In her book Traveling Mercies, author Annie Lammott wittily asserts that in all the world there are really only two prayers:
"Help me. Help me. Help me."
"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
I think she's right, and I appreciate how these simple words acknowledge the essential impulses that are at the core of everything we do. We are tender towers of flesh moving through a bright, harsh landscape - nearly every day each of us needs some kind of help to do something we want, or get something we need, however small. And when the need is big, and the help comes, the relief and gratitude that floods out of us is as primal and potent as the need was.
Now while I think of myself as a generally compassionate person, I'm not one of those people who go out of their way to help others too often. I mean to be. And sometimes I am - sometimes I actually do get it together to bake a lasagne for my new-parent neighbors, or send a card to an ailing friend even though they're not expecting it. But mostly I do easy things, like take my old clothes to the Goodwill and send small checks to Amnesty International. Mostly I stay safe, and clean, and just think about helping in the bigger, messier ways.
And one of the things that makes giving help so messy is that it exposes you to other people's pain and sadness. If you actually look and listen to another person and truly tune in to their deepest needs, it can be uncomfortable, if not overwhelming. Most of us are only willing to make that dark journey into a few people in our lives - a partner, a sibling, a best friend - and maybe not even then.
Last week, I had an encounter that reminded me how fulfilling the impulse to "help" is not simple or easy. There is a homeless woman in Chiswick, the town I live in. Notably, she is the only homeless person I have ever seen here (except for a male drifter with an aging back-pack who hung around on a corner with his guitar for a week), which seems remarkable for a city neighborhood. She is an almost quintessential figure of a bag lady - 60ish with wild grey hair, completely hunched over, and dressed entirely in black cloth. She wears "shoes" on her swollen feet made of plastic bags, newspaper and rubber bands, and she drags behind her a wheelie-cart loaded down with plastic bags, boxes, bits of paper and string. She is often seen walking up and down certain streets by the tube, but even more commonly, she resides in a secluded bramble-patch at the edge of a parking lot behind my building. In that spot she starts cook-fires, feeds the pigeons, and spends a lot of time screaming. I think she is probably schizophrenic. But I have never seen her bother anyone, or be violent in anyway, or do anything other than hang out alone in the bushes. Intuitively, I think she has chosen to remove herself from society - to go to a place where she can be as she is without really bothering anyone.
I walk through this parking lot nearly everyday on my way to the tube or the shops, and I see this woman at least 3 times a week. When my mom was visiting, we had many conversations about her. I think to my mom, who had just turned 60, this woman was a terrifying figure - a kind of doppelganger of what she could have or possibly still could become if her circumstances shifted for the worse. For me, she was part of the landscape - something I had come to accept as part of the neighborhood, like the brick houses and the tall trees. Here's how some of our conversations went:
Mom: "I can't believe that a town as wealthy as Chiswick can't get it together to help this woman."
Me: "Maybe she doesn't want help. Maybe she's content living as she is."
Mom: "It's obscene that no one does anything for her. She could be any one of us."
Good point. And one that we all know deep down, but easily ignore when we past dirt-encrusted folks with tattered hair and no teeth on the street. "There but for the grace of G-d go I," quickly gives way to "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. That she isn't me."
So I mulled on what my mom had said, and simultaneously I cleaned out my closet. I had an old pair of super-soft slippers that I no longer liked and a working (albeit slightly annoying) umbrella that I was prepared to give to the Charity shops. And then I thought, "Maybe I should give them to the Pigeon Lady. Maybe these slippers would feel good on her feet, and she probably needs an umbrella." And I put these things in a bag, and set them aside, and did nothing for many weeks.
I fantastized sometimes about walking up to this woman and handing her the bag. I tried to imagine the conversation we would have - maybe she would be happy about being approached and we would chat about the weather, the pigeons, the beautiful hyacinths blooming in her bramble patch. Maybe it would be a silent exchange, but I would catch her in the eye for a moment and we would see each other. Maybe she would yell at me and be alarmed by my trying to talk to her. There seemed to be a lot of plausible scenarios, and at the bottom of each was a cold little blob of fear - fear that she would do something to frighten Gabriel if I brought him along, fear that she might curse me or worse attack me, fear that I might not like looking in her eyes and really seeing what her life is like.
So, I did nothing. But I thought about it all the time, especially when I passed her on the street. It became a kind of secret I was keeping - my desire to help and my fear to do anything. Finally, I decided that I would leave the bag with a note for her to discover. I added a box of lovely chocolate cookies to the slippers and umbrella, double-wrapped them so the rain wouldn't get through, got out one of my nicest notecards, wrote her a little letter, and stapled it to the front of bag. Here's what it said:
To the Woman Who Feeds The Pigeons:
I thought these things might be useful to you.
I hope you are well.
I dropped the package off in the bramble patch on a sunny Tuesday morning, pleased that I was finally doing something. Later that morning I passed through the parking lot and saw the woman busy organizing her belongings in the bramble patch, so I knew she had seen my package. At the end of the day, I passed through again, and I noticed what looked like the bag, with the note still attached, sitting on the asphalt beside the bramble patch. There was no sign of the woman. I went over and inspected the bag. Both the bag and the card were unopened. On one side of the envelope, she had scribbled this note back to me:
You are not kind. And you waste your time.
I never take anything from anyone.
Tuesday, June 19th
I was startled. I had not considered this as a possible outcome. I felt embarrassed and caught. I put the bag down and started to cross the parking lot, but then it occurred to me that leaving the bag there might cause her distress, so I picked up the lot and carried it with me to the tube station where I tossed it in the bin. So much for good intentions.
Perhaps my initial instinct about this woman was right - she might be living outside on her own by choice - perhaps as a form of protection against past troubles. She was checked in enough to know the date. Or maybe she was offended by being offered something she hadn't asked for - perhaps she feels completely self-sufficient and my clumsy attempt to "help" made her feel angry because it challenged that sense of autonomy. Perhaps she is paranoid and distrustful of others and doesn't like being approached. There is no way to know for sure - no way except maybe trying to talk to her.
So for now, I'm pondering the experience, letting it sit in my heart, and waiting for inspiration to strike and when/how/if I should try to connect with this woman. If I do anything else, I think I will have to stretch much further out of my comfort zone than I am accustomed to. I will probably have to get a bit messy, a bit involved, and open myself up to the truth of this woman's situation, whatever it is. And I'm not sure if I'm up for that. I might be. On a good day. I'd like to be. We'll see.
Wait and see.
Look before you leap.
What could be simpler.
An entry from Christine Young's Blog: Minkgirl Muses