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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A day that was not supposed to happen

"Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone. Let your heart burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path." Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 15-16

Today did not go at all how I had envisioned, and I am feeling grateful that it didn't. You know how sometimes things do not happen the way you had hoped, but because the things you had hoped would happen did not, a space opened for what you were intended to do? Well that was my Christmas eve. I was supposed to be spending most of my day with a close friend. We were going to go out for Thai food, and then go sit in a coffee shop with our books and read. It was to be epically lazy, filled with laughter and coziness. At a quarter to eleven, when my friend called, I was all ready to go with my coat on and hat and scarf ready by the front door. She was calling to say she was running late by an hour. I took off my coat, made tea, and sat and had a conversation with my mother in the kitchen while I waited. About an hour later my phone rang again. My friend apologized profusely, but she had just found out that her aunt in India had passed away, and was going to have to call her family instead of coming into town. I have to admit I was a little disappointed. Most of my friends are out of town for the holidays, and I had a feeling that the few friends that are in town were already busy--I called around, but I was right -- everyone who was in town was busy doing their own thing today.

The Universal House of Justice, the international administrative body for the Baha'i community writes letters to the Baha'i world on a regular basis. Some of these are longer than others. The letters bring Baha'is all over the world up to date on what is happening, where we are headed as a global community, and what learning has been taking places around the world. On December 12th the House of Justice released a new letter. A copy of the letter has been sitting on my bedside table for a number of days now. I have skimmed it, but have been wanting to sit down and really read and reflect on its contents. With the unexpected time this afternoon I made myself a cup of tea, settled into my nest with pillows and a blanket, and immersed myself in the letter for a couple of hours, taking notes in the margins and underlining points that seemed especially poignant. When I finished the letter I was feeling really excited about the ways in which the Baha'i community is bringing about positive change all over the world, and excited for what lies ahead, and the ways that I can participate in community development at the local level.

Shortly after I finished reading the letter the phone rang. It was my dear friend Rafael from Arizona who was calling me from her parents' farm in Prescott, where she is spending her Christmas break from he PhD program. Rafael and I had a lovely chat, caught up on the latest in each others' lives, and wished each other safe travels -- she is headed to spend the southern summer with her boyfriend in Chile, and I am headed to PEI, Canada for a short visit.

I hung up the phone from my conversation with Rafael, and immediately received a text message from my friend Mariela. She and her husband David have a tradition of collecting winter clothes -- scarves, hats, gloves, sweaters/sweatshirts and coats, making care packages, and distributing the packages to homeless people around the city. She was calling to say that David was not feeling all that well tonight, and would I be interested in joining her. I texted back immediately that *of course* I was interested, and before I knew it she was ringing my doorbell, her car stocked not only with warm clothing, but with hot chocolate and individually wrapped home-baked cookies (I'm telling you--the woman rocks). We loaded into the car and took off, driving along as slow as we could in search of homeless people throughout the city. When we would spot someone we would pull over, roll down a window, and ask if they would be interested in a care package, some hot chocolate and a cookie. We meandered around the city, leaping out of the car and handing out clothing, hot chocolate and cookies to some very grateful folks. One woman, after receiving her hot chocolate and cookie, looked and me and said: "can I have a hug?" I was rather shocked by her question, and a little uncertain, but I said "sure," and leaned in and embraced her. She latched onto me, started crying and repeating "I've missed you so much" over and over, and wouldn't let go. Standing on the sidewalk hugging this woman whose every earthly possession was in a pile behind her both terrified and moved me deeply. I tried to pull away a couple of times, but she kept holding on, so I finally gave in a just stood there holding her. Finally she released her hold on me enough for me to pull back. She looked up at me and said "thank you so much." I stood there on the sidewalk feeling a little shaken, but more than being shaken, I was deeply saddened by the fact that this woman quite obviously is suffering from mental illness, and that she also has obviously lost someone that she loved very much. I also felt saddened by the fact that she quite clearly is rarely spoken to or touched by anyone, and that she both needs to give love to and receive love from other human beings, and this is not happening--at least not as often as it should be. 

Mariela and I made a few last stops as the evening turned into night, and the shadows grew much longer, and people became much harder to see. We looked for lumps on the sidewalk-- lumps that could have been heaps of garbage. It shook me to my core to realize that often we had to literally get out of the car and walk up to a dark pile on the pavement before we knew whether it was a person or garbage. What kind of a community do we live in, in which people are allowed to become so degraded that they become indistinguishable from garbage at a distance? It is obvious that we as individuals and as a community are failing to put the quote at the beginning of this blog post into practice when a man or woman is allowed to lie on the pavement in a heap covered in dirt, cold and hungry, when just behind them Christmas trees glow in windows and families eat delicious meals and share warmth, laughter and love.

I did not grow up in a place that had homeless people. There just weren't any, or if there were I never saw them. When I first encountered homeless people in North America I was shocked and terrified. Fear is what I felt most. It is a fear that I have carried with me ever since. I smile and greet most homeless people that I pass on the street, but I hold a deep hope as I do so that they will not speak to me, or harm me. I find the erratic behaviour of many homeless people--caused by drug or alcohol abuse and/or mental health issues--to be scary. I am not sure why. I have a close friend in Arizona who was always deeply kind to homeless people we would pass on the street. She would always stop to speak with them, and show them some affection. I always wished I could be more like her-- less fearful of what I did not know or could not understand, and more open to allowing love and kindness to fill the space ordinarily filled by fear. 

When Mariela invited me to join her today my immediate internal response was "no way! I can't do that!" The reason for this reaction was my own fear. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I realized that this was an opportunity to not only help a friend and bring some joy into the lives of people who lead very hard lives, but also a chance to confront and start overcoming my own prejudices and fears, because how can I ever love someone if I fear them? The answer was clear: I can't. Being afraid of someone is a barrier to love--one that we can rationalize, but a barrier nonetheless.

I came home tonight feeling really thankful for the opportunity to overcome my own fears and just get out there and give to others. Yes we did encounter a couple of men this evening whose aggressive behaviour made me feel fear, but out of the more than 24 people we handed care packages, hot chocolate and cookies to, only two made me uncomfortable. All the rest were kind, gentle, and grateful for our care packages. Some of them told us a little about what it was like to live on the street. Some talked about loneliness. Some told us that the care package was the best thing that has happened to them in a while, and that maybe things were starting to look up.

The day did not go as I had planned, but I learned many important lessons tonight about unity and love. I am hoping that next time I pass someone who is homeless I can look them in the eye, smile, and give them my love without looking away or crossing the street out of discomfort or fear. It is hard to confront my own fears and prejudices head-on, recognize them honestly for what they are, and then keep moving forward anyway. But if I want to live in a community characterized by love and kindness, I do not see any other option. My community is a reflection of who I am, who you are, who all our friends and family are. If we want a community characterized by love we must show love --to everyone, not just those we find it easy to love.

How about you, friends? Have you come up against the limitations of your own fears lately? How did you confront and overcome your limitations?


  1. Ariana, this is a wonderfully observed post, and quite sensitive. As you know, there are homeless, or at least unfortunate, people on the streets of c-town, and they are more noticeable in the winter. I found that reading a particular book helped me think of them in a new context, and I'd like to recommend it: _Poor People_, by William Vollmann. He lives in california, and his book deals with poor people all over the world. It's not a dry book, by any means, nor is it sentimental. Easy to find a copy there, I'd think.

  2. What a lovely story and meditation. Thanks, Ariana. Enjoy the day.

  3. Thanks Ariana for your honesty and your example of facing your fears and prejudice in order to reach out to people in your community who need help.

    May all beings feel safe and warm as much as possible tonight and all nights.

  4. Glad you enjoyed this post, friends! Thank you for sharing your responses to this experience. I feel it is really important, and something I would do well to be more conscious of as I move through my day.