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Category: kindness

on kindness, kerouac, and tolstoy

leo tolstoy

i will be backing into this if i begin by quoting a russian intellectual and novelist. but so i begin.

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

Leo Tolstoy

the subject, once again and always, is kindness.

it was unknown to me, and perhaps little known more broadly, that at the turn of the 19th century leo tolstoy neared completion of what he considered an imperative life’s work. not anna karenina, not war and peace, not the death of ivan ilych. but rather something he considered more timeless, more lasting: “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” as he described it.

or as cultural critic maria popova once put it, “to be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. to be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.” tolstoy’s book, she wrote, was to be “a reliable springboard for these moral leaps.”

in the middle of his 55th year, in march of 1884, tolstoy had set out to read and reap from a circle of the greatest thinkers and spiritual leaders who had shed light on what was most crucial in living a good and righteous life. he dug deep across millennia and miles, reading epictetus, marcus aurelius, lao-tzu, buddha, pascal, the new testament — a reading list he deemed “necessary.”

it was to be his florilegium (a compilation of excerpts from other writings, “mashing up selected passages and connecting dots from existing texts to better illustrate a specific topic, doctrine, or idea,” writes popova. the word comes from the latin for “flower” and “gather;” a bouquet of curated wisdoms). tolstoy saw it as something of a roadmap, daily sign posts pointing the way toward “the Good Way of Life.” in a letter to his assistant, he explained his project thusly:

I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker. … They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue. … I would like to create a book … in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.

he spent 17 years at it, and shortly after the birth of the 20th century, in 1902, he completed his manuscript, under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. two years later, it was published in russian, and nearly a century later, in 1997, it appeared in english translation, all 384 pages of it, under the title A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts. for each day of the year, tolstoy plucked, or gathered, quotes by great thinkers, then added his own musings and connective tissue on the subject, with kindness as the sinew and spine of the book’s moral sensibility.

i bought the book yesterday, in the long hours after i had once again dropped my beloved husband at the curb of terminal 3 at o’hare airport, as he set off once again to race to his mother’s bedside, to honor her, to fill the hospice room with his prayer and his unending grace. in the serendipities of a long afternoon that turned into a longer night, maria popova, she of BrainPickings, the cultural compendium and literary candy counter, dropped in (to my email) with her musings on kindness, a heaven-sent subject in the hours of deep vigil i was keeping for my mother-in-law whose signature and lasting memory is exponential kindness.

i read this entry from tolstoy:

The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.

Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.

i read this from jack kerouac:

Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.

and that’s when i decided i would not merely buy the book but practice it. every day. in honor of my beautiful, blessed mother-in-law who died in the wee hours of this morning, friday, july 2.

her memory will be a perpetual blessing, to me and to all who fall in the radiance of her kindness practiced each and every day.

ginny kamin made lives more beautiful by her practice of perpetual kindness.

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.” a life’s instruction, brought to you by leo tolstoy and one ginny kamin….imagine how you might live it today, one kindness at a time….

the pure power of kindness

i remember learning the lesson. i was squeezed in the back seat of a buick riviera, circa 1965, pulled to the pump at a gas station just outside cincinnati’s coney island, an amusement park to end all amusement parks, where i’d finally grown tall enough to be strapped in a bumper car all on my own. it was a hot cincinnati afternoon. and the six or so cousins squeezed in my grandpa’s regal coach might have had their eyes trained on my grandpa, or maybe they were poking each other in the sides and the shoulders and under the knees. i know i was watching my grandpa, and i watched him greet the man with his fist on the nozzle as if the man was his old lost best friend. it was, needless to say, an indelible moment, the way my grandpa’s eyes sparkled in conversation with this man he’d actually never met before. but they carried on anyway, a good while after the tank was filled. and then my grandpa slid back into the driver’s seat, turned his head to look us in the eye, and announced to whomever was listening (and, believe me, we all were): “always treat everyone with the same kindness you’d wish for yourself.”

if that was the only time i’d sat through that class — kindness 101 — i still think it’d have stuck, but i was taught it over and over and over again. by teachers all along the way — a best friend, an aunt, a gazillion glory-be-to-God they-belong-with-angels friends, strangers whose names i never learned — tender-hearted souls i count as if beads on a rosary. each one inching me closer and closer to that radiance that is momentary heaven here on earth. especially on the days when it feels a little bit like flame-licking hell.

so it comes as welcome blessing but little surprise that the awful hard road of the last couple weeks was paved with gold bricks of kindness that really, truly gave us the little bit of spark we needed to not slump to our knees, to not break down in tears and never stop crying. 

we teach kindness, those of us who still believe in the grace of getting along. we teach kindness sometimes because it’s the thing we think we’re supposed to preach. but sometimes i think we forget just how mighty a force the tiniest kindness can be. how one kindness can drain the sting from any day. how one kindness can be the burst of oxygen that keeps us from keeling to the ground. especially when we’re running on fumes, when we’re hollowed out with despair, when we can’t stand watching the tears run down the cheeks of someone we love. 

kindness literally moves mountains. the mountains deep down inside us that feel immovable. the mountains of worry. the mountains of sadness, of not knowing what’s just around the bend, and having little reason not to fear the worst. 

but then the doorbell rings. or the email pings. or you wake up to find a bushel of pansies waving in the morning’s breeze. or a box arrives, stuffed to the brim with all the things you count as simple treasures, and you scratch your head wondering how in God’s name you could be so blessed to know — to count as a most beloved friend — someone who pays such exquisite attention, who took the time and trouble to gather up a heart-melting litany, beans and bread and birdseed, even the hard-to-find monastery candle that kindles your most sacred hours, and it’s all flown halfway across the country. just in time to make a big ol’ pot of sustenance for the rainy days ahead.

and you remember all over again that you’re powered not simply by your own sweat and heartache and tears, but that the collective might of hearts — hearts that happen to be supercharged at the very moment yours is drained — gives you just enough oomph to take on another day. to shake yourself off, to grab the keys to the car, to drive where you’re needed, to do whatever needs doing: to clean out the wound, to scrub out the sink, to sling on a mask and march into the drug store, to look the doctor in the eye — or the tow yard boss, or the police officer, or the priest — and say what needs to be said. 

because you’re propelled not all on your own, but by the compound goodness and kindness of a thousand little kindnesses. even the slightest bit of kindness — the “how you doing?,” the “hey, i made extra,” the “i’m headed to the store, do you need anything?” — all of it is just enough to tip the scales, to keep you on your feet and in business for another day. amid the arid days of breathlessness and worry, there is no kindness too too small to put the necessary ping in the human heart that pumps on despite it all. 

as i sit and ponder kindness, i almost wish i was some sort of molecular scientist, someone who could pry open the envelope in which kindness arrives, and slide its essence under the microscope to discern just what it is — electrical valence? neurochemical charge? — that literally alters our physiologies, disrupts the sorrow-drenched, worry-stoked synapse, switches tracks from despair to hope. it’s not an illusory thing. it’s as real as real could be. the tiniest seemingly insignificant gesture — the saying without words, i am listening to your heartbeat and it sounds as if the rhythm’s off, a sorrowful syncopation has taken hold and i’m here to try to budge it back on beat — it matters. it’s a seed of life and love that’s planted deep and certainly, and it blooms just as it’s needed. 

and this world needs it in abundance, in bumper crops and without end. it’s not nothing, the barest brush with kindness. 

it’s everything. 

in other words, bless you and thank you each and every someone who offered up a prayer, a thought, a holy card, a kindness seen or unseen. 

love, the barbaras — the Wiser and her offshoot

xoxox

what are the moments of kindness you will never ever forget?

the algorithms of life in all its speeds…

some weeks, it feels like the crank on the faucet is wide open and what comes surging forth is akin to fire hydrant velocity. it just keeps coming, the news, bad and good and all in between. this was one of those weeks where i could barely steady myself between one and another. it started with a phone call, early monday morning, from an emergency room. someone i love was calling, crying, needed me and needed me fast. that’s pretty much all that mattered this week. but of course it was only the beginning of the cascade of 1,001 other thoughts, decisions, realities.

somewhere in there good news came too. and somewhere in there i got my second Moderna COVID vaccine.

seems these long months of COVID, of unnatural tethering to dorm rooms and home turf, of worries that you’ve been exposed, of navigating degrees of caution and leniency, it’s worn most of us ragged. i worry most about kids whose lives are disproportionally filled with histories of dark american chapters: kids born in the shadow of 9/11; kids who might never live a valentine’s day without remembering parkland and the unending video of high schoolers with hands over their head filing out from the building once the coast was clear, helicopters ominously hovering just over the school rooftop; kids who’ve now spent two years of college looking over their shoulder, submitting to swabs up their nose every few weeks, kids with no clue of an all-campus party.

sometimes i wish the world would break forth in birdsong, in pastel petal, in tenderly unfurling leaves. sometimes i wish we could breathe all that in, feel steadied, feel braced, feel fresh air in our lungs. isn’t it genius, then, that should we bother to look out the window, should we bother to lace on our shoes, it’s all right there, ready to take our worn-ragged selves and fill us with those quiet healing balms that stitch us together again?

we need this springtime, and the summer that follows, the slow, steady summer, the season of indolence. we all need a break from the rush and the roar of the news and the heartbreak.

we need to all catch our breath. and stockpile joys for a minute or two.

because this poem always rights me, i offer naomi shihab nye’s “kindness”….

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 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.

how do you steady yourself in the weeks when the hydrant is gushing?

maybe we do one, just one, bold (but little) thing…

and by bold i mean one something, anything, in the name of bending that stubborn arc of justice. by bold i mean do one certain something today — maybe even within the next hour — that you otherwise wouldn’t have mustered the will or energy or courage to do.

feeling the full weight of what we’re up against in this world that is not letting up in this long hot summer, so many mornings feeling knocked back, feeling impotent, frozen in the face of injustice, in the wake of sirens and spilling blood and streets chaotic, i turn — as i so often do — to the words of dorothy day, who in turn had leaned into the holy wisdom of therese of lisieux, the little saint who preached a spirituality of “the little way,” to mine her everlasting, every day truth:

From Therese, Dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured might ease the burden of others….We could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. These were the loaves and fishes. We could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. It was all a matter of faith.

Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, Edited and with an Introduction by Robert Ellsberg

it’s a place, and a way to begin, for us little people, the ones of us who know full well the real battlefield that calls us every day is the one not too far from our front door, the quotidian one, the one whose players we might know well or not at all. the strangers within our reach. the ones who might be taken wholly by surprise by a sudden gust of kindness, out-of-nowhere kindness. the ones who might find courage a little bit contagious, who might pick up the pieces and pass it on.

once upon a time, stoked by pictures of starving children from biafra, fueled by the stories in time magazine i’d take to my room to read when no one was watching, i used to dream i’d cure world hunger. i imagined i could lope the globe, fill bellies, spoon unicef gruel into mouths open and hungry, like little birds.

it hurts plenty to shed those dreams, to watch them wither away, to realize you were pie in the almighty sky, and some crazy fool besides. what gets tough, gets real, is to station yourself squarely in the middle of your humdrum life, to look out across the landscape, and seek the moments where you might infuse your own cockeyed brand of dorothy day’s little kindness, little strength, little courage.

this bedraggled world needs every bold (but little) drop.

where will you begin?

redoubling

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sign in a shop window on a busy street nearby

redouble re·​dou·​ble | \ rē-ˈdə-bəl \ v. 1. make or become greater greater, more intense, or more numerous; make twice as great in size or amount. we will redouble our efforts. 2. a. (obsolete) to echo back. b. (archaic) repeat.

 

dear people, these are our marching orders. and we do need redouble today. redouble. quadridouble. centidouble. be fruitful and fruitful and multiply.

be kind and kinder. be fierce in your kindness. unclench your fists, resist the urge to punch at the walls. rise above the lowest common denominator. set a new holier bar.

as i dipped into silence this morning, stared out the window at the blessed quiet of this snowfallen morning, where only the cardinal and a few of his acolyte sparrows are animating the tableau, i thought of what this day will bring, what this weekend might be steeped in. i remembered that we are a nation of vitriol at this too-long moment in time. i remembered how crushed we might feel, and how in times of feeling the hard boot heel of history pressing against the breakable bones of our ribcage, the prewired instinct might be to fight back. to wield weapons in kind.

so this is an appeal to resist and redouble. to not knock down vitriol with more vitriol. to put our faith in the longer game. to rustle up every voter you know. to drive them to the polls. bring a bundt cake for good measure. try to believe that goodness might once reign again. that we can be rinsed of this age of disregard, of indecency, of school-lot bullying. in the meantime, write a thank you note. call up the white-domed Capitol, and ask for whoever it is you want to pat on the back. tell them in no uncertain terms what a hero they are. and how you are so eternally grateful. how you hope your kids grow up to be half the hero they are. how they filled you with hope, watching, listening. how contagious their courage was and will be. how you promise you’ll pay it forward, the courage you saw in the face of unthinkable pressure.

there’s an expression–kill ’em  with kindness; i say melt ’em. melt ’em with kindness in the hours ahead. try to make sense, and let your simple acts of kindness be your foot in the door. even with tears in your eyes.

there are corners of the world, not far from our very front doors, where mercy is needed. be merciful. seek out the ones who have no one to turn to. be the face of kindness, be kindness in the flesh. listen to those who are talking into the wind. be the short burst, the certain burst, of goodness dropped from the heavens. we’re all born fully equipped. God gave us two arms so one could reach out while the other held tight. redouble your kindness. redouble your hope.

be the instrument of peace. clear a path in your world and pave it with act upon act of tenderest mercy.

some days, some moments in time, it’s our only hope.

how will you redouble your kindness today?

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