The idea of making an anonymous act of beauty for a place came to me when I offered a ceremony for New Yorkers two months after the September 11 attacks. The event, called Attending the City, was held at Battery Park, just south of the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers. It featured songs, the reading of a poem, and tributes to both the grief and vitality of the city.
Toward the end of the event I asked each person present to choose an act of beauty they would make to the city within one week. Then I passed the microphone around, so that a few of them could share with the entire group what they planned to do. One couple said that they would go out to dinner at an Afghani restaurant in their Upper West Side neighborhood and let the owners know that they and their establishment were a valued part of the community. A woman who had written a poem about the attack vowed to make copies and post the poem on walls, streetlights, and the impromptu memorials that were still being tended weeks after the calamity. Another woman would seek out a group she’d heard of that was finding homes for pets whose owners had been killed and would adopt a dog or cat. A man would make lasagna and deliver it to his district fire department, which had lost several men when the tower collapsed.
These were all acts of guerrilla beauty, done not for acclaim but out of compassion. They were contributions from the heart, each one different and arising from what moved the donors, what they loved, and what their own individual gifts were. They spread good will where it was needed and quite possibly inspired others, including the recipients of the gifts, to offer something of their own as a way of “paying it forward.”
—Trebbe Johnson (adapted from my book, Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places)