Sunday, December 23, 2007

a world full of blessings

This morning he was scraping some dog food off the sidewalk and eating it.

He smiled at me as I passed. "How you doing today?" Fine, I said, are you okay? "Sure, God provides for me."

My partner, when I told him, brought out some of the left over soup from yesterday's lunch, after grumbling "well, hey, the dog food is probably good for him, it's the stuff we give out to the folks out there, practically people food--and it's not your problem is it?" He was feeling grumpy. The weather does that to him, that and trying to clean up things. Grumpy or not, he made sure Jack had food today--and behind my back at that.

Jack's about my age--oh, maybe a year or two younger or older; he looks a lot older, but then he sleeps rough and eats what he can find. Wild fruit, leaves, and--now, dog food. He's a veteran, a small man with gentle brown eyes. Last month he asked if I'd please read the important things he has been writing, and I said yes.

He brought in an old grocery bag crammed with scraps of paper. Some had mathematics on them. Dates compressed to one number. His mother's birthday. His mother's death day. His father's days. The days his two daughters were born. His own birth. Historical dates. Many add up to similar numbers. In large letters he prints: This is important, remember this.
On other sheets he writes things like "I am a slippery fish living on the fruits of the lord". There are details of an inheritance he rejected. There are statements that, try as I could, I couldn't make sense of...strings of letters, strings of numbers, words.

He tells me this writing, his life work, has the secrets of the universe in it and he needs to go to Sacramento and present this to the governor so that everyone will be saved.

And then there are the days he falls on the asphalt road and cries out "NOO!", talking, screaming, beseeching someone, something to leave him be. When I come to him then and ask if he is okay he says "oh yes, I just have some problems with him". Or, perhaps it is Him. I don't really know.

Over the months I have, when asked, given him blankets and coats and sleeping bags and tents. He sheds these like leaves. Yesterday when he came again as the bitter night was setting in and I handed him a sleeping bag I said "you know, if you could bring back some of the others--I could wash them..." I've said this a lot and it is quite unlikely I will see these again. He says "I don't like to be seen carrying a bag. The cops know you are homeless then. So I leave them and other people will find them." Ah Jack, I say, you know they just get rain soaked. He says he is very sorry. He then tells's a great secret...that this spring, God tells him, he will be graced with the stigmata.

My conversations with Jack are very odd. I mean, what do you say to that? "Gee, that's nice?". I just nod my head and ask if he'd like some tangerines.

Meanwhile there's a local cleanup continuing. People have difficulty distinguishing objects that are garbage from people who are, they think, garbage. So three of the earnest clean up crew came by and said "Everything you give out we have to pick up". I said, earnestly, thank you so much for your hard work. I know this isn't easy. I'm so sorry if I am adding to your burden. But I am not going to have anyone freeze to death while I am able to prevent that.

The crew leader--also a small man with gentle brown eyes--asked "Are you taking care of that guy?" Upon inquiry I realized he meant Kevin, who is quite mad, and quite lost, and heartbreaking. He sleeps down the street a bit, having moved from the vacant lot. I told the leader "I don't really take care of anyone, but yes, I check on Kevin a lot. You know his family lives over there." "Yeah, I called his father. He can't do anything". I agree it is a sad story. Schizophrenia, brain injury.

"Is he a veteran?" I say yes, I think so. "But so are you, I'll bet, right?" Turns out no, and someday I'll sit and hear that story. Meanwhile we share a moment of...I don't know. Sorrow, hope. I know this cleanup guy has disrupted the camps. I also know he has given out gear to desperate people. I know, if we only can keep our hearts open, we are on the same side--wanting a place of compassion and care in our small region. Taking little steps on our own. Trying to do what feels right.

I was asked, last week, to meet with a state senator on behalf of our health center and as what was down on the program as a "homeless advocate". The local hospital administrator (who would later say "and when we discharge people with no place to go to we call her" gazing at me) (yeah, they do), said "so, as a 'homeless advocate' do you want everyone to be homeless?"

I think she was trying to be witty. It was an interesting thought though. I said no, of course. I said "I want everyone to have a place of refuge and warmth". As usual, when asked to talk about the situation locally, I ended up with tears in my eyes.

As usual the senator said "I hope you folks don't want any money from the state".

That night I came across Jack buying a pint of vodka. He said "it's not for me". Paul, my partner, says "it's funny how they all want to tell you they are really good".

They are really good, I said, really, at heart. I was thinking of this as I hitchhiked back from the bigger town a bit south of us. The deal had been that I get dropped off, do some needed stuff, phone my partner and he'd come get me--because I don't drive. After a few unanswered phone calls I thought "hey, I can get a ride, it's not far". There was a young man on the roadside ahead of me. He often stops by the shop, and told me I'd helped him a lot in the summer. I asked "so, do you think we'll hitch better together, or would you like me to wait till you get a ride and try on my own?" Since it was raining, since he was there first, I didn't want to hurt his chances.
We decided to try our luck together. A car loaded with other young guys stopped very quickly, and we squeezed in the back. They wanted to know why on earth I was out hitching. One said "if your oldest son knew he'd give you a ride". Of course he would, I said, I hadn't thought of it.
"Well, it's okay--you can think of all of us as your kids. We'll make sure you are okay."

They made sure I was safely back at my shop, at any rate. And came in for soup. And made me tear up. It's a world full of strange blessings. You just have to look.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

gifts and small blessings

This morning I was given an armload of chickadees.

Well, okay, no one walked up to me and handed me a bunch of twittering and excited birds, but when I was walking Champ the injured pitbull through the nearby vacant lot just after dawn today an excited throng of little birds fluttered and hopped all around the stalks of blue chicory, now gone to bird delighting seed. What can I say? It felt like a gift.

The ravens were out in great flocks as well, calling from the oaks, swooping down to the pavement at the school. Champ tried to catch them, as he always does, though I tell him he really can't fly, tug at the leash though he may. He doesn't believe me. My youngest son never believed me about this either; he was so certain, when he was 5 or 6, that the whole family knew how to fly and probably did so when he was asleep. These days he spends a lot of time earnestly holding up two fingers, one and then the other, and saying his words for "good" and "evil". He is perpetually trying to figure out the world; his other categories of preoccupation are "real" and "not real". He'll be 19 this spring, something that seems incredible to me for many reasons. Because he had such a difficult first few years, in which every wind, every change in the weather sent him into pneumonia and desperation. Because, as a person with Down Syndrome, he just doesn't quite look that old, though his prized fuzzy beard is growing in. Because...well, yesterday I was 19, and this is my youngest child.

How can that be?

I was recently off in another region, in a city, in an apartment looking out to the ocean. And there's a long story to be told there, of old friendship and the passing of time and the joy of taking time out of a life full of distractions and obligations, but this is not the place to tell all that. Still, when I was there, with a cherished friend, I glimpsed, on her bookshelf, a blue vinyl volume. High school yearbook. Our senior year.

Well, being a writer and a narcissist at that, I was curious to read what I might have written back then to my dearest friend. Of course, I also teased her by reading aloud a lot of the other nicely scrawled know the sort, "you seem like such a nice person; it was nice having you in Spanish class" or "I hope to know you better in the future". There was one by a guy neither of us could recall that sounded like a confession of true love. How had we missed that one? Well, he was younger than we were.

My statement, written in my still childish hand--it wasn't until I was in my 30's that my handwriting got some strength and dash--said pretty much "it is so odd to be writing to you". And I added a line of cryptoscript, bidding her "make that say whatever you want". I don't remember doing that. My ever faithful and loving friend thought it highly original. I thought it was a writer's cop out, personally, but inscribing year books is not a highly thought of field.

And we laughed. One of her cats captured and killed the dread feather duster (he is diligent in protecting his mistress from the incursions of the hot turquoise monster). It has been a long, long while.

Indeed, it has been pretty much a lifetime, though I'm hoping we have a couple decades left to us. Her mother said, one afternoon, "I still feel 17". Yes, I said, I know that feeling too. It was kind of nice to know it would go on--this lovely woman is going to be 85 next year, and still flirting madly with attractive young men. "Oh, women really love tall guys" she said to one blushing checker, and nudged me "don't they?" I chimed in in the affirmative "oh yes, especially when they are so cute". He asked us what we were doing that evening. Thanks to her I am kind of looking forward to becoming a thoroughly wicked old lady, scandalizing the neighbors.

"Ever see the movie Harold and Maude?" I asked, as we left the smiling--and yes, very cute--guy. Turns out to be one of her favorites. Ah yes.

It has all made me think more about blessings, about my life of such wealth. Traveling to that city I talked a while with a woman on a train who said "If you have three friends who will drop everything and come to you when you need them you are rich beyond most". Why yes, yes I am.

Gabe and I are cutting snowflakes from bits of paper. I have to keep adjusting his hand so he doesn't end up cutting himself, and it is a slow process, but the end result is very pretty. Tonight the streets of this little town shine with rain and colored lights; this morning my cats managed to turn on the radio, blasting the air with old Christmas songs sung by little children with clear and delicate voices. Coming to the door I thought surely we had morning carolers, how odd. No, simply the cats doing their bit.

Does it connect? Well, of course it does, this time of year, when connections are made with more ease, and the air is bright with renewed, impossible promise. And chickadees.

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