The Kindness of Strangers

Kindness can be expressed in a number of ways, and it can be particularly powerful when it is unexpected. Whilst you may not always be able to rely on the kindness of strangers, it can really make a difference when you experience such a moment.

I have never been bothered by heights. I like the vantage points offered from lookouts and tall towers offering panoramic views. But then I had a moment when I felt suddenly and inexplicably overwhelmed by vertigo.

I had wandered off to explore the Woodford Academy. This was my first visit and it happened to be on an open day when there was a guided tour featuring several artistic installations. Whilst this was interesting, I had wanted to get an idea of the history of the place, and so I left the gathering group and took myself up a rather steep flight of stairs to the first floor to view the old bedrooms. There was a sign on the staircase, which was effectively carved into a corner of the building, advising that the stairs were very steep. I trotted up, only noting as I turned for the second flight that there was no bannister or handrail on the upper section.

I had a good look around the first floor, enjoying the view looking over the garden and onto the highway. It was nice to daydream and imagine some of the scenes that would have passed by, from the days of the gold rush and the arrival of the railways, to men travelling to Sydney as part of the Cooee March.

I could hear the guided tour downstairs and took the opportunity to look closer at the furniture and displays providing insights into earlier times. The crowd moved on and I decided it was time to go. But when I approached the staircase I felt a wave of dizziness at the thought of winding my way down the steps, especially the top section without a handrail. I turned around and went back into one of the bedrooms, unsure as to what to do next. I could hardly call out for help, as the guided tour had moved on. And wasn’t it my fault anyway for not heeding the sign? I moved between the rooms, feeling a bit trapped. Then I heard footsteps on the stairs.

An older couple appeared and looked through the rooms. They said hello and continued talking between themselves about a similar staircase that they had come across, and how tricky it was to navigate. I said nothing, thinking that perhaps I could just follow them down the stairs.

As they were getting ready to go, I mentioned that I was feeling anxious about getting back to the ground floor and without any fuss, the husband offered to guide me. His wife led the way, then he took the stairs down to the corner adjacent to the handrail and reached his hand out to me. It was a simple gesture which eased my panic. He made sure I arrived safely on the ground floor before nodding at my thanks and heading off.

When was the last time you experienced the kindness of a stranger? Or perhaps you were the kind stranger?

[Photo: The Company of Trees by Ro Murray and Mandy Burgess spotted at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba]

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Neighbourly Thoughts

Recently I came across a Chinese proverb in a magazine: Love your neighbours, but don’t pull down the fence. It made me think about neighbours in general and the act of being a neighbour.

Growing up in a Sydney suburb, we knew our neighbours in part because there were other children in our street. Neighbours on one side kept an eye out for us and there was a doorway in the fence to allow easy movement back and forth. These neighbours were older than our parents, and there were grandchildren of a similar age who visited regularly. There was a golden Labrador called Cleo who never seemed to mind being roped into various games and activities. Other delights included a steering wheel attached to a fence, a mulberry tree in a corner and for some reason that I can’t recall, a poker machine in the kitchen. It was an old-style machine that was played with shillings or ten-cent pieces, and what a thrill it was to pull the handle and ‘win’ the occasional jackpot.

I’ve lived in villas, in student accommodation and on a property with acreage as well as in country towns and now in the mountains, and I’ve had a mix of neighbours along the way. The farming neighbour was usually spotted at a distance, and there were sensory delights at cropping time, especially with a paddock of coriander close to the property boundary. Living with an abundance of space made it a bit challenging to get used to people living close by when I moved into town but I’ve been lucky to have had good neighbours.

Neighbours can be a friendly presence, someone to keep an eye on your place if you are away for a while, to collect mail and newspapers and give you peace of mind. A wave and a smile can be enough to make you feel at ease, and it feeds into a sense of being part of wider community. Neighbours share news and plant cuttings, turn up with extra servings of food and even Christmas gifts for my dog. They know what is going on in the neighbourhood, and a quick catch up can be most enjoyable. Neighbours keep an eye out for each other without infringing on each other’s space.

My neighbours are one of the reasons why I love mountain life. From my arrival here I was made to feel welcome, and there are many small gestures of kindness shared between us without any sense of expectation or reciprocation required. During weather events – such as heavy snowfall or the bushfires in 2013 – we keep an eye out for each other and share news and updates. It is impossible to put a value on the peace of mind that comes with having good neighbours.

There was another quote on the page of proverbs that I read: A stranger nearby is better than a far-away relative. There is truth in this Korean saying.

What are your neighbourly experiences?

Proverbs spotted in Issue 3 of Breathe Magazine Australia.

[Photo: snowfall in July 2015]