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Monday, August 1, 2011

An Observer

Dear Family and Friends: 

I may have told you that after migrating south to Bloomington (a whole 50 miles from Indy), Juca and I began putting in some time at the Shalom homeless center.  It was organized by a local Methodist church ten years ago.  When we heard how magnificent their outlook on working with homeless was, we jumped right in.  Their founding principles include treating all with respect and dignity, providing essentials (food, washing facilities, mail boxes, social services, etc), and various educational opportunities to anyone in the community.  This respectful attitude is evident in every aspect of the center.  I see it in how they prepare food, how it is served, and in the ways the staff and volunteers speak to the “guests.”  That’s what we call those who show up for a meal or any other of the services offered.  No hidden agendas, no religion, just helping people. 

So on Mondays and Wednesdays Juca goes in from 9:00 to11:00 to help prepare lunch and I follow from noon to 2:00 cleaning up from lunch.  It’s a twenty minute walk from our house.  Juca and I pass each other on the sidewalk as we from and to, like those two sheepdogs in the cartoons, one punching out, and the other punching in.  

Even though the temperature today is in the ninety's, I had a spring in my step on the way to the center, spoke briefly to Juca as our paths crossed and went in to do my simple job, I’m the dishwasher.  The kitchen is laid out a little like our old one was at camp before the “G” snuck its way in front of the “U,” the “C” and the “I.” In the old Chadar Ochel, now the Beit Am, the dish area was behind a window through which all passed their plates and silverware.  The kitchen boys (pre Avodah and, sorry, but there never were any kitchen girls) took the plates and sprayed them off, put them in racks and fed them to the dishwasher (fondly referred to as the “Hobart”).  I now stand behind that window and spray and rack and feed the machine.  In a way I feel like Jimmy Stewart must have in “Rear Window.”  (Note:  if you are too young to know “Rear Window”, it’s a Hitchcock movie that is worth renting)  I observe the guests as they go through the cafeteria line and get their lunch, and I watch the interactions at the tables.  It is very interesting to me to see how convivial the dining room is.  The guests, some dressed nicely, some not, most clean, some not, eat and talk, read the newspaper, are polite and courteous to those serving the meal and the workers in the kitchen.  This is their community.  I observe them from my lookout spot on the kitchen side of the window.  I walk home feeling good about the experience.

Not so today.  Today I saw an older woman, one who comes in every day for lunch, with her backpack and cane.  Today I watched as she ate.  But today I also saw her cry after the meal.  She just sat there with her hand over her eyes and bawled.  A few regulars went up to her to console her but she brushed them away with a flip of her hand.  She cried as if the weight of the world was on her, like a person grieving for what had been lost in life.  She sat, face covered, in that agony for about thirty minutes.  Then she got up and got a napkin to wipe her face, picked up her back pack, put on sunglasses, took her cane and quietly (and slowly) left the center.  That is what I observed today, and like Jimmy Stewart in his wheelchair, I was unable to act upon what I saw.  The image is vivid.  

For some reason this made me think of the upcoming High Holidays.  Perhaps a plan is forming in my mind to really be thankful for all that I have in my life, especially Juca and the kids and friends and all of it.  Maybe a plan is forming in my heart to really think about inabilities and limitations and weaknesses.  I’m retired.  I have more time to think these days.

It was still ninety plus degrees on my walk home from the Shalom Center, but there wasn’t any spring in my step.  It wasn’t because of the weather.

But tomorrow I am going to do a workshop with the Indiana University Hillel board.  I’ll be working with college students again.  I believe the spring will be back.

Love to all,