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Picture of Kindness #3: A Gift from Travelers

Once the curtain of steam lifted, Dave, my namesake friend from Albany, New York, found himself standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking Mount Etna’s mythical crater.  He had added his volcano excursion to his itinerary after missing the boat to Tunisia the day before.  The sight before him rewarded his change of plans and long uphill climb.

Ever since he told me this part of his Italian adventure, the image of him admiring the “pool of shifting, gelatinous, liquid red rock” on the eastern edge of Sicily seemed like the right way to introduce his “picture of kindness,” which had taken place three days earlier.  There was something about his determination to get there and the mental image he painted of that vermilion well of fire.  How much like volcanoes we are: Manifestations of the irrepressible energy flowing continually from the core of the planet, energy that can be destructive but is otherwise mostly benign and even awe-inspiring.

Three days earlier, Dave was at Rome’s main train station on a forced overnight layover.  It was nearly empty, but he was not alone; a loud, bubbly group of free spirits from Slovenia, Italy, and Turkey kept him company with a seemingly tireless flow of laughter and songs, and he was not yet tired enough to sleep through it.  Instead, he joined them.

“They were totally present,” he recalls of his newfound friends, “so happy to be there, in the moment.”  Won over by their kind, “simple, joyful” vibe and their familiar repertoire of contagious sing-alongs, Dave recalls that at one point he even accompanied them with the guitar, improvising a blues song or two.  Whether that happy corner of the nearly empty train station was in fact their destination that night is not certain, but they sure made it seem that way.  Dave thinks his traveling friends were not the kind to stay in hotels, but rather the kind that spend the night in public spaces, and walk and hitchhike their way through entire continents, keeping themselves “graceful and free…completely genuine.”

Earlier that night, before Dave joined in the revelry, he admittedly hadn’t been too thrilled with his neighbors’ disregard for silence.  Their joy felt a bit intrusive at first and they seemed “really foreign, like from another planet.”  He had wanted to rest and now that seemed unlikely.  The station was big: Why had they chosen to party right next to him?

When Dave took a bathroom break from his neighbors’ festivities, it would not be long before the thought entered his mind that one of these “wanderers,” who seemed to travel with just the bare minimum, might rummage in his unattended bag for money.  An itch of suspicion would lead him quickly back to his property.  The itch would soon turn into a pang of embarrassment and then into humbling gratitude, for his soon-to-be friends had left him an edible invitation on top of his bag, of all places: “prosciutto on some really nice bread.”  The gesture was quite disarming. “They had almost nothing, but gave freely, without a second thought,” Dave recalls.  “They hung on to nothing. They had nothing to protect, so they could afford to be kind and generous.  It was the weirdest paradox….I’d never met people like that.  To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever met people like that since.”

 That night, Dave would be stuck at Rome’s main train station after missing the day’s last train/barge ride to Sicily.  Unbeknownst to him, the night would bring “real kind souls” into his path.  They would give him just the kind of nourishment he needed to continue his journey, even the chance to get some sleep and dream, on the border, “between their guitar case and their sweaters.”

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This “picture of kindness” is the third in a year-long series intended to honor Shojushin’in Sama, the model of embracement (shoju) and spiritual mother of the Shinnyo-en sangha, in the year of the centennial anniversary of her birth. They are meant as gifts: for her and those who also inspired and shared them with me, and for anyone who reads them. In sharing these gifts, these small acts of kindness performed, witnessed and honored by ordinary people, may we continue the momentum of their gentle ripples.