Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

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The Delaware Memorial Bridge over the Delaware River

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” This telling phrase from Blanche DuBois, as embodied by Vivien Leigh, suddenly popped into my head in the middle of a dark night. My tired accent was probably close to the Southern Belle’s as I explained my lack of cash to a perhaps equally tired attendant in a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike. I had been awake for close to 24 hours on my journey home from a lovely and thought-provoking 10 days in Scotland and England. Unfortunately, the last leg of my flight had been cancelled, along with numerous other flights, and it well looked as if it would be two more days before I could walk through my own door. I decided an 9 hour drive would be preferable to a couple days spent in the Newark Airport, waiting to see if I made the standby cut. Rental car steering wheel in hand, I turned onto the Turnpike at 1am, guided by the gps on my cell phone. I had never driven I-95 north of Maryland, but I figured I was capable since I had just been navigating foreign countries. I hurtled into the night, feeling pretty good about my resourcefulness. I blasted the air conditioning and radio, continuing my burst of confidence, until I realized I was singing along with Carrie Underwood “Before he sleeps” instead of the correct words. (The man was a cheater, not sleep-deprived.) The first toll-booth added a couple more holes in the armor of assurance I wore. With only credit cards and British pounds, I counted myself quite lucky the attendant took pity on me and let me use a card to pay at a cash-only booth. I managed to find the $4 fee for the next booth in the various pockets of my backpack, but wasn’t quite sure how I would manage the subsequent stops.

A handful of other cars zoomed around me, but the night was dark and quiet. At least it was until a huge monstrosity loomed before me. “Holy s*%#!” erupted from my mouth, a phrase I do not believe I have ever uttered in my life. (In all honestly, it would be uttered a few more times before I arrived home the following afternoon.) In the shadows, an enormous monolith reached to the heavens, and I couldn’t see a sign anywhere that told me what the heck was going on. I quickly found myself careening over a massive bridge, quite terrified.  (pictured above – but imagine it was really, really dark;  you’re sleep-deprived; and you have an irrational fear of really high bridges) The bridge phobia can be blamed on my family, who decided to have an outing when I was a teen to see the campy horror movie, Happy Birthday to Me. While my family laughed, I was horrified at the lobotomy which took place when a car failed to make a drawbridge.

By the time I navigated what I later realized was the Delaware Memorial Bridge, I needed a break. I found myself at a Comfort Inn just north of Baltimore a little after 3. The night clerk checked me in, providing some basic necessities I lacked. I slept like a rock until 7:30am, when my body decided it was really Sunday afternoon and time to be awake. I went to check out, hair still wet from my shower, and asked the desk clerk how many more tolls were ahead of me, hoping I could come up with a solution to my lack of US cash on a Sunday morning. I rattled on about my adventures since returning to the States, and she marveled that I was able to use a credit card at a toll booth. “I have something in the back that can help,” she added and disappeared through a door. She returned in a moment, holding out a $10 bill. “You only have 2 more booths, and this will cover it.” I protested, but she insisted. (Yes, customer service knows about this stellar employee.)

I made it home safely 7 hours later. I don’t know if it was stress, exhaustion, or just the elongated vowels and blondish hair – but numerous perfect strangers were graciously kind and generous.

And isn’t that what life should be all about? The Hebrew Scriptures have a large focus on Hospitality. In a day and age where life was dangerous and often scary, any decent person would welcome the stranger, providing shelter, food, and protection. It shames me that so many in our bountiful country speak out of fear, not wanting to be in community with those who are perceived as different. We can expect our loved ones to care for us, but it’s the strangers who need our love the most. Thank goodness for that dependence. It’s what makes us truly human, and brings out the best in each one of us.

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Your Friends Are So Nice

“Your friends are so nice, Mom.” The words alone sounded like a compliment, but the tone from my teenage son definitely gave it a different meaning.

 “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. We sat beside each other on the first bench seat of my parents’ van, my parents in the front while my daughter and husband relaxed in the back. Late afternoon sunlight filled the car, as Dad drove along a two lane mountain road back to their house. A pleasant afternoon had been spent at the 50th anniversary reception for my oldest friend’s parents. The little church fellowship hall overflowed with food, pictures, family and well-wishers. My kids regularly see my dear friend, Sandra, and her family, but other childhood friends were present as well. These now middle-aged women were excited to meet my two teens, hear about their joys and dreams in life, and retell old stories for their entertainment.

 “Well, mom, I mean, they were just really sweet. It’s kinda hard to imagine those were your best friends growing up.”

 “Thanks for the compliment, buddy.” I responded with a fair amount of sarcasm.

 “Hey, don’t pick on my little girl,” my own mother chimed in with a laugh. “She’s very nice, too.”

 “Mom, you know what I mean,” Caleb added quickly. “It’s just – you know – they are really nice.”

 “And I’m not?” I bestowed a look that dared him to contradict me.

 “That’s not what I mean. But you know you can be critical.”

 “They haven’t been raising you, buddy.” The rest of the car’s inhabitants joined in the humor, as my poor boy smirked with chagrin.  “I know. I’m not as nice as they are. I can’t really explain why they wanted to be my friends – why we were all so close.”

 “Now, Amy,” Mom added. “You are as nice as they are. I just didn’t go around telling your faults to other people.”

 “Well, thanks for that, Mom.” I grinned, as Caleb continued to defend himself. In the weeks that followed that day, and in reflection on my son’s comments, I have pondered how I grew up with a very nice bunch of girls – girls who always had kind words for others, who never saw the bad in someone else, who worked hard, who loved their families, girls who were loyal and true friends. I realize my own family of origin modeled this for me. It didn’t mean we were blind to the faults of others. But it did mean that we showed grace and kindness in the face of others’ faults, because none of us were perfect. I thought about how great my friends looked physically – in the midst of their 40s – and realized that harsh lines of judgment, envy, and hate had not marked their features. I examined my own face in the mirror and yet could not be certain if those lines were there or not. I always knew they were nicer than I – as my son so obviously exposed to the rest of the family – but did it show on my face as it did on theirs?

 Those girls taught me a lot when we were little – more things than I can remember. And these wonderful women still are teaching me. They teach me and remind me each day that living a life of grace, compassion and forgiveness is the best way to truly live.