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Traveling, living, loving, exploring and trying to make some semblance of sense out of this crazy world.  


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

No Translation Possible

"No one chooses to be homeless."

These words are mumbled hurriedly between bites of hot lasagna and fruit salad in the common dining area of the Flagstaff Family Food Center. The speaker is a bearded man somewhere in his late 40s to early 60s... it's hard to tell, under the grime and the weariness and the bright red knit hat he's wearing to complete his ensemble of tweed jacket, blue jeans, and Arizona Diamondbacks sweatshirt. He has entered quietly amid the noise and haste of 150 people chatting, exchanging greetings or farewells in three languages, wringing out wet jackets and clothes and making their way through the food line as volunteers from a local church dish up school lunch trays of nutritious hot food and cups of Gatorade and tea.

I spot Israel in the line and wave a hello to the tall, thin black man, a refugee from Africa, who is in the midst of a two-year vision quest after a decade behind the blue rope, pressing the flesh with the movers and the shakers of California and the nation to start and raise funds for assorted non-profits. A few more familiar faces trickle in out of the still-thundering gloom of the afternoon, as Cindy and I tuck into our meal and listen to our newest encounter.

"A rough night for us all out there." Our guest peers out from under shaggy brows, shaking his head once in a gesture of frustration and sympathy and many, many other emotions that chase each other across his face like storm winds crossing a pond's surface. "Too many of us depended on the wrong things, I guess."

"True," Cindy answers/ "We have to depend on each other."

He nods, but continues as if unaware that she has spoken.

"Jobs, pensions, family, savings plans, religion..." His voice is fading, movement slowing as his eyes fall away through space and time, perhaps back to the edge of the Void into which his own future vanished.

"...tenure..." Silence falls and I exchange a sympathy-filled look with my wife, who squeezes my hand under the table.

I wish I could write to you of what it is to be homeless. Obviously, it is the state of having no fixed address, usually without consent. But there is no possible translation of the concept. Unlike writing about climbing, I'm not covering a topic which some of you may choose to explore or experience on your own. And while most of us know someone who has fallen on hard times, most likely they have a couch to crash on, or a spare room at a relative or friend's house to call their own, even if for just a little while.

But to be truly homeless, to have NO WHERE to go when the storms draw their black curtain across the skies and the lightning seems bent of incinerating every bit of God's Creation and the thunder washes over you like waves in an angry sea, is a concept that many people can only imagine in the same way they imagine elves and unicorns... nothing that is a fact in their own frame of reference. The thought of slowly starving in country with an obesity problem is simply counter to sanity and logic. It is unthinkable that, as churches across the nation send millions in aid and donations to Africa and as millionaires bequeath seven-figure estates for the care and feeding of their pets, families and grandparents and veterans are sleeping in parks and abandoned buildings and run-down cars, going to bed hungry again, tonight, within walking distance of restaurants that throw away hundreds of pounds of food every week and walled communities where the average pet eats better than the homeless in this city.

And yet these are the facts, cold and hard to digest as they may be. This is the reality so many live in and so many more are unable to imagine.

Until three weeks ago, it was my reality.

After spending two weeks at the end of July broke, out of gas, unemployed, living out of a tent and an S10 pickup, slowly starving in southern Colorado, I know the feeling of quiet desperation that is the life of a homeless person. I understand the despair and the anger and the hopeless helplessness, the shame of asking for help from strangers and the humbling of pride that is realizing that you can do nothing to prevent your spouse from sharing your discomfort. I understand these things with my flesh and bones, but there are no colors in my palette to paint them for you, no language that I know capable of translating cold thoughts and prose into intuitive empathy, comprehension and understanding. I can only pound away at ignorance with the blunt instruments of words, hoping against hope that those of you who know me or have come to know me can somehow get a glimpse, through this crack in the wall, of Life on the Other Side.

If only one of you sees, even for the briefest of moments, and if that sight leads you to care, and to act, to ask "What can I do, myself, to help someone DIRECTLY, today?", then the message is not lost.

No one chooses to be sick, or old, or unemployed, or homeless.

But we can choose to make a difference, even a small one, every day.

Last week, I handed a 20 dollar bill out of my first meager paycheck to an angel in an apron, serving dinner and faith and love to the homeless and downtrodden, to alcoholics and junkies, mental patients and families at the Jesus Project Sunday dinner at McKellips School here in Flagstaff. There were any number of things I could have spent that money on... but there was a greater need to pay it back to the people who fed us, who shared hope and joy and a smile when we were down and lost.

This week, Cindy and I volunteered at the same kitchen, spending my one day off working to prepare food for 200, trying to share just a little of our tale and a small measure of hope with so many who hover on the edge of despair and surrender.

Pay it forward. Our government and the leaders of our faith have abandoned us to political expedience and private agendas, big headlines and tax write-offs. All we have is each other, and God. As Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

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