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  • Writer's pictureJennifer

Riding life's waves is easier with a little kindness

Updated: Jul 13

The American Soviet Peace Walk (ASPW) sponsored by the International Peace Walk, Inc 1988 - photo by J. Hilton

I've been reflecting on kindness and its importance when faced with doing hard things. We can look at hard things as an opportunity for growth or daunting tasks mired in potential catastrophe. It is said, attitude is the precept, the catalyst to how we see and perceive life. Are we functioning from a place of scarcity or one of abundance? Scroll through your feed, any one of them right now, and you'll see what I mean. There are the posts scolding the world for all its tragedies and misguided steps. And, yes, those things are true—the struggle is real—and needs to be said. Then there's the opposite extreme, the coaching optimism smothering us with positivity mantras of self-determination that feel a bit delusional at times. I try to keep a look out for kindness, and a balance between the two extremes, with the stories of helpers and the doers not doing it alone.

One of the first really hard things I had to do as an adult was finding my way to college. I had picked up a camera and fell in love with storytelling through pictures. Although my mom and sister had forged successful educational journeys, I wasn't sure I was cut out for it. Completing financial aid forms felt like a herculean task. The complexity of applications and the constant reminder that I was on my own was paralyzing. I remember sitting in my car, an old hatchback I'd bought by scraping together money from waitressing and a boat cleaning business I'd had, plus a small loan I somehow got from the bank (maybe my grandfather co-signed it), and crying. I wasn't smart enough. I wasn't college material. It felt like I had no one who believed in me. My father had abandoned us long ago. I was estranged from my mom more often than not. Ties to family, in general, were precarious. I was a later bloomer, already in my early twenties, and had never really been that great at school. I wanted to move forward from a life that was taking me nowhere fast. I applied and was accepted to the local community college on Long Island. I had to find a place to live, work, and believe in myself no matter how hard things got. I found what I needed, slowly, and mostly through the kindness of others, even strangers who became my helpers.

First, there was the guidance counselor at college who held my hand throughout the process, reassuring me I belonged, that I would get through my first semester and build a foundation that would be sturdy. Then there was Peter and Elizabeth Shepherd.

They had a lovely home in Head-of-the-Harbor where they rented a room to a student—giving a break on the cost if you helped around the house and took care of their pets. Peter and Liz came out from Manhattan on weekends. Their son also lived in the house when he wasn't away at school, and their daughter would come out on weekends too. She was in college in the city. They were a quirky group. Adam was adopted, and a big burly guy, who tortured his dad with pop cultural references of the day and called his parents Pete and Liz instead of mom and dad—lovingly getting under their skin. Peter, a literary agent, wore khakis and a blazer that looked like he'd had them forever. Elizabeth, a teacher, and writer, also dressed without much flair and demanded we all compost every scrap in the kitchen long before it became chic. Annie was quiet and astute to everyone's antics, following in her mom's footsteps to become a teacher. They were so far from the Manhattanites of the Hamptons I'd come to know when working summers out in Montauk. I fell in love with them all—the house they had transformed from an old carriage barn, their dog Daisy, the gardens, the snow that would bury us in after a big storm—and their kind reassurance that I could do hard things.

I found work as a writer and photographer with community newspapers, photographed the farmland for marketing campaigns with the local trust, worked part-time bagging groceries, and as an office assistant at a construction company. I did what I had to do; so I could do what I yearned to do. I studied hard and made connections with professional photojournalists. Then a friend told me about a peace march walking across the United States to draw attention to the nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. I knew little of the complex politics. My friend mailed me books to educate myself and the application to participate. I had never done anything like this. I had to raise funds and drive my old hatchback across the country—I was going to do the last leg of the march up the coast of California and photograph it. It was going to be a really hard thing. I was terrified in a good way! Peter, Elizabeth, Annie, and Adam never once doubted my abilities. Liz guided me through my fundraising efforts as I pitched local peace and anti-nuclear arms groups. I took my story to high school campuses—contacted family and friends—all to raise my application fee. The fee would cover logistics, camping costs, food, water, and medical provisions. I had to get myself and my camera out there on my dime. And I did it.

Joining over 400 Americans and Soviets in an act of citizen diplomacy was a life-transforming experience. I made it to the march and photographed our trek, all while chaperoning a high school student from Long Island whose's parents gave her the experience as a graduation gift. She'd heard my pitch at her school and then pitched to her mom and dad. She flew out to Los Angeles, and I drove across the country alone to New Mexico, where I picked up my friend, and we headed out to California. When it was over, I put my charge on a plane home and needed to figure out how I was getting back to New York myself. My car barely made it across the country the first time—it wasn't going to make a second. I stayed with friends of my friend in Santa Barbara, got a job cleaning and refinishing boats down at the local dock, did a little scuba diving, sold my car to a boat captain, and flew home in time to start school in the fall. By January the next year, I was heading into Manhattan, having landed a job as a researcher at a photo agency. U.S. President Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev had developed an unlikely friendship as leaders and were working towards peace—an end to the cold war. I had found confidence. Alongside fellow global citizens, we had done hard and unbelievable things. Through the kindness and commitment of strangers—people who barely knew each other—the course of life changed in unimaginable ways.

My heart ached when I learned Peter and Elizabeth had both passed away—she about ten years ago, and Peter just this past year. They were older, wise, and easily in their fifties when they took me under their wings. I regret not staying in closer contact over their later years. They met my daughter when she was little, but life got busy as a single mom in New York, and we lost touch. I recently connected with Adam, their son, and we reminisced about their extraordinary kindness, where we both are now, and how I never forgot their impact on my life.

Some of us come at life naturally a bit pessimistic—lacking trust in the process, and others dive in with enthusiasm and optimism. I think most sit in the middle, an ebb and flow between the two. It can be a bit like riding waves—sometimes we catch an amazing one where we can see the sun glistening on the water, and the momentum carries us. Other times our board goes off with a quick tip throwing us over—waves crashing overhead—the tide pulling us frighteningly under. I find the journey is about learning to surf it all. Remembering to have gratitude for the gloriously silky waves, and letting go, going with the flow in the moments we crash; thinking of kindness and acts of generosity when we must pull up and paddle back out—pointing ourselves again toward sturdier shores.

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