Years ago, I had this habit of blogging a friend a week. I believe I called this activity “The Friday Friend”. I know that’s a lame title and it sounds like they’re only friends on Fridays, but of course, this is not so. They were friends every day to everyone, always an unusually kind person who left in the wake of their everyday paths, a rule for life, a set of gifts that could just as easily go unseen as seen for all the rarity of them. These were friends who, maybe, fed the poor and cared for the sick, but more often, they just knew how to make sad people laugh or how to grow big beautiful roses and then give them all away. These are the kind of people, My Dear Readers, who bless us so profoundly we often cannot see them amid the relentless activities and the gnawing anxieties of American life. And truly, these Friends do not even realize their own value, because they give without asking for a return on their investment of spirit and light.
I have friends who write, preach, make music, clean air filters, soothe dogs, repair broken fences on the High Plains, hike whole mountain ranges, right the wrongs done to children, erase bad memories with experimental therapies, teach at Ivy League institutions, give chemotherapy to cancer patients, teach preschoolers, tutor the mathematically challenged, defend their nations (mine, there’s, yours), etc…and I will get to each of these people in time, on a certain Friday when the wind blows just right and it feels that today is their mention that matters, but this Friday Friend reflection is for someone that – if you ever meet her – you will know exactly why she came first on this list.
Last year, I sold a novel to Booktrope, or rather, I sold a whole series of book concepts and this brilliant new publisher took a risk on my words and my outlines and one finished manuscript. Today, that book released and I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have a group of people believing in my ideas and my interpretation of the world.
Through Booktrope, I have found friends whom I have not met in person, but who permeate my online experience. From the fray of new voices, a sea of genres, a constant daily introduction…one face stood out – a sweet, smiling face that seemed to hold all the happiest moments of childhood and keep them bottled in the eyes and spreading through her smile. I have lived in five states and visited four countries, but in all of them, I have never met a person who so boldly channeled kindness just through a simple smile. The pure unaltered kindness of childhood.
She must have a ton of beautiful babies, I said out loud one evening when Facebook was firing away with new welcomes and write on urgings. She was the very first person to, in fact, welcome me, and I kept a note of her kindness in the back of my mind thinking, I bet it would be cool to meet her one day, but I’m an introvert who loathes even, sometimes, visiting with my own dear lifetime friends. She brightens dark rooms, I’m sure of it. And then the thought drifted out of my mind and into the mix of repairing broken characters, filling in weak outlines, fleshing naked ideas.
But a few months pass, and the next picture I notice of her is one where she’s wrapped in a hospital gown and she’s talking about her baby, and insisting that he’s fine and so is she, but she’s asking for good thoughts. She looks Catholic, I say stupidly to myself, with the sweet round face and the sheen of dark hair. Maybe, if I say, “God bless you” and “I’m keeping you in my prayers” it won’t be offensive. With writers, you never can tell whether or not you’re going to wake the beast of God or the Antichrist. But there was a light in her soul that reached beyond the Facebook walls and said, “I’m a human and I’m living a real life with heartbreak and trials and joy” and so I said the words, “God bless you. You and your sweet baby are in my prayers.”
She “liked” my comment and took the time to personally respond to my comments, which were deeply heartfelt, but as generic as all the other endlessly rolling good wishes. Hundreds of Booktrope writers and book managers and editors and designers were wishing her the same, were sending her good vibes and prayers and hopes and hanging in there with her while she endured a medical situation that I didn’t really understand. What I did understand, was the concept of life and death, of hospitals and trauma. I’ve been hit by a car, paralyzed by a rare neurological disease while pregnant, had surgery multiple times on both kidneys, had two miscarriages and one stillbirth, had spinal taps too many to count, had a tonsillectomy to remove cancerous tonsils and to stop chronic bronchitis, had a complete hysterectomy to remove pre-cancerous ovaries, had a thymectomy to remove a precancerous thymus gland that had already begun to attack my nervous system, endured immunoglobulin treatments every few months, etc and most before age 35…Medical trauma is not my friend, but it’s too close and constant to be a stranger. I’ve been there, just like the girl with the sweet face and the big smile, and so my heart bonded to hers, even if it is wrong, or weird, to bond with a stranger through Facebook.
More weeks go by. My new Facebook Friend reports good news, and everyone rejoices with her. She makes a daily contest of challenging everyone to share the cutest puppy photos, and she makes us all laugh. A lot. Whenever she’s online, she’s spreading that smile, that joy and laughter – the rare gifts that deserve mention, because they take purposeful cultivation.
I hate cute puppy photos. I find them to be a waste of time, but she so inspired me with her pictures, that it made me love Sancho Panza, my big brown Labradoodle even more. I started posing him and putting Bed Head hair gel in his hair to give his natural perm a twisty little Mohawk, or to show off the infamous “puppy head tilt” he offers when I’m dangling a marshmallow over his face. My Facebook Friend’s challenge to laugh, got me laughing, got me away from the computer and working harder on being happy than I had worked in a long time. She offered a near-daily overabundance of free light and joy, and she encouraged all of us to see where that same joy was hiding in our own lives. And as the winter drew in and darkened all of the northeastern coast of America with white impassable drifts that had become street mountains and freezing rain pellets that sounded like Gatling Gun firings against our tired snow-sunken roofs, that kept us all indoors for days on end, Facebook Friend continued to smile and encouraged us to do the same.
And then, somewhere in that frenzy of last minute edits and book promotions and holiday gift-wrapping, there was no more baby and no more puppies and the news became as grave as the high walls of winter snow that blocked us all in and the sorrow that moved throughout our small world of tightly woven writers seemed to press against all of us. And the internet was silent. I thought of myself for a moment, but only in as much as it made my heart break for hers. I know something of this pain, I wanted to say to her, and there’s nothing I can offer but your own childlike kindness back. It grows where you have watered it.
“Daddy, why does it feel like sadness is a jail?” I asked my father once when I was three and my guinea pig had just died, and he turned to me, patted my head softly.
“Because it tells the truth at first, that something bad has happened and then it makes a lie and tells you that nothing good lives anymore.” He crouched down and looked at me, “And this is how sadness gets you down and keeps you there, by making you believe that life is over and not very beautiful. But it is, right? You still laugh when your brother does something silly? You still feel happy inside when you’re outside playing with your friends? And you have Poochai, your cat, and he’s mean and grumpy and loves peanut butter?”
And I felt my own smile begin to form, thinking of my fat cat named for Thai words of endearment that my father had picked up somewhere in Southeast Asia. I nodded slowly, listening, ever-bending more to this concept that life might, indeed, be more beautiful than ugly, and soon, some of the high snow inside my heart began to melt, slowly, but the thawing had started. This was the same kind of joy my Facebook Friend dropped in small and big pockets with every post. You think your online presence doesn’t matter, but your voice is part of you, and you leave bits of yourself wherever you go, even if you don’t believe it. Even if you’re one of those people who fancies themselves a realist who believes in a world without spirit and a universe without energies that cannot be measured.
I sent my friend a note, unsure of whether or not she might find me a little nuts – sending a personal note like this to a stranger…the only thing we’re sharing is Facebook and the same godforsaken winter, but I want you to know that my prayers belong to you…Sorrow is always easier to grow in times of great loss than joy is, but she had done it. She had built up the big reserves. I wanted to offer back to her some of that bottled up childhood joy, that pure gift of light, she had shared so freely with me from my very first unknown day on my publisher’s Facebook wall. She did not have to offer me anything more than one of the welcomes and write ons, but she did. She offered an immediate and distance-evaporating kindness.
The reason these kinds of things – like reaching out to talk of another person’s trauma – feel uncomfortable is, because it’s hard for us to believe our own value and, therefore, reflect it back, but the instructions are all around us. I believe God reflects back to us his love through nature, through the crunch of bright fall leaves, through the crystal silent surface of summer pond, through the howl of winter wind, through a stranger’s unbridled smile. These are his moments of encouraging us that we’re of consequence to him no matter how broken our lives feel at the moment – all of this you see, this is Me trying to impress you. If you doubt my version of God, you’ve never stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon or had someone visit you for hours at your sickbed. All we have to do to give someone joy is draw up, from inside ourselves (sometimes deeply, because ours stores are low, and sometimes easily, because our stores are plenty) the same kind smile a stranger shared with us online or in real life. It doesn’t much matter, because the spirit of kindness is not bound by geography or even time. This is why Mother Teresa, dead already these few years, still inspires us and warms our cold thoughts.
That’s how my Facebook Friend’s smile seemed to me, like a gift that, once given, cannot be erased. She lost so much this winter, and it’s not fair and no one understands it. Yet she continued to offer peace and a kind word to everyone who’s path she crossed in an online world where she could have vented and screamed and used words to punch back at the world that must have, surely, seemed to hate her with the bitter cold and with all the cruel falsities about life not being all that beautiful.
Today, I reopened my old blog page on Facebook and she was the first person to acknowledge it (of course), actually thanking me for inviting her in to my world of nonsensical half-Southern/some-California/mock-Russian/broken-Spanish made-up writer vernacular, failed dinner menu posts, pictures of Sancho Panza – world’s greatest Labradoodle (this is her fault, however), and book talk so repetitive it probably looks to some readers like a permanent tic. This is my story…this is my book…these are my words…This is my…But she ignored all that and went straight to the kindness.
“Thank you for adding me, darling!”
No, thank you, for being the nicest person I’ve encountered this Friday, and probably most Fridays, even though Fridays are truly great, and that’s why we should all be nice to each other on the last leg of an aging week that may have already seen too many terrible things to mention. This is my Facebook Friend’s gift, and a powerful one, that she probably doesn’t realize she possess and leaves strewn about the dry fields of the barren everyday, like a flower seed that will unexpectedly grow in the dark season.
And this is my first Friday Friend since 2003, when I lost my own baby and just stopped talking about nice people all that much. It’s interesting how long the streak lasted and who broke it first. Happy Friday, Cait!