Story Time

When you stop to think about it, it is an amazing stroke of fate that any of us is here.  We are each so unique.  The chance of someone just like any of us existing has got to be close to zero, less likely than the chance of winning the Mega Millions (which, by the way, is now up to $253 million here in California).

It is no wonder that, in recent years, there has been an uptick in interest in genealogy.  It is hard not to be curious about exactly where you came from, how you ended up being you.  I hear so many stories of regret that parents and grandparents didn’t write their memoirs, didn’t take time to tell us more of their stories.  As if it were their responsibilities to do so!  Most of us could have learned many of these stories, if only we had taken a genuine interest, had taken the time to ask.

I particularly enjoyed Rachel Mankowitz’s blog today, in which she describes her efforts to start a memoir-writing workshop for interested members of the elderly congregation of her synagogue.  All those incredible stories, just waiting to come out and see the light of day.  For many, this could be the last chance to avoid having those stories lost forever.  But life gets in the way, and things like bridge club and winter flight to warm weather refuge in Florida took precedence.  Unfortunately, Rachel’s class dwindled week to week, until only she and her mother remained.

I don’t know what it is that makes us think that our stories aren’t important, or at least not as important as other things we could be doing.  Each of us has a unique voice, and perhaps we think no one is interested in hearing it because, well, no one bothered to ask before, and now, so late in the game, well, why does it matter?

But it does matter.  Family stories are precious, for what happened to those before us played a part in making us what we are now.  So I hope my niece tells her little daughter stories that her grandmother told her about how her mother was a child in Oklahoma whose family came west to work in California’s agriculture industry.  And stories about sisters’ boyfriends and misleading a guy in the army with another girl’s photo — the crazy, amazing stuff of fate.

As for myself, I know I wouldn’t be here if my grandmother hadn’t, as a young woman, overheard a conversation on a train in central Europe, a story about going to America that convinced her to do the same thing herself.  And that I wouldn’t be here had she stuck with her resolve not to marry my grandfather, a decision made in steerage while violently ill during a tempestuous Atlantic crossing.  (When she arrived at Ellis Island, she found that she had to marry him after all in order to have a sponsor, without which immigration officials would have shipped her right back to Europe.)

I thought about family stories today while on the phone with my mother.  She started telling me about how, when she was first married, my father was in the Air Force in southern New Jersey and hitchhiked home to New York City on the weekends.  During the week, my mother attended college and lived back at home, sleeping on a fold-out bed in the living room of her parents’ one-bedroom apartment.  My parents wanted an apartment in which to spend the weekends together (they played tennis and went to the movies, I’m told), but the only one they could find that was affordable was on the other side of the city, reachable only by several changes of buses and subways.  Fortunately, the college was close to her parents’ apartment.

The newlyweds’ weekend getaway was in an apartment building filled with very poor people of diverse cultures and ages.  My mother regaled me with stories of toddlers running out into the hallway naked and of the elderly couple living right above them (apparently the wife killed the husband, possibly by hitting him over the head with an alarm clock).

You’ve got to love it!  I feel honored to know about how my parents began their lives together in the 1950s.

In a restaurant last night, my wife and I found ourselves seated behind a talkative gentleman.  He was telling stories to the hapless server, who couldn’t find a way to politely tell him that, um, she had work to do?  When the server finally extricated herself from his clutches, the guy began chatting up the elderly couple sitting across the aisle.  He asked the old man whether he was in the war, and when he answered in the affirmative, shook his hand and thanked him for serving our country.  Then he told the old couple that they so reminded him of his parents, at which point the guy became teary-eyed.  He ended up buying them dessert.  We found the whole thing to be a touching scene.

Here was a man who not only was eager to tell his own stories, but appreciated the richness of life related in the stories of others.

Please, go tell your story to someone you love.  Do it today.

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Eliminating Homelessness is Possible

I would like to take a moment to sincerely thank Shannon of Dirt ‘N Kids and Janon for their kind and insightful comments on last week’s post about paths toward ending homelessness and Utah’s successes in this regard.

I can summarize my thoughts on your responses in three general statements:

  • Yes, it’s all about money.
  • It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.
  • You have to start somewhere.

Yes, it’s all about money.

Some say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.  I would add “poverty” to that short list.  As a man who unabashedly worships God, I think of the following Bible verse:  “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you:  Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”  Deut. 15:11 (JPS)  The dual lessons here are:

  1. There is no such thing as “eliminating homelessness,” despite the appeal of the phrase as a sound bite. Even if it is possible to assure that those who are taken off the streets are provided with homes for the remainder of their lives, there will always be more individuals and families who will fall into homelessness due to the effects of the economy, mental illness and substance abuse.
  2. As homelessness is an ongoing issue, beating it back will require ongoing infusions of money. Even if we were collectively committed to ensuring that everyone has a roof over his or her head, that commitment must continue among those who come after us or we will quickly find ourselves right back where we started.  The Biblical command to “open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” is an edict for all time.

Shannon, you are right to be concerned about taxes and utilities.  These are part and parcel of the costs of housing and must be covered by the public-private partnership that secured the house, apartment or single occupancy unit in the first place, as was done in Utah.  In terms of taxes, essentially the municipality must be willing to forgo the income that could otherwise have been collected on these units.  The loss of revenue is but a tiny fraction of the public funds that would have been expended on the individuals involved had they remained homeless.

You also ask about rules for sharing with others, medical requirements, hygiene and general cleanliness.  While all of these concerns make perfect sense to me, in the big picture none of them matter.  The philosophy in Utah is that when the keys are handed over, the newly homed individual essentially has free reign.  The home is treated as a gift of unconditional love, no strings attached.  The result of this is that there were a few cases in which the residence was totally destroyed and/or the beneficiary violated the law and ended up in custody.  This is why, in Salt Lake City, some of the homeless who were unlikely to be able to live successfully in an unsupervised environment were sheltered in single occupancy rooms in a location where they can be checked up on daily and where critical mental health and substance abuse prevention services are available on site.  As to the extremely rare cases in which the residence was trashed, I read that the individual was provided needed services and then given yet another home.  While the agape love nature of such actions is delightful to see, those are the situations that make everyone nervous due to the very real potential for negative press and public backlash that could bring the entire endeavor tumbling down like a house of cards.  Each time something like that comes up is a moment of collective breath holding accompanied by hope that the public realizes that, as the Jackson 5 sang back in the days of my youth, “one bad apple don’t spoil the whole wide world.”

Finally, Shannon, you asked about food.  This was handled in a number of different ways, and I regret that your wonderful idea of a community garden was never mentioned in the articles I read (I am definitely a fan of your “lasagna” worm fertilization technique).  Some of the newly homed are receiving job training and job search assistance in an effort to get them back onto their feet financially.  Many others were helped to apply for Food Stamps.  Finally, in some locations, such as the single room occupancy facilities, the local food bank made regular deliveries to the residents.

Janon, you incisively point out that “a Housing First program in a large city would require a large line item in the city’s budget directly associated with the program, and it will always be a target for cuts.”  As I mentioned above, the difference between a temporary fix and a permanent solution will be whether those who come after us remain committed to the same goals and are willing to fund them.  Ironically, when times are bad and programs are slashed to accommodate the shrinking public fisc, that is exactly when an increasing number of people are in danger of becoming homeless if homes are not provided.  This is why layers upon layers of protection are needed, not unlike Shannon’s worm composting program.  Housing First must be a joint effort of federal, state and municipal governments, religious organizations (like Loaves and Fishes here in Sacramento) and private philanthropy.  Like an extended family in which various members step in to help in different roles depending on what is required at the moment, each of these parts must be willing to step up when another falters.

It is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.

Last week, I wrote about Henry and a few of the other homeless people with whom we have recently had contact in this area.  They all have stories to tell, although not all of them are willing (or able) to tell those stories.  They all had mothers and fathers once; few were born homeless.  Homelessness, like so many things, exists at the intersection of chance and choice.  Many homeless individuals never really had a chance, having suffered through horrible childhoods and turbulent adolescences that saw them tossed out to the vagaries of the four winds at an early age.  I am fond of noting that mental illness seems inevitable among the homeless, including those who weren’t mentally ill when they first hit the streets.  A few years of being assaulted, arrested, robbed, starved, exposed to the elements and subject to the disdain of nearly everyone would be enough to catapult nearly anyone into abyss of mental illness.

As I pointed out in my post about Henry, rapidly gobbling down any food that comes your way is a common behavioral pattern among the homeless.  If you haven’t eaten in a while, I can’t reasonably expect you to observe Emily Post table manners and to say grace before chowing down.  If you don’t eat it all immediately, it will likely be stolen from you.  And, as if that weren’t enough, competing with you in your panhandling endeavors are those who are no more homeless than I am, but choose to take advantage of the opportunity to engage in a bit of fakery to see whether they can get something for nothing.  For those of us who would help the homeless, we are left with the difficulty of distinguishing between the truly homeless and the charlatans.  If we don’t want to “go there,” we can simply help anyone who asks (within the extent of our resources) without making judgment, or, more commonly, can resort to averting our eyes and helping no one.

The latter option is perennially tempting to government, as the cost of social services staff and programs to determine who is “deserving” of assistance can run nearly as much as providing that assistance does.  And when it comes to local governments, state legislatures and, yes, Congress, deciding whom to help, there are always Tea Party Republicans and naysayers back home in the district to provide ample chastisement about the waste of public funds.  After all, how appealing is it to spend money on an intractable problem?  Tomorrow, there will be more people who need to be helped, even apart from those “just looking for a handout.”

This is why it is imperative that those whom we elect to serve us remember that it is a mistake to think of human suffering in terms of abstractions.  Those of us who care need to write and call our legislators and testify before legislative and Congressional committees to let our representatives know that we are not blind to the suffering that is occurring all around us.  While we are limited as to what we can do as individuals, together we can move mountains.  Ending homelessness is not an election campaign issue or a line item in a budget.  It is forging a path through the rhetoric to put roofs over the heads of our neighbors who freeze, burn and are soaked from sleeping outdoors and show up at hospitals with hypothermia and pneumonia.  These are the people who are routinely abused, assaulted and killed as if they were some kind of trash rather than someone’s son, daughter, mother, father.

The biggest mistake of all is thinking that it can’t happen to you.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

You have to start somewhere.

The jaded among us say that every public program, every act of generosity done by a church or an individual, is flawed (and likely motivated by some hidden agenda, as well).  Some of the “undeserving” will be the beneficiaries of our largesse along with those who are “truly deserving.”  This line of thinking is rather sad.  Those of us who attempt to walk in the path of God know that every act of kindness is perfect.  As your mother told you when you were little, it truly is the thought that counts.

While we’re on mothers, another thing that they like to say is “little kids have little problems and big kids have big problems.”  As Janon astutely points out, the same is true of municipalities.  It is a lot easier for a state with a relatively small population, such as Utah, to erase homelessness than it is for a more a populous place to do so.  I was recently pleased to read that Medicine Hat, Alberta is the first city in Canada to eliminate homelessness.  Then again, Wikipedia tells me that Medicine Hat has a population of just 61,180.  This is a far cry from such populous places as Los Angeles and California.  (On a side note, one might think that Canada, with its socialist-oriented policies, would not have much homelessness.  Anyone who reads Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, on a regular basis knows that this is anything but true.)

One thing to consider is economies of scale.  First, large scale operations cost considerably less to operate on a per capita basis than smaller operations do.  Second, populous cities and states have larger tax bases than less populous places do.  There are more businesses and more people paying property and income taxes.  Generally, there are more churches and other charitable organizations in the area.  And hopefully, there are more philanthropic minded individuals available to assist than there would be in a more rural or remote area.

In places like California, where there are so many in need, the scope of the problem may seem insurmountable.  Providing housing for all of our homeless may seem an impossible dream.  Fortunately, Housing First is a big dream that is turning into reality.  However, it takes time, it takes resources and it takes commitment.  It can’t be done alone or by just a few, and it can’t be done in a day.  It takes the collective will.

We will never be able to convince all the naysayers that housing the homeless is a just cause, and we will always contend with competing priorities for limited resources.  But that doesn’t give us license to sit on our rears, turn the other way and do nothing.  We have to start somewhere.

As the Talmud teaches us, “whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”

Hope

It is difficult to write passionately about a cause, regardless of how much it might mean to you, when you cannot honestly write about it in the first person.

I have written dozens of posts about unemployment, railing about the stupidity of Congress and the plight of those who have been economically sidelined and will likely never work again.  But I did this while on my own gut-wrenching, year-long odyssey of job hunting after being laid off from the state court system.  I was able to give my readers the down low about nearly collapsing after standing in line in the sun for three hours to obtain USDA surplus canned goods, about telling my life story to the Salvation Army lady, about the indignity of applying for Food Stamps.

The same is true of my experiences in going vegan.  I couldn’t reasonably expect anyone to put stock in a thing I said about the virtues of veganism if I hadn’t committed to it personally.  I didn’t do this all at once; I played with the idea for bit before realizing that it is the only ethical food choice in today’s world.  Yes, being a vegan can be a big fat pain in the ass when you are the oddball among carnivores, but at least I can tell you all about it firsthand.

When it comes to homelessness, however, things are a bit different.  I have never been homeless myself, although I’ve come close a couple of times.  I’ve had to rely on family for a roof over my head on more than one occasion, and I can see why some find living on the street preferable.  I can empathize, to some extent, with a friend in Georgia who spent some months sleeping behind a bush in a downtown business district because she was flat broke and it was the only way she could leave her abusive boyfriend.  She can speak about homelessness with a conviction that I cannot.  No matter how many stories I relate about the desperate of Sacramento, it’s necessarily a second hand story.

There are a lot of us who are perennially a paycheck or two away from homelessness and who would rather not talk about it out loud for fear of waking up to find that the nightmare has become real.  But there are others who own a home and a car, have no mortgage and have sufficient savings to get by on for virtually as long as necessary.  More than a few of these individuals are in Congress and in the state legislature.  It is difficult to convince someone of the dire necessity to do something about homelessness when they themselves are highly unlikely to ever find themselves living on the streets.

Those folks may tell you that they earned everything they have, that they got to where they’re at by dint of hard work and good decisions.  While some have succeeded by drawing themselves up out of poverty, many more at the top of the economic heap arrived there largely by having chosen their parents well.  Would that we all could have been such smart babies.

Fortunately, a desire to alleviate a particular type of suffering does not require that we experience that suffering personally.  So what can anyone of us really do to help the homeless?  Surely we’re not going to risk bringing them into our own homes?

To those of the Christian faith, I say WWJD.

But I am also aware of the realities of the world in which we live.  I’ve been hearing stories about a good Samaritan who stopped to help a homeless man a few weeks ago, just a couple of miles from here.  I am told she was murdered, her throat slit by the person she hoped to help.

So I get it when we drive by the guy with the sign, keeping our eyes on the road.  I get it when we walk by the panhandler, keeping our heads down and being careful not to make eye contact.  Perhaps we are disgusted with the situation and know that we can never hope to do enough personally to make a significant difference.  Perhaps we are ashamed that we lack the courage to make the first move.  Perhaps we believe that “these people” have done this to themselves and are responsible for their own bad decisions.  They made their bed, now they have to lie in it.  Or perhaps we just fear for our personal safety when we have no idea whether this “beggar” may be crazy and violent.

For years, I’ve read about how Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., directly across the street from the White House, is a veritable drug supermarket and a haven for crack addicts.  While I am aware of the drug problem in our nation’s capital, it wasn’t until this week that I learned the extent of the homelessness situation there.  The Washington Post recently reported that the city’s metropolitan area has 11,623 homeless people crouching over heating grates, staying in dangerous overnight shelters, sleeping in little encampments under bridges.  This figure was arrived at as the result of a PIT (point in time) count conducted on the night of January 28, during the coldest part of Washington’s winter.  I don’t know about you, but at least to me, eleven thousand seems an awfully large number of people to be shivering in the cold without roofs over their heads.  And in some other parts of the country (and the world), it’s even worse.

The highest rates of homelessness in the United States are in Florida and right here in California.  The Sunshine and Golden States are the only two states of the Union to have the distinction of hosting a homeless population exceeding 6% of all residents.  Perhaps some of this has to do with California’s sheer size; after all, nearly one in ten Americans live here.  Then there is the reality that, at least in the southern portions of Florida and California, the weather is warm enough year-round that one who is forced to live al fresco has a fairly good chance of not freezing to death the week before Christmas.  Out here, the stories are legion about folks who arrive here by bus, thinking they’ll manage to survive on the beach in San Diego.  As if we didn’t have enough homegrown homelessness.  Really, who can afford to live in San Diego?  Or Los Angeles?  Or San Francisco?

There is no need for despair, however.  There is hope.

Thanks to a program (or a philosophy, depending on one’s viewpoint) known as Housing First, the state of Utah has succeeded in virtually eliminating homelessness.  The secret of Utah’s success is right there in the program’s name.  Housing first, then worry about things like drug rehab, mental health assistance, job training.  Utah started by taking the most intractable, most seemingly hopeless cases off the streets of Salt Lake City by handing them the keys to an apartment, a house or a single room occupancy community residence.  The SROs were for those who needed health and welfare checks on a nearly daily basis, with services available right in the same building.  Some of those who were newly homed had been on the streets for twenty years or more.  All of them were offered, but not forced to accept, free counseling, health care, job training and food.

The idea is that it is next to impossible to succeed at something as hard as kicking drugs, getting one’s mental illness under control or finding a job when you don’t have a stable address, a reliable place to take a shower or the assurance that you have a bed in which to get a good night’s sleep.  Utah removed the morality from the situation.  Instead of sitting in judgment upon the homeless and their poor choices, they simply gave them keys.

In other words, the way to end homelessness is to give people homes.

And to give people hope.

I encourage you to check out the link above and read about how Utah managed to achieve such an accomplishment.  It wasn’t easy.  It took a consortium of public and private resources.  It took building new apartments when the available housing stock was depleted.  And it didn’t happen by itself.  It took commitment, those in power saying “yes, we’re going to do this.”

It wasn’t done by taking neighborhood homeless people into our own homes; it was done by giving them their own homes.  It wasn’t done by buying fast food for hungry people holding signs at Wal-Mart or the McDonald’s drive-through.  It wasn’t done by means of token shows of caring.  It was done by collective will.

I feel confident that if providing homes to the homeless worked in Utah, we can also make it work right here in California.

Anyone with me?

Henry and the Guy with Two Signs and the Pregnant Woman and the Old Man with the Dog

I think his name is Henry.  I’m not really sure because he has a speech disability and I found him quite difficult to understand.

We met him standing by the side of the drive-through lane at one of the local McDonald’s.  My wife had a headache and wanted a Coke and, you know, Mickey D’s has drinks for a dollar these days.

We asked him if he wanted something to eat and he said yes.  So along with my wife’s Coke, we ordered Henry a cheeseburger and fries and a soda.  He expressed his gratitude in no uncertain terms.

At the drive-through window, my wife asked the young clerk with the headset whether the people that hung around outside McD’s were really homeless or just beggars.  “Probably a little of both,” he opined.

When we drove by again a few minutes later, Henry was still there.  The food was gone and the wrappers were discarded on the ground.  The guy must have inhaled his meal.  It may have been a while since he had eaten, or perhaps instantaneous consumption is the only bulwark against competing homeless people stealing what little you have.

I felt as if someone should chastise Henry about littering, but I suppose where one’s trash is deposited falls low in priority when one’s belly is empty.  Moreover, my wife and I realized that the man is almost certainly developmentally disabled.

A little while later, while exiting the Wal-Mart parking lot, we saw a gentleman with one cardboard sign propped against his backpack (“I am really hungry”) while he held another (“I am really thirsty” in large lettering, with a small notation “anything but alcohol”).  I suppose he believed that he would be deemed more worthy of charity if he made it clear that he wasn’t just hoping for a beer.

Then there was last night.  On the way home from my job in downtown Sacramento, we pulled off the freeway to use the rest room in a fast food restaurant.  Two homeless people, an old man and a young woman, were hanging out near the door.  The woman was wearing a vertically striped outfit that reminded me of an umpire.  She kept tugging up her low rider pants that gave the world a clear view of her butt crack.  My wife pointed out that she was pregnant.

The old guy had a scruffy little dog as a companion, tied to a small pile of possessions by a red leash.  I couldn’t help thinking that it was bad enough to be born a dog, much less to end up the canine pal of a homeless person.  As often as I hear derogatory comments about homeless people having pets when they can’t even feed themselves, as the first drops of rain began to fall I realized that loneliness does not discriminate based on economic need or social station.  We all need a friend.

My good and kindhearted wife pointed out that we should drive back around to ask the man and the woman whether they needed something to eat.  But they were gone, perhaps to seek shelter from the impending storm, just another in a long line of storms that had already permeated their lives.

As we headed home, we heard a clap of thunder and spied a distant flash of lightning before the sky opened up in a torrential downpour, so desperately needed by the parched crops here in drought-ravaged central California.  Hurrying the short distance into the house, I was well and truly drenched.

As I stripped off my soaked clothes and pulled on a warm pair of sweats, I wondered where the pregnant woman and the old geezer with the dog would spend the night.

And I wondered what their names are and how long they’ve been living outdoors and who their mothers and fathers were.

It seems a crime to throw away people as if they were worthless, as if they had no ability to contribute to society, no ability to love and be loved.  As if they were no more than paper wrappers discarded from hastily devoured cheeseburgers.

At least if I see Henry again, I’ll be able to address him by name.

On Gratitude and Striving, from Coast to Coast

Back when I was young and oblivious (as opposed to now, when I am old and oblivious) and living in the suburbs of New York City, I was friendly with a young couple who celebrated being bicoastal by prominently displaying a framed poster in their kitchen.  You’ve probably seen the one to which I refer:  One half is “New York” with an image of the Statue of Liberty, while the other half is “California” with an image of a palm tree.  Both images stand tall and proud, almost as if reaching out to each other in a gesture of friendship.

This July will mark twenty years since I defected from the Lady Liberty side to the palm tree side.  When I jumped ship, about all I really knew about living in California is that I’d have an easier time being a vegetarian here (Avodadoes!  Sourdough bread!  Tofu sandwiches!) and that there would be plenty of work for me in Silicon Valley’s tech industry.  I was mostly wrong on the first count and horribly, disastrously wrong on the second count.

Like many New Yorkers, I saw California as the golden land of opportunity, filled with sunshine and the chance to reinvent yourself into anything you wanted to be.  (Sadly, not so for most of us.)  I also had the idea that California would be more laid back than stodgy, hung-up New York.  This last one actually turned out to have some basis in fact.

Take the state mottoes of California and New York, for example.  California proudly displays “eureka” on its state shield, a Greek word proclaiming “I have found it!”  New York, on the other hand, chose “excelsior,” Latin for “ever upward.”  Thus, New York stands for constantly striving, while California believes it can relax because it has already arrived.  One might even generalize that New Yorkers constantly work toward achieving “more and better,” while laid-back Californians are satisfied and content with what they have.

With this in mind, I am forced to admit that you can take the boy out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the boy.  As my wife is quick to point out, I always want more and am never fully satisfied with anything.  For this I do not apologize.  As Shakespeare famously put it, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Nevertheless, I am grateful for those who are perfectly satisfied with exactly what they have.  More opportunity for me!

This is not to say that I am ungrateful for the gifts that I have been given.  In prayer each day, I recognize how good God has been to me and I thank Him for His blessings.  Unlike many, I don’t believe that gratitude and striving are mutually exclusive.  I greatly appreciate what I have, but that doesn’t mean I am going to sit on it and say “oh, I don’t need any more.”

Growing up, I was taught that ingratitude was one of the worst sins of which a kid could be accused.  It was an ironclad rule that you must sincerely thank anyone who gave you anything, regardless of how little you thought of the gift.  This was supposed to be part of the socialization process, a rule that existed to enable you to be thought of as a “good kid” rather than a “spoiled rotten brat.”  I am so glad that no one ever tried to give me a rotting, stinky fish filled with  maggots, because I would have had to thank the giver for his or her incredible generosity.

These days, when I find myself on the other side of the dynamic, I try to stop and remind myself of how ridiculous it is to impose my own values on others.  For example, it seems I am always running into people who love to gripe about their jobs.  My knee jerk reaction is to think “how ungrateful!”  But then I stop and remember that just because I am so grateful for my own job doesn’t mean that I should expect others to feel similarly about theirs.  Half the time I bite my tongue to avoid encouraging them to quit and give me the opportunity that they would so willingly throw away.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

I feel the same way about those who seem to take a perverse joy in complaining about the shortcomings of their kids and how hard it is to put up with them.  Most of the time, I just smile rather than seem pathetic by admitting what I’d do for a kid of my own.  Sure, I feel as if they should be grateful for what they can’t see as a gift, but there I go again, imposing my own values on others.  It is wrong for me to charge them with ingratitude when I haven’t walked a mile in their moccasins.  In their place, I might very well feel the same way.

I have come to realize that tolerance is the key.  Don’t think I lack appreciation for what I have because I always strive for more, and I won’t fault you for lacking gratitude for your own gifts.

Lessons Learned from Children While Waiting on Hold

On the phone at work today, I found myself stuck on hold for nearly half an hour with a social service agency in a county about 300 miles away.  What surprised me was the recorded message that played over and over.  Actually, it was quite cleverly done.  But what I heard sent a chill up my spine.

The recording consisted of the voices of children, both girls and boys, of various ages, many of them extremely young.  One by one, they told their stories in a single sentence each:

“I am not a punching bag.”

“I need a place to call home.”

“I can’t reach my potential without you.”

“I am not a toy.”

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

And finally, the voice of a three year old.

“I need you.”

My eyes began to tear up, so I turned to face the window.  Um, you know, men just aren’t supposed to do that, and particularly not at work.

I felt like an idiot.  There I was feeling put upon because I had to sit on hold (and was getting paid for it), while just out of sight were children in desperate need of families, whose entire lives had been placed on hold, often for years.

For a very long time I had thought about adopting or becoming a foster parent.  Something always got in the way, however.  Either I was living in a tiny one bedroom apartment or I was working a zillion hours or I was with a woman who had no interest whatever in children.  Then the inevitable happened:  I got old and disabilities caught up with me, effectively eliminating any possibility of bringing a child into my life.

But dreams don’t fade away so easily.  They die hard.  So before I could close the cover on this particular book, I managed to convince myself to become a mentor with the Big Brothers program.  This was quite a few years ago, when we were living in Fresno in California’s Central Valley.  I was matched to a teenager who, despite multiple disabilities, managed to live a full and vibrant life.  This young man’s mental and emotional issues frequently threw me for a loop; he had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident at the age of two.  We usually got together for a few hours on the weekend and I never really knew what he would come up with.  We went out for breakfast or lunch (his favorite was Hometown Buffet, where he could eat me under the table), went to the movies, went to the video arcade, played board or computer games.  He taught me Dungeons and Dragons; I taught him Scrabble.

More than anything else, my friend taught me patience.  He used a hearing aid and was unable to gauge the volume of his own voice.  This could create embarrassing situations in quiet places like bookstores or movie theaters.  He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and would regale me with his endless takes on theology and his beloved science fiction, often combining the two seamlessly.  He wanted to look at the porno room at the video store (and was disappointed when I wouldn’t let him in there) and, on a number of occasions, asked me questions that, um, I had to suggest that he redirect to his mother.  He never had a father.

I know perfectly well that I wasn’t much of a male role model for that year, but I guess it was better than nothing.  That’s the funny thing about kids:  They don’t judge you.  They just take you as they are.  They are appreciative of whatever time and attention you are able to give them.

They don’t care that you’re not perfect, because to them, you’re perfectly fine.  Somehow they don’t see your dents, your creases, your insecurities, your creaking bones.  They’re just glad that they mean enough to you that you keep showing up.  So you do.  Even when you don’t particularly feel like it.  Even when you want to sleep late because it’s Sunday and you were out at a party the night before.  Even when you just don’t want to deal with it today.

You get in your car.  And you go.  And you see his smile when you pull up to the place he and his mother call home in a dilapidated trailer park.

Then he gets in the car and you have to remind him to buckle up because he’s blurting out a joke that he’s been waiting three days to tell you.  It’s not even very funny, but he starts laughing uproariously and then you feel a smile slowly creep over your face and then you’re laughing too because your health problems and your messes at work and your money woes all fade away in an instant.

And you wonder who has given the gift to whom.

Oh, and by the way, they’re waiting for you.  Right now.  Boys and girls who need you desperately.

Call your county or city social service agency today.  Adopt.  Be a foster parent.  Be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

“I need you.”