And The Cold
Tonight there is finally a fire murmuring in the wood burning stove downstairs. Even as its flames lengthen and stretch upward the fire is silent, of course, but from upstairs I can feel it growing and shrinking, and I can hear laugher come from that room; it is now where we will gather more often. It has been difficult today to appreciate the warmth of this house, however--knowing so many outside, even our guests who we ask be out of the house from 9 to 4 on weekdays, are without the same comfort. It doesn't feel right--and isn't. During a storm such as this most recent one in Denver, where the temperature has dropped to, currently, 4 degrees, all rules should be tossed aside--all 'reason' should be discarded. The desire to provide 'structure' or 'encourage' seems simply selfish. All should be inside--my comfort is not more important than the comfort of another.
It seems as though all in the house look at each other as if they've survived, surprisingly, and are confused as to whether or not sadness--for others, without shelter--or joy is the appropriate emotion. I am trying to settle into a place of gratitude, remaining aware, in love, of those without warmth, without community, whose suffering must affect my own sense of comfort.
After spending a long weekend with my parents--who visited from New Jersey--I feel as if I’ve taken a long, deep breath. I feel full in body--I was treated to many meals, bought warm sweaters, a thick winter coat--and in spirit, affirmed in what my daily life currently looks like, which is not what many might deem ‘cozy.’ I live with about ten other people, including infants who cry in the morning, couples who argue through the evening, men struggling through depression and physical ailments downstairs--who ask me, ‘Why does God wake me up in the morning?’--new, single moms who turn to me with a crying baby when she needs just a moment to herself--in a house built in 1890 that creeks, begs to be tended to, incessantly maintained, that gets cold and wet in winter. Discomfort crawls through the walls, seeps in each time a new guest is invited in. In comes different experiences of abuse, anxiety, abandonment.
I am renewed after my parents' visit not because my parents wholeheartedly agree with what I am doing. My lifestyle has increased the lines on my mother’s beautiful face. I am living “on the edge,” so to speak--investing into a tiny home that Marcus and I are building, unsure of where it will end up. I am making art, which is not the path to “security.” The word “career” feels strange on my tongue, like the taste of mothballs or the sensation I get when my blood is drawn. Being career oriented is not bad--no, not at all--but I have not identified with one particular career path. I feel as though I could die any day, and so while I am here why not just try to do the many wonderful tasks before me, calling like flowers to be picked.
Most nerve-wracking, as my mom might say, would be my dedication toward taking care of people who are struggling through homelessness as a full-time, non-paid volunteer at this Catholic Worker. It doesn't bother her because she is not a loving, sympathetic person--but, as any other parent, she worries that I am not caring for myself enough. Not planning for my future enough. And perhaps she can sense, seeing Marcus and I together and working together, that this is not a fleeting moment--that future-planning is not our focus--that we will be extending ourselves in this way for a long time (whether or not it is at this Catholic Worker, offering this kind of particular hospitality). Perhaps as she served dinner alongside our assistance on Sunday, she saw that we are ‘good’ at this kind of thing--that as she is filled each time she feeds her growing family--that we are filled by this work. Our shared joy brought he and I together--and that sought shared joy brings with it risk and sacrifice. That discomfort which many would turn from feels true to he and I.
My father--a wonderful teacher and successful real estate broker who is invested in his own kind of community--and my mother--a warm, generous, caregiver to many--had many questions for myself and especially Marcus, who was about to join Anna to lead a class on Non-violence at Regis University--who communicated the many faults within our ‘system,’ a society which does not make it ‘easier for people to be good,’ as Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, might say. Walls between us all came down instead of growing thicker, after many conversations during which space was made for differing opinions to be heard. It was fruitful--doors opened, insight was shared--but I felt exhausted with so much talk about ‘homelessness’. Often, the ‘issue’ seems to turn a person into a subject. The ‘issue’ seems to be all we talk about.
After my parents left, I felt as if a hole had been filled--that uncomfortable space I had refused to enter into for years, where I had to endure questions about our work, our lives. I was good at running from that kind of discomfort. The place where disagreements meet. But as Marcus and I said goodbye to my parents I felt as if they finally ‘saw’ us, and we ‘saw’ them. It was better than affirmation. It was not false, dishonest acceptance. Condescension had gone--something had matured, and now there was something like respect, like understanding. There was growth--there is growth only when there is tension, when we Catholic Workers are not simply flattering each other. Growth doesn't come when we are comfortable.
And, at last, intellectualization about what I am doing and why must be put to rest--I am not seeking a rational life, a life I can explain, a ‘respectable’ life. I only want to live--to be human, to be human with others.
After our house meeting--during which the disagreements within our own community became loud and clear--I headed out that evening in what the news was calling the ‘Arctic’ to care for a beautiful child with whom I have been spending time for the past month. He is blind and autistic, and pays special attention to sounds, even the smallest ones. He squints, a smile growing as he listens to water from his water-bottle trickle down the drain in the kitchen sink. I listen, too. Later I listen to him play the trumpet, as I watch the snow fall outside. My senses come alive, beside his, and my thoughts--thinking--quiet, and there is a kind of harmony in my experience.
On my drive home, as I approached Welton St. and 20th, not far from the Catholic Worker, I see a man, maybe about seventy, lean heavily into a pole. He is covered in snow--it is still coming down, and the temperature is below ten degrees--and icicles had formed on his beard. He seemed too weak to bring his hand to his face, to wipe the water from his face and eyes. I saw him stumble away from the pole and I nearly called to him--would I invite him to the Worker? How would the other guests react? How would my community react? My breath got stuck, something logged, broken--and soon he was down the street. When I got home, I found an empty room and couldn’t stop the swell of a cry. I was angry, sad, terrified for the man--and also grateful for these sensations, the emotions, my human reaction--because it is so simple--relieved, overjoyed that I have not been completely desensitized knowing well the societal, systemic weaknesses of this country, the complexity of homelessness--that people are weak, that people make choices--that one can’t explain or excuse an elderly man, not an 'issue,' outside, alone in a storm--that I can’t solve it, but I can sit in the living room with the others and stoke the fire--that I had been reminded so clearly, painfully that we are made to love and care for one another, and that my life is just as it should be.