The Homeless Man at Breakfast

by Abby on December 7, 2017

“Enough with the homeless man! Sit down and eat your yogurt parfait!” You know your parenting has gone awry if you find yourself hissing these words at your 8yo son in Panera, as I did one recent Saturday morning. Let me explain.

Our family had decided to go out to breakfast. A rare occurrence, since I prefer to drink my coffee at home in my bathrobe, not get all gussied up with pants and lip gloss to stand in line with a bunch of strangers. Anyway, there we were, enjoying our bagels and beverages. Riley was seated facing the window, where a homeless man was waiting by the entrance, asking passersby for spare change.

Homeless men in Baltimore

Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scene in our city. Both of my sons have big hearts and lots of questions. A few I get on the regular: “Mommy, what does that man’s sign say? Why is he homeless? Why can’t he just go and live with his parents? Can I give him my chips/juice box/half-eaten bag of dino fruit snacks?” Sometimes we give someone an (unopened) snack or a dollar, but of course, it’s not possible to help everyone.

Sometimes, if I have the energy, I will launch into a long, confusing lecture on systemic poverty, affordable housing, and charitable organizations. This goes over about as well as you’d expect with two boys who live in a safe, loving home with unlimited access to toilet paper, pretzels, and Wifi. Where the fridge and dresser drawers are never empty, thanks to a Grocery Fairy and a Laundry Fairy!

On the one hand, I love that my son is worried about this homeless man outside Panera and wants to help him. On the other hand, it consumed our ENTIRE family breakfast.

“Can we give him some money, Mommy?”

“How about some food,” suggests Dad.

“OK! Can I go give him my bagel?”

“That’s stupid, Riley. He won’t eat it,” says Big Brother helpfully.

“I don’t think he wants your leftovers, buddy. We’ll get him something on the way out.”

“Look, he has 4 coffees now. People are giving him drinks.”

“That’s nice. See? People want to help.”

“Is that a policeman? What’s he doing? Is he telling that man to leave? Ooh, look, he’s doing a dance now!”

The jaded part of me who’s lived in Baltimore for 20 years—yes, the setting of “The Wire”—thinks, that’s not a dance, that’s what’s known as the “heroin lean,” son. Then the non-jaded part of me is immediately appalled that I know that and that I’m assuming the man is on drugs. This is followed by a shame spiral because I am raising children who already know what junkies, weed, and police brutality are, not to mention way more kinds of weapons than they’d know from just watching the Power Rangers.

Can you see why I prefer having breakfast at home?

In the direction I was facing at our table, though, I had a different perspective. I could see a line of people of just about every race and ethnicity, young and old, able-bodied and in wheelchairs. People were holding the door for one another, letting people go ahead of them in line, chatting with strangers about knee surgery: “Oh, you lookin’ good, honey! I had it last year. Just keep doing your exercises!”

We finished our breakfast and got up to buy another bagel to go. Riley was all set to give it to the homeless man, but outside the door we discovered he was gone. “I was looking for him, too,” said a woman next to us. “I had a bag of clothes in the car I wanted to give him.” People want to help.

Always the mom looking for a Teachable Moment, I said to my son, “You know, if you want to help there are other ways. One of your classmates is collecting pajamas to donate to a homeless shelter. Want to go pick some out?” I was so pleased with myself for thinking of this. It’s the perfect opportunity. Riley LOVES pajamas. He changes into them the second he gets home from anywhere, at any time of day. He owns more PJs than Hugh Hefner, R.I.P.

“Nah. You can, though.” And just like that, his altruism has passed. Giving a bagel to a dancing homeless man is one thing. Going clothes shopping with your mom for some anonymous person is quite another.

I used to want to avoid unpleasantness of any kind, any reminder of pain or suffering. I still want to shield my kids from it, even if that’s not possible or advisable. I struggle with how to talk about tough subjects like homelessness, the self-consciousness of doing the wrong thing or not doing enough, and the despair of knowing I can’t solve it.

What my kids and I can do, however, is acknowledge it instead of turning away. To the homeless man outside Panera: We see you. You matter. We want to help.

P.S. I did buy some pajamas to donate. Any excuse to pick out cute footies in toddler sizes!

P.P.S. Parenting is exhausting. You don’t get Saturdays off.


Playing with Dolphins

by Abby on October 20, 2017

It’s not every day I find myself on a standup paddleboard in warm, turquoise waters. But one morning last week, that’s exactly where I was, three days into a girls’ trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida. The trip could not have been better timed, stress-wise or weather-wise. I pushed for the paddleboards, having done it a few times before and loved it. To me, the perfect vacation is a mix of relaxation and outdoor activity, preferably somewhere near or on the water.

Me, stand-up paddle boarding in Siesta Key

It took me a few minutes to get my sea legs after we dragged the long, heavy boards through the sand and into the waves. But before long I was standing up and gliding along in the shallow water. Schools of small, silvery fish shimmered just below the clear, blue-green surface. Billowy, white-cotton clouds scudded overhead. This might sound strange, but I knew what was about to happen next.

First, I thought I saw a dark flash out of the corner of my eye. But no, that was just a wave. Then, unmistakable: one, then two, dark, triangular fins broke the surface of the water. Dolphins! And look, a third! I could not contain my excitement as I watched these playful sea creatures leap and circle, dive and splash. I waved frantically to my friends back on the beach. Look! LOOK!!

Dolphin fins in the ocean

The other friend who was paddleboarding with me and I decided to get a little closer. But not TOO close. Silently, we paddled toward the dolphins. They saw or sensed us and swam over to check us out. Only then did a spasm of fear grip my chest, and my knees buckled slightly for a second. Miraculously, I did not lose my balance as one of the dolphins swam underneath the surface, just a few feet away from me. Close up, their sleek, dark bodies were massive, nearly the size of my paddleboard. I was in awe. Actual AWE.

I have seen dolphins in the wild maybe twice before. Once was off the coast of Delaware, and the other time was also in Florida, when a pair of them frolicked next to the Naples Pier at sunset. Those dolphins like to put on a show.

What was the most significant part of this experience for me? Was it the thrill of seeing dolphins? Was it the calm certainty of knowing that we would see them just before we did? Or was it the fact that I was happy, steady, and balanced until fear threatened to knock me off course?

I am not a person of strong faith. Perhaps I was more so when I was younger, but that is no longer the case. Interestingly, though, one of the women on the trip was a person of very strong faith. This made for interesting conversations, as I always appreciate someone who can articulate a different perspective without being judgmental or sanctimonious. When we were out shopping, she bought a print for a friend: “Be still and know” was part of its message.

It’s from the Bible, even I know that. I will leave the scriptural interpretations to others. I do think it’s an interesting phrase to consider, though. Many people struggle with the “be still” part. They text, scroll, and socialize their way through life, anything to avoid being bored or alone with their thoughts. Then there are those for whom the “and know” part is the challenge. That’s me.

I don’t “just know” anything. Even less as I get older. Well, except that I love my kids unconditionally and that the third glass of wine is usually a bad idea. Gretchen Rubin would call me a Questioner. My tax return says I’m a writer and researcher. I may not know stuff inherently, but I know how to find people who do. All the more reason why knowing we’d see dolphins that morning was so unusual for me.

If I knew that, what else might I know? What the next right steps are in my life? How to help my children avoid unnecessary suffering? The answer to world peace??

I think the secret lies in the “be still” part, at least for me. Those quiet, rare moments of solitude when I can think my own thoughts, dream my own dreams, listen to my own instincts. Give me some more time with the dolphins, and I’m sure I can figure it all out.

Florida sunrise over the water

P.S. Several people I shared this story with asked, “Did you think they were sharks at first?” No! Never! Thanks for making me retroactively terrified, though. And stop watching Shark Week!

Present Over Perfect, by Shauna NiequistREAD O’ THE WEEK: Yet another example of the right book finding me at the right time. I really enjoyed Present Over Perfect, a collection of essays from author and mother Shauna Niequist. Also a fellow water-lover, clearly. To get a sense of the book, see her recent discussion with Oprah on SuperSoul Sunday.

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Monday, 2 p.m. T-minus 4 days till Christmas break starts and my free time ends. I don’t have much time. I should be running to Michael’s, Target, maybe Kohl’s (do I have that coupon?). I need to get picture frames for the kids’ school photos I was guilted into buying. (What kind of parent doesn’t […]

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