Of Blessings and Bags

As I was pulling out of Starbucks today, a homeless guy was standing at the corner. I  reached for one of the plastic bags that I keep in the car. Some folks call them Blessing Bags. Ours always have socks in them, and then some combination of peanuts, granola bars, moisturizer, hand sanitizer, beef jerky, band-aids, and tissues. We always put in a note. My granddaughter Z and her friend helped put the bags together recently, and the girls wrote the notes themselves. They puzzled over what to write. What do you say to homeless people?

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When I gave the fellow outside of Starbucks the bag, I made sure I made eye contact, and I don’t find that easy with homeless people on street corners. I’d like to think they don’t exist, or that they haven’t had hard, sad lives. So that’s why I need to acknowledge that they do exist, that they’ve had hard lives, and that I can do something. A small something.

 

Most of the time the homeless people pull the socks out right away and put them on. Most always say “thank you” clearly. I only see them for a few seconds before I drive off.

Today, the man at Starbucks, wearing gardening gloves (I know because I have a pair just like them), said thank you in a near-reverential way. And then said “Thank you!” in a way that reminded me of how my sons would say it when they were little boys and got a special, unexpected treat. I said “You’re welcome! Take care!” and drove off.

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Since it’s Mother’s Day, I though of this homeless man’s mom. Was she was a good mother, a mean mother, a mother who had died or disappeared when he was young, or ¬†a mother who worried terribly about him into his adulthood? I though of my own beloved sons, now adults. Once your kids are grown, you have to hope you’ve done a good job raising them, and that the world will treat them well. You hope they will make good decisions, aware of consequences, and will take good care of themselves. It’s twists of fate sometimes that bring mothering, mental health, mental illness, addictions, talents, tragedies, and opportunities into our lives. “Keep your hope.” Sometimes that’s the best we can do, though I am glad to give out these little bags as well. Blessings come in so many forms.

 

On Giving, Receiving, and the Journeys to Home

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.

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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.

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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.

Well.

“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.