the kindness project
tagging the word “project” onto just about anything takes it up a notch. makes it sound more determined. not some sloppy mess off in the corner. and so it is that my firstborn and i seem to have stumbled onto a “project,” though he’s the chief engineer and i am merely its occasional scribe.
it was birthed–for me, anyway–in the bowels of manhattan, underground, in the glare of fluorescence that lights up the 23rd street subway station. we were dashing from the bone-trembling cold of madison square park where we’d just been soaking in the opening of hugh hayden’s “brier patch,” a sculptural installation of 100 school desks and tangled tree limbs that speaks, among many things, to educational disparities and injustices (and is just plain beautiful), and that was curated by the glorious woman my husband calls his one and only sister. despite the fact that each of my limbs could not stop shaking from the cold, i will never forget watching her–against the golden halo of the lamp light–as i thought of the mother, the father, and the grandmother who had so profoundly shaped her. tears were falling as i imagined them watching her there in the cold january night, a crowd assembled to listen to her every astute word, to witness her latest public art offering to the metropolis that is manhattan.
but back to the kindness project. having scrambled to the bottom of the long flight of subway station stairs, i paused and took in the whole of the whirl of the thousands of lives momentarily all in the very same place at the very same time. i couldn’t help imagining the stories, the struggles, the sufferings, etched into the faces that ran past me, that leapt into train cars that whisked down the tunnels, disappearing into the darkness.
i felt the thrum of humanity at its most percussive pulse point. we were all in this together–whatever “this” is, whatever “this” brings us. and, at the moment, the world is a tough place to inhabit. reports come in from all corners: of wars on the brink, of political revenge, of ugly words rising in senate chambers (and uglier ones spilled in cloakrooms and hallways).
if kindness is antidote to madness, if there lies a paradigm beyond the worldly one of spite and retributions, one where the gospel of empathy reigns, where we’re guided by a command to love as we would be loved, maybe that’s where the healing begins. maybe that’s where we find our salvation. maybe it cloaks us against the cold, maybe it’s how we the people stand one slim chance of turning our backs on all that we find so wretched, so deeply unjust, so just plain vulgar.
maybe we get about the business of seeking living breathing moments of goodness. of nothing less than simple decency, looking out for the stranger, offering hope to the hopeless. maybe, if we pay enough attention, if we gather those moments of kindness like beads on a prayer string, we might begin to gather momentum, to put forth and build a force that just might put a dent in what some days feels like a tidal wave of the ugly.
more and more over the last stretch of years, i’ve found myself pulled deeper and deeper into the realm of the sacred Divine as the world around has gotten more and more vile. to hear the call of a voice eternal and True is to begin to drown out the shouts from the ugliest corners. it’s where and how i find my peace.
and it’s a project worth tallying. a count worth keeping.
and so, on that cold january night, there on the 4 train as it threaded through tunnels, the kindness project catalogued its first unmistakable display: a fellow hunched like a comma on his hard plastic train seat was muttering to himself, when he happened to glance up and i–hanging onto a subway car pole–happened to glance down. this, apparently, was enough to offend, so he let me have it, with a spew of expletives that grew increasingly incensed. at that very moment a woman whose accent gave away her caribbean roots, pointedly tapped hard against the metal subway-car door against which she leaned, and inched herself just enough to make safe harbor for me. with little more than the tap of her finger, and the insistence in her eyes, she’d signaled loud and clear that she was having nothing of the old man’s vitriol and she was keeping me from any harm. the moment passed, the animosity diffused, and i was washed over in the blessing of stranger caring for stranger. i nearly reached out to squeeze her by the arm, a wordless expression of infinite gratitude, but i refrained, not wanting my gesture to be mistaken for any form of crossing the line.
and for the next string of days, as my firstborn and i made our way through the winding lanes of lower lower manhattan, as we fell into joyful conversation with the checker at the grocery, or the lady behind the counter at the lamp repair shop, there grew the sense that we were onto something. new york, new york, is not known widely as the capital of nice, and yet it seems to brim with hardscrabble kindness. and it’s nothing short of miraculous, to find those glimmering shards of straight-up goodness––humanity at its best––among the art-deco towers and the deeply-shadowed corridors of capitalistic commerce.
my firstborn, blessed soul that he is, is all in on the project. called me last night to report his latest finds; in an uzbek barber, and an orthodox watch repairman, in the old wrinkled man behind the counter of a chinese general store, where he found himself invited for new year’s.
the plan is to keep watch, and keep note (tapped out on his phone, or inked into one of his many moleskin notebooks). in a city that never sleeps, in a city not known for tender loving plenitude, take census of kindness and allow its superpowers to alter the landscape.
it’s a mission i’m taking up here, in the heart of the heartland.
one by one, little by little, one act of golden good kindness at a time, we are building a fortress to keep out the ugly, the vile, the deeply unkind.
and, besides, it makes for a million fine yarns.
as i wrote in a note to my firstborn just this morning: “it seems one of our holy tasks is to see the sacred sparks all around, in the souls of kindness you are finding in watch repair shops and chinese general stores. keep at it. the work is never done.”
would you care to join us? record your findings here.
i’m home from my blessed string of six days in new york, unpacking 89 boxes and making a nest for someone i dearly dearly love (my firstborn) on the 34th floor of a grand old art-deco tower at the bottom tip of manhattan. i miss both my boys madly (the other one is back at college), as i’m now home in the quietest of old houses, but i revel in knowing our home-grown law clerk has fallen instantly in love with the place he’s now calling home. while away, i got double whammies of awful bad news from two of my oldest dearest friends in the whole wide world, and i’d so welcome a prayer or two if you’ve a spare: one beloved friend found out she’s up against breast cancer (a second time), and another called to tell me her little sister’s cancer has crept to her brain. life sure is cruel. but as my friend with the very sick sister put it so starkly eloquently, “this is life, it’s full of suffering and ours to endure. our job is to do it with grace.”
Dear Famous Author,
Two of my three live in Manhattan and I believe they would be thrilled to participate.
Can your or son send me more scoop at firstname.lastname@example.org?
We will be with them in Manhattan the first weekend in February and perhaps we can all meet Will.
you and yours always seem to be wherever sweet W lands! he starts work on the second circuit next week, and seems the work hours will extend till deep into each night. but perhaps you and i will be in NYC at the same time some time soon. kindness project is DIY, and in the case of NYC, it’s the manhattan kindness project, unintentionally a play on the alt rock band, and certainly not a play of any kind on the nuclear one. i’m sure your kiddos have reams of entries into the KP already! do you have a favorite to tell?
i forgot that i’d meant to add this beautiful poem from Walt Whitman, one that so happens to unfold on the streets of manhattan. here tis, “Miracles.”
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
+ Walt Whitman
YES! What a great project to be all in on! Seeing and experiencing kindness also has to lead to gratitude, another great project. Just this morning, a customer service rep went above and beyond for me on the phone with a request for a toaster oven drip tray that’s been discontinued. So kind and so effective! Made me feel like “life is good.”
Amen to that! I love hearing the stories because it slowly shifts the tanker of perception to make us believe the world really is more populAted with good than with awful. Speaking of awful I just saw a news but that yesterday was the 80th anniversary of 15 Nazis plotting the Holocaust. And the most ominous afternote that it took a mere 90 minutes. We cannot afford to be idle in our good gathering….
Unbelievable! Here’s a PS to my post that I love:
“By every kindness we birth our collective future.”
“Our job is to do it with grace.” That one made me well up with tears. ♡
What lovely words again. I so appreciate a kindness project!! I’ve become more and more convinced that we need to saturate our lives with beauty- God’s graces, kindness, poems, stories, hugs, meals, laughter, nature, quiet. Kindness is certainly beautiful.
Today my 6 year old was so kind when he gave me some “gentles.” (Our family’s term for cozy physical touch like back scratches or neck rubs.) Earlier this week a friend was deeply kind in letting us come help her start seeds which I’ve never done and which 6 loved! (Nearly 1 loved playing in the dirt.) Also, we live in Florida, hence starting seeds in January haha!
I love this project, prayers for your friends, much hopes for a lovely week ahead for you!
Oh! And I love that you son gets to live on the 34th floor of that tall building. 6 LOVES tall buildings and once the pandemic is a little more settled he’s dying to go to NYC and see all the tall buildings.
In 2008, Tom and I spent a week in New York. New Yorkers did not at ALL live up to their grumpy reputation. Every time I got on the subway, some youngin’ got up to give me their seat! And I wasn’t even 50! Love New York …
Also am all-in with your kindness project. A day doesn’t seem complete without an offered kindness. Though I find it much harder to receive than to give, I am always grateful.
Bless your heart, and I don’t mean that in the southern belle shade sorta of way. 🙂
i laughed out loud at your southern belle shade sorta comment!!!!! cuz i always make the same clarification, as it’s a favorite line of mine, meant in the sincerest of ways, and it’s such a scramble that in a good chunk of the country it’s meant not at all how i and you intend. love that you too love NYC. oh, the energy! i think, like my firstborn, i’ve fallen quite hard for it. hard for another city to measure up in any similar way……….xoxox
My granny used to send me out the door with these words “remember who you are!” So it doesn’t matter if we are in the lowcountry of SC, NYC or the Heartland.
..kindness matters and I suspect impacts the giver even more than the receiver. It’s contagious and I’m a firm believer we can choose to all be in this together…especially now with everyone on edge…your firstborn is the beacon for his surroundings…
bless you, my dear friend in the low country (how blessed are we to have threads from so many places weaving into a whole?). i love that your granny hollered that over her shoulder, and can imagine it as the screen door squeaked open and closed. kindness IS contagious. and its afterglow lingers. miraculous antidote to so much that grinds us down…..
It’s so sweet that Will is in on the Kindness Project with you! And I’m glad that he loves the Big Apple already. The photo of his apartment building is amazing. It sounds like the six days that you shared together were just perfect.
I had a very strange phone call today. The man calling said, “Hey, who is this? I’m in the process of cleaning out my phone and I don’t recognize this phone number.” I politely replied that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing any personal information with him and he said, “Well, what if we’re old friends and we end up losing track of each other?” So, I asked him to tell me his name. “I’m Pete,” he said, “and is your name Kathy? That’s what my phone says, anyway.” Then we proceeded to share obscure bits and pieces of our past and present with one another to see if we had anything in common. We did, but we still couldn’t figure out a connection. He was very pleasant and even cracked me up a few times. After a while I told him that I had to get going and he said, “Oh, that’s too bad! You’re a lot nicer to talk to than most of my friends!” Barbie, for some reason that call put me in the best mood! We were kind to one another, and it really brightened my day. (I sure hope that I don’t end up getting hacked. Yikes!)
whoa, that’s wild! i have an idea who it might be. will send you a message. in the meantime, i love your story of random acts of mutual kindness. and the picture of you up there is sooo sooo cute! xoxox
Since 2011, I have spent many a day in NYC with the absolute BEST days being those when I meet 3 strangers per day. It is not my beloved Met, Central Park or the streets, but the people that make NYC so enjoyable. One sweet day, I had cocoa in a cafe where a female former attorney told me of her life and transition to being an art gallery owner, an hour later, while on the subway platform, I asked a man for directions and he told me he was a retired CEO who comes into the city from CT with his wife for her hair appt. while he visits the musuem, then the night finished meeting a wonderful Bangladeshi deli owner. Just 2 years ago this month, a Dutch couple asked me how to get to the Met, and, as I was going there also, we talked the entire way there on the subway, walking on the street and finally having lunch together inside the museum. The wife has become my covid “sister” on WhatApp since then, making me laugh, smile, and bringing joy every day. NYC is full of wonderful people and I would gladly retire there in a heartbeat….if only my Brooklyn born husband felt the same way! 😦 Wishing Will the very best for his job and finding kindness and providing it to others.
ohhhhhhh, i love your gallery of stories, PJT! and i can see you animating the heck out of the island. from tip to stern. you could make friends on mars, i am certain. and i love your collection from the big juicy apple. xoxoxoxoxoxo thank you for bringing your tales here. you are the heartbeat that pulses so much around here…..xoxox