Homelessness and acts of kindness

*Quick note about the snow: For those of you who are bothered by the snow falling on my blog, I apologize. To tell you the truth, I set it up several years ago and can’t figure out how to remove it. It only lasts through December. I love it, myself, but if you are having trouble reading the posts because of it, please send me an email at tenthousandplacesblog@gmail.com and I will send you the text of today’s post. Thanks!

Yesterday evening I smiled at and greeted a homeless man outside of CVS. He asked me to buy him a soda and I was so excited! Something I could actually do! (I usually say no, sorry to people who ask for money. It’s a complicated issue, and I know some people feel strongly about giving to whoever asks without judgement, but based on various experiences and trainings, my decision for now is to acknowledge people, look them in the eye and treat them like a human being, and say yes whenever they ask me to buy them food or a drink, but no to money.) Anyway, it was so fun to be able to say yes this time. I asked him what kind of soda he wanted, and then told him I was getting a flu shot so it might be a couple of minutes and he said, “That’s okay, no hurry.” I loved that our roles had reversed, that he was extending grace to me. I needed someone to tell me it was okay to be a little late. I’d been on time all week.

The painting I made at Common Art

The painting I made at Common Art

It’s actually not that hard to find food in Boston — there are churches and soup kitchens that serve hot meals, and several food pantries open throughout the week. I had a homeless friend a few years ago that I hung out with quite a bit, and he took me to a few meals, as well as some other services and activities. I still have a painting that I made at an Episcopal church that supplies materials and space every Wednesday for anyone who wants to participate. I kept whispering to my friend, “Is it okay for me to be here? I’m not homeless.” And he answered, “Yeah, it’s okay. It’s for everyone.” You could keep your painting or leave it with them and they would put it on display and/or for sale, and save the profits for you for when you returned. I kept mine, feeling it would be dishonest to have someone buy my piece thinking it was by a homeless person.

I was homeless for a month, but not really. I had a lease signed for an apartment for October 1st, but the community where I’d lived for seven years had changed their guidelines and even though they didn’t have another tenant for my room for the month of September, I wasn’t welcome there anymore. I have tried for two years and three months to think of how to write those last two sentences truthfully without sounding judgmental and bitter. I don’t feel judgmental and bitter. I have done a lot of work on forgiving them and forgiving myself. But I think I must still be because it keeps coming out that way. I don’t want to write to judge people and to garner sympathy. I want to write to find the deeper truth of our common humanity. I want to say, look at us, we are all broken and doing the best we can, living on scraps of grace from one another.

But that September was a hard month. My things were in storage in the basement of the apartment where I’d live in October. One of the women in the community generously babysat my 10+ houseplants. If I hadn’t had a job in Boston I could have stayed with my parents in New Hampshire, but that would have been too far a commute. My best friend lived in Burlington, about 45 min to a 2 hour commute, depending on the vagaries of Boston’s rush hour. One of the families I babysat for had a guest room, but they could only offer it for a few scattered days that month; the other families might have offered if I’d asked, but they didn’t have space.

So I pieced together the different options, stayed in NH a few days, in Burlington a few, and with my local friends a few. I lived out of my trunk, and spent hours and hours in rush hour traffic. But of course I was never unsafe. I was never in danger of having to sleep outside or in my car. I had lots friends and family outside of Boston who would have taken me in, given me a couch if they didn’t have a bed. And I had a steady income and a signed lease, for which I’d written a check for first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit. Honestly, being able to write that check was a miracle. I can’t really explain it. I mean, I know I worked and people paid me and I deposited their checks, but I don’t know how I managed to set aside that much money. I never had before, and I haven’t since.

It’s Saturday today and I’m tired. I’m up to a 35+ hour work week, which is the most I’ve worked in ten years. My health is somewhat better, but more what makes me able to do it is years of practice pacing myself, emotionally and physically, and knowing what I need on days off, which is often to be alone and do nothing, or just little things. And I’ve been paying down my debt from when I was sick a few years ago, and that’s necessary and feels good.

Still, I don’t know if I can keep up this pace indefinitely. I started volunteering at a homeless shelter at the same time that one of my nanny jobs added a shift, and it’s really good to be out in the world physically doing something, caring for kids and families that can’t pay me the top rate for a Boston nanny. It’s only two hours a week, but it’s hard, for many reasons.

I am doing it for now, but I’m praying and wondering if there might be a different way for me to serve at some point in the future. We’ll see. For now it’s going okay, putting one foot in front of the other, just doing the next thing that needs to be done. The thing that encourages me the most is that despite the busyness I’ve still been able to write and post something on the blog almost every week. The other stuff, the sodas, the volunteering, the Love Flash Mobs (I’ll get to that in a minute), that’s good to do, but I feel like Someone gave me a job description a while back, and that’s the priority for me: “Pay attention. Write what you see.” Do any of you have a job description written on your heart like that?

I have a friend, Aimee Parrot, who is also a writer. Three years ago she came home to find that her husband and writing partner had taken his life. Actually it was two years, eleven months, and 29 days ago. This Monday, December 21st, will be the three year anniversary of that day. Aimee has started a Facebook page called Dispel the Darkness, to help us work together to bring light to those who are struggling. For the past 29 days, Dispel the Darkness has been doing 31 days of kindness, leading up to December 21st. Back in November Aimee wrote,

Today is the first day of the month leading up to the third anniversary of my husband’s death. He is gone, but so many are still struggling with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other diseases of the brain. For many, the world is a dark and threatening place. They feel there is no kindness. No light.

Will you join me? Starting today, and for each of the next 30 days leading up to December 21st — the shortest day of the year — I am going to do everything I can to spread light. I am going to be kind. Some of my acts of kindness may cost a few dollars, while others are free. I am going to start today by making a few kindness cards — just card stock with a few kind words and maybe a drawing — and leaving them for people who live in my apartment complex.

Every day, I will post a new idea for an act of kindness, and a video or image that demonstrates the importance of casting light into the darkness surrounding mental illness. If you are so inclined, please share. I want the coming month to be one that helps people who need it in a concrete way. The month will culminate with what I hope will be a massive, worldwide day of kindness on December 21st.

I meant to share this with you when it started, sorry, but there’s still a chance to be involved with Aimee’s worldwide day of kindness coming up on Monday. Do you know what? Aimee’s not asking anything of us. She’s offering us something. She’s showing us our own power. We have it in us to heal others. We have it in us to change someone’s life, and even to save it. You’re not just another cog in the machine, going about your day, working to pay the bills. You hold the light that another soul needs. Whether you follow Dispel the Darkness and share your act of kindness, or do it quietly on your own, you can be part of something bold and bright on Monday.

Coincidentally, and also miraculously, there is going to be another Love Flash Mob over at Momastery on Monday. As big as the other ones have been, this one looks like it will be even bigger. And what a big love flash mob means is that lots of regular non-millionaire people like you and me give small amounts, and because there are so many of us it becomes HUGE. Subscribe to Momastery and watch your email on Monday morning (or follow Momastery on Facebook), and watch the magic happen. I’ll be making my donation in honor of Aimee and Tony, and looking around for a way to show kindness to someone in person, too. After all, we’re all in this together, doing the best we can, giving each other scraps of grace. And that’s the best I can write about it all, at least for today.