As I walked down the stairs towards the peeling blue painted double doors of the church basement, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. It is moments like this that it is quite clear I am an introvert and I just wanted to turn around and make a beeline for my car. Who’s idea was this anyway?
The week before I had been at a community resource fair as part of my job as a parent, family, and community engagement specialist (a truly extroverted position) and struck up a conversation with a professionally dressed woman with tight braids sitting at a booth with information on a drop-in homeless shelter for women in my town. Georgia* shared what her agency did and I shared about mine (home visitors and preschool classrooms for low income families) and she excited invited me to stop by the shelter the following Tuesday as they were starting up a weekly resource day.
I agreed to go for two reasons. The first is simply to create a connection that might be a resource for my families at work. The second is because it called to me. I long to know the homeless in my community in a more intimate way, beyond town meetings and newspaper articles, and this seemed one way to do that. But as I stood with my hand on the door of the church downtown, I wasn’t sure I was brave enough for this.
But I stepped inside despite my trepidation and made my way into a room filled with second hand couches that must have some stories to tell and there were just as many women there to tell them. I immediately felt out of place even though I had tried to dress with the day in mind: somewhat relaxed professional. I didn’t do a good job at all and now I felt like at high school kid who shows up at the beach themed dance dressed up for prom. Some looked as if they were wearing all the clothes they owned and here I was worried about if I had chosen the right outfit which made me rightly feel even worse.
But I soon recognized Georgia from the across the room and she made her way over to greet and introduce me to the women sitting at the tables and couches. It was hard at first to know who was a volunteer and who was taking refuge from the world but after a short while I realized it didn’t matter. Sally comes from the YMCA and her big smile and personality are contagious and Linda from the 211 resource center has women freshly out of rehab waiting to talk with her about being connected with services to help them stay that way. I met Jill who sits with her knitting and talks with the other women, often inviting them to take it up with her. Molly was easy to talk to and now that I have visited for a month or so I usually seek her out to start my visit chatting with on the large brown faux leather sectional that takes up a good portion of the room. Even though I am still not entirely sure what everyone’s place is here, there are regulars on both sides and I am getting to know each one.
Over these last weeks, my anxiety has been replaced with increasing comfort. After my second visit when I stayed longer than I had the time before, I was invited to stay for the daily meal which I reflexively declined with the excuse of needing to get back to work. Molly looked at me and said, “You have to stay and eat, you are one of us now.”
And so I did.
But the reason I am writing this today as part of the WordPress daily prompt Knit is because of my last visit to the shelter and the point of my story. I was sinking into the brown sectional sharing a pink lemonade drink with Molly as she described the extensions she is going to get for the holidays. Sally was sharing about her latest birthday adventure and Jill, whose normally mousy hair was “fairy strands” woven in today, was teaching a dark haired, shaking woman named Susan the simple steps to knitting a hat at the table. For some reason, the topic of food stamps came up and how they really aren’t stamps anymore, recipients receive a plastic card nowadays. And everyone sitting around me had their own memory of how “they used to be”, a booklet with actual paper stamps. I know because my family had to use them. When I was in grade school my alcoholic father was laid off from work and my family of 8 survived with the help of food stamps. I don’t know the circumstances of the other women as we shared these memories but it didn’t matter.
The conversation even led to “government cheese”. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it said out loud, “government cheese”. I thought I was the only one who called it that! It was surreal to hear everyone talking about something I held inside of me from my childhood. We all shared our own memory of that huge block of gooey only-God-knows-what’s-in-it staple. Someone wished they could still buy it and I assured her it was probably out there somewhere.
I sat there and was thankful for that moment. Not only because I was being shown that the world is full of twists and turns we don’t have control over and lead us in different directions but because it helped me realize one of life’s greatest truths: we really weren’t that much dissimilar and if you wait long enough, listen long enough, you will find you have commonality you didn’t know was possible. I think for me in the moment, I became knit in with the weave of the lives of the other women there. I just had to sit there long enough and listen.
I posted my story on my personal Facebook page as I often do with thoughts like this in hopes that in today’s social environment we realize that we aren’t as different as we think we are and the key to finding out how much we have in common is to step out of our comfort zone and sit down with those we aren’t sure we can connect with and listen.
*All the names in my story have been changed.