Why the Reality of Those in Need Should Stop You Cold

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

With the arrival of the polar vortex, everyone is talking about the cold. Everywhere I went today, at least one person mentioned the weather - how winter came early; how they aren't prepared for below-freezing temperatures in mid-November; how they wanted to be under a warm blanket or have a hot cup of soup. None of the conversations I had were about not knowing where they were going to sleep tonight or facing having their heat shut off due to an inability to pay the bills. But that is a reality for many in our communities. Just yesterday, a report revealed that 1 in 30 children in America experienced homelessness last year.

Last Sunday, I watched American Winter at CinĂ© as part of launching Taste of Athens and helping attendees to understand what Community Connection, Taste of Athens' beneficiary, does in the community. The film follows eight families in the Portland, Ore., area who called into 211 - the same information and referral service run by Community Connection here in Athens. I urge you at the very least to watch the film's trailer. (UPDATE: American Winter is now available on Amazon Instant video.)

American Winter will hollow you out with the stark reality these families face - unexpected and mounting medical bills; lost jobs and lost homes; sudden widowhood. They face hunger and cold and homelessness. They lose power and water and dignity. They are families of two and four and five; they are parents and children. They are your neighbors. 

At one point, a woman faces her first trip to a food bank, where a compassionate volunteer attempts to soothe her sobs of shame and hopelessness. Another woman realizes her son will go hungry when she can't afford dinner. A man faces unemployment at 50-something; over-age and overqualified, his unemployment stretches out for months while he tries to care for his son with Downs Syndrome.

Even though I have served on the board for Community Connection for four years and know we take 20,000 calls a year like these people made - for food, shelter, rent assistance, utility payments - I was gobsmacked by the heart-wrenching dilemmas unfolding before me. How the unceasing uncertainty of these families weighed in the pit of my stomach. How their children's burdens haunted me.

The film includes a number of staggering statistics about the precariousness of the middle class and the inability for many families to make ends meet. And there's a political discussion to be had about the social and economic policies that make that true.

But that's not the discussion I want to have. I want to appeal not to your politics, but to your humanity. If you're reading this from the comfort of home or at your desk where you go to work every day, I ask you to think about those for whom those things are a distant luxury. If you are a Christian, I ask you to see those in need as "the least of these" that Christ spoke of - spoke of in regards to how we should meet their needs; not judge their circumstances. If you are a parent, I ask you to empathize with the terrifying prospect these parents face of not being able to provide basic needs for their children. If you are a person with heart, I ask you to look inside it and consider what you have to give.

If you are inspired to make a financial contribution, I urge you to look into the organizations that help connect people to social services (like Community Connection) or organizations that meet the most common needs - financial assistance with utility bills (in Georgia, you can donate to H.E.A.T.), rent/housing assistance and meal assistance (in Athens, that's the Northeast Georgia Food Bank, ACTS (and yes, that is me stocking shelves during Jackson Spalding's annual Thanksgiving outreach - we'll be there this Friday), Our Daily Bread at First Baptist Church in Athens or a myriad of local churches that maintain food pantries). There's also Action Ministries, which has a range of poverty-assistance programs. For some, I recognize that monetary contributions aren't viable, but please consider giving of your time to help these organizations better serve those in need.

If you're warm tonight - and I hope you are - I pray that you won't leave your fellow man out in the cold. That during this American winter, this season of thankfulness and giving, you will consider what you can do to warm someone else's life.

2013: Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"You're off to great places! You're off and away!" - Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go
For the first two-thirds of my life, I stayed close to home and on the ground. The furthest afield I'd been by age 25 was an 8th grade car trip to Washington, D.C. for National History Day. Because I'm cool like that. But somewhere along the way, I got on board with the friendly skies and found myself dropping pins in the map well beyond the Georgia borders. Last year - yes! It's last year now! - was no exception.

Honolulu, Hawaii
"It's opener there in the wide open air." - Dr. Seuss
Every map of the U.S. you've ever contemplated has misled you - Hawaii is way out in the Pacific Ocean. Way, way, way out there on a 10-hour non-stop flight across four time zones. Good thing the Pacific is a beautiful clear blue expanse and there are acres of leafy forest worthy of Jurassic Park to wander through in search of waterfalls and hibiscus and giant ferns to ease the jet lag. And there, tuna really is the chicken of the sea - it's the only thing that's not outrageously expensive in paradise, so I ate my weight in it. I had cocktail hour in a hotel suite featured on Lost, drank my first mai tai (not my jam), and stiffed a cab driver for the first time in my life. And I fell. More on that later.

Absolutely nowhere fast
"Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you." - Dr. Seuss
Footsies can befall terrible fates in paradise. I took a tumble my first full day in Honolulu. Not deterred by this little sprain, I limped a half a mile to a pharmacy to purchase an ace bandage and proceeded to tour myself on foot through the island's botanical gardens, hike up the side of its volcanic crater Diamond Head, and traveled clear across its length to stand on the North Shore and watch the surfers tackle the waves at the birthplace of American surf culture. But I spent all of February off my feet and on crutches to boot when, upon my stateside return, I learned that  my pesky sprain was actually a broken ankle.

"You'll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chance are, then, that you'll be in a slump." - Dr. Seuss
Somewhere in early March, I was freed from my boot and set back on both feet and told to resume my wanderings as I pleased. It was a short slump in my wide world of travelings, but I stayed mostly grounded and close to home. I did make the journey to the wilds of Marietta and then on to another world entirely where sparkling fairies ran free and a very special one got a pink unicorn for her 4th birthday.

Durham, North Carolina
"You'll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You'll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go." - Dr. Seuss
In tobacco country, I reunited with my best friend Nikki - a fellow strange bird -  for a long weekend in the Triangle. We connected points in downtown Durham, Duke's fantastic Gothic architecture and the Sarah P. Duke Gardens where we were able to picnic with the Longerbeams and their new puppy - because the more strange birds, the merrier. And while Nikki and me planned to recreate some of the epic moments from our 5K training, we drank beer and photographed graffiti instead.

New York, New York
"You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go."
While my traipsing has led me to the west, the mountains, the Midwest and furthered my adventures in the southeast, New England remained elusive. And while it's a little hard to believe, May brought my first bite of the Big Apple. A day in Manhattan doesn't afford much time for seeing the city that never sleeps, and neither, for that matter, did getting caught in an 18-block torrential downpour without an umbrella until 12 blocks in when I doled out $5 to a street vendor. But rolling soggily solo (and with a little help from Google maps), I made it to Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Radio City Music Hall, and most importantly, the New York Public Library where even the water fountains are beautiful and bookish. Oh, and I saw Naked Cowboy. Mark that one off the bucket list.

San Diego, California
"With banner flip-flapping, once more you'll ride high. Ready for anything under the sky." -Dr. Seuss
Mid-year, it was back west for a whole week on the California coast. Things were a bit wild there - a trip to the famed San Diego zoo and up the coast to La Jolla to bark with the seals. But best of all was the chalice of sangria at Casa Guadalajara in Old Town. It was so good, we went there twice. And in between visits, we hit the deck of the Midway and found our way into a narrow speakeasy with walls covered in golden skulls and a ceiling that  bore eerie vintage portraits whose eyes seemed to watch the revelers below. And before I left, I managed to squeeze in a look at the bar boasting to have hosted the sleazy bar scene from Top Gun. It would seem they've lost that loving feeling.

Athens Regional Urgent Care Clinic
"I'm sorry to say so but, sadly it's true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you." - Dr. Seuss
First there was my birthday and the Hang-up of the Plumbing Apocalypse. But after that, there was a Bang-up of a more physical nature. My nickname isn't Smash for nothing, and  my right foot fell victim to my smashing in late July. In what could only be described as a freak accident, I caught my toenail on the  back of Mom's shoe in a parking lot in Atlanta and divorced it from the nail bed. And from there, I was sped back home with my foot propped on the dashboard wrapped in mounds of snowy white gauze to the urgent care where my toenail was surgically removed. And then sewed back on. Let me repeat that. My toenail was totally removed from my foot. And then SEWN BACK ON. Hello, Frankentoe. And may I say, this trip is one I hope never to repeat.

[Picture omitted to spare the faint of heart. Those with a stomach for the grotesque inquire within.]

Nashville, Tennessee
"You'll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing." - Dr. Seuss
As you may recall, I've been to Music City before, but I mostly cavorted with the historic and the six-feet-under. This time around, I hit the honky tonks, including Legends Corner. And I can neither confirm or deny that I did my best impression of clogging to a cover of Alabama's "Dixieland Delight." A woman thankful to have both feet in working order should follow the impulse to dance when it comes.

Indianapolis, Indiana
Oddly, I've flown to Indianapolis before, but it was to rent a car and head directly to Kokomo, Indiana. No, really. Kokomo, Indiana. It's not what The Beach Boys promised.

This time, I spent a couple of days in the home of the Colts and found it to be utterly Midwestern. Like, it's just so. very. Midwestern. In fact, the restaurant we ate at was Midwestern nouveau cuisine. I mean, I can't make this stuff up. So essentially, Indiana is the state that's home to things so utterly true, they cannot be fabricated. Like this dessert. It's called a barn-raising. Cross my heart.

Richmond, Alexandria & Charlottesville, Virginia
"You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes." - Dr. Seuss
Outside Monticello
Mom, Dad and I took a week in October to drive the Ford King Ranch up to the state that's for lovers and dead presidents and nerdy folks like us. From Richmond to Alexandria to Charlottesville, we saw two historic houses, four presidential residences - and a bonus presidential grave to bring our grand total to five (six if you count Jefferson Davis and his temporary presidency over the Confederate States) - one ancestral resting place, an old train station and the state's botanical gardens because I need more pictures of orchids. For the record, the founding fathers are fascinating and flawed and knew how to pick properties with killer views of the Potomac and the Blue Ridge. And also, to the Kroger in Charlottesville, I am really sorry about breaking the quart of chocolate milk all over the deli floor. And, if you want the whole 66-page photo essay novella, check out Spare-Time Shooter.

Lookout Mountain, Georgia & Tennessee
"On and on you will hike and I know you'll hike far." - Dr. Seuss
Lover's Leap
Continuing travels back into the past, I cajoled my dad into driving us to Lookout Mountain where he grew up and spinning a few old family yarns for cataloging. Aside from setting eyes on the famed Kendrick's Switch where moonshining ancestors had a shootout with local deputies and seeing the grave of great uncle Nepolean (apparently the Southern spelling), we also visited Dad's childhood home and the Lookout Mountain Golf Club where Dad caddied back when it was Fairyland and you could hit a long drive clear off the mountain if you weren't careful. We saw Seven States and the innards of Rock City, and points of personal interest like the curve where Charles Bracewell thought he could beat the cops to The Tubes but took the curve on Bailey too hard and broke both axles on the shiny Corvette he drove. Bet your tour guide didn't show you that.

Grand Rapids, Michigan
"Waiting for...the rain to go...or the snow to snow." - Dr. Seuss
I started the month waiting through jury selection and subsequent trial. But when it came time for the holidays, I hitched a plane to Cleveland and the on to Grand Rapids for a yuletide celebration with Jason's family. We arrived to freezing rain falling in biting sheets, and we combated the cold the best way we knew how - with delicious food and bourbon. All that icy rain froze solid when the temperature plummeted, and we woke Sunday to a powerless winter wonderland. Pro tip: this is not the time to wash your hair if your hairdryer (like most) requires electricity. Good spirits could not be deterred, and we powered through with a well-built fire and Cuddle Duds, a fleecy winter hat, a very warm scarf and Thinsulate-lined gloves (thanks to Jason's mom for the #winterswag). It was the most snow I'd ever seen, and the most fun electricity-less day I've ever had. I suspect the very charming company had something to do with that.

I went some wonderful places in 2013, and a few places where I was "all hung up in a prickle-ly perch." Beyond all those points on the actual map, I charted a few important places on my personal map, leaving some places that were low and lonely and finding new ones that made my heart sing. I suspect Dr. Seuss would advise me in 2014, "You're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So...get on your way!" And I am on my way, already looking at 2014 as an amazing adventure waiting to be had. Onward!