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Monday, February 02, 2009

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All the Lonely People


A few weeks before Christmas, we dropped in on a holiday party, where friends were gathering to watch the fireworks that cap off Little Rock's annual Santa Claus parade. It was the house of merry and bright, heady with fragrant mulled wine, jammed to the corners with kids and adults, cookie crumbs and a smile on every pair of lips.

It was enchanting, in the true sense of that cheapened word.

I could have stayed for hours, but Patrick was hungry for more than gingerbread, so after the fireworks we took the kids for dinner at a favorite restaurant, Doe's Eat Place. Doe's is something of a local landmark. It was written up in Rolling Stone and People magazines as the unofficial headquarters of the first Clinton presidential campaign. Like certain people in that campaign, the joint has a low-brow seediness that suggested authenticity and character at the time, but now reads as a little decrepit (you decide whether we're talking about Clinton or Carville). But the steak and tamales are still damn good.

And pricey. We go about once a year, splitting a T-bone between us, sharing the toast and fries with the kids, catching up with the manager, a friend of ours, if she happens to be in. The steaks are enormous, and there is always plenty enough leftover for steak and eggs the next morning, with hash browns made from the leftover fries.

Just down the street, there is a Salvation Army homeless shelter. Dusk was coming on. Little Rock winters are not generally cruel, but it was no night to sleep on the street. People were starting to gather in front of the doors as we passed. The string of happy, colored light wound around my spirits began to dim.

As we took our seats, and looked at the menus, I began mentally calculating what it would cost to bring all those people outside the Salvation Army doors inside for a steak dinner and all the trimmings. Maybe fifty or sixty of them, at most, at fifty dollars a person? I did the math. Three thousand dollars or so? Beyond my reach certainly, but not beyond the realm of philanthropic dreaming. You'd have to rent out the whole restaurant, of course. And then there's the question of what to do about alcohol. It would be nice to pour everyone a decent wine, but that might be doing some more harm than good. And there's no doubt that imaginary five grand would go a lot further in the hands of a worthy aid agency.

And then my bulbs started to short and burn out. Because I wanted to give my poor imaginary friends so much more than a steak dinner. I wanted to give them a warm house party to go to, filled with friends they loved and people who smiled to see them come in. I wanted to give them children's mittened hands to hold while they watched fireworks and sipped something warm and spicy. I wanted to send them and their doggie bags to a home where they would wake up to fries and onions cooking and coffee brewing. A kiss good morning and the newspaper waiting.

I couldn't do the math for that.

I'm no saint. I didn't want to take one of those people and their problems home with me. I know a little bit about the kinds of circumstances that lead people to fall between society's cracks. I know something about mental illness, and addiction, and the kind of holes in a soul that money, and even love, won't fill.

It's so overwhelming, this question of need. I think my response to it is pretty typical of most people. I don't have the answer, so I shut down. I forget that it isn't yes or no, all or nothing.

As with most things I forget, I've got my kids to help remind me. There's a freeway exit we use where there's almost always someone standing with a sign asking for money. Sometimes, rarely, I've rolled down the window and given some. Most times, I idle uncomfortably waiting for the light to change, averting my eyes, pretending not to notice. Then I began to notice the kids not noticing.

The capacity to feel pain is a terrible thing. I have a few choice words about it for whomever's in charge. But the capacity to not feel it is a thousand times worse. If those are my only two choices —and if they are, let me register my strongly worded complaint —I'll go with feeling it. I want my kids to have compassion, to feel, even and maybe especially in the face of their own helplessness to fix another person.

Lately, when we've pulled up next to the panhandlers on the freeway exit, I've started saying aloud what's running through my mind.

"Look at that person with the sign. I wonder what his story is, if he is really hungry, or if he wants money for drugs. I wonder why some people are hungry and homeless. I don't really know what the best thing is to do in these situations. Sometimes I give a little money, even if they do spend it on drugs or alcohol. Sometimes I give money or clothes to an organization that knows better how to help people in need. I don't know. I wish this wasn't a problem."

And so on. A lesson in the math that never adds up.

And then I say, "What do you think?"

And they don't know the answer either. It hurts. But it feels so much better than pretending not to see.

On Martin Luther King Day, the boys and I took our new President up on his challenge to honor the day with an act of service. It was nothing grand or even difficult, and talking about it here cancels out any Brownie points I might have earned otherwise. We had a couple of gift cards, traded them in on a few warm blankets and some canned wieners, and brought them to that Salvation Army shelter. Hardly steak dinners for the masses. Not enough to save the world, or heal even one wounded soul.

Except maybe, just a little bit, our own.

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Blogger juliloquy said...

Oh wow. Thank you for this. Thank you.

2:28 AM  
Blogger Kim said...

It didn't cancel anything out, you have a good heart.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Jessica @ A Bushel and a Peck said...

I have started doing the same thing with my little girl (my two boys are too young to understand it yet), explaining the not-so-happy things we see in life. I feel like it helps sometimes to see what her reaction is. I think a child's eyes sometimes see much clearer than mine.

7:14 AM  
Blogger bluebird of paradise said...

I love this piece it's the thing we all wrestle with. How to fix. Sometimes we don't need to do something, just be aware and see really see the other.Compassion is a wonderful gift.Be glad you have it in spades

7:26 AM  
Blogger S said...

Wonderful post. I sometimes say aloud the same things you do. But, usually I am alone in the car.

7:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is so hard not to get caught up in all or nothing , yes or no. Hard to remember that every little bit helps, whether it's recycling or donations to homeless shelters or growing trees ....

this was a great piece.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Heffernhyphen said...

I'm sitting in my classroom in the dark while the kids nap, hoping not to wake any of them with my sniffling.

It's not just how you write that's beautiful. It's who you are.

12:26 PM  
Blogger beth♥ said...

Thank you. There is hope for humanity ... if we all just do a little.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I like the words you chose to voice your thoughts to your kids. Sounds appropriate, honest and balanced. (I know "balance" is a word we're pseudo-avoiding in 2009, but it's all I can think of right now.)

"A lesson in the math that never adds up." So good.

12:55 PM  
Blogger distracted by shiny objects said...

Go back and look up the story of the little boy throwing starfish back into the ocean after a storm where hundreds were stranded on shore. An older man walking along the beach watched him throw ten back into the water and said kindly,"But son, you can't possibly save all these starfish and make this any different." The little boy said,"I made it different for those ten."

1:03 PM  
Blogger Smiling Mama said...

I started reading your blog about a week or two ago and am really enjoying it. What a thoughtful post. Thanks.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

Really lovely, especially that you shared it with your kids. Our charity can extend into everyday acts of kindness that hopefully add up to a greater atmosphere of compassion.

11:05 PM  
Blogger katrynka said...

If everyone does whatever they can, where ever they are, the world would be a MUCH better place.

My foster daughter once said to me "I hope I can be as generous as you one day." I told her not to wish it, just do it. Get into the practice of giving, and as your means improve, you will already be in the habit of generosity. I have not always been able to give the amount I can afford to give now, and I hope that circumstances will allow me to give more in the future.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Shelley said...

When we lived in Buenos Aires, we would give our pocket change to Jake and allow him to choose who to give it to. He learned to be generous but he also was able to choose through a child's eye who was most needy. It was fascinating.

6:15 PM  
Blogger Mama Bear... .. . said...

not only are you a giving soul and a beautiful person for that. you shared your thoughts with strangers, that is pretty powerful and inspiring in itself.

sharing what we know and being aware that we can learn from our children is what makes a huge difference in the world and keeps us connected from one generation to the other.

i enjoyed reading your post.

10:38 PM  

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