Magnum Opus

“I’m Trash,”
she says,
“or whatever you want to call me.”
In the Kroger parking lot
in January
she wears pajama pants and flip-flops.
She asks for money.
She says she’ll
clean windows
but can’t offer her regular services
because she has an infection.

He wears a white turban made of blankets
and a puffy ski jacket
no matter the season.
He’s always in the same places,
walking up and down
next to the road
staring at cars,
never speaking,
never walking on the path
with all the other walkers and joggers.
Instead,
he travels parallel,
ten feet away,
to keep either others or himself
safe.

Ten minutes into the church service,
a man in dirty jeans,
carrying garbage bags full of belongings
sits in the third pew.
A large, graying man in a suit
hands him a hymnal.
He holds it away from his chest
as if unsure how to use it.
But when the soprano soloist
takes the stage,
he raises his arms
making small motions
from his fingertips
in the air,
conducting her voice,
his own personal symphony.

The Haitian

I can’t understand
most of his
jumbled words –
between his
French-Caribbean accent
and unavoidable mental illness,
his sentences all mush together.
But they are still lovely.

At first, I admire
his words –
like freshly born animals,
they are wobbly when they walk,
still slick with afterbirth,
eyes still closed.
Each time I ask a question
with a simple answer,
he has a monologue prepared
to go along with
his demographic information.

He pulls faded pictures of children,
who are now fully grown,
out of an old leather briefcase
and tells me where
all three of them live:
New York, Chicago, Houston.

Eventually,
I’m exhausted
by his relentless storytelling.
I interrupt his run-on sentences
with the questions
of my case work.
Where did you stay last night?
Do you have a history of substance abuse?
How much income are you receiving monthly?

With each question,
I see him return
to himself,
as though he were
previously unaware
of his own voice,
just a moment ago
echoing off the concrete walls.

Look for the Helpers

It’s been a difficult week.  Nationally, there is fear about what Justice Kennedy’s retirement will mean for the future of SCOTUS.  ICE continues to separate parents and children.  Personally, I’ve seen some overwhelming and  difficult things, as I do often working in a social service agency.  When I look at these broken parts, all I can see is that we are failing to take care of each other.

Our country claims to be a place with a government that is “for the people, by the people,” but right now that couldn’t seem farther from the truth.  Our government is failing to take care of its most vulnerable citizens.  What’s more, their lack of assistance is touted in the name of Christianity – a religion that espouses care for the poor and marginalized in both Old and New Testaments.  It’s no wonder the Church is dying when its mouthpieces refuse compassion.

On Tuesday of this week, I started the morning by calling EMS for a man who suffers from seizures and was also experiencing alcohol withdrawal.  He spent the night at the hospital and came back the next day to our agency, having received minimal care for his ongoing issues because of his lack of insurance and income.  A few hours later on Tuesday, my coworkers and I bore witness to something terrible.  A man drove a white sedan up the street from our agency, parked it on the side of the road and got out.  He walked across the street, directly in front of our agency to the steps of the Georgia Capitol building.  He doused himself in gasoline and set off rounds of fireworks on his person, causing his whole body to burst into flames.

His name is John Michael Watts and he’s an Air Force veteran from outside of Atlanta.  He was so angry by the lack of care he had received from the VA and was suffering so greatly that he saw no other option but to light himself on fire in front of a government building.  Mr. Watts is still alive, but in the hospital in critical condition with burns of at least 85% of his body.  This is not the image of a nation that cares for its citizens.

States away, children have been taken from their parents who came to our country seeking asylum.  Their countries of origin were so frightening that the best option seemed to be to travel miles with minimal supplies, hoping to be accepted at their destination.  Their children are now alone in a strange country, some of them so young that it is impossible for them to understand what is going on.  Some are infants, still being breastfed, who were forcibly taken from their mothers. While our government has promised to reunite these families, the logistics of doing so seem nearly impossible, with hardly any way to know if the right children are being returned to the correct families.  We are failing to care for those who aren’t our citizens yet, but would like to be.

Every day at my job, I see others who experience the constant failures of a system built for their destruction. Lack of healthcare and affordable housing are some of the biggest problems.  Many of them have physical disabilities, injuries, amputations, chronic health issues, and mental health problems that make it impossible for them to hold regular jobs.  Being on the street exacerbates their health problems, and they fall deeper into the hole of homelessness.  What little money they do have access to is in danger of disappearing.  Benefits like food stamps and welfare are being threatened.  We are failing to care for those who have no option but to rely on the assistance of our government to stay alive.

I am tired of bearing witness to these tragedies.  Lately, I’ve often felt hopeless about changing these broken systems.  My heart breaks over and over for people like John Michael Watts, Marco Antonio Munoz, and the faces I see every day at work.

This past weekend, though, I saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a documentary about Mr. Rogers.  Toward the end of the movie, Mr. Rogers cited his famous quote about tragedy , and tears filled my eyes.

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

People took to this quote after 9/11, after recent shootings which are too many to name, and after Hurricane Harvey, among other disasters.  It is associated with so many difficult moments for me, that to hear Mr. Rogers finally say it out loud was breathtaking.  It reminded me that this is why I come to work each day.  I want to be a helper.  I don’t always do it well, but I’m out here trying.

We are the helpers.  Whether we are holding protest signs, soup ladles, or the hands of another, we are the helpers.  Being a helper also means taking care of ourselves, even in the most simple ways.  Mourn.  Grieve.  Feel the heavy pain of it to free yourself to provide hope.  Rest.  Be present in your body.  Clad yourself for the fight ahead.

We are here, and we are many.  Be the helpers.

Becoming Minimalist

I have always been a “just in case” type of person.  My dad taught me this.  If you go camping with me, I have bandaids, stomach medicine, a pocket knife, and an emergency water purifier.  When I go to protests, I bring bandanas and a small jug of milk in case of tear gas.  I’m a stellar bridesmaid because I bring a make up bag that has everything from a Tide-to-go pen to bobby pins.  This might seem like a lovely quality but, in reality, my desire to be prepared for all situations stems from anxiety.  There is no need to fear the unknown if I am prepared for all situations.  But it is impossible to be prepared for all situations.  I have experienced plenty of things that I was not prepared for – sexual assault, the loss of my mother, failing relationships – and I have a feeling that with each personal tragedy I’ve steeled myself to be more prepared “next time.”  My emotional and physical arsenal of “just in case” items has become too large.

For upwards of five years, I’ve wanted to shrink what I own.  When I entered seminary, I had the goal of getting rid of an item each time I bought a new one so that I wouldn’t amass any more volume, but rather simply rotate out the things that no longer served me.  I didn’t stick to this resolution, but I also didn’t have much room to grow.  My first apartment in Atlanta was shared with two other people and two cats.  My current apartment is a whopping 500 square feet and is also shared with two cats, so you can probably see the issue here.  I do not have the luxury of space in which to keep my “just in case” mentality.  I barely fit what I own into the space to begin with, so I do not have much room to grow my possessions.

Perhaps the most influencing factor in my transition toward minimalism is that I work with people experiencing homelessness.  Every day I see people who are carrying everything they own in a backpack while I come to work concerned if I’m wearing the same shoes more than two days in a row.  My daily encounters with people who have nothing have taught me two things about my own scarcity mentality: first, that it is possible to survive on much less than what I have and, second, that I have more than enough.  Each time there is a special event, I do not need to buy a new dress.  When I can’t find a sweater in my closet that looks like the one I saw my friend wearing, I don’t need to buy a new one.  It is possible to be content with the things I have because what I have is more than enough.

This past week I participated in the #winter10x10 challenge hosted by Instagram influencers Caroline Joy Rector and Lee Vosburgh.  The guidelines of the challenge were to select ten items from your existing wardrobe including clothing and shoes (but not including accessories, undergarments, and coats) and create ten different outfits out of these items over ten days.  I was a little bit terrified of committing to the challenge, which felt ridiculous considering that I see people every day who have been wearing the same clothes for weeks, but I was.  I not only survived and enjoyed the challenge.  (Find me on Instagram at @meowitsbrenna to see my outfits!) It also served as a catalyst for me to finally begin the process of becoming more minimalist in what I own, keep, and buy.

I started with my clothing.  As per suggestions I found on Pinterest, I made four piles of my clothing: 1. Things I love that fit me well and I wear often.  2. Things I like but don’t wear much or don’t fit me as well as they should.  3. Things I want to give away.  4.  Things to trash.  Using this process, I cut my wardrobe nearly in half.  I expected to feel uneasy and anxious (what if I needed one of the things I gave away “just in case”?), but instead I felt liberated.  I felt organized.  I felt at peace.  To ease the process, I put pile two away in a container under my bed.  If I don’t look for or miss any of these items over the next three months, they’ll go in the give away pile too.

I now have three bags of clothing to sell and giveaway in my trunk and a newly organized room.  I was afraid to take this leap because of my anxieties about preparedness, disaster, and scarcity.  However, if I can grow to accept that I cannot be prepared for all situations, I allow myself to live with only what I need as well as learn to be a more spontaneous person.  If you know me well, you know that I like to have a plan.  I’m not the type of person who just “wings it” and “rolls with the punches.”  Everything is written down, prepared in advance, and has a place.  But I’m learning that things can come together even when I am not properly prepared and that they can fall apart even when I am.  Having a closet full of clothing that I only wear a third of does not protect me from pain.  But getting rid of things that no longer serve me can both allow me to let go and meet the needs of others who really are experiencing disaster.  I plan to go through everything I own over the next few months, getting rid of things I haven’t touched in years, and hopefully also shedding some of my own pain and anxiety about the unexpected.