It's about fear and kindness and how they sometimes cancel each other out, which is wonderful when it's kindness canceling out fear and awful when it's the other way around.
I went to a book release party recently. My friend Megan Stielstra wrote "The Wrong Way to Save Your Life" (Harper Perennial), and she rented out Uptown Underground to mark the publication date.
Chicago filled the place up.
Stielstra's DJ friends played music while she performed chapters from her book, and people stood in line for hours afterward to hug her.
Writer Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Andersonville gem Women & Children First bookstore, introduced Stielstra. Poet Parneshia Jones climbed on stage and read "What Would Gwendolyn Brooks Do."
Did you see that, Ms. Brooks?
Do you see what we've become?
They are skinning our histories,
deporting our roots,
detonating our very right to tell the truth.
It was one of those evenings when you're laughing one minute and ugly crying the next and not because of the drinks. Because of the words, and because of the city where you're hearing them – our beautiful, broken city where people create art and die in unacceptable numbers.
I went alone. I figured I would know people when I got there, but when it was time to find a seat, I was gripped with seventh-grade anxiety that no one would want to sit by me. (Fear.) I found an empty seat and asked a nice woman if I could have it, and she said, "Of course!" (Kindness.)
It turns out we know each other. We're connected on social media and share mutual friends. I spent almost an hour after the performances talking to her and her husband about Chicago's media landscape and parenting and the healing powers of a night like the one we were having.
I ran into writers and friends I adore, met a few new folks, hugged Megan around 10:20 p.m. and headed outside for a cab – exhilarated, grateful.
My phone died while I was trying to order a cab, so I found myself walking a little farther than I'd like, a little later than I'd like, hoping an empty one would approach. Eventually one did.
I hopped out near my block and walked a few steps before realizing I'd left my dead phone in the cab. It was too late to flag down the long-gone driver, and I had no receipt, no record of the ride and no recollection of the cab company.
I walked into my house, filled in my husband, carried my sleeping son up to bed and sat on the couch to read Stielstra's book. Sleep wasn't likely – too many fears about what a lost phone leads to.
Fear is woven through Stielstra's book, as a theme, as a thief, as a culprit. "If we're going to make it, we have to look at the fear," she writes.
But kindness is too.
"We say and do kind things" is a chapter about Stielstra's (and my) friend Sarah, whose daughter, Sophia, was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was 2.
" 'What else can I do?' I asked when she dropped the boys at my house, the first morning of who knows how many rounds of chemo," Stielstra writes. "Her face was locked in a sunny smile: brave for Sophia, for the boys, for Scott. I thought she was a (expletive) warrior. I thought: This is what strength looks like. Not a bodybuilder with the biceps. Not Superman holding up a skyscraper. Not an army of thousands with their guns and their tanks and their bombs – no.
"Strength is a mother.
" 'At some point–' she said through the smile.
" 'Name it,' I said.
" 'Not today–'
" 'You say when.'
" 'I will need to get drunk.' "
Later, not that day, they go to Little Bad Wolf and share Old-Fashioneds, and Sarah tells a story about walking outside Lurie Children's Hospital to the park across the street and sobbing, alone, and no one asking if she's OK.
"I wanted to show up at that park and yell at everyone walking past my crying friend," Stielstra writes. "I wanted to kick myself for all the times I could have helped but hadn't. I wanted to go back to med school and find a cure. I wanted to raise a gazillion dollars for research. I wanted to give Sophia a unicorn. I wanted to hug Sarah but the table was at a weird angle. I wanted a better angle. I wanted a better world. I wanted to be a better person."
Sarah went back inside the hospital and got on an elevator. A nurse got in. She took a look at Sarah and asked, "Do you need a hug?"
"I'm afraid," Sarah told Stielstra. "And it was nice to feel something else. Even for only a second."
It's a beautiful book. I think books can make the world a better place, and I think Stielstra's does.
I spent Wednesday sneaking moments with it, between work and parenting and the 7,000 steps you have to take when you leave your phone in a cab, especially when the phone is issued to you by your employer. (Sorry, employer.)
At the end of the day, post-work, pre-dinner, my husband and I took my son swimming at one of the few public pools in Chicago with a giant slide, the kind that even the grown-ups can use.
On the drive back home, my personal phone rang.
"I think I have your daughter's phone," the voice said. It was in his cab. It was dead. He didn't notice it until now.
"I'm so sorry I didn't call sooner. I called the number that says 'mom.' That is you?"
That is me. I am mom. My daughter programmed my personal phone number into my work phone as 'mom.' I'm not sure why.
Whatever. He had my phone. No one took it. No one sold it or tossed it out the window or used it to steal my identity or whatever you do with other people's phones.
My son and I met him in a Walgreens parking lot, and I gave him enough money, I hoped, to cover his fare to my neighborhood.
"You don't need to give me money," he said.
"Sure I do," I said. "Your kindness canceled out my fear."
Fear about the consequences of a stolen phone, sure, but mostly fear that we don't help each other anymore. That we're too afraid to be kind.
Fear is woven through Chicago, too. Some people live with the constant, terrible, unjust fear of violence, of death, of loss.
But so is kindness. It's not going to cancel out the violence, the death, the loss. We need wholesale change for that.
But it can remind us to work for that change. It can quiet the voices that keep us from doing enough, doing more, doing something.
"If we're going to make it, we have to look at the fear."
Stielstra's right. Let's get going.
(Contact Heidi Stevens at email@example.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)