The folks gathered around the table were in various stages of homelessness. Completely homeless. Transitioning to homeless. Transitioning out of homelessness. With homes and now back to sitting among their friends and just listening and being supportive. There were those of us who can only imagine what it must be like to be homeless. There were men and there were women. We were black and white, and, perhaps, a combination of those two.
The subject of the conversation was gratitude, a fitting topic for the week of Thanksgiving. Each of us took a turn sharing something for which we were thankful. At first, it seemed a little slow-going. But as each person spoke, what was said seemed to illuminate the conversation so that the next person, while initially hesitant, really wanted to share. As we went around the circle, little light bulbs came on so that when it might have been time to stop the conversation, everyone wanted to go around again, each expressing a new thing or a new person for which they desired to express their gratitude.
There were the usual things you would expect from anyone in a discussion like that – family and friends. But these folks were thankful for those things most of us take for granted. “I was thankful to wake up this morning.” “I’m thankful for this warm jacket.” “I’m grateful that I just got a job and we’re moving into a townhouse the first of the month.”
That last one was a woman. In a later chat, I discovered that she and her husband had “fallen on hard times” several months ago. Both of them had lost their jobs. They couldn’t make rent and she stood on the street and watched as all of their belongings – their bed, their clothing, their food – were set out on the street. Within an hour, it had been snatched up by people looking to furnish their own places. All of their worldly possessions except the clothes on their backs and their cat who had been with them for 10 years. They had to surrender the cat, too, because they couldn’t support it without a place to live. They took it to a shelter where it was frightened and those in charge determined it was “feral” so they destroyed it. The woman lovingly showed me a short video of a beautiful white and black cat padding around on the bed and chatting away with her owner. Little did the two of them know it would be the last video they would share together.
So she’s been living at the Good Samaritan Center by night. They accept women only. He’s been sleeping in their car. Temperatures have dropped this week and they have no sleeping bag in which he can stay warm.
Did I mention their 6-month-old baby? I thought not. The child is staying with grandparents and gets to see her mom and dad whenever they can get to her to spend a few minutes.
This is the woman who just landed a job last week. Her husband has a job now too. They’ve been saving enough money to make the deposit on the townhome and it will all come together on December 1.
That doesn’t mean their troubles are over. They have no furniture, no bed, no clothing, no food. They do have everything they need to care for their baby.
“I can’t believe some of the people here have been homeless for so long,” she said. “It is so hard. I guess we had to get to the bottom before we could start climbing back out, but I have never stopped climbing. It’s been awful.”
Over the weekend, I was surprised by the posting on Facebook by a friend of mine – a friend of close to 50 years. He is someone I respect and love and I’ve admired all he has accomplished in his life. I’ve acquired a new appreciation for art based on pictures he has posted, copies of great artists’ work. I read almost everything he posts although I will admit that as my newsfeed was so full during the political season I did not read all of the stories reflecting his passion for his preferred presidential candidate. I figured that was all right. He had made his impression on me about his position and I thought that’s what his aim might be.
But I was surprised by this post because he was asking his Facebook friends to “unfriend” him if we didn’t meet a list of criteria. There must have been 10 or 12 items in the inventory. With many of those I found myself in agreement. Some I did not. It felt like it was a litmus test to see if all of us measured up to his expectations of what a friend should be.
This didn’t sound l like the guy I’ve known for most of my life. In high school we were taught to be respectful of one another’s differences. We learned how to debate with good nature about this idea or that. But this list was a categorical prerequisite to already existing friendships.
I tried contacting him to see how serious he was about this. I told him I would never “unfriend” someone over political differences, but I also told him I agreed with much of what he said.
It became clear to me that while I felt he should unfriend me rather than the other way around (we haven’t talked about any of our differences of positions or ideas concerning the election), I also decided that I would, sadly, comply with his request to terminate our relationship. To remain on his list of friends would leave the impression that I did, indeed, agree with everything in the litmus test. I refuse to be part of a groupthink.
For several days I have felt deeply saddened.
Until I heard yet another story of another homeless person who was seeking a better life for herself, her husband and her child; whose eyes welled up with tears at the loss of not only her stuff and her lodging, but the surrendering of her family pet; who has been unable to be a real mom to her infant child.
There are, after all, things in this world that are more important than making certain our friends are all in agreement with our thinking.
Another friend of mine posted this thought yesterday from Albert Einstein: “A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the full measure I have received and am still receiving.”
I am deeply grateful for my friends both new and old and I do mourn those friendships that have come to an end. But I also agree with Einstein that everything about me – my inner self and my outward self – is a product of the gifts of friendship and many kindnesses and perhaps some upsets along the way.
I am grateful for this homeless woman who had nothing to offer me but her story. I am grateful for the long friendship of a man whose appreciation of art reawakened and fed my own.
My story with her is just beginning. I thought my story with him had come to an end. If I were forced to make a choice between the two, I was going to choose her. What a wonderful bounty for Thanksgiving she has given me – and with only her story.
But just now – just now – I received a tender communique from my long-time friend asserting his love for me and citing how difficult this election was for him. He said his posting was not for his “true friends” like me, but for those Facebook acquaintances that had “unsettled” him. We’re friends again!
That’s a Thanksgiving blessing. A new friend who is homeless and a friend of 50 years who has fed my heart and soul for that long and whose friendship has been renewed.
Einstein is right. I must exert myself to give in full measure all that has been given me.
All Lands Summoned to Praise God
A Psalm of thanksgiving.
1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.