I grew up giving to Goodwill, or the Salvation Army. We held rummage sales at our church, and my parents would volunteer, which meant I would volunteer. And yet in my adult life, giving away things seemed more of a selfish act, wanting to clear away clutter or free up space in my closet. If some place wanted my leftovers, they were doing me a service.
One Sunday night, I found myself in a church van, with three other people I had just met, plus our church’s pastor, headed out to the City to hand out blankets, jackets, jeans, socks, underwear, and lunches to the homeless. I didn’t necessarily want to be there. I hadn’t volunteered. My husband had volunteered. Then he got sick and suggested I take his place. I went because it seemed like the right thing to do, especially because they were short handed on a night when most of the country was tucked warmly inside their homes or sports bars rooting for two football teams they had some sort of interest in and watching the most expensive commercials of the year. I, however, had a lifetime of not caring about football, so I had no alibi.
All of the serious reasons I didn’t want to go could really be bundled up into one reason of not wanting to go: I didn’t want to be uncomfortable. The first sign of uncomfort was in the unexpected thoughts this stirred in me of my birth story. I don’t know much, but I was told my birth mother lived on the streets in Costa Rica. I think she already had boys, but I was her first girl. Not wanting her daughter to endure that life, its difficulties and vices, she put me up for adoption. I have managed to compartmentalize most of my feelings on this topic, until recently. I am wondering now if they have been simmering just underneath the fabric of my every day life, and this experience enabled a fissure of escape, but I just can’t be sure. I am forced to accept these emotions are here, stirring in me, giving me uncomfort and pressuring me to look into faces that remind me of a life from which I was saved, faces that could easily have been mine, faces that may be my brothers, my mother.
What I wasn’t expecting, was that our night seemed enveloped in grace. These men and women, having almost nothing, were polite, gracious, thankful. They were seeking just a bit of comfort. They asked first for blankets. We only had four that night, and they went to the first four who asked. We helped these men and women, with what we had, as best we could, locating sizes and colors to suit. The hours leading up to this night were full of personal doubt and dread. The first stop we made erased these feelings entirely and I was finally able to shift my focus towards the service we were sharing.
Why must I always approach a new situation by what it means to me? Why must I fixate on my own feelings of comfort or discomfort and inadequacy instead of pausing to consider the intent of the experience?
Service of this sort seems inevitably tangled between personal feelings and motivators and the actual helping of others. I drove home with images of faces, eyes, hands, all wanting the same thing, seeking to fill a desire for a moment of comfort from a world that, for a wagon wheel of reasons, has led them to this space.
I thought of the men sleep-resting on a sidewalk, taking shelter provided by a building alcove. I talked with a few who were still awake and handed out personal hygiene bags. One man took it and immediately asked for a different one with soap. I thought they all had soap in them. But I looked through my bags and found one with the biggest bar of soap that I could. True joy in his eyes. Immediately I thought of this basic need. How often I wash my hands, the faces of my children, their hands. Take a shower. Wash my clothes. To be stripped of this ability, to the point where when someone hands me a basic needs kit to look first for soap, caused in me a sadness that lingers. I am unable to find a place to put this sadness, to categorize it, so that it can be a “thing I know what to do with,” instead of a “thing that confuses me,” or a “thing that makes me feel guilty,” or a “thing that I ignore.”
When I came home, I washed my hands, my face. I tucked myself into bed beneath my four blankets, the warmth of my husband making up for the slight chill of the sheets. I couldn’t sleep. I felt a glutton of warmth and comfort.
Hours later I woke to cries of my youngest child. I went immediately to his room, scooped him from his crib and just held him, wrapped him in a blanket of fish and turtles made by his Nana. I held him long after his cries went to whimpers and the whimpers back to snores. I slow smelled his hair. I wanted to pause this moment, a moment of true gratitude for this safe, warm place to let my son sleep. Gratitude for a painstakingly uncomfortable choice made by a woman who gave me life, but whom I’ll never meet. A choice that would take me 28 years to understand, and only after holding my own son and feeling both magnitude of love and weight of responsibility for his precious life. Gratitude to be in this exact space at this exact moment and the billions of choices that brought me here.
As I went back to my room, I paused at the top of our stairs, out a window that showed a glistening pavement. I always love when it rains, but this time I felt again that uncategorizable sadness. The first image being of a woman who had done a little sing-song dance of thanks for a weekend of no snow. The second, of a man who had built his bed of cardboard boxes. I thought of how, out of all the jackets we handed out that night, only a handful had any hope of providing shield from the rain that insisted on falling early that morning then persisted throughout the day.
What had started in uncomfortableness was ending in uncomfortableness. And yet, of the two, I will take the latter; the latter having provided me a new context for what matters in service. Giving me the opportunity to disconnect the (un) from comfort. To focus on my (able)ness to give comfort, and to begin to sort through the uncategorizable sadness that lingers.