Friday, November 28, 2008

SURPRISED BY KINDNESS

A few weeks ago I wrote a column on black walnuts for a small-town newspaper. Just before Thanksgiving, I received an email from the paper’s editorial offices saying some lady had called and said that if I wanted them, she had some black walnuts she’s like to give me. I thought she meant whole walnuts. Several years ago, after writing another walnut piece for a different newspaper, a lady wrote in saying she had twenty-three 5-gallon buckets of walnuts still in the hull—mine if I’d drive up and collect them. Which I did…though that’s another story. But this recent caller had actually shelled, cracked, and picked out the tasty nutmeats already. When I called her back she said she had about three cups worth—a lot of work, in case you’ve never picked walnuts yourself. I was, to put it mildly, flabbergasted. “Why would want to give them to me?” I asked. She was one of the newspaper’s subscribers, but we’d never met. “I just figured with the holidays and all, you’d like to have some walnuts to put in cakes or cookies. I know from reading your nature columns that you cook and bake.” That afternoon I drove out to the farm she and her husband have near the edge of the county. A huge, sprawling brick home with several barns and outbuildings, all neat as a pen. The dooryard was graveled, all fallen leaves from the century-old maples sheltering the house had been raked and likely carted off to a hidden compost pile, nearby gates and fences were whitewashed and in perfect repair. And the wide side porch held a cute little doghouse—well, cathouse, as it turned out, though not THAT kind of cathouse—from which a cute black-and-white cat emerged, stretched, and began rubbing against my leg. I could see a thick pad inside the little building, which was doubtless a snug escape from the cold November wind blowing across the half-mile expanse of open field. The lady of the house answered the door with a smile. “My husband built that a couple of months ago,” she said, nodding at the cat’s shelter. “It has a little heat strip in it that’s on a thermostat and the walls are foam insulated. The cat has it made!” Turned out she and her husband—German Baptists, or what most folks in these parts called “Dunkars”, from their faith’s baptismal practices—had recently moved her mother from West Virginia and installed her in a new mobile home just behind the main house. It was actually the mother who’d plucked out the big ziplock bag full of nutmeats which I was handed, and for which I thanked my benefactor profusely. “Don’t worry,” she said, laughing, “I have plenty more. Mom likes to spend her evenings working through a bucket of walnuts. You’re most welcome to them—and beside, we all like to read your columns.” Driving home a few minutes later, I kept thinking of the effort it took to accumulate those nuts, idle time busy-work or not. I was humbled by the gift, surprised by such an unexpected act of kindness. We live in a cynical world, a world ruled by pessimism and fear. There are, indeed, people and cultures out there who’d like nothing better than to see us obliterated because they disagree with us. We can be hated for our faith…or lack. Killed over sex, money, boundaries, politics, or a parking space. No one and no place is entirely safe. And yet…and yet there are those moments of unexpected kindness which ought to say to each and every one of us that much human goodness still remains. Amidst all the war and hate and death there’s also joy and hope and love. Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly “relied on the kindness of strangers.” To me, that’s philosophically too much like expecting someone to do something good to you, or depending on being bailed out of a mess. Not that strangers haven’t bailed me out of plenty of messes over the years. Sill, it isn’t quiet the same. A fellow I know often goes into a fast-food restaurant and buys a meal for someone in a nearby line—a stranger. No strings. He doesn’t expect them to talk with him, or even thank him. If they ask why he’s doing such a crazy thing, he says simply that it makes him feel good. And it does. “Hey, it the best five bucks I can spend at McDonald’s,” he says. It certainly gives the term “Happy Meal” new meaning. The sad part about this is that it’s even worth writing about—that kindness should ever be unexpected and amazing. Strangers ought to be able to do nice things for one another without us questioning their motives. That ancient verse from Luke, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” is still a valid way to live our lives. Practicing the “Golden Rule” could go a long way toward ameliorating the world’s wrongs, on all levels from global to personal. The place to begin this is at home, with our own behavior, through our own acts of unexpected kindness. It can be as simple as taking a container of homemade soup next door to a neighbor…or calling up some writer after reading his piece on walnuts and offering to him a supply of precious nutmeats sufficient to last through the holidays. The lady who gave me that bag of walnuts knew the power and grace of this already. The rest of us need to learn it for ourselves.

6 comments:

The Solitary Walker said...

I loved this piece. Funnily enough, I wrote a couple of posts on the 'kindness of strangers' myself - about my 1st Camino walk. A precious thing, to give without wanting or expecting reward...

The grizzled but still incorrigible scribe himself! said...

How odd you should drop me these lines as I was just reading your blog re. how some song lyrics stand alone, without their music. I thought of some songwriters I like whose ability to string words together often stands as good as any prose, either at painting a picture, telling a story, or invoking a mood. Mary Chapin Carpenter is one who comes to mind, in several songs. Dan Fogleburg's "Sutter's Mill" is excellent at giving a history lesson in a few lines, including the joy and heartbreak of the California gold rush; a lot of writers couldn't do as good a job given an entire book. And Cheryl Wheeler's "When Fall Comes to New England," with lines about chipmunks running atop old stone walls and leaves turing "Irish setter red," you know she's been there, seen and loved it, carried it in her heart, and has the talent to write it out and share it with you and make you see it just as rich and vivid.

Anyway, thank you for reading the blog...and I'm glad you liked the little piece. The older I get, the more I try to live this way—giving, sharing, finding hope and joy in the kindness of strangers.

Jim

P.S. I'm seriously envious of your wonderful walks...

KGMom said...

Sorry to correct you as I am new to your blog--but two items in this blog caught my eye.
While I love the story of your visit to the German Baptist farm family, I must correct one item. The nickname for them was DUNKARDS. With a D.
And as for which writer had a character say "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers"--it was Tennessee Williams who had his character Blanche DuBois in "Streetcare Named Desire."

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

Well, your comment threw me into a minor tizzy. I'm a perfectionist, and fully capable of fiddling and futzing with a piece forever. My stories and such are like my children, and I want them to be at their best and as perfect as I can make them. I'll edit and re-edit stuff long after publication in print or on a blog—even though I know no one else but me is ever likely to notice.

Please don't get me wrong—I welcome an error being pointed out to me, spelling, grammar, syntax, factual, whatever. It's all too easy to be so "into" a piece and familiar with its lines and paragraphs that you mentally read words that aren't there. I've done this thousands of times over the years. The only cure for this is to set the piece aside for a few days or weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes for a final edit (or three) before publication. Even a few hours away helps—though not as much as multiple days.

Most of my blog entries could benefit from this technique. Unfortunately, I tend to see something, have an idea, maybe shoot a photo, write whatever down, and zap it off. No luxury of time. Slam, bam, thank-you, mam…with plenty of possibilities for an uh-oh later on.

Now, all that said…I didn't get either fact wrong. But here's the good part—neither did you; we're both right.

Re. my use of "Dunker" when you thought it should be "Dunkard," Scroll Publishing's history of the German Baptist Brethren says the same thing I did, that their common name derived from the baptismal practice of dunking (immersion.) From this they came to be known a "Dunkers," "Dunkards," "Tunkers," (a corruption of the German, "tunken" to dip, though I've personally never heard this name used). There are several sects stemming from the original movement, and most of the German Baptist folks I know—and I do know a great many, with whom I worked with, bought food from, taken fishing, shared meals, and singings, and even gone as a guest to their churches—are what's called "Old Order" which is the conservative sect. They often refer to themselves as GBs, Old Orders, Dunkers and Dunkards. There's lots of info on about them online—but really, my term was right and not misspelled.

Now, re. the "kindness of strangers" line and attribution…again, we're both correct. Both Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote employed the line in their respective pieces. (As have countless other writers since.) I'm sure Tennessee Williams was the first, though. Of course Tennessee and Truman were friends of a sort, and I suppose you know the famous story about one of their misadventures at Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West—so Truman's appropriation of the line might have been a sort of homage. Again, there are a lot of references to this online. And I plowed through them at length before I actually decided to use Capote rather than Williams, simply because I figured more readers would be familiar with movie version of Capote's work…a bad call, perhaps, because I guess it would have been better to go with the originator, but not technically incorrect.

As I said before, I strive to make this little blog as perfect as I can given my talent, mood, and the number of cups of coffee I've swilled when I actually write a piece. I may be a perfectionist, but I'm a long ways from perfect. Please feel free to rattle my chain whenever you think I've messed up.

KGMom said...

Huh--most interesting that Capote used the same phrase that Tennessee Williams used. If I were a betting woman (I'm not) I would wager Capote "stole" it. He was rather well-known for not always being fastidious in giving credit. Some believe his "In Cold Blood" was largely written by his cousin Harper Lee (who accompanied him when he went to watch the trial).
On the subject of Dunkards, I corrected your term because you used DUNKARS--not Dunkers. I know they were also called Dunkers. I grew up in a denomination that descended from River Brethren. They were also known as Dunkers.
In the year 2000, our family traveled to Switzerland, where my husband's family had come from. We visited a cave where some of these folks worshipped--behind a waterfall, to disguise the sounds of their singing. They were persecuted by both Catholic and Calvinists.
Sorry to throw you into a mino tizzy--I hope there was no bodily damage as a result.
Good to chat with you. More anon.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

Yup, I did spell it that way, as I've seen it spelled Dunkers, Dunkars, Dunkards, Dunkerds, and Dunkkers—two Ks. It was the way you put it, or I misread it, "The nickname for them was DUNKARDS. With a D." that made me think you were referring to something other than the "ars" vs. "ers" variation.

You could well be right re. Capote 's use of the line—theft rather than homage. He wasn't exactly an honorable writer or man, from what I've heard. But he could write well—and I've always liked his "A Christmas Memory" (I believe that's the title; am too lazy to amble down the hall to my workroom to check) and several of his shorter pieces.

Hey, I visited your blog this morning, liked your soup recipe (it may be part of the reason I wrote my bread thing today) and will be back.