I see him every day. He stands on the corner near the coffee shop, and sometimes people give him their change. On this day, he was inside the coffee shop, counting pennies while the clerk waited to see if he had enough for a cup of coffee. Apparently he didn’t, because moments later I saw him leave with nothing in his hands.
It didn’t seem right, somehow, that this man standing out in the cold could be denied a simple cup of coffee, so I went out and offered him one.
When I came back to my spot at the table, I saw myself as if from outside of myself: an average middle-aged woman wearing a warm leather jacket (thank you, Tanza) and a scarf. Gloves in my bag. Computer on the table, pumpkin spice latte on the side.
A sudden awareness of my relative wealth.
This insight came earlier in the week as well. I was making the bed, putting on the freshly washed flannel sheets, worn from much use. An electric blanket over the top sheet: I like to turn it on before I get in at night so the sheets are already warm. Over that, a fluffy down comforter, a gift from my mother many years ago.
A gift of luxury. The wealth of a place to sleep without the tension of cold and uncertainty. A safety net of family. An awareness of how thin the line can be between someone sleeping on the streets and someone with a bed in a house with a roof.
“There but for the grace of God, go I.” I hear her voice from years ago: a quadriplegic woman I worked for who said this any time we saw someone on the streets, or someone in pain. She was aware of her blessings, and acutely aware that at any time they could be taken away.
Yesterday I was in the library. An old man sat at a table near me, head rolled back in sleep. He snored loudly, and I wondered if it was the only place where he could sleep in safety. A librarian came by and woke him, and said: “I want to let you know you are snoring. You can be here, you can sleep here, but you just can’t snore. That’s the only requirement.” I was grateful he didn’t ask the man to leave.
I am aware, right now, of the luxury of making and enjoying my morning espresso, the warmth of this house, the safety net of family. I am aware of the luxury of this computer with a connection to the internet that allows me to work at home, to connect with people I haven’t met, people who I know but that I rarely see, people with homes and computers and words and pictures.
I am aware, right now, of how easily circumstances can shift, how it could be any one of us out there on the streets. The man in the library, the girl with the bags in the parking lot, the family living in the car… they are all us. We are all in this life together. What do we do?
Sometimes I think we look away not because we don’t care, but because we are overwhelmed. We don’t know how to help. There are so many asking, there is so much need. What difference can our little pittance make, anyway?
Sea otters, I just learned, hold hands while they sleep to keep each other from drifting away.
How often I have wished that someone would reach out their hand and keep me from drifting, and how grateful I have been on the occasions when someone has.
Maybe that’s what matters most. Reaching out, touching. If we connect, if we are willing to look at one another and really see ourselves, if we can look straight into the pain and find the joy in our shared humanity, could it be that all the rest follows from there?
Maybe for today, it is enough to reach out a hand to someone who needs it, and to keep them from drifting away.