Sunday, January 17, 2010

The kindness of others

Kindness is a hard concept to pin down. The word's innocuous, like the word 'nice.'

One the one hand, everybody knows what both words mean. We hear them every day, we're admonished and encouraged to act towards others in these ways, to do things that are nice or kind, and we each try so hard so often to do just that.

But I think it's precisely because the words are used so often, and so readily, that they've lost their meaning. We don't really know what somebody's saying when they say that something we do is 'nice,' or observed that we've been 'kind.'

Well, speaking for myself, I'll say that I don't always know what somebody's saying when they tell me that a thing I've done or made or said is nice or kind.

I've had that experience - once, at the end of a laundry list of alleged transgressions, it was observed that something I did was 'nice.' It sounded like an insincere acknowledgment, a back-handed compliment with the emphasis on back-handed.

I also had another recent experience, two of them, actually, and both came as affirmations of what kindness and thoughtfulness and being nice can really mean. They were each delivered directly to my door by a uniformed employee of the federal government, which is also a nice thing. Who doesn't look forward to the mailman?

The first was from an old acquaintance who still publishes a highly-regarded paper newsletter about food. John Thorne is the equivalent of an online or blogging buddy from the days when the world wide web had been conceived, but not adopted or even known by anybody who wasn't a diehard geek or computer researcher at CERN. I was struggling back then with my own publication 'Tips From the Pit,' so-called because I was determined to make my name as the foremost authority on all things barbecue, and after I first reached out to John he never stopped commenting, encouraging, advising, and cheering me on, in pretty much the same way that those thousands of people line the route of the Boston Marathon each April, holding out paper cups of Gatorade for the runners to snatch along the way, yelling at them "You can do it! You can do it!"

I reconnected with John last month when I ordered a copy of his latest book directly through his web site, as a gift for my son's girlfriend. Among the many other benefits of eliminating the middleman, I got an inscribed and autographed copy, which made for an impressive gift. I followed his package to me by sending him and Matt one of my daughter's holiday cards. John, in turn, sent me a copy of his very fine limited edition essay on milk toast, including the inscription, "When the world is too much with you."

The second came from a nice young man named Shin, who lives in Korea and is pursuing my daughter with what I believe are the best intentions. They met online, each helping the other learn their respective languages, and at some point not too long ago Shin decided to fly halfway around the world for a face to face visit. He joined us for dinner one night. I barbecued a chicken.

Shin's 'thank you' package arrived at the same time as John's hand-crafted pamphlet, and included a fine note for Jeanne and me, along with two bookmarks. I got the one with a picture of a woodpecker, and Jeanne selected the one illustrating an old Korean folk tale that involves beautiful young girls on a swing by the river, and timid monks watching from behind the bushes.

I'm also grateful for the comments and emails from the small, but big-hearted, audience that keeps an eye on this blog.

All of these gifts aren't just kind of nice. They're true kindnesses, and they're very welcomed.

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