She stood on the corner with her sign, stationed under a traffic light.
Tattered cardboard in hand, boots that didn’t fit her unlaced on her feet, clothes that were swimming on her thin frame, she was looking down and sometimes glancing at the people in cars who ignored her.
I was coming from dropping my son off with his welding mentor, looking for a place to spend the 3 hours he would weld, and honestly, wishing I could go home and nap instead. I have been feeling so overwhelmed lately, and saddened by so many things happening around the world.
Today, the inability to turn off my brain combined with a lack of sleep and resulted in a massive headache that made me feel sorry for myself. And still feeling helpless that I couldn’t do anything for those in Syria, and Tulsa, and the endless list of things that are wrong in the world and invade my thoughts. There is too much to be done and no logical way to approach both the obligations of our every day life and the systemic changes we must work for. There feels like no way to stop the killing of People of Color, no way to help the refugees suffering so greatly as they try to escape war, no way to stop Climate Change.
I watched the woman, wondering what had brought her to this corner, not just today but in life.
Then, I realized that I knew her.
When I owned my retail store, she would come in with her daughters — all of them round and cheerful, and she would share with me her stories of their antics. She was a homeschooling parent and a knitter and we shared ideas and she showed off her latest knitting projects. She delighted in her daughters’ craft projects, and I marveled at her creativity and the ideas she had for their elaborate birthday celebrations.
After a few years , she stopped coming to the store. Something had changed. Her look was different, she was thinner. Too much thinner. She’d given up her Dead Head clothes for more of hipster look, cool boots and vintage jackets, her kids no longer in tow when I saw her. She and her husband divorced and the kids lived with him, although no one knew quite what had happened. She no longer said hello when I saw her, and once, I saw her get out of a car, angry and slamming the door.
Today, when I saw her, it was clear that substances are an issue. She’d cut off her long dreads and her skin was gray and ashy. Her eyes darted back and forth while she shook as if it were freezing cold on this 85 degree day. Her legs looked swollen, retaining water and pushing against pants that, based on the rest of her frame, should have been much too big for her. She looked both stiff and jittery.
I parked the car, my heart beating a bit faster as if I was nervous for some unknown reason.
I went into the coffee shop and without thinking too much about it, bought whatever I thought might give her some nutrients, trying to honor that she was once vegetarian and might still be.
I walked across the mini-highway to the median, seeing the people in cars watch me and wondering when someone like her gets to the point of not noticing their stares, or if that ever happens.
I was increasingly nervous, but I didn’t know why.
She looked up as I got close.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” I said, “I used to own a store…” And she was already nodding.
“I remember you,” she said with almost a smile. Her smile was still beautiful. It always was.
“I drove by and saw you here and I went to get you some food and water and a smoothie. I don’t know if you eat these things,” I said and held out the bag.
She shook, badly, as she opened the bag of food. Her fingernails were ripped and dirty.
“I eat ALL of these things,” she said, and she smiled at me for real.
She took the water out immediately and drank half of the bottle before digging back in to look at the food.
We talked for a few minutes, and I did my best not to get in the way of her sign so passing cars could stop. And occasionally one did, handling rumpled bills out of the car window, to which she would nod and say “God Bless.”
We made conversation, both of us awkward because there was no way to acknowledge the strangeness of this moment. How do you have small talk when nothing in her life is small?
At the end, when there was no more unsmall talk to have, I said “I’m sorry to see that times have been hard,” wondering if I should reach out and touch her shoulder but sensing that it would have been crossing a line.
She nodded and mentioned her divorce. “You have everything you think you’ve ever wanted in your life, and then one day, everything is gone. Just gone.” She didn’t mention the drugs, but I’m not naive, and I’m sure she knew that.
“You walked all the way over here,” she said, although the actual distance couldn’t have been more than a few hundred feet from the comfort of an expensive coffee to her spot under a left-turn sign, in the blistering sun.
“Thank you for walking out here to me.”
“It was the least I could do,” I said, because that was true.
For me, it took nothing to buy some food, and walk across a 6-lane road to stand with her for a few moments while strangers watched us. But what does it take for her to do this every day? What does it take for her to live her life?
It takes much more than it will ever take for me to walk to the median.
Is her life going to change from a bag of snacks? No. But for this one day, she will have something healthy in her body, and she knows that someone recognized her personhood, even as a now homeless woman stuck in a place in her life I can’t comprehend.
The world feels so hard right now, but maybe if we do one thing every day that recognizes someone else’s humanity, we can make it a little less hard.
What more should I have done? I don’t know. I know she has family in the area, because her mother was one of my customers too, but I wasn’t comfortable giving her money.
Is that an act of judgment on my part? I don’t know. Maybe. But I did what I could at the moment.
The question is what happens now, and I can’t know that for her.
But maybe what I can know for me is that I can commit to the same kind of recognition of all those who are ignored. To commit to walking over there, in whatever way feels right.
Maybe if we ALL do that, things will feel less tragic and urgent and hard right now.
I don’t know what the way to recognize another’s humanity or to make change is, although I hope it’s clear that I’m not talking about white savior mentality.
I’m not saying that we do these things to make ourselves feel like good people, because today wasn’t about me. It was about the instinct we should all cultivate within ourselves to reach OUT instead of folding in, something that feels all too easy right now. I don’t want to internalize a Trump-like wall in my heart, trying to keep things out because life is scary. I’m tired of feeling exhausted and stressed and scared about the world and I want to connect to the world.
I know that I will commit to continuing to reach out. Maybe it means something big, volunteering or donating, but I think it also means the small things. It means connection when we are being taught to be afraid.
That might mean walking to the struggling woman standing in the median, but maybe it means smiling at the woman sitting at a nearby table in her hijab, also working on her computer, or finally adding the diversity and inclusion statement I’ve been wanting to put on my website.
I know it’s hard to be brave, but for me, it’s time to stop being frightened, and to start walking across that highway.