Occasionally I have to drive into Oz, as I call the big city of
Chicago, which rises out of the cornfields. I go less and less, surprisingly not missing large malls and nightclubs like I did when I arrived in this small town. I’m enjoying just working and coming home to relax in the house, to bake bread with new friends. I may be turning into a younger version of my aunt, and I don’t care.
As I made several stops before hitting the freeway home, there were some people panhandling. I have learned to recognize the signs of, “I’m just scamming for money,” $300 shoes, smoking cigarettes constantly between green lights (if you can afford a pack-a-day habit, you don’t need my cash). There was one young lady, dressed in torn and shabby clothing sporting a very recent and intricate hair highlighting job that I know costs close to $200 to get done, even though it looked like she washed her hair with vegetable oil. And look, a new smartphone! Then there was the young man that just looked hungry until you noted how small his pupils are, looking for his next high. Nice try, but they’re not getting anything from me. Sometimes I would see someone that had that slightly unhinged look in eyes or actions that made me make sure I avoided eye contact as I ensured my doors were locked, not wishing to put myself in the point blank range of mentally unstable rage.
Once in a while, I saw something in the clear eyes of one of them, noting hands calloused by years of hard work, and realized that whether they were truly homeless or not, they did need something more than cash, an uplifting of the spirit. So on those occasions, I would roll down the window and put out a couple of bucks, but most importantly, I would look them in the eye and treat them with the respect of a kind word and an accepting smile. I remember one of them with tears in his eyes, an older man with a straight back and hands curled by arthritis, simply because I give him a fairly large and crisp bill, called him Sir, and wished him God’s blessings for a comfortable night of rest.
Sure, maybe I’m just being played, but I’d rather make the occasional attempt than leave them alone as they sifted through the ghosts of past riches, coming up with empty hands. I’ve been just one bad decision away from where I had only the clothes on my back and enough gas to make an escape. It can happen to any of us, though I’m thankful I had parents and an aunt and uncle that instilled in me the value of hard work and sweat, never being taught the world owed me something like so many of my peers.
In looking at them, I realize how very precious the smallest of things are, how the most ordinary of things, the simplest of possessions can contain the deep, profound integrity of a work of art. You also realize that you can’t hold onto something so hard, so afraid of losing it, that your efforts only fracture what once was whole. I look at some butterflies from
In our neighborhood, there is this very elderly gentleman, hunched over with pain, barely able to walk. His tidy home on the next block has a wheelchair ramp, for a deceased spouse or himself, I do not know. He walks with great difficulty as if the movement is foreign to him. Each day he takes out his little dog for a walk, likely his only companion as I’ve never seen him with any family member. Holding a leash in one hand and a cane in another, he passes by, indistinctly and quietly as a shadow, yet with movements that are precise with pain, as his little dog hovers with glee over invisible things in a carpet of grass. When we first passed, and I looked at his face, I expected his countenance to reflect the hampered efforts of a hampered body, pain in his eyes and defeat in his form. Instead, I got a happy glint and a smile as he gazed down at his furry best friend, delighting in just being outside in the warm sunshine with a creature he loved.
Our lives all begin in the same way, in the unleashing of pain as our mothers birth us, in that first deep cry as we take in the air around us. From there, the journeys are as different as our fingerprints, on various paths, some strange, some wonderful, some littered with stones that make us bleed. Some don’t survive the journey, others find at its end, they hold a single treasured thing, or nothing at all but their labored breathing. I’ve learned the hard way that each person, each moment is important.
As I drove into the city today, I saw a woman on a corner in designer business clothing, everything about her bright and shining, but for her eyes. On another was someone in the faded clothes of a working man, which had seen better days, holding a cardboard sign that said, “Need help. God bless.” She did everything she could to avoid looking at him, as I handed $5 out the window to him and received an honest and grateful thank-you. I think of what I saw in their eyes—in hers, fear; in his, truth.
Truth, however painful, like beauty, hovers around us, obscured in the still silent waters of a day, waiting for us to stretch out a hand and grab on to it. As I accelerated away, I saw their forms on the sidewalk, joined by others on their way to work, or simply finding their way, looking in the gleaming light like the slats of a fence, some straight, some bent and damaged, all simply trying to hold something together.
Tonight as I type, I look out on my old truck, at a strand of white that’s appeared in my strawberry blond hair when I’m barely even thirty, at a scar on my upper chest that marks the time I escaped that opening grave with gentle triumph when a skin cancer was detected early. Others might think it odd that I give money to strangers while driving a nine-year-old vehicle that’s seen better days. It has nothing to do with income and all to do with how I can live with myself. Like anyone, I’ve made mistakes, I’ve hurt others, and I’ve known too well those truths that are found in a field where nothing is left but crime scene tape and regret. In those truths is the understanding that none of us are immune from failure, lack of empathy, or fate, but we are still all capable of reaching out a hand to a good soul in need, as Christ did. To be ignored is to disappear, to vanish without provoking either mourning or curiosity, a death in and of itself.
The next time I go out for my walk, I’ll take some homemade cookies and share with the old man that walks his dog, I will learn his name, and I will remember it. For he understands too, what many of us know, that no matter how much or how little we have, we all want that same thing—to have a place where we are safe and valued, a place that even the most humble of us deserve to know.