Kindness Remembered

Of memories that come as the years flow by, the most precious are those of unexpected kindness received. Here is one:

Professor Huston Smith is remembered for many accomplishments in the field of Comparative Religion, including a standard text and several videos. He is remembered also as a talented and dedicated teacher. But many who knew him, as I was privileged briefly to do, remember him best for his generous kindness.

As it happened, he sat on my doctoral dissertation committee and was always gently encouraging. The incident that shows him most typically came with his presence as one examiner at my dissertation oral exam.

To say I approached that experience with terror is an understatement. I had traveled by myself from Tucson to Berkeley. I was staying in a hotel.  Two of the other committee people were professor/friends I knew much better than I knew Huston. As he came into the exam room, the first prof to arrive, Huston greeted me and added, “I’d like to see you after this is all over, Marilyn.” It was like being asked, mysteriously, to stay after school! It didn’t help my nerves.

After the exam, a success surprising to no one but me, I waited for Huston. He was sorting the pages of my dissertation and apologized for keeping some and tossing some. “I will die one day and I don’t want my children to have to sort through more than is necessary. So I’m keeping only the most important ones.”

Then, “Right now, Marilyn, I’d like to take you home to Kendra (his wife whom I had met once) for supper.”

Astonished, I gladly accepted, but I was puzzled. My friends had not offered any such thing. Why had Huston? He didn’t know me well.

As we drove up to the Berkeley hills, I couldn’t contain my question. “Huston, this is so kind of you and I appreciate it. But–why?”

He glanced briefly over at me, and then, “Oh… Well, Marilyn, there are times in life when one should not be alone. This is one of them.”


They fed me a supper of fish soup, toasted my success with sweet sherry, and then Kendra went off to her meeting and Huston delivered me to the bus and went to his meeting.

Simple. Direct. Indelible.



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Ego Surprises

Years ago, I participated in some beautiful, very complex, dances with people who’d had a lot of experience. I was the novice. The challenge was that the lines of dancers interwove as they moved, and if one person made a mistake, the whole undertaking could be thrown into chaos. I was more than a little nervous.

Fortunately, the experienced dancers were kindly. If I didn’t move when I was supposed to, or moved in the wrong direction, someone would shove me into the spot where I belonged. It was clumsy, but at least the whole dance didn’t fall apart.

Gradually—oh so gradually!—I learned the complexities of what I was supposed to do. It required an intense and unbroken focus of attention to my body, as well as staying focused on the flow of the dance. There were moments when that focus appeared and my body did exactly what it was supposed to do.

But then I was inclined to think “Good for you, Marilyn!” and the next move was lost and askew, instantly. Getting it right didn’t cause the problem. Letting the ego grab my attention did. The slightest self-congratulation and poof! No more focus.

I simply must not thinkduring the dancing. I could assess it afterwards, but as we moved, the calling was to stay utterly focused on what I was doing and not more than a single step ahead of myself. Such attention gave me knowledge of what I was to do.

Later, I found myself wondering what life would be like if I could live in that focus all the time. I couldn’t and still can’t. But there are moments…moments when I can look back on them and see that yes, the focus was there. And then I did know just what to say or what to do. I didn’t have to think, but was just truthful in expression, when my attention was held precisely where I was and nowhere else. Clarity came, and effectiveness. And there was joy. Perhaps this is what some call “flow,” but I think of it a little differently. To me, it is the aim of a life lived in awareness. Attention that is simple and direct and steady.

Easy to say, not even possible much of the time. But so worth every effort!



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Jason’s Gift

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about circulating kindness. This story has been on my mind. It’s longer than usual, but please read it all:

I drove to the minimum security prison, far out in the desert, at the end of the only road in those parts.

When I arrived in the visitors’ yard this November day, the sergeant on duty welcomed me. He’d seen me regularly here for some months. Soon Dave, my inmate host for this visit, came onto the yard. We sat at a concrete picnic table under a thatched ramada.  Dave began to talk about the last meeting of an inmate growth group.

He said the staff facilitator had asked the men, “What’s the hardest thing for you during the holidays?” Answers had varied, my host reported, but one had stuck in his mind: Jason’s (not his real name). Jason had killed someone when he was nineteen. He’d been sentenced to life and had already done twenty-nine years in prison. By law, he’d be eligible for parole, but he must have a plan, a place to go. However, for the last twenty-five of those years, Jason had had no contact with the outside world—family and everyone he’d known had abandoned him. He had a son somewhere whom he would never know. No one had sent a card or a note.

So, when Jason began to answer the facilitator’s question, everyone expected him to say something about his family. But, gripping one hand with the other, he murmured, “The hardest thing is never having anything to give away.”

I gasped. This I could not ignore.

As I left the prison yard that day, I spoke to the sergeant, even though I knew the rule: no inmate could receive packages unless the sender was on that inmate’s visiting list. Since I would never meet Jason, I couldn’t be on his list—a circle of impossibility. I begged the officer to make a single exception for him.

“It’s for Christmas,” I urged. I pleaded. I promised, “never a second time.” Maybe because the authorities knew me, more likely because they knew Jason, they made the exception.

So I rallied a couple friends and went shopping, the prison’s list of permitted items in hand. We sent Jason the maximum allowed, twenty-five pounds of little things: chocolate bars, wrapped fruits, packaged nuts, small packaged stuffed animals, and a few useful items they couldn’t get inside.

Then, we waited. I wondered how he’d responded–what happened? Not until mid-January did I get back to the prison and hear the story. Dave, again my inmate host, delighted in telling me.

Several days before Christmas, other inmates told Jason he had a package in the prison post office. Jason didn’t believe it. After all, for twenty five years, nothing had come for him. He got angry at them for trifling with his emotions and leapt at them. They fended him off, laughing, avoiding a fight. They persisted for half an hour before they convinced him to walk down to the post office.

Jason returned to the dorm, hugging his twenty-five pound box in both arms. He carried it inside, set it in his open steel cabinet and sat down on the foot of his cot, facing it. He sat there, staring at that box, for two hours.

Then he set the box on his cot. He tore off the tape. He took out the dozens of small items, examined each one as if he’d never seen such a thing. After twenty five years of being forgotten by the outside world, he took his time, fondling each item. He lined them all up by category in his cabinet. Then he locked the cabinet and forbade anyone to come near it.

Christmas morning came. After count, the old lifer tucked one small, tan stuffed bear into the center of his own pillow. He savored one chocolate bar.  Then, after so many years, all the rest of his twenty-five pounds of goodies, Jason gave away to his friends.