Last Sunday I participated in a fundraiser for a woman who just lost her husband to cancer and is now supporting their two children, both under the age of three, by herself. The main event was a silent auction, full of amazing services and goods donated by friends and businesses in Seattle. There were two full bars and plentiful delicious food. And there was also me, tucked away in a corner of the room, writing compliments for people in exchange for donations.
So many artists donated items for the auction that the organizers ran out of table space to display everything. That also meant that there was no table for me to write at. So, my friend Dee found me two columns and a shipping palette. I was a bit hesitant about the splinters, but when we wrapped the top in paper, it worked well enough–as long as I was a bit careful getting up and sitting down.
Dee also came up with a good name for what I was doing: “Uncommon Compliments—Short Stories on the Spot!”
The idea for my part in this fundraiser came from a blog post where I gave out compliments to people who told me a random fact about themselves. That was my first time writing stories on command, and it was spread out over an entire weekend. I’ve never done anything like this in person. So, when the first guests came in the door, I was a bit nervous. I must have looked it, too; the bartender next to me wandered over three times to offer me a drink. He finally just set a cup of champagne on my makeshift desk and walked away. By that point, I was too busy to do more than throw him a quick smile and get back to work.
My first customer was a five year old boy named Dylan who was initially more interested in the stamps I planned to use to decorate the compliment cards. He insisted on trying out each one, and he was entirely unbothered when the ink smeared into fat blotches on his skin. Thankfully, his mother was a good sport when she returned and found her son covered in red. A random stranger saw Dylan chatting with me and bought him a compliment. He also quizzed Dylan for me until I had enough facts to weave into a story. As it turned out, Dylan loves nunchucks, Ninja Turtles, Cheerios, and a fish named Sharkie.
Here is Dylan’s compliment:
Rafael had a problem. He knew he loved pizza, but he could never figure out what he wanted for breakfast. He sat on the curb, sad and hungry. But then Dylan walked by. Dylan saw how sad and hungry Rafael looked, so he said, “Here, try some of my Cheerios!’
Rafael took a spoonful, and then he grinned. They were just the perfect thing! They were so good, he bought his own box and poured himself three bowls right away.
And now, every morning, Rafael has Cheerios for breakfast. He starts his day off happy, all because Dylan was generous enough to share with him.
I’m mortified to admit that, on the spot and without WiFi access, I both forgot how to spell Raphael’s name correctly and mixed him up with Michelangelo. This is inexcusable, seeing as I’ve watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles no fewer than 20 times and Raphael was my favorite. I fail at being a child of the 80s. But, Dylan seemed pleased when I read his story to him. Here he is, showing off his compliment and his newly missing front teeth.
The rest of the night was a bit of a blur, but a few people stand out. At one point I came back to my desk to find two women waiting for me, egging each other on. One of them asked for a compliment. She couldn’t decide what random fact to give me; she loved cats, but that didn’t seem unique enough to satisfy her. Then she said, “Oh! I know what I want to tell you.” She gave me a wicked smile, leaned over, and stage whispered: “I love popping pimples!” And then she dropped her donation in the jar and walked off.
I was left with a choice: go with the safe kitties or pick up the gauntlet.
Here is her compliment:
I see thousands of women every day. They walk past on the way to work, they open the door to my shop and order coffee, and they look through me out at the rain. Sometimes they pause to glance up at me, but they don’t see me; I’m just a convenient reflective surface. A makeshift mirror. Mostly, I don’t pay them any mind.
But yesterday I saw you, with your bright red hair and your dazzling smile. You told your friend a joke, and if I weren’t glued into this sill, I would have cracked myself laughing. And then, when your friend wasn’t looking, you looked right at me. You leaned in close. You put your fingers to your face.
And what happened next will remain our secret. But I just want to say: I will always admire your confidence.
I was nervous when she came back for her story. She walked off a little bit to read it, and when she got to the end, she laughed so loudly that her two friends also demanded to read the story. She came back to see me, said, “You’re good,” and left me to my typing.
I received requests from a Kathryn and a Katharine back to back, and I was terrified I’d mix them up. Kathryn had recently grown fond of dark chocolate, and this was her compliment:
In a large room underground lives Alonzo, the genie of sweets. He lives to make the most scrumptious treats imaginable. When he comes up with something good, he sends his creations out as dreams to dessert chefs around the world. Dark, rich chocolate is his favorite invention.
He wants to tell you, Kathryn, that he is so happy that you have begun to like the chocolate he dreamed up. He delights in pleasing others, and he is especially glad that such a kind and lovely woman has enjoyed his creations.
Katharine, on the other hand, loves cats. She had three and lost one this last week. This was her compliment:
There is a special heaven for cats when they run through their nine lives. It contains plentiful mice and birds. There is an entire corner full of glowing dots that explode into sparks when a cat catches them. Salmon leaps from the rivers onto silver platters next to full bowls of cream.
But there is one hallowed corner of this heaven that only some cats frequent. It is the corner for cats who have been loved completely and well in their lives. This is the corner where the cats can peek through the clouds and stare down to see their families.
It gained a new member this week, a member who is staring down at you right now and wants to say just one thing: “Thank you.”
And here is Katharine:
A woman named Heidi also couldn’t figure out what random fact to give me. She eventually told me she kept seven chickens and named each one as soon as they hatched. Here is her compliment:
Scratch around the yard for long enough and the bees will tell you: there are humans, and there are humans. And I hate to tell you this, but some of them don’t think so much of their chickens. There are places where humans stick baby chicks into tiny wire boxes, crowded tight. They live their whole lives in those tiny boxes, digging up the same little patch of ground and never seeing the sky. It’s a small, cramped life, and if you believe the bees, it’s a short one too.
But then there are other humans. Humans like our Heidi. Humans who take care of us, who let us roam under the sun and sink our talons into the rich black dirt. Let me tell you, chick: we are lucky to have her.
Now, I’m not saying you should get all lovey-dovey on her. Leave that for those silly cooing white birds. We have to keep up our appearances, after all. But just remember: we are blessed, and it’s all because of her.
And here is Heidi:
On the whole, I think everything went well. People seemed to like their stories, the auction had numerous bidders, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Nothing can replace a lost father and husband, but I hope the money we raised and the outpouring of love from the community who came together that night will help this young family as they mourn and heal.