Saturday, February 21, 2015
As a metro-Detroiter, it's hard not to be aware of homelessness. We live just North of the oh-so-infamous 8-Mile Road that narrowly divides "The D" from Metro-D. The 8-Mile and Woodward underpass is littered with the remains of those who've sought refuge from the streets...on the street. This year and last have been particularly cold winters with temperatures regularly hitting the negatives at night. At times it's hard to stay warm in our house, I can't imagine trying to sleep without a furnace and roof, even if it's under a mountain of generously donated gore-tex sleeping bags.
The past few years it seems there's been a boom in the amount of folks standing at busy street corners hoping for help from those willing to open their windows and give something in the moments before the light turns green. It's hard not to read signs that say things like, Homeless, family hungry, anything helps, without looking into one's soul to figure out what would actually help in this tiny opening between red and green.
If you asked me to imagine what homelessness looks like, without hesitance, I'd see Eugene. I don't remember the specifics around Eugene's situation, but my dad does. Eugene was his project, his faith through works, his attempt at turning the other cheek, at giving the shirt off his back, at walking the extra mile. Eugene stayed with us many nights over many years. I'd be pouring my cereal in the morning readying for school, and catch a whiff of his dense, musty alcohol and sweat, tip-toeing its way up from the basement. My parents would ask to wash his clothes while he showered, which he often declined, then after buying him a meal, my dad would drive him off to wherever he deemed his next destination. Every time he came through, for a moment, we'd wonder if this would be the final so-long. My dad likes to recall how he'd take Eugene to Burger King and every time without fail he'd comically order a "Whopper, heavy-all." Eventually we moved to Pennsylvania and prayed he'd be okay, wherever he was.
Growing up the son of a Pastor gave me many opportunities to witness the attempts of others to live the word, or practice what they preach. Specifically in regards to the homeless and hungry, many times we took people into our home or into the church to try and provide relief, if only for a night or two, hoping that our actions represented our faith and good intentions.
Last fall while eating in downtown Ferndale, we met Julia. After a double-take, as if we were long-lost friends, she greeted us through the window with an excited wave and jolly grin. She popped her head in and said to our table with a bit of a slur and a playful tone, "I'm hungry!" Not quite knowing what to do or say, fighting silence, I foolishly said "I bet you are!" She mumbled something that only a few of us could hear pieces of and walked off. As she left there was a heaviness in the air. We're a table of well-intentioned folks who have no reason, except the inconvenience of it, not to help someone who's hungry, but none of us seemed to know what was best to say or do in that moment. We were having a family dinner, toddler and guest in tow. We were in a restaurant that likely does not want to have their customers solicited from. It was complicated. None of us felt good about the interaction. Once we parceled together what she said, I felt an elephant snuggling up on my chest: "How can you be so nonchalant about my hunger?" We finished our meal and talked about the nuances of these situations. Dad and I agreed we were at fault, my off-color comment and his silence being the culprits. We walked across the street to where she was, introduced ourselves and apologized for our insensitivity, offering her the opportunity to order from the Chinese menu as we had. She said "It's no big deal," then asked if we'd be willing to get her some chicken wings and coffee from a different restaurant. Who said beggars can't be choosers, right? We felt like such A-holes we'd probably have driven downtown to get her Slows at this point. But we walked down to the wing-joint and ordered her boneless wings and a coffee to go. She was grateful. On the coat-tails of her thankfulness, she inched close to Dad, and asked in a much quieter tone, if he could also help her make bus fare while weaving a story of woe about her daughter and the police and a stolen bike. He obliged.
On our walk back Dad asked if I heard what she said when we apologized? "She forgave us," he said.
Sometimes I like to daydream about being a more honorable man; one who lives to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless. To be more willing to sacrifice my own needs for someone who isn't able to help themselves. I hope to instill this value in our beloved, as small as she is, to feel for others. I fantasize about having the abilities of Powder, to literally feel others' pain, to know what brought them to where they are, and similarly to be able to transmit their story to those as naive as me. But such abilities are works of fiction.
One 'intersectioner' has held a sign that says, "Hope is real." Reality asks that I simply take time to learn about another. That I consider another. It doesn't feel like enough, but perhaps this consciousness alone will give me the fraction of courage I need to act when action is needed. Perhaps hope IS real and can lead to healing in some capacity. I can live in hope.
Photo: stolen from https://detroitlens.wordpress.com/tag/8-mile/
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Scrolling through Netflix a few weeks ago, my wife stumbled on Pee-wee's Playhouse and decided to see if our three year old would have any interest. After an insistence that we watch the episode "Monster in the playhouse" on repeat for a few days we're now well into the third season and she loves it! When I told a buddy of mine we were watching it he told me about The Nerdist podcast and their interview late last year with Pee-wee himself, Paul Reubens. Among slews of other interesting things Reubens had to say about the development of his career and the Pee-wee persona, he mentioned one thing that anchors it all: he knew from the age of seven he wanted to be an actor. He tells a funny story about how, as a youngster, he hated Ron Howard because he thought he could do a better job than him as Opie. But from that moment on, he took every risk and opportunity to make it happen. For him, that was it.
Somewhere among the fifteen million headlines for Huffington Post articles that show up in my Facebook feed every day I remember briefly scanning one with the headline: The question we should all stop asking each other when we first meet, or something like that. It piqued my interest enough to read the first paragraph to find out that "what do you do for work?" was the author's culprit. He or She argued that it automatically forces us to place class judgments on each other, or something along those lines, leading to potential disconnects right out the gates. Instead, we should ask broader questions like "what do you like to do?" and let that conversation develop. I thought, "Yeah, I'm more than what I do for work, dammit!" And then stopped reading, because I got the gist of it.
Several months ago I started seeing a therapist with the intention of talking about Mommy/Daddy issues. While we've certainly talked through those, the conversation often comes back to my understandings around purpose and fulfillment, and my struggles in feeling those. I speak most about the confusion of never having had a moment where I felt sure I should to be doing any particular thing. Some people find this easy. Some people, like Reubens, know from early childhood what they want to do in life. Some people just enjoy something so much they can't not do it. Some people have life-altering experiences or epiphanies that show them the way. And some people believe the Heavens have decreed their purpose. However this certainty comes about, these people pick something and do it. They're doing their it.
I've talked with several friends recently who have said they feel like they're not doing anything productive, moving toward any particular goal, or they're not where they thought they'd be in life by now. They have a dissatisfaction with themselves. Like they're not doing something more significant. When I asked a friend about her dissatisfaction, she called it her "artistic voice" that's trying to get out. And, as she's an artist, not doing art in a full-time way, it makes sense that she'd call it that. I wonder if there are people who aren't artists in any structured fashion that feel this same nag? As I think of all the people I know experiencing this frustration, they're all artists. So maybe there's something to that.
The grand-picture part of my mind wants to deconstruct our ideas about purpose by relating it to class issues. The fact that survival is not something we have to consider, at least as middle-classers with, I'm guessing most of you reading qualify, white-privilege, changes the dynamic so much. The mere fact that I can sit here and try to wax eloquently about my ideas proves that I have the privilege to do so. I like to think about history and the development of civilizations and how people, as pieces in a puzzle, may have had a much clearer idea about what they're to do in life. Trades were often handed down through generations and only rarely was the glass shattered because people have to put food on the table. It's sort of a cog in the machine viewpoint. The machine must have all its working parts. There's a whole-lotta ugly in that sort of view too. Why should one person die of coal inhalation for another person's Industrial Imperialism? Not saying it's better one way or the other, but perhaps the option-paralysis much of my generation struggles with was not as present.
A friend recently joked about being terrible at job interviews, because he finds it hard to fake wanting to work. "Why do I want to work here? Well, I have time and I'd like to trade it to you for money." When I think of people who are super career-oriented, they are usually willing to give much of their time to their career. It's what they place value on. That or they want more money, which then requires more of their time in order to acquire it. In an attempt to fight against my self-hatred for my lack of ambition, I place value judgments on things outside of the career world. What do I like to do? Or, better yet, what makes me me? Well, let me refer you to the brief bio in the bottom right corner of this page. I am a father, a husband, a writer, a band-dude (quick plug), and so much more, right? Oh, and I'm a cog in Retail and a part-time Massage Therapist. Pieces of my puzzle. Threads of my web. But the image to my puzzle still seems hazy. I've somehow created a world in which there are no other options and have spent all my time trying fit something rather than find what fits me. There is no shoe that fits. So I guess I have fill my time with all sorts of shoes. And because of this, I have knots in my stomach, and scurry about hoping to find the elusive right single shoe. Perhaps the ambitious have the same knots, but on the opposite side of things, being defined by one particular aspect of their lives. We're all struggling with something.
As Greg Bennick, of the brilliant Between Earth & Sky, and of being-the-kind-of-guy-I-wish-I-was put it: purpose is anything we give purpose to. And my mind knows this. But my mind is at war with my history and with our culture.
My dad went to school for Engineering, until one fateful day when God called him to be a minister. There are people like Kayla Mueller who die trying to relieve the suffering of Syrian refugees. And then there's Pee-wee and a billion other examples of people who just knew what they wanted to do, I'm just not one of them, and so I'm doing things, and thinking about more things.
Here's to searching for the elusive it, and to balance and patience.
Image: stolen from google at http://media.cleveland.com/tv_blog/photo/peewee01jpg-537d8351f2470384.jpg