Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Longest Night

Remember homeless people tonight. Every year since 1990, the longest night has been a time to remember homeless people who have died in the past year. I don't personally know any homeless people who died this year, but my life has been changed by homeless people who are now dead.

Ray Matthews lived to be almost 101; we met him when he was 96. As a younger man, he had been a piano teacher and he still occasionally played when we first met him. He never married, because as a young adult he was his father's care-taker. Somehow, he said, the time just got away from him. Our children were, perhaps, 1 and 3, when we met him, and I was maybe a ripe old 28. I realized at one point that from his vantage point, the kids and I were the same. I felt so grown-up and mature -but what must 28 look like from the perspective of 96 or 100? I was just a baby, and I think I needed to be reminded of that.

I was also a scattered and frenzied young mother, trying to do too many things and not doing very many of them well. Ray was a life-saver, especially with our young son. Nicholas would want to roll a ball back and forth with you forEVER. Once you started, it could be a long time before you could do anything else. Sometimes I loved that, and other times I needed to be doing about a million other things. But Ray knew that there was no more important place to be, and he would patiently and quietly roll the ball back to Nicholas for as long as Nicholas wanted. Life's too short to do anything else. That's what I learned from Ray.

Gary Olivero-Johnson was homeless voluntarily, in solidarity with the people who had no choice. He and his friend Barbara ran the Catholic Worker House in our neighborhood. Gary was about my age, maybe a little older. But when my thoughts were all about what my career would be and where would I go from here and what did the future hold, Gary's were about living a simple life almost completely off the grid. He wasn't paid for his work. He had to raise the money to keep the house open for all the homeless people it served. He had to beg, borrow, and dumpster-dive for food. He wore donated clothing just like everyone else. In fact, he was killed in a car accident on the way to pick up donated food from a restaurant on the north side of Chicago. He taught me that sometimes you have to stop fretting about things and wringing your hands and just do SOMETHING. It can be easy once you just get started.

I hope both of them are resting in peace. More than that, I hope they are celebrating together in joy.

If you want to help homeless people, consider the following ideas:
  • acknowledge their existence -meet their eyes -say hello
  • volunteer at the shelter
  • consult the shelter's wish list to see what they could truly use
  • offer services, e.g. tutoring, as well as "stuff"

If you want to help end homelessness, consider the following ideas:

Life's too short to do anything else!

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