God is the madwoman in the attic.
I'm camped out on the threshold with my journal, camera, and plenty of snacks.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

American kindness

"Congratulations on the baby."

Mr. J is our local vendor of Real Change. He stands outside the local organic grocery store greeting people, chatting with regulars, and selling the paper. Mr. J first noticed our family over a year ago while I was still on maternity leave with Baby N.

"Congratulations on the baby," he'd say every time we passed by. It always made me smile. Those early months with the baby were so hard for me, so isolating and sad. I clung to any one who recognized me and confirmed that I was visible and real.

L & Baby N see Mr J all the time now. N likes to walk the block where J sells his papers. Mr J greets us all - or if one of us is out alone he asks about the others. In the same way, we miss him when he is gone and look for his return. Our chats are simple small talk - weather, Baby N's new skills, places we've lived... but they still bind us to each other as neighbors. And of course we buy the paper from him.

Today Mrs. M from upstairs joined L and Baby N for their morning walk. On the way back they stopped to chat with Mr. J. Mrs. M is from Japan and speaks only a little English, so it was kind of a surprise when, as they continued home, she asked L, "Is that American kindness?"

Yes. This is what American kindness looks like. It's a gracious stranger recognizing a new mother, day after day. It's a stay-at-home dad with a young son sharing all the new developments with another father who is far from his family. It's cash when we have it; it's a free paper when we don't. Each of us sharing what's at hand.

Maybe you would call it "charity" and leave it at that. But Mrs. M was right. It's kindness. Mr. J's kindness buoyed me during an unspeakably dark time. Lately, Mr. J is wrestling with his own darkness. One evening he told me, "I was just thinking that I needed a smile. I looked up & those two [L & Baby N] were walking toward me. I got my smile." Our family buoys him right back.

Who are you familiar strangers? What anonymous friends hold you afloat? Maybe the barista that serves up your morning, or the bus driver that brings you home at night. Maybe the physician's assistant that you see at every appointment, or the kids' crossing guard. What American kindness buoys you and how do you return it? I bet you do. & it matters.

For more about Real Change, how to get involved or how to donate, please visit their webiste: http://www.realchangenews.org/ or pick up a paper from your local vendor. Thank you!

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