The Exchange Program

guadalupe-streetAlong UT’s western border of Guadalupe street, homeless people enrich the Drag’s diversity.  When Texas furloughs more from Austin’s mental institutions, the Drag  gets more weird.  If possible.

In that population, Mary — her name to use and protect her real name — was a queen.  She felt younger, washed regularly, and smelled good.  Guys loved her or time with her.  Rightfully paranoid, she talked to herself rather than imaginary people, and suspected everyone — especially non-homeless people.  She carried newspapers and other found objects from the day like a secretary carries important papers next to her bosom.  Her accent was somewhere between east Texas and a few missing teeth.

I said “Hi” going to class or work for months.  She moved from immediately looking and walking the other way, to stopping and considering, to actually watching me, to half smiling — all in the time it takes to bring an infant to full term.  Always discussing me with herself.

One day as I exited the car, loading up to hike to class, I saw Mary across the street.  She looked miserable, as if she had been out in the misting night for all of it; sitting on the little concrete wall where she and her closest associates took breaks from pan-handling.

Now, Mary never begged or asked.  Things came to her, and this morning looking at her from under my umbrella, I had the impression it was my turn to contribute.  I know people who naturally give or give out of their faith.  I am guilty of neither.  It is hard for me.

I crossed the street gingerly not wanting to spook her, to ask, “Need a lunch?” She looked up, spooked, and trembled.

She responded, “No!” underscoring I had much to learn.

I stopped.  She waited.  I lied, “Would you please take this lunch for me?  I am not going to need it.”  She smiled, but did not reach.  I stood close enough to offer it. She took it, acknowledging thanks with a nod of her head, completely enwrapped in the paper bag.

I walked off.  It warmed up, everyone but Mary shed heavier coats that week, and we all lolled in the sun under any pretext.

The next week, Jill found and risked buying a pair of Nike high tops for eight bucks, a steal for grad students twenty years ago.  They fit!  My old shoes wore worn through.

The next morning, I eagerly stuffed them in the top of my back pack, also lugging my book bag up to work and then down to work out where the horror awaiting me revealed itself.

I got to the gym, and excitedly unpacked — one shoe.  Hours ago, somewhere the top of my backpack opened and ejected a shoe.

Dejected, I stuffed everything in a locker, and backtracked the two miles up campus and back down Guadalupe; my attention never wavering from the ground I had traversed.  I thought the odds of no one touching the shoe, rescuing it, trashing it, or just looping it over a phone line were impossibly slim.  Recrossing Guadalupe I could see it run over, dragged somewhere away forever.

I retraced my steps again, all the way up, onto the floors I had traversed in Mass Comm, back down and across campus, oblivious to spring’s beauty almost budding to my locker, out of time, needing to be at another meeting, overwhelmed by a loss we could not afford.

I trudged back across campus, held two meetings, and sulked back to my car, feeling every stop and stall on the freeway home as a personal pounding on top of the loss.  The worst was telling Jill who had thrilled to make the buy of the year for me.  Played with boys, studied, went to bed, packed another lunch and started another day.

I exited my car, saw and waved at Mary who actually waved back, and as she did I noticed something on top of her morning stack of papers: a white and red high top shoe.  I laughed to think someone else lost a shoe!

As I walked toward her to get to Guadalupe I was riveted by the shoe, which as I got closer was a Nike high top.  I stopped.  I asked, “Mary, where’d you find that shoe?”  She smiled and said, “It was in the middle of Guadalupe, at the crossing in front of the Texas Bookstore.”

I gulped.

I asked, “When?”

“Oh, yesterday morning just as the big rush for the first class goes across.  I got it before someone ran over it or stole it!”  She beamed.  Proud of the find.

I could only nod.

I asked, “Mary how would you take it if I told  you I lost that shoe out of my backpack yesterday morning, and I have never gotten to wear it?”

She laughed and had it extended in a heartbeat, saying, “That’s how God works, ain’t it?”  God adjusted all the accounts.

Stunned, I turned it over looking at my miracle and nodded.  That is the sort of line I’m supposed to say.  I asked if she liked tuna fish and she beamed, and I handed over my lunch.  Not really.  I was eating lunch, that tuna fish sandwich, before I thought I might have given it to someone who needed it maybe more than I needed the shoe.  Duh.

I am still quicker to look for a miracle than to be one, but I can practice again tomorrow, can’t I?

I may not know much about thanksgiving

I may not know so much about Thanksgiving.  I have used silly phrases such as, “I don’t feel very thankful.” And “Here it goes again.”

Fairly depraved. 

I think that the most thankful people feel it the least tonight and tomorrow. 

The ones that have been travelling for fifteen hours and may not make it past cancelled flights and road crews trying to keep up with falling sleet, ice and snow.  They know. 

The men and women in uniform who may feel only a tear or a lump in their throat at the thought of Thanksgiving, and still go out on patrol; walk out and preflight their very cold aircraft; or stare at the prosthesis that may as well be Mt. Everest as far as ease of use.  They know more about thanksgiving than I do.

The same is true for First Responders, Emergency Room doctors and nurses, who grabbed a bit of the terrible turkey at the Station House or Cafeteria with luke warm coffee.  They know more about Thanksgiving and what it truly costs, than I do. 

The Pilgrims had buried a staggering number of their own in that first year and winter.  They had their noses rubbed in their mistakes, missed opportunities, and “if only I had” bashings.  So scheduling the feast with the Indians, their only neighbors, took courage.  It has always been a holiday that looks beyond the cemetery, with great hope at the children, at the mom-to-be, and the land and its opportunity that is so very much harder than you had dared imagine. 

It has always been the holiday that chooses to thank God, when screaming or whining is easier, closer to your heart. 

The expense.  It is the expense that makes the smells, sounds, tastes, and minutes so terribly wonderful, deep, abiding. 

So to those of you travelling, guarding, and responding, if this is not the Thanksgiving, then may one truly wonderful find you.  I am grateful for you.  And if it is with cheese and crackers and a salty tear only, may the Father from whom all good gifts come take note and bless you. 

On thinking things through or true

I had four conversations in the last two days.  They taught me something(s).  They are all four teaching me something(s) — still.  

I can put some of their wisdom into words, and the rest sits there in the shadows, just out of reach, just out of range for formulating anything from it.  

I have office hours, and I have no office: less to decorate, one less place to hide.  I have office hours in the Student Union, and oddly enough, I see far more students than when I had an office.  You might need to sit down for this shocker: the students are already in the Student Union.  Finding me is easier. 

Yesterday a student from a Bible study from five to six years ago was back in town recruiting for his company.  Tall, handsome, married to beautiful Jamie and successful.  He charted a dark time that followed their marriage five years ago.  

I was so humbled by his quiet, succinct, matter of fact (okay, he is an engineer) way of walking through the darkness and what he learned.  He learned that he absolutely needs close friends who believe what he believes and trusts in Christ.  He learned that he needed not just a place to give back to, but people to give back to — and if he gave back to youth that they kept him humble.  I laughed out loud.  Seventh graders are danged hard to impress.  Try that Bill Gates. 

He told me one other thing from the pit.  He realized that he had settled for what a lot of people told him that the Bible said, and he had to learn to feed himself from scripture.  

He had served on staff in a church, and loves God a lot.  Much more than an emotion, his Love is his check book, time, and their investments.  

We had to quit after two hours, and she was waiting, so she sat down to talk me through the last three weeks.  She is an online student, carrying 30 hours (who wants to stay in college forever); taking the LSAT; and finding her mom has a relapse of cancer.  She lost her dad to cancer in 2007.  I watched as this woman made her apologies, asked what she needed to do, and figured her way through to getting it all done.  I pity the fool who comes up to me after her to whine about anything.  Yes, she is a believer and could not make it without Christ, but she was my second twenty-something in three hours to bowl me over.  

I took a break during my night class to take a call from Zaq.  He sold a car at a loss to a Cuban for whom the car began producing white smoke a few days later who is threatening Zaq and his wife with suits, and worse.  I listened to Zaq tell me that he reached a pretty clever impasse with the hot head and he would not let the guy threaten him any more. I laughed at how little I had contributed to any of the three conversations.  

Then this morning, I drove four students from Stillwater to Enid OK to talk over crowd funding with Mark Marshall for the Limitless project he and Dale began.  One Pakistani, one Nepali, one Persian by way of Oklahoma and a red head.  I listened to how oxygen privation is the cause of all cancer, how positive thinking will lengthen your life, how to achieve a count of (-1) if your are counting hawks in the wild, and other forms of flatus.  I laughed out loud a couple of times.  Did I mention they are all male?  

And I thought on many days, I am most wise when I listen deepest and say the least.  Many of us need someone to “bounce ideas off of” and hearing our ideas out loud we reform some, discard many, and realize that the best thoughts are true because they work, and work well for us.  And some thoughts refuse final form, because they will simply grow as answers with us for all of our lives.  Then I realized I am not all that wise — at all.  

But I have these rare moments of humility when I can put down my assumptions and just listen and be amazed at the strength and wisdom in others.  Then I usually have to prove to them how amazing they are, and having done that, I go on with my day.  

It’s only funny because God said He would give Wisdom to anyone who asked.  

Anyone can ask, right?