Driving around Seattle, I could no longer avert my eyes and close my mind to the homeless, because my 8-year-old granddaughter was often with me in the car. At various intersections, she asked me, “Why can’t we help them, Grandma?” Why indeed.
After some introspection and a few Internet searches, we decided to make Blessing Bags, or care packages, as Z calls them. They are zip-loc bags with things like socks, hand sanitizer, energy bars, chapstick, candy, and whatever one thinks might be helpful. Z put the bags together carefully, and included a pretty postcard with each.
We put the bags in the car, and had our first opportunity to hand one to a young woman outside the Safeway. She said a happy “Thank you!” Another time, outside Walgreen’s, I bought Real Change and we handed a bag to the homeless fellow selling the paper. He smiled and thanked us. We smiled back.
A couple of days later, we were at 7-11, where a bearded, ruddy-faced, young man with very tattered shoes was sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall, talking and gesturing to himself. I asked Z if she wanted to give the man a care package and she said, “No, but you can.” Ok then. I took a deep breath and walked over to him, handing him the bag. He didn’t look at me, didn’t say a thing, and took the bag with a look of curiosity.
I scurried back to my car, and Z and I watched him open the bag. He immediately put the socks on. “See?” I said to Z, though I’m not sure just what point I was proving. He took out the deodorant and put in on his underarms.
Then he sealed the bag carefully up, and threw it in the trash.
“He threw the bag in the trash, Grandma! He didn’t even look at my postcard.” She was puzzled, and a little sad, maybe a little mad as well.
Yep. It was a great lesson/reminder for both of us about giving, and about expectations. I have to admit I thought: Buddy, you just threw away something I spent time and money on. You were supposed to be appreciative. My granddaughter wrote you a postcard.
So we talked, Z and I, about gift-giving: If we give something to other people, it becomes theirs, to do with what they will. Polite people with homes might trash our gifts after we leave, behind closed doors. Homeless people might trash them in plain sight. It’s okay. The important thing is that we give. Z and I acknowledged we have little real control over what happens after that.
We talked about thoughtful giving: wanting to give people things they need, want, and can use. Socks are very much needed from what I read about the homeless. Socks are not much fun, Z commented when we put the bags together, and so we put other things in that seemed, if not fun, more enjoyable: beef jerky, cookies, pretty tissue packs.
We also talked about our own expectations about how the bags would be received. Z said that people should thank us when we give them things–this is of course a lesson we drill into her, saying please and thank you. I said yes, that would be great–and sometimes people don’t say thank you. (Though you, my granddaughter, always should. And well, yes, so should I.)
We talked about why the young man threw our bag out. He didn’t like the other stuff. He took what he needed, and let go of the rest. We talk a lot in our home about “letting go:” of anger, envy, material excess, pettiness, etc. The man may not have had a place to put the stuff in the bag, or the bag itself. He got confused. He was rude. He only needed or wanted the socks. Many possibilities.
We talked about why people are homeless. Mental illness. Addictions. Bad luck. Bad choices. Complicated to figure out, and to explain to a child.
I want her to be unafraid to see the homeless as people, as individuals–and I am working on seeing them that way myself. She asked me if homeless people could be dangerous. Yes, I said, though most are not. It’s scary when they are talking to themselves or cursing or swinging their arms around, Grandma. Yes, it is. Most homeless people, most people generally, just want to be treated fairly and with dignity, to be listened to, and to be seen. So I take a deep breath, and work to practice what I’m preaching.
The bags are small gestures, make us feel better (I’m being honest here), and sometimes might help the people receiving them. It’s better than the averting my eyes and ignoring that I so easily used to do. On a global scale, watching the tragedies of refugees leaving their homes and losing their children, I find myself overwhelmed. Yes, I donated. Yes, I send out prayers and wishes for safety and healing. Yes, I posted the powerful poem “Home” by the young Somali poet Warsan Shire on my Facebook page. What else, what else, what can we do?
Z and I will keep giving out our little packages, and smiling, listening, and learning. As one spiritual teacher said so well, “We are all just walking each other home.” Sometimes it is a long, hard journey.