This coming weekend is our annual “Girls’ Holiday” weekend where a few of us hunker down with great food and beverages, lots of conversation and laughs, and possibly a few games where we make complete fools of ourselves (that would be Scattagories). All three of my compatriots are wonderful hostesses and I savor the opportunity to give back during this special weekend. My contributions will be Brunswick stew, eggnog, and spicy candied pecans, all from scratch. (I love scratch cooking, but can’t say I’m well-rehearsed in it, so this will be a labor of love). With the combination of everyone’s contributions, we always have more than enough food and drink.
I’ve been grabbing a few things from the grocery store these last two days, as I’m walking by on my way home. It makes carrying it all the way there much more feasible this way. Today, I noticed a woman checking out. I’ve seen her a few times before. She camps out on the sidewalk, close by, with all of her belongings. She is always neatly presented and appropriately dressed for the weather. She keeps all of her belongings covered and protected under a tarp. She wasn’t facing me in the store and I almost walked past her without realizing who she was. When I got closer, I saw her large red suitcase off to the side. Sometimes she leaves her mound of property unattended on the sidewalk, but the red suitcase is always with her, wherever she might be.
She pulled what looked like a credit card out to pay for her groceries. Maybe it was a SNAP card. I often think it must be much more difficult to be homeless now, in a society that no longer uses cash for most, if any, transactions. I never carry cash these days. If I do, it’s because I am planning to hand some off, should I pass someone in need (which I can totally count on happening in DC).
Whenever I cross paths with a homeless individual, I wonder about their lives. Let me be clear, I have zero judgment for anyone in dire straits. Zero. Maybe it’s the storyteller in me. I instantly want to know their spiel, and I conjecture what their lives might look like up to this point, when we find ourselves sharing space, even for a moment. It’s not all that unlike passing strangers in the airport. On the fly, I create an imaginary, abridged version of their life and who they are, and what kind of person they might be.
Everyone has an interesting story, after all.
The petite woman with the red suitcase is in her late sixties. Based on the large volume of her possessions (comparatively speaking in regards to other homeless individuals in DC), and the integrity of her clothing and accessories, I’d guess she is newly homeless. I saw her up close a couple of weeks ago, when I approached her to offer up a fresh sandwich. For a brief moment, without a hint of fear or anger, she looked me in the eye and smiled softly, before shaking her head and turning away.
On that particular day, I tried to give the lunch box, with the sandwich from La Madeleine, to two different homeless women, this woman being one of them. Both women turned me down and I ended up giving the box to our doorman on duty. (After carrying it in my hands for twelve blocks, I was glad someone was happy to have it!)
I think about the homeless a lot. My favorite charity to contribute to is the Capital Area Food Bank for this reason. No one, child or adult, should ever go hungry. Not in this country, anyway.
In my office alone, a lot of catered food comes through for meetings, and eventually, a lot of it gets thrown out because it goes off. I pack up leftovers whenever I can, and store them in the fridge for as long as possible, but it really needs to be redistributed on the day it arrives. Last year, frustrated by the waste, I contacted three local shelters to investigate whether they would be interested in the food. After trying multiple times, I couldn’t get a single person on the phone at any of the shelters. One didn’t have voicemail and the others didn’t call me back anyway. I’m not blaming them at all, I was just surprised. It was evident at least some of our social services were severely understaffed and lacked critical resources.
Tangible proof of “the breakdown in the system.” One person tries to do something positive and proactive for others, while the shelters are also operating for the benefit of others, yet there’s a misfire between the two entities. I’m not sure of the answer.
A couple of months ago I signed up to volunteer for a humane organization. I went to orientation, as did 100 other people.
Can you imagine that? To top it off, they said they already had 1,000 volunteers in the system.
Just like the trappings of “Corporate Yoga,” this experience didn’t feel like the “Charity Volunteering” I thought it would, but more like “Corporate Volunteering.” You had to hit different markers, check the boxes per se, before proceeding to the next level. It thrived on strict sequencing, but at a snail’s pace. It was like a strong, behemoth spaceship with a lot of power and clout, chugging and sputtering along, goose-necking its way through the galaxy.
Ultimately, I decided my time would be more valuable spent elsewhere. As of now, I’m not sure where yet. Lately, I’ve vacillated between feeling the inspiration to contribute more and the old cliché, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Sometimes the effort feels futile.
The individual breakdown of my own system…
Without a doubt, giving feels great. When I get frustrated, I pull back a little in order to reset. I am a typical introvert when it comes to dealing with people. Sometimes I’ve got to pull on the reins and say “woah” before I can move forward again.
I help remedy this period of malaise by focusing my contributions towards individuals, bypassing systems and organizations in the interim. Sometimes I feel that handing a twenty to one person at a time does more for each of them than handing it to a group where it gets absorbed, undetected, into the fold. I know this isn’t necessarily true, but it feels like a practical circumvention to the “red tape” that can plague big, organized groups.
The simple truth is nothing can replace the basic human interaction of looking each other in the eye while offering a small token of care, comfort, or nourishment. It’s who we are as human beings.
And giving is a sure sign that gratitude is a two-way street.