30 December 2010

Mad World

I have always been uncomfortable with anger. It's not an emotion that I often feel (except, historically and mysteriously, with both of my brothers). When things don't go the way I wanted, or when something dangerous is closely evaded, or when someone tricks me, or when I am denied something I desire, I feel disappointed, relieved, embarrassed, or frustrated. My reaction to these feelings is usually a strangely mis-fitting pleasant attitude, an even-keel calm, some distracting humor... but rarely anger.

So, door slamming, raised voices, shaking fists and red faces were always frightful and foreign to me because I didn't understand them, and didn't know how to interpret them, accept them, or respond to them. This difficulty was amplified in my employment, where I had to sort through the meaning and motivation of being swore at, stormed out upon, and glared into the ground. I didn't take it personally, and wasn't hurt by it; if anything, I was baffled and amused. But my amusement was not constructive or helpful, so for the past 3 years, I have been observing and interpreting anger in order to react to it well, and respond to it helpfully. Today's observation brought a particularly helpful amount of understanding.

Pamela was the first person in front of my office this morning at 8 AM, with 3 tired children and an apathetic boyfriend. She immediately stated her demands (none of which I could meet (at least right away)), and towed her crew into my office with a slammed door, a raised voice, a shaking fist, and a red face. I watched with a strangely mis-fitting pleasant attitude and even-keel calm (trying to suppress my humor reflex), as she yelled at me the injustice of my inadequacies. I could see pretty clearly that it was not the lack of a 30-day Bus Pass that was boiling inside of her, but the disappointment, the embarrassment, and the frustration of a mother who felt unable to take care of her kids; a woman who was being mentally abandoned by the man who was her greatest sense of comfort and support; the child of a mother who belittled her for her dependency, even if it was temporary.

I began to understand that anger appears stronger than embarrassment or defeat. Anger is powerful, not vulnerable.

Pamela is angry because her and her 3 kids are staying in an emergency shelter, and are shooed out during the day into the elements with no transportation. She's angry because she doesn't have anywhere to go. She's angry because her boyfriend is going to leave and go back to his mama's house in Benton Harbor. She's angry because she just wants to play with her kids, to take care of them, to be able to get what she needs, to be secure, to know what will happen tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and to be able to put down her bags in a place where they won't get stolen, and feel like her kids are safe even when she is not holding all of their hands, and cook the way she loves to, and relax her muscles, and slow her mind, but she can't. So when her boyfriend leads the kids back to the waiting room and closes the door behind him...
... she lays her head on the desk and weeps.

23 December 2010

A Thrill of Hope

Mario always reminds me that he is not an artist, he is an artisan. He is a 60-year-old cancer patient at St. Mary's who lives down the street from my office, and continually supplies it with new art for it's walls. Often, he will visit me to make long-distance calls to his family who own a flower shop on the other side of the state ("Our last name means 'Beautiful Flower' in Italian," he reminds me), and each time, he brings something shockingly original.

Currently, I have a framed tissue paper collage, his pastel self-portrait (complete with a pair of real, lens-less glasses stuck onto the paper), a brick with crayon-wax-dipped sandwich skewers mimicking a bouquet, and a metallic Christmas "wreath" made from permanent marker-colored parts of a grill. The guy is astoundingly creative.

For Christmas, I wanted to make him something. I have pretty limited artistic abilities, including some debatable photography and ability to knit without pattern with varied success. For Mario, I decided to transcribe the verse of a Christmas song, one that reminded me of him. On a small sheet of posterboard, I caligrified the following words:

"A thrill of Hope!
The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!"

Below it, I drew a simple sunrise. I laminated it, and waited for him to come in this week.

When Mario arrived, he insisted on giving me a gift first. True to his name, he gave me a small clutch of dried flowers (to add to my collection of dried roses and lillies I have hanging by my desk, taken from who-knows-who's garden.)

With hesitation, I gave him the gift I made him.
"I'm no artisan," I said.
He read it a few times, and through his tears said,

"This may be the only Christmas gift I receive this year, but even if it wasn't, it would still be the best. I'm putting it on my wall as soon as I get home."

The weary world rejoices.

15 December 2010

Joann Gets a Life

On the sign-in sheet outside of my office, people can sign up for assistance with whatever they want. There is a previous post on this blog about particularly creative and bizarre requests, but today I got a new one worth noting:

Joann --- Needs a Life

She was the last one on the list, and I only had 5 minutes before we close. I wanted to make it good, and against her expectations, take it seriously.

"Sit down, Joann."

I got out a piece of paper--she stared at me in amused disbelief, but her face was still overwhelmed with sad, hopeless boredom.

"Number One: You need a hobby. What are your hobbies?"

"I don't have a hobby! I'm homeless! I don't have any money!"

"Hobbies don't have to cost money. Do you like to write?"

"Yes, but my bag was stolen, and it had my paper in it."

"Well, if this is going to be your hobby, you need a notebook, and you need a really nice pen." (I'm passionate about journaling with nice pens.) I found a notebook, a rockin pen, and put them both in a bag, on the desk between us.

"Number Two: You need some people. Who are your people?"

"Got no people."

"Family in the area?"

"Well.... I have three children."

"Are you on speaking terms?"


"Speak to them more often." (I noted this on the piece of paper next to '#2')
"Number Three: Do you have a library card?"


"Learn something new. Think about a new thing each day. Journal about it."
I wrote this next to '#3', and handed Joann the bag.
"There it is, Joann. That's a really good start."

"But... I need that paper. My list."

"Right!" I wrote JOANN'S LIFE at the top of it, and put it in her hand. She looked at me again, with a few layers of her hopeless boredom melting away, revealing just a little bit more of that amused disbelief. Then she walked out of my office.

Our office just closed: Joann walks out with a life.

13 December 2010

When the Door Closes

When she's in the open, when there's people swirling all around and so many sounds and conversations, then everything is as it always is, and nothing has to be different. There are enough distractions--enough reasons not to cry, or acknowlege the truth, or was it just a rumor she heard? When she's walking the streets, she thinks about how cold it is, about her fingers and toes, her watering eyes. Numb and numb.

But when she comes into a private office, and when the door closes, then her sister is really dead. She's really gone. Her favorite one, the one who liked Law and Order, the one she fought with the most, and respected the most. She thinks about it now, feels it now, and is now allowed to show her tears (in a place where they won't be talked about, and they won't freeze to her face).

Now, she knows that she had been looking for a room to enter, and a door to close--one that didn't contain a toilet. They're hard to come by in this neighborhood, but they're necessary, because everywhere else, the noise never stops, and her sister is somewhere, somewhere.