her trail of incense

August 10, 2010

She was unexpected.

On a day that I had already scheduled full of listening to people give reasons why they have no homes and thinking about ways to peacefully and forcefully engage in a battle against those reasons, she showed up with an unscheduled reason and a sense of urgency in her deeply accented voice. Her homelessness was a reason she didn’t understand.

What I did was listen. She wasn’t my client and I had no obligation to help her, and, in fact, I didn’t have the physical capacity to help her within the confines of my program. But I listened.

Heartaching at the inability to offer her my own resources. Because something warns me if I let her sleep in my house she might take my things. Something worries me that if I give her my food I could run out. Something suggests that I worked for these things and so they are mine to be shared within a safe circle of people I already know who largely already have things of their own. So much for directions to give to those in need. These words must be code for  “learn the appropriate agency to call and have the initiative to put in a referral.”

But even through her body-weighing frustration, I could catch a twinkle in her eye when she said she had slept outside under a full moon. I could bear with her frustrated, yet still dazzled, view of life.

She left in a much-calmed state from the frenzy surrounding her appearance. Listening and redirecting were the only things I felt able to do. They changed her demeanor if nothing else. As she left, she pulled a single stick of incense from her bag and handed it to me. “I hope you enjoy the scent.”

Later in the week, one of my plants grew too long to stand on its own. So I stuck her incense in the dirt and tied my leaves to the support, letting the scent of how we need each other drift across me, the neighborhood, the city. And the wondering of how far the smoke will float.


the morning’s words

May 26, 2009

If you’re ambitious you’ll have a career path set by your 30s,” the kindly retired man offered in response to my verbalized indecision. His voice had a rambling tone that nearly disguised the knowledge burrowed deep inside of what he said.

He winked his next sentence toward me with new clarity: “Of course, there’s no law that says you have to be ambitous.”

If was liberation to hear aged advice from an older adult that resonated with my now: it’s okay to have an unconventional life’s plan; it’s worth devoting time to poetry if the prospect of it makes me fall in love with mornings; it’s important that our ways to live keep us actually alive.

But the important decision isn’t whether or not to shirk ambition, but to choose what to be amibitious about. Even if it’s something abstract, undefined… ambitious for a feeling that comes from something like sleeping inside warm rain or for a carefree attitude that sings summer or for forgetting about boundaries (like time, like routine) that can’t control as much if we give them less credit. 

definitionOur ambition’s directedness creates for ourselves a something to be known.

clinging onto words

May 12, 2009

Front-page news in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:
The price of stamps increased two cents due to the fact that post offices have been hooked up in too many unsuccessful blind dates and are now suffering rejection from everyone.

The editorials inside offer an altogether different but related story:
Printed journalism has been stabbed in the stomach and watches while its stomach acids flow out the wound and slowly devour its skin.

What we can conclude from this:
People have secretly consented to an implied boycott on tangible information sources. They are pandemically forfeiting the writing skills they learned in kindergarten for the typing skills they learned in middle school (possibly because this is the only memory worth hanging onto from middle school).newspaper nostalgia

I’m a desperate romantic when it comes to words. I want familiar pages to wake up with me every morning and friendly packaged papers waiting faithfully for me next to the door when I come home. The internet keeps intruding on my affair with words and only offers a one-sided relationship in its place: it never waits for me and makes me do all the work.

I prefer words to come to me in containers that I can smudge with fingerprints. I have an overwhelming need to spill my milk on words, circle points of interest in them,  make origami out of them, carry them with me for a bus ride, rip out pieces of them to save or share, doodle on the spaces between them, use them as floor shields when I paint, roll them up and hit someone over the head with them, crumble them up if they make me angry, kiss them if they make me fall in love.
Or at least have all of these option available.

I suppose this lament stuffed inside a computer screen does little to help. The internet has that obnoxiously useful boyish charm that I can’t escape.

But letters and newspapers are irreplaceable. They constantly advocate for slower and more intentional movement through life. I support their cause.

stripped naked tree

A person lived under a tree in a lot around the corner from my house.

It was a giant pine tree with bushy branches that stretched all the way down to the ground and formed thick walls around its base.

We only saw signs of someone living there because a shopping cart filled with odds and ends rested outside the enclosed area. There was something scandalous about it—a person using branches as a house right on the corner of a heavily trafficked street. Average people have houses built with so-altered nature that it’s no longer recognizable, but here a man had altered himself to coexist with a tree’s needs instead of the other way around. Then there was something majestic about it—breaking conventional boundaries blatantly and romantically before our eyes.

It didn’t last long. People talked. City organizations were contacted. People with power waltzed under the tree and took pictures which displayed makeshift walls and roof shielding the treed space from rain, clothes hanging neatly from branches, cushioned chairs seated gently inside, belongings arranged around the bark’s base.

Yesterday as I passed the tree, some people with power had trimmed the branches up to at least my height. All the contents of the occupant’s stay stood exposed. The temporary house was violated and cheapened into the neatly defined purpose that we make for trees in empty lots: decoration, perhaps. Oxygen only an excuse.

This deconstruction stated that we disproved of this person’s submitted housing purpose of an otherwise unused tree. Branches were judged insufficient at their attempted task of hiding the homeless from our sight as well as we’re accustomed. When we saw the cart parked outside the tree perimeters, it forced contemplation of the circumstances of someone who lives that way, and those seconds of thought intrude too greatly on some’s comfort.

Today all the belongings are gone. The evidence of human life is cleared away and the tree looks as though it stood in that lot by itself indefinately.

The only reminder of the person who lived there is an empty shopping cart resting near the curb.

happily unexpected

April 17, 2009

“It seems like miracles always happen around here,” my supervisor said over the rim of his early morning coffee. “I’m becoming too dependent on them.”


I suppose that’s the perspective that a social work agency has to adopt. We encounter endless nice people who make harmful life decisions, and we grip the armrests of our front-row seats and watch the painful consequences play out in their lives, knowing that there are severe limits to what we can do to help. But every once in a while things work out. Homeless get homes. Drug abusers stop abuse. Hungry get food. Volunteers show up at right times.


It’s life. We have so little control and such a minuscule amount of opportunity to enforce organization on it. Maybe miracles is the word for what constantly brings things into a happily unexpected sense of togetherness. If that’s the case, I don’t know how to live without them either.



beneath the floorboards

April 9, 2009

“That guy who killed the Pittsburgh cops this weekend,” my co-worker said. “Everyone they interviewed kept talking about how nice he had always been to them.”

“There’s no way he was nice. There was nothing good, nothing good, nothing good, about that man,” someone interjected.

At that moment Sufjan Steven’s song John Wayne Gacy Jr. floated through my head.

That song has haunted me lately. It’s incredible how pristine Sufjan can make the acts of a serial killer sound by describing it in light images within the context of a gorgeously chilling ballad. But the part that really gets me, and probably gets to most people who spend time listening to the lyrics, are the last few lines:

And on my best behavior I am really just like him.
Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.

I looked up the lyrics on songmeanings.net and was sorely disappointed when I browsed through the explanations that people provided for the song. They ranted about how Sufjan could never really be comparing himself to a monster like Gacy, or, alternatively, they tried to label his lyrics as overtly Christian by offering that this line refers to the way we are all sinners in God’s eyes. floorboards

It’s becomming increasingly evident to me as I spend my days working with drug addicts, alcoholics, homeless, the abused, people with mental health diagnoses, and ex-convicts, that these labels I just listed off do not define any of those people. That people are not equal to their worst behaviors. That the man who recently shot the police officers in Pittsburgh did a horrible thing, but it was one action, one day in an entire lifetime. And he will forever be defined by that day. That short period of time has eternally replaced his identity in other people’s eyes as a person for that of a killer. Such a title oversimplifies life.

Reading John Wayne Gacy Jr.‘s story is disgustingly painful, but I can’t help to see through it all that although he did things that make him seem absolutely disgraceful and inhumane, he was still a person. He had a family.  He swung on swingsets. He laughed.

We all cause other people pain. But I can’t think of anyone who would want to be defined by the worst they can be.

It’s too easy to overlook that we all have a best.

whole against the sky

March 31, 2009

I recently learned of the growing trend to “twitter” (can you use that as a verb?) when a story about it’s popularity made it into the Pittsburgh Post Gazette (which is reflective of how attached I am to reading things I can hold; I learn about the internet’s developments from the newspaper). I’ve been contemplating the nature of online offerings like  twitter and facebook “status updates” ever since.


Yesterday when there was a twitter icon on my favorite postsecret website, I consented to check it out. There I found postsecret postcards that were available exclusively on twitter and other “insider information” to which  only I (and the other 51,999 postsecret twitter followers) had access.

But while scrolling through twitter’s details regarding the life of postsecret creator Frank Warren, it began to sound simplified. I got too much corrupting explanation surrounding the weekly secrets that I’ve always considered to be invaluably abstract. Anonymous artistic postcards displaying hidden secrets hold a lofty value for me while they’re found soaking in abstraction, and it seems that people are somewhat better that way too.

Some of our largest curiosities are motivated by the distances and unknowns that exist within the relationships between people. And perhaps communication websites like twitter are so popular (at least to some extent) because they create the facade of breaking down the distances between us. They can provide the assurance that others care about our constant changes of heart or thought even when no one is around, that perhaps we are more connected to people when a less undefined silence exists and a concise sentence that describes a fraction of a thought is constantly updated and shared between us.

Some of my favorite passages in literature deal with the unconquerable distance between people. Like Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities where one chapter begins:

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses it’s own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses it’s own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

And a prescription to address the dilemna from Rilke:

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.

whole against the sky

I love that image of seeing someone whole against the sky only when you can embrace the implications behind doing so: that a person’s mind will never create a genuine map to aid in our navigation, that words rarely sound like the thoughts they reflect, that eternal secrets exist between every pair of people which can never be shared.

It’s better that way. Mostly because that’s the only way it can be, but also because there’s a graceful movement of life in embracing the mystery which can’t be said.

glimpsing her eyes

February 13, 2009

a winding point of view

She’s an elderly woman who I encounter about once each week, and every time she acts sporadically particular about certain things.


Today I greet her in anticipation of how she’ll act this time. She immediately states through toothless lips, “I’m not doing so good today, but I have a doctor’s appointment on this Monday upcoming. For my psyche.”


“Well,” I offer, “I hope it all works out.”


“My dad died…”


She pauses and grants me silence to ooze out a second of sympathy. “I’m sorry,” I say, feeling like I’ve been encountering sympathy-requiring situations with increasing frequency, learning how to feel comfortable settling around unfortunate life situations.


She cuts me off quick: “…when I was in seventh grade. I’ve been sick ever since.”


She blinks her old eyes and nods her head three jolting times just like she repeatedly does on each occasion I see her, her nervous tick that signals to the world she’s spent a lifetime trapped inside those words.


a knock on the window

February 13, 2009

looks like hope

I work with homeless people every day. Since my job involves admitting people into a respite care program, I’ve learned how to read the life stories contained within psych evaluations and medical records like they’re novels. They contain some quite poetic phrases and life descriptions which I can’t help but scribble down at times.

Fortunately, because of the nature of the program I work with, I get to know the faces, voices, and personalities of the people who give breath to the bodies that exist more real than those official printed pages.

Today I sat down to listen to the full-length story of a man I’ve been working with because his life recently booted him from the role of successful businessman to become homelessly suicidal.

As he described both the path that led him to the side of a highway with a suicide plan and the path that allowed him to walk away from that place, he told me something beautiful about the hope that exists for the homeless, the depressed, the addicted, those who give up on caring.

He said something like this (completely paraphrased):

At first I was really bitter and could only think about how everything revolves around money. About the way that I had lost all of mine and so was excommunicated from the world of those with homes and normal lives. What saved me from this perspective that was slowly drifting me toward death wasn’t money but people. I realized that there are people in the world who care…even about poor strangers who live on the street… When people who had no obligation to me showed that they cared about what happened to me, I started to care too. And now what I care about is helping anyone I can.

It might sound hokey or oversimplified, but when we are reduced to our most basic forms, we still have the ability to care. about others and about ourselves.

but sometimes we need someone to show us how.

i think that today this lovely wise man who is now gratefully attempting to get his life back together showed me.

January 23, 2009

We must never lose infinite hope.    (mlk jr.)