How a homeless person reminded me to follow my dreams

If you’re familiar with the MBTA at all, you know that riding the subway is not typically an inspiring experience, and I didn’t ask it to be; I was just riding around because I was feeling too weird and anxious to sit still in my apartment any longer.

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[Photo credit: Eric Kilby]

Truth be told, I was supposed to be writing this article, but every time I looked at my computer screen, I felt the anxious vacuum start to form behind my eyebrows and in my gut, and I had to put it away. This had been going on for two days. I hadn’t written a thing, creative or otherwise – and yes, my job is to write, and no, I hadn’t written anything for the paper, either.

I used to write like breathing. Sometimes I wonder if I still can. Sometimes I think I’ve lost the spark.

Sitting next to a homeless man on the train changed all that.

To be fair, I don’t know for sure that the man was homeless. When I boarded, he was sitting in that recumbent way that people who don’t own a bed tend to have when they ride the T late at night. It’s a particular posture of rest, which says, “I’ve been riding this train since Alewife and I won’t be going anywhere until we reach the end of the line. Maybe longer, if nobody kicks me out.” He wasn’t asleep, but he seemed to be headed that way.

He was swaddled in layers to the point that I actually wasn’t sure whether he was a man, since I couldn’t make out the shape of his body or the contours of his face. I’m too progressive to declare he was a man based on his choice of footwear (heavy boots, and large), or that she was a woman based on her medium-length white hair and lack of beard. In the end, I needed a pronoun and went with “he” based on his broad, flat fingernails, which is as arbitrary as anything else, I suppose, and I’m sorry.

So I didn’t know if he was a “he,” and I didn’t know if he was homeless. But I knew one thing without a doubt: he smelled. It wasn’t a “hasn’t showered in weeks” kind of smell. It was pee. And it was absolutely overwhelming.

I realized it just an instant too late as I was already lowering myself into the next seat. All right, the next-next seat – in Boston, we sit every-other-seat on trains because we hate everyone, so there was, in fact, some space between me and the presumably-homeless presumably-man. But it was still too close.

As I sat there, breathing as little as possible, a barrage of emotions hit me one after the other – not unlike train cars, I imagine, if you’ve ever been run over by a train.

First, I felt torn: I really wanted to get up and sit somewhere else. But I thought about how I would feel if, every time someone sat down near me, they immediately got up and left. Repulsive. Worthless. Not human. I couldn’t do that to this person. So I stayed.

Then, sadness: how sad that we live in a world where people can’t afford to be clean – to shower, to use a proper toilet, to wash or replace their clothing. What is this world, where a subway car looks like a nice place to catch a few Zs? Sure, it’s air-conditioned in summer, heated in winter, and dry in the rain, but those seats are hard. And in less than an hour, you’ll be at the end of the line and your nap will be over.

Then the guilt hit. Who was I to complain? If I thought it was bad sitting next to this person, how must it feel to be in his shoes? Instead, I should have been doing something to help. But what? It’s not like I’d brought any spare clothing with me. I’ve been known to give food to people on the street when I’m walking home with leftovers, or even to treat them at the nearest McDonald’s – but since I, like he, was just riding the train, I didn’t have leftovers, either. I didn’t even have cash.

So, simply, I sat. I told the judge in my head to shut up: you don’t know what his story is or how he got here. Maybe he has no family. Maybe he’s mentally ill. Maybe he’s a veteran. Or maybe, against all logic that I could understand, maybe he chose to live like this; crazier things have happened.

I had no money, but I gave him all I could give, what little respect I could show, and stayed beside him. And then he gave me something so much more.

He took out a notebook. One of those spiral-bound things you can get at Walgreens for 99 cents. And he took out a pen. It had purple ink. I know this because he started writing furiously – chicken scratch, cross-outs, line upon line. He filled a whole page, his hand never resting. I couldn’t read a word of it and found myself suddenly fighting a very different urge: to lean closer, not further away, to see what a person such as this had to say.

Would he write of his own life, his daily trials and victories? Observations of the people and things around him? Philosophical thoughts? The train, as I was busily proving myself, is a good place for philosophical introspection.

Or, perhaps, he was writing fiction. Maybe he was building another world where things were better, where people like him could overcome a place like this. Or maybe it wasn’t escapism. Maybe he just loved the telling. Maybe he gave up everything and everyone to do this, to chase this incredible passion and to have this incredible freedom.

Of course, I also had to consider the possibility that it was the ramblings of a madman.

Whatever he’d written, there was something burning inside of this character in the next-next seat that I hadn’t seen from afar, when I’d taken him for just a sleeping homeless guy. And I hadn’t seen it close-up, either, too busy pitying him to really look at who was underneath the bulky layers and the stink.

Not every light burns at the same time or in the same way. Sometimes all that’s left is an ember. And sometimes that ember gutters and fades under the harsh blue glare of a computer screen. But it is still there, and if you feed it, it will grow. What was this man feeding to his ember, when he had so little? And what will I feed to mine – I, who have so much?


This post originally appeared on the Odyssey Online.

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The Power of Asking

Colton Underwood, sixth-string tight end for the Oakland Raiders, was “just asking a girl on a date.” He had no idea that his video invitation to Olympic gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman would go viral. More importantly, he had no idea whether she’d say yes.

But you know what? He knows now. Because he asked.

Asking is powerful. It can also be terrifying. I briefly tried to start my own business with one of those skincare companies that mostly market their products through intimate house parties. The products were good and the company was good, but I was not good, because I hated asking (and I especially hated follow-up asking – when does it cross the line into nagging?).

In an effort to be kind, people who knew me personally would kick the can down the road, promising to reorder next month or to host a party in the spring. I learned to translate these responses the same way I interpret a “Maybe” RSVP to a Facebook event:

Yeah, that ain’t happening.

And yet, unbelievably, some of the biggest asks of my life have been answered, and even exceeded, by people who had no obligation to give me the time of day. I went out for drinks with my favorite author, and you know how I did it? By asking him on Twitter.

It was the day before the Boston Book Festival. While I planned to attend the full event, there was really only one person there who I wanted to see, one reason I had cordoned off an entire Saturday to, essentially, go to class: Scott Westerfeld, author of Uglies, Afterworlds, Midnighters, Peeps, and Leviathan, and my idol since, oh, probably 2005 or so, when I’d bought a copy of his book So Yesterday on vacation with my family and swallowed it whole on the car ride home.

Scott was slated to take part in a panel discussion with two or three other young adult fantasy authors sometime in the afternoon, and there was going to be a book signing after that. So the day was going to be a win no matter what. But I had been to enough meet-and-greets with bands to know that, at that sort of thing, you basically get your autograph (or your photograph – rarely both) and then you leave.

I had so much to say to Scott. I had so much to ask about. Which one question would I have time to ask as he scribbled his name on the title page of my copy of Goliath? You can’t really start with, “So you’re the greatest and I want to be you when I grow up can you tell me how to do that?”

No, I needed more time. I needed to talk to him at length. So I sent him a message.

And for some reason, he responded.

And that’s how, less than twenty-four hours later, I wound up at an exclusive, authors-only cocktail hour with my idol.

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That cocktail hour honestly might have saved my writing career. It had been an absolutely harrowing morning, during which a panel of agents, who were supposed to give me advice on the first page of my manuscript, instead laughed at my submission and made me feel like I should just forget about that whole being-a-writer thing.

Scott put an end to that thinking real fast. “You have to find your people,” he said. “Those weren’t your people.”

He was right. My submission had showed an argument between a demon and his host just after the demon forced the host to kill somebody against his will. Gripping, right? Not to this panel. Their favorite piece had something to do with a crack in a wall. But like, that crack had seen shit, you know?

They weren’t my people. I am not ever going to write a story about a crack in a wall, unless Narnia or something is on the other side of it, and that panel would’ve liked the crack-in-the-wall piece a lot less if it had ended with the characters finding Narnia.

That’s fine. There are deeply passionate readers and writers of literary fiction. They love the genre and do good work. But I’m not one of them, and if Scott Westerfeld hadn’t pointed it out to me that day, I might have just given up instead.

Thank God I’d been brazen enough to ask.

Asking has gotten me through the door with other favorite authors and musicians. It has turned networking events into paying gigs. As a journalist, it has gotten me interviews with people I never would have met and opened doors I never would have thought to knock at.

In 2013, when I asked my church if I could paint over the depressing beige walls in our basement with lime green and invite a bunch of teenagers to play music and board games there, I had no idea that the community we started would survive three years and continue growing bigger than ever, with new people in new places and new ideas taking shape all the time.

Sometimes it feels like I have no right to ask for these things. Believe me, I can hear how crazy I sound. Do I deserve the good things that come to me any more than the next person? Absolutely not. We all deserve good things. We all deserve to see at least one of our crazy fantasies become, against all odds, reality.

The only difference is that I asked.


This post originally appeared on the Odyssey Online.

In the belly of the clouds

I woke up determined for it to be a gorgeous day. It wasn’t. Heavy clouds covered the sky, trapping every shred of bright or blue. I told them to push aside! and they pushed. A little. The sun lanced through for a moment, and patches of sky opened up.

I went out into the recalcitrant day. From the inside, the house looked simple and familiar. From outside, it had a grand and foreign air, augmented by a posh triple decker bus waiting in the wraparound driveway.

Robby and I boarded the bus, exclaiming over the pale blue velvet upholstered seats and the ornate detailing around the bars and banisters. A grumpy businessman passed and I wished him a good day. He didn’t seem to think there was any chance it would pan out that way – but he didn’t know I could bend the whole world to my wishes! From a window, I noticed the clouds had rolled back over the sky and told them again to go away.

The bus began to move as we climbed to the roof deck. Some of the roof was partitioned for seating but a narrow aisle ran along the right side. I followed it around to the front feeling positively giddy and looked out over the city streets below.

Nineteenth-century style brick buildings crowded close on both sides, sketched stark by yellow light. The bus jostled along rude brick streets lined with rustic shops and taverns. It was beautiful in its own way… But still stubbornly cloudy. I tried for a third time to clear the sky, again to no avail. Why could I control everything but the sky?

A little man appeared on the rail around the roof deck. “Because this is hell!” he explained with a gleeful grin. “You’re in hell!” Suddenly it all made sense. I couldn’t make the sun come out because there is no sun in hell. The devil changed forms and disappeared into the city of Hell.

It sure didn’t look like hell or feel like it. There was no fire or brimstone to be seen, no torment or misery – unless the businessman from earlier represented the overall mood of the place. Maybe it ground you down slowly. But people sure seemed comfortable there, with their shops and foot traffic and pretty buildings – so comfortable it might have been just another old city someplace on earth.

The people had forgotten where they were and why they were there. Worst of all, they had forgotten what they were missing. They didn’t remember sun. They didn’t remember God. They knew only the city of brick and the half-lives they lived under the belly of the clouds.