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In a cozy room on the sixth floor of a Capital Hill hotel in Seattle, I’m seated at the window watching snow and traffic and bundled pedestrians.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be speaking at the Search For Meaning conference at Seattle University. But now I’m focused on what’s outside my window. I’m letting my mind play with trivial questions that pop up. Too often I hush this annoying-little-kid part of my mind, or run roughshod over it, believing I don’t have time to play. Today I have time – no computer, no smart phone, no schedule. My presentation is prepared and rehearsed. I have the leisure to be diverted and to play with my kid-self and her questions.

 

street people photo

A block away there is a building under construction. So far it is eleven stories high, not counting the giant crane on top. On the ninth floor a man is working in one of the windowless openings in the wall. He is affixing wide strips of orange material around the opening’s edges. What is that material? How does it stick? What’s it for? Is it a sealant of some sort, for when the windows are put in later? And, more importantly, how is that man suspended there, nine stories above the street? After several minutes of studying this question with my kid-self (how IS he defying gravity?), I realize he’s standing on a tiny platform that juts out of the window space from the inside. Isn’t he afraid? I don’t know. I would be!

 

On the south side of the building two large bright-orange boxes made of metal grating slide up and down a narrow erector-set trunk. These are exterior elevators, each with their own operators, taking workers and supplies to and from whichever floor they’re working. I can see the safety gates slide – one half up and one half down – opening each orange box to disgorge or admit their cargo. How many people can fit into each car? Are all the workers men, or are there some female welders and ironworkers? How cold is it up there? Why do the elevator doors move vertically instead of opening horizontally? Do the operators get bored? Do they ever give in to the temptation to race each other to the top?

 

I love watching people work. In this playful mood it feels like spying. I love knowing they don’t know I see them, don’t know I’m watching and wondering what they’re doing, and why, and how each movement contributes to their task. There is a crane operator in a glassed-in cab at the apex of the crane’s 60-foot upright support – what’s the name of that part? – and the how-many-feet-long? working arm of the crane. For as long as I’ve been watching the crane its operator has apparently been sitting there, idle, waiting for the next task to do. Does he read a book in his cab? Does he do sudoku puzzles? Text his girlfriend? Then suddenly there is a little crane excitement: the horizontal arm spins fairly quickly around the supporting tower, then comes to rest exactly where it was before. What was that about? My favorite guess on this playful day is that the operator got bored and took his gigantic crane for a whirl. Or maybe he wanted to see the other 180 degree view of the city for a minute.

 

I make myself a cup of coffee, and then return to the window. On the street below, construction workers, now finished for the day, jaywalk across four lanes of traffic, their florescent yellow or safety orange vests and jackets and hard hats and coolers stopping cars that were on their way to somewhere. I hope now to see the crane operator make the perilous climb down from his perch – I’ve stared and stared, waiting.

 

But my attention is diverted by a woman in gray baggy pants and shapeless coat, her ankles bare above run-down moccasins in this freezing weather. Isn’t she cold? Why is she limping? Where is she going? What’s in those heavy bags? Does she have any friends? Is she sad? Briefly the slow-moving gray bag lady is surrounded by bright OSHA-approved colors, swallowed up in a surf of building-makers; then she is alone again like a cold gray stone deposited on the concrete by the headed-home tide.

 

I must have missed the craneman’s descent, because all is quiet now at the building-under-construction. That’s okay. What I really needed to watch was that woman, and her work of limping up the steep street. She needed my attention just now; she needed my prayer that she find warmth for her restless sleep tonight.

 

Tomorrow morning I’ll encourage an audience to notice – and maybe to bless – the many, many people deposited on the concrete of our society who are doing their work of surviving on the margins.

 

READING AT THE BOOK LAUNCH - Photo by Johnny Palka

READING AT THE BOOK LAUNCH – Photo by Johnny Palka

Throughout the evening there was a Knowing that THIS was a high point in my life. “Take it in,” the Knowing said. “Revel in it. Give this reading your very best attention and care. Oh, and don’t forget to ENJOY as well.”

The event was the Book Launch Party celebrating the previous week’s publication of my book, Meeting in the Margins. Folding chairs had been brought in and all the furniture had been rearranged in the dining room and the living room of Enso House, the end-of-life residence where I have volunteered as a caregiver over the years. The lights in all the rooms glowed; the friend-baked cookies were mounded on plates in the Garden Room, next to the tea and coffee and handmade cups; nearly 60 friends and neighbors were gathering, and some guests I hadn’t met yet; MoonRaker Bookstore was set up with piles of the newly-minted book for sale. Special-bought pens were waiting for me to inscribe books.

And then it was time to begin. I went to that place inside myself from which the best of my writing comes, that place where the essence of the people of the Margins meets the essence of me and tutors me. And from that place I read and spoke and for a few minutes I gave voice to our society’s invisible people, and they received the love and the affirmation of the assembled listeners. And it was very, very good.

It was, as the inner voice assured me – that Knowing voice of the wise people of the Margins – a singularly high point in my life.

 

[Meeting in the Margins: An Invitation to Encounter Society’s Invisible People is available at your local bookstore, and from Amazon.com]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ON CHRISTMAS DAY I scanned an email entitled “Repaying a Homeless Man’s Kindness,” reprinted from Huffington Post and sent by Daily Good: News That Inspires (http://www.dailygood.org/).

 

This is a topic dear to my heart: the gifts offered by society’s invisible people. At first I simply nodded an acknowledgement to my computer screen and went on to open other emails. Yet, rather than having made my heart smile, as was intended, this article instead made my heart feel heavy. I didn’t have time to think about it that night, and I deleted the article.

 

But then a few days later a friend on the other side of the country sent me the same article, asking, “What do you think about this?” And I reread the story thoroughly:

 

A young college woman named Dominique had just parted from her friends after a student night out, when she realized her cellphone was dead. She had lost her bank card and had no money for a taxi home. A homeless man, Robbie, approached her, learned of her dilemma, and offered her all the money he had: $4.60. In the end, she found another way home. But she couldn’t forget Robbie and his kindness.

 

This could have been, should have been, a simple story about a homeless man’s generosity to a scared and grateful young woman.

 

But then it became a complicated story. It grew out of proportion, and despite good intentions it grew into gestures that, I believe, were far from the meaning and the heart(s) of the matter.

 

Dominique searched for and eventually found Robbie again. That gesture would have been enough to show her gratitude, to demonstrate their mutual human kindness. If she returned regularly, sat and talked with him, shared personal stories, established a friendship with him – if he wanted it – that would have been a lovely bonus.

 

But then she enlisted others in a monetary “campaign,” asking students on campus to donate $4.60 apiece to “help change Robbie’s life.” That was a great marketing idea, but an unfortunate one. It’s a gesture that carries the message that Robbie is not enough as he is, and that others know how to “fix” what is lacking in him. It negated his generosity.

 

Intentionally “paying it forward” to others, in gratitude for Robbie, in honor of Robbie’s intention, would have been an appropriate gesture, but not “paying it back” in amounts that tipped the scales so far that Robbie could never hope to reciprocate, would forever feel indebted.

 

Then Dominique spent a night on the streets, to “understand the difficulties” of homeless people. I believe this gesture, made by one who can as easily leave the margins as enter them, is an insult to homeless people who do not have that luxury.

 

And then the once-simple story became even more complicated.

 

With more than $50,000 raised from the financial campaign, Dominique plans to secure a home for Robbie. But does he want that? Did he ever ask for anything more than the dignity of helping a lost, scared young woman?

 

Did contributors to this campaign believe that handing over $4.60 was enough to absolve them of any further responsibility for connecting with marginalized people? Or, on the other hand, did story of this campaign subtly say to readers that no simple gesture, no small human exchange can possibly be enough? If it can’t be a BIG gesture, will they choose not do anything at all?

 

Robbie’s offer was made with his heart, and all the money he had. When Dominique told this simple story it ultimately moved 4800 people to think for moment about something we seldom acknowledge: the possibility that a person who has “nothing” nevertheless has “enough” to offer to another.

 

It’s a pity that Dominique didn’t have enough faith in Robbie’s generosity. It’s a shame she didn’t believe that her own gratitude was enough. It’s too bad she couldn’t trust that an invisible momentum of grace was already making itself felt, was changing the world in minute ways, without any marketing campaign on its behalf.