Monday, December 3, 2007

Smile and Wave

photo by GlennFleishman

When the Open Air Market opened this April, the first Saturday was not great. In fact, I was the only one there and it was drizzling. It was also a bit airish. I set up and stayed, so that people would know I was planning to be there on a regular basis. I think I even sold something. That day began my unofficial smile and wave campaign here in Ashland City. I felt the compulsion to smile and wave at every car passing my small stand.

I remembered how in Cordele, GA, where I lived in my 'tweens, that everyone was always friendly whether they actually knew your name or not. "Hey, Howya doin'?" was the most common greeting. It was delivered with the air of utmost familiarity and friendship everywhere in that small town. I also remember how different that felt than how it felt where I was born, a big metropolitan area. I became friendlier and in the process relaxed. The relaxation led to an unintentional kindness. I certainly wasn't taught at earlier age to be nice to strangers.

This act became so reflexive that when I went to college in a different large metro area, I was astounded to be approached by the "spices of life" everywhere I went. It wasn't until I realized it was the friendliness I brought with me from Georgia that was attractive, that I stopped. I did not want to be the target of unwelcome attention, so I reacquainted myself with the rules of big city life - don't smile, don't make eye contact, stay in your bubble. The kindness that I habitually exhibited began to disappear. I became bitter, cynical, unfriendly. To my Southern self, I became rude. I was anonymous in the crowd. I considered it necessary survival tactics. What exasperated the situation was that I actually enjoy being friendly. It's easier for one thing and it's less stressful.

I moved to a neighborhood that was close-knit and began to meet my neighbors. Soon I could walk down the street and greet nearly everyone I passed. And we were kind to one another. We collected cans for the man who made his living from them. We looked out for each other's houses and vehicles. We fed each other's animals and we checked on the sick and elderly regularly. One day, I was at Mrs. R's taking coffee with her and Marie, when the subject of tenants came up. Nearly all of us were tenants, but the comment was made that the tenants who were not from the neighborhood did not take care of the property they were renting. I asked if the tenants were known. Had anyone ever visited them? No. They're not from this country. We wouldn't talk to them. Then very logically and naively, I asked (I had to - it's in my nature) Well, then how do you know the place was a mess? It was explained to me that people like that always lived in filth. It was clear to me that the unkindness and prejudice in this situation arose from the relative anonymity of the newcomers. Nobody got to know anyone else and certainly there was no greeting going on between relative strangers.

This story brings me up to Ashland City, another smallish tight knit community. One thing I like about Ashland City is that it is a small town and I could get to know everyone if I wanted to. But something puzzled me about this place in Tennessee. I rather expected it would be somewhat like Georgia where everyone would say Hello to each other and give a friendly nod. Nope. Not really. I used to joke that this was a little bit of New England plopped into the South. Keep to yourself. Really. Please.

This allows all kinds of gossip. I have witnessed first hand, how word spreads around town about this, that and the other. How people bear 20 and 30 year old grudges over high school gossip. What we need is a little more kindness and a little more community. One of the roles of local farmer is to bolster community. It may be unintentional but nonetheless, people meet each other at the market and they begin to talk. More folks will stop in and check out your vegetables if you smile and say, Hello. More than that, I learn what food the community needs and what difficulties some people might be having. All the various kindnesses that were paid to me over the years, can be paid forward to others.

Paying kindness forward is not a new concept to me and it doesn't appear to be exclusive to my upbringing, although that is certainly where I learned it. Check out this Zen Habits post on paying kindness forward. This idea drives the food giveaways and various neighborhood assistances that go between us in a small town. It is the old way of farming. We all help each other, without a ledger to keep track, because we are paying forward. We are not lending a hand, we are giving a hand. And there is a difference. A loan becomes a debt which must be returned to the lender. A gift becomes the property of the recipient who can re-gift it to someone else. And it all starts with a smile and wave. A friendly hello. If we don't know each other, it is hard to be kind. We don't know. We have no information. In the absence of information, the mind fills in the blanks. And the gossip spreads without basis.

The first step is to smile and wave. Ask how the person is doing, and listen to their answer. Take the kindnesses given to you and pay them forward. Mule Shoe Farm will be at the Open Air Market this Saturday (unless there are sick children) and I will be smiling and waving at the passing cars, just like always. Stop in and say Hi. We'll talk and build up our community through mutual kindnesses.

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