I have been searching for connection and kindness my whole life without consciously realizing it. In 1995 when I took my first writing workshop with Natalie Goldberg at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, Natalie pulled me aside on the third day of the five day workshop, the day when I was sure my writing was shit and I thought I should gather my belongings and go home, and she told me, “You don’t even know how good your writing is. You just want to connect, your writing is about connection with people.” I heard her enough to stay until the end of the week, but I couldn’t really take in what she said. Nine years later when I moved to Shanghai I finally understood what she meant about connection, though I’m still working on getting what she said about the writing.
I was about 12 years old the first time I saw Blanch DuBois say, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” I was mesmerized by Vivian Leigh’s rendering of that phrase and heard it over and over again throughout the years, saying it myself, hearing other people say it, and watching A Streetcar Named Desire numerous times. On the surface, the line seems so simple and uncomplicated, one that anyone could say or write. But like the title of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Kindness in her wonderful book, Words Under The Words, it is the words beneath the words of that famous line and the kinds of connection the kindness of strangers ignites that give it it’s deep meaning and resonance.
It’s the people who make a place isn’t it? Place is important, just ask any writer, but it’s the people who pepper that place who make it come alive. Those people cling to your heart and alter the molecular structure of your daily life and your whole being when you live in a place that is not your country of origin. I’ve found where ever I’m living, when I connect with local people through their acts of tremendous kindness first as strangers, then as friends, I form impenetrable bonds that will last a lifetime.
When I was getting my MFA at Antioch University in LA, Steve Heller, the chairman of the program, asked me to tell him in one sentence what my novel, A Walk In The Mist, was about when he became my faculty mentor. I became flustered and sweaty and felt like I was sitting in a hot seat with an ejector button he would push if I didn’t say the right thing. “It’s about China,” I told him. “No,” he said after a long pause, “it’s about what happens to the narrator while she’s living in China.”
Of course. Steve was right. It seemed so clear and simple when he said those words out loud to me, “it’s about what happens to the narrator while she’s living in China,” but I hadn’t seen that before. Those twelve simple words suddenly made a deep and dormant connection to my writer self, and the novel took on new shape and form. The narrator, Lisa Downey, I’d like to believe, became more alive on the page as she became more conscious of her connections to, and relationships with, her Chinese friends. Lisa Downey, is not me, but she experiences some of the same things I experienced while living in Shanghai. Like me, she is the recipient of much kindness from strangers and understands her life and herself in ways she never would have if she hadn’t moved to China. Like me, when she leaves Shanghai for good, she wonders how any laowai (foreigner) could move to China and never make one Chinese friend, never make one heart to heart connection with someone or someones she will always be connected to by an invisible thread.
Just as I finally understood connection when I moved to Shanghai, I also finally understood kindness. I mentioned Naomi Shihab Nye earlier and I only began to understand her poem “Kindness” during my time in China though I had been teaching it for five years in the US:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.
The second stanza, and in particular this line, “You must see how this could be you” stunned me in a way it never had before when I read it for the umpteenth time six months after landing in Shanghai. I could see how this could be me. Everything I hated as a child growing up in my family–inconsistent rules and punishments, having no money and having to scrabble for every single cent, not being able to rely on anyone or anything, even having bad teeth because who could afford dental care?–served me well during my time in Shanghai. I understood the behavior most laowai scoffed at, laughed at, or were repulsed by, and once I had a baseline of capacity to communicate in rudimentary Mandarin, I could connect with my Chinese friends in the deepest and abiding way possible: by sharing stories. I could hear theirs and they could hear mine. We could see how “this could be you.” We first made our connections as strangers, through kindnesses based on behavior, not on words, and deepened those connections by what Edward P. Jones calls an ancient compulsion–we told stories.
I hope to tell more stories here on this blog and hope to connect to you and hear from you. Thanks so much for reading.