This is a submission in our monthly contest. November’s theme is Gratitude. Enter your own here!
As I drove from my house in the country, fields and green lawns gave way to rows of colorful single-family homes and then to enormous gray warehouses and boxy brown garages. The buildings, encircled by towering chain-link fences with signs that read “Keep Out” in large red lettering, flashed by my window.
The car was silent, but my mind was full of worries. For months, I had been consumed by graduate work and the insurmountable pile of plans and preparations necessary for a three-month leave from my paid teaching job to undertake a required unpaid internship. I felt the financial stress like a weight.
I pulled into the parking space in front of the long gray cement building that housed the shelter – my internship home. I heard the dull buzz and sharp click as a resident hit the button that released the lock on the front door. Bright florescent lights beamed from the ceiling, and the sound of many voices echoed off the walls.
“Sign in there,” a tall woman said, gesturing toward a crumpled paper at the empty front desk. She had mid-length brown hair and wore a boxy suit with comfortable shoes. The smell of spaghetti and garlic bread wafted faintly from the open kitchen toward the center of the room.
Dinner was over now, and a resident wiped the counters and brushed a broom in random directions across the tiled concrete floor. A television hummed in the small family room, broadcasting news that no one really listened to.
“This is where you will be working with the children,” the woman said as she left. My classmate and I were there to do a counseling lesson with the older children living at the shelter, while their parents attended free GED classes. We gathered the kids around the long table. I held a squirming baby as I explained the activity. A group of preschoolers and toddlers zig-zagged across the room, pushing each other in a small red toy car.
A middle school boy who had finished his project early joined me to assist in distracting the little kids from any activities that bore the risk of head injury. He pointed out his siblings and then asked me about my family.
This was before I had kids myself, so I told him I had a husband, but no children. He asked whether I lived in an apartment or a house (house), the number of bedrooms (three), and bathrooms (three). To me, it was a modest home, smaller than the one I grew up in. We bought it a few years prior in as-is condition and were working diligently to renovate it. I saw it as a work-in-progress. There was always another project to be done.
I was distracted from the conversation by the constant task of entertaining several toddlers, when I heard him ask, “What do you do with all of that extra space?”
I thought of my quiet house with just two people and 10 rooms, how we replaced all of the old carpet with shiny tile and wood flooring, and how disappointed I had been about having to wait to replace the old bathroom fixtures due to our budget.
I looked around at the dingy tile and the shelves lined with rows of bags overflowing with shoes and stuffed animals, kitchen appliances, pictures in frames. All the residents’ personal items considered important enough to be gathered up before leaving a home, possibly forever, lied here, waiting….
The bright lights cast a blinding glow on the dirty baby toy in my hand. The noise of the over-crowded room grew to a deafening roar and pounded in my ears as the kids ran around me.
After awhile. we said our goodbyes until next week. I could see the middle school boy envisioning the space of my home and luxuriating in the quiet currently available only in his imagination.
As I drove home, I thought about all the things so many of us take for granted. We lack the perspective to notice invisible things, like space, quiet time to ourselves, or privilege. The borders that separate the tree-lined suburbs from the gray industrial buildings where the homeless shelter is located are invisible, too, but we know they are there.
Occasionally, we have an experience that allows us to see our life from a different vantage point, and our invisible blessings become visible to us, if only for an instant.
I think about this every time I drive to where the houses end and the warehouses begin, past the road to the shelter. I am reminded of that young boy and how our conversation about space and home showed me I have plenty of room for thankfulness.