No Easy Answer

I know that there isn’t a simple fix, an easy answer, by the time I actually set my laptop to the side and make my way to the counter of the coffee shop.  The owner has been talking to her for at least 15 minutes by this point.  He is incredibly patient.  He is willing to help.  He is the epitome of Christian love in dealing with this woman.  But it’s clear that they aren’t making any progress.

I noticed her briefly as she walked in, a woman probably in her late 40’s or mid 50’s.  The others notice her as she comes in as well, but they notice her mostly for the conversation she is trying to have with the owner.  A missed bus.  A missed bus stop.  Transportation problems.  Looking for friends.  Does she want to make a phone call?  Yes, yes of course.  But the owner has stood there for at least 10 minutes with the phone in his hand, and she has not given him a number to call except for government offices that he patiently explains are closed at 9:00 at night. 

The coffee shop is small, and the jazz music in the background is not enough to drown her voice and prevent the smattering of people hunched over their laptops and lattes from flitting nervous eyes around the room at one another.  I go to the counter, looking for the trash bin to dump my cup.  If you need a ride someplace, I can give you a ride, I hear myself say.  But I know it’s not really a ride that she needs.  Perhaps she knows this as well.  The owner gives me a dubious look.  He’s tired.  Frustrated.  The woman furtively glances up at me without making any definite response to my offer.  I can’t help you with a place to stay, but if you have a place to stay, I can get you there, I reiterate.  Again the pointed, awkward shuffling through a small memo book in which are stuffed frayed business cards.  She rejoins the owner about another call she could make.  He explains that nobody will be in that office at 9:15 at night. 

I return to my seat.  It isn’t long before she concludes her time with the owner.  She moves towards the exit, which is directly to my right.  In my peripheral vision I watch her body language, the body language of someone unsure of what to do.  I have just about decided that she’s leaving, when she suddenly swings around to seat herself next to me.  She begins talking.  A rivulet gushing into a stream pouring into a river of words.  She just needs to get a hold of this woman at Von’s, who said she knew of a place that she could stay for $650 a month.  But she’s not sure if this person is still on shift at Von’s or not.  Nor does she know where the Von’s is.  Everything is cloudy and uncertain.

I know that this will not be a conversation that comes to any form of happy resolution.  But I endeavor.  Do you have a place to stay?  Where did you stay last night?  Where did you stay the night before?  How long have you been in town?  Where were you trying to take the bus to?  All dead-ends.  All curly-cues circling back on themselves.  She has no where to stay.  She slept outside last night.  She probably slept outside the night before.  And probably the night before that.   She claims she’s only been in town for four days.  She came from the Valley because it was so hot there she kept passing out.  She has dark, long hair and a face that is not overly weathered, hands that are not overly calloused and hardened by too many days in the sun.  She’s wearing hose or tights beneath her coat and what I guess is a skirt.  She doesn’t smell bad.  She waves her hands as she speaks in circles, short chopping motions, and one of her fingers has a slightly odd bend in it that I focus on.

There is this house, but it’s in the Valley, an hour or more away, she shares.  She could stay there. 

Do you know the address? 

Well, it’s near the 405. 

Do you know the address?  Do you know them? 

She never knows how many people will be staying there, and they aren’t always very kind.  I tell her I can take her there if she knows the address.  She can’t go there.  They asked her to leave.  We return to square one, and I look at the crisp, firm lines of that square that surround us, but mostly her.  Can she ever leave square one?  I thought of being a teacher once, she confides.  I have a lot of things that I want to tell people. 

They stole her state ID card.  They stole her college transcripts.  Do you know how difficult it is to get college transcripts?  You have to send the envelope within the envelope.  Who knows how long it would take to get those again?    She slept outside last night.  It was cold, and she was a little worried, but it was near a store that was open all night and they told her they wouldn’t bother her.  When she awoke at the crack of dawn this morning, a policeman asked her who she was and where she was going.  I’m a single woman, but I have a right to walk down the street.  He asked me if I was all right.  I asked him to ask all these other people if they were all right.  What other people he asked?  This whole city, I replied.  There are lots and lots of people here in their houses, why don’t you ask them if they’re all right and leave me alone.

The Motel 6 won’t let her stay there without her state ID.  Even though the Christians were willing to pay over the going rate for a room for her.  She had thought of starting a church once.  A friend of mine said she thought I would be good at that. 

It’s almost closing time.  I could try to get her a hotel room at the Motel 6 she says refused to give her a room before, but she seems unlikely to stay there, even if I could get her the room.  I tell her to go back to where she stayed last night, where it was safe.  And in the morning she could call the names and numbers on the business cards and scrawled amidst the doodles in her memo pad.  The people would be awake then, in their offices.  Maybe they can help you tomorrow

I don’t know why things are so hard for me, she says out of the blue.  I’m not a perfect person, but I know lots of other people who aren’t perfect either, and they don’t have these problems.  I try to share the Gospel with her.  It isn’t about how perfect you are – nobody is perfect.  Jesus loves you, He’s not punishing you for something.  I don’t even know her name.  She nods, probably out of habit.  I begin gathering my things together, packing up my laptop. 

I feel guilty for being anxious to get away, to step out of the torrent of words and to dry myself off.  I have nothing to offer her, nothing that can help what she is dealing with.  I’m not sure who can help.  She seems doubtful of help.  Frightened of being abused by police officers and social service workers who classify her and then determine what help she should get and they can give based on that classification.  I give her my card and contact information.  I point her in the direction of Von’s again, so she can find her friend tomorrow morning. 

Father please clear that woman’s mind.  Free her from whatever powers or conditions that have narrowed her world and her vision into the tight little circles she runs in now.  Restore her.  Protect her.  Guide her.  Assure her of your great love for her, regardless of whether her imperfections are more noticable than mine.  She’s your child, your creation, and I know you love her, even when I am unsure how to – or more ashamedly, less inclined to try.  Someday, I p
ray that she and I will meet again, when you have healed her and restored her, and together perhaps we can smile about this evening, because I don’t feel much like smiling about it right now.  Amen.

10 Responses to “No Easy Answer”

  1. SarWakem Says:

    Long time casual reader, first time poster here. Your prayer was very moving, emotionally and spiritually. I just wanted to say that even though you were not able to help her deal with her issues directly, you still tried which may have been more than anyone has done to such an extent for her in a long time. I am appreciative of your generosity to others. We live in a hard world where it is difficult for anyone to feel understood or be reassured of their troubles. Having not known her, you describe her vividly and I can’t not think about her. Thank you for your compassion. I pray that she will find her way. God bless you all. – Sara W.

  2. Melani Says:

    well that made me get teary eyed! What a story….makes me think of when we went as a family to Farmer’s Market last Saturday…there was this woman who had 2 children. Both kids were blonde with curls, sort of, their hair was dirty, they were dirty, they had no shoes on and no clothes on…well the baby had a diaper on and the older one, maybe 3? just had on what appeared to be shorts…the mom looked virtually lost, in a completely different world. I looked at Ponch and said oh my, how sad, and he replied, yeah very…what a shame, those poor kids. Neither of us knew what to say/do or not to say or do….just when you think you won’t see homeless women much less children on the streets of Camarillo, you are surprised. Your prayer was wonderful and that is what made me want to cry.

  3. Paul Nelson Says:

    I love how you put it – “I can’t not think about her”.  Perhaps at the crux of the issue is this simple reality, far simpler than the complexities of her situation of body, mind, and spirit.  I can’t not think about her either, nor can I stop from trying to figure out what more could have been done.  I may never have the answer, but I will hopefully always have the struggle.  Perhaps that was her gift to me.

  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    There are lots of things we think we’ll never see, or that take us by surprise.  How do we struggle as Christians and part of Christian community to respond to these things?  We can’t fix all the problems of the world – that’s Jesus’ job.  But we can make important differences here and there – if we’re willing to be open to that possibility.  It may mean listening.  It may mean a gift of food or money or clothes.  My fear is that I will stop seeing these things though, stop struggling for a response.  I’m pretty sure that’s a major red flag in Scriptural terms.  The tears are perhaps a good beginning, and a good reminder of where our hearts should be – and maybe already are.  The question becomes how do we line our hands up with our hearts?

  5. Marie Says:

    That is absolutely heart breaking.I do think people generally get what they want, even if it’s not what they need. This woman didn’t want a place to stay or a ride. She wanted someone to look at her, and she got that. I imagine she’s right, and that is more important than a roof.

  6. Paul Nelson Says:

    Hmmm…an interesting perspective, to be sure.  And yet, I’m not sure if it can be applied too quickly here.  This woman seemed clearly to be struggling with rational thought – or at least ordered and intentional thought.  I’m not sure if she even could discern what she wanted versus what she needed.  I do pray that our time together helped to give her something, whether a want or a need.  This brings up an interesting issue.  I felt responsible for trying to help her attain what I felt she needed.  So a thought process something like this had to have occurred:1.  Awareness of someone2.  Identification of some need in that person3.  Identification of the person’s need for assistance4.  Identification of my ability to help fulfill that need5.  Expression of willingness to help6.  Refinement of the actual need7.  Evaluation of my ability to help that needI’m not sure that I’ve actually thought through these steps before (and so I may have missed some or added too many!).  I became aware of this woman when she entered, but more particularly when I began to overhear her conversation.  Which led to my identification that she had a need for transportation.  In conjunction with this, I became aware that she was having difficulty figuring out how to meet this need, and so I offered help.  At that point, I had to re-evaluate what the actual need was, because the need that I had heard her expressing turned out to be incorrect, or at least not the only need.  She not only needed transportation, she needed an actual place to stay.I guess I can’t say whether or not this woman got what she wanted.  Part of me believes she didn’t, even if she got something she might have also wanted – the attention of another person.  But it’s interesting to start to identify my role in the process, and begin to question whether some of those steps are fair, or valid, or even actually helpful.

  7. Marie Says:

    I actually don’t think the process of getting what we want is usually a rational and conscious one. I think of it like parents and kids, as much as you may gripe about some habit or other of your kids, it usually is part of the package you’ve purchased with the choices you’ve made all along. For example, I’ve got a loud family and am jealous of peaceful children. But, in fact, the things I do encourage them to be verbal and loud and since I do want those things, I get the package. I’m not saying she didn’t want a place to stay or a ride, but what you describe tells me she was using those (genuine) needs to try to get another very genuine need fulfilled — the need to find someone who cared whether she got a place to stay or a ride. Look at all the extra information you got about her in your talk. The times I’ve been in that situation, I get so much extra information about that person’s life. I think more than anything, folks in bad places (like all of us) want to be known. Practicality demands that we can’t go on forever fulfilling that need (and neediness, which sometimes becomes obsessive and disordered). But I’m guessing you and the store manager took her through the night. And I think it’s respectful to fill the need the person herself believes she needs most filled, rather than (as your list implies?) chucking her judgment further down the list because we believe a dry bed is more important. I guess, in other words, while you were running down your list evaluating and reevaluating, properly, what I think is interesting is that you were automatically and instinctively taking care of at least part of the need that seems to be at the top of her list. You listened to her enough to remember what she said and write it down here, instead of editing out all that “unnecessary talk” in order to get at the information about places and phone numbers that you thought you were supposed to be looking for.If that makes any sense. These are difficult places to be, but I’ve noticed that the tendency of myself and others is to recognize that we are unlikely to go very far in meeting any of the needs of a person in this situation, therefore we walk away. I think giving her something, if not everything you’d hoped for, was a very valuable thing to do.

  8. Paul Nelson Says:

    Beautifully stated, Marie!  My initial response is my autonomic reflex against generalizations – regardless of whether they may be true in the moment of application.  But I agree (and pray!) that at some level, that time she spent with us was good for her.  That it fulfilled some level of need regardless of whether she was aware of it.  When dealing with someone who doesn’t appear to think in the same sorts of manners that I label as normal, I think it’s difficult to say whether her motivations were conscious or not.  She undoubtedly does have the need to be acknowledged and treated as a human being, whether she thinks about things the same way the rest of us do.  But I hesitate to ascribe actual intent in her actions to achieving that need.  But hey, I could be completely wrong!  That’s the joy of this sort of interchange – it pushes me to think in directions I would otherwise overlook.I think as I’ve thought and rethought this woman and our exchange, what made me most uncomfortable – thanks to your probing – is the idea that I felt that I had the right answer for what this woman needed, and that I would use that analysis to try and direct things towards that end.  Granted, she was setting the stage for those assumptions.  But what I came away with in disappointment was the result of knowing that I hadn’t solved the problem I had set out to solve, and yet for her, it might not really have been a problem at all.  To me, the idea of not having a place to stay the night is monumental.  To her, despite what she said, it may not have been.  I don’t know.  She was focused on finding a place to stay, but unfortunately, not in a way that was going to resolve that situation.  At least, that was my assumption.I’m disquieted by exactly what you describe – me “running down my list evaluating and reevaluating”.  It’s a part of who I am, I think.  And yet in doing that, what other things did I miss?  I caught the confusion she seemed to have about God, but could I have responded more fully with the Gospel if I hadn’t been preoccupied with trying to unravel the spaghetti ends of her alleged friends and contacts, trying to find out if there was one of them who would take her in for the night?  Probably.  I think that’s what bothers me the most.  I take comfort in hopefully having given her something, but I struggle with the fact that I couldn’t give her something else she clearly needed.  And at that moment I have to lay it back in Jesus’ hands, where she rests and will continue to rest.  Grateful for forgiveness for any failure on my part in those moments, seeking for wisdom to help guide me in the next one.  I’m grateful that to have this opportunity and the insights of someone else towards that end.  God is good!

  9. anydiets Says:

    And you have a cool site and blog!

  10. gyroscopyref Says:

    And you have a cool site and blog!

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