Homelessness And The Loss of Roots


homelessnessVolunteering at a St. Martin’s Hospitality Center which is a day shelter for homeless people has given me a new perspective on rootedness.  No matter what happens to me I always know I can go home and how much this contibutes to my sense of who I am. If I had no place to go I think I would feel less a person.  Somehow my sense of myself is partly rooted in where I live.  The people who are homeless have lost this piece of their identity.  I think that a large part of our mission at St. Martin’s is to help them hang on to the whatever part of their identity they still retain

The shower station is my spot when I volunteer.  I help people sign up for a shower giving them towels and soap and shampoo.  When a shower is free I page them and they get to take a shower using the small bars of soap and little bottles of shampoo and conditioner which kind people carefully save for us when they travel and then donate to us.  They can use a hair dryer or a straightening iron if they want.  Most of all they seem to want scent to put on after their showers.  Especially the men.  I breathe a sigh of relief if when I arrive to volunteer if there is at least one bottle of fairly decent men’s cologne.  Often I buy some if I can find it on sale since I hate saying  sorry I don’t have any scent today.  The people are always kind about it but I can see the the disappointment on their faces.   Right now I can’t find any scent on sale because it is the Chistmas season.  I am planning on hitting Walmart before I go to the shelter early Monday morning and buying something decent even if I can’t find it on sale.  After all it will be Christmas Eve and a bottle of Ralph Lauren will bring big smiles to their faces.

As to rootedness,  homeless people have lost most of their  roots.  The Shelter tries to help.  It provides long term storage where with just an ID, someone can store one box with whatever is precious to them for whatever period they need.  Our clients can also receive mail at the shelter and people can leave phone messages which they can return on phones provided to them.  Since they can’t wash their clothes we give them up to 3 outfits of donated clothes a week.  I think that the hope is that these services provide a sense of belonging to people who are struggling to get from one day to the next without a disaster.

Many years ago in Los Angeles I volunteered at The Downtown Women’s Shelter on Skid Row.  It was a day shelter as well.  My job was to make lunch for the 30 or 40 women who came in each day.  There was one woman called Lydia who was obviously paranoid.  Probably schizophrenic.  She came in each day for lunch.  She took showers and got clothes.  After several month we pieced together the fact that she was sleeping in the parking lot at the Methodist Church.  Finally I talked with her one day and she told me that she was over 65 and had worked for many years before she became too mentally ill to work any longer.  She said when she went to the Social Security office they wouldn’t let her apply for social security 

The next day I came to the shelter wearing my best business suit.  Lydia and I walked to the Social Security Office and we were able to get her though the application process and within a few weeks she was receiving a check.  She didn’t want to leave Skid Row.  But we talked her into getting a room in one of the hotels there.  I will never forget the look on her face when she walked into the small dirty little room with a bed and a sink and a chair.  She felt rooted I am sure.

Lydia’s brother who had been trying to find her for over 10 years called us at the shelter.  Apparently the Social Security Office notified him as her next of kin.  He came to see her from Ohio.  He came to the shelter from the airport and Lydia would not speak to him.  We were able to tell him about her being off the streets and having enough money for a room and life’s necessities.  While he was saddened that she wouldn’t talk with him he was relieved to know where she was and that she had a base.  I think this was the most we could hope for for Lydia.  But she was satisfied in her own way.  This was probably all the rootedness she could handle.

God bless you all and I hope you have a Merry Chistmas.   Give a prayer for those on the streets on Chistmas that they too will find whatever rootedness they can handle.

Learning How To Live From The Dying: Part I


A few months ago I learned that my dog Billy has skin cancer.  To pay for the cost of his care I decided to go back to work.  Since I had long experience as a hospice volunteer in several states I decided take a job as an in-home hospice caregiver. 

My first assignment was to give care to and 89-year-old woman who I will call her Molly.  Her regular caregiver was on vacation for a couple of weeks so I was filling in.  She has  a rare form of  Parkinson’s disease that has attacked her  throat and her ability to speak.  Her husband Harry who is 82 is her primary caregiver.  He is a difficult man who is very critical but is attentive to his wife’s care.  Molly also has a daughter who lives in a distant state.  She is very angry at and suspicious of Harry and the two of them can’t get along. Neither the husband nor the daughter are able to express much affection to Molly.

Each day when I arrived Harry would have already given Molly her breakfast and I would try to get her up for the day.  She didn’t have much to look forward to since she would spend most of the day in front of the television watching reruns of Bonanza and Matlock.  So I looked for things that would make her the day more interesting.  First, after getting her dressed I would take her for a walk in the streets outside her home.  We would stop and look at flowers or an interesting bird or even a new car.  While I pushed her wheelchair I would recount tales of my life especially foreign travels and tell her about the people and funny or unusual experiences.  Sometimes she would try to talk with me but she could only manage a hissing sound.  At first I found it difficult to talk about myself but I realized that it was comforting for her to hear these stories and it built a connection between us.

One day I decided to take her out to a local restaurant that offers a free slice of pie on Wednesdays.  It was a difficult a project to get Molly into my car with her wheelchair but she was happy to get out of the house. Molly had a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie with ice cream and a cup of coffee.  It took over an hour for her to eat it and she ate every bite. When she had finished and I started to get her ready to go to the car she looked at me and smiled and said the only word she ever spoke to me, she said “good.” 

An unfortunate incident occurred  her husband put her in her wheelchair in the yard to get some sun.  Somehow she fell over into a cactus plant. She went to the emergency room for treatment as she had reacted to the poison in the plant.  A few days later I was filling in for her regular care giver and took her to a new doctor to look at her throat.  While we were in the waiting room I asked her how she was and if the cactus wounds were painful.  She shook her head and held out her arm to show me the large bumps that were a reaction to the cactus.  Impulsively I kissed the spot and told her that it would make it well.  She laughed!  Never before had I seen her laugh or have any instinct to mirth so we laughed together.

What I learned while caring for Molly is how important it is to find moments of joy in the life of those who have lost so much.  Neither her husband nor her daughter were capable of giving her much affection so I would lavish hugs and kisses on her, telling her she looked pretty after I had combed her hair and she had put on lipstick.  How much she needed the affirmation and how good it felt to give it to her.

The funny thing is that being able to help her helped my soul heal.  Being old and without family means that I rarely find moments in the normal course of my life when I am able to help someone.  What a joy it is to do so.

Because Molly and Harry aren’t believers the most important thing I could do was to pray for them and I still do.  I ask you to pray for them as well.

Living In A World In Which I Am Invisible


In my fifties I started to notice that I was becoming invisible to most people.  What I mean is that most people no longer met my eye when we passed in the street or had an accidental coming together in a public place.  I first noticed it with men and young people.  Even if they had to go to great lengths to not see me they would do so.  Then as I aged and lost the status of a profession this general non-recognition spread to most people. 

You may know what I mean.  If you go to someones house and they have teenagers, they don’t see you if you are an adult.  The parents may force them into some recognition of you but they usually make it quite clear that they don’t want to recognize your existence.

As an older woman it seems to terrify any man I meet to acknowledge my existence.  I have a feeling that men feel that if they acknowledge me I will then think they find me attractive  Having blessedly reached a point in my life where I agree with Gloria Steinem’s dictum that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle I would still like the recognition of my humanity.

It amuses me that when I am going into a store or walking down the street the one person who will meet my eye is an older women.  We acknowledge each other with a wry smile that allows us to affirm our existence to one another in spite of the world’s judgement.  I treasure these moments. 

So what is the point of this reverie?  It has made me more sensitive to others that don’t exist.  Who are they? People who are unattractive or handicapped or have mental problems or are of low status or like me simply old.  I have learned to try to acknowledge these fellow non-beings when we encounter one another.  Often times they are so used to being ignored that they don’t even realize I am trying to meet their eye.  Sometimes the destitute when recognized ask me for money which is a grace from God if I can help them.  What I give them isn’t enough to really make a difference and may even be used for drugs or alcohol.  None-the-less I hope they felt recognized in a simple friendly human glance and a smile.

One of the benefits of being invisible is that it can result in humility.  After my husband died my invisibility made me feel desperate to prove that yes I exist.  When I wasn’t acknowledged by others I despaired of ever being significant to anyone.  This contributed to my suicidal desire.  I wonder if Job felt that way?  Especially since he was the richest and most important man in the land.  I wonder if the most difficult thing for him wasn’t the loss of health, property or even his children but simply the loss of his identity?   He no longer was who he had been.  He was a man sitting in a garbage dump scraping his skin as it peeled from his body.  He couldn’t give lavish gifts to his children even if they still existed.  He had nothing.  Maybe he thought his children wouldn’t have wanted to know him if they still lived since he had sunk so low. 

The turning point for me was that moment when I knew that I exist even though the world may not care.  I exist because I was created by God who loves me and sustains me.  At that point my prayer became like those wry smiles I exchange with other older women, God and I share the recognition that I exist because he loves me and that is simply reason enough.

Isolating: First Symptom of Depression and Suicidal Ideation


What the mental health professionals call isolating is withdrawing from contact with other people. This is often the first symptom of depression. Whenever my depression deepens I begin isolating from others. It becomes increasingly difficult to make contact with people just when I need that contact the most. There are several reasons for my withdrawal.

First, many of my friends are uncomfortable with any discussion of suicide or depression  Most of them know that my husband killed himself two years ago  but generally they find reference to it conversationally difficult.  If I admit to my depression people change the subject.  Naturally I don’t want  to cause them distress so I no longer bring it up.  I understand their feelings because most of them are older woman whose lives have been much more settled than mine.   As a result only one friend knows about this site.  I find it easier to blog than talk in person with the people I know.  From  what I have learned from other people who have depression and suicidal ideation this feeling of rejection is common problem whether real or perceived.

Second, one of my primary symptoms of depression is confusion.  I can’t explain myself coherently.  When I try to express what is going on my mind becomes mush.  Recently  the one friend that wants to help me in by discussing my condition with me and who knows of this site tried to offer some suggestions and discuss my mood.  I became so confused trying to explain myself that I fled her house.  That happened last week.  This week I apologized and explained about the confusion and we agreed that we wouldn’t try to talk about my depression in-depth when I am in the throes of confusion.  I really appreciate her understanding and sympathy.

Third,  some of my friends believe that since I am a Christian I shouldn’t be depressed.  Certainly most Christians with some life experience don’t believe this but enough do so that I am constantly on the lookout for this particular land mine.  I am not particularly cogent when depressed so instead of speaking coherently about what I am experiencing I often just become defensive which is counter productive.  The belief that a believing Christian is a happy person at every level is a common misconception.  Certainly my faith gives me happiness and joy but that is often at the deepest levels of my being when my brain goes into a depressive episode.

So what does a depressed and suicidal person need?  I can speak for myself by acknowledging that what I need most is for someone to express that they care and that they do not judge me or my faith by what is occurring during my depression.   My first priority is to keep in mind that this is a passing event.  That it is a trial by God, deserved or not.  Next,  I need to do the things which I know will help me come out of the mental fugue as quickly as possible.  So I need to pray, exercise and do my best to keep in touch with others.  That I may express doubts that I am not normally afflicted with is just part of the package.  Certainly Job questioned why God allowed him to go through his trial.

How to Melt a Heart of Stone


The use of the Jesus Prayer began with the Desert Fathers in about the 5th Century.  Since then it has spread throughout the world. In Russia both monastics and lay people have prayed the Jesus Prayer for many centuries.  Some of them wandered the roads and forests while saying the Jesus prayer as a way to grow closer to God.  They lived in the countryside and people would give them a bit of food as a kindness and a blessing.  This has been a way of sanctification for many.

Eventually as a person persists in this prayer while living a holy life it is said that the heart prays the prayer at each breath even while asleep.

For me hiking has been a way to fight depression and suicidal thoughts and restore my connection with God.  I especially like praying the Jesus Prayer while I hike or walk.  It controls my wandering mind and brings it back to God.  It focuses the entire body and heart on God in one unified action.

Because when I am hike I get short of breath I simplify the prayer to:

Lord Jesus  (breathe in)

Have mercy (breathe out)

This provides a profound way to make hiking or walking a meditation on the key point of Christian life.  That we need God’s mercy  and that mercy was already given us through Jesus Our Lord.

The entire prayer which I pray when at home and I am not breathing hard is:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God  (breathe in)

Have mercy on me, a sinner (breathe out)

God promised in Ezekiel 36:26  that “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”  This Sunday at Liturgy our pastor, Father Nicolay Miletkov, talked of the effect of the Jesus prayer.  He said that each time we say the Jesus prayer it is like a drop of water dripping on our stony hearts.  And just as the constant drip drip of water on stone eventually wears down the rock, so our stony hearts begin to erode and to reveal the flesh and blood hearts that God created.  It takes many years of praying this deceptively simple prayer to wear away the stone that surrounds our hearts.

Having tried this prayer when I was a new Christian I wasn’t able to appreciate its power or its beauty.  Now that I am old and understand that I can do nothing of myself I am so grateful for this ancient tradition which transforms the simple act of breathing into prayer.

On The Death of A Spouse


Wendell Berry is a force for good in this tired country of ours.  He decries mans inhumanity to man and the desecration of the earth.

He is 75 years old and lost his wife a while back.

He wrote a poem that I keep going back to because it images the longing for a lost spouse in a way no other poem ever has for me.

   THE REJECTED HUBAND

After the storm and the new
stillness of the snow, he returns
to the graveyard, as though
he might lift the white coverlet,
slip in beside her as he used to do,
and again feel, beneath his hand,
her flesh quicken and turn warm.
But he is not her husband now.
To participate in resurrection, one
first must be dead.  And he goes
back into the whitened world, alive.

Maybe It’s Not A Trial But It’s Sin


I haven’t been blogging for a couple of months because of an intense indifference to life.

Wanting to care I can’t:

Keep busy they say

Pray more

You aren’t trying hard enough

So-and-so’s  life is much worse than yours

Why can’t you be more like other people?

If you loved God you wouldn’t feel this way.

They are so right.  So I keep busy; I hike, I drive a friend to and fro, I take a child to the zoo.

And I pray.  I ask God to take this terrible indifference from me.

Only then do strange tears come.

I cry so hard I can’t see the Bible to read.

I wish I knew why I cried.  If I did then maybe I could do something different.

As evening draws close and I swelter in the 82 degree house I find myself plotting how to kill myself.

No.  I say.  No.  I will not do it.

I wonder now is this a trial?

Somehow I don’t think so.  It must be the consequence of sin.

So I renew my cry to God.  Tell me my sin and I will repent.

I will shout it from the mountaintop so the world will know.

But he doesn’t answer me.

But I feel his presence.  What does he want?

The only thing I want is to give him that.