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.