Kindness. Contemplation. Creation. Connection.
The simplest of gestures can have a profound impact on people, and this was clearly evident on Friday, Nov. 4 outside The Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver.
Brock Tully, the organizer of The World Kindness Concert had graciously agreed for me to hold a Kindness Flag Project event outside the theatre before the concert.
Anthony, who offered to help for the day, and I arrived in front of the theatre at around 3:30pm. He’s such a kind person. His effervescence and enthusiasm was especially welcome as it got colder and he ran to Starbucks to get us both hot beverages to warm up! What a treat!
We set up two tables we made out of sawhorses, and set out all the materials needed and then waited for people to come by and make a flag.
A few business people hurried past us, plugged into their MP3 players, ear-bud cords dangling out of their ears and draped along their bodies disappearing into a pocket. It was a bit disappointing because their behaviour was such clear display of tuning out their immediate environment, ignoring the things around them, and us.
But Anthony and I didn’t really mind. We were busy drawing each letter in ‘Kindness Flag Project’ to make a flag-sign and string it up behind us. Then Neil showed up to help, and the three of us had a lot of fun making and stringing flags. Neil’s quite proud of his role as Head Flag Project Rigger, and does an exemplary job of attaching strings and flags to buildings and walls.
Later, Jason, who helped every day during the post-riot events in June, came by to help and our team was complete!
A young woman walked past with an incredibly cute little dog. I can’t resist cute little dogs, so she stopped to talk for a moment. She put the dog on the table and we held up a flag to compare the size of her dog with the size of the flag and wondered how we could fly the dog on the string and make it a Kindness Flag Dog!
As it got closer to “doors” (when the theatre opens the lobby doors to let patrons in) more and more people began to take interest in our little project. It was interesting because we’d initially have to explain what we were doing and what the project was about, but as soon as one or two people started making a flag, more people would take interest in what they were doing and stop to make a flag too, and by word of mouth people would explain to each other what the project was about.
It was interesting to observe how people “got it” and participated without reservation when they saw other people doing it. It’s not just the first person who starts a movement, but it’s the second person who decides to follow the first that’s really the catalyst – it’s that person who gives permission for others to follow the movement. And that’s what we saw happening as the crowds gathered around our tables and expressed sentiments of kindness on squares of fabric.
A guy from the downtown Eastside wandered over to our table. He had a cat on a leash and showed us how smart she was. She’d hop up on a little stool he carried around and roll over and sit and was very, very adorable. Her name was Precious. The guy’s name was Kevin. I asked him to consider what kindness meant to him and to make a flag. His flag was simple and lovely, on a red piece of fabric. It was the letter “P”, and in the circle of the “P” he drew a poppy. “P” for Precious and poppy -two things that represent kindness to him.
As it turned out, he is a vendor for Pivot Legal Society’s “Hope in Shadows” calendar. Here’s a link: Hope in Shadows. It’s an initiative to help low-income residents of the downtown Eastside generate income. He’s been issued an ID card from Pivot and for every $10 he raises, he buys a calendar from them which he sells on the street for $20. The photos in the calendar are gorgeous. He’s really proud of his association with Pivot and even prouder of his accomplishment of being clean and sober for over 2 years. Which is where Precious comes in.
As a gift for his sobriety, Kevin’s sponsor gave him Precious when she was a kitten. Precious is two years old now. His sponsor has been doing this for 20 years; she breeds cats and gives them to her sponsees as a reward and incentive to stay clean.
But it comes with a caveat. He submits to a drug test once a month, and if the test were to come back positive, Precious would be taken from him. And so, he stays clean. He absolutely loves that cat. Adores her. The non-judgmental nature and simple love of an animal has profound effects on people. The Gentle Barn in California uses this model to help kids at risk and people with disabilities, as noted on their website, “learn kindness, compassion, confidence and reverence for all life.” For Kevin, Precious attracts the attention of people, breaks down the barriers, and let’s Keven shine. He is very interesting and smart and easy to talk to, he’s got a good sense of humour, and above all is very, very kind.
When I explained to him that Neil and I fund the Kindness Flag Project ourselves and that we’re not a society or formal organization and we don’t get any money for it, without hesitation, he stuffed his hand into his pocket and pulled out about 15-20 cents and gave it to me. I was shocked and tried desperately to give it back to him. He refused. So I dug into my pocket and pulled out some change and put it on the table and told him I’d take his money if he took mine. He laughed and dug into his pocket and pulled out some change and put a little more on the table! Finally, I pulled out the last of my change and told him that was it, and he said okay and we took each other’s money. It was really funny, and incredibly touching. I can’t tell you how humbling it is to have someone like Kevin leap at the chance to help out like that.
But it didn’t stop there. He loved the Kindness Flag Project so much he gave me names and contact info of some people he knows at Pivot and a community newspaper. He told me to ask them for advice to help me bring the project into the DT Eastside so that the community there can participate in it too. He told me the residents there should have a chance to express themselves and their sentiments of kindness and that they’d really appreciate it. We had a fabulous conversation about the importance of community building. He said that while it’s important to raise money for food and shelter, he also saw the importance of building community and connection through art. The Kindness Flag Project does just that.
I look forward to seeing where this project will lead me, and I’m so grateful to people like Kevin for dissolving social strata barriers, and for engaging in meaningful conversation with me.
As I write this, I’m reminded of a young woman who made a flag on the last day of our post-riot events. She was blonde, pretty, wore sunglasses, a puffy jacket and a baseball cap, smoked like a chimney and had rotting teeth, probably from meth. She had that Parkinson’s-like inability to keep her body still. She was very sweet and helped us move all our stuff to the bus shelter when we were kicked off of Scotia Bank’s property. And she made the most beautiful flag. She spent a long time on it focused and intent, occasionally walking away to talk on her cell, or light up a cigarette, but she always came back to it. And when it was finished, Hanne Lene and I were moved to tears. The message was profound: “From Hurt comes Growth. From Growth comes Strength.”
Kevin said to me that people automatically assume that people living in the DT Eastside aren’t intelligent. The wealthy judge them as inferior. But really, judgment knows no boundaries. Whether you’re rich or poor, you will judge others. Those of us who have less have judgments about those who have more, and to make ourselves feel better, we usually give them a poor evaluation. Why are we so beholden to our judgments? Do we see something of ourselves in the people we judge? Are we trying to run away from these traits in ourselves and when we see them in others, it resonates so strongly that we use our judgments to push these unpleasant feelings away? Is the person a sort of scapegoat and do we hang our judgments on them and send them out into the desert of our miserable minds in the hopes that they will carry our foibles with them and disappear along with our judgments? Do we really believe that we can cast our judgments away by putting them on others and relieve our own suffering? We must. Why else would we do something that doesn’t bring much positive result? It takes a lot of skillful self-reflexive thinking and practice and work to be able to come to terms with ourselves and our judgments. As children we experienced the world without judgment and gradually packed our suitcases with learned behaviours that we lug around with us that hold us back and keep us from developing full awareness. I’ve got an extensive luggage collection. What’s yours like?
Back to our event at the World Kindness Concert…
There were so many wonderful moments; it’s hard to process and express them all. There was the little girl who was with her extremely patient grandfather. She made quite a few flags, and her lovely grandfather stood and watched. From time to time she’d hop off the cement block she was standing on, grab her grandfather’s cane, and poke him in the bottom. He wasn’t perturbed by it at all and played along patiently and lovingly.
There was the group of friends who had recently been laid off from their employer. They were despondent, and to improve things, they decided to take some positive action by coming to the concert. They took some markers and fabric and over dinner, drew and laughed and ate and celebrated the good life has to offer, even when it seems bleak. Theirs was a story of unexpected friendships and connections, and they were delighted to express what kindness meant to them.
There was the man in the suit who insisted on fixing our wobbly tables.
There was the man who, out of the blue, dropped off three hot teas and some muffins for Anthony, Neil and me.
Then there was the little boy who traced a woman’s hand over and over and made a picture that looked like a blooming flower of hands.
And later that night there was the man whose name I’ve forgotten, who asked if I wanted to buy a Hope in Shadows calendar. When I explained I didn’t have enough cash on me, he suggested I hold back some of the money from the project and then pay it back from a nearby bank machine.
When I explained that we fund this ourselves and don’t ask for money, his face changed and he looked at me very seriously. Something changed. Perhaps it was his judgment of me and the project. I sensed a kind of opening, a deepening, and acceptance where seconds before it wasn’t there because he (and I) was skimming along that liminal border where social groups meet. It’s safe there, heavy and thick with unchallenged judgments. Suddenly his judgments of me, and what I represent, were challenged.
So he suggested we walk together to the bank machine in the library. As we walked I told him what I hoped to do with the project, and he made some poignant observations. He said he believed that you get farther by being polite and kind, and by helping others. Both his parents instilled that in him. He talked about the frivolousness of our culture. He talked about the wanton desire of people to consume beyond their means and unnecessarily. Consumption is like drug use, to distract oneself from the self. He wondered how that instills a culture of kindness when people are so distracted from themselves and are focused on getting more. Wanting, wanting.
And then it happened. We walked into the gallery, and just as we stepped inside, the sound of a choir filled the atrium and rose high up into the ceiling. We stopped dead in our tracks and looked at one another and recognized that we were experiencing a moment of profound connection. Two strangers leading very different lives, walking together, gently dissolving the divisions between us and suddenly we’re both experiencing profound pleasure in hearing this beautiful music reverberate around and through us. Individually we were moved. Together we were bonded.
He turned and looked at me with such joy, and placed his open hand on his chest and said music reverberates through the body and touches a person inside. “Here” he said and patted and pressed his palm firmly against his chest.
When people talk about the soul, they often point to that spot in the chest around the solar plexus. I have been told that Buddhists point to that area when they refer to “mind.” When people talk about love and the heart, they’ll touch that part of their chest. For some reason, humans associate this part of their anatomy with feeling. Feelings, especially intense ones seem to radiate from that place and pour out into the body and limbs. This has nothing to do with religion. It is a part of being a feeling human and experiencing aliveness and life.
This man did that. He held his hand over his chest and talked of the vibrations of the music in this way, pressing his palm firmly against his solar plexus. We were both deeply moved and lingered for awhile, listening to the soaring voices and the brass and timpani filling the space with rapturous sound.
Eventually, I walked reluctantly over to the cash machine – I didn’t want this moment to end – withdrew my money and we left, the music slowly fading as we walked away from the building. He told me he was a musician and used to play any brass instrument with three keys. His father was a musician too, and it sounded like he came from a musical family. He spoke movingly of music, and we enjoyed each other’s company as we walked back to the Kindness Flag Project’s tables, where Neil, Anthony and Jason were waiting patiently for me. I gave the man $20 for the calendar, we shook hands (his were so warm in contrast to mine), gave each other a hug and parted ways. Although I had withdrawn $20, a ten-fold deposit had been made to my spirit.
And then there were the little things, the brief conversations, the shared smiles and laughter, until finally, at around 8:15pm, the last of the patrons to the concert trickled in to see the show. We packed up, shoe-horned all the materials and four adults into my little ’91 Honda Civic hatchback that thinks she’s a truck, and drove home, further transformed by another event of the Kindness Flag Project: A Public Display of the Art of Kindness.