Sunday, September 30, 2007


Normally the pitter-patter sound of rain on the bathroom skylight at night-time brings to mind comforting memories as I listen from my heavily-blanketed nest in bed. I recall burrowing into my sleeping bag in the bottom bunk-bed, in the attic of my Grandmother's cabin. In my memory, the gentle sound of the rain adds soft percussion to the soundtrack of a now-raucous-and-now-quiet card game my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles play below me. The intermittent bursts of Aunt Eldy's contagious laughter warm the cabin like the notes in a sax quartet.

But last night, the rain-song on my roof chilled me. I envisioned the people we met on Saturday at Tent City, huddled under scratchy woolen blankets, with nothing but the thin fabric of a tent or tarp to keep out the rain and cold.

Specifically, I thought about Amber, a woman so pregnant that one might justifiably whisper "whoa" upon seeing the size of her bulging middle. There can be no doubt that Amber is housing a goodly human being in her belly, despite the fact that Amber herself has nothing but a tent to call home.

I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, contemplating how many times that night Amber would heave herself from the metal cot, leave the relative warmth of her tent, and brave the rain to waddle her way, through the mud, to the row of port-a-potties that serve as Tent City's restroom. I wonder whether she had batteries for her flashlight or if she stumbled around in the dark, fervently wishing her baby boy would stop boogying on her bladder. I wonder if she lay awake, too, worrying where she'll live when the baby comes, or, like most expectant mothers, questioning whether she's ready to become a mother, and what kind of mother she'll be.

"There are no children living at Tent City," the Welcome Tent Woman tells me on Saturday as we unload some food and supplies. She is unaccountably bright-eyed and chipper for someone who spends each night nigh under the stars. Her sparkling eyes reflect the flame of a hope that refuses to be extinguished, in spite of her circumstances.

I'd like to stay and ask her about those eyes, but the girls are Wild Things, running in and out of the Tent Pantry, declaring "You sure have a lot of shelves! And a lot of coffee! And a lot of juice! That's so silly!" The girls see the port-a-potties and, to my chagrin, muster enough pee to justify their use.

We pile into the van, and as we drive away, Eleanor says, pointing, "I want to stay in that tent."

"Well, that tent is someone's home right now, and you can't stay in someone's home unless you know them, and you are invited," I say to her.

"Were we invited?," Sylvia wants to know. "No," I reply.

"Well, they have juice there," says Eleanor, revealing her motive. Ah yes, a place where the juice runs freely, I think, a veritable juice paradise.

We drive home, and spend the afternoon indoors, as the rain drizzles outside. Sylvia helps me bake cookies, comfortably nestling her 4-year-old body on the kitchen counter as she tastes each ingredient (except the eggs) in her little bowl.

While dinner cooks on the stove, we watch Dan Zanes music videos on the computer. Entranced by Zanes' amazing only-in-America-do-you-see-such-straight-white-teeth and his funny, wild hair, we take turns flapping our arms like chickens and turning them into waving trees as we sing, all around the kitchen (cockadoodle doodle do), all around the kitchen (cockadoodle doodle do)...

That day, nothing more is said about Tent City, or their Juice Stockpile. Instead, our thoughts trickle out like a leaky faucet, over the course of the coming days.

This morning, Sylvia looks up from her legos to make an announcement, which she declares as a definitive solution to a problem we've all been pondering: "When someone in our house dies, then one of the people who don't have a home can come and live in our house instead of the person who died." "Hmm," I say hopefully, the lilt in my voice indicating that would be one way to solve the problem.

We're listening to Dan Zanes again on the way to gymnastics. He's singing, "pay me you owe me, pay me my money down, pay me or go to jail, pay me my money down." Sylvia responds, "That man wants the money so he can buy a home."

I recall the out-of-the-blue question Sylvia asked me last week on the way to preschool: "Mama, why did God not build a house for him?" Without explanation, I know instantly she is referring to the man at our exit, the one with the sign that reads, "Homeless. Anything Helps. God Bless."

I don't know how to answer this question, and I say so. "I know God wants everyone to live in a safe and happy way, Sylvia, because God loves everyone. But I don't really know why some people have homes while others don't."

"Yeah, that's not fair, right Mama?," Sylvia asks.

I wonder whether she's thinking too much about the man at our exit, and the people at Tent City. Surely these matters are too weighty for a 4-year-old to bear.

Then I catch myself.

Sylvia is safe. She does not need to be shielded from thinking of others, from demonstrating concern beyond herself.

I want her to listen to the rain, and know this: Sometimes the melody is joyful, and sometimes it is sorrowful.

Both songs are music, longing to be heard.


jen said...

oh sister. once you truly see it you can never look back. it gets under your skin and in your eyes and you can't look anywhere else. someone else is suffering.

someone else is suffering while we have all we need.

she is safe. she is. you are doing exactly, exactly right. oh honey. thank you for this.

Nancy said...

This is beautifully written. Lovely.

And as Jen says, you're doing exactly right by your girls by showing them the joyful and the sorrowful bits of the melody.

Tranquila Seeker said...

Yes, beautifully written indeed. This is touching... I am deeply touched.

It is ever so clear that your girls have gleaned much from their momma. Whereas I only learned about homelessness - really learned about it and saw it for myself - in very recent years, your girls are learning early on. How much greater to expose little ones to the difficult lives of others so that they can grow up contemplating the injustice of the situation and eventually contribute to the solution(s). What an invaluable life lesson they have already begun to grasp! And you are right - they are safe and they show such capacity to think of others. That is encouraging - maybe our world WILL improve ... with the help of youngsters like yours.

Lori said...

Sigh.... I hear you.

I was just thinking something similar as Pumpkin and I sit warm and snug on this miserable day in our corner of the world. She is still in her pajamas, looking at books, warm, safe and dry.

Too many in our city, in our world, are not able to offer their child anything close to all of that.

painted maypole said...

oh, this is beautiful and heartbreaking. How is that a 4 year old isasking the smae questions that I, 29 years her senior, am still asking?

bgirl said...

ally, this is beautiful on so many levels, your writing, your compassion, your action, your teachings and your precious girls.

thank you for this moving post.

Heather and Martin said...

I hated going to visit Jim (not a relative, but someone who had asked for a penfriend) in New Zealand's highest security prison as a kid. I liked visiting Jim, liked the presents he gave us sometimes (don't know about the US, but here prisoners can make a small amount of money doing various workshop projects), and liked the icecream afterwards. I hated the watch towers, the clanging doors, the guards watching everywhere, the bleak concrete, the limegreen paintwork. I hated having my stuff searched and having to walk through the metal detector on my very own. And once, although I don't remember this, my Dad refused to have me and my older brother (aged, I believe, 7 and 9) strip searched to check for drugs.

But I'm so grateful. I'm 31 now, and I still have peers who've never seen inside a prison and who genuinely believe it's no less pleasant than a hotel or, at worst, a hospital (without the unpleasantness of actually being sick).

My Dad is a scientist, my Mum a doctor. Our background could have been very sheltered, but it wasn't. I don't know how much they even thought about it, but my parents took us everywhere they went (except work). I don't know how they didn't go mad, and how they found 'time-out' for themselves. If God gives me children, I don't think I'd do it quite the same. But it was a wonderful upbringing - going to prison, collecting for causes, sitting through church services, going to orchestral concerts and public lectures at the university (taking colouring books, then story books, then eventually listening and learning), going hiking - everything!

The thing was, they didn't shield us from anything, and barely censored our reading (we had no TV), BUT they talked through everything with us and helped us to understand it.

Thank you for including your daughters in this. It'll help them be whole people, and help make the world a better place!

Although, I still get that awful helpless feeling when I see people begging on the street. I can't bear to ignore them, and I'm too shy/scared to interact with them when it's not 'institutional', and I want to give them all the money in my piggy bank, too, except that I want to eat myself as well.

It's hard...

--Heather from New Zealand

Seattle Mamacita said...

what i love about your family is that you continue to push yourselves outside your comfort zone and that you continually seek ways to be a part of the action in our community. This is exactly the type of service I want the G to be a part of when he is tad bit older. I'd love to hear more about Tent city and the ways we can get involved.

Emily said...

You are such an amazing person and wonderful writer.

I spend, I think, too much time thinking about just the four of us. Perhaps it is time my son and I work together to think about others.

Worker Mommy said...


And she will know that because her mommy has exposed her to both. She will understand and she will have compassion and she will help because her mom thoughtfully taught her those important lessons early on in life.

Mrs. Chicken said...

oh my god, ally, this is heart-breakingly beautiful. your girls and you and your spirits ... I cannot express how this touched me.

Kellan Rhodes said...

I loved this post. And I love that Sylvia is thinking about these "BIG" problems. It is that 4 year old heart that is going to go out into the world one day. It is that child that just might change the world - find the answers. If they think about it now, imagine the time they have to ponder the answers! Good for you - what a good mother you are. Good post!

Little Monkies said...

I'm with Seattle Mamacita.

I love your girl, heart as big as the world has she...

Miss you heaps.

Bon said...

Ally, this really hit me, late though i am to it. particularly the part where you stop yourself, saying "she is safe. she doesn't need protection from thinking about this."

i think the belief that kids do need protection from thinking about sad things and unfair things - however well-intentioned - is a huge part of what's wrong with our culture, and may serve to teach them insularity and smugness rather than empathy.

thanks for this. food for thought.

Jenn said...

love, love, lovely.

what you are teaching is absolutely going to make a difference in this world, no doubts about it.

not a one.