Tag Archives: generosity

Remembering Kindness

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I didn’t think I’d make it through that Tuesday. There I was, sitting in my car as the Fremont Bridge was opening to let a yacht pass through. This was not an occurrence I had planned on, as I’d never known the bridge to open on a winter morning in all the years I’d taught at Seattle Pacific University. And it meant I’d be late to class.

I hate being late, so much that it rarely ever happened. Still, the few times that it had, I’d been able to keep my cool. This time, though, was different. I screamed and cursed at the bridge, pummeled my fists on the steering wheel, felt like crying. I’d become a discombobulated mess.

Perhaps this is understandable. I was teaching twelve credits that quarter and was enrolled in a nighttime master’s program, burning the candle at both ends. I’d spent the weekend prepping for my teaching, grading a massive pile of papers, reading and writing.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, my son called from college to say he’d been injured playing Frisbee: “No big deal, Mom, just a hernia. It happened a few days ago—sorry I didn’t call sooner—but the doc says the procedure is routine and he scheduled the surgery for tomorrow. Can you drive up? You’re off on Mondays, right?” Right. I just teach six hours on Tuesday, have a paper due on Wednesday, and was counting on Monday to work.

A son, though, is a son.

I will spare you a detailed description of the series of fiascos that was Monday, except to say that my son’s surgery was delayed for many hours (although it went fine), the surgery center had no cafeteria, and I drove home four hours through a blizzard in the middle of night. When the Fremont Bridge went up on Tuesday morning, I’d been foodless and sleepless for a day. I was dying for a pre-class snack and coffee, which the bridge had snatched from me.

I reached my classroom several minutes late. The students’ eyes were upon me as I pulled my book from my briefcase and stripped off my coat. My stomach was growling wildly and I felt unsteady on my feet, but I’d have to make due: the class was three hours long, our goal to discuss the whole of Night.

Night is the Holocaust memoir of Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who in the story is the adolescent Eliezer. Beautifully written, painful to read, replete with insight, Night was among my favorite books to teach.We dove right in, discussing each segment: Eliezer’s childhood in Transylvania, his initial deep belief in God, his family’s deportation to Auschwitz, the brutality the prisoners endured, Eliezer’s waning faith.

We came to a part of the story that was among the most moving to me. Eliezer, underfed and weak, is forced to work at a concentration camp warehouse overseen by a volatile Kapo. One day, for little reason, the Kapo jumps on Eliezer and proceeds to beat him. Eliezer crawls into a corner, bleeding and broken. Just then, Eliezer feels a cool hand wipe his brow. It belongs a forced labor deportee—an Aryan girl from France who has never spoken to him. She smiles at Eliezer, looks into his eyes, slips him some bread, and says some soothing words in German, as he doesn’t speak French.

At this point the story flashes forward. Many years later in Paris, Wiesel is reading on the Metro. He looks up and sees a woman with beautiful eyes and suddenly recognizes her—the French girl from the warehouse. The two go to a café and Wiesel confirms what he’s long suspected: the woman was really Jewish and had worked in the warehouse on forged papers. By speaking German to Eliezer, she’d risked her cover and her life.

I asked my students: “Why would Wiesel choose to break the flow of his story and jump to the Metro scene? We’re far into the book, and he’s never flashed forward before.” The students regarded me thoughtfully, then one suggested: “The scene was important to Wiesel. His book is about not forgetting the evil that people are capable of. Maybe he wanted to show that a simple kindness is a powerful thing that should also be remembered and oftentimes is.”

Yes. That’s why I loved that scene.

We moved through the remainder of the memoir. When class was over at noon, I dashed out the door. My next class would start in ten minutes, the room was far across campus, and I was more desperate than ever for a snack and coffee. I stopped in the Subway in the quad, but the line was a serpent, so I tried the Starbucks. The queue here too was long: a trio of students at the front, a couple of professors, a lone male student, and a quintet of female students right before me.

The barista wasn’t speedy and the orders were complex: a tall, nonfat latte with caramel drizzle; a grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soymilk; a triple, venti, no-foam, soy latte.

I looked at my watch as the barista processed the professors. Five minutes to go before class. At this rate I wouldn’t make it. I considered approaching the male student and offering to pay for his order as a way of bypassing the girls, but guilt struck immediately, so I gave up the idea. The boy ordered, received his drink.

I checked my watch. No choice: I’d have to bolt and starve.

Then I heard a voice. “Can I treat you to coffee?”

I turned. It was the first of the five girls before me, about to place her order.

“Excuse me?”

She smiled, looked into my eyes. “I’d like to buy you coffee.”

No, I’d not experienced a holocaust. No, the girl hadn’t risked her life. But the coffee that she offered helped me make it through the day, and I will remember her kindness for many years to come.

First published in Good Letters.

Human Touch

ADF PilobolusThese days, we’re besieged by merchants marketing in myriad ways: boulevards blighted with billboards, postboxes bulging with catalogues, televisions blaring commercials, email apps packed with spam, web pages popping ads, telephones pirated by robots.

These strategically planned campaigns are often costly and complex. It seems merchants have forgotten the best business builder in the arsenal, one that costs little or nothing and requires no marketing team: the impromptu generous gesture, the simple human touch.

I recently confronted this reality as my husband and I were completing our eighth season as subscribers to a dance series in Seattle. The series had always been excellent, and we looked forward to it every year.

This season I was especially excited because the spring lineup would include Pilobolus, a particularly imaginative dance troupe of international fame. For decades I’d longed to see them dance. I couldn’t wait to watch the group—named after a barnyard fungus that propels spores with astonishing speed—perform its colorful, lyrical magic on the stage.

A few days before the performance, though, I came down with a fever-bearing flu. Body sweating and shivering, brain delirious, I spent Tuesday through Friday in bed as the rain beat on our roof. On Saturday morning, sunlight seeped though the windowpanes, and I lifted my head from the pillow. Sensing resurging strength and clarity, I climbed out of bed and went to my study for the first time in days.

There, on my desk, my Italian phrase-a-day calendar still displayed the previous Tuesday, so I tore off the daily pages to bring it up to date: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Friday. I stopped before plucking the page.

Friday. The word tickled something in my brain.

Friday. Pilobolus.

Damn. We had missed the show. In my fevered fog, I’d forgotten all about it. There remained just one performance, that evening, Saturday night.

Time was short; I had to think quickly.

Of course I knew all the theater’s policies regarding ticket exchanges: twenty-four hours’ notice by mail or in person only. Of course I knew I had no right to trade my wasted Friday evening tickets for good ones for Saturday night. Of course I knew the theater couldn’t make exceptions; it was a business, not a charity.

Still, I hoped that someone would help me by granting a ticket swap. After all, I was a loyal subscriber, I’d been violently ill, my lapse was understandable, and I’d pined for Pilobolus for years.

I picked up the phone and called the theater. The line rang a few times, then clicked, chimed twice, and segued to a male recorded voice: “This is the welcome center for the dance theater office. Please choose carefully from our menu. You may press star at any time to return to this greeting. For the dance ticket office, press one. For the dance business office, press two.”

I pressed one: “Thank-you for calling the dance ticket office. For ticket information, press one. For ticket office information, press two.”

I pressed one: “Thank-you for calling the dance ticket office. We are pleased to present Pilobolus. To purchase tickets in advance, visit our website to order online or press one to order by phone during business hours. For business hours press two.”

I pressed two: “Greetings. The dance ticket office is open from ten am to six pm, Monday through Friday, and is closed on Saturday and Sunday. The office is currently closed. On show days, the box office at the theater opens one hour prior to show time. For theater directions, press one. To speak to an attendant, press pound.”

Desperate for a sentient person, I pressed pound and was promptly disconnected.

My husband and I arrived at the theater box office an hour and a half before show time. Already, a line of Pilobolus fans snaked around the theater lobby. We joined the queue. By the time we reached the ticket window, an hour had gone by. Faint from waning flu and waxing frustration, I smiled at the man behind the glass and told him my story. “Please, can you exchange our tickets?”

The man wouldn’t look me. He glanced at the growing crowd. “I’m sorry. That’s not possible. It’s against policy.”

“Please. We’ve subscribed for years. Any seats at all would be wonderful.”

The man shook his head. “It’s not my decision.” He pointed towards a corner of the lobby. “Wait there. I’ll call the manager.”

We stood in the corner half an hour. No manager appeared, and the show sold out.

That night, the theater banked money it would have forfeited had it swapped my tickets and made my day. Plainly, it did nothing wrong; businesses need profits and employees should honor policy—but maybe not mechanically.

This brings to mind another story.

Long ago, when my children were toddlers, my husband and I took them out to dinner after Christmas Eve Mass. We had no extended family in Seattle and were more than a little sad. When we had finished our entrees, our server smiled while clearing the plates. “You know,” she said, “you’re such a beautiful family. Dessert is on the house.”

We looked around us. No one else had been given free desserts.

That moment inspired a tradition. For sixteen successive Christmas Eves, we returned to that restaurant after Mass.

Please permit me to present the computation:

The restaurant’s initial investment: one smile plus four slices of Yule log.

The restaurant’s resulting sales: sixty-four four-course Christmas dinners, sixteen bottles of Chianti, thirty-two Shirley Temples, plus many other similar dinners every calendar year.

The bottom line: There’s nothing better for business than the simple human touch, the spontaneous kindness.

Having missed Pilobolus, I woke up Sunday morning, disaffected from the world. I went to my desk and turned to my phrase-a-day calendar. It still showed Friday, so I tore off the outdated sheets, practicing the Italian I had missed:

Saturday: Per favore, mi può aiutare? Please, can you help me?

Sunday: Certo, con piacere. Certainly, with pleasure.

Matteo’s Shoes: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

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I wrapped the thick terry robe around me, refreshed by the bubble bath I’d taken scented with lavender salt. What a glorious day it had been. Puerta del Sol, The Prado, Madrid Cathedral, the rose-garden at Retiro Park. Tapas for lunch, a little shopping, then back to our multi-starred hotel.

And that was just the preamble. In two days we’d begin our Camino. We would walk the Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—a pilgrimage across Spain that began in the middle ages and remains immensely popular today. We would trek 200 miles in ten stages, beginning in León and ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela with the Pilgrim’s Mass.

ImageMy husband Mark was reading emails on the bed as I toweled off my hair. “Bad news,” he said. “The firm has let go the word processors. The whole department. What will I do without Camille?”

I tossed the towel on a chair. “Why would they fire all those people? Camille’s a single mom. How will she feed her kids if she doesn’t have a job?”

Mark typed something on his iPad. “It’s another cost-cutting measure. Camille has emailed me too. I’ll write her a recommendation. I hope she finds something soon.”

“Still, the layoff is a sin.”

Within days, though, the sin had slipped my mind. We were on stage two of our Camino, and all I could think of was my feet. The day before we had left León and trudged ten hours through a desert, sun broiling our skin, backpacks breaking our spines.

By the time we reached our first night’s destination, the town of Hospital de Órbigo, my feet had swollen to proportions I’d not imagined possible. Several toes were bruised dark purple and between them painful blisters had emerged. Thank God our B&B was lovely. Our room had a marble shower with a shelf full of soaps and lotions and a wall of pulsing body jets, so I stepped in, turned on cool water, let the jets massage my feet. Maybe with this treatment the swelling would diminish overnight.

No such luck. The next day when Mark and I awoke, my edema was no better. Thus, I had no choice: I forced my feet into my boots, left the laces untied, and hobbled out of town with Mark.

Soon we were winding through cornfields green and golden in the early morning sun. These gave way to woodlands of shady, broad, holm oaks. Here, the path began to climb. Wincing with every step, I began to fall behind. Mark turned and waited at a stream. “Are you okay?”

I shook my head. “My feet are absolutely killing me. Please, just go ahead. I don’t want to feel pressured by your pace. Just check me sporadically.”

Mark nodded and we began to walk. Within minutes I was far behind him. Then the forest opened to mown farmlands scattered with hay bales and cows.

In a field adjacent to the road, a man was sitting on a hay bale. As I approached he stood and came towards me leading dog by a leash. He bore an enormous backpack festooned with a miscellany of items: a rolled pad, blanket, and sleeping bag; a down jacket and canvas hat; a dopp kit and stuffed plastic bag; a walking stick dangling a pot. The dog, too, was bearing a burden, a pannier strapped to its back. The twosome and everything they carried was encrusted with dirt.

The man waved. “Buon giorno! Buon Cammino!”

Italian, my grandparents’ language, one I thankfully spoke.

I looked into his face. Long-haired, brown-eyed, young, he seemed in his mid-twenties, the same age as my son. I smiled. “Sei italiano?”

“Sì!”

And so I met Matteo, who’d walked all the way from Genoa. He began to plod the path beside me, his dog Greta scouting the way. Matteo talked to me nonstop:

“Signora, I see that you’re limping. Are your boots too tight? Feet swell on the Camino from the heat and strain. The trick is to wear shoes a size bigger than usual. At home, I wear 42, but today I’m wearing 43.

“You know, I didn’t plan to be on this Camino. But the Genoa phone company I worked for cut eight workers from full-time to half. Four of us were young bachelors; the others were family men. We young ones quit completely so our colleagues could keep their full-time schedules. How else could they feed their kids?”

“So here I am on the Camino. Of course, I have to do it cheaply. Since the weather’s nice, I sleep outside with Greta. The only problem is bathing. I’m filthy. How I’d love a bath! But the hostels won’t let me use their showers if I don’t pay to stay the night. Cheapskates, that’s what they are!”

Once Jesus told a rich young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor.” These words have long caused me consternation. Are we supposed to give away all?

How relieved I was to read that medieval writer Christina de Pisano had prayed about this question and received a clear response: God doesn’t ask us to give all. He asks us to give what we can, do good works, and refrain from flaunting wealth.

This much I’ve always handled: charitable donations, volunteer work, buying the homeless lunch.

But is it enough? Matteo had given up his job to save his colleagues. He’d also sacrificed his roof. He’d even forfeited his bath.

What had I done for Camille? If all the well-paid people at Mark’s firm had agreed to earn a little less, could we have saved her too? What would it have cost me to try? A hotel star? A scented bubble bath? Pulsing shower jets?

I’m not as brave as Matteo. I’m afraid to give everything. But I can give more than I have in the past.

The boots I’ve been wearing are too tight. It’s time to walk in Matteo’s shoes.