I am so excited about the upcoming release of my new book Gracious and wanted to share an excerpt from the prologue of the book with ya'll. Hope you enjoy!
In which we explore how flower arrangements can (maybe, possibly) save the world...
Hello, gentle reader! I am so delighted you’re here—or there, I suppose, in a bookstore or on your couch or squished in an airplane seat. More importantly, I hope you are well, that you are living in a world more lovely and kind than the one in which I write these words.
This world is . . . well . . . (deep breath) not always great, y’all. It’s not great. There is so much yelling at each other, and when we’re not yelling, it’s because we’re ignoring one another. We’re more comfortable making constant, prolonged eye contact with our phones than with each other. Also, there’s genocide; that’s a thing we do, too.
If the world were a person, I might possibly even go so far as to drop the atomic bomb of Southern disapproval. “Y’all,” I would say, lowering my voice and glancing around to make sure no one would overhear this verbal execution, “you know what I think? I think its mamma didn’t raise it right,” and everyone would nod solemnly. The world would then be dead to us.
Humans are social animals, and sometimes we feel a collective emotion. Unfortunately, that emotion is more often fear or despair or loneliness in a room full of people and not, say, excitement that we (as humanity) are all going boating together this afternoon and Allyson is bringing enough cheese and Trader Joe’s prosciutto for all.
We knit back together at times, usually tragic, for a little while, then resume standard operating procedure: retreating from the humans around us and returning our gaze to our screens. Oh, I love a good screen. I do! It’s embarrassing how much time I spend looking at them. My screens tell me about all the wonderful and terrible things that are happening in the world and to my closest friends, the achievements of people I barely know, the ugly things people are saying. In return, I tell my screens how angry I am, then smugly tally who agrees with me. Screens contain everything in the world, it seems (except what is actually physically around me), and, most importantly, I can use these screens to tell other screens about myself.
We dedicate so much time and energy to making sure the world is aware of us—look, here’s a picture of my breakfast! I exist! Just a quick Snapchat to remind you that I am a human! Here are my thoughts on that stupid thing someone said on Twitter! I take up physical space and matter in the universe and my opinions matter, I like to think.
The world, per always, remains indifferent to us, and yet we take it so personally. And this bit of existential dissonance is reinforced constantly as we move through life indifferent to the humans around us.
We view the people right in front of us as lumbering obstacles preventing us from moving down a sidewalk; logistical and social traffic jam that must be dealt with on the way to the things that actually matter.
This, at least, is my default. While this interpretation of humanity may be, in some sense, technically correct, there is a difference between correct and true.
But here’s the problem with that kind of thinking: Every human is just as human as you are. They, like you, want—perhaps even need—to be acknowledged. They came from somewhere and are going somewhere, too. They did not begin existing at the moment you heard their stupid ringtone on the bus and the even more irritating conversation that followed. Nor will they cease to exist, dissolving like sidewalk chalk in the rain, once they are out of your earshot.
Though it is very (very) easy to assume otherwise, each person you will ever encounter is just as much in their own head as you are in yours. They, like you, have things like a favorite food, a lucky pencil, a childhood pet whose loss, to this day, still can give them a lump in their throat. They have a happiest moment of their life, that beautiful day or hour of perfection they keep wrapped and packed away in their mind. They, like you, pull out this memory to buffer themselves against present pain and distractions, to remember that things were once okay, better than okay, that they were once sublimely happy and may be again one day.
This person, this Other, who is not inside your head and will never understand what it means to live your life, has also experienced the worst day of their life. In fact, today might even be that day. How would you know?
All we can do is follow Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Manners! It’s a small, everyday word that encapsulates so terrifically much! Good manners encompass sincere compassion, kindness, and respect—not as something to be doled out when you feel like it or want to impress someone, but as your baseline. Bad manners consist of . . . well *1 . . . as Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “That which we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence.”
Making this the foundation upon which we build every human interaction is the only antidote I know of for that pervasive loneliness I mentioned earlier *2. Occasionally, it comes in the form of big, grand gestures, but its true power—internally and externally—exerts itself when you do it in small ways, consistently, every day. Kindness and good manners become your default, and if you practice them enough, they will.
So then why is this book called Gracious instead of Manners? Because while manners is a general term, graciousness implies the type of manners—and the outlook that supports and informs those manners—that I believe could maybe, possibly, perhaps rescue us from the ugliness of the modern world. Graciousness, which is only in part about manners and etiquette, has a moral core; place settings are but a tiny flourish on an enormous, architecturally sound whole. It’s assigning and extending humanity to everyone you meet—creating beauty where you can, showing love even, and especially, when you don’t feel like it. It’s delighting in and celebrating the things that bring us, and others, joy. It is realizing that the small things, which may seem so trifling, can anchor us to our best selves. They can weave together to hold the ugliness at bay. It is knowing that all we want, at the end of the day, is to be recognized, to be welcomed kindly, to be made to feel comfortable in a life, which is, by definition, uncomfortable *3.
A lot of times, when someone does something sweet for us, a natural response is “Oh, you didn’t have to do that!” And yeah, of course, they didn’t have to do it; there is no state or federal law that requires bringing someone a muffin because you overheard them say they were hungry and you know they are at the end of their rope. There is no merit or virtue in the things we have to do; it’s the things we want and choose to do that make the difference.
Wait! Does Anyone Actually Do That?
Yes, many! When we find those people who give us that comfort, compassion, and love, we are drawn to them naturally. Luckily, they don’t seem to mind because, by definition, they seem to be big fans of humanity.
Growing up, I had a lot of wonderful people modeling this brand of graciousness for me—Mrs. *4 Scott, Mrs. Provosty, Miss Gabi, Miss Virginia, Mrs. Rigney, Miss Fumiko, Mrs. Rembrand, Miss Roz—if they were REALLY close family friends, you got to call them Miss Firstname, which was just thrilling. Even when I was a tiny little girl, you could just . . . tell that there was something special about them. They always seemed so confident and reassuring; they were solidly in themselves no matter the circumstances. They were always able to say something meaningful or funny at the right moment.
They moved slowly and deliberately. They paused before they spoke, so when they opened their mouths they said precisely what they meant. They had, and have, a way of appearing with the right card/baked good/paint rollers for whatever the situation required. I felt like the queen of England when I was in their houses. If I knocked over my glass of cranberry juice and sparkling water, which was garnished with a thin slice of lemon, they didn’t yell or even seem particularly perturbed. Even though I was little, they had so many questions for me and would really engage with my answers, nodding in agreement as though I’d just said something quite profound about the plastic toy I’d asked Santa for. There was something about them that made me, and everyone in their orbit, feel so special and so loved.
I used to be a reporter at a daily newspaper (great, great career choice, 2004-era Kelly!), and one of my favorite jobs was writing the Sunday profile. I’d follow my subject around for at least a week, talking through their entire life and sometimes just watching them at work, doing whatever they did just because it made them happy or they felt it should be done. Because of this, a good subject was critical, both to engender a story that was worth the reader’s investment and, selfishly, because I had to spend a LOT of time with this person and it would be a bummer to my editor if that time resulted in nothing to fill the hungry, hungry news hole *5.
One profile search strategy always worked. I would call up one of my sources—the administrative assistant at city hall, or the office of the Oregon State Fair—and ask them, who is the most interesting and lovely person you know?
Then I would call that person—a winemaker or hairdresser or lady who drives around with a truck full of things for the homeless people in town, all of whom she knows by name—and ask if I could follow them around for a week.
Within 30 seconds of conversation, I could tell when I had a great subject on my hands. The first thing, the very first thing, that the truly fascinating people would say, nearly word for word, was: “Oh, I don’t think you want to interview me. I am so boring. Have you thought about So-and-so?”
So-and-so is great, I would agree, but I was really, really hoping to interview them. Could they please just meet me for coffee?
They’d ask which coffee shop I liked and when would work for me. Occasionally they would be so, so sorry but they just can’t possibly meet today because an immediate family member is actually getting a medical procedure in an hour. They might accidentally let it slip that the procedure in question is a quadruple bypass, but nothing to worry about, a minor logistical issue that I shouldn’t trouble myself with. At this point I would usually start to wonder, Why on earth were they on the phone with me? Shouldn’t they be storming around the house trying to push over heavy furniture? Weeping and rending their garments in the town square, cursing cruel Fortuna and her wheel? That’s what I would do if anyone I know was getting his appendix removed, but then again, I am not very gracious.
Once we’d sit down for coffee, after they insisted on paying no matter how many times I said it was my treat, they wouldn’t talk about themselves, and when they did, it was only after I’d ask point-blank questions that couldn’t possibly be turned back toward me, which was what they really seemed to want to talk about.
They would say that it must be fascinating to be a reporter, and oh, I must see so many interesting things! Each day would be a fantastic new adventure! How glamorous! How perfectly fabulous that I’m a writer, a professional writer, Salem is so very lucky to have me, and they think my column is just a hoot. How am I liking Salem, which neighborhood do I live in, have I had the pleasure of meeting X, Y, and Z yet, oh I should, they would just adore me and they are all so fun and smart, do I miss New Orleans, do I have siblings, and if so how many and where do they live, WOW, San Francisco and Seattle, a reporter, a graphic designer, and an Xbox employee, our mom must be so proud of us! Gosh. That is just wonderful.
You might have read that paragraph and thought: Bullshit. That is not real, and if it is, it’s not sincere. But I promise you, it was both to the core, which is one of the Deep and Abiding Mysteries of Gracious People. This could go on for hours, and I’m ashamed to say I fell for it the first few times. “Oh my God,” I thought. “What a serendipitous meeting! I didn’t know it, but apparently this person had been sitting around, dying to know what my life is like, and now I get to tell them! On company time! Wow!”
But what I gradually realized was that this quality of expressing a real interest in people that they were with and the ability to be fully present during their interactions was precisely why someone had nominated them to be interviewed in the first place.
Once I caught on to their tricks, I began developing techniques for gently asking questions and dragging out personal information from them. That’s when I would find out that, yes, they did get their PhD in physics back when women were barely allowed in college, and as a matter of fact, it was they who single-handedly oversaw the Capitol renovation, and technically, they do throw an individual birthday party for every single person in the city every year, but they have so much help, you know? Besides, everyone loves a birthday party, and it’s just no trouble at all to throw one.
What is the foundation that anchors your beautiful heart? I always wanted to ask. How did you become this way? How do I get from where I am to where you are? Is it possible for me to be a human who moves serenely and steadily through life, who has done astonishing things and yet has sufficient sense of self that she does not need the validation of others? How do you live a life where kindness and assurance, instead of anxiety and irritation, are the emotional guideposts? Where in yourself do you find that deep wellspring of ease and comfort that washes over everyone around you? Finally, is there room in your home for me to move in? Because logistically, financially, and emotionally I am on board.
There is an intoxication to the gracious people among us, a charisma that originates not from a perfect smile or any of the outside trappings of beauty, composure, or coordination. What I began to realize in the course of these interviews is that these gracious people moved through the world radiating an invisible but beautiful space of compassion and caring, one that they are happy to share with any human who wants to be a part of it. As Emily Post wrote in the very first edition of Etiquette:
Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy . . . it is an association of gentle-folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others are the credentials.
In writing this book, I wanted to find this Best Society, to ask those who are a part of it how they do it. I wanted to find a way to do it myself, or at least come close, and to share their thoughts and advice with you and the rest of the world.
To find my interview subjects for this book, I did the same thing that I did back when trying to find a Sunday profile subject—I talked to everyone, describing the kind of woman I was thinking of: the brilliant conversationalist, the fascinating hostess, the elegantly dressed septuagenarian who cracks dirty jokes when it’s just she and her friends—a North Star, orienting you toward what you want to be. When I was searching for interview subjects for this book, people would light up when I told them what kind of person I was looking for. “I KNOW EXACTLY WHO YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!” they’d say. “You know, so, the . . . okay, this is complicated, but the mother of my ex-boyfriend from high school. I don’t talk to him anymore, he was kind of an asshole and that was 15 years ago, but I LOVE his mother, and we keep in touch on Facebook. I’ll ask her if I can give you her number.”
And then I would call that woman and ask if I could talk to her. She would laugh when I told her what the book was about, then she’d ask if I was sure if I wanted to interview her? I was absolutely, positively, 1,000 percent sure.
That is how you, gracious reader, came to be holding this little book. Graciousness is everywhere; it knows no class, culture, or domestic requirement. It is not about hosting a perfect party or dressing in a certain way (although we’ll talk about how to alleviate any anxieties you may have in either of those areas). Graciousness is about finding a way to be comfortable in your own skin, and then using that security to make others feel comfortable, too. It is an outlook leading to actions that lets you feel good about the day or at least your actions in it. Graciousness is about facing the world with kindness and compassion rather than with ambivalence or just suspicion.
I hope you adore these women and their brilliant insights as much as I do. I hope you find some things very useful and other things, if not so useful, then perhaps at least funny. I hope this book gives you a small bit of the happiness and warm feelings that come when you’re in the physical presence of graciousness. Most importantly, I hope that you recognize and, if you want, cultivate your own wonderful qualities and abilities and that you celebrate the astonishing wealth of interesting and lovely people, places, and things around us. It can be hard to train yourself to notice, but it is in that noticing that we will all make the world a more gracious place, one moment at a time.
Now, if you’ll go ahead and turn the page, I’d be very grateful. There are some absolutely wonderful human beings ahead who you’ll probably just adore.
*1 Here, please note the first example of the Gracious Lady Way to Sh*t-Talk: You bring up a subject, give a little shudder, then imply that whatever it is is simply too awful to even think about, let alone talk about, though you may then expressively dwell on the topic. One of my very favorite people in the world, my godmother, is a reigning champion of this kind of talk: “I mean, my GOD, it’s like a terrible nightmare that we are all living in! Part of me wants to scream about it from the treetops just to warn everyone, like a deranged Paul Revere or whatever, and the other part of me is just ready to slit my damn wrists and lie down to wait for death,” and it turns out that she’s talking about the dearth of good Vietnamese restaurants in her small, rural town.
*2 I will say, the one and only time I did mushrooms, I thought I’d solved the Problem of Humanity. Unfortunately, my solution to the void inside all of us was to smile beatifically and say, “You know what? We are all just people on the planet.” I did this in response to any question or comment, all evening. So, really, this is only a solution for someone who is currently on mushrooms.
*3. At least compared to being in the womb. Can’t speak for ghosts here, as I am not one.
*4 Other Southerners may disagree on this, but I find the pronunciation of “Ms.,” “Mrs.,” and “Miss” to be identical—Mizzz. Also, for some reason, first-name-only is styled as Miss Firstname, regardless of marital status.
*5 The news hole is the amount of copy—inches of story, which is literally the newspaper’s unit of measurement—that is required to fill the paper. It depends on how many ads were sold and what day of the week it is and maybe Saturn’s location. Many variables are in play. Anyway, my friends Nancy and Rachel called it the hungry, hungry news hole—gross, hilarious, and accurate.