Empowering Empathy

I’ve got four special middle grade novels to share with you today!

Novels for young people are unique breed. They are meant to entertain and educate, and some even have the power to foster a life-long passion for the written word. But perhaps most importantly, these stories can have a special role in encouraging a reader’s awareness and acceptance of others.

A good book lets you peek into the window of someone else’s life, and safely ask, “what makes that person behave the way they do?” The answer is often surprising and enlightening. And at its best, empathy empowering.

1) In Elly Swartz’s FINDING PERFECT, readers follow Molly Nathans as her desire for things to be perfect and well-ordered increasingly controls her life, vs. the other way around. We watch with growing concern as her ‘quirks’ become a more obvious and invasive obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is an extremely helpful read for anyone struggling to understand the behavior of OCD, and how ‘out of control’ one can feel…wrapped up with the hopeful message of what may lie on the other side of treatment.

2) Melissa Roske’s KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN  also explores the topic of obsessive-compulsive disorder, this time from the point of view of middle schooler Kat Greene, who watches her mother struggle with increasingly problematic behaviors. The story achingly shows how anxiety can manifest (and take over) in everyday life, and the things we do to deny that it’s happening (to ourselves and others). Readers will take away the message of “keep talking to helpful adults” woven into this compelling story of friendship & growth. 

3) Ellie Terry’s FORGET ME NOT is the story of a girl with Tourette syndrome who starts a new school and tries to hide her quirks. The window into understanding and feeling the unpredictability and frustration that is Tourette Syndrome is wide open as we follow Calliope June’s journey toward self-acceptance. Based in part on the author’s own experiences with TS, this beautiful novel in verse shows the realities and hardships of navigating new friendships, and is buoyed by a rich and realistic cast of supporting characters.

4) INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS by Dusti Bowling (yes that’s her real name!) also gives readers an honest look at what it’s like to navigate life with ‘significant’ differences. Main character Aven Green “loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them.” (Goodreads). When she moves to a new town, she is befriended by Connor, a boy who barks and spits because of his Tourette Syndrome. Both Aven and Connor understand what it feels like to not fit in, and more importantly, they both also know how to be a true friend.

I hope that you and/or a child in your life enjoy reading these fantastic new books on the kid lit scene. I’m grateful to the authors  for creating and sharing these lovable, strong, important characters. I know their stories will open minds and hearts.

It Ain’t Easy Being Kind

beingkind

I know that many of you are with me in my quest to infuse Guerrilla Kindness into the world. I hope you’ve been inspired to be part of my mobile irregular force performing small hit-and-run acts of kindness.

But here’s the truth: it can be hard to be kind on purpose.

Exhibit A

My mom had the fantastic (GENIUS) idea of asking family and friends to perform an act of kindness in honor of my sister’s milestone birthday. I was pumped. This was my wheelhouse! This was going to be fun. But, I also knew I had to think of something really special. So…I procrastinated. Then the calendar turned and the countdown was on. One day, I had a long list of errands planned. I was determined that this would be the day for my ‘act of kindness.’ I put on my goody two-shoes and hit the road.

But then.

Well, here’s the story as I told it to my sister.

A Kindness for Jenny

(a comedy in four acts)

 

Act One: Target

umbrella

As I pull into Target to make a return, four fat blobs of rain hit my windshield. I decide to take my umbrella with me. Good thing, as halfway to the front door, the heavens open and drop a giant load of rain all at once. People are running and screeching in the warm, unexpected downpour.

I cue up in line to make my return. The person ahead of me is a mom with three boys. One, a baby, is perched quietly in his car seat. Another, a toddler, is curled in the back of the cart. He is whining and crying in a repetitive moan, the cry of a child who either skipped or skimped their nap. The preschool-aged big brother is trying to soothe the toddler, which makes him scream louder.

The mom hears the thunderous rain on the roof, and turns to see my soaked shorts and shoes. “Oh course,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Of course it just started to rain.”

Her returns are confusing, her receipts are kerfuffled, her kids are restless.

Finally, she finishes up, and I take my place at the counter. Roused from my standing-in-line stupor, a thought occurs: the act of kindness for my sister’s birthday! This mom is the perfect recipient.

I keep my eye on her as I quickly complete my transaction. She is trying to cover the baby and the toddler and her purchases with one small blanket. I ponder offering to get her car for her, but realize that would be weird. I’ll drive them to her car in my car? Also weird. Okay, how about I just walk next to her with my umbrella, at least helping keep a portion of her posse dry?

Finished, I turn to follow her to the door, where she is watching to see if there will be a let up in the rain. But a small crowd has also gathered there, and it’s hard for me to get up to where she is. I’m making my way, when suddenly she grabs her preschooler with one hand, her cart with the other, and bolts. Pushing past people, I race out of the store after her. My extended umbrella held aloft, I call to her that I’d like to help. But the rain is too loud, and she is so darn fast! What is she, a sprinter? I’m chasing her, and getting soaked, because I’m holding my umbrella out in front of me as if I’ll be able to shelter her from five steps behind.

Then, in my haste and distraction, I am saved by another shopper who stops me before I run in front of a car pulling into the lot.

Situation: fail.

Act of kindness has been done to me, not by me!

 

Act Two: Grocery Store

brokenglass

 

A chance to redeem myself. I’m on the lookout for another harried mom. I’ll never forget those days, when everything was made a gajillion times harder by the constant presence of my little charges.

And there, in the dairy aisle, my opportunity: the distinctive CRASH of a glass jar of pasta sauce hitting the hard tile floor, dropped by a toddler. His mom looks around, embarrassed. She is dressed in a security guard uniform. She looks tired. I spring into action.

Me: Let me go get help for you!

Her (already pulling son out of cart): No, that’s ok, there’s always someone from the store right around here.

Me: Let me leave my cart over the mess, and you take your cart and keep shopping!

Her: No, that’s okay, I’m sure it won’t be long.

Reluctantly, I let her get her own help, and watch her leave her cart to mark the mess. I’m thinking maybe she’s just a really chill mom, and honestly didn’t need my help. But, when her son tries to grab a can off the shelf they’re passing and she snaps, “You’ve already made enough of a mess!” I know that she’s human. So, I give her a big smile and move on. But, a big smile? That can’t be my act of kindness! Not for my sister! I give big smiles out every dang day. I will continue my quest.

 

Act Three: Grocery Store Parking Lot

shoppingcart

I had gotten a good spot when I pulled in. The first spot next to the handicapped one. And here now, loading her car next to me, is an elderly woman. Carefully, bag by bag, she is setting her groceries in her back seat. Elderly woman in the handicapped spot. THIS IS IT.

She has one bag left.

Me: Let me help you with that!

Her: Oh, that’s okay, I’m almost done. (Puts last bag in).

Me: I’ll take your cart back for you.

Her: Oh, you don’t need to do that, dear. I can manage.

Me: Really, I’m taking mine back, too. Let me take your cart for you!

Her: Well, how far is it?

Me: It’s just right over there (two cars away).

Her: Well okay, dear, if you’d like.

I return the carts, and get back in my car. No, I think. My special act of kindness for my special sister cannot be that I walked an old lady’s cart 15 feet for her, when she didn’t really even want my help.

I get in my car, grab a piece of paper, and start to write.

 

Act Four: Return to the Grocery Store

noteofencouragment

I’m wandering the aisles, clutching the note I’ve written, which is wrapped around a $20 bill. The note says something like this:

“This small act of kindness is in honor of my sister’s birthday. I saw you in the store, a hard working mama just trying to make a quick stop before dinner. You were so sweet to your son when he dropped the pasta sauce, even though I knew you were annoyed! Those were the hardest days for me, juggling work and small kids. This is for you, to treat yourself. Lunch out, coffee, whatever helps make your day brighter. From, A friend. P.S. Hang in there, bedtime’s coming!”

I finally find her, the pasta sauce mama, just in time. She’s next in line at the checkout. I catch her eye and hand over the note. “This is for you,” I say. “A little surprise. Have a good evening!”

Not knowing what it is yet, she still gives me a huge smile. “And you have a good evening, too!” I quickly leave, feeling so, so good and happy.

I had finally done it. I had captured the feeling my sister gives me and so many people in her life: you are important, you matter, I see you, and I’m here to help.

orangeflower

Being kind isn’t always easy, even when you’re trying. Sort of like how it can be hard to see goodness in the world through all the darkness that exists, too. But it’s there. And we’re here. Just keep doing the little things. After awhile, they’ll start to add up.  One candle does not dim when it lights another. Keep bringing the light, friends.

 

 

Guerilla Kindness

justbeniceIt has been a rough couple of weeks for this Pollyanna of politics. I’ve been thrust out of several bubbles I had been living in. And it’s uncomfortable. (I was the white lady reaching for the Xanax in that SNL skit about election night.) I thought that since the people I chose to surround myself with held values similar to mine, that meant that most other people did, too. It was hard to see how wrong I was about that. It was hard to imagine someone being able to ignore the ugly packaging and vote for what I believed to be a message of reversal of times, reversal of progress.

I spent the first few days after the election reading, reading, reading. Trying to understand. I know Republicans who are really good people, and some who aren’t. I know Democrats who are really good people, and some who aren’t. I know Independents who are good people, and some who aren’t. My chosen candidate has lost more than once in my adult life. But this was the first time the outcome of an election made me so despondent. I did not and still do not know how to reconcile the fact that the president-elect of our county embodies the antithesis of what I value most: kindness toward others.

I had to figure out what I was going to do next. After sitting on the couch under my blanket fort for a few days, I knew I needed to start acting. What I’ve decided is that now is the time for Guerilla Kindness.

I first learned the term guerilla warfare in 8th grade, when I was writing an essay about the Iran-Contra Affair (I was an overambitious English student). Before that, I had heard the term but had pictured angry gorillas flinging dung at one another. Guerilla warfare is the use of hit-and-run tactics by small, mobile groups of irregular forces operating in territory controlled by a hostile, regular force (Dictionary.com).

The idea of guerilla kindness came to me after hearing this post-election story: A woman saw a mother and son behind her in a fast-food drive thru line, pointing and laughing at her political bumper stickers. She made a split-second decision to turn her anger into action. She paid for their meals. You see? Guerilla kindness. And nothing they can do about it.

My call to action/forward motion:

safetypin After the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, incidents of racism skyrocketed, and people began donning safety pins as a way of showing their support for the immigrants living in the country, assuring that they’re safe with them. And I had noticed that the trend had spread to the U.S. after our election results similarly emboldened people to act even more overtly on their bigotry.

My first act of guerilla kindness started small, with something I did to make myself feel better. I scrounged in my jewelry box and came up with a safety pin, which I affixed to my burse (my backpack-purse, which is a thing. At least it is to me.) I’m not sure what I thought this little piece of metal would accomplish, but somehow it helped me get my shoes on and out the door. You see, it was my first outing since the election, and my heart was heavy. But I had been waiting 6 months for a one-day-only mattress sale, so off I went to help stabilize our economy. The sales person who greeted me looked similarly glum. We’ll call him Abdelhadi (because that’s his name).

When I pulled my burse off my shoulder to pay, he saw my safety pin. And once my transaction was complete, he whispered, “My wife has not gone to work for two days. She can’t stop crying.” I told him I had been crying on and off, too. “You?” he said with surprise. “You cried?”

I told him it was hard being confronted with just how out of touch I was with the racial divide in our country, how painful it was to have the illusion that I had been paying attention be broken. “Now you know,” he told me. Then he reached out for my hand and said more softly, “now you know.” It destroyed me. Here was this Muslim man from Dubai comforting me about my sadness.

When we parted ways, we shared a lingering handshake. “Tell you wife…” I started, but I couldn’t finish my thought. Tell her what? What could I possibly say to her to make her feel better? Hadi came to my rescue. “I’ll tell her you cried,” he said. “I’ll tell her you cried, too.”

 

 

wabanakibook

Okay, you put a pin on your purse. What now? What else?

I’ve written before about a service organization called hawkwing, Inc (the h is not capitalized, no matter how much I want it to be).  They “provide essential services and support for the people of the Cheyenne River Lakota (Sioux) Indian Reservation,” and run an annual holiday giveaway that is organized in a warehouse near my home. “The Annual Giveaway brings joy each winter to some 2,600 children on the Reservation, many of whom would otherwise receive nothing for the holidays. Each child receives new toys, books, warm clothes and personal care products. We also supply dozens of Tribal programs and schools with equipment, supplies, coats, shoes and educational materials.” They are partnered with First Book and one of my favorite stations in the warehouse is the book corner. But I noticed a need for books for older kids, and when I saw WABANAKI BLUES by Melissa Zobel at a local bookstore, I picked up a copy and dropped it off at hawkwing. Stealth. Guerilla. Kindness.

 

cookies

Okay, you put on a pin, and you bought a book. What else? I thought about the Syrian refugee family, new to my town, sponsored in their transition by IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services) and supported by my place of worship. I had been meaning to say a formal “hello and welcome.” This would probably be a good time for me to take them cookies. Making the cookies was easy (and delish). Taking them to the door was harder. I wasn’t sure how much English they knew. Would they be confused about who I was, what I was doing there? Turns out holding a Tupperware of baked goods is the universal sign for “I’m here to say hello.” I got smiles. I got introductions. I got invited in.

I know there are many people whose opinions differ from mine on the topic of immigration and resettlement. I would implore those interested to read the Time Magazine article: This is how the Syrian Refugee Screening Process Works. “Of all the categories of persons entering the U.S., these refugees [people from Syria] are the single most heavily screened and vetted.” – Jana Mason, senior adviser to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Picture the kids from Aleppo you’ve seen, covered in ash from bombing raids. Now picture them living next to and playing on the Hubbard Green in Glastonbury, CT. Which would you want if it was your child?

We must put education before fear. We must see each other as human beings. Cookie-eating, book-reading, family-loving, human beings. My way of doing that is going to be with this idea of Guerilla Kindness. I’m going to be a mobile irregular force of small hit-and-run acts of kindness. And I’m going to be kind to you no matter who you voted for. Or how you worship. Or where you came from. Or who you love. And you can’t stop me.

Like a friend’s yard sign says:

“🇺🇸  we treat all people with dignity regardless of origin, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views ”

 

Join me?

 

carmagnet

 

 

 

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