“Throw a pebble in the water, and make a wave, make a wave…”
~ Demi Lovato
Some people are just wired to be kind. It’s like breathing, for them, an effortless part of their being that just happens. We all know these people – sometimes we don’t know that we know them, until we do. Sometimes the extent of their kindness is overwhelming, unbelievable, almost beyond human in scope. And they inspire the rest of us – the ones who need reminding from time to time to pay attention – to act.
The Tony-winning Broadway musical “Come From Away” is based on the true story of what happened in the town of Gander, Newfoundland, and the nearly 7,000 people on 38 planes that were grounded there on 9/11/2001. The people in Gander called them the “plane people” because they were on the planes that were forced to land at their airport (because US airspace was closed). They took these people –strangers from every corner of the globe – into their homes and their lives for more than a week, until they could fly home to the United States. The kindnesses of the people of Gander seem superhuman and unexpected – and they were – but when I saw “Come From Away” after our own disaster, I cried and cried and cried, because it reminded me so much of the kindness of the people in the towns near Paradise after the Camp Fire, taking us all into their towns (there were nearly 42,000 people who were evacuated from Paradise and towns further up on the Ridge). After the available space in the motels, hotels, and Air B&Bs filled up, creating tent (and camper, and van, and motor home) cities in parking lots, set up so that the survivors of this disaster, suddenly stranded with no home to return to, had a place to land and figure out what was lost, where to go, what to do first, and next, and next — those first weeks were a surreal experience, interspersed by genuine kindnesses.
That morning, before I knew what was coming, R texted me. “Come down to my house if you need to leave,” she said, or some version of that, just as she did each time our town was threatened by a nearby wildfire, something that happened too often over the years during “fire season.” R was our oldest daughter’s best friend. Katie lived with R for a few years after college before moving out of town, and I had gone to R’s house in Chico once before, when a fire got close and I couldn’t get back up to Paradise because the roads into town were closed for an extended time Wildfires nearby were an unfortunate part of living in small mountain towns, but it was usually just nearby or, at most, on the outskirts, and stopped before it got into the center of our town. Our town had a plan; our town was prepared.
This time was different. This was the morning of the Camp Fire, the fire that took our town out, or 95% of it, in November, 2018. “Tell S and J to come, too,” she told me, referring to our daughter and her fiancé, who lived a mile from us in a house we had bought and remodeled – rebuilt, really, for the better part of a year. They had moved into the house in April. “Oh R,” I said, “they have their animals ….” R responded, “whatever they want to do, but if necessary, we can make it work here.” And make it work we did. Four adults, four dogs, in her little home, for three months. The process was long, complicated, distressing, emotional – the trauma, no, traumas, plural, were intense and difficult. But R just provided a safe place to land, was never anything but supportive, generous, and – well, KIND. in January, when I despaired at still living at her house and said, “you must be so ready to get us out of here!” she gently looked at me and said, “Stay as long as you need, you are welcome here,” with love in her eyes and her voice. I still don’t know how she did it, but now, when things come up and people need – anything — my internal mantra is “What would R do, right now?” and I try and try to live up to her example of kindness.
There were the individual, personal kindnesses, like our angel friend R who took us in the day of the fire and let us stay with her until we could go home. And then there were the random, unexpected kindnesses, each one making a wave of difference. The gift cards that poured in from everywhere — from people I didn’t know and people I did know. Two dear friends sent me several $100 Target gift cards, and several more $25 Starbucks cards, and wrote, “Here, give these to the people you know who need them, or just keep them; do what needs to be done.” I loved being their giving angel, loved bringing a bit of surprised delight with these acts of kindness that I didn’t start, only passed along.
Sports teams from other high schools donated items to our football and soccer teams: shoes and helmets, shin guards and jerseys and balls– all lost in the fire that also took the homes of the players and coaches. Music departments donated instruments to our high school band. The books and supplies that were collected by teachers and school supporters from other communities, sent to be used in the classrooms that had been hastily set up all over Butte County to keep our Paradise kids in classes with their own teachers and their friends. The motor homes that were donated, some even being driven to California from out of state – to be given to families – strangers — who had lost literally everything. Too many “random acts of kindness” to count, overwhelming in scope, really. Receiving, and seeing so many more, of these unconditional acts truly moved all of us beyond words.
“Look for the helpers,” Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) is quoted as saying, many years before this particular disaster. “My mother told me, when things on the news were scary, to look for the helpers, [to see] that there are always people who are helping. And to this day I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
When we take the time to look, we see that he was right – even when it isn’t the middle of a terrorist attack or a wildfire or a host of other disasters we have seen far too frequently on the news. The helpers – the kindnesses – are always there. They aren’t usually newsworthy, unless they stand out in a disaster, but they are there. One act of kindness begets another. Paying for the next person in the drive-through lane’s coffee. Pulling someone out of the way of a car that’s about to hit a puddle and spray them with dirty water… each kind act inspires the next, and the next. Like a pebble in the water, we can make waves that reach the farthest of shores. I am so grateful for the act of kindness that makes that first wave, and the next, and the next.