Recently, I started writing a lot. Sharing stories. And in return, people sometimes say really nice things about me and to me...and it totally freaks me out. Because I'm only able to do great things and share beautiful stories because of the people that I meet every day, that allow me to share those stories. That teach me how to be a better person than I was. There is nothing that I do, that I do alone. Not one thing. There isn't anything that I share, that wasn't taught to me through interactions with someone else. I am so fortunate to be surrounded by people who are amazing, who love each other and lift each other and support and encourage and are honest and vulnerable. I can be the best version of myself because I am surrounded by people who are nothing short of amazing.
When I write about my friends and neighbors, it's because I am in awe of what I learned from them. I am so surprised when I am confronted with things that I never thought of. And I want to share every bit of what people teach me, because I think that what they teach me is valuable, and that it should be passed on. I get weird when people say nice things about what I write because I wish everyone that inspired me was there with me to receive the compliment and to know how much people appreciated what they have passed on to me, that I then pass on here.
Does that make sense?
I guess what I'm saying is....I type the words, but these stories are written by many, many people.
I recently met a guy named Matt, who had come to Peoria from Florida, and was homeless, but on a very serious mission to not be homeless. He refused to stay in the shelter, because the shelter had a rigid structure that required him to be in and out at certain times. Matt was in the process of visiting a lot of social service agencies and getting identification together so that he could get proper housing. However, everywhere that Matt needed to go was pretty far away from the shelter and Matt was walking. He didn't have any money to take the bus. There was no way he could get to every place on his list and make it in time for the curfew shelter. So Matt took up temporary shelter in a dumpster enclosure, so that he could keep a schedule that would allow him to get everything done that he needed so that he could find housing. Matt would come see me every few days and take all of his paperwork out of his bag and explain to me everything that he had gotten done since the last time that I saw him. He talked a mile a minute and would not be deterred from his task of showing me everything in his bag, and occasionally, through his mile a minute speech, he would mention that he hadn't eaten. He never asked for food, and sometimes I almost missed the part where he mentioned that he hadn't had a meal. The first time he mentioned it, we were by a gas station, and I took him over to grab a sandwich. I pointed at a few things, and he said no, eventually saying there wasn't anything there that he wanted.
Here's what was going through my head: "Wow. He's awfully picky. Why can't he just pick something? It's not like he has to pay for it. He's lucky he's eating. I don't really have time to follow this dude around while he decides what free meal he's willing to eat."
We went to the liquor store, and there wasn't anything there for him either. Eventually, we came back to my bar and I made him some food, the whole time grumbling to myself about how picky he was. I gave him some chips to go with his sandwich, which he declined. I started complaining in my head again and then Matt opened his mouth and showed me his teeth. He said that there wasn't a whole lot that he could eat, because he only had a few teeth, and certain things really hurt his mouth. And he thanked me for the sandwich, because he could eat it, and it didn't hurt.
Because you know, Americans in general are SUPER picky about their food. I've worked in food service my whole life. I could recite the habits of picky eaters for days. I'm picky. I don't want mushrooms or peppers or red meat and if my tomatoes are too ripe they're going to make me puke and eggs have to be just so and I CAN'T EAT THAT IF IT HAS MUSHROOMS! Because I'm picky. Because we have the luxury of being picky.
But it's irritating when we give food to the homeless and they just don't fall over themselves with gratitude. When we give them whatever meal we chose for them, and walk away, leaving them to eat on their own. We don't ask them their name, we don't ask them what they want, if they have ulcers that make acidic foods difficult to eat, lactose intolerance, celiac disease, food allergies, or things that are just really gross to them. We just give them food, expect them to be grateful, and we walk away.
So Matt taught me a couple of things. Matt taught me that the shelter system, as great as it is, can sometimes hold people back, and that sometimes you have a better chance of getting ahead by sleeping in a dumpster. Matt knew exactly what options were available to him, and he knew what he had to do to make things ok for himself. If he had to sleep in garbage to do it, then he was going to sleep in garbage.
He also taught me that actually sharing a meal with someone, instead of just giving food and walking away, is an amazing and necessary way to connect. It's really easy to get wrapped up in your own world view, until you sit down and share a meal with someone whose world bears absolutely no resemblance to your own.
I am not working with an organization. This is not volunteer work. I am spending more and more time with the homeless, because every time I do, I walk away changed for the better. This community is transforming my life, and I am so very grateful to them and for them. I am thankful that they are willing to spend time with me. I am thankful that we can call each other friends.
This holiday season, I would encourage you to sit down and share a meal with someone who is nothing like you, who may not have as much as you do, who could benefit from a helping hand. My hope is that you can connect in a way that will transform your life, in the same way that these connections have transformed mine.