I often write on Saturdays about sitting comfortably on pillows with my coffee. I think because these are the days when I realize I am one of the small percentage of people in the world that has that sort of comfort and luxury. I have time to think about the week and revel in the luxury of time.
Just yesterday I walked past a bruised woman, sprawled on the street, trying to look into people’s eyes and beg for spare change. She is a regular fixture on the street, just part of the scenery along with store fronts, fruit stands, and vendors selling t-shirts. I’ve had interactions with her before. One time I threw away her shoes, because I thought she wanted them thrown away, only to be screamed at in colorful language (who first termed swear words as colorful in writing anyway??) “Bring me back those %$&#@ shoes!” Thankfully I was able to retrieve them and an unlikely relationship is developing, when she is sober enough to remember me. I turned back after she shouted “Am I invisible?” toward some people walking the other way. As I went back she threw up her hands and said “You mean I’m not invisible?” I laughed “No – you’re not invisible. You’re quite loud!” She laughed too, thanked me for the change and went back to shouting after people. Another reality check from the city!
I don’t know much about the homeless. It is my daughter Stefanie, a passionate advocate, who has been able to help me understand a bit more about this complicated issue and I plan to have her do a post for me soon. But I think a lot of us know about feeling invisible – as though people look through, not at us. Sometimes, like the homeless woman, we may long to shout out “Am I invisible?”. We feel as if we are insignificant, like ants busy going about their business in the ant world, but stepped on easily by others.
Sitting here, with time to contemplate, I am aware that though I may feel invisible to much of the world around me, I have a Maker and Creator intimately aware of my needs and longing to be a visible presence in my life. To Him, we are fully visible, fully worthy, fully loved.
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?~ Matthew 6:26
“It’s 8:30 am and I’m a kind of drunk and I want you!” were the words sung to me at Central Square, Cambridge. The truth is – It was 7:30, he was drunk, and he didn’t want me! But it brought laughter to my heart and I realize how much I love my colorful neighborhood.
While Harvard Square is full of intellectuals of all ages, brain cells abounding with funky stores,coffee shops, and Out of Town News – Central Square is hardcore life. It is dirtier and grittier with a cross-section of people that defies any stereotype. Recent and older immigrants speaking everything from Amharic and Arabic to Portuguese and Punjabi; every age from infants in strollers to the elderly heading to a community center or the library around the corner; and the sassiest and saltiest homeless people you will ever meet, all converge in Central Square.
If you don’t give money, the homeless population have no problem escorting you to the nearest ATM or looking you up and down with derision and the comment “That’s ok! What goes around comes around!” and you are left feeling cursed.
Maybe the reason I feel so at home in this neighborhood as opposed to Harvard Square with its sophisticated milieu and Kendall Square filled with Geeky MIT students and biotech engineers is that I feel like I am a cross-section of worlds and people. The suburbs stifled me as I felt the need to fit in with beautiful homes and more beautiful people, never quite measuring up to what I perceived as the unspoken expectation. My past of both Pakistan and Egypt didn’t seem important in the suburbs, but in Central Square it feels like my background belongs. Central Square welcomes me with its imperfection and honesty. There is the ability to feel fully alive and authentic, even as I am serenaded by intoxication at 7:30 am.
With burnt orange, brick-red, electric lime, and hot magenta all mixed together in one place, Central square is like a box of crayons that are primary colors – no pastel pinks, light blues, or pale yellows in sight.
For the past 6 years I have worked as a public health nurse in state government, promoting health access and prevention in under-served communities. There is a rule in state government; unspoken but implicitly understood: The ‘60 Minutes‘ rule. If anything you’re doing could end up on 60 minutes then you may want to reconsider the wisdom of the activity. The last thing the state wants is a front page news article on questionable activities of one of their employees.
This crossed my mind last week as I walked to the subway heading home from work. It was mid-week, cold, and I was reasonably excited to get home. The area where I work is in a fairly congested part of Boston. While no comparison to larger metropolitan areas, for the city of Boston this stretch is busy and densely populated. Located right on the Freedom Trail, 2 blocks from Boston Common and one block from the historic King’s Chapel the area sees a variety of colorful personalities daily. Dark-suited white-collar bankers get coffee along side construction workers. Students of all ages from all over the world bump into ever-present tourists with vague lost looks on their faces, and always the homeless. No one really thinks about it – the homeless are just there, like guards at every street corner, carrying cups for spare change.
As I quickly walked, dodging people and vendors, there in the middle of the sidewalk was a woman who’s back was to me. She was small and thin with long hair, greying both from age and circumstance. A sign hung from her shoulders down her back, the words “Hungry, Homeless, Diabetic, Neuropathy” written in large red magic marker. I passed by thinking about something far more pressing in my world and at the end of the sidewalk stopped. I suddenly realized what I had witnessed and ignored. Her legs were black from disease, open sores showing above a bandaged area, she was shaking in the cold, and we were all pretty much avoiding her. No lets change that: I was pretty much avoiding her.
The ’60 Minutes’ story flashed through my brain:
“Nurse travels 10,000 miles to help flood victims in Pakistan but ignores homeless woman on doorstep”.
It was a distressing headline to see, it was even worse when it went from my head to my heart. How was I going to defend my actions and my apathy when faced with a headline that damning?
The end of the story is that I did go back – I wish it hadn’t taken the egotistical fear of being publicly caught and shamed. I’m hopeful that next time it won’t. “Truly what you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did unto me”.