Here you are invited to read pieces relating to the Monthly Challenge about kindness.
Here’s a great quote about kindness: “Kindness is like snow. It beautifies everything it covers” — Kahlil Gibran
A Remarkable Act of Kindness Found in a Published Memoir
Diane Platz with Joan Tornow
One of the most remarkable acts of kindness I’ve come across in a memoir is one that was in the memoir, The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee (Harper Collins, 2016). The author, Ms. Lee, manages to escape North Korea by crossing a river into China and after many years, she succeeds in getting to South Korea. But, when she attempts to get her mother and brother out of Korea, the three of them endure an arduous, dangerous, and heartbreaking journey with prison detentions along the way. At one point, her brother and mother are in a prison in Laos, and Ms. Lee needs several thousand dollars, essentially in bribes (although called “fines”), to get them out. Her mother and brother have met several other refugees in the prison, and Ms. Lee wants to help all of them. But by now, she is almost penniless. Here’s what happens next:
I walked back to the Coffee House in a trance. I felt as if I was being fleeced of everything I had, and my family held to ransom. I slumped into a chair in the window and tried to think, but every thought came to a dead end. There were no options. I had no idea what to do.
I closed my eyes. I was about to start beseeching aloud the spirits of my ancestors, not caring who heard me, when a very tall figure blocked my light and spoke to me in English. I looked up. Sunlight glinted through sandy hair.
“Are you a traveler?” he said. He had said the word, “traveler.” I vaguely knew it but I hadn’t understood his question. By now I had got to know the waiters at the Coffee House, and called over the one who could speak English and some Mandarin. He translated for us.
“Most people only stay here a day or two,” the tall man was saying. “You’ve been here weeks, like me. Are you on business? I’m just curious.”
This was the first time a white person had ever spoken to me. His eyes were a pale blue and he had a trim, sandy beard that was turning grey. He seemed more shy of me than I was of him. The English threw me. I couldn’t find the words. I gestured for him to join me, and opened an English-Korean translation function on my cellphone.
Slowly, and with many embarrassed laughs and pauses, we communicated. I told him that I was a South Korean volunteer trying to help five North Korea defectors who were now in prison for illegal entry into Laos. The man looked very surprised, and I saw pain in his eyes. I searched for more words and told him that the Laotian government was demanding a huge fine.
“How much?” he asked.
“Each person, $700. American money.”
He scratched his beard and stared into the road for a while. Then he made a gesture that said, Wait here a moment. And another to indicate that he had to make a phone call. He walked to the other end of the café, made a call, and returned after a few minutes. I would never in my life have imagined what happened next. He tapped the words into my cellphone.
In Korea it said, I just made a phone call to a friend in Australia. After talking it over, I’ve decided to help you.
My defenses shot up. Why? Why would a white, fifty-something male all of a sudden care about the problems of some Koreans he’d never met?
. . . I watched him walk across the street to the ATM. He returned holding a thick wad of green bills.
To my astonishment he was putting hundreds of US dollars into my hand. “This is some of the money for the fines. I’ll withdraw the rest tomorrow.”
The man, Dick Stolp, was from Perth, Austraia. He explained that he welcomed this chance to help the North Korean people.
Memoirist Ms. Lee closes this section with the following passage:
Something marvelous happened as I walked outside. All that locked-up beauty I’d seen in this country, and felt I was being denied, suddenly opened. I could smell the scent of jasmine in the trees; the sun and the stately white clouds were celebrating my mood. The whole world had just changed.
This memoir is well-written and tells a harrowing, and ultimately inspiring, story of a woman’s escape from a fascist country. I highly recommend this book!
Here’s a piece about love, kindness, and generosity. Although it is not a memoir piece, it was written by a memoir writer in one of my classes, so I decided to include it. It is an inspiring piece for this holiday season!
The Best Present in the World
Long ago, in a land no one remembers, and few had ever heard of when it was, there lived a warm and wonderful people, ruled by a royal family. There was, of course, a king, a queen, and a princess. The royal family was forever frowning at this and that and moving from crisis to catastrophe and back again. As one might expect, the royal family was very rich.
In a distant province, far from the palace pomp, lived a young girl named Vitessa, and she was very, very poor. Even so, her house was always filled with love aplenty. This is what happened on Christmas, the year when both the princess and Vitessa were seven years old.
On the day before the day before Christmas, Vitessa was sitting with her mother in the kitchen wrapping gifts in hand-painted paper bags with braided yarn for ribbons and dried flowers for decoration when she said, “I want to send the princess a present.”
“What will you send?” asked her mother.
“I will send her some vegetables,” answered Vitessa.
“She has truckloads of vegetables, bigger than ours, that grow in great greenhouses all year round, fresh vegetables, newly picked from the vine or pulled from the ground. The ones you send will be used to make Christmas dinner for the royal pigs,” said her mother, her eyes filled with love.
“I will send her pretty stones.”
“She already has priceless jewels and precious metals. Your pretty stones will become part of the bridle path for the royal horses to tromp upon.”
Vitessa thought, “If only the princess were poor, I could think of so many things.” When all the other gifts had been wrapped and her mother had left to do other chores, all that was left of the wrappings was a single dried flower which had fallen to the floor unseen. When Vitessa saw it, she thought it would make a fine gift for the princess. “A flower is not something to be fed to the royal pigs or to be trampled by horses,” she thought.
Behind the shed in the back of the house, she found an old cardboard box with a lid on it. For wrapping, she went to the kitchen and got some discarded newspaper, an old grocery bag too smudged to have been used for the regular presents and, since they had used up all her mother’s braided yarn, some cotton twine. Then she sat down in the yard with all her materials. She carefully placed the dried flower in the box and put on the lid. But she didn’t have a card. All presents are supposed to have a card. Even if she had had a card, she didn’t know how to write. “Well,” she thought, “I’ll just have to make do.” Before she put the string on the box, she lifted the lid and whispered the message into the box she would have written on the card (if she could have written, that is). The message she spoke into the box just before she clapped on the lid was “I love you.” But Vitessa didn’t notice that when she removed the lid to whisper her message into the box, the dried flower she had so carefully placed within had fallen out and was now lying hidden in the tall grass of the yard.
Carefully she wrapped the box with the cotton twine. Not satisfied, she wrapped the box with newspaper and put on another strand of string. Just to make really and truly certain, she folded the old grocery bag around the box and put on one last wrap of string. In all honest, it was sort of bulgy and looked much like a bundle of old paper wrapped around an old, empty box, and not at all like a Christmas present fit for a princess. She carried it to the mailbox for the mailman to pick up the next day, Christmas Eve.
Vitessa’s father, passing the mailbox the following morning, noticed that inside was a very nice-looking package wrapped in red paper with fine green string. Excitedly, he called out, “Vitessa, my little path to the future, there’s a Christmas present in the mailbox for you.”
Vitessa, remembering her gift to the princess, called back, “No, Daddy. That is a present I am sending to the princess.”
Her father saw there was no address on the package, a condition that was sure to irritate the mailman, who was always a grump even on the nicest days. Using an old stub of a pencil, he wrote simply “To the Princess” on the wrapping and placed it back into the mailbox. He tried to think where his daughter could have found that lovely paper and pretty green string. Walking back to the house through the tall grass, he saw a dried flower at his feet. He took it into the house and put it into a dish of water on the kitchen table. The mailman was in his usual state of discontent, aggravated by the extra work he had to do at Christmas, when he arrived a little later that day and found the package in the mailbox. He liked the package because it was so neatly wrapped in bright red paper with a wide green ribbon all around it. The package was addressed:
“To the Princess
The Royal Chambers
The lettering of the address was yellow and beautifully crafted. The mailman couldn’t imagine who in Vitessa’s family could write so beautifully.
“Very appropriate looking gift,” he smiled, and this was quite strange because the mailman rarely smiled, even on the best of days. “I wonder,” he mused, “what a very, very poor little girl would be sending to a princess and where did she ever get such a fancy wrapping paper and ribbon?” Still smiling and wondering, he set off for the depot from where the mail would be sent on to the capitol.
As Vitessa and her family sat down to lunch, her mother said to her father, “Thank you, my love, for bringing us this pretty blossom” Then she added, “But where did you get it? I used up all the flowers as decoration on the Christmas presents.”
“I found it in the high grass in the yard,” her husband replied. He turned to Vitessa and said, “Vitessa, my little messenger of happiness, what did you send the princess for a Christmas present?”
Suddenly Vitessa realized what had happened. If the flower on the table had come from the high grass in the yard, it must be the flower she had meant for the princess. If that were so, the box she had sent the princess was empty.
It was a catastrophe.
Vitessa sprang from the table and fairly flew to the mailbox. She was too late. Down the road in the distance she could see the mailman’s cart disappearing over the next hill. Without so much as a pause, she ran down the road after him, but he was very far ahead. When the mailman got to the depot, he handed his mailbag to the clerk and said jokingly, “There’s a gift for the princess in there.” To the clerk’s surprise, the mailman was laughing, something he had never seen the mailman do before, and certainly not during the Christmas rush.
In the bag, the clerk found a lovely red package with a glittering green ribbon and the neatly lettered address of the princess. “Very nice,” he thought as he put it in the bin for the capitol. Moments later, the mail carriage to the capitol arrived and Vitessa’s gift to the princess was placed aboard. As the driver of the carriage noticed the fine package, which had prettily patterned red gift wrap and a glittering green ribbon with a distinct yellow border, the clerk said “That one is for the princess!” proud that someone from his province was sending such a present to the royal family.
As soon as it was loaded, the carriage for the capitol rumbled out of the depot. The carriage driver passed a little girl running her heart out toward the depot and waved as he passed her.
It was Vitessa, of course, who now arrived at the depot, quite out of breath and exhausted. She struggled to the counter where the clerk and the mailman were working. When she saw the familiar face of the mailman, she felt much better. She embraced him and wept out her sad tale of how he had sent an empty box to the princes.
“There, there,” said the mailman. “It will be all right. The package is so beautiful the princess will never realize the box is empty.”
“Oh, it will never do,” wailed Vitessa. “It is a catastrophe for the princess to receive an empty box at Christmas.”
“The present is beautiful. Believe me,” said the mailman. “the princess will love it.”
“Oh, what shall I do?” pleaded Vitessa.
Just then, the door burst open and Vitessa’s parents ran in. They were so happy to see their daughter safe, they wrapped her in their arms and made her feel far less frightened. Vitessa carefully explained all that had happened.
“We must go to the palace and explain the whole thing to the princess,” said Vitessa’s mother firmly.
“There is another carriage to the capitol in several minutes,” said the mailman. “We will take it and be in the capitol at the main post office before they send out the palace mail.”
At last the second capitol carriage arrived and Vitessa, her mother, her father, the mailman, and the clerk all got on board to go to the capitol to help with the explanation of why the princess was getting an empty box for Christmas. While Vitessa, her mother, her father, the mailman, and the clerk rode anxiously in the second speeding carriage, the package was delivered to the main post office in the capitol. It was now covered with fine satiny paper with a many-colored ribbon that wound round the package in three directions and seemed to have no end. There was a large yellow bow right where a bow ought to be if the package was to be nearly perfect.
“Somebody very, very rich must be sending a special Christmas present to the princess,” said the postmaster general when he saw the package. “We must treat this package very carefully.” He looked about for some appropriate means of paying this marvelous parcel the special attention it deserved when he saw a member of the king’s own special guard standing stiffly nearby, looking suspiciously at everyone. “It is clear that this parcel must not wait for the regular delivery to the palace. Here, guard,” he said. “Take this precious gift directly to the princess in my own private carriage.” Tucking the package under his arm, the gloomy guardsman mounted the postmaster general’s private carriage. However, as the carriage careened toward the palace, the guardsman began to sing, which was very odd, because he was nearly tone deaf and, to be quite honest about it, he sounded just awful, but no one seemed to mind.
Quite soon after the postmaster general’s private carriage set out for the palace, Vitessa, her mother, her father, the mailman, the clerk, and the driver and co-driver of the second capitol coach arrived at the main post office. Histories and explanations were exchanged quickly because, to be quite honest about it, they were all getting a lot of practice at telling the tale. “Hurry,” said the postmaster general, “to the palace.” The entire troop of Vitessa, her mother, her father, the mailman, the clerk, the driver and the co-driver of the carriage, and the postmaster general and staff, who by now had heard of the remarkable present, piled into the carriage that had just arrived and off they went, lickety split, to the palace, deep in the dust of the guardsman who was also going lickety split in a much lighter carriage.
Upon his arrival at the palace, the now grinning guard was bearing a package which seemed to glow from within with a special light. Even the Christmas lights and garlands which festooned the halls and doorways of the palace seemed to dim as the guardsman passed by. When the people he passed in the palace saw the gift, they all smiled and giggled. The very sight of it made everyone who saw it feel very good and warm inside, as if some little door had opened in their heads and a breeze of happiness had blown in. As the guard, still smiling and singing off-key, pranced proudly through the palace carrying the precious package (now on a silver tray) to where the princess was opening her Christmas presents, all the people he passed fell in behind and followed him. Everyone wanted to see what miracle, what priceless wonder was contained within.
Meanwhile, Vitessa, her mother, her father, the mailman, the clerk the driver and co-driver of the carriage, the postmaster general and his staff were barreling through the palace gates just as the melodious guardsman, now trailing the entire palace staff, arrived at the top of the grand staircase leading down into the royal chamber where the princess was opening her presents.
There was a gasp of awe as all within the royal chamber saw for the first time what had now become a perfect, glowing marvel of beauty. People who had been glowering or looking worried, smiled. Those standing alone reached out to touch someone else. Those holding hands held them more firmly and put their arms around one another. Ladies and gentlemen of the court had all begun to smile and the whole room vibrated with a cheerful warmth of spirit.
As the proud guardsman, with all the palace staff behind him, carried his precious cargo down the great staircase into the chamber, the crowded room subsided into silent awe.
The princess, who had just opened a gorgeous box containing a priceless diamond and emerald necklace of surpassing beauty when the guard arrived, looked up when she heard the sudden quiet of the chamber. When she saw the package, she exploded with delight. Dropping the diamond and emerald necklace in her wake, she ran to the grinning guardsman, who bowed to deliver Vitessa’s gift to her. Grasping it, she turned to the king and queen. “May I open this one right away, please?” she begged.
“All right,” said the queen, “but be very careful. The wrapping looks like it is very valuable and the ribbons are the most beautiful I have ever seen.” Just as the princess was preparing to open the gift, Vitessa and her companions arrived out of breath and clattered to a halt at the top of the grand staircase. Their arrival caused no disturbance because all within were looking only at the impressive gift the princess was about to unveil. Vitessa felt relieved that it was not her gift the princess was about to open. As the princess opened the present, she was amazed to find that the ribbons that so tightly bound the package slipped off with ease. When she removed the first wrapping, she thrust it aside because the second, inner wrapping was simply breathtaking. This new inner wrapping was covered with living flowers whose colors seemed to fill the room. The radiant blooms gave off an aroma that awakened beauty in the hearts of all. The exquisite bundle was not encircled and embraced by ribbons as delicate as a fairy necklace, all aglimmer with an inner light. It made the princess gasp with pleasure, and the entire court as well.
So entranced were the princess and the court with the inner package, they all failed to notice that the first wrapping, how lying discarded nearby, looked for all the world like an old grocery bag, wrinkled and smudged, and the glorious bindings and bows had turned into plain cotton twine. Vitessa noticed it, however. The old grocery bag looked very familiar to her. She began to worry a little more but was not sure why. When the princess took off the second wrapping, the flowers and lacy ribbon came off as easily as had the previous paper and bows, and was cast aside. What was inside the second wrapping was like nothing anyone had ever before beheld. It was a box, jeweled with semi-precious stones, lavishly enfolded in what appeared to be waves of silver and gold and secured in two directions by a simple strand of golden yarn.
On every side of the box was a scene of great beauty, painted with all the colors of all precious and beautiful things, surfaces inlaid so cleverly that one could not tell where one thing stopped and another began. Each glorious scene was a world of its own. Here, there was the sea, with fish and beach, ships and blazing sun which lit the faces of those who looked upon it. There, there was a forest, deep and darkly green, with distant sunlight sifting through the high leaves, sprinkling freckles of light on lacy waterfalls and sheltered pools over which dangled luxurious jungle fruits, colored with the hues of life itself. On another side were depicted all the birds of paradise that ever lived or ever would and some that were so magical as to stretch even the most cavernous imagination. When the princess turned the box in her small hands, there were small children, romping with their mothers in a field of grass and wild flowers. So real was the picture, the princess imagined she could hear the children laughing and smell the fresh air of summer as she herself ran with the breeze floating her long hair from her shoulders as she flew across the field.
On the fifth side were depicted young animals, puppies and kittens, baby seals, rabbits, squirrels, fawns, furry bear cubs, small and warm. The looked alive and, as she looked at them, they seemed to look back at her. Among them were strange creatures the princess had never seen but they were all soft and appealing, their eyes aglow with the inner fire of innocence, curiosity, acceptance and trust.
The last side of the enchanted box contained images of the old, and each person who looked at this side of the box recognized parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts. As the side of the box with the animals had been warm and soft to the touch, textured as if the living fur had been used to make the picture, the pictures of the elders on the last side of the box seemed vividly alive, bringing a flood of warmth to the heart. All who gazed upon the picture of the ancestors were enveloped in their own special moment of remembrance. Where before there had been cheer and laughter, now the great chamber fell quiet as each person recalled others who had come and gone before. “Look,” said the princess, “here’s grandpa and grandma.” And she fell silent as had everyone else, immersed for this quiet moment in happy memory. During this solemn time, only Vitessa had noticed that the wrapping of living flowers, whose colors and perfume had so bewitched the court, and the intricate ribbons that had encircled with indescribably beautiful gift, had turned into old newspaper and string. Now Vitessa knew that this was her gift, mysteriously transformed, and she knew that if the box was opened at last, if all the mystery disappeared, the princess would know that there was no gift after all.
After a pause, the princess remembered there was still the box to be opened. There must be a great treasure within such a miraculous box. Slowly she untied the precious binding that held it. As she delicately lifted it from the box, the golden strand became plain cotton cord. For the first time, the people in the room noticed the crude wrappings scattered on the floor around the princess.
“It’s magic!” they exclaimed. “Don’t open the box or it, too, will turn into worthless trash.”
“What shall I do?” the princess asked her royal parents.
“The gift is to you, my little jumble of joy,” said her mother the queen.
The king said, “You are a princess of the realm, my little ray of hope. You must decide what to do.” And she saw he was smiling for the first time in years.
Once again, the chamber fell silent. The princess began to lift the lid. From the top of the stairs, piercing the breathless hush, Vitessa’s voice cried out. “There’s nothing inside!” With a great swish and rustle, everyone turned to see from where the small voice had come. There stood Vitessa, alone with her parents at the top of the stairs, their rumpled clothing and tired faces standing out in all that finery and wealth.
Slowly the princess rose from the floor and walked to where Vitessa stood with her parents. She carried the yet-unopened box with her to Vitessa, who was awash with fear that she had said or done something terribly wrong. “How do you know there is nothing in the box?” asked the princess.
“Because I sent it and it’s only a plain old cardboard box,” replied Vitessa, gathering courage. The princess was, after all, just a seven-year-old girl.
“If this is plain,” asked the princess, “what is fancy?”
“I don’t know what fancy is,” answered Vitessa. “I meant to put a flower in the box, but it fell out,” she explained.
“Didn’t you put anything in it?” asked the princess, truly baffled by the how and the why of the situation.
After a moment of thought, Vitessa said, “I didn’t have a card and I can’t write anyhow, so I whispered the message into the box,” she explained.
“What did you whisper into the box?” asked the princess.
Vitessa motioned for the princess to come near because she didn’t want to get too far from the safety of her mother. Then she leaned forward and whispered into the princess’ ear, “You are more precious than gold,” and withdrew into her mother’s ample skirt. The princess beamed and hugged Vitessa for a long time. When they parted, both she and Vitessa were weeping. The princess was aglow. Carefully, she carried the enchanted box, still unopened, back to the center of the room where all of the wrappings now lay in messy disarray. She reached down and picked up the discarded necklace of diamonds and emeralds and carefully laid it on the top of the box. No sooner had she done this when there was a gasp from the party guests. The priceless necklace (of surpassing beauty) had instantly turned into plain cotton twine and wrapped itself around the magnificent box. The princess wasn’t bothered by this at all. It is not recorded how it affected the giver of the necklace.
She carried the treasured box to a place of prominence, where it was put on a glass table so people could see very side of it. From that Christmas forward, there it sat for all to marvel at, and once a year it went on tour around the kingdom (under the watchful eye of the guardsman, of course). To this day, there it would be, but for the fact the kingdom no longer is, to be quite honest about it. Some say the box is like a heart, filled with love, and the girdle of cotton twine is hope, which, so to speak, keeps the lid on us all. Some say the box is a lesson to us all, telling us what is valuable in the world and what is merely worthless trash.
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