Thursday, April 28, 2016

Food for Thought

Names have power. It is one thing to drive past a homeless person panhandling in the street. It is quite another thing to drive past Ted.

I’ve been serving our homeless community for a while now, getting to know the people behind the signs. Their stories. Their preferences. Their names.

It’s no longer possible to simply drive down the streets. I search them now, my eyes constantly darting down alleys, around corners, into nooks and shadows. It’s a fine habit most days. But when you’re dressed up and moments away from indulging yourself, it can be problematic. I was heading to a fancy affair at the university. As we cruised down Asher, I spotted Mark, trudging along behind his shabby cart in the parking lot he calls home. I’m off duty, I reminded myself. This is okay.

Two minutes later, a figure came into view on the median at the intersection of where we were and where we were going. I knew two things instantly. It would be Ted. And we would catch that red light. That damn, infernal, interminable red light. Something inside began to unravel, threads silently snapped. One foot in a land of wretched excess, the other in a land of poverty and pain. I am going to eat tenderloin; Ted is going to eat from a dumpster.

This is not okay.

When the party was over, there were mounds of food left untouched, open bottles of wine left unpoured. Enough to fill every hungry belly in town. Enough to quench every thirst. But I know how these things work. We don’t live in a world of Enough. There are only the worlds of Too Much and Not Enough.

I went to bed that night feeling full. Feeling drunk. And feeling like a failure.

Yesterday, I went to another party at the university, the retirement party of my favorite professor. The best lesson he taught me was to just say what needs to be said. He was talking specifically about writing, and my chronic abuse of metaphor, but the lesson applies to life as well. When the staff appeared at the end of the party, I said what needed to be said.

“What are you going to do with all this food?”

He answered as I knew he would, “Throw it away.”

Dr. Anderson and I began scurrying around, piling plastic plates and filling clean trash bags. Every last roast beef roll up was rescued, every juicy wedge of melon. The staff stood back and watched, their eyes filled with equal parts disbelief and approval. It’s possible I am the first guest they’ve ever seen dump an entire chafing dish of Spinach Artichoke Dip in a trash bag. I hope I’m not the last.

I loaded my car full of food and ice cold bottled water (They were even going to throw away the bottled water!) and aimed for the closest camp. On the edge of a parking lot, I threw a little party, for Curt and Donna and Jane and Richard and Andy and Morris and Mike and David.

And Ted.

When I went to bed last night, I did not feel like a failure at all.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sock It To Me

You don't have to open your front door to know fall has finally arrived. Just open your Facebook. We're all so busy talking about the crisp autumn air that we've completely forgotten to Instragram our breakfast. After a long, hot summer, everyone is giddy at the prospect of shaking the moth balls off our cashmere and brushing up on our favorite scarf knots.

Well, maybe not everyone.

For some, the chill in the air might not be welcome at all. It might be dreaded. Across the United States—in alleyways, under bridges, deep in the woods—nearly 600,000 men, women, and children are living outdoors. Just the other night, I was part of a crowd of 2,000 financially fortunate Little Rockers leaving Robinson Auditorium after a comedy show, all smiling our way to dinner or drinks or home. But when we got to our car, a homeless man was sleeping on the sidewalk, right there in the middle of the city, in his home of cardboard and Kroger sacks. I rode home thinking, what could he have bought with the money we all spent on an hour of laughter? What could we have given him?

Then I saw this video.

And I decided to use the Internet to do something awesome. Starting with socks.

In honor of Socktober, my family is holding a Sock Drive, just like my mom used to when I was a kid. I'm asking for your help. Can you contribute a pair of socks? If so, leave a comment below so I can contact you with collection information. Locations will also be posted on my Facebook page.

Let's stop talking about the weather and do something about it. Please give.

Monday, August 5, 2013

In Kind

The man stood in the Target parking lot, a sign in his hands saying he lost his job and needed help feeding his family. They were there, too—a thin young woman holding a beautiful infant daughter, an orange flower blossoming from her halo of black curls. Because I'm cheap, I only gave them a dollar. Because I'm kind, I then drove to Starbucks and asked for two cups of ice water to take back to them. The barista gave me the water, grudgingly, but not without tossing in a tip: "You know, you're just feeding stray cats."

The family stuck with me as I headed up Cantrell toward home. I thought about how one unlucky break could be the difference between pulling up my nice curved driveway and holding up a sign in a sweltering parking lot. We aren't so different, his family and mine. Our luck could run out, too. I was thinking about this as I drove past The Toggery, an ultra fancy children's boutique a few minutes from home. They had a sign, too—big colorful letters promising their affluent clientele huge summer savings. What could it hurt to ask? I went in and told the saleswoman about the family. "Is there any chance you could donate anything for their baby?" The saleswoman asked me to wait while she disappeared into the back. When she returned, she was gently folding three complete outfits—dresses, bloomers, hats. Before she could slip them into the bag, another saleswoman walked up and handed her a gorgeous smocked dress to add to the gift. I expected to be shown the door. Instead, I was shown amazing kindness.

I'll probably never be the kind of person who shops at The Toggery, but I hope I never stop finding ways to share their spirit of generosity and kindness to people.

And maybe even a few stray cats.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Belonging, noun:
1. possession, personal effect
2. close or intimate relationship

It was a Saturday morning and I was poking through one of three huge boxes of purses lining the edge of a yard cluttered with a life's accumulation of belongings. The girl having the yard sale was still in her twenties, too young to have amassed such a collection. I struck up a conversation about all those purses; the objects I find most interesting are the ones with a story. So she gave me the story: My mother died.

Instantly, I was transformed from shopper to vulture, picking around the corpse for a juicy morsel. When my grandmother died, my mother refused to sell any of her belongings. She couldn't bring herself to let strangers judge and haggle over her mother's memories. I thought she was foolish, giving everything away when it could be sold for good money. Now, I understood.

I bought a purse, but I couldn't get past its story. Every time I went to use it, I felt the weight of regret at making that poor girl put words to her sadness. Months went by before I finally decided to carry the purse to a going away party for a friend. As I rummaged for a lipstick in the dark hallway outside the ladies room, I looked up to find the girl from the yard sale standing beside me, eyes fixed on her mother's purse. A bemused smile broke through the sadness on her face: Today is the two year anniversary of my mother's death.

Belongings can have stories, and maybe some can even have ghosts, who slip out of the shadows to appear at just the right moment.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

I Remember Mama

In some families, sibling rivalry can be a real bother. (See: Cain and Abel.) In ours, it's pretty benign. We've never fought over men or competed in careers. We don't care who makes the most money or even who mom and dad like best at any given time. The sibling rivalry in our family revolves around just one small, yet critical matter: Who can give the gift that makes mom cry.

My sister, with the unfair advantage of incredible talent and generosity, usually wins. But not this year. This year, Mother's Day is mine.

This year, I have a secret weapon:

Once upon a time, Laura Brown was my teacher in an official capacity. She gave me things to read and things to write. She gave me guidance in the kindest of ways, with a gentle nudge or probing question, jotted in the margin of my paper in tiny lavender script. After the semester came to an end, I graduated from student to friend, but Laura continued to teach me. When I carelessly tossed a "funny" comment on my Facebook wall that got a cheap laugh at my mother's expense, Laura was there to gently nudge me again. "Honor your mother," she wrote in a private message."Be grateful that you still have her."

Just in time for Mother's Day, Laura came through for me again. Her new book, Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories, is her best writing assignment yet. On each page, Laura shares a simple memory of her own mom doing one of a thousand simple mom things: shopping, visiting, playing, caring. Like a good teacher, Laura then offers a selection of writing prompts designed to stir our own mom memories and some space for us to share them. In the end, the gift we give our mother isn't a book, but the knowledge that we have been listening, we have been paying attention, we do remember.

Thank you, Laura, for a beautiful book that will make my mom cry.

And thank you, Mom, for a lifetime of memories that no single book can contain.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Putting My Foot Down

It was at our neighborhood block party, a chance for people who share a zip code to come together and be neighborly. I spotted a woman I used to teach with, so I separated from my husband and started to catch up with her. A man I've never seen before came up and began talking to me as if we shared some past. We don't. I was immediately uncomfortable, but because I am pathologically friendly, I kept the conversation going just long enough to not seem rude. I got out as graciously as possible and moved along. Within minutes, he was back. I can't quite put my finger on what was so unsettling about him. He stood a little too near, acted a little too familiar. He was off-the-charts socially awkward, probably mentally challenged, but I wasn't afraid of him.

Again, I brought our conversation to the most polite end I could manage and searched the crowd for a safety net. A minute after I sat by my husband's side, the man appeared. Completely oblivious to my mounting anxiety, my husband excused himself to toss some things in the trash. He seized his opportunity. Sitting so close our hips almost touched, he began talking about my flip flops. Wasn't it great that it was warm enough to wear them? Yes, yes it was. Could he see one? Well, I guess so. Could he see the other? Ummm, okay. I didn't want to be rude. What about my feet? Could he see them?

Not my actual feet. These are much more attractive.

"No, you don't want to see them," I said, my assertiveness growing with my fear. "They're dirty."*

"Are they soft?" he asked. "Two years ago, I used to feel ladies' feet to see if they were soft."

Yes, I'm sure you did, Sparky. Right before they locked you up.

"No," I broke it to him, "You can't feel my feet."

And still, I sat there. Still, I was afraid to hurt his feelings.

As I searched the crowd to see what county that trash can was in, he made his move. It wasn't until I saw his hand slowly inching toward my foot that I finally put my foot down. I bolted, grabbed my kid, and headed straight for the sheriff. After the man was removed from the area, other women came forward to describe similar scenes.

A whole day later, and I'm still confused. How much responsibility do we each have to help others maintain face? Where is the line between kindness and recklessness? Can we be nice without being vulnerable? And harder still: how do we teach our children to be safe without teaching them to be afraid? Don't talk to strangers, we tell them. And then we go out into the world and do just that.

I don't know what's right. But I hope I'll always choose kindness over coldness. I hope I'll always give others the benefit of the doubt. I hope my instincts will always kick in before it's too late. And I hope my son will learn that if someone tries to do something to him that feels wrong, he should get up and unapologetically haul ass.

*Tip: calling one of your body parts dirty is not a deterrent to certain subsets of the population.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Land of Opportunity

My first two nephews were born in another state. I had to travel to be with them. I didn't mind. I liked them. A lot.

Eventually, they moved back to New York and we were able to spend more time together.

They liked me a lot, too.

But then I had to go and meet some sweet talking Southern man. For years, I'd harbored secret dreams of living in the South, where Spanish Moss drapes the trees instead of snow. I wasn't leaving for him so much as seizing my opportunity to get south of winter. Moving was bittersweet, but I knew my new life would be exciting.

Right after that part where it sucked.

My Going Away Party. Doesn't it look fun!?

Love looks like that sometimes.

But sometimes, it looks like this.  

Now it's his turn. My nephew just moved to Arkansas, not to be with me so much as to seize the opportunity to spread his wings and fly. I'm just a nice, soft safety net stretched out beneath him. 

Welcome to Arkansas, Will. I hope your adventure is everything you want it to be, and that the part where it sucks for those you left behind is very, very brief.