This morning, I gathered up my courage and left my hotel room alone. J’s taking park tours for his conference all day, so I’m on my own for sight-seeing in Portland today. i walked from Broadway to Burnside, and made right at 9th Avenue. And I wonder as I walk, why is it that the strangers that I pass today are more terrifying than strangers in my own city (although at times I fear them too)? I’m reminded of Jim Brandenburg’s words about dominance and submission in the wolf kingdom from White Wolf: Living with an Arctic Legend. He writes,
Dominance and submission are communicated largely through body language. In any given exchange, the dominant animal tends to appear cocky and aloof. He or she stands tall, with ears pricked forward and tail held relatively high, filled with an unmistakable confidence. The submissive animal, on the other hand, seems to slump as close to the ground as possible, almost as if seeking refuge in the earth. The tail curls between the legs, the ears are tucked back, and there is an expression on the face that seems to say, “Like me, please–or if that’s not possible, at least don’t bite.”
And as I walk I avert my eyes from those I pass, and sort of crouch further into myself. I myself am inwardly pleading, please, please don’t hurt me. Please don’t talk to me. I don’t like that I do this, but I do it nonetheless. And I have not had a traumatizing experience to legitimize this fear.
When I first graduated from college, I remember the idea of people being made in the image of God became of significant importance to me. And acknowledging this image in people became a way of recognizing personhood and loving people. Now, my first thought of people is not the image of God in them. But rather that they may injure me, rob me, or heaven forbid, ask me for money. (Which I’m horrified by this trend in my thoughts. But it is there nevertheless.)
I rarely carry cash because in a debit card society, I don’t often need it. Yesterday, when I was approached by strangers asking for change, I felt a sense of shame when I have none. I say with blushing face, quickened step and a pat on my pockets– that I have no change. Because I carry none. I’m always afraid I’m saying no to Jesus. Today I think, why is it worse to say no to Jesus (who doesn’t actually need the money or food) than to a living person in need? This logic no longer makes sense to me. And after being hit up for money so many times the day before, I no longer want to carry cash. I plot ahead to harden my heart. I feel shame, but can’t truly sacrifice for another. This is ironic, and truly hypocritical of me–especially as I’m appalled by our country’s every-man-out-for-himself attitude. Yet when it’s my turn to pitch in, I balk. How convenient. For today, I’m at least comforted by being honest about the situation.
I found myself horrified by the sheer number of homeless in Portland. After reading all these wonderful things about the city, its gardens, transit and “green living”–the number of homeless I encountered was staggering. Particularly the number of young adults who are homeless and begging. I am still shocked and disheartened. Why the youth are more staggering than older men and women, I am not sure. Maybe it’s because I still see myself in their eyes but for some quirk of fate?
J and I sleep in an expensive hotel in the heart of downtown. In the park, just behind our hotel, three homeless men are still sleeping as I walk past. They are figures hunched over on granite park steps, two in shades of grey, and one in a navy blue sweatshirt. As I pass another shaded park bench, the shadows of the trees feel heavy and weighted. Shadows shouldn’t be oppressive, and yet they are. By the elephant statue another man sleeps on orange blanket. The same park I thought was amazing yesterday in the glittering afternoon sun, now seems filled with hopelessness, darkness and despair. Does eighteen hours make such a difference? Apparently. I walk no more than five blocks to the bakery, and in that time I see at least ten people who have spent the night outside. This dichotomy of sleeping in luxury while others go without a place to sleep just a block away troubles me. And I have no answer for it.
I tell myself as I walk, that if anyone asks for help, I’ll invite them to Pearl Bakery with me. I’ll treat to pastries and coffee and eat my breakfast with them and chat. I take a deep breath and take up my courage.
And no one asks me. I feel strangely bereft. Alas, I have not overcome; I have not really stretched myself. I am still all mental talk. No action. I comfort myself with the thought, maybe tomorrow. Maybe. And perhaps the better goal would be to invite someone before they asked.