Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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The Smell of Isolation: Day 16 of the April Poetry Challenge

I caught a random segment of NPR this morning while I was driving to a meeting. The reporter was interviewing the author of a new book of “tips and etiquette” for getting around New York City. It was an entertaining interchange that was mostly fluff, but one throw-away comment struck a nerve with me.

Beware the empty train car – there’s a reason it’s empty.

Having recently resided in a major metropolitan city for nearly three years, and having travelled regularly on public transportation, I immediately knew what that comment was about. And it made me uncomfortable.

I was instantly transported back to a half-empty tram car in Milan — it was the back half that was empty. It was an experience that occurred at least six months ago, but it is still hanging in the back of my mind, like a musty old overcoat that was put away before it had the chance to air out from the damp walk through clinging, rain-soaked, autumn undergrowth. There’s an off-putting smell that demands attention… much like the empty train car.


 

The Smell of Isolation

 

The odor was not what registered first,

squeezing onto the crowded tram,

the crush of strangers’ bodies and voices,

eyes darting for a vacant seat,

a corner free of elbows and oversized bags,

where my little ones could safely sit.

The vacant row is what I noticed,

the wide open sanctuary at the back of the car.

Only one stranger

quiet,

legs spread wide,

eyes closed in his haven of space.

The crowd pushed back,

toward me,

or away from him,

but I pushed forward,

toward the long empty row

little ones in tow.

Not until we are seated.

Not until then did I recognize

the heavy scent of unwashed skin,

the wave of oder the pushes out

pushes against the crowd.

Insisting on an indecent distance.

 

I swallow hard

against the cloying taste hanging in the air;

and against my own reactions of disgust.

He is God’s child too.

repeating the words,

like a mantra, a prayer

to my closed eyelids.

They have shut

almost involuntarily

shut out the image of that pregnant cocoon of space.

 

I force them open,

but they still turn away.

Instead they scan the faces

of those pushed to form the surface –

the human portion of that wall –

all curling lips and furtive glances.

I do not want to join them.

the smell pushes on my nostrils too,

causes them to flare, to flinch.

But I do not want to join that group,

do not want my lips to curl in mirroring disdain,

do not want my body to lean away.

But I am leaning.

not away, precisely.

I lean into the space between

a human shield for little noses, little eyes.

It makes no sense.

My body cannot block the smell,

and curious eyes will seek to find

any image they notice me conceal.

But still I lean,

and leaning in my own eyes notice something… comforting?

They. are. oblivious.

Can it be their little noses have not learned disdain for human smells?

Or is it

Please, God, let it be

they have not learned to judge their fellow human beings

by such corporeal matters

as personal hygiene.

 

I do not know the reason,

but I pray fervently that the fruit of knowledge

with not come crashing into their little Eden

on that train.

And while they squirm and giggle in their luxury of space,

I spend the ride tied up in knots

that have nothing to do with the nausea that assaults me

with each inhalation.

Five stops. I count them:

Disgust.

Anxiety.

Pity.

Fear.

Shame.

I ride in a prison of empty space and shackling emotions.

 

But.

There he sits,

eyes closed,

legs spread,

arms folded across his barrel chest,

forbidding all who would approach.

A king upon his solitary throne.

 

Perhaps he has made his peace,

refused the shame,

of the smell of isolation.

 

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Baby, It’s Cold Inside – My Winter of Apathy

I joked yesterday about the wonderfully “warm” welcome New Jersey is offering us, because yesterday the thermometer actually reached above 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Considering that most days this month the sun has struggled to warm this little corner of the planet to the miserable benchmark of 20 degrees, and the moon has supervised nightly dips into the single digits, this was progress! Today, unfortunately, we were back in familiar territory.

In other words. IT IS COLD!

For a California girl, born and bred, this kind of weather is nothing short of miserable. I am wearing my snow boots days after the sidewalks are clear just for the warmth. I am shoving my hands into thick, unwieldy ski gloves for the 20-odd steps from my front door to my car. I am surrendering my habitual air dry for the hot, soothing breath of my hairdryer on my towel-dried locks. Anything to stop the creeping chill from taking advantage of an incautious opening to lock its icy fingers on my bones and make me resent the 14 years of rich life experience that have held me captive away from the warm Golden State of my youth.

What has me up late this night, however, is not the cold. At least, it is not the frigid outdoor temperatures. Rather, it is the realization that all my precautions have come too late. Somehow, insidiously, when I wasn’t looking, the cold has wormed its way into a much more dangerous place.

It was a conversation with Princess Imagination several days ago that first began to thaw the lock on my awareness. We had just completed the shuffling hustle from front door to car. I had wrestled the seat belts over layers of sweaters and scarves and winter coats to buckle us all safely into our minivan for the ride to school. I had waited impatiently for the car’s engine to heat up sufficiently to begin pumping heated air through the vents to dissipate the steam from our exhaling breath. I might have said a little after-thought prayer of thankfulness for the blessing of a functioning heater, although if I did I’m not sure that I engaged the thought sufficiently to really direct it to the personal God I claim as the center of my life. I was still too cold to really think about anyone other than the woman whose sensory perceptions register with my consciousness. Then came the question.

“Mommy, when it snows, what do the people without homes do?”

It’s a complicated question, really. There are so many ways to define the homeless, and so many ways to parse the quicksand system of safety net programs, charitable services, informal networks, and personal ingenuity on which the most desperate members of our society depend for shelter. As an “issue” homelessness is something I have studied and professed concern about since college, if not before. For probably close to 20 years I have ranked this at or near the top of the social policy topics that I care about. There was a time when I could have identified exactly where to go to find the nearest shelter or EA hotel*, and could have delivered an impromptu testimony for a state committee about the tragic gaps in the system. I’m a bit rusty after three years out of the country, but I still probably know more than 95 percent of the residents of New Jersey, and I am definitely more knowledgeable than 99 percent of the portion of the state’s residents who have never had to find out for personal reasons.

But none of that knowledge was what my daughter was interested in. She wanted to know about the people. Her six-year old brain had processed the sensations of bitter cold on her skin, and the images of white-blanketed fields and bushes, and she knew something was wrong. No one could possible sleep outside in this kind of weather, so she wanted to know what happened to the people who don’t have homes.

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t really engage her question. Not the way I should have. I talked a little about shelters, but my answers weren’t terribly satisfying so she dropped the subject. And I let it drop. Maybe because a 15 minute drive to school, battling traffic and snow glare, is not really the time to sensitively talk to my 1st grader about a pervasive social evil. Maybe because I just didn’t know what to say. Her question was so real and devastating, and I didn’t have the emotional empathy to respond to it the way it deserved.

I haven’t brought it up again. To be honest, I haven’t even thought about it much until this night. There have certainly been chances. Her class discussions of Dr. King’s legacy in the days surrounding the holiday have captured her imagination. She has spent significant free time reading about his work, watching the library video “Martin’s Big Words”, and engaging me in dialogue on the whole range of issues he fought for, including economic justice. This week her school is collecting canned goods for the local food panty, so we went shopping together on Sunday to pick out our donations, which she is taking in small 2-3 pound batches to class each day (she has a big heart, but scrawny arms). Even the Gigglemonster piped up today on the way home from school, reminding me that some children don’t have enough money to buy clothes, so maybe Mommy should go back to the store where I bought his new monster shirt (his latest pride and joy) and buy monster shirts for all of those children too.

All of this sweet, naïve, wonderful compassion that my children express for the less fortunate makes my heart glow. I must be doing something right as a parent for my relatively sheltered, privileged children to be so empathic about poverty-related deprivations. It’s all very heart-warming.

Until I realize just how cold my heart has grown. The realization came just before we turned off the TV to go to bed tonight. I wasn’t even watching but my ears caught the plug for the instant-win prize pool in the New Jersey Lottery. And my imagination was off. There are 10, count them 10 $1 million cash prizes just a scratch away. What if I bought a lottery ticket for the first time in 18 years? What If I won the million? Imagine what that would mean! We could make a really significant contribution to the kids’ college savings accounts. I wouldn’t have to start looking for a job right away. I could finish my book, maybe write another. Maybe I could do some volunteering.

It took until that step in my internal soliloquy before I realized just how self-absorbed I have become. There was a time, a young, idealistic time, when fantasies of coming into a sudden windfall automatically triggered internal debates about which charities I would prioritize in using my new wealth to do good. Now, I look at money as an escape from the obligation of returning to work in a field that at least tries to make a difference in the war on poverty.

It’s not that I don’t care anymore. I know that. The part of my heart that hasn’t frozen over to concerns beyond my doorstep still cares deeply about poverty, and homelessness, and the intense injustice of systems that give me and my family the opportunity for so much when so many are struggling just to survive. I do care. But I’ve lost faith in the solutions.

The research and policy work I did before we left New Jersey was important, and gripping, and I poured my soul into it … and it didn’t seem to make that much difference.

I stepped away from it for a few years and started listening to the rest of the culture (both America’s and the world’s) that couldn’t care less. I started feeling like nothing will ever change until people’s hearts change. Part of me wants desperately to be a voice that can change those hearts, but then I see how easily their apathy seeps into my own heart, and my hands drop listlessly to my side, unable to pen the words that will kindle the fire.

Is America’s heart really warm enough to care about what happens to people without homes when it snows?  To really care, rather than looking around for the nearest shelter or welfare program that is supposed to deal with that problem for us? If my advocate’s heart can’t ignite at that question from the lips of my own daughter, how can I expect anyone else to shrug off the icy blanket of apathy and start to change?

Part of me wants to stop trying, to relax into the deceptive warmth of hypothermia and gently drift away into my personal American Dream. After all, I don’t HAVE to care. My family is among the privileged, shrinking few.

But my daughter’s warmth is stinging me. My son’s innocent generosity is shaming me. If it’s cold outside it is all the more important that I reignite the flames in my own heart. Or rather, that I seek the spark to ignite them. I can’t do it on my own.

In part that spark comes from my faith, which is always my eternal source: the God who shrugged off the form of godhead to take on “the form of a slave… even human likeness” and suffered every pain to breathe life back into my heart, such a God is the only flame that can thaw an iceberg the size of affluent apathy.

But I also wonder if you wouldn’t mind throwing a stick on the fire. Would you take a minute to inspire me? Recount a story about America’s compassion. Tell me what you are doing to keep out the cold. Give me your reasons for fighting against apathy. Say a prayer for me. Or maybe, by some miracle, tell me that my words made a difference in helping to speed the thaw in your own heart.

I could use some company.

*EA is the shorthand name for Emergency Assistance – a temporary payment for housing costs available (with multiple restrictions and eligibility requirements) to recipients of cash assistance, better known as welfare.