Reality Check

Denise was addicted for twenty years to one drug. Now in recovery, she works part-time for a staffing agency. This past Monday, and perhaps on other nights, too, she slept in a homeless shelter.

But do not think of her as “down,” she says.

“That’s what people get wrong, you see,” she says. “I had my low days, for sure, but there were good days, too. All was not bad.” She was speaking of her years as an addict, but her self-assured stance made clear she wanted me to know she would not let her current circumstances pull her under, either.

Thank goodness our burdens mercifully slough away on occasion.

When I’m with the women at this overnight shelter on Monday evenings, they’re tired from walking miles to a job interview or traveling back and forth between missions that provide food and assistance. But they’re also enjoying the opportunity to relax, they’re massaging lotion onto their arms after a refreshing shower, and I almost forget why they’re there. Always, there is laughter; this week, Kathy showed up in a hat with deer antlers. Sometimes I’ll hear protests that they’re not up to playing theatre games, but the fun always wins out.

In other words, they’re just people.

When we get to talking seriously, these women mention their mothers. That’s what bothers them even now, even when they’re not sure where their next meal is coming from.

They’re just people.

Kim’s mother abandoned her when she was a teenager, resurfacing later to wreak havoc on Kim’s life with her own kids. Kim allowed us to play this scene out; Denise, as her mother, never responded to her daughter’s gestures of kindness, never reciprocated when Kim told her she loves her. She’s dying of cancer, but she can’t let her guard down.

Morphing various Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, I asked that people watching—the others were indeed wrapped up in the scene—offer physical images of how they saw Kim relate to her mother. We saw cowering; reaching out but keeping Mom at arms’ length; extending a hand while using the other to protect her heart. Kim responded to each.

Then I asked if someone wanted to step into the scene as Kim and try a new tactic. Mary protested: “Let Kim try again!”

“She can, but I’d like to see if someone could show us a new way. It’s like offering advice, except you’re doing it rather than talking about it.”

Carly, a soft-spoken woman who wanted to be Queen Elizabeth when she was little, raised her hand. She started the scene just as Kim did, but when Mom didn't respond, she tried something new.

“You act like I’m not even here,” she said.

Mom/Denise: “I don't know what you're talking about.”

“I'm just trying to ask you about your day, to talk to you.”

“I answered you. What more do you want?”

We were already getting somewhere; this was more than she'd given Kim. And then:

"How are you doing, Mom, really?" Carly said. Everyone held their breath.

"I'm...fine. I'm okay."

Mom/Denise, a very responsive actor, broke out of the scene and looked at me. “She got me there,” she said. “I had to respond.”

“Oh, I know,” I said. “We all see it. Keep going.”

They continued the scene. Mom slowly crawled back into her shell after finally responding to her daughter, but the fact she had come out at all was nothing short of a miracle. Everybody had something to say after that, about mothers, kindness, and relationships; in fact, I had to interrupt in order to end on time, to make sure everyone had an opportunity to shower before bed.

While the discussion was hopping, one woman said to me, “What happened to the theatre ‘games’? This is real life!”

Almost. “This is a ‘rehearsal for reality,’” I told her, using the words of Theatre of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal. “We're practicing in here what we need to do out there.”

And what is out there?

Something to be protected from, evidently; when I finished up, Shellie, the director, asked Mary to walk me to my car. Having just led a rehearsal for reality, I now found myself wondering if we should practice for something we’d rather not face at all.

But not every day is bad, right?

Denise works at a staffing agency. Jennifer works at McDonald's. Jessie is waiting to hear about a job, but tonight she is ill, her smiling face sunken.

Jessie was the first person to learn my name back when I started here, and tonight was the first night she wasn't up to participating, as she had fainted earlier and had trouble seeing. She's thinking maybe it's diabetes--"Probably because I only ate twice today," she said.

That's her reality. You could generalize her story as yet another plea for health care reform, for addressing welfare at the systemic level, because that’s indeed what it is.

Or you could see her story as that of an individual, a person born of a woman who may or may not have treated her well. You can wonder what to do in response.

Because not every day is bad. But a laugh and some lotion at a homeless shelter cannot make for a truly good day, and that’s the reality.


  1. I have a question about the ending.

    I really like how you brought out earlier that even someone addicted to drugs doesn't have only bad days. That really humanized what you normally think of as a zombie-like state. I also liked how you showed the woman enjoying a bit of laughter and lotion just like people who go home for the evening.

    What I was a little puzzled by is the ending that says none of this makes for a truly good day. At first I thought that "does not" was supposed to be "does." Then I read it again and it seemed like you were saying that nothing makes for a truly good day--for anyone. I jumped to that conclusion because you've been building up empathy between me and the homeless throughout and I thought you were wrapping up with "we all have bad days, but not all days are bad--enjoy the pleasures of life."

    Now that I re-read it, I think that you're saying that while we have much in common, in the end their reality is that they're still living in a homeless shelter.

    Am I right?

    If so, I'm wondering if that's the correct conclusion. Maybe these women do have truly good days. Maybe sharing a laugh for them is just like us--a respite from a hard day or frosting on a good day. I'm not trying to downplay their struggles and I'm certainly don't want to trade places with them, but I wonder if pity dehumanizes them. It would be like saying that someone who is paralyzed or poor or in a screwed up family can never have a truly good day.

    What do you think?

  2. You are right with your rereading. I know it runs in the face of even what the Theatre of the Oppressed people would say--Julian Boal always cringes when someone portrays the oppressed as downtrodden.

    But what does oppressed mean? It means there's a problem, a basic unjust situation. Yes, they absolutely have good days. But it's like when I was in a writing workshop using the phrase "true rest" for the time I was all bloody and stitched up in a hospital room after the birth of Simon. Yes I was resting, but that's not true rest, and realizing that made me reflect on the rest of my life and how the proportions were out of order.

    I would never begrudge these women a laugh or a good time. That's partly why I show up week after week. But seeing Jessie so low made me start to look at things in perspective and realize that something needs to be done. That's why I made the connection that they are people too--who have rotten mothers and many, many more problems than you or I. It is a wake up call to help people just like us who can't experience truly good days as we are able to because of basic injustices.

    I also want to resist the urge to make my readers, few as they are, feel good and cathartic after reading about these women. This is not chicken soup for the soul, because the reality is this is a homeless shelter. It's filled with people who don't have a place to lay their heads or their few possessions.


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