Kindness Unexpected

What a real act of kindness looks like

Toddler eating a mango
Andres eating a mango from the backyard

Here’s a message* I received back in January which gave me a sense of hope for the year that was starting :

Hello Mrs. Daniella, how are you. You probably don’t remember me, it’s been 22 years since I last saw you and still you are always present in my life. You are one of the people who made a strong mark in my life because of how kind you were to me during the time I worked for you, your children Diego and Andres were very affectionate towards me and I truly grew very very fond of them. I hope that if you ever read this message, you will remember that Carmen, the girl who worked for you in Prados del Este before you left for the United States, always thinks of you and your family. And I will always hold you dear even if I never see you again. Much happiness and many blessings to your family.

I didn’t know it then, but this brief message is one of the happiest and most meaningful experiences I’ve had this year.

It reminded me of two things:

1. That it’s stupid to obsess on what gets counted.

2. That being an “overall kind” person, while important, is not the same as engaging in an “act of kindness”.

What Counts Most?

In this age of explosive data collection and availability, we take what gets counted and measured to be what matters most — you know, things like engagement, likes, followers, unique visits and such. It usually isn’t of course, as this unexpected message would highlight for me.

I was late to jump on the social media bandwagon and only joined in 2018 after I started a personal blog and was told social media was the way to go to get my writing out there.

I quickly got the hang of it and was posting regularly on Facebook and Instagram, always focused on followers, reads, views and all those figures we are maniacally driven to care about. The numbers and counts are specific and make it easy for us to obsessively track them and compare ourselves to others.

And yet, the most worthwhile return social media brought me this year was that Facebook message from Carmen. It’s what has counted the most.

A True Act of Kindness

But this story is about much more than social media. It’s about true kindness, and how I actually did nothing to deserve Carmen’s moving note.

Carmen was our maid/ kids’ nanny for a couple of years when Andres and Diego were two and four, before we immigrated to the United States from Venezuela. Carmen was 20, and I, 29. She came from Portuguesa, an agricultural state in the Venezuelan plains region, while I was a spoiled city girl who’d never faced any real money worries.

I was in a position to do something for Carmen and I didn’t. I could’ve gotten to know more about her goals and dreams, deliberately guided her or even helped her financially. After all, I had so many advantages, including being ten years older and having grown up in the capital surrounded by family and friends who went on to professional schools after high school instead of cleaning houses and taking care of other people’s children.

Still, all I did was to be an overall kind person, which requires no real effort. Carmen, on the other hand, went out of her way to contact me 22 years later. Hers was a thoughtful act of kindness that filled me with delight.

When I replied to Carmen’s message and inquired further into her life, here’s some of what she wrote:

Well, as it happens, after working for you, I stayed in Caracas for two years and then went back to Portuguesa, resumed my studies and went to University and got a degree as a Systems Engineer. I got married and have two children, a boy and a girl, and two young grandchildren. I’m currently in Chile, I’ve been here for two years, I had to emigrate due to the current situation in Venezuela. It has gone well for me here, thanks to God, though Covid has impacted the economy. But I give God thanks that we have work and good health…”

I was blown away by Carmen’s humility and in awe of her successes. Truly, it’s hard to exaggerate how much her messages delighted and illuminated me.

And this, dear reader, is the final takeaway: You can never know the extent to which your actions, even if they feel small, might affect others.

*I’ve translated from the original Spanish and used punctuation and grammar equivalent to those in the original messages. Carmen gave me permission to tell this story and to include her words.

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Random Things to Be Thankful For

52 to be exact

Thankful for my electric toothbrushI love the Thanksgiving holiday. What’s not to like about heaps of yummy food shared with family and friends and taking the time to reflect on what we are (or ought to be) grateful for?

There’s no equivalent holiday in Venezuela, where I’m from. Yet, just like me, my fellow Venezuelan-Americans do Thanksgiving as if they’d made apple pie with their grandmothers as kids and been in the U.S. for generations. Thanksgiving is inclusive, I guess. I’m talking, specifically, about the family, food and gratitude part, as that’s what I think of on Thanksgiving — not so much the part about the pilgrims and Native Americans coming together to celebrate the harvest sometime in the fall of 1621.

Like Americans, Venezuelans are big into food. Unlike Americans, though, we don’t dread getting together with family. Just about anything can be a reason for us to gather with close family, extended family and dozens of folks who are just like family.

Like much of the world, we too aren’t particularly into being grateful. I don’t think humans are wired for gratitude. We always want more, more, MORE and have to train ourselves to be grateful for and content with what we do have. I suppose that’s why there’s such a thing as a gratitude practice, no?

All that said, I am thankful for many things. My health, life, family, food and shelter come to mind. On this Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve decided to go far beyond the obvious, and instead voice (or write, really) all the random personal things I get to be thankful for, whether daily, monthly or just once in my life.

Why 52? Because I’m 52, and I reckon I can come up with as many things to be grateful for as the years I’ve been on this planet.

Here I go then, 52 random things I’m grateful for, in random order.

I’m grateful for / that:
  1. Not being allergic to anything.
  2. I got to see a flock of birds flying across the sky as I was driving on the parkway.
  3. The town library gets the books I want to read ready for me to check out. No need to search for them on the shelves or anything.
  4. The maple tree with red leaves that have not yet fallen.
  5. Being curious.
  6. My routine of going to Coffee for Good (where Diego, my autistic son works) at 4:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
  7. Whales. They’re magnificent.
  8. My sister Lole’s invitation to have sancocho (a traditional Venezuelan soup) at her place a few nights ago.
  9. My new hairdryer. It’s a game-changer.
  10. Learning about whales. Did you know that whale pods have culture and traditions?
  11. My husband and sons think I’m awesome.
  12. Having hobbies I love.
  13. Getting to meet my mom and dad at Coffee for Good most Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
  14. Hammocks.
  15. Praying the rosary with my Venezuelan friends most Mondays.
  16. Having colleagues I deeply esteem and care about.
  17. Alone time.
  18. Having people (namely my husband and sons) to snuggle with.
  19. My garage-turned-gym.
  20. Peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter.
  21. Noticing that an Instagram reel I posted a month ago suddenly started to be shared and viewed by more people. (It’s about my son’s funny encounter with a snake.)
  22. Foam on my coffee.
  23. My sister Lole’s teaching me to play Cuatro (the Venezuelan version of a ukelele).
  24. Spotting any wildlife. In my town, this means deer, turkeys, squirrels, hawks, chipmunks, and, occasionally, foxes and coyotes. Oh, and once a bobcat and another time a bear.
  25. My breast implants were removed.
  26. When it rains at night because the sound of rain falling masks my tinnitus.
  27. Learning, largely, to make peace with my tinnitus.
  28. My mouthguard, which protects my teeth and jaw from my mad clenching at night.
  29. Hiking in Montecito and stumbling on hot springs
  30. The first snowfall of the year.
  31. The love letters of my youth. Technology’s great and all (see item 32 next), but nothing beats a long handwritten love letter that made one burn with excitement and longing.
  32. The Smartboard. For those who haven’t been in a classroom lately, the Smartboard is an interactive whiteboard. It replaces the big chalkboard of yesteryear with a solution 23,000 times better! Another game-changer.
  33. The pill that takes away my terror of flying.
  34. My commute is a predictable 20 minutes on well-paved roads and a lovely parkway where I get to behold the changing seasons.
  35. My commute is in the opposite direction of rush hour traffic, both ways.
  36. Treadmills.
  37. Lip balm.
  38. Having lived in three different countries (counting France, where I spent five and a half months while in college).
  39. Caffeine.
  40. The car break worked just when I was getting to a busy intersection that time I hit the gas and the car just kept going faster and faster, even as I furiously pressed on the break.
  41. The reading lamp my husband installed on the bed’s headboard.
  42. Snow days. Nothing beats the excitement of this kind of “day off”. It feels like a whole extra day is added to the year.
  43. The power always comes back on after it goes out.
  44. Labor and delivery were quick for me. Excruciatingly painful to be sure, but quick.
  45. My electric toothbrush. I’ve had it for 15 years and it makes me want to brush my teeth.
  46. Having had my heart broken once in my life. Somehow I feel that experience expanded my heart.
  47. My depression responds well to medication.
  48. My decision to never again wear anything not perfectly comfortable. (Why did it take so long for me to realize life’s too short to buy or keep an uncomfortable garment just because it looks good or is in style?)
  49. Falling asleep easily.
  50. My son Andres’s insistence that I do some strength training, which has helped my lower back tremendously.
  51. Cerro El Avila, the mountain looming like a wise elder over Caracas, the city of my birth. Just thinking about it fills me with awe.
  52. All readers of my stories (yes, you❤️️!).

If you got through the list, well, thank you infinitely for reading.

Now can you think of at least as many random things to be thankful for as how old you are?

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