To enter The Open Door, an overnight shelter for women, you stand in a covered entry way and press a button. A man across the street is yelling curses, but you know he'll stay a silhouette in his usual doorway, too drunk and old to act on his threats. Through the intercom you're asked your name, and when you open your mouth to answer, a strong wave of urine stings your throat and nostrils. You look down and see splashes on the wall near your feet.
You say your name, and with the buzzer you open the heavy door. After passing through you press it closed behind you. The scent of urine lingers as you walk up the first of two flights of steps, but soon you're on the third floor where everything is well-kept and clean. There's flowery lotion, the soapy smell of recent showers, the warmth of running dryers.
In this place, this past Monday, I led theatre games. Three days before Thanksgiving. I had no doubt that the women there are deeply grateful for many things, most especially the services of this shelter; they've often said as much. Last week, Kay told me she is extra thankful this year because after 37 years of clinging to painkillers and drink, she's recovered, has reconciled with her son and will spend the holiday with "real people" ("you know, real people like you," she said to me).
I happened to see Kay later that week in Panera with her family. She hugged me and looked so happy and nicely dressed. And then I saw her leaving the restaurant with them, and took note that on this 45 degree day, she was the only one without a coat.
Thanksgiving, I decided, would best be approached through a back door.
In Just Like Heaven, an illustrated book by "Mutts" comic creator Patrick McDonnell, Mooch the cat takes a snooze under his favorite tree. A fog settles in, and Mooch awakens wondering where he is. Heaven? Could it be? He walks around town seeing it with fresh eyes. Even the dog who always gives him trouble surely should be handled differently in heaven, thinks Mooch; in response to the dog's bark, the cat offers a hug. Mooch ends his exploration of heaven back at his favorite tree, and settles in to nap again. Upon awakening in the same spot, he marvels at the memory of the wonderful place where he had traveled.
I read Just Like Heaven to the women and invited them to think about this idea of perspective. How, sometimes, perspective is the only aspect of our circumstances that we can change. Curses can be seen as blessings with the right eyes, or at least as having a couple of blessings built in. I then read a quote I had found while researching my next story assignment on students with disabilities. A young woman with cerebral palsy had said, "God has given me this opportunity to be different in this way, and I accept it with honor and grace."
Jessie said that being homeless has been a very low point for her, but she knows that when she gets back on her feet, she'll be different.
"I'll be grateful for what I have. I won't take things for granted," she said.
"Jessie, what do you think about words like that young woman used?," I asked, not quite sure about them myself. "Do you ever think, 'God has given me this opportunity to be homeless'?"
"No," she said, firmly. "It's almost like she's blaming God when she says that--well, not blaming, but saying that he could have stopped it if he wanted to. But God didn't make me homeless; I did."
Does God cause or allow our difficulties? That's a big theological question. Only one thing was sure for these women: homelessness is just around the corner, no matter who you are. "If you told me three months ago that I'd be here right now," said one woman, whose children are staying with their grandmother, "I'd never have believed you."
I asked them to make a human sculpture representing Jessie's mixed blessing of homelessness. Carrie was on the floor, hands reaching out for help; Donna stood nearby hugging herself in gratitude; Jessie, at her back, folded her hands in thankful prayer.
A new woman, quite young, seemed to be very taken with this image. "What were you doing there?" she asked. "I mean, I know it was about gratitude, but...but..."
"But 'why' were we doing it?" I asked. "Why didn't we just talk about it?"
I told her how I believe our bodies inform our thinking just as words do, and by doing this for Jessie, we understand her in a new way. Jessie chimed in her agreement, and then in a few simple words said it best.
She summed up why I'm there every week doing the only thing I can think to do about the urine, the coat, the curses.
"This," Jessie said, gesturing to our makeshift stage, where sleeping mats were now unfolding, "is how we pray."