"Each contact with a human being is so rare, so precious, one should preserve it." — Anais Nin
A few weeks ago, I found myself scurrying around my back door like a mouse, grabbing any warm hat and gloves I could find and rushing to my car. I was driving now hurriedly toward Portland and noticed that my gas light was on. I noticed that my heart was racing from the rushed babysitter hand-off, from the feeling of letting others down with my delay. I texted a friend to let her know I was still coming while I pumped fuel. I began to settle into myself as I began driving again and eventually lost myself in music. Deep in lyrics, I hardly noticed as the exits flew by. It is rare that I drive at night and I felt like I was living in another time. As my littler son Adrian approaches three years old now and has stopped nursing, I’ve felt that I can enter the world again. At least, I have been dipping my toes back in, oh-so-gingerly. I’ve been in touch with long-lost-friends who I’ve missed. I’ve picked up long dried-out paint brushes and felt a part of me come alive again. I’ve begun to care once more about what happens outside of my familial cocoon. I feel a little bit like a toddler, though. There is a certain “push-pull” that I am experiencing. Some days, I wish for a more stretchy cord. Other days, I’d rather be nestled back in a dark room, rocking a baby into slumber.
I pulled up to my destination and the parking area was filled. I felt my heart fluttering again. It was not the safest of areas. I drove around for a few minutes and noticed a parking lot on the corner. I pulled in and found a space quickly, gathering my things and making sure my handbag was zipped up closed. I approached the building where I was meeting my group, looking for the right door to enter. Finally after circling the building, I found it. It was marked, “volunteers.” I was greeted at the door by Tyler who showed me where to sign in, where to put my things and then he told me to meet him in the kitchen. There I was instructed to wash my hands and was assigned to a serving station. I was told that I was lucky to not have been assigned to the dessert station. Apparently, it can get quite heated there. My job would be to dish out a heaping spoon full of pasta and explain to anyone who asked for seconds that they would need to come back once they had finished their first serving. Even in soup kitchens there is waste. I had done this work before with Coalition for the Homeless, from the back of a van under bridges and tunnels in New York City, but it had been a while. I was rusty.
I watched in anticipation as the doors opened and a flood of people came in before me, mirroring the flood of emotions I experienced upon seeing them. They quickly formed a line and were upon us. They knew this drill all to well. I took each person in as they came to me for a helping of what looked to me like a really delicious meal. Only in Maine do the soup kitchens serve steamed mussels. I hadn’t eaten much for my own dinner and was aware of my hunger. There were so many bright eyes, so many offerings of gratitude. I was amazed at both the diversity and familiarity of the individuals that I encountered. It seemed that every age and race and nationality were represented. There were men that held themselves like college professors and men who hid behind their baseball caps. There were women layered deeply for the cold and some layered in tattoos. There were many very weathered hands holding trays and some behavior indicative of severe mental illness. Some were particular of where their food was placed on the tray and others would have taken it in the palm of their hand. One woman accused me of giving her a smaller serving of pasta than someone else because she was a woman. My throat felt closed for the first 10 or 15 minutes that I was serving and I could hardly squeak out a “your welcome,” to the many “thank you’s” that were offered to me. I was overwhelmed with compassion for the need that kept coming and coming before me. I almost couldn’t believe it when someone uttered, “well, that was the small rush.” Just after that another much larger wave of people entered the building and this group seemed to be even more weary than the those who came before them.
There were so many things that crossed my mind as I continued to take in each person who came before me. I imagined their stories. I imagined what they thought of me. I imagined what it would be like to truly know each of them, and to understand what brought them there. I was aware that some had jobs and it was apparent that many of them could not work. I saw how their personalities were like a microcosm of the many varied ways in which people may be—grateful, angry, bitter, elated, humble, funny, particular, easy-going, forgiving, uncomfortable, comfortable, discouraged and hopeful. Suddenly, and as quickly as it all had begun for me, a metal gate began to be pulled down before me and as I pealed off my now sweaty rubber gloves and put my metal serving spoon down, I caught one last glimpse of the sea of people before me taking in their dinner at the Preble Street Soup Kitchen in Portland, ME. The only thing I truly knew about any of them was that they had all—each of them— been a baby at one time. Each one of them had come into this world as precious to somebody, if only for a single moment