Thanksgiving: I Will Not Look Away

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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. 

 

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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. 

19 Responses to “Thanksgiving: I Will Not Look Away”

  1. Kaitlyn Wrenfield

    as a survivor of homelessness
    as someone who has-
    and does-
    suffer from mental illness immensely
    as someone who has had to wonder
    where i could use the washroom
    in the middle of the night
    and as someone who has been forced to ask
    if i should feed my addiction to drugs
    or my addiction to food
    and chosen the former

    i want to thank you
    because we never get this kind of recognition
    and it feels really nice
    to be seen

    (protip: we prefer ‘chronic user’ to ‘drug addict’) <3

    Reply
    • Thorn

      Thank you for sharing your voice with us. Everyone’s perspective gives a clearer picture of the whole.

      And thanks, too, for the correction. I try hard with language to not make people into absolutes, and yet, I slipped here.

      Reply
  2. Kim McDonald

    Today I am grateful for for family and friends whose love and support sustain and nourish me. I am grateful for my daughter, happy, healthy and loving, whose main concern is getting through Senior year and preparing for her future.
    I am grateful for the 13 children in my sheltet, including the 4 year old with the missing 4 front teeth who gave me a dandelion he picked just for me. I will feel thankful to do the Mother’s work and I will not turn away this holiday season when the children cry and ask why they can’t be with their families. I will do my best to make them smile, to make sure they are dressed warmly and have plenty to eat. I will make sure they know they are loved.

    Reply
  3. Crow

    I was thinking similar thoughts as I walked both from the office to lunch, past a row of folks without homes who sat on a curb in the shade, most of whom did not make eye contact with anyone but each other, and one of whom made eye contact with and nodded to everyone who walked by. And then again on the way from the office to the parking garage this evening, as I caught sight of a woman on a bench with all of her belongings gathered around her. I recommitted to seeing, and to responding from a place of common being.

    Thanks for all you do.

    Reply
  4. Aquila Ka Hecate

    *These people, too, are made of stardust..*

    This. Thank you. I need to keep this in the forefront of my mind *at all times*.

    Love (from a former chronic user who has indeed slept on the pavement)

    Terri in Joburg

    Reply
  5. Crystal Blanton

    I love you Thorn and I am glad i know you. I love that you are grateful for the things that people often dismiss. It is one of my pet peeves when others are blinded to the injustices, the poverty, the pain that others suffer. It is a level of privilege that is a theme in this country.

    We need to see the struggle of others. We need to see those who cannot afford new shoes or a pillow to sleep on. Then we might remember not to dismiss that we have access to the things that others do not.

    Thank you for putting it into words once again.

    Reply
    • Thorn

      Crystal,

      yes. Insulation from the distress of others is a recipe for entitlement, or callousness, or simple dismissal. It isn’t good to live too isolated from the suffering of the world. It changes us in ways that diminish our humanity.

      Reply
  6. Bellatrix

    Amazing words that I can carry with me!
    I am thankful for you today, because you guided me away from some of the comfort I grew to comfy in.

    Reply
  7. Kim Cairelle Perilloux

    Many years ago when I was working as an RN, I was assigned a very elderly, very sick homeless gentleman who had been unable to bathe himself for about a month due to severe COPD, heart failure, and a resultant inability to walk to find a restroom to wash. Finally when he couldn’t breathe well at all and felt close to death, he got scared and somehow managed to get to the ER and ended up in our ICU. I was still young – in my 20’s – and I don’t think I had yet been that close to such a filthy body, not even in nursing school and I went to an inner-city hospital school. There are no words – really – BUT OMG what a gentle and beautiful man! After he stabilized, another nurse and I worked on him for over an hour, got him scrubbed, cut his hair, shaved his beard. He cried with gratitude and it was then that I realized fully that there is beauty everywhere. It was a true “moment” for me. I was fortunate enough to spend several 12-hour shifts with him (and got to listen to a few stories and some awful jokes, LOL!) before he succumbed to his multiple health problems. I will never ever forget him and I am thankful that I had those moments with him – I feel the blessing of his lesson to this day.

    Thorn, thank you for your words and your work.

    Reply
    • Thorn

      Kim,

      Thank you for sharing such a powerful experience. We learn such different things from those opportunities. My brief time doing hospice taught me something similar. Cleaning other adults requires a presence and a safeguarding of their dignity.

      Thank you for being there to serve.

      Reply
  8. Fourge N.

    I think it’s because of you, Thorn, that I’ve also become careful with language, saying exactly what I mean to say. It makes me more wary about what is going on in front of me. Paying attention to what I say makes me more aware of the process. I stopped looking away a long time ago. Of course, I still look away sometimes, but nowhere near that vast amount of ignorance I tried playing two years, four, five years past and beyond. To me, it’s all telling. Telling of a great story worthy enough to wow anyone. And sometimes what we’re told is an ugly truth, though in my eyes even that ugly truth is stellar in its liberation. I find it hard to ignore the ugly, truthful messages of stellar liberation. Because I don’t look away anymore, I can now help the people I know need my help instead of shying away believing I didn’t have the potential to do so. I’m thankful for all this, the knowing, the acknowledging, the not shying away and doing what I know I can, the newfound determination to help. I call this a blessing all around.

    All my life I have been pulled between two halves of a loving family, one considerately more well off than the other. This ugly-stellar-liberating truth helped me see two different sides of my familial life. Though the waging wars for either side trying to claim me probably wasn’t the best for me, especially during young ages, and though I once spent a lovely week living in the streets in hopes of some freedom from the chaos which was quite the peaceful nightmare, I’m still thankful for the knowledge and experience I gained. It’s all telling, a tale to be told for my lovely descendent, or anyone else who will listen and not look away.

    Thanks for pleasing me with another great post!

    Reply
  9. Darla

    Recently found your blog, and appreciative to have done so. Thank you for this beautifully written essay, allowing me to ‘see’ through your eyes, open my own more fully, and to not look away. Blessings to you for helping, sharing, and simply for being you.

    Reply
    • Thorn

      Blessings to you!

      (Hey folks, I am heading offline for a couple of days. I look forward to reading more from you when I return!)

      Reply

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