Friday, April 5, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers (In the category of Want What You Have.)

“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – Blanche Du Bois, A Streetcar Named Desire.

I’ve quit worrying about why things happen the way they happen. I used to obsess over them, the reasons why. I thought if I understood why things were as they were I could better control the positive and negative implications as they cropped up in my day-to-day. I believed that knowing why something happened allowed me to prevent (or ensure) such a thing happening again. I doubt I am unique in this regard. I think we all try to establish some sense of control over our lives, some framework of purpose and drive. It helps us cope with the stark truth of our powerlessness as mere mortals, foolish monkeys, self-absorbed egos and ids clamoring for the lion’s share of attention (only to be eaten by the lion). It allows us to impose the illusion of order onto the chaos that rules us all.

I was wrong, of course, about needing to know why. I’ve since learned: Sometimes you get to understand why, but it is rarely useful information. It rarely comforts. Worse, I think it has the potential to hold us all back. Insistence on the need to understand why can prevent us from moving onto what and how. “Why” is a cerebral process; it happens in our heads. It teaches us to be cautious when it comes to connecting with others. (Why should I be their friend?) “Where” and “how” are processes that confront the outside world, where we connect with strangers who may or may not show us kindness.

I believe the connection matters, kindness notwithstanding. I think it is our life’s purpose to reach out and interact with as many strangers as possible, and, if possible, turn them into friends. Friendship creates a synergy that allows both parties to feel a little less isolated or misunderstood. We teach each other, we learn, we find common ground and ways to make the chaos less terrifying, even if only for a short time. We come to feel that we are not alone, at least not always.

Please don’t ask me to explain why I like you and want to be your friend. Chances are I have no articulable reason. It was something you said, the way you said it, or some way you moved or something you did for someone or for me. It comes from my heart. My heart says, “Hey, there’s a possible friend,” and I go with it. I don’t hold back. I’m in 100%. Until you prove me wrong, I trust you not to deliberately hurt me. My philosophy is no risk, no reward, and I would rather risk the hurt than miss the rewards that come with friendship, with any relationship.

It wasn’t always so simple. Let’s go back in time.

I attended the same elementary school (Malibu Elementary in Virginia Beach, Virginia) for grades 1-7. My classmates for the most part did, too, and we usually ended up in the same classroom every year. Together, we moved up through the grades, out of childhood and into puberty. You’d think that under these conditions, we would all have become bosom buddies, lifelong chums who stood by each other year in and year out as we tackled the common challenges of learning to read, write cursive, add, subtract, and sustain two minutes of doing the bent arm hang. You’d be wrong.

I was an awkward child anyway, very self-conscious about having to wear glasses and about being taller than most everyone in my class (certainly all of the boys). I lacked confidence, though I am sure my parents did not intend for me to interpret the constant admonishment, “You can do better, Kim” as “You’re not good enough, Kim.” I was also very bookish, and my vocabulary at that age outpaced that of my classmates, which, in hindsight, I think was probably off-putting.

Something certainly put my classmates off. I don’t know if it was an odd-year even-year thing or what, but every other year I attended that elementary school, my friends turned on me. First grade, no problem -- I didn’t have many friends, but I joined the Brownies, and made a few, especially Lora, Kathy, and Michelle. Second grade started out okay but halfway through the year, Lora, Kathy and Michelle decided to quit speaking to me (which made Brownies very awkward as Lora’s mother was the troop leader). I begged to know why, but even at the age of seven, these little bitches had mastered the cold shoulder. Worse, they seemed to have convinced the rest of the class that I was persona non grata. Third grade started rocky, but then the three decided they had missed me and couldn’t remember why they had quit speaking to me in the first place.

All was right with the world.

This pattern repeated itself throughout the next few years. I’d fall out of their graces one year only to be miraculously brought back into the fold the next, but without ever knowing why I’d been kicked out in the first place. They were lonely years. I shed many tears. I learned to hold back.

Fifth Grade Class Picture. In the back row again.

We moved to Norfolk, Virginia the summer before I started 8th grade, effectively breaking the love-me-hate-me cycle that these girls had put me through. I was more cautious about forming friendships in Norfolk. I think I instinctively shielded myself from possible rejection. It didn’t help that my high school peers put me through a very similar pattern of love-me-hate-me, but the name calling gets nastier as we age. One year everyone called me a lesbian. The next year everyone called me a slut (truth: getting boobs young REALLY sucks). I continued to struggle with why. Why were they calling me a slut this year and not a lesbian? (They more correctly could have called me a virgin.) Why did they need to call me names at all?

No one in high school ever asked me out on a date. I turned to my male “platonic” friends to sort out things like the finer points of necking, how to give an outstanding hickey and just what constituted second base. It was more casual that way, without all the worry of being liked or getting it wrong. We were only practicing. We understood that. I went without a date to my senior prom and danced with most every guy there.
Prom Night

Things got easier in college. I found it liberating to move to a new town where the only person who had any preconceived beliefs about me was my sister, and she thought I was okay, if something of a pest. No one called me names anymore. Finally, I wasn’t the tallest in class. I didn’t have the biggest boobs. Strangers became friends, and some of them went out of their way to hurt me. Others did it inadvertently.

I still wanted to know, why? Why did he answer the phone when I called, and tell me he wasn’t home? Why was another rerun of Leave It to Beaver a better use of his time than seeing me? Why did he fuck my best friend? Why did she fuck him? Even after college, I still fell into the “why” trap. I was cautious about whom to trust, why to trust them. I would let people get close to me, but I never let myself need them. To do that would mean giving my whole heart, and I couldn’t risk it.

Another decade passed. By 2000, I found myself in a 9-year relationship that had dead-ended for me several years earlier. I had no desire to fix it, and I was afraid to end it. I knew I was being taken for granted. (It’s not hard to spot, especially on Valentine’s Day when you present your card and gift and get in return, “Oh, are we doing that this year?”) I resented it more than I realized, and the resentment began to manifest itself physically.

Though still in my early 30’s, my blood pressure skyrocketed to well above normal. I started clenching my jaws in my sleep, the pain of which left me with paralyzing headaches that never really went away. I developed insomnia and started missing work due to the headaches and sleep deprivation. I felt like I was losing my mind. I’m not overly religious, so I didn’t pray for solutions. I prayed for clarity. Jesus, Buddha, Allah, angels, Universe -- whoever -- please just let me understand what I need to do to feel right.

The answer was ridiculously simple: Risk it.

My moment of clarity was this: If I wasn’t “all in” in the relationship, I wasn’t really in it at all. With this realization, something in me shifted. I started to suspect that I had been too cautious with my life, with my heart. Had I ever been all in with any relationship? Honestly, no. I meditated on the implications. I am the type of person, who, when asked for relationship advice, will generally say it’s better to be alone than stuck in a shitty relationship. It was time to start practicing what I preached.

I knew my next steps would hurt people, but my only other option was to continue hurting myself. I knew I risked loneliness, but I had a faint glimmer of hope. A kind stranger who had become a friend, nothing more, and maybe it would never be more, but he understood me better in the few years of knowing him than Mr. Not Quite had been able to achieve in almost a decade.

Risk it. No risk, no reward.

When I finally jumped, it soon became clear that I had not underestimated the pain I would cause; I still live with that. But the risk paid off in ways that cannot be counted. (“How do I love thee…?”) My blood pressure went down to normal, my TMJ unclenched. The headaches abated, I started sleeping again. That glimmer of hope blazed into something deeper, and it felt real -- more real than any moment of the previous nine years. For once, I didn’t hold any part of me back for safekeeping.

It was all there in that moment of clarity, and I promised myself then, no more holding back. Ever. I get it. What matters in this life is to go all in, give 100%, make as many connections as possible, stop judging people -- always.

I was struggling to end this blog post when I got the word that my father was in the ICU in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he had moved five years earlier. I’m coming back to it now, after the memorial service and two long weekends spent in the town where Dad lived, and I must admit, I have a changed perspective on my ideas about the kindness of strangers -- about going all in, 100%. You see, while I was there, I learned something about my dad and how he comported himself.

He went all in, 100%.

Every person in the long receiving line after the service shared with me how, in one way or another, Dad had embraced the community. They embraced him in return. Over and over I heard, “He’s left a really big hole in our organization…  In only five years.

He sang in no fewer than three choirs, including, the church choir; his vocal range covered basso profundo, highly sought by choirmasters for the musical pieces that become accessible with the deepest male voice in the mix.  Members of all three choirs asked to sing at the memorial service. The choir director at Grace Episcopal welcomed them all

Neighbors, associates from the places he volunteered, folks who worked with him at the local polling station for the board of elections, seniors who he taught how to use a computer or English as a Second Language, students of his Bible study class, “church family” told me exactly how kind my dad was to strangers. How he depended on their kindness in return. How the synergy made it worth the risk.

It comforts me, this previously unknown connection that I have with Dad. It reminds me to always be a kind stranger. We all depend on them.

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