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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

Love,
Jessica

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What kind of month has it been?

stepsI have a bunch of ideas for blog posts but life has been so busy the past few weeks that I haven’t had a chance to sit down and flesh them out. So I thought I’d tell you about what has been keeping me busy.

The most exciting thing was the Love Flash Mob over at Momastery. In 24 hours we raised over $475,000 dollars to build a new wing for the Heartline Maternity Center in Port au Prince, Haiti, and to buy warm clothes for mothers and babies from Syria who are still living outside in Berlin, even as the cold weather has set in. These Love Flash Mobs are my favorite times of the year because we take the power of community and turn it into concrete, practical action to love and care for each other. The maximum donation is $25 — the average for this one was $21. That means my $25 counts just as much as that of the millionaire or billionaire or anyone else. 21,000 of us got together and gave, and countless lives will be saved because of it. You just can’t get efficiency and joy like that anywhere else on the interwebs. Check it out here. And don’t be sad if you missed this one, just follow Momastery on Facebook and/or my Facebook page and we will be sure to tell you when the next one is happening.  I even stepped way out of my comfort zone for the flash mob to create and video tape myself doing a touchdown dance for every flash mob update. Enjoy!

I’ve also been busy with the launch team for Sarah Bessey’s upcoming book Out of Sorts: Making Peace With an Evolving Faith. The book is amazing — You are going to want to read it, trust me. I’ll have a review up soon, but for now you can preorder it on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble, or support your local small bookstore by buying it there. The release date is November 3rd.

The launch team has been an incredible experience, not only discussing Sarah’s book with her and the others, but getting to know the other team members as well. I have two new favorite blogs through the launch team: Esther Emery’s Church in the Canyon and Tanya Marlow’s Thorns and Gold. Esther is a homesteader, deep thinker, and a brilliant writer. She crafts sentences like this, which I read several times over: “And even here I see God revealed — refracted, bent, and shattered — shining out the cracks of crooked people.” Tanya Marlow writes about struggling to find God and God’s will in her life while suffering from debilitating chronic illness, something which you know is dear to my heart. And it was also through the launch team that I found this beautiful, moving letter from a 19 year old girl with Asperger’s to her ten year old self. (The rest of Debby’s blog is well worth checking out, too.)

AAI_WritingContestAnother project I’ve been a part of is the Almost an Inkling flash fiction contest happening over at Mythgard. It’s a six week contest with a different prompt and guidelines every week. We’re in week five now, which is poetry. I just tried my hand at a Clerihew and a Triolet, two forms which were new to me. I actually won the literary prize for week three, the “Minute Mystery” which was very exciting for my twelve year old self, who didn’t dream of writing viral essays about gay weddings, but about writing stories. (She doesn’t really get blogging, even though I’ve tried to explain it to her. She just wants to know why we aren’t writing more stories about cats and unicorns.) My story for week two, with the prompt “Here Be Dragons” was dedicated to Say it Survivor, my friends’ Laura and Mary’s organization dedicated to helping women and men who have survived childhood sexual abuse tell their stories. They have workshops and talks coming up in Massachusetts and beyond — check it out on their website. The challenge for the story was to surprise the reader with an unexpected perspective on the dragon. My heart was full of Laura and Mary and the other brave survivors that week, so this is what I wrote:

She first saw the dragon the same night her uncle first came into her room. She was very young. After he left she lay there, choking back tears – he had warned her not to cry – and wondering, for the first time in her life, if there was something wrong with her. Then, suddenly the dragon was there, hovering over her bed, its green eyes shining in the darkness. It had brown-red scales, like muddied flame, and its wings spanned the room and, somehow, beyond.

She caught her breath and stopped crying, terror of the dragon greater than the pain. She waited for it to pounce, but it never moved, other than the slow beating of its wings and the whirl of its eyes, locked on hers. Time passed, minutes or hours. Then, despite her uncle and despite the dragon, her eyes began to droop and her small body fell into sleep. It was very late, and she was very young.

From then on, whenever her uncle came into her room, after he left the dragon would appear. Soon she found that she would wait for it, lying in the dark, holding her breath and blinking until its unblinking eyes appeared above her. She never really stopped being afraid of the dragon, but she was comforted, too, by its presence, its strong, sinewy legs and sharp claws, its tireless wings that beat the air, swirling it into a gentle breeze. Even though the worst had happened, even though she was so, so far from safe, she felt something her young mind did not have words for yet. Something like hope, something like confidence.

She only spoke to the dragon once, a year or so after the dual visits had started. One night she took a deep breath, lifted her small chin and said,

“Just go ahead and eat me, dragon. Do it.”

And the dragon lifted its own chin, and opened its jaw, and a blast of fire came out, heating the air above her head, but she was not harmed. She understood its answer: Yes, the dragon had said, I could fry you and swallow you whole, but I will not. And she cried harder that night than she ever had before.

The last time the dragon appeared to her was years later. She was older now, not young anymore, not at all young anymore, and the dragon came to her late one night. And she looked in its eyes and noticed something she never had before: They were the same color as her own green eyes, with the same brown flecks. And she saw that the mud-red scales were the same color as her own auburn hair, which shone in the sunlight.

Then she flexed her arms and legs and she felt the sinewy strength of a dragon flow through them. She felt the movement between her shoulders of powerful wings. And she stretched out her wings and she flew.

The Almost an Inkling contest is still going on if you would like to try your hand at a poem this week, or next week’s prompt which will be “Speculate and Subcreate.” Also at this link you can read the winning entries from the first three weeks, and vote on the poems from week five. The winning entries will be published in a special-edition ebook by Oloris Press and we’ll be reading our work aloud during a webinar at the end of the contest on Halloween.

restwellWhew, well, there’s more I could tell you about — what a busy month it’s been! — but I’ll stop there and give you a chance to check out the links I’ve included. I hope you’ve all had a good October so far! What have you been up to? Let me know in the comments. And if you haven’t been doing that much, that’s okay, too. The resting is part of the doing.

Love,

Jessica

Things I’ve been wrong about for most of my life, part two

Bewitched Park by Leonid Afremov

Bewitched Park by Leonid Afremov

Ever since I was very young I’ve felt this strange tension between feeling smart, creative, special and, at the same time weird, awkward, and out of place. The first thing made me feel happy and proud; the last three incredibly sad and even bitter. But all of them made me feel different. I moved through life pretty well, more or less, did well in school, went on to college and grad school, was in leadership roles in most areas of life. But I always felt like my true self, my real thoughts and feelings, were too weird and scary to share. I felt out of place all the time, even among friends, even when I was the leader or organizer of a group. I created a secret world inside myself and hid parts of myself there — the parts that I thought made me too strange and different, and kept me from fitting in.

But, somewhere, at some point, I started getting glimpses of a larger truth. I can’t remember when the first glimpse came — in high school or college, maybe? At some point I heard this quote by the Roman playwright Terence: “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” I wrote that in my journal and thought, yes. Nothing human is alien to me, and if that is true then maybe nothing in me is alien to my fellow humans. Maybe I am just human after all. No better or worse than the rest of the humans.

And I started noticing that I wasn’t the only one who felt different and alone. I began to think that maybe, actually, more people felt out of place than in. And if that were true, then maybe none of us were actually weird and different. Or maybe we were all weird and different, actually. Maybe I was weird and different, just like a lot of other people. And maybe that meant none of us needed to be alone.

I have so much more to say about this, but the sun is rising and I have to get ready for my day job soon. But today I wanted to tell you this: When I wrote the first part of this series, Things I’ve been wrong about my whole life, part one, I shared something from that secret part of myself. I had never felt more alone or more on the outside than during the time I wrote about in that essay. And something wild happened when I got brave and wrote about it and posted it on my little blog with my few dozen readers. People read it and said, “Me, too.” My friend Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery read it and said, “Me, too,” and shared it with her followers on Facebook. And then, suddenly, hundreds and thousands of people came and read it, and said, “Me, too,” and shared it with their friends who said, “Me, too,” too.

When I felt most alone, when my thoughts and feelings seemed too intense and strange and even crazy — there were literally thousands of others feeling just like me. My deepest fears and struggles, the ones that made me feel so alone, turned out to be what I most had in common with my fellow humans. Maybe the same is true for you?

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