How much kindness can we spread together?

After spending nearly a decade disconnected from the writing world, I have felt like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon over the past several months. I’ve been continually gratified—by the writing process itself, by the feedback I’ve received, and by the communal spirit of the writing community online.

Two months ago, I never used Twitter. As a writer (of novels, not flash fiction), I feared I was too verbose for a limited number of characters. I struggled with believing that people would be interested in what I have to say, so Twitter seemed fraught with the constant need to answer, “What should I tweet?” But as I dipped my toes in the water, a magical thing happened: I found other writers.

Ready-made hashtags with daily prompts made figuring out what to say easy. And that ready-made community led me to other writers, other hashtags, contests, forums, and critique partners.

As I’ve worked this summer to establish my platform and to decide how I want to brand myself, one topic seems the most natural fit—as a way to stand out and as something my passion makes me want to talk about: kindness.

I’m proud of the happy task project I’ve created with Shawn and Ellie. But I’ve always felt it could be so much more. And now I have an outlet.

The idea started as an experiment to see if I could entice more people to follow me: last week on Twitter, I pledged to commit one kind act on September 21 for every new follower/retweet, up to a max of 100 acts of kindness in a single day. Once I tweeted my offer, I waited to see if anyone would respond. But while I wanted more followers to support my writing, I mostly wanted to accomplish 100 acts of kindness in 24 hours. It sounded fun, and I like a challenge.

Even before I posted my crazy scheme on Twitter, I knew I would perform 100 acts of kindness regardless of how many new followers I got. But I’m encouraged by the enthusiasm so far, and I have yet to start the main campaign.

Beginning this Sunday, September 1, I’ll post 5 kindness ideas each day leading up to the main event on Saturday, September 21. I’m excited to personally accomplish 100 kind things in one day, but I’m even more excited about how far this movement could spread. I’ve talked to multiple Starbucks stores that will let me put up a flyer promoting the Kindness Crusade; the PTO at Ellie’s school is talking about using Facebook to get other families involved; and the advertising agency where I work will run its own kindness initiative in support of my mission. I believe people want to be kind.

If you’d like to join in the crusade, it’s simple: just do something nice on September 21, then leave a comment to share what you did. You can comment here or follow the conversation on Twitter. If every person who reads this commits a single act of kindness, imagine how bright the world will shine.

Acts of kindness: back-to-school edition

Some of our happy tasks are meant to be completed during a specific time of year (I’m not writing a message with sidewalk chalk in January). For one such task this year, the timing of drawing it from our jar was impeccable: days before school started, we pulled out a note reading, “Give a treat to the crossing guard.”

Because we live so close to the school, Ellie doesn’t get bussed. I’m happy about this—I treasure the time we spend walking together (when the weather is nice).

Elise’s birthday is in August, so for her party this year, she had her very first sleepover, with three of her close friends. As part of the evening’s activities, we baked cupcakes, which we then let the girls decorate. Wanting to please all palates, I made a batch of vanilla as well as chocolate, so we had 48 cupcakes for four girls. Even after sending boxes home with each of them, we still had a ton left over.

Giving a box to the crossing guard seemed like a no-brainer. And I’ll admit: I had fun decorating them. So much fun that I snagged another four to give to Ellie’s teacher at the open house the day before school started.

Last year, the same woman met us at the crosswalk every day. This year, we’ve seen two new people this first week. But on the first day, when we took the cupcakes, Ellie went right up to the guard and handed him the box. He was very appreciative, even stopping us the next morning to thank us again. This prompted Ellie to reflect on how nice everyone at her school is, which made my heart swell. I’ve felt nothing but positive things toward her school and its staff, which is extremely gratifying as a parent. Ellie described it as a “sunny” place, and I thought: we should all be lucky enough to feel that way about the places we spend our days.

Cancer (and other) kindnesses

Work, happy tasks, writing, and life converge when it comes to cancer kindness. There are so many great organizations here in central Ohio—below are some of our favorites.

Locks of Love

Back in 2007, I let my hair grow longer than it had ever been in anticipation of my wedding. Because it had gotten so long, I decided to cut it afterwards and donate it to Locks of Love. Now Ellie and I are both letting our hair grow long in order to donate it. (While I love knowing my hair will benefit someone else, aesthetically, I prefer my hair long, so I can’t say I’m looking forward to the short style. Ellie, on the other hand, is sacrificing in letting hers grow long. The girl runs every chance she gets, so her fine hair is always a mess of tangles. She prefers hers short to make it a little more manageable. We’ve been doing a lot of ponytails lately.) If you’d like to learn more: https://locksoflove.org/

Nationwide Children’s Hospital

While Dell may initially feel she’s too old for the “children’s hospital,” I was happy to have her be treated there. Nationwide has appeared on our list of happy tasks multiple times over the years. We’ve made activity bags and bought toys from their wish lists. Typically, Shawn does the deliveries because he works downtown, but the last time, we made it a family affair. It was gratifying for Ellie to go inside and hand over a big bag of toys, seeing kids walking around who just might benefit from something she had donated. For more on Nationwide: https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/

Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Ohio

The Ronald McDonald House has a special place in my heart. I was born with a congenital heart defect, which was corrected shortly before I turned three. I had surgery at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and while I was recovering, my parents spent a night at a Ronald McDonald House. I’ve been on a couple of tours of the House here in Columbus, and I’m always left feeling awed, humbled, and moved. This might be my favorite expression of our kindness movement. We’ve supported RMHC seven times, from donating money, cooking dinner, making snack packs, and baking cookies. Ellie and I have a system for the snack packs now—we sit on the floor with our grocery bags, I hand her each item, and she sorts them into piles for me to put into Ziploc bags. And I’ve been waiting several years for her and some of our friends’ kids to be old enough to bake cookies for the families staying at the House. We did that for the first time this summer, and it was a fun and rewarding experience for us all—kids and grownups alike. Please check them out: http://rmhc-centralohio.org/

5 free ways to incite a kindness revolution

1. Bestow some compliments. In Year 1, our goal was to compliment five people. This year, we declared January to be “compliment month,” each of us taking any and all opportunities to shower others with compliments, from a stranger’s coat that caught my eye to a friend’s jewelry that Ellie admired to a colleague’s work Shawn was grateful for.

2. Leave a friendly message. Every year since we came up with the idea in Year 2, we’ve written a happy message in sidewalk chalk in our neighborhood. At first, I wrote the words and Ellie supplied the pictures. This year she put chalk to asphalt, and while I encouraged her to keep it short and sweet, that girl has a lot of words, which started and ended on multiple lines because she ran out of space. I’ll be honest: it wasn’t the easiest thing to decipher, but as we walked around the pond and eventually saw two teenage girls stop and read the message, the pride and happiness on Ellie’s face reminded me that kindness is as good for the giver as for the receiver.

3. Acknowledge pretty decorations. For those who don’t know me, I hate being cold. But I love Christmas. So it was with mixed feelings that I tasked us with taking a walk some December evening in order to put a note in the mailbox of whichever house we thought had the best lights display. Imagining someone opening our card and picturing the smile on their face made me (almost) forget about the weather.

4. Donate books. The longer we do this, the more we each discover our favorite tasks to repeat. Every year, Shawn chooses to donate books to the library. We’re a family of readers; we love books. So it’s satisfying to take some we have read and enjoyed but are willing to part with and give them a new home for new readers to enjoy.

5. Create a traveling story with friends. When I was a kid, my dad and I would make up stories together. I would say a sentence or two, then he would add a bit before giving me another turn. We invited a few of our friends’ kids to help us create a traveling story by mail. Ellie kicked it off with an opening paragraph, then we sent it to our first coauthor with instructions for whom to pass it onto next. After three rounds, an amusing story rife with owls, trolls, birds, and glow-in-the-dark sheep made its way back to us.

Random acts of kindness: how we began

Toward the end of 2013, I was starting to realize that Ellie would have a lot of stuff in her life. Shawn and I were pretty sure we didn’t want more kids, and we’re both only children ourselves, which meant all the love, affection, and buying power from two sets of grandparents plus other family members would be concentrated on her.

This was especially true at Christmas, when each day brought her closer to an influx of toys to add to the pile she already had. Not wanting to deny her the pleasure of presents, I wondered if we could embrace her good fortune while also establishing a family tradition of giving back.

Every year, we hang on our wall the same fabric countdown calendar I used to anticipate my childhood Christmases. What if we borrowed the countdown idea but changed the payoff?

Starting December 1st, in addition to marking time until The Day of Many Gifts, we would think of something to do for someone else—a way to brighten their day or lighten their load. Once the holiday season ended, we would have 24 “happy tasks,” as we’ve come to call them, to complete over the next 12 months.

Now, more than five years later, with nearly 100 unique random (or not so random) acts of kindness under our belts (plus many we repeat from year to year), this tradition is one of my proudest parenting accomplishments. Ellie is an active participant, coming up with her own ideas and helping execute nearly all of them, and the habits this endeavor has instilled in her shine through her actions—from leaving her money for other kids to find to wanting to donate her hair (more on that in a future post).

And because this has become a regular part of our lives, it seems only natural that it should make its way into my writing. With Dell, I proudly set her treatment in Nationwide Children’s Hospital, a recipient of many of our happy tasks. One of my new projects is a story about a 16-year-old girl named Rae, who is struggling to overcome a major loss and needs the healing power of kindness.

As part of this blog, I’ll periodically feature posts about random acts of kindness that Shawn, Ellie, and I commit—the Happy Task Series. Please check back, and feel free to take our ideas and spread some joy yourself. Leave comments too with suggestions—the world can’t have too much kindness.

Writing in the midst of life

After graduating college early, I devoted a year to writing. I decked out my office, bought a new desk, and attended my first conference. I wrote a middle grade novel that…wasn’t really about anything. While I had all the time in the world, I lacked experience, the kind that would make my stories mean something.

Enter life.

I met Shawn (my husband-to-be), moved to another city, got a full-time job, and started becoming a grown-up.

I still wrote—until we had a baby.

Although I occasionally found a burst of motivation and a pocket of time in which to put it to use, my focus lay elsewhere.

Now almost seven, Ellie has grown more independent, and I’ve reclaimed enough brain space to yearn for a creative outlet. So when the time for New Year’s resolutions came around this past January, I decided to recommit to my writing. Seeking time that would be free from distractions, I set my alarm for 5:15, prepared to chip away at my work-in-progress an hour at a time.

Then a funny thing happened: I loved that time so much, I found other opportunities to write. Working in a crowded dance studio waiting room or hearing My Little Pony in the background might not be ideal, but I wrote within the realities of my life today.

I was surprised by how quickly I finished the first draft of Dell’s story. Partly, it’s because the idea stemmed from something I do every day. Undoubtedly, I would not have written a story about a girl with cancer if I hadn’t taken a job at an oncology-focused advertising agency.

Similarly, when Shawn, Ellie, and I starting performing random acts of kindness throughout the year, it was because I wanted to offset the pile of gifts I knew Ellie would get at Christmas with regular reminders to be grateful for what she has and to do things for those who might not have as much. I didn’t anticipate these experiences making their way into a book, but my next YA novel centers on exactly that.

I named my blog Writing in the Midst of Life because I recognize that I have to carve out moments for writing now. But it’s not just about finding time to write; it’s about what drives my stories—what I think about, the questions I need to answer. Life gives my writing its heart.