Stories From Last Week's Madison Trip
Posted by Nipun Mehta on Nov 9, 2007
[ After every trip, I write up a few stories for my parents. Below is a slightly polished up version of the email I wrote to them. ]
An almost-bald gentleman walks up to me and says, "I've got a story for you." "Sure, let's hear it." "I used to be a cab-driver in Chicago and on my last day, I decided to drive the cab for free. It was my tribute to the people," he said. "But people wouldn't believe it. They wanted to pay me and often didn't trust my generosity. It was the oddest thing. One of those rides were three women -- mom, daughter, and grandma. Three generations. The mom refused to believe me and insisted on paying me. I tried to explain but she didn't understand, until her 8-year-old daughter pulls at her sleeve and says, 'Mom, I think he means it.' As they left the car, the grandmother takes a short step to my windows and whispers in my ear, 'There's hope for the world still.'"
This was after my keynote last week, at the International TimeBanks conference in Madison, Wisconsin. It compromised of folks from more than 13 countries -- from Korea to Ukraine to Sweden to Israel -- all coming together to create an economy of giving time and sharing gifts in their local communities. I opened with, "I feel like I'm speaking to the home-team crowd here." And that's exactly what it felt like.
I shared the story of CharityFocus, and it left a powerful impact on folks. Of the several hundred folks, few dozen even gave a standing ovation. :) I'm sure I ruffled some feathers with my hard-line stance on generosity, :) but that's part of the territory. Unlike the other three (exceptional) keynotes, I stayed the full duration of the conference. And what moves me are the small encounters when you're walking to the restroom or about to get dinner or riding to the airport. :)
As I was going to get food, a woman came up to me, held my hands and with teary eyes, said, "You know, I was one of the few unpaid volunteers for this conference and I held a tiny bit of resentment for that. After hearing you, that's gone. Thank you." A millionaire came up to me the next day and said, "I left a twenty dollar bill for the maid today. But I'm stilling waiting to feel the high. Perhaps you and I are just wired differently." We had a nice half an hour conversation. :) A woman from Africa came up and said, "Bless you."
Two baby-boomers from Minneapolis said, "Gift-economy feels so right, but I don't get it. How can we convert our organization into gift-economy? How do you pay the office rent? We have so many questions. Can we hang out with you today?" We did. In Scott's convertible-hood-down, six of us rode to diner -- two of us on the hood, with a cold wind chill threatening pnuemonia. :) We even offered ride to youngsters, as they all cracked up. :) One amongst us turns out to be a close friend of Mark Victor Hansen, who authored the Chicken Soup series and wants him to get connected to CharityFocus!
A posse of dynamic Oakland natives all decided to sign-up for DailyGood, "Honey, we sure need a little bit of good news everyday!" They're all coming to Karma Kitchen too. :) I challenged one of the affluent guys sitting next to me, "That woman that comes in to setup that book table -- she's one of the last independent book store in Madison. You should anonymously buy out her whole table and everyone who goes to buy a book will be surprised with an anonymous gift to pay-forward." He agreed with a big smile. On that same table, a woman shared her heartfelt tale of domestic violence and the next day, she came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, "I hand these out sparingly, but I would like you to have one." It was button to wear on my shirt -- "Another Man Against Violence Against Women." (I shared Dr. V's story, gave her a copy of Infinite Vision and told her that to stay strong with compassion and courage, when the going gets tough).
The ripples kept on rippling. I took thousand smile cards, couple dozen works & conversations magazine, and some kindness-idea leaflets. It was all gone within minutes of my talk. But the Smile Card would keep popping its head throughout the rest of the conference.
At the end of the conference, the organizers decided to give pay-it-forward awards for random drawings. When I went to check out of my hotel, the closing keynote speaker was explaining the Smile Card to the woman behind the counter. Another woman from Boston said, she shared one of my kindness stories with the waitress at the restaurant and tagged her too! One man gifted me a calendar of Peace Corps returnees, another one offered me his book, another one called in a business school professor to connect. A young member of the Rockefeller family felt that I should in a movie that his friend is making. Another guy asked, "I want to invite to a national gathering of our Church. Would you mind speaking at Church?" :) Another woman shared her life journey as a lead singer of blues-band and then marrying the sax player; a bit later, she gifted me their CD. At dinner, a posse of friends self-organized and one of the ladies showed us her fundraising idea of dollar-bill origami; at the end, they all donated the dollar bills for Smile Cards. :)
A gentleman, with his thick New York accent, came up and said, "I've been confused about how to run our housing co-op but as you were speaking, it became clear to me that everything that I've succeeded in has been a result of me just doing it without any fear or worries. So I'm just going to do it! Something cleared up in me today, listening to your stories."
Another woman from Michigan started a hallway conversation about the challenges of running a shelter she runs for disabled children. Within couple minutes, she tells me of her biggest challenge of talking to a pedophile with compassion. Moved by our brief exchange, she tells me her life story of being 435 pounds and stuck in a room to recently meeting someone who she thinks she'll marry. "I think he's the one," she says with the biggest smile. Next day, she ran into me and reluctantly asked, "I wanted to ask you ... we do this small event for disabled population in southern Michigan. It's a very bad part of the state, not safe and these folks always get the shortest end of the stick. Would you consider speaking there? It would mean a lot to these people to know that everyone has a gift, that everyone can find the joys of service." I looked her in the eye and said, "I would be honored to have the opportunity to be with your friends."
And so it went.
On my last night, I met my aunt and cousin for a wonderful dinner at Sun Room Cafe -- a small, co-op joint. It was nice. Throughout our two hours, we never once talked about any of the stories above. In fact, I don't think they even knew that I was giving a talk. There was something beautiful about that.
As Paul-from-Oakland volunteered to give me a ride to the airport "because I wake up at 5 anyways!", Arnold -- ex-footballer, chairman of the Alameda Country Public Education Department, and my carpool buddy -- tells me he needs more smile cards because, "I'm surely going to be running out soon." :) I hand him my secret stash as I head to my airport terminal.
When I get home, Guri tells me, "Oh, there's a really nice message for you on the phone. I don't know who it is" It's Loretta, whom I had met at the conference; not only does she work with a friend of mine on the East Coast, she's an active member of Smile Groups (having contributed beautiful stories like A Simple Wave)! I don't know how she had my home number, but her message could make a grown man cry. In her African-American-slash-Bronx hybrid accent, she kindly said something like, "I know you must be super busy to receive phone calls, but I just wanted to thank you for your words. I was very touched. Thank you."
To be with people like Loretta is THE reason why I attend such gatherings. They bless me, and give me the strength to carry on.