Dear Lily June,
In Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, the concept of karma plays a key role. It’s thought that the sum total of your actions in this life will determine the course of all of your future lives. If you do good for others now, for instance, you might be reincarnated when you die into a majestic eagle whose wings are tickled by winds whenever she soars. If you are cruel to others in this life, you might instead be reincarnated later as the slug bully children sprinkle salt onto, just to watch him shrivel. The choice, as they say in America, is all y’ourn.
Of course, Western religions embrace their own system of punishments and rewards, so that if you are kind in the name of a savior, you may find yourself seated beside him in the penthouse of Heaven forever, and if you are intentionally unkind and unrepentant in the name of your own pleasure, you might find your backside being rotated Rotisserie style to be eternally licked by flames in Hell’s basement. (This, like my explanation of Karma, is dramatically oversimplified, Lily. Read a (the?) book on these things and don’t listen too much to your mother.)
As the daughter of an Independent Fundamental Baptist who used to play in Pat Robertson’s rec room (not kidding) and whose church members sometimes spoke in tongues or handled snakes and of a Polish Catholic altar boy who used to dip into the communion wine when no one was looking and whose idea of confession today is running a lead at an AA meeting, my religious affiliation has by and large been muddled at best. Consider me an active member of the denomination Confused, especially when, as a child, I used to ask my parents if they believed in God and their response was that they believed “in the possibility…”
Overall, I found my faith in America like many latchkey kids do: in the lyrics of Christmas songs, and so it was that I was baptized under the credo to “be good for goodness’ sake.”
It was in that spirit then, that our family went on our Saturday Bucket List Quest: To devote an entire day to acts of random kindness, not to score some points for reincarnation or towards Heaven but Just Because. Because, Lily, there is enough cruelty and coldness and violation in this life, and sometimes it’s just good to change the conversation. Because, no matter their faiths or beliefs or reasoning or season of life, everyone can somehow benefit from YOU. Srsly.
Of course, when you’re broke and house hunting on the side, you’re a bit limited in what you can do. While I made up a list of 100 things to try (things I hope we’ll come back to), here’s what we actually accomplished:
Buy coffee for a stranger. Leave a generous tip at an establishment.
Your dad and I have continued our tradition from another Bucket List task of having Coffee Chats on Saturday morning at a place called The Caffeinery in Muncie. When I bought the initial cups of Joe (or rather, chai’s and cherry bombs), I also purchased a ten dollar gift card to give to someone as we left.
Of course, being socially awkward as I am, I wasn’t expecting said stranger to look at said gift card like I’d put an actual cherry bomb in his hands and ask, “What is this?!” “It’s for The Caffeinery,” I mumbled under my breath before hightailing it out of there like your stroller was on fire. Your dad snuck up to the cashier at the time to leave a (relatively, for us) enormous tip, then he, too, slunk away like a hound with its hide between its legs. With all this giving, it’s no wonder we were acting guilty?!
Leave inspirational signs around for others to find.
Considering that free is my favorite flavor, this is the one, by far, we did most often. I printed about a dozen or so signs with pictures of success kid and motivational quotations that I love on them, things like Winston Churchill’s:
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
This act, too, made us feel both giddy and guilty, though. We taped them to stranger’s mailboxes, apartment complex dryers, store shelves, a public bathroom mirror, and each time, we ran like we’d planted a pipe bomb instead of a kind word. We did the same with the next act,
Leave flowers on car’s wind shields.
There is nothing that makes you look sneakier than sliding a bright purple flower under another car’s windshield wiper, especially if, in the public parking lot, you don’t know who might own the car and so your eyes keep darting back and forth like ping pong balls hunting for the owner. You’d think we were putting bananas in tailpipes or doing the old gas tank full of sugar trick for the ways we shook like nervous chihuahua florists delivering partial bouquets to strangers.
Smile at a stranger.
Dear Walmart Greeter: I’m sorry if I looked at you like a Cheshire cat who took a dump in her diaper. Apparently, my smile has all the charming creepiness of Wednesday Addams’.
Leave change in a vending machine.
We did this with four separate pop machines at a grocery store, leaving signs for strangers to enjoy a soda on us, as the machines were already loaded with quarters. It didn’t hit me until later that the strangers could just hit the coin return and make off with the money. If you did, strangers, enjoy your $2.50 in change, you bandits. May it serve you well at a parking meter, albeit while you’re still thirsty.
Let a car go before you, or merge lanes ahead of you.
And because we built up the good karma, I can now even it out with the bad by releasing this ear worm into the world:
Write a letter to the elderly.
I’m guilty of some pretty pernicious theft on this one, taking it from the most impressive and exhaustive RAOK list I found on the internet. There are programs to write letters to anyone you can think of who might need it–sick kids, kids in the hospital, service members, even just generally needy strangers. We chose one of these programs, called Love for the Elderly, writing to those in nursing homes with the hope that we could write to the others the next time we do a day like this.
Make a birdhouse.
Of all the acts we committed, perhaps the cruelest act of kindness was in the way we slap-dashed paint over the birdhouse we made. It was the act that, by far and away, took the longest, but ended up looking the ugliest. Of course, birds probably don’t choose their eateries by aesthetics (at least I hope they don’t), and considering that we’re just arming them with the pellets to turn into little white bombs they can drop across windshields with less guilt than we had leaving flowers means it’s hard to quibble over our not being professional birdhouse makers. We did our best, Lily, dadgummit.
When we tried to change the conversation, could the universe have been listening that day? It’s hard to say just yet. After all, you did sleep the night through that night, and last night, too, giving your dad and I some amazing and desperately-needed-lately rest.
But Sunday night you were awake as often as usual (1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, all the o’clocks!), so that on Monday afternoon (before your second all-nighter of sleep), I was like a zombie shambling to do some dishes while you crawled at my feet. And my eyelids felt like steel curtains as you slipped away from me, unknowingly. And I felt like my brain was connected to a car battery when I realized you’d toddled off into the hall, and I fetched you, only to find your mouth dribbling red.
Terrified, I was sure you were bleeding. Had we left razor blades lying around on the carpet?, my tired mind interrogated. It took a few minutes to realize I was seeing dye, and reaching my finger into your mouth, I pulled out the piece of paper that had done it. I got down onto my hands and knees last night, crawling around at your height and looking for anything you might have crammed into your adorable pie hole that would have looked like you’d bitten into a squib of fake blood. By today, I still haven’t found it.
Does the fact that you didn’t choke, die, or even react to it–no vomit, not a hive, nothing but bright red smiles like a vampiric grin–mean someone or something was looking out for us in a big way? Can I be a good person, and still be the WORST MOTHER EVER? I feel like it, Lily. I can only think that you bit into a piece of paper towel, left behind from cleaning the non-toxic acryclics we used to clean that birdhouse. So it fed more than it meant to, it seems.
Just don’t poop on my car window to get back at me for it, okay, kiddo?
Today being my favorite day on the planet–Mommy/Daughter PJ Day–I feel, all in all, like karma or goodness are tipped toward us, saving me from insomnia, and saving you from me for a minute. And so, Lily, I can tell you that no matter what you end up believing some day, be it the law of cosmic retribution or the God of divine intervention or the goodness of people for peoples’ sake, one thing I’m sure of.
I believe in Love. I believe, in that regard, in the miracles of your and your father’s existence in my life. I believe that despite a recent bout of crippling chemical depression and house hunting tension, your parents will get through it, and in the meantime, will put good into the universe in spite of it. As the sign I made with a quotation from one of your dad’s favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, said on it (and which your dad liked so much, he decided to keep it):
“Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest being, something that needs our love.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, Lily, I’ve put on a terrible Steve Martin movie for PJ day that needs some love, too. I’m going to go wake you from your nap so we can get to it.