“Conspiring” in Small Acts of Kindness

As a kid I was really happy and bubbly, but a lot of that came from me knowing that I needed to be that way. I had a single mom and I remember thinking early on that I wanted to make things easier for her, so some of my buoyancy came from trying to help her carry the load.

Photos by Megan Monday

Danika Lane | Madison, WI

“I grew up in Minnesota, and my parents got divorced when I was five. My younger sister and I stayed with my mom, and my dad moved to another state for a job. After the divorce I only saw my dad for holidays and a little chunk of time during the summer. Our relationship was strained by the distance between us and the pain of feeling like he had been the one who had moved away.

I was always really excited to see him, but sometimes I would want to avoid the short visits because I didn’t want to go through the range of emotions of being so excited to be with him, having that wonderful time and then knowing that I had to say goodbye.

For me as a kid, having divorced parents meant I was kind of always missing someone at some point; I think it made me into a really nostalgic person. I grew up constantly thinking about somebody somewhere else and wondering what they were doing, or wishing they could be with me.

During that time, my mom was finishing her college degree and was working two jobs. When she finally got her degree to be an art teacher, she took the first job she could find and we moved to a really small rural community. It was great; my younger sister and I had a lot of freedom. We could just leave all day on our bikes and not come back ‘til the sun went down. Because of my mom, we were regularly surrounded by artists and creative people. Our house was filled with art supplies and we were always making and creating. It was just our way of life.

Divorce wasn’t all that that common in our community, so I always felt like our family was a little bit the odd one out. But my mom was great at keeping us focused on gratitude, and emphasizing what we have. We have a warm house, we have good food, and we have each other. She approached life keeping a sense of gratitude close to her heart. My mom set an example by teaching us to look at all of the good things we have and to be thankful for that, and that really influenced me throughout my life.”

Become part of the Love Wisconsin

“My family was living in a town of 400 people in Minnesota. I was not getting much from the academic options in my high school, but luckily Minnesota had an option where high school students could take classes at St. Cloud State University for free. There weren’t restrictions around it at that time, so I spent my last two years of high school going to college. Suddenly I was able to take all kinds of things that interested me, like cultural anthropology classes, and it was amazing.

But with the gain of my academic opportunities came the loss of community. I was this 16-year-old commuter student, and I kept my age a secret from my classmates at St. Cloud. When they talked about who they voted for I would just nod and pretend, because I wasn’t old enough. I felt ‘with them’ but not ‘of them.’ And I felt worried that my peers back at the high school felt like I thought I was better than them, and that I had left behind stuff that they considered really important, like high school dances and football games.

Where I was able to find some sense of community was through my involvement in the Lutheran Church. My mom is part of the Baha’i faith, and one thing that Baha’is believe, and my mom always said, is that ‘I’m not going to indoctrinate you into a religion as a child, but I’m going to support your exploration of different religions.’ As I grew up she was really supportive of my sister and I attending any of the churches in town, and we sampled churches through middle school and into high school.

I enjoyed the pastor at the Lutheran church. He was kind, and an inspiring speaker. I loved the church choir, and the community just felt right to me. I hadn’t been baptized as a kid, so when I was 13 I decided I wanted to be baptized in the church and then soon after that went through the confirmation process.

I really loved the community that I found through the church, and I think it helped bolster me through my teen years. But as I got more involved with leadership roles that were opened to me, I was exposed to the business and fundraising side of things. Over time I became really disillusioned by those conversations. I was the youth representative for a committee that was looking to raise money to build a new church building. I remember there was a meeting where we were talking about targeting wealthier communities to attract new members who could donate more. To me that felt really counter-intuitive to everything the religion was based on—that we were looking at bringing people in because of the financial wealth. It didn’t sit well with me and I slowly backed out of that community.

When it came time to choose a college, my mom and I came to do a tour of UW-Madison. I remember being struck by the beauty of the Terrace and the Memorial Union. I decided to apply, and—just like that—I was moving from a town of 400 people to a campus of 40,000. In Upsala we only had stop signs, not stop lights. You couldn’t order a pizza and have it delivered to your house. So things like that, in the beginning, were really exciting to me. I definitely was surprised by the football culture and the morning games where people would wake up early and drink before the game. I remember feeling like I didn’t know if I could keep up with this, and feeling like some of the traditions were really foreign. But I wanted to be part of this new place.”

“While I was in college, I fell in love with my best girl friend. It was a realization for me that maybe I was bisexual. She had a boyfriend, and the feelings weren’t returned, but she had another good friend who was just coming out, too, and she was able to link us up for moral support. This friend had just come out to his parents, had his first boyfriend…so it was wonderful to just chat with him. It made me feel less alone, and we ended up being roommates later in college and are still friends to this day.

When I talked to my parents about my sexuality, they weren’t shocked. Looking back I guess I always thought that maybe I was interested in women, but being on my own away from home was the first time I felt safe exploring that side of myself. I dated both men and women during college and post-college, but landed in a long-term relationship with a woman that ended really painfully. It really shut me down for a long time.

As I was recovering from that, all around me I was seeing my friends start to get married and have kids. Suddenly I felt a very real kind of panic inside myself that I hadn’t done that yet, and at this rate maybe I wouldn’t. I just wanted to accelerate that process, to find a family and get settled down.

Right around this time I met a man who already had a young son. I remember being so impressed by how he parented. He had his son only part of the time, but we would all spend time together and I got to see this amazing dad in action, and I guess I felt like I knew everything that I needed to know. I remember calling my mom and telling her about him, and sending a photo of him with his son, and she was like, ‘I think you need to consider this one.’ Those were very pivotal and important words to me. She never weighed in on relationships in that way, so the fact that she was advocating for him was really a big deal.

I felt like since I had seen him as a parent already, and I knew I wanted a family, that I had this piece of the puzzle. It made me feel like I could accelerate the pace of things. And so we moved very, very quickly. We eloped just a few months after we met.

When my new husband’s ex and mother of his child learned about how fast things had moved with us, she was not happy. She was concerned and filed paperwork to try and reduce his time with his son.

So we were newlyweds, and now we’re united in this quest to not have his time reduced. We volunteered for a court study and they found that we were a healthy environment, so as it turned out, they actually increased his time to 50 percent instead of reducing it.

My husband and I were united on many things, but it was also a stressful time, and we were finding out very quickly our incompatibilities. Then, I got pregnant with my daughter.”

“My daughter was born, and thankfully, she was a very healthy baby. But things were not so straightforward for me. One thing I didn’t really know much about before it just hit me like a ton of bricks was postpartum depression. For me, it was really bad.

I felt a huge weight, and big spike in anxiety. I felt a lot of worry about my daughter dying, and I felt a lot of fear about going back to work—fear about her being anywhere without me. It was hard for me to take care of myself. I was putting everything into taking care of this little person to try to prevent whatever I was worried about that could happen to her. And nothing prepared me for how extreme and dire and out-of-proportion it felt. I remember once leaving to get a haircut and feeling terrified of being away from her for an hour and what could happen in that time.

I finally had the baby that I so wanted, but I was also paralyzed because I was feeling such intense postpartum depression.

Going in, I thought marriage would be the answer to loneliness. I didn’t realize you could be in a marriage and feel even more lonely than when you were before. My husband and I were quickly realizing that we weren’t necessarily that compatible.

We did see a marriage counselor who gave us suggestions and things to try, but in the end it just didn’t work out for us. We each had done a lot of damage, we both were really hurting and couldn’t find a way to repair it.

I feel like anyone with divorced parents has this goal that they are not going to do the same thing, and now here I was. It felt like a failure, and I kept asking myself what had I done wrong, or what was wrong with me.

It was hard to get used to life in my new apartment, being alone, and it was painful to have to have time away from my daughter, when she would be with her dad. It took time, but I was finally able to view the time I had alone as an asset that I could work with. I became much more creative and prolific. It’s like I reached back into my creative self, the self that was always surrounded with art materials as a kid and always creating.”

“After the separation, I realized I had lost my ability to laugh. It was like there was a physical barrier, almost where I had to say ‘haha’ when something was funny. I felt so empty for so long. Once I started to laugh again, I knew I was on my way to recovery. Rediscovering old pieces of my identity and being able to build on those and grow again. I slowly started to feel like I had shape again as a person.

Talking to other mothers about their experiences with postpartum depression was really helpful to me in moving forward. I found a few moms that provided support and hope as I continued to learn how to take care of both myself and my daughter.

I got back to my creativity and was very inspired by the idea of found art. I remembered back to this moment when I was a student at UW, and I found a little note on the back door of a bathroom stall in Memorial Union. It was tied to the little purse coat hook. It was a decorated Renoir quote and it said, ‘The pain passes, but the beauty remains.’ It found me in just the right moment. I loved the quote; I still have it and I keep it on my bathroom mirror. I also loved that connection with a stranger in that moment. So that stuck with me and incubated in my brain for years.

At this time I was also really inspired by my young daughter, who had this fresh way of looking at the world. She was always finding treasures because she was always looking for them.

A treasure to a kid is a different kind, it’s like a shiny gum wrapper. I think she helped me re-train my vision. As adults we’re kind of dulled to that opportunity to find something special or a little bit magical.

I started thinking about found art, tiny treasures, and connecting to strangers—like random acts of kindness. Suddenly I had this mental image of walking into an elevator, and there was a little bouquet of flowers on the floor. How surprising and joyful might that be?

I wanted that kind of kindness or magic in my own life, so I decided to do my own ‘found art’ experiment. I went with the vision of flowers, thinking they’d probably be universally well-received, and could be low-impact. Flowers are biodegradable, and you can use recycled containers for vases.

I made up six little vases with a note that said, ‘If you find this, it’s for you!’ I thought it could be cool to use social media for good, so I included the hashtag #fortheonewhofindsme.

I went about my day, but I took the vases with me and set them down in different conspicuous places. I set the first one on the front steps of my apartment building and placed a few others out around the neighborhood. When I got home from running errands, the bouquet was gone! It was really exciting. I checked Instagram and saw someone had found it and taken a photo and used the hashtag! I was like, ‘Whoa! This works!’

It was a time when I was feeling really alone without a partner, single parenting, and feeling sorry for myself. I just had this feeling that maybe this would be a small kind of thrill to do a tiny bit of secret good. That was how it all started.”

“I started bringing little bouquets with me anytime I would go to hang out with a friend, and I’d ask them to pick a spot for it. I saw that people loved the feeling of conspiring in kindness. Early on I brought a bouquet to Olbrich Botanical Gardens and told the friend I was meeting with to pick where it went. As we walked around, he thought very carefully about where to place it and set it down.

We went to a new spot and sat on a bench to talk. At the end of our chat, this little girl walked by holding the vase of flowers. She was just beaming. As soon as he saw her, tears started rolling out of his eyes and he’s like, ‘This feels amazing.’

I felt like this idea could resonate with a lot of people, and I had the opportunity to apply for an artist residency at our city library, through a program called The Bubbler at Madison Public Library. The Bubbler has a residency program where they bring in different types of artists to do classes and workshops that are free to the public and funded by the library.

I thought for my workshop I could get some flowers donated and buy vases and I could help people make these bouquets to take into the world. My residency application got accepted, and they gave me the month of August, so flowers were in bloom. The workshops were advertised as an opportunity to come spread kindness and enjoy the kindness you feel in return.

The workshops ended up being well attended and open to everyone. There could be a three-year-old and a 70-year-old at the same table making bouquets. Strangers talking was my favorite part of the workshops. People talked about why we need kindness in the world, why we need it right now, why we’re hungry for it, what they do as far as random acts of kindness.

I think we need kindness and connection now more than ever because so many people live on screens and have interactions in a digital way. I think we’re craving a connection that’s more tangible and that engages more of our senses that a screen can’t provide. Also, I feel like so much of what is in our news feeds is very divisive or plays on our fears. This project allows people to connect with each other without using devices, and when technology is used it promotes positive connection and documentation rather than competition or arguments. It bolsters me to think that there’s community around us all the time and people who are interested in engaging positively with strangers. Community is there if you are willing to look for it and to take the chance to talk to people or to put yourself in a new situation.

At the crux of all of this is that it can feel daunting and overwhelming to think about how to fix all that is broken in the world…where do you start? I really think the small acts are revolutionary.

They can lead to larger things, possibilities and connections, but it has to start somewhere. I’m trying to put out these small little pieces of beauty into the world and I hope they get noticed. Being noticed for being beautiful, unique and special in the world is what we all want and crave. Being noticed is the first step to connection.

The project #fortheonewhofindsme took off, and I see posts come in from all over the country (and world) now. It shows that anyone can have one tiny idea and try it out and it can grow. It can create ripples.”

-Danika Lane | Madison, WI

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