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August 4, 2023

Halfway across the world to find kindness

The other day at Indigo, I was looking for the latest book by my favourite author, Tahar ben Jelloun, and found another gem instead: Les 50 règles d’or de la bienveillance (The 50 golden rules of kindness), by Anne-Laure Boselli. Perhaps you’ve already heard of this popular series of self-improvement books? I love these types of tips that we can immediately begin practising in our lives! I have always been fairly hard on myself. As I get older, I’m softening. My body, mind and especially my heart have softened!

I’m eager to learn more about the benefits of kindness, and so I buy the book and lay down on my favourite couch with a thermos of coffee and my notepad to jot down the important bits. I read it almost in one go and I start a column of must-do’s to improve my behaviour.

“Kindness is to approach others with a benevolent disposition.” According to Ms. Boselli, the essential qualities are goodness, kindness, empathy, compassion, altruism, trust, tolerance, indulgence and charity.

I started in business as a poor mother with a broken heart, but I was plucky, unfamiliar with the work but very creative. I loved to cook, and above all, to dazzle our customers with my amazing breakfasts.

Without realizing it, the kids and I created a new breakfast restaurant concept that quickly became wildly popular; so popular in fact, that we were able to open one restaurant after another. When we opened the ninth one, which was also our first franchise, I traded in my white cook’s apron for a big boss tailored suit.

I admit it, my heart, mind and body had morphed into a CEO and I quickly hardened. I didn’t become mean, but I was demanding and uncompromising. I started in life with barely anything. I used to count every penny to make ends meet. And that habit has stayed with me.

I was “tough, uncompromising and stern,” my daughter would say. After each new restaurant inauguration, I insisted on immediately planning the next opening. I was moving forward with giant strides, “like my behind was on fire,” my youngest son used to say teasingly. Despite strong currents and countervailing winds, a large chain of franchise restaurants saw the day. I couldn’t have been prouder. From Newfoundland to British Columbia, we had “Cora restaurants in every province,” I’d announce, puffing out my chest.

I admit that on more than one occasion I would swell with pride as I contemplated my dizzying success. It’s not that I thought I was better than anyone else, I simply had become the bigwig of a Canada-wide media circus. I was learning how to tame lions, walk a tightrope and be the ball in the canon. In my mind, I had to put on a great show; otherwise the huge tent would collapse.

The kids and I had overcome many childhood misfortunes. I wanted to ensure they’d at least have a better life. When I handed them the reins of the company, I slowly reverted to the ordinary woman I was before: a restless mother chomping at the bit. I had to go as far as China to finally succeed in cutting the steel-strong umbilical cord that attached me to everything I had brought to life.

As part of a tourist group, I visited the 14 villages of Wuyuan that were open to foreigners. At one such village, I was put up in a small, modest room with a single bed, terracotta-type chamber pot, table, chair and a metal flask that I could fill with fresh water from a nearby well.

I remember it fondly. A few minutes after I sat up in the room, an old Chinese woman dressed in a traditional crimson-coloured floral print dress brought me a food platter. This ageless woman was exceptionally kind. She had a gentle smile, and when she started to say a few words in broken English, I immediately felt her compassion. It was like she could feel the ball of grief burning in my heart.

I wanted to explain my dismay, share my life story and how sad I was to have lost my reason for living. I hid my pain from my children, from the people at the head office and from the rest of the world. I thought I was brave and strong, yet this charitable Chinese woman could see right through my sorrow. She appeared like a kind angel. I was so lonely, so far away from my loved ones and I had an urgent need to purge my despair, to cut this terrible umbilical cord that kept me tied to the past.

A miracle happened when she took my hand in hers and spoke. It was like I could understand and absorb each one of her words. My heart started to beat again, my body was unshackled and my smile was so big it embraced all of China.

This woman’s kind heart healed and saved me. I never knew her name, age, language, customs or her life story, but I understood that she was a kind soul. A good, warm, empathic and compassionate human being.

Perhaps I’m a cat with 9 lives. My hope, which could fill the heavens above, is that I will be able to keep writing until the end.

I have no other havens than the hearts of my dear readers. They are the ones who welcome my words, heal my wounds, and keep me alive and effervescent.