It’s the Holiday Season
Still, the snow falls. It’s been coming down, on and off and on again, for a couple weeks now. Usually, I welcome this fluffy white matter which makes everything quiet, which forces us to be still, to curl into each other. Exposing all secrets. But it’s been harder to simply enjoy the snow, knowing many fall asleep under bridges, in alleys, and don’t wake up. I remember a man named Hubert who knocked on our door last winter; he watched our eleven year year old Audrey sing “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” and clapped. He grinned. He was old and mentally challenged and ate some pasta and noodles fell out of his mouth as he told me that the night before he slept behind a dumpster, but that tonight he was worried he wouldn’t make it to morning.
But on Christmas evening I asked Marcus to make snow angels out front with me. Lying in the snow, staring up, everything is lost. Suddenly the sound of my own breath lulls me; the warmth of my body melts the ice, creating a pocket in which, when I close my eyes, I can disappear. I sigh, sinking and thank the moon, up there, unmoving, soft and wise.
Ah, but one cannot remain in that pocket forever, where all is steady. Safe. There is the light rail, just ahead, coming this way, blinking its lights; there is Beer, Marcus's dog, barking, running across the street—he was hit by a car once before I knew him, runs with a leg of metal. There are people inside the house who are seeking me out, who stare at me until our eyes meet, long enough to know, not just by sight, but by a blue warmth somewhere between the ribs, that, yes, there is someone looking back at them. “Hi, Michelle,” I finally say.
Being cooped up in this house for the holidays--we’ve had many ‘in’ days, since Christmas Eve, when guests have not been asked to leave from nine to four as usual because of the wet cold--has been a hard gift to receive. Hibernation for most of us in today’s funny world is as scary a prospect as blatant failure, when we are unable to achieve much, confined to the alarmingly stale air of our little rooms, confined to who we are at present, confined to what is. Joy to the world, the Lord has come--but joy was a butterfly I could only catch glimpses of, let alone hold in my hand. There was no escaping the sounds of a toddler crying next door with a respiratory infection; there was no cooing him. There was no telling the parents to do it better, to be fine, healed, to be in love and better--to tell myself what I wanted to want to--that all is well. All is perfect.--because I didn’t believe it. “Merry Christmas, Michelle,” someone might say, to which she might reply, “There’s nothing merry about it.” Even walled off from others, in my room again, there was no denying the strange, subtle--sometimes blistering sounds of fear and frustration felt in the other rooms--the sounds of gratitude, the vast silence of a house when all fifteen living in it are suddenly hushed, either in a state of solitude or in isolation. I would go downstairs for water and someone sitting in the dining room would stare at me, waiting for me to look back. Once upstairs, my door closed--slammed?--I’d curse myself for being unable to look back. Was it still snowing? A perpetual nighttime. Could I sleep through it all? This muck of winter. Who’s screaming? In my floating room, sitting on my bed, I’d look up, off, away. The piercing, snaking moan of an old light fixture trying to stay awake became the lingering, sharp pain in my ear, where a nurse at Walgreens once poked with something cold and metal and said, “This is going to hurt.”
I should be better than this; it’s Christmas. Suspicious and slothful and self-pitying--but where there is darkness there soon will be light or someone has said. Trust Me.
It was the longest day of the year, and I read this poem aloud to our community during our solstice gathering, thinking about grace.
They’re brown, like twigs.
They seem still. And stuck.
Broken. But my knuckles are raisons; they carry
The blood of Christ.
Worms, with mouths open.
If you don’t look closely, you’d never see them move.
If you don’t look closely.
But they do live—they cry, they drink. They round, they cup.
And with them I explore the back of your neck—
the shell of you that wants to crack.
My fingers, never ending, the lines in a leaf, the breath.
And I will hold you.
Below is an essay I wrote on Hubert one year ago.
It was almost time to lock up, near ten p.m, when there was a knock on the door of the Catholic Worker. Trent had set up a fire--it had just begun to bloom--and we were settled, both reading, in the living room.
It is rare that someone comes to the door at night. It is rare that unexpected guests come to the door at all. Thirty-five years old, the Denver Catholic Worker has earned its respect, and most know that usually we are a full house and that we like to keep the atmosphere calm and familiar for the residing guests.
I was reminded by a glance outside that the snow had formed a soft white pillow atop Denver’s concrete. But for others this sudden drop in temperature—not much higher than zero—has made life much more difficult, if survivable, for those without shelter.
‘We have no room in the house right now,’ Trent was telling the presence outside. I got up and walked to the kitchen, afraid of the reality that this was someone kind, someone sober, someone incapable of working, someone I couldn’t blame for his or her own fate (it is an ever present challenge not to do so). From down the hall, I saw the back of only my friend, Trent’s head bow forward—I couldn’t see who stood before him. ‘I’m sorry,’ Trent said, and asked the person if he or she’d like some food. As I turned toward the kitchen to warm up some leftovers, I heard a voice; it was a mangled, woeful slur, neither intimidating nor intoxicated, but a voice of confusion, of fear. He’d just come from the hospital, and he was dizzy and weak.
He came inside and sat near the fire. He put his hands out toward it, and I watched his long dry fingers outstretch. ‘It’s nice,’ he said. His hair was gray, and I realized the main reason for his speech impediment. He didn’t have teeth. ‘Do you guys drink coffee here?’ he asked. ‘Not at night,’ I said, ‘but I can make you some tea.’ ‘With sugar?’ he said and smiled.
Hubert was from New Jersey, like me, and came to Denver to be near his cousin, who’d promised he could share his housing with Hubert. But this cousin, who wound up unable to fulfill that promise, also tried to steal Hubert’s Disability Income. Hubert seemed unsure as to where the money was exactly—at one point he seemed to say it was with his father, down south. But based on his appearance—perhaps he was in his seventies—I’d assume that Hubert’s father might not still be around. He seemed to me not much different from a lost child, someone who’s been lost, looking for a safe place, for a lifetime. Still, instead of acquiring a cold shell, there was a softness about him, something naïve and gentle. His vulnerability alarmed me.
‘Where did you sleep last night?’ I asked, as I flipped through our winter shelter resource book. Trent was in the office calling shelter after shelter, which only offered him the same we’d offered Hubert: ‘Sorry, we’re full.’ Hubert answered my question, eyes big, gratefully holding the hot cup of tea close as he took a sip. But his answer was unintelligible. Hesitantly, I asked him again. ‘I slept in an alley. Behind a dumpster. It was real cold.’ He frowned and with his thin fingers carefully took the tea bag from the mug and placed it into his bag to reuse at another time. ‘Do you want some more tea bags?’ I said, and he said, ‘Yes, yes, please!’
I nodded and excused myself. I called a few more places, most of them were closed. I refused to believe that the only option for Hubert, a mentally challenged man in his seventies, with tuberculosis, was to sleep atop ice with only one blanket.
I invited Hubert into the dining room and gave him some steaming pasta. One of our other guests—an eleven year old who has brought so much joy into our house with her talents in song, dance and comedy—came in and asked me if I would be attending her school play. (Earlier, when Hubert first arrived, she’d grabbed me by the elbow and asked, ‘Who is he? Is he homeless?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, and instead of shrinking away, she gave me a hug.) ‘Want to hear what I’ll be singing?’ she said, and Hubert looked up at her and smiled. She began, ‘I don’t want a lot for Christmas…’ While Hubert ate, she continued to sing, dance, twirl. There was no apparent hesitancy in her to be loving towards this stranger. It was common sense. She gave me another squeeze, and went upstairs.
‘Have you stayed at any shelters recently?’ I asked Hubert. ‘The Mission. But I don’t like it there. It’s dangerous! People are real mean. They pick on me.’
‘What about trying to retrieve your Disability? What about St. Francis Center. Have you been there?’ He shook his head, remembering. ‘I can’t go there for two more days,’ he said, ‘but that’s only two days.’ He looked hopeful and tried to eat another spoonful of food. ‘I had to use the bathroom real bad, see? And the line was so long, like an hour, and I didn’t want to have an accident in my pants, and so I left and went outside and found a private spot behind a house. Apparently, a lady at St. Francis saw me.’
I pressed on: ‘Is there any way you could see a social worker to regain access to your Disability?’ He shook his head and repeated the telling of the St. Francis incident. He was confused and tired and stuck in a time and place that no longer was. I wanted to shake him, tell him, ‘Even if we find you a place tonight, you probably won’t have anywhere to go tomorrow!’
After exploring all shelter options, Trent called the non-emergency number for the Denver Police Station, explained our new friend’s situation and about thirty minutes later a policeman arrived to take Hubert to a motel. We gave Hubert an extra coat, scarf and gloves, some sandwiches and plenty of teabags and greeted the officer at the door. ‘Okay, show me some I.D,’ he said to Hubert, without taking a moment to look at the old man’s scared face. Hubert put his bags on the ground and began to ruffle through them. His hat fell off, the plastic forks and bananas we’d piled into it fell out of one of the bags. I ran to get some more things and when I returned the officer was walking back from his car. ‘Well, the system says you don’t exist,’ he barked up at Hubert. I supposed Hubert, unable to locate his ID promptly, gave the officer his name. ‘So, unless you can find your I.D you’re out of luck.’
Finally, bent over searching frantically, Hubert stood up with his I.D. ‘Okay,’ the policeman said, ‘Let’s get you to a warm bed.’