Friday, November 23, 2012

Remember Those Left Alone in the Darkness

She just kept crying.  Sitting there with a baby in her arms, crying so quietly. She was a young girl from Mississippi with a four-month-old baby in her arms, in a homeless shelter. She picked at the generous portions of turkey and dressing offered her by the loving volunteers helping serve the homeless at the shelter.  Many were from church groups, but quite a few of them came to help just because they thought it was the right thing to do.

But she sat there, with sunbeam lighting her like a spotlight in the old high school gymnasium, holding her little, tiny baby and crying. One of the young volunteers talked with her for a while, I could not hear what they were saying as the girl from Mississippi just stared into nothingness, glancing occasionally at the volunteers face.  Then they held hands and prayed. The young mother from Mississippi cried as the volunteer whispered a prayer into her ear.

There were hundreds of people around them. But in spite of the clamor of dishes, the bellowing laughs, and a band playing some hopeful Christian song on a makeshift stage, these two women shared an intimate moment of prayer.  I don't know what was said, I was too far away and the din of the Thanksgiving dinner masked any whisper. I can only imagine what prayers a young woman with a four month old baby in a homeless shelter offers to God.

Recently, in the New York Times obituaries, I ran across a poem.  I know, what are the odds of reading a poem on the New York Times obit page?  I thought there must be a reason this poem is sticking in my head, so I kept the newspaper. After talking to a friend about the young mother at the homeless shelter, I was reminded about the poem by Jack Gilbert and thought of in the moment I took her photo as she cried and prayed.

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Most days I can stand back and make my images, using my camera to be my emotional force field for my soul.  But today, something went wrong with my usual defenses.  This young mother from Mississippi with her your-month-old baby is walking around in my mind and she will just not leave.  But maybe that's a good thing in the end?  Maybe we should all carry the image of a young mother from Mississippi holding her baby and crying as we eat our 10,000 calorie Thanksgiving dinner and watch hyper-paid athletes play football in a dome?  Maybe, like Jack Gilbert, 'we are all helpless romantics who love the world and its pleasures so much - and our failures and our loneliness.'  Maybe it's not those differences, but how we bridge those differences, that make us who we are.  At Thanksgiving, where we give thanks for the blessings we have all been given, it is important to remember those left alone in the darkness.

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