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March 31, 2009


This is probably going to sound simple-minded, and it isn't much of a solution, but I think we were meant to live in villages at most. Having to treat the vast majority of people we come in contact with on a daily basis as strangers is profoundly unnatural for such intensely social creatures as we are. The habits this forms - avoiding eye-contact, avoiding involvement in or resposibility with the lives of others - can't help but warp us, I think.

I had heard somewhere that groups of 3,000 or so (I believe) are the maximum within which people can really function. I think the context was in terms of dividing giant companies into departments. It seems like a huge number until I remember the size of cities.

There was a woman who sat outside the drugstore all last winter with her cup and a sign that said - increasingly gratuitously - "Pregnant, please help." I gave her money once and the gloves off my hands once, but I walked past her dozens of times and I must own six pairs of gloves.

Thanks for this, Beth.

I am the same; I notice and I wonder and I wish I could do more. I think recognizing her might have been too much for me, Beth.

In this city, at least, the neighborhoods do function as smaller units. I recognize most of the street people in, say, a six block radius of my home. We're not talking about a huge number, as American cities go - maybe a dozen who habitually hang out outside the stores. Some are disabled; some are "professional" beggars who look pretty well-fed and healthy. This woman, who I saw again yesterday, is in that group, but like the man who begs outside our cathedral every Sunday, I feel some responsibility to her as a neighbor. In Canada much more of every tax dollar we pay goes toward social programs than in the U.S.; none of these people should be without health care or shelter or food programs, but some can't function in the "system" and need special help. Low-cost, subsidized housing, especially with a low level of supervision or practical help, is another pressing need. Working on these problems politically is one way to make a real difference, it seems to me, but it stretches me and teaches me more to make actual human contact with street people and try to connect as fellow human beings. I'm going to work on that in the coming year.

Beautiful writing, Beth. Thank you.

There's the political solution, and there's the personal ethical solution. Different things, but both necessary. The political solution is easier to figure out, I think; the other thing is hard.

And I wonder, as more and more of us become distant from hunger, from a raw aching lack of food, whether we lose our sensitivity to the need around us. Already there are some in this country who haven't been hungry or inadequately clothed in several generations, for whom the long human memory of physical need is already fading.

On a cold night in a strange city, it's much more likely that you'd be taken in by the poor than by the rich. I have a friend who says he can't relate to the rich because they're "too competent." I know exactly what he means.

Perhaps I think this is different than it really is when you deal with it every day. I've spent my entire life in small towns and affluent suburbs. There aren't many street people here; in fact, I can't say that I've ever seen one person begging in this town. That's probably miraculous in itself, I suppose.

For me I find that the biggest gift that I can give is to stop and look, really look into the eyes, of those people sitting on the pavement as I offer them something, anything, even a gesture of solidarity and recognition. Occasionally I find myself sitting and talking, and the stories I hear make me think hard all day. Small kindnesses mean a great deal in a world that appears not to care.

My recent experience with a woman begging in Kars north eastern Turkey. Two weeks ago. In Kars I bought myself a woollen shawl of the kind worn by 'old Turkish ladies'. Fine wool, grey with a band of blue/brown around the edge. I wore the shawl tied in front over my fleece jacket. One night we were walking back to the hotel from dinner when I saw a woman begging in exactly the same shawl. She was a large woman, with head scarf (as well as shawl) and voluminous skirt underneath which could be seen thick handknit socks and heavy shoes. She was sitting on the step of a closed shop holding out her right hand and muttering (no doubt promising blessings from Allah for those who put money in her hand). I was wearing my shawl over a western fleece jacket with tight jeans. She looked at my shawl and looked down at hers. I repeated the action. We looked each other in the eye and, sad to say, I had no change whatsoever so didn't give her any money. I wonder if she told her family about the 'infidel' in the same shawl who was clearly rich yet didn't donate? If I knew how to do it I could post a picture of me in the shawl - but I don't.

What Dave said. And Beth, I do so empathise with this post.
Your beggar story reminds me of this: A familar sight used to be an old man begging in a doorway by Camden Town underground station. He had a beard, long white hair and a noble profile. One winter around Christmas I decided to buy him a nice big cake. Feeling all benevolent I approached and handed him the parcel with my good wishes. He looked inside and handed it back to me: "I don't eat cake" he said sternly. I was too embarassed to engage him in conversation so I sloped away.

Downtown Portland is rich in street beggars. I only give maybe one in fifty that I go past any money -- i.e. a couple times a week -- but one thing I absolutely won't do is avoid eye contact. I've held that resolution for thirty some years, and almost never broken it. To say no is one thing, but to pretend they're not there -- no, that I won't do. I meet their eyes & shake my head, or mutter "sorry."

But that's for me, not for them. I don't feel I could refuse to acknowledge their existence and remain fully human.

To follow up on my earlier thought--that encounters with the very poor should remind us of our fragility, should remind us that we were once desperately poor, or our parents were, or their parents. Or if not poor, at least at real risk of it--to follow up on that, I dug up this quotation:

"The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing"--John Berger.

Like Dale, we should at least try to look, we should remember that saying "no" or "sorry" is better than the refusal to look/refusal to speak. Better for us if not for them.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.