Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Momma Said There'd Be Days Like This

I leave Starbucks with tears streaming down my face. I just told a homeless woman I’m an emotional basket case.

What do I know, in my white, middle-class pomposity about the unexamined life of homeless people? Lisa Samson challenged me to “be with people who aren’t like me” and so I decide to strike up a conversation with the woman by the window who appears to be very much just that.

Let me back up.

My day starts with the Only Son asking if he can sleep in, skip first period. “After all,” he says, “it’s English and we’re only reading.”

“Silently?” I ask


“What are you reading?”

“Forever Odd”

I know he’s read it before. He’s read all the Odd Thomas books. I worry some about his avid interest in Dean Koontz novels, but knowing how tired I feel, with him having just woken me from a deep, unrefreshing sleep, I give in. I don’t have the energy to argue.

I check my watch. It’s already 7:45. I always wake up at 7:11. On the dot. Four minutes before the son’s alarm goes off. Even worse, I often wake to the clicking footsteps of my husband going out the door in the wee hours of the morning, fully dressed, running to catch the express bus before most people have even hit the shower.

My son returns to his comfort zone, soft bed, covers over his head. Then I hear the toilet flush in the ensuite. My husband informs me he’s sleeping in. Would I take him to work or should he drive and pay for a parkade?

I review our bank records in a flash. Parking is $20 or more. It costs far less in gas if I take him. Sigh. Without sacrifice there is no love. Even taking my husband to work is one small way I say “I love you.” The sacrifice is, I had plans this morning.

Write. Prepare interview questions for a newspaper article I’m writing. Clean up last night’s dessert dishes from the group we entertained. Get my hair done. Not one thing on the list will pay for $20 parking.

“Okay,” I sigh, “I’ll drive you.”

The Starbucks on Memorial Drive is large and convenient. I’ll just go there to write for a couple of hours before I head for my hair appointment. The dishes can wait.

I get my triple grande skinny extra hot cinnamon dolce latte and oatmeal with fruit and brown sugar. The three pairs of comfy chairs all have at least one body in each set. I settle for a table for two with chairs so hard I feel like I’m in a turn of the century library.

As I begin writing, the woman at the window catches my attention. She tips her head back to drain the last drop of her drink, reaches in her backpack, rustles through several plastic grocery bags and pulls out a scrap of bread. 

The fashionable eyeglasses, dangly earrings and makeup don’t hide the tired, gaunt features. I study her intently, take in the whole picture. Casual clean clothing. Runners. Well-worn backpack. I add the location into the equation: this Starbucks is 2 blocks from the Drop In Centre. She might be homeless, but she carries herself – other than the stooped shoulders – with dignity.

I have to talk to her.

“Now, God?” I pray. “Are you kidding me? How do I strike up a conversation without looking like a freak?”

“Just do it.” Okay, so maybe He didn’t say those exact words, but the compulsion that comes with the Spirit’s leading is something I’ve learned by hard experience not to ignore.

I move over to the vacant comfy chair beside her and ask, “Those chairs are hard and my hip is acting up…” (Totally true, my sciatica is starting to flare), “may I sit in this spot?”

She looks a bit uncomfortable but nods.

I look more uncomfortable as I settle in, arrange my notebook and coffee and begin writing. Well, my brain shuts down and I can only think about how to open the conversation. I pray furiously, then bumble something out.

I learn that hers is a story too long to tell, in her opinion. I study her more closely. Excessively thin. Is she undernourished? Anorexic? A junkie? AIDS? She’s quiet but not crazy. Thin but not high. The stark reality is that she looks like she is close to death.

We talk for a bit, all at my initiation. I’ve invaded her space and I’m not helping.

“Can I do anything for you?” I finally ask.

She doesn’t immediately respond. I dig in my purse for the Tim Horton’s gift card I know has enough on it for at least three meals.

“Would you be able to use this?” My own embarrassment has to be making her uncomfortable. How can I, a white, middle-class, suburban housewife have any concept of what this woman lives every day. If she won’t tell me, I can’t begin to understand, but I can see enough to know, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

She starts to protest. “At the end of the month, perhaps.” I think I’m insulting her by offering charity. Yet, I feel compelled.

“Please, take it. Let me do this for you. I do this in Jesus’ name.”

Tears start to ambush my eyes. I want to make a difference. Desperately. My life is so good. I cannot look on a sister in such obvious need and not do anything. I know a $30 Tim’s card is a pittance and may not make any long term difference, but I know the power of Jesus’ name.

“Sorry,” I bleat. “I’m an emotional basket case.” You see, my story is too long to tell also. And she didn’t ask.

I drive away, barely able to see for the tears gathering on my special order Nikon ultra thin progressive bifocals. I abandon any thoughts of writing and drive straight home to meet the basic needs of my own son.

He grabs the lunch I make, mumbles a quick “Thanks,” and rushes out the door without a goodbye hug.

“I love you,” I call after him.

A silent prayer finds its way from my head to my heart as I sink into the too-comfortable chaise lounge. 

Lord, may I always listen to your voice. Make my failing eyes see the needs around me and help me know what I can do with what I have to change the systems, situations or seconds of whatever life you place in my way. Even if that means sacrifice. For without sacrifice, there is no love.

Make it so. Amen and Amen.

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