to do kindnesses, too.  There seems to be a ripple effect that comes with kindness. That is why Anne Herbert’s beautiful words scribbled on a napkin have echoed back to us through the years. This is why after I received the hummingbird painting, I gave my neighbor a copy of my book, The Story You Need to Tell. To reciprocate.

Weeks later I found a larger painting wrapped in tissue in a box by my front door. I unwrapped it to discover another oil painting. Etched on the canvas was a small vase with bright colored roses made vivid with shadowing and positioned on a nightstand by Candy’s bed. Beneath the flowers, my friend had carefully painted a stack of three books– Notes to Myself by Hugh Prather, Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee, and The Story You Need to Tell.  For my friend to read my book was a kindness, but to honor it in her work was truly moving for me.

As I finished shoving old notes from books-past into garbage bags and hauling them outside to the recycle bin, I paused for a break and in that moment, it hit me that I find writing a book is a long, hard endeavor. Like climbing that mountain or competing in the Olympics. But I will go back to my study because there are moments of powerful insight and revelation and moments of what I have come to know as the miracles of words. When Anne Herbert wrote “practice random acts of kindness” she experienced this. Her words have echoed through the decades and danced through my mind yet again this morning and as I write this blog.

In the end what matters more than waving the older lady with very few groceries ahead of you in the grocery line or taking dinner to a friend who has lost a loved one or simply helping a child retrieve a lost toy tossed from a highchair at a restaurant?  Today and every day I am going to work a little harder to appreciate the moments of unexpected kindnesses–a cup of coffee, a handmade potholder, or heartfelt oil paintings. Those wonderful moments come ripe with encouragement. With hope. With friendship. With joy—and with the gratitude that is now spilling onto this page. Let’s continue to surprise each other with unexpected kindnesses. It makes all the difference.






Small, Wet Miracles

Last week at the beach five-year-old Harper gave me a purple clam shell. And then another. Within minutes she had collected a dozen shells from the shore. Each shell was more beautiful than the last one. We spread them out and studied them. In the sunshine they glistened with the purple hues of amethysts and the white shine of pearls. In the background we heard the surf and when it surged close in surprise, Harper shrieked with glee, and bounded back toward the waves with delight. I sat awe-struck and as I thumbed through the bounty of her shells, I also thumbed through my memories.

When I was the same age as Harper, I took my first family trip to the East Coast. When I returned home, I kept envisioning the “nine-foot waves” hovering over me. I did not yet know that waves ten times that size existed. For days I labored to tell my dearest, oldest, best friend Jan about the ocean. “The ocean has more water than all the bathtubs in the world,” I explained. Then I threw my five-year-old arms into the air. “It has arms made of water that stretch up nine feet high, and when they crash down, they can knock you over.” Jan’s eyes grew wider than the gum balls we chewed. She had not yet been to a beach, but she understood. The ocean is another world and filled with inexplicable mystery.

Perhaps because the Earth began as a hot molten rock that formed oceans as it cooled, or perhaps because life sprang from the oceans, or maybe because the early life that migrated from the water to the land was initially drawn back to the sea, I still feel called to the water. My dad loved the ocean, and perhaps the pull is genetic–and ages old. Existential questions have always surfaced when I sit by the sea.

By the time I was seven or eight the beach had become threaded into my family life as a ritual and a way to see our cousins who all lived a thousand miles from my Indiana home. Each summer we loaded up the station wagon with a beach ball, suitcases, and a cooler packed with sandwiches so my dad could drive like a maniac for fourteen hours across four states until we landed in Ocean City or Virginia Beach. There we met up with my dad’s entire family and rented neighboring bungalows. In the days that followed we created some of the best memories of my life–telling jokes, riding of rafts on the ocean waves, covering my brother in a body cast of sand, and collecting an array of shells, especially sand dollars. I still have a jar of these treasures.

Years later when I read Rachel Carson’s writings on the sea, I realized that I was not the only one to have been awestruck by the wonder of the ocean. Her work undulates with a soft cadence of miracle after miracle found beneath the surface of the water. Before her poetic words I did not understand that the deep and dark depths of the sea are not silent but much like symphony. I discovered the seaweed and microscopic algae use energy from the sunlight to build living tissue and that tiny animals such as clams eat this and are eventually eaten by larger fish—and so begins the food chain that gives us our life.

On one of those beach trips many years ago, I suspect I posed my first existential questions. After a grand day of splashing in the waves and collecting shells, gorging on hot dogs dripping with mustard, and playing Monopoly with my cousins, we sat on the beach looking up at the dark night sky with billions of stars. I remember that moment because I was sitting by my dad, eating a chocolate ice cream cone, and I asked him, “How did all of those stars get there?”

I remember my dad saying, “We don’t really know.”

“How did I get here—on Earth?”

“That’s an equally puzzling question,” my dad said and laughed.

I am not sure how old I was. But I recall the moment because it startled me. I had come to the beach thinking my dad knew almost everything, but it was here I realized that he didn’t. That perhaps no one did.

At the ocean I would spend hours studying sand crabs, sand pipers, seaweed, and all kinds of small wet miracles. I studied the undulating waves that seemed to come relentlessly onto the beach, whispering to me all the while.  It was here I learned to listen to the water and the Earth. It was here that I learned to respect something much larger than I was. Something that connected it all. Transcended it all.

The ocean has taught me that the surf grounds rocks into sand and the shoreline is everchanging. Like the tide we slip into this miracle of life and like the tide we flow out. Like the waves we rise up, and we fall down. Suddenly, amid my beach reverie, a child in a mermaid swimsuit runs toward me waving her arms joyfully with a golden-striped cone shell. Life is as fluid as the seas and equally filled with small, wet miracles.

The Rocky Path

Once a year my ritual is to unplug my computer and pack my bag. Then I turn my back on the writing and emails that beckon to me and head my steering wheel toward Sedona. I missed this ritual last year, and my soul felt I needed it more than ever.  I longed to hike the rocky red trails, but now that the mask mandates have been eased, a friend had warned me that the red rocks had been overrun by young tourists. But I have had my vaccines, and last Thursday I was determined to have my first get-away in a long time. I loaded my car and headed north.

As I drove to Sedona, I was still unwinding from the past week. It had been a wonderful week. After I taught my Mayo Clinic writing class, a student wrote me that her writing had led to an understanding of her estranged son. Nothing makes me happier. But it had been a hard week, too. I did a presentation to Intel employees in Chandler. It was supposed to be a well-rehearsed Zoom talk, but my computer with an Intel chip died at 12:17 pm. Thirteen minutes before the scheduled talk. The irony hit as I struggled to call up the hotspot on my phone and give my first talk via my phone.  While it worked, it was stressful!

As I arrived in the canyon, I was surprised by the dozens of cars parked along the roadsides. California license plates. Nevada. Utah. More California plates. Tanned and jubilant I heard many of the young people chatting gleefully as they walked down the roads, headed for the trails I love. I started counting the cars with out-of-state plates, and I was a bit unsettled.

Two hours later my hiking boots were laced, and I headed into Boynton Canyon. It was quiet, and I reminisced about the many times I have hiked these trails. It has often surprised me but never disappointed me.  It was here I once saw an oak tree fallen to the ground, roots half in and half ripped from the earth with arms entwined with the earth in what appeared to be a warm embrace. I remember thinking how wonderful that the earth and the tree are one.

Often as I navigate the rocky path and stare up at the canyon walls, I have contemplated how Native Americans lived here over eleven thousand years ago. I imagine how these ancients must have stared wide-eyed, as I often do now, at the natural canvas painted here, streaked in dusted pinks and red-oranges. You can see the holes in the canyon walls where these people lived.  I think of how their children must have scaled the mountain sides to the caves. Sometimes when I hike, I sense their aura, and feel I am being welcomed into their home. I love to imagine their voices echoing across the canyon—their chatter, their laughter, the squeals of their children.  I stare straight up and think of how these people probably scaled these heights with relative ease, for it was the life they had come to know—chasing animals and gathering wild plants.  From time to time, someone slipped or fell and there was no helicopter to navigate a rescue. Like the oak tree, these long-ago humans were completely entwined with the Earth.

As I hiked on, I was passed by a group of young hikers, several basketball players from North Carolina State. They were friendly and hailed me kindly. One called, “Good for you!” I am grateful he did not add, “old lady.” The path had become steep and rocky, up and down.  As I age, I find it harder to navigate, but I walk more slowly and deliberately.  Another group of young people pass.

An hour later, I paused to rest. Looking up I was overcome by the sight of the red rocks that pointed upwards like a stunning red cathedral and the shadows landing from the other side of canyon appeared to be the long-pointed spires shooting upwards toward the sky.  Then it appeared.   A kaleidoscope of light, brilliant color, and dancing shadows. The reds, the pinks, and the golds sparkled in the glow of the sunlight as the shadows of the oak leaves danced back and forth across them. Nature’s own stained-glass window. A stunning rose window. A magnificent, shimmering kaleidoscope of light and color illuminating the canyon wall.

I was silent for a time before I heard laughter and a group of four young women came charging into the space. When they saw me, they halted–surprised.  “Are you okay?” asked a kinky haired girl, the first in their line.  I nodded and pointed upward to my imaginary cathedral.

“Oh, wow!” she murmured, and her girlfriends were equally taken back. The five of us stood in reverent silence for several minutes. Then they silently mouthed their “thank-yous” and slipped past me on the way into their futures.

Unlike the girls, I was not in a hurry. I relished just being there and reflecting. While this does not happen often, I have learned to try and seize these special moments. It was then that all the stresses and craziness seemed to wash right out of me. It was there that a computer crash seemed insignificant. It was there that I was flooded with gratitude. To be out. To be here!

The last year has been a rocky path for all of us. As we work to hoist ourselves up and out of the pandemic, we can learn from the oak trees and the Native Americans of long ago. I can look down the trail and see that it leads forward. I will find my way. The young people will find their way.

Indeed, when we stay the course, the rocky path often leads to the beautiful. The unexpected. Suddenly I was flooded with joy that so many young people had found their way here. For in this place we can connect with the oak tree, the ancient humans, with each other, and most powerfully, with something bigger and more beautiful than all of us.