The air was light in Denver this evening, thin like silk, smoothe enough to slip off of one’s shoulders, the sky a pale purple, the finest raindrops falling here and there, tickling. I sat outside with one of the women—let’s call her Julie—that currently lives here. She needed an ear. While I tried my best to listen, I watched people pass. At once they were like the distracting thoughts I have during meditation. At once they were the light, the ‘third eye,’ during meditation where my focus gently lies, the focal point from where I draw peace, flickering here, then there. The air was so light, the late sun steady, it was as if nothing around us truly existed. We were perhaps floating, our words were perhaps simply sounds we made, strange expressions of the Divine.
When she came home at four, I was by the oven, which I’d packed with potatoes seasoned with thyme, sliced squash doused in olive oil and butter, and honey glazed chicken. I was chopping a fruit salad of apples and peaches—one bowl of this with nuts and dried cranberries, and another with only apples and peaches. Some of our guests have a hard time with nuts, with one or several teeth missing. One of these guests always expresses gratitude when I remember to leave the difficult to chew bits out of salads—though she tells me she could get dentures—because she is missing almost the whole row of bottom teeth—if she wanted to. I just prefer it the way it is, she would say, smiling. She was homeless for ten years before moving into the Catholic Worker (or this is, at least, what we confidently assume). My fiancé—another Catholic Worker worker—and our friend introduced themselves to her just before Christmas of 2012 when they saw her in downtown Denver on a park bench, trying to rest inconspicuously so that she wouldn’t get harassed, potentially ticked by a cop for sleeping outside. I remember the night they invited her to stay in the one of the single woman’s rooms which had been vacant for a few days. The degree had been in the teens, and I was wearing three kinds of thermals, a scarf and a hat, beneath three blankets, when I heard Marcus show her to the room. “Let us know if you need anything,” he said. I felt immediately that her presence, even from my top bunk, the door closed, lights off, was meant to be in our house that night, just across the hall.
Julie nearly ran over to me, my hands covered in peach slime. The oven, at 425 degrees, had given me a headache—and all I had to get done for dinner to be a complete one, as my mother had always made, was worrying me. ‘I missed you!’ she said. I’d only been gone for ten days. Without using my hands, I hugged her back, leaning in with my shoulders. She began crying. ‘I can’t find anywhere, Kristen! I’ve called everywhere! I don’t know what to do!’ Julie has been living at the Denver Catholic Worker for just over a year now, which is an unusually long stay. When she first arrived here—after calling, calling, calling, finally calling on a day when we had an available single woman’s room—she said it was a blessing to have found us. That it was the first time she was homeless, at fifty-years-old. At first, even though she was gracious and upbeat, I had little patience for her, who could be charming, helpful, who has a lovely, buoyant singing voice, but who was also indulgent with flattery, and mothering. The day I met her her expression of gratitude for having been invited to stay was bothersome to me. Maybe it was her joy that bothered me. I was in mourning, still. The way in which the woman who’d stayed in that room before her—let’s call this woman Rachel—had left us was viciously sad. Rachel was a thirty-year old with a heartbreaking mental disability, who was almost always terrified that others were talking about her, who’d shouted when she felt bullied by one or two of our community members, ‘I have a problem inside of me!’ Who loved leopard print fabric. Who collected books. She packed her bags and I helped pile them into a taxi, which would bring her to a cheap motel, where she could live for a few weeks on her disability check, before becoming penniless again. I was feeling low and cynical about what we offer to those who stay here.
Julie has been a wonderful person to have around. She’s caring and affectionate and warm. She has wiry red hair, too dry, it seems from hard years, and soft blue eyes. But beneath a colorful exterior, a bright southern accent and bold, ‘No one will tell me what to do!’ attitude, is a woman in pain. Since moving into the Catholic Worker she’s had several surgeries, two of which fortunately found only cancer-less cells. She’s been fired twice from jobs working as a home aide, due to an inability to physically handle the tasks at hand, and now hobbles around with a cane, due to severe arthritis. Her ankles are swollen and misshapen; her knees, as her doctor has said, are entirely macerated. 'Just mush,’ she says. And she has engaged in abusive relationships, held on for dear life to people who’ve taken advantage of her. The joy that bothered me when my heart still cried for a woman I thought we’d failed is now hard to find on Julie’s familiar, beautiful but tired face.
‘I’ve been tryin’!’ she said, in response to our encouraging her, firmly now, to seek out another place to reside. Her eyes bubbled and water ran down a chapped, pink cheek. I heard secrets. There was anger in my hands when she told me of abuse she’s experienced, of death she’s witnessed; frantically I braided my hair, looking down. A person passed. A neighbor says, ‘Hello,’ unaware. I wanted to fold down into myself until I was no longer there. I couldn’t help Julie; I felt silly and foolish. But instead of dwelling there, burdened by my limitations, I tried to really sit beside her. Simply sit. Sit. I uncurled my spine, opening my heart, my chest, to the woman, to the people passing, to the women who call every hour, looking for somewhere to stay. (“I’m fifty-four,” one woman calling said today, “I have asthma, and cancer.”) I tried to be aware of my own breath, erratic, in and in and in and out—I could still feel myself welling up inside, ballooning, hardening—and I tried to slow down its pace. in… out… in… out.