Sometimes you just "chance" upon something profoundly sad and disturbing. It sets you on your heals a little. The scene assaults your sense of "today will be a normal day." But when you experience it, your mind replays what you saw, and each time, you feel a stab of pain, or "I hate this!" How long, Lord?
Earlier this morning, Tricia and I went for a long walk on the Boardwalk, beginning in Ventnor, and heading north to Atlantic City. While there were a usual assortment of walkers, riders and runners, young and old, the "traffic' was lighter than the summer hordes. The day was warm and muggy; there was some fog blowing off the ocean and enshrouding the casinos a couple of miles down where we were heading.
A few minutes past the Ventnor-Atlantic City line, I happened to notice to my right an old woman-taking a cold shower at the outdoor showers near the Boardwalk. Swimmers use it to wash off the sand and salt. What caught my eye was that she stayed fully-clothed while she washed. Her hands were under her clothes as she bathed. I understand why. It must be agonizingly humiliating to have to shower at all in a very public place because you have nowhere else to do so. For an old women to have to do so must be horrifying.
To be honest, I didn't look for more than 2-3 seconds. I didn't want to embarrass her, and frankly, I was felt a rush of sadness at what her life left her to do. She had to be in her late 60's. She was tanned, wearing what looked to be stuff she's scrounged, or had been given to her in a shelter. She had her possessions in a stroller-like contraption and little else.What shame she's had to bear.
Where was her family? Where were her friends? How did her life get to this place of showering in a public shower with strangers jogging by for their morning constitutional? More than likely she was not "living her dream," - if she'd ever had the chance try in the first place.
Seeing her suffering (trust me it's suffering, no matter how self-sufficient, high or seemingly OK these folks look to be), left me angry and sad, frustrated, and a little depressed. I really hate that situations such as hers happen at all, no matter who's at fault. The human condition because of sin and failure, and the putrid fruit of inhumanity always feels wrong. The world was not made to be a playscape for sorrow and pain and loneliness.
I've never been OK with what folks like her must endure. I often feel powerless, at best, to do much about it, almost stymied to make any real dent in the waste of lives I witness.
Anyway, our lives crossing with her's did not end there.
Heading back , maybe 20-25 minutes, later we encountered her again. She was sitting on a bench which populate the Boardwalk here and there. As we approached her, about 10 yards in front of us, she got up, gathering her "stroller" and assorted stuff, and started to walk toward us to our left. As she got within earshot she said twice (with increasing vehemence), "That's just shower water!." At first, I had no idea what she was talking about until I looked down at the bench where she'd sat. It was wet.
I almost wanted to cry. Tricia turned back toward her as she walked and said, "That's OK." It all felt very awkward. For some reason, she wanted us to know she'd not relieved herself on the bench. The truth is, I don't know if she did or didn't, and I wouldn't have cared either way. I wanted her to know that she is a person, and I don't know what I'd be like if I was in her shoes.
I wanted to turn and give her some money, but that felt pointless. What would that really do to relieve her of having to take outdoor showers in front of Boardwalkers, or whatever other indignities she's learned to adapt to? We've given money to all sorts of homeless folks in Northampton. After awhile, it seems like an impotent gesture of acquiescence to "it is what it is."
I want to be a part of a more substantial solution. It's tied to the Gospel. It's tied to the Kingdom of Christ. It's tied the the church of the broken and "once we were forlorn and lost."
Seeing her darkened the entire day for me. I just felt low and out of sync. I'm noticing more and more of this kind of thing, even in Northampton. People are slipping through the cracks in increasing numbers, the elderly included. I'm not sure that's going to change because of the milk of human kindness, gift cards and food stamps.
Nevertheless, if I get to see her tomorrow or the next day, I'll give her money for food, and perhaps talk with her -- maybe even pray for her a bit. I don't know, but I need to extend kindness and compassion. I don't think she gets much of that these days or if ever.