While cleaning tables, I saw you in the corner, gesticulating gently, communicating with beings that I could not see. We spoke later, laughing over the purple boa feathers molted on the floor, left by the strange bird of a volunteer. You were lucid. Friendly. Yet moments before, you were in a sideways world, slipped through a tear in the fabric of reality. What did you see?
While waiting for the bus, I saw you, with your folding shopping cart, looking for the light to change. You seemed pensive. I glanced down at your tiny feet. They were slipped into shoes too big. You wore one sock. Your other foot was bare. Your face was old.
In my life, I have been part of a large family struggling to make it, on food stamps some of the time, meat loaf made largely of oatmeal, powdered milk that came in large boxes. I have barely made rent, become frantic when a housemate ate the last of my bread because it meant I would have no lunch. I have lived in voluntary precarity: room and board and $200 a month in exchange for hospice work and feeding those in need. I have lived with chronic pain and illness. Yet, I have never lived in crushing poverty. Never struggled with mental illness. Never been flattened by hospital bills I could not repay. Yes, my father was alcoholic and sometimes violent, yet I always had a home. I never have bedded down on a hard sidewalk, sleeping with a stick in case someone attacked me in the night. I never have had to wonder where I could relieve myself. Never been too far from a shower, except when camping in the woods.
Sometimes, when getting ready to hoist my bike up to carry it down the stairs to the train after my shift at the soup kitchen, I catch a whiff of human excrement. This is important to me. Why? Not because I like the smell. I don’t. It is important because in my world, in which I live in a comfortable home with loving partners and a garden full of food, I need to remember: some people’s lives are destitute. Some people are addicted, or chronic users. Some people feel lonely. Some people feel desperate. Some people live with poverty as a close companion.
It grows too easy to forget this if we are only confronted with poverty in theory. It grows to easy to talk about “the 47% I don’t need to worry about” who are lazy, unmotivated, and only wanting a hand out. It grows too easy to become annoyed by those who ask for spare change. Constantly. It grows easy to think this way even for those of us who say we care. It is hard to understand if we don’t see it, smell it, hear it. We grow too distant. I don’t want to grow that distant.
The flow of life exists in everything. These people, too, are made of stardust – flecks of iron swimming in their blood. We have built this society together. The penthouses and estates of multi-billionaires are balanced by these streets. How do I enter this balance? Where is my place?
This week, I will gather with my family of origin and give thanks. I will give thanks for my life, for love, for grace. I will also give thanks for the man at the corner table, communing with a world beyond my eyes. I will give thanks for the old woman with her cart, and her one sock. I will give thanks for the scent of unwashed bodies, and the smell of excrement. I will give thanks for these reminders that humanity is all of this, and there are those who suffer even more. I will give thanks for the reminders that I must try to find connection everywhere, and work on behalf of kindness as often as I can.
I will give thanks for the gifts of life, in their myriad expressions. I will not look away.
Note: I made a slight edit because a reader pointed out I’d used the phrase “drug addict” and they preferred “chronic user.” What is interesting to me is that as one who tries to be careful with language, I still slipped up here, and made some people into absolutes. In that part of the essay, I also used a lot of “are” language. I changed that, too. We are all multifaceted.