For weeks (months?) I have been watching this little tent, pitched in the park across the street from our house, wondering who might be inside. A few times, I thought the tent might have been abandoned, so still it was and my never having seen anyone come and go. But then I would see the tarp would shift, positioned to better catch the snow or the rain, and know that the tent was someone’s home.
Once it was clear, the thought occurred to me how absurd it was that there was a person living in a tent across from my own home, and I had done nothing to welcome this new neighbor, or at the very least, acknowledge his existence. But how and in what way? Each day I left my home and each night before I went to bed, I looked out the window one last time, I would see the tent and wonder how best to make a neighborly gesture.
And then one night, quite late and right before heading off to bed, I looked out my window that one last time, and there he was. The street lamp shone bright where he was, and I could see him quite clearly though I couldn’t tell if he was black or white. Just that he was young. And if I didn’t know he lived in the tent, I would have thought he was just like the rest of us who have an inside home.
In any case, he was shaking out the sheets and blankets preparing for bed, efficient and vigorous movements as he folder them up and placed them back inside. He appeared so focused and competent, like a camp counselor who showed the little ones how to take care of their gear. He then smoked a cigarette, had a quick pee, and disappeared into the tent. A moment later, a group of people coming home from late night fun walked by laughing, oblivious that only seconds before, there was a young man, a human being, getting ready for bed in the path they now walked.
There was something so poignant and devastating about how easy it was for the young man to become completely invisible, as though he never existed. I saw him a few other lonely late nights, so swiftly he moved, so good he was at disappearing. I felt even more that I had to find a way to acknowledge his humanity, but over the never weeks, I kept hitting walls of excuses. Did he want help or to be left alone – he was no doubt solitary but pitched his tent where he could be seen – for saftey or connection? How could I respect his privacy, be sure not to wake or startle him while in his tent yet introduce myself and ask if he needed anything? Was he dangerous, maybe a paranoid schizophrenic and my approaching him would appear as a threat?
Over and over, I would have these debates with myself and sometimes my family, all logical and reasonable, but all justifications for my inaction.
So, at last, on Christmas Eve, I decided at last to make a small gesture. I put some money in a Christmas card, a little bag of chocolates, and a note saying we would be happy to do his laundry if he thought that would be nice, and if so, to put his things in the accompanying bag and we will return when clean. As quickly and as quietly as I could, I placed the bag by his tent, aware he was inside and worried the sound of me might scare him.
A squirrel scurried by, a man walking through the park looked suspiciously at what I was doing. Would the chocolate attract racoons to his tent? Would someone else take the money, would he even find it amidst the other clutter, or would he use it on something harmful? Would he be offended by my offer to clean his clothes, or think it a Godsend? Was I a hypocrite to offer hospitality but not in my home? Offer a lousy $20 in the face of so much need?
In my small, somewhat pathetic gesture, I realized that the answers to these questions didn’t really matter and were, in fact, beside the point because they were unknowable unless I acted. If I only acted when I had the answers to such questions – ensuring I would feel useful, good, kind, smart, virtuous -- then I wasn’t really leaving a gift for someone else, but rather to myself.
And so, the risk of giving is that it might not be wanted, it likely won’t be enough, it may even be rejected. But there is no such thing as a perfect gift. Just the giving of the best you have to give at that moment in time.
I don’t know if the young man will ever see my gift or appreciate it if he does. I don’t know if I will ever see him again, or if my note will start a relationship that travels to places I cannot fathom at this point in time. I don’t know if what I do matters. But I do know that putting that small act into the universe is better than waiting for assurance that my instinct is right, my offering is relevant or I will somehow be rewarded with gratitude.
I don’t share this as a self-congratulatory anecdote, but rather, as one of my favorite Lyle Lovett songs expresses, a recognition that too often I resemble the “she wasn’t good, but she had good intentions.” There are many times I think of ways – small and big—to let others know I care, to reach out and share an encouraging word, leave a pleasant and unexpected gift, and yet I get too busy or second guess the instinct and leave my good intentions behind. More importantly, I withhold the chance for others to find meaning in my intention, however they do, leaving only an absence, and perhaps a missed opportunity of love.
And so, my New Year’s wish is that the young man in the tent is ok and that one day he arrives to a place in his life where he feels loved and safe. I wish too that we all do better when faced with a wall of excuses not to put forth a kind gesture, a signal of support, an expression, no matter how inadequate, of empathy.
It may not make a difference, but that is not for us to decide. We may get it wrong, but even then, we open a door to learning how to get it right the next time.
Happy New Year,