Nothing like starting off the New Year with a new book—particularly after the pandemic that has everyone struggling with work, family, and how to create and maintain relationships in the face of mask requirements and maintaining physical distance.
Imagine if you are an author with a new book about the power of smiling at strangers. Yikes! What if you are ready to send out the manuscript and the world suddenly implodes? Wearing masks and keeping a distance? How do you know if anyone is smiling? I’d call that “adversity”.
For this very reason, I am delighted to introduce you to Nancy Lewis, author of Smiling at Strangers: How One Introvert Discovered the Power of Being Kind. She is proof-positive that one can take lemons and make lemonade!
In early 2020, I was well into the process of writing, publishing, and planning a summer for book promotion and marketing. My book was written to encourage others—particularly shy introverts like me—to move beyond their fear of strangers by offering the kindness of acknowledgment through smiles and simple greetings in everyday situations and locations such as shopping venues and encounters on streets and trails.
But thanks to Covid-19, the timing for publishing such a book couldn’t have been worse. I had the perfect excuse to stop.
But something in me knew I was supposed to do this. After some soul searching, and with more than a little help from my friends who were determined that I would do it, I was ready to push the button. I was ready to send the manuscript to the publisher, knowing it would be released six months later and in a different season than I had planned.
As if to underscore my decision, in early December Arianna Huffington declared resilience as “the word of the year”. I recognized it as the precise word that describes how I got from “no way” to “I’ll find a way”.
In her article, Huffington stated, “Resilience is often spoken about . . . in terms of navigating or simply getting through challenges. But the key part of resilience isn’t about bouncing back, it’s about bouncing forward. It’s about using adversity as a catalyst to get better and become stronger.”
Bouncing forward in the face of adversity. Here is what I determined would be my updated message to my readers:
When the virus announced its presence on the planet as we moved into a new decade, I was making plans to launch the book in my hometown of Bellingham, Washington, in late spring, and use it to spark a local kindness movement fueled by fellow introverts. Normally, this is the time when Pacific Northwest residents come out of hibernation from the short days and wet gray of winter and begin hitting the streets, shops, parks, and wooded trails, where encounters with strangers are common.
Instead, spring brought with it a global pandemic that restricted our presence in public settings except for purchasing food and other necessary supplies while maintaining six feet of distance, marked with tape on store floors. So I put a hold on the publication and book launch plans, assuming it wasn’t a time to release a book advocating face-to-face connection with strangers.
Then something happened . . .
As I made my forays into food stores to replenish supplies, I noticed that while some people seemed intent on getting in and out with as little interaction with others as possible, some were finding ways to connect and offer kindnesses to strangers. Like the man who noticed I’d left my cloth shopping bags in the bottom of my cart when the checker said they’d been instructed to pack all purchases in paper bags. Allowing kindness to overcome fear, the man followed me out to the parking lot and knocked on the window of my car, holding up the bags so I could lower the window enough to receive them.
While walking through the park that borders my apartment complex, I was surprised at the increase in vocal greetings I got from others as we passed one another (while wearing our masks and maintaining safe social distance). I soon learned that a “hi” or “good morning” and a raised hand communicated a shared acknowledgment of our connection.
Social creatures that we are, and kind at heart, many of us have found ourselves adapting and finding ways to “smile” at each other in creative and joyful ways.
Whether it’s singing from our balconies or porches together, organizing drive-by birthday celebrations, meeting neighbors who have been strangers for years as we’ve been busy engaging ourselves in the outside world, or having Zoom calls with distant friends and relatives, connection is happening.
Perhaps, I thought, this is the perfect time to remind people of what our hearts know. The perfect time to reinforce the message of our essential human need to acknowledge and connect with one another—strangers, friends, and family—through gestures of simple kindness like those my book suggests and illustrates. Although the world in which it was written isn’t the one into which it is being birthed, the call to join in creating a kinder and gentler world has never been more urgent.
Let’s do this together.
The seed that became Smiling at Strangers was planted in 1955, when its author, Nancy Lewis, received a surprise award for Excellence in English at the Senior Awards Ceremony of her high school in New London, Connecticut. Nancy remembers telling her mother the next morning, "Someday I'm going to write a book. But first I have to get some life experience." Six decades of life experience later, at the age of 80, she began to write that book. The intervening "experience" has included marriage to a life partner, two sons, five grandchildren, college and university degrees, employment as an English teacher, librarian, and freelance editor, and residence in six states plus British Columbia. She currently lives with her husband Richard in Bellingham, Washington, where she continues to look for opportunities to offer smiles and small kindnesses to strangers. You can find her on her website Smiling At Strangers.