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The Kindness of Strangers

 ©copyright Carol Bergman 2023



The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.


― Fred Rogers, "The World According to Fred Rogers"




I spent a couple of hours today delivering chocolates, cookies and cards to the workers in my small upstate New York town, workers who have eased my life immeasurably this past year with their kindness. I want them to know that they are appreciated, that I am grateful for them. New Paltz has a population of about 7,000, and apart from a more diverse State University of New York college population, they/we are mostly white and affluent. Not so the workers in the supermarket, my mechanics, the woman who takes care of the laundromat, the young employees at Spectrum in the mall, the men and women behind the desk at my gym. Most do not live in the town, they come here to work, to serve us, and they are easily forgotten once we are out the door, our business done. Indeed, in a town that is a monument to enslavement and Jim Crow, these contemporary demographics are hardly surprising. Yet, cosmopolitan and urban to the bone, I find myself here, and I observe, I ponder, and I write.


Gifting those who have been special to me, strangers who have entrusted me with their stories either as a reporter or a consumer in fleeting encounters, this gifting has become my own ecumenical holiday tradition: Julie, at the supermarket had a small stroke and had to return to work after her sick leave ran out, which was too soon. Stefan at Spectrum is starting school in September, and Pat at the car body shop has COPD and recommends his new doctor to anyone with COPD; the doctor saved his life. Dylan checks my tires and chats to me about his five-year-old daughter. Because of these soul warming micro-connections, separate and distinct from the friends I have made since arriving here in 2018, the town's smallness expands into a capacious home, the barriers of class and caste broken.


Maybe I learned this holiday tradition during my decade in London, a class conscious society top to bottom, so smitten with royalty in the modern age that Hilary Mantel once compared the kings and queens—even  in their contemporary iterations—to  precious pandas who are both hard to conserve and expensive to maintain.  But class and caste can break down there, too, especially if you are an American, or an irreverent artist, like a friend of mine who lived in Hackney in the East End of London.  Her home was in a row of small attached "terraced" houses, a working class neighborhood fast becoming gentrified, and every Christmas Eve this irreverent and courageous friend of mine wrote out a load of cards and went door to door to wish her neighbors a Happy Christmas. There is more crime in London now, but in those days—if Norma's neighbors were home—they all opened their doors at the first knock. I went with her on one or two occasions and what a treat it was to feel such surprise and joy in others, and in ourselves.


There are many kinds of giving, of course—donations, presents, food—and each of us have our particular "language of love" and "language of concern." Small tokens of appreciation are my personal contribution to the continuing effort to remain compassionate and attentive close to home.


This blog post is dedicated to all the children in countries at war,  and all the migrant children living in shelters and tent cities.

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