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Tuesday, June 09th, 2015 | Author:

6248742474_997d54ee34photo credit: Lower Floor. via photopin (license)

I met a man in Seattle recently. His name was Sean.

He was in Pike’s Place market, his worn backpack and layers the only things suggesting he was without a place to stay. I may have taken him for a wary tourist if he had not been asking loudly, in the general direction of the crowds passing by, “Can anyone spare enough money for a cold drink?”

I passed right by him, and when I looked up to meet his face, he was looking elsewhere. My eyes didn’t linger, didn’t spend any extra energy trying to meet his gaze. I passed on, and his tone got louder, his voice hoarse and raspy. “Can anyone spare some change? Please! Does anyone have enough money for a cold drink?”

I sauntered by another flower stand. Then by a produce section. Then by a small fish stand, not the famous one. Then by another artisan’s table.

All the while I could hear him. He was shouting now. Not an angry shout, but a sad, desperate shout. By the time I got back to him, his dry voice was shaking and begging the crowds that just kept passing by.

Regardless of my issues with the church, my wounds and my past, my distrust of people, and my serious questions about the Bible, I still would call myself a Christian. A God lover. And there is one thing I don’t have questions about from the Bible and the character of God. He says clearly, “I will say to you, you saw me naked and you clothed me, when I was thirsty you gave me a drink…as you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”

And I know I’m undoing any karma or glory or whatever by telling you this, so believe me, I know it — it’s not to brag, and I’m fine with not getting anything from this. That’s not why I did it.

I did it because I had those words pop into my head, and I had this vision of this thirsty man, yelling with his parched voice, and no one, myself included taking the time to even acknowledge his humanity. Even if they didn’t give him anything, he was literally yelling for help and everyone was walking by ignoring him. He was thirsty, a basic human need that hits very, very close to my heart, and I hadn’t paused as I had walked by.

I’m telling you this because I’m ashamed of it. I’m pained that my first response was to ignore that tug in my chest, that churn of my gut, and to keep walking. To keep ignoring the yells for help right in front of me.

How will I ever pay attention to the yells for help that I can’t hear around the world — the “Please, I need something to drink” pleas around the world — if I blatantly and heartlessly walk past the one shouting in my ear at the Pike’s Place market in Seattle?

I don’t know.

As I was in front of the artisan’s table several shops down and I could still hear his soft, but urgent yelling, desperation in his voice, I had a serious moment with myself where I said “What the F— do you think you are doing??”

I’ve had moments like this before. Where I feel the urge to help, the nudge to engage, and I walk by. And I still feel it as I walk farther and farther and I’m too embarrassed to turn back, so I continue to ignore it. I still think about several of those moments years later.

This time, I was more disgusted with myself than ashamed, and I had to fix it.

“Hi,” I said, as he stopped his pleading to the crowd when he saw me approaching.  “I don’t hand out money,” I said apologetically.

“No, no, that’s ok,” he cut me off. “I just need a cold drink.”

“Sure. So, let’s go somewhere, and I’ll get you whatever you want,” I finished my first thought.

I again reiterated he could have anything he wanted. He literally got a $2.50 fountain drink. He filled his glass with cold water first and downed it, and then filled the second with ice and soda.

We did not have any significant interaction as we got his drink. I learned a little bit of his story. He a little bit of mine. We’re both from near Sacramento, and we’re both on journeys that we didn’t want to have to begin. We’ve both missed what we thought we’d find, and are trying to figure out what’s next.

My life right now is asking people to talk to me, to share their stories. It is my life to listen and then write and validate.  But I passed by a man literally crying out to be heard and helped.

It cost me $2.50 to fix someone’s thirst. But more importantly, it cost me nothing to look him in the eye, speak to him, and validate his existence.

When I think about it, I’m still extremely frustrated with my reactions. I still have a long, long way to go on this journey. And if I get thirsty along the way, I hope there will be people quicker to hear than I was.

Sometimes the people or circumstances around us are mirrors, and this moment was a mirror in which I saw that what’s in there is still kind of ugly. That I still have a good deal more work to do to be the person I want to be in the world. They’re not fun moments — those mirrors — but they’re necessary.


 

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Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, October 07th, 2014 | Author:

“You can get whatever you want, but it needs to be under $3.”

I was familiar with these words as my mom and dad would say them to us three kids every time we got the treat of eating out as a family at McDonalds, or even better, at Burger King. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, it was sure special.

We lived simply. More accurately, we lived cheaply. But I remember those 3 dollars would buy me a plain whopper and fries at BK, or 6 chicken nuggets at McDonalds (not in a happy meal… those only came with 4 nuggets, which wasn’t enough food for me, and the meal was above the $3 limit). It was always a treat.

I don’t know how old I was the first time I noticed it, but at some point I became aware of the fact that like the words of the $3 rule being spoken so faithfully to us, my mom would faithfully speak another line of words to any homeless person or person asking for change that we encountered: “I don’t give out money, but are you hungry? I’ll get you whatever you want.”

But the $3 limit was never mentioned. And she bought them food when we didn’t get to eat out, because that was still a rare treat for us. She would go in with them to the grocery store or the fast food place or the gas station and she would get them meal deals that we were never afforded the chance to try. The fact that they were superseding the $3 family rule was never mentioned to them, which I thought was odd.

Because even as a child, I was taught compassion, I was taught to care for people and to see everyone as human beings that have the same value to their lives as I do. But, while I never said anything about it, I was confused about why our family’s budget didn’t apply to others when my parents bought them food.

As an adult I look back and I see that the lesson my mom’s actions taught me was that it is good to give, even when we give more than we would normally afford ourselves. People matter more than dollars. All people.

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When I was in high school, I started to buy boxes of granola bars and keep them in my car so that any time I saw someone in need, I had something to offer them. I actually intentionally bought peanut-flavored ones so that I wouldn’t be tempted to empty my own stash. (I have a peanut allergy.) But after I graduated high school, it was rarely as I was driving by that I encountered people in need. I instead met them on the streets of downtowns as I walked around with friends. Or at the beach. Or at the grocery store. And my granola bar stash wasn’t doing much good sitting in my car, so I got out of the habit.

Because I’m a hungry person, a prepared person, and I spent more than a decade babysitting regularly, I got used to always having a snack with me in my purse or back pack or pocket. (I know, that’s kind of weird, but it’s true.) What I started to find was that as I would meet people who were asking for food or money, if they were hungry I’d offer them whatever snack I had on hand. I’ve given away leftovers, a soda cup from In n Out, cliff bars, animal crackers, crackers, almonds, fruit, jerky, and baked goods.

The first time I had an opportunity to do so though, I hesitated. I was in San Francisco by myself, exploring downtown for the day. I was working in an unpaid internship and didn’t have extra money, so I had brought a lunch and a snack with me. When faced with the choice, I gave the snack away first. But then I came upon another hungry man asking for help, and I said no, and walked away, justifying that I would be hungry for the day if I gave away this, the last of my food for the whole day. As I justified it, I remembered my mom, spending more than we spent on ourselves, offering food when we couldn’t afford to eat out. And I realized what a stupid justification being hungry for the day was.

I went back and found the man and handed him my lunch and sat down with him while he ate it.

I remember that day clearly, because it was the first time I gave until I felt it. I walked around hungry that day. And it’s been a reminder to me of the power of C.S. Lewis’ challenging words: “We ought to give until it hurts.” I didn’t hurt that day, but I felt what I had given, and that was a step in the right direction for me.

The last time I was in San Diego, I was walking with two of my friends up Newport Ave in Ocean Beach looking at shops as we meandered away from the beach. I saw them then, on the other side of the street, but kept walking, window shopping, chatting with my friends.

But as we made our way back down the other side of the street, the two women were still there. I said hi briefly as we passed. They weren’t asking for anything, they didn’t have a sign, they just lived in the OB area as manly homeless folks do. My friends were up ahead chatting and walking on. I asked the women if they were hungry, and they were, so I offered them the cliff bar I’d been storing in my back pocket for a snack as we walked around the beach. “I’m sorry, this is all I have, and it’s just one. But do you want it?” I asked them. “Oh yeah! These are the BEST!” They both looked at each other and with a silent exchange one reached out for it, and then handed it to the other. “I ate earlier today. She can have it,” she said, handing it to her friend. The friend looked hesitant, and then took it and smiled.

My friends had turned and realized I had lagged behind and waited patiently as I finished chatting with the ladies. When I re-joined them we began walking again, and they know not to make a big deal of stuff like that. But my friend Lizz, who is always willing to credit me with being more intentional than I am, asked me, “I saw you grab that when we left the car. Is that why? So you could give it away?”

“No.” I said simply. Resisting the urge to take credit for something better than the truth. “I brought it because I thought I’d be hungry. I wanted a snack.”

Because people are more important than dollars. And more important than my temporarily filled belly.

I hope one day I’ll learn enough courage and discipline to give until it hurts. But for now, I’m grateful for my mom’s example of giving until we’re a little hungry. Giving, not when we have extra, but when it means someone else getting something that we wanted for ourselves. Giving until we feel it, even if it’s just a little bit.

Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
Tuesday, June 03rd, 2014 | Author:

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He just stared at me as he sat, his mouth never moving from that seemingly permanent frown. His eyes were open wide though, and they were on me. Not in a predatory way. Not in an offensive or angry way. Just observing, intently, as he sat silently.

One of the perks of working for Abram Interstate Insurance Services, Inc. is that we get the opportunity once a month to volunteer at a local charity organization called Loaves and Fishes and are given leave from work to do so. It’s in Sacramento, Calif., and it’s motto is “feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless.” The organization has many programs that assist those in need in Sacramento. One of their most visible programs is their Dining Room operation. Seven days a week, 364 days a year, Loaves and Fishes’ dining room is open and serves a balanced midday meal to their 600-1,000 guests that come in each day.

Usually Abram Interstate employees volunteer early in the morning doing food prep,  getting the midday meal ready for the guests that will come in hungry that day. This alone is rewarding, but not very glamorous. We do things like shuck corn, peel potatoes, cut onions — and you learn things like the fact that cutting onions for a meal for 600-1000 people will make you cry approximately 700,000 tears and that you will smell like onions until you shower. Twice.

Even in those times though, we work side by side with other volunteers from the community. Some are retired law enforcement, some are people who just want to give back. Some are there because of court-mandated community service, and some are there because they’re part of Loaves and Fishes programs, and they are working in the dining hall to gain work experience as a part of their road to getting off the streets.

Every few months though, we get the chance to volunteer actually during the meal. We get to help serve the food, clean the trays, buss the tables, and talk with the guests. That’s what I was doing on Friday —  making the rounds to all the tables offering extra napkins, refilling water pitchers, offering water cups, and wiping down the tables after the guests left to make room for the next.

I kept passing this frowning gentleman, briefly making eye contact with him each time I passed to make sure he wasn’t needing napkins or a cup or anything. He never motioned for anything, just kept watching.

As I made my way around the room, I was at ease. This is one of the few types of places where I feel at my prime. My mouth was tired from smiling so wide. I love talking to the people, sometimes just chit-chat, but when it was slower, I’d actually get to ask about their lives. One elderly gentleman was heading to the park after he ate so that he could people watch.

“People watching is one of my favorite things. And the park, that’s one of the best places to do it on a nice day like this,” he relayed, leaning in from his wheelchair as he said it. He was hard of hearing, so he leaned in each time he spoke at a normal decibel, like he was a young boy telling a fun secret, a smile on his face as he spoke.

“What’s your name, sir?” I had asked him earlier when I had brought him his meal. He had been hunching over, his gray stubble accentuating his taught mouth. He didn’t seem rude, he just seemed curt, quiet.

But when I asked his name, this boy inside of him woke up. Leaning in, his grin spread all the way across his stubbled face, “Bob O. from Sacrament-O,” he beamed in a sing-song voice.

“No way!” I said, delighted by this fun man. “I’m Jo O. from Sacrament-O!”

Despite many interactions like my friendly encounter with Bob O., the frowning man sat in the middle of all of this commotion, and he never said a word, his lips never budged from their downward arch.

He stayed a long time. The people around him changing, me coming around offering napkins and take-away bags to most everyone around him, he sat there, long after he’d finished eating, just watching.

And then, as the table around him was clearing out, and the crowd was thinning, he raised his hand subtly, one finger pointing in the air as I glanced his way, my signal to finally offer him something. I went over to his side, smiling, but tentative.

“Hi sir, what can I get for you?”

“Can I have two bags? And some napkins please?”

“Sure!” I was glad to be able to do something small for him. And glad that his face seemed softened now. He still wasn’t smiling, but the muscles in his face had relaxed. And his eyes weren’t so intent in a watching way. They seemed soft now, too. Not so wide.

“Is two enough?” I asked, handing him the two napkins I had pulled from my apron pocket.

“Um, maybe more than that if you could. My girl and I, we’re going to the park.”

“Four? Is that enough?” I said, handing him two more.

“That’s great, thank you.”

“Great!” I said, about to bustle on, pretty sure this gentleman wasn’t a talker beyond his simple requests. I was turning to go when he gently put his hand on my arm, turning me back toward him.

“I just,” he started, “I just wanted to tell you something.”

“What’s that?” I asked, still smiling brightly.

I was expecting a comment about being beautiful or something to that effect. You can judge me for that, but I’m pretty popular with homeless and hungry men. I chalk it up to my semi-weekly showering habits.

“It’s just…” his voice was soft, almost shaky. He looked down at his hands before looking back up at me with his large, attentive dark eyes.   “I don’t smile at all. Because, see, I got a lot of sadness inside.”

My smile faded. This was not the flattering, “you’re beautiful” comment I was expecting. This stoic man was telling me something real. I was ready to listen.

“So I don’t ever, smile,” he continued slowly. “But I want to thank you, because you made me smile today. I don’t remember the last time that happened.”

I don’t know when he smiled through the course of the hour he had been there. I had missed it in the bustle of the day. And he wasn’t smiling when he told me this touching note of thanks. But he said it had happened. And that matters to me.

“What’s your name?” I asked him, humbled by his sweet words that he’d struggled to say, like a painful confession.

“Gilbert.”

“Gilbert, I’m Jo.” I said, as he reached out his rough, wrinkled hand to shake my kitchen-gloved hand.

We chatted a little more about our stories, about sadness, about his needs, his worries for his children. And then someone behind me was calling for napkins, and I had to go. He got up, took his bagged leftovers and his four napkins, and left. As he was walking through the door to outside, he looked back.

“Bye Gilbert,” I said from across the room, waving as I handed a napkin to another guest. I smiled, not my bright toothy smile, but softly, touched by this man’s sad, grateful words and story.

He waived slightly, and smiled. I saw it that time. Then he was gone.

I’m continually awed by these small moments, made of nothing but a few minutes of life, where real life is shared in a dining hall, on the street, in front of grocery stores. I’m awed by the power of a smile. I’m awed by the way my heart is changed by the people who are willing and vulnerable enough to share their stories with me. I’m awed by this sometimes sad, beautiful life. What a gift.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon