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, whirred by my window as I drove towards the shelter. The car was silent, but my mind was full of worries. After months of practically being consumed by graduate work and slowly chipping away at the insurmountable pile of plans and preparations necessary for a three month leave from teaching, I was finally starting an unpaid internship. This required me to take a leave from my paid teaching job, causing some financial stress.
I pulled into the parking space in front of the long gray cement building that housed the shelter. 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. A girl with braids ran back and forth across the length of the room as a little boy chased after her.
“Sign in there” a tall woman said, gesturing towards 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 visible open kitchen towards 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 was really listening to.
A fellow teacher and graduate school colleague accompanied me as we followed the woman to a door in the corner of the building. “This is where you will be working with the children” the woman said as she left. We were there to watch the children while their parents attended free GED classes.
As we set down the heavy bags of craft supplies on the large plastic folding tables and began to sort through them, kids ran into the room and parents arrived to drop off their little ones. Soon children from babies to middle-schoolers filled the space around us. The pent-up energy of kids who had sat for far too long in the chairs of quiet classrooms reverberated off the cinder block walls.
After a bit of play time, we gathered them around the long table. The younger kids and toddlers scribbled with delight on paper using the sharp new crayons we brought with us. I held the squirming baby as we explained the activity to the older children.
Then I fruitlessly tried to use the sparse array of toys to entertain the group of toddlers and preschoolers who were currently running zig zags across the room pushing each other in a small red toy car. A middle school boy who had finished his project joined me to assist in distracting the little kids from all activities that bore the risk of head injury.
He pointed out his siblings who were in the room 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 house (house), the number of bedrooms (3), and bathrooms (3). To me, it was a modest house, 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 partially distracted from the conversation by the constant task of entertaining several toddlers, when I heard him ask with curiosity, “What do you do with all of that extra space?”. 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.
I thought of my quiet house with just two people and eleven rooms, how we had replaced all of the old carpet with shiny tile and wood flooring, and how disappointed I was that we had to wait to replace the old bathroom fixtures due to our budget. I looked around at the dingy tile in the shelter and the shelves lined with rows of bags, overflowing with shoes and stuffed animals, kitchen appliances, and pictures in frames. The items considered important enough to be gathered up before leaving a home, possibly forever, lie here on a shelf, waiting. “I don’t know” I said softly. I could see him envisioning the space and luxuriating in the quiet that was currently available only in his imagination. His thoughts transfixed on the thing he didn’t have that he wanted the most.
We said our goodbyes until next week, him smiling and me wondering who had taught whom a lesson that evening. Sometimes we are so close to our blessings that we just can’t see them. Maybe we lack the perspective to notice invisible things like space, quiet time to ourselves, or privilege. These are as imperceptible as the borders that separate the tree-lined suburbs from the gray industrial buildings where the homeless shelter is located. But 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. And I am reminded of that boy and how our conversation about space and home showed me I have plenty of room for thankfulness.