When Kind Meets Nasty

“Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” (Marcel Proust)

Attribution: Donna CameronHave you ever come into contact with someone who is just . . . nasty? Rude, insensitive, unpleasant, maybe even a bully? I suspect we all have.

The first thing to ask when we encounter such people is whether “offensive” is their default setting, or if maybe they are—like Judith Viorst’s Alexander—having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

If it appears that the latter is the case, the kind response might be to offer some empathy. “It looks like you’re having a tough day. Can I help?” Or even just silently give them the benefit of the doubt—she must be struggling with some challenges right now. I know this isn’t who she really is. Sometimes these acknowledgements—offered without responding in the same tone or attitude of the offender—will give them the opportunity to pause and look at their behavior, and sometimes even alter it or apologize for it.

But if you’ve had similar encounters with this person before and know them to be perpetually unpleasant, angry, and aggressive, giving them a pass is less than satisfying. Sometimes it feels like we’re letting mean win. So, what’s the best strategy for those inevitable encounters with thoroughly odious people? Continue reading

What Are You Holding Back?

“Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality.” (The Dalai Lama) 

Wikimedia CommonsMy talent as a cook is about equal to my interest in cooking—random and fleeting, sporadic at best. Fortunately for me and our friends, my husband is a good cook, and a venturesome one. He does the lion’s share of the meal prep in our household.

Many years ago, he decided he wanted to master potato salad. He tried several recipes, but never found one that excited him. His stepmother made an exceptionally good potato salad and that’s what he was aiming for. So he asked step-mom for her recipe. She refused.

For whatever reason, she didn’t want anyone else to have her recipe. I wish I could say I was surprised, but she was one of those people who held tightly to everything she had. She had neither open hands nor an open heart. A few years later she died, taking with her the secret to her great potato salad. Sadly, the loss of the salad was probably mourned more than the loss of the woman.

Bill did finally find a great potato salad recipe, shared by TV personality Joan Lunden. We appreciate her generosity every time we enjoy the salad and make it for friends.

As previously noted, my own cooking is generally mediocre and uninspired, but on those rare occasions when someone asks for one of my recipes, I am elated and eager to comply. I have even been known to inflict unrequested recipes on my dinner victims guests. And, fortunately, my friends—who are all fabulous cooks—are always generous in sharing their recipes.

I’ve never understood people who are unwilling to share their recipes. What is it they’re holding on to? Does it give them a sense of superiority to know that no one else will ever be able to replicate their Chicken Marsala or Cherry Chocolate Walnut Cream-Cheese Pie? How much better it would be to know there are people preparing our recipes and thinking of us fondly as they do.

Refusing to share a recipe is just one example of how we sometimes senselessly withhold things in our lives—from recipes, to compliments, to knowledge, to assistance.

In my professional life, I occasionally saw this behavior exhibited by colleagues who somehow felt that holding information close to their vest gave them an advantage. I would see them strategically spring their information in a board or committee meeting, often blindsiding other colleagues who would have welcomed the knowledge earlier. Sometimes this resulted in needless scrambling to adapt to new information that should have been provided sooner. While the individual who withheld the information may have been perceived as smart or powerful, they were acting in their own interest rather than the group’s or organization’s.

Writer Annie Dillard has addressed this more eloquently than anyone I know:

“The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

How many of us are guilty of saving things for special occasions, realizing only much later that we never actually enjoyed having them. Maybe it’s a piece of clothing, or a delicate china tea-cup, or a journal so beautiful we hesitate to write in it. Often those special occasions never come, and we die with our treasures neatly tucked away, wrapped in tissue paper.

A story to illustrate this made the rounds of cyberspace many years ago. The author writes about how she and her brother-in-law found an exquisite and expensive silk and lace slip among her sister’s things after she died. It had never been worn—she had been saving it for years for just the right “special occasion.” They had her buried in it.

As writers, we are sometimes guilty of holding onto our ideas, saving them for just the right time, waiting for the ideal place to share them, or the perfect time to tell our story. We delay so long that sometime those stories never get told—and we were the only one who could have told it in just that way. What were we waiting for?

What we love and treasure is not meant to be hoarded or held back, but to be used, shared, enjoyed, and savored. More will come, it always does. Likewise, what we have or know and can give to others is meant to be offered.

Is there anything in your life that you’re holding back—either not sharing with others or not allowing yourself to enjoy? What are you waiting for?

“Don’t die with your best song still unsung.” (Anonymous)

Where Is Your Querencia?

“There is a way to live that makes the angels cry out in rapture. There is a way to live that makes each cell a star.” (from “Clearing,” Morgan Farley)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Harmony Hill

In recent days, I’ve seen a number of writers and bloggers declare that they chose a single word to be their theme or focal point for 2017. In place of traditional resolutions, they selected words like joy, trust, focus, even kindness, to be their inspiration for the year. I started thinking about what word I might choose. Of course, kindness is my raison d’etre. It’s more than just a word—to me it’s a way of living. It’s at the heart of everything. I looked for another word that might speak to the journey ahead.

The one that sprang to mind is a word I encountered some years ago, in one of my favorite books, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Author Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, introduced the concept of querencia, It is a word that has many meanings—none of them especially clear, and that very imprecision contributes to its allure.

Dr. Remen describes how her cat, Charles, finds querencia in certain favorite places in the house they share—behind the drapes, under the stairs, even in one particular spot in plain sight on the living room rug. There, Charles is fearless, he is calm and relaxed. He casts off his usual wariness and basks in serenity. Remen herself finds querencia walking through Muir Woods in early morning before the tourists arrive. She also describes how when the cancer patients she works with find their querencia it begets in them a new strength and peace.

What is this marvelous and magical place?

Most commonly, querencia is used to describe the place in a bull ring (“corrida”) where the bull goes to feel safe and to gather his strength. For each bull it is a different place, so it is the job of the matador to recognize where querencia is for each bull, and keep him out of that spot. I find the idea of bull-fighting abhorrent, but the concept of finding our individual place of safety and sanctuary—while a force tries to keep us away from it—that is compelling … and certainly timely.

As I researched the word online, I found other definitions for querencia:

From Wikipedia: In Spanish, querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.

John Jeremiah Sullivan defines querencia as “an untranslatable Spanish word that means something like ‘the place where you are your most authentic self’.”

Other definitions:

  • A place in which we know exactly who we are; the place from which we speak our deepest beliefs
  • A safe haven, lair, or sanctuary

If I were a teacher, I would introduce my students to this word. I would put it on spelling tests and ask students to write papers describing their querencia. If I were a parent, I would talk to my child about querencia and encourage them to become familiar with their own place of safety and strength.

How wonderful it would have been at age 8 or 18 to know such a word, to know that there is a place of security and refuge that is ours alone, a place to go to gather strength and be exactly who we are, with no pressure to conform to norms or expectations imposed by others. No matter how idyllic one’s childhood may be, there are always times when we look for safe haven, or when we seek the confidence to speak from the depths of our heart, or when we recognize the place where we come face-to-face with our most authentic self and know that we have found something precious.

Querencia can be a physical place: at the foot of a favorite tree, a cozy window seat, a forest path. Or it can be a place inside us where we breathe into our own strength and feel our own certainty, a certainty that we don’t need to share with anyone else or proselytize to others to convince ourselves. Querencia might be the sense of transport we feel when we read a book, knowing as we do so that it is changing our life. And it might be that sense of oneness with nature that occurs when a place takes our breath away and replaces it—if only for an instant—with its own essence. Or it might be what we feel when we listen to a symphony by Sibelius. For each of us it will be different.

There are places I go to for querencia: the deck of our cabin facing Mt. Pilchuck and the Cascade Range, the labyrinth I built a few summers ago and walk every chance I get, certain books or passages from books that resonate to the thrum of my heart. In my memory, I go to a tiny, secluded cove near a condo my husband and I stayed in years ago on the island of St. John. It was a place of perfect peace, warm water, and star-studded night skies.

As I get older and shed some of the excesses from my life, I see that my inner querencia is much less elusive than it once was. I have cleared a space for it. That matador whose job it has been to keep me away from my querencia has also become less vigilant—perhaps she, too, recognizes the importance of having that place of personal sanctuary.

Something tells me querencia will be a much-needed refuge for many of us in the coming year. It will be a place to retreat to when we see and hear things that denigrate our values, when we are worn down by the effort of standing up to injustice, and when we need to replenish our souls in order to continue standing up.

I didn’t know the word as a child, but I know it now, and I think it’s a fine word to be my companion for 2017. Feel free to adopt it as your own. There is querencia for each of us. Where’s yours?

“Within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” (Hermann Hesse)

Looking Forward: Will Kindness Rally in 2017?

“If you ask me what I came to this world to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.” (Emile Zola)

Attribution: Donna CameronI try always to spend some time in contemplation at the end of each year. I’m not big on holiday celebrations, decorations, or entertaining, but I like to use that time to find my quiet center and think about the year that is coming to a close, as well as to set intentions for the year ahead.

I’ve probably said enough about 2016, the year of the bully, the year we saw the phrase “anything is possible” come to mean “welcome to the apocalypse.” I will only say that kindness took quite a hit. But it’s not down and it’s not out. That brings me to the new year.

As I look forward to 2017, I’m noticing a complexity to my intentions. It seems like it is not so much setting goals as managing polarities—trying to find the right balance between seemingly opposite, conflicting objectives.

Kindness vs. Confrontation:

I want to be kind. I also want to stand up to injustice and bigotry with all my strength and with my full voice. These two things need not be in conflict, but sometimes it is hard to be kind when face-to-face with deliberate incivility, prejudice, and disregard for the truth. I struggle with the challenge of remaining kind while also standing up to lies and bigotry. I remind myself to call out the behavior not the person, but there are people whose behaviors speak so loudly of who they are that it is hard to separate the two. And maybe sometimes we can’t…and shouldn’t. I will be ready. I will practice standing up to bigotry without expressing similar intolerance. I will think now about what I will say if I see someone being harassed because they are a minority, or a member of the LGBTQ community, or differently-abled—be it on a plane, in a store, or online. I will not be silent.

Isolation vs. Activism:

I want to withdraw into a place where the gloom is not so constant, where I can sometimes forget for a few hours that values like honesty, integrity, and equality have been kicked to the curb. I want to lick my wounds and take care of myself and the people I love. At the same time, more than ever I want to speak out, to march, to use whatever meager talents I have to stand for what I believe to be right. I recognize that self-care must be a priority if I am to be in this fight for the long-haul, and if I am to avoid becoming perpetually angry and a hardened cynic. As something of an introvert, I know that for me self-care means residing in quiet places where I can replenish my spirit and reconnect with my deepest values. When refueled, I can cluster with like-minded people, draw strength from them, and let them draw strength from me. I will not be silent.

Optimism vs. Pessimism:

I want to be an optimist; that is my default setting (while my husband has firmly claimed the opposite position). But I also know that mindless optimism is dangerous. I have to be realistic and cognizant to the fact that there are people in positions of power who are counting on the obliviousness and optimism of their foes. If I deny the damage they can do and simply trust that “all will be well,” their greed, bigotry, and deceit will grow and take a deeper hold. So, I’m going to try for what I’m calling optimistic realism: I anticipate that the year ahead is going to introduce us to rings of hell we never imagined, and I also recognize that those of us standing up to prejudice and the misuse of power will ultimately triumph over those destructive forces by our sheer numbers and our unwavering commitment. I will not be silent.

What Remains Sacred

Even with these apparent polarities to be managed, there are still some things that brook no compromise, that stand alone as values to be upheld—no matter what:

Truth is one such absolute. Sadly, the biggest casualty of 2016 was the truth. We have seen that there are people for whom the truth is only important when it serves their interests, and who will trample on it if it gets in their way. History has shown us what happens when people allow truth to be selective and manipulated. Truth may not always be pretty, and it may not be soothing, but we must face it and act accordingly. We must not be silent.

Integrity, like truth, is not conditional. We either act with integrity or we don’t. Most of us know the difference. Those who don’t need to be enlightened and if they still disregard integrity, they need to be removed from power. We must not be silent.

Justice and equality. These two go together. There is no justice if standards apply differently depending on the ethnicity, gender, or status of the individuals. There are no groups that are inherently superior, none that are intrinsically entitled. Having said that, there may be times when justice and equality dictate that we offer an advantage to make up for decades of disadvantage. Someone once said, “At the table of peace there will be bread and justice.” That table has no place for those who measure success by wealth and who equate affluence with power. We must not be silent.

Since launching this blog, I’ve started and ended each year with one particular quote from Neil Gaiman. This year, it’s still Neil Gaiman, but it’s a different quote:

Be kind to yourself in the year ahead. Remember to forgive yourself, and to forgive others. It’s too easy to be outraged these days, so much harder to change things, to reach out, to understand. Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin. Meet new people and talk to them. Make new things and show them to people who might enjoy them. Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.

Peace and thanks to all of you, my friends. Sharing with you the joys, sadnesses, challenges, and disappointments of 2016 has strengthened me and fed my resolve. I feel blessed to be part of a warm and embracing community. My wish for you—for all of us—in the coming year is for health, happiness, laughter, strength, voice, community, and, of course, kindness.

Operating Instructions for a Kind Life

“Every once in a while take out your brain and stomp on it—it gets all caked up.” (Will Rogers)

seashellMy friend Kathi introduced me to the concept of a “hermit crab essay.” The term was coined by essayists Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola and refers to writing that—like a hermit crab living in the shell of another creature—uses an entirely different form to convey the narrative. It might be a recipe, a police report, a to-do list, or countless other structures. Here’s an example of self-exploration in the form of a personality quiz, and another addressing romantic temptation in the form of a medical diagnosis.

I wanted to try my hand at hermit crabbing, so I have attempted to write operating instructions for living a kind life. Thanks for indulging me and thanks, Kathi, for introducing me to something new.

Operating Instructions for the Commitment to Kindness Kit™ 2.0

Thank you for investing in the 2016 Commitment to Kindness Kit™, version 2.0. These operating instructions should help you make the most of your investment. As you know, this is a particularly challenging year, with elections demonstrating the worst of human behaviors. Your interest in creating a kinder world places you with millions of other humans who are pledging to make kind choices, even as they witness contrary behaviors. These directions will help you become a kindness ambassador—modeling kindness and compassion wherever you are and changing the world for the better, one act of kindness at a time.

Materials Needed: Before we begin, let’s review the supplies and skills that you will need. First of all, you will need patience. This is not an overnight endeavor. You will also need courage, curiosity, and grace under pressure. A sense of humor will often come in handy, too. Manufacturer recommends a daily application of gratitude to assure optimum performance and possibly extend the life of the operator. Do not worry if you don’t always have these tools at the ready; they will come with practice, sometimes appearing when you least expect it.

Step One: Suspend judgment. When in situations where the behavior of others baffles or annoys you, switch on your ability to empathize and give the benefit of the doubt. Assume their good intent and look for a possible explanation for the behavior. Perhaps they are afraid or stressed. Maybe they are embarrassed. Could they be facing a challenge that you are unaware of? Assume that they are doing their best and not intentionally disrupting your life. If all else fails and you cannot excuse the behavior, imagine that they have been put in your path to teach you something you need to learn. What is it? Approach with curiosity and compassion. Note: Step one requires practice; nobody gets it right the first time. Remember that you are in good company.

Step Two: Start small. Unless you are a bona fide saint or holy person, you may have years of obliviousness to overcome. One good way to start is by frequently asking yourself these questions: What is the kind response here? and How can I make this person’s day? Sometimes a smile, a gracious word, eye-contact, or a door held open are all the kindness needed to ignite joy.

Step Three: Let go of fear. Fear blocks the path of kindness. Whether it’s fear of embarrassment, rejection, getting it wrong, or being vulnerable, take a deep breath and let it go. Replace fear with the courage borne of your best intentions. Think about the possibilities your kindness might manifest and proceed confidently.

Step Four: Pause frequently. Instead of acting instantly in response to external stimuli, pause and think about whether your reflexive response will improve or worsen the situation. Assess the actual need for the sarcastic comment or the clever put-down…or even the subtle eye rolls. Note: Remember that a pause is not a vacant space; it’s a choice point. Choose wisely.

Step Five: Pay attention. Kindness is all around, as are opportunities to extend kindness. Kindness requires presence and practice. It is recommended that you refer to these instructions frequently, until operation of your kindness mechanism becomes second nature.

Step Six: Remember to refuel. Sustained kindness is powered by self-care and ample rest. Kindness begins with each of us. If we can’t be kind to ourselves or don’t think we’re worthy of kindness, we can’t be consistently kind to others or to the world. Accordingly, get sufficient sleep. Being well-rested helps us make kind and ethical choices. Plus, we have the energy and reserves to deal with whatever comes up. Manufacturer cannot be responsible for actions taken when operator is running on empty.

Step Seven: Repeat as needed. Remember that kindness itself is not your destination, but it is the never-ending path you have chosen to follow. Occasionally you will stumble off the path. That’s normal, just try to stumble back on as soon as possible.

Warnings and Cautions: Users would be wise to remember that there are people who will denigrate or demean your kindness, mislabeling it as weak or inconsequential. Disregard to the degree possible. Occasionally, people will misinterpret your kindness, and may react to it in unexpected ways. Proceed with both caution and confidence. Ultimately, kindness is contagious; as others see you practice they may be inspired to do the same.

The manufacturer assumes no liability for results when product is used while operator is smug or sanctimonious. These behaviors generally reduce or eradicate effectiveness and may result in unexplained rejection, unwarranted suspicion, or warped interpretations. Should any of these occur, user is encouraged to apply fresh kindness liberally and await a different result. If instructions are consistently followed, operator will enjoy a lifetime of kindness and the associated pleasures it brings.

These instructions should assure thorough and long-term satisfaction in your 2016 Commitment to Kindness Kit™ 2.0. As further updates are made to this product, you will receive notification.

œ[Fellow bloggers: try writing a post or essay using a hermit crab format—a recipe, a letter, an obituary…whatever appeals to you. See if it brings you a fresh perspective. The possibilities are endless … and it’s a most enjoyable exercise.]

“Art doesn’t just happen by accident. It is about pulling out new tricks and trying new things.” (Nicholas Meyer)