Homelessness Is Not Hopelessness

“Mac died, y’know.”

No, I hadn’t known. Will and I were chatting in the newly constructed main room of the Okanogan Community Homeless Shelter. Will probably has an official title. I just know him as the driving energy and organizer of the all-volunteer, local effort to help homeless people.

Mac had been a regular guest during annual shelter operations from November through March, the cold months. He’d be waiting at six p.m., when the shelter opens, when I’d arrive once or twice a week with a hot casserole for the evening meal. He was eager to carry the casserole inside, eager to tell me about his efforts to find a job, eager to show me his wife’s photo — cracked and creased inside his otherwise empty wallet.

Mac taught me a profound lesson. The shelter strictly requires guests to be clean (of drugs) and sober. Guests spend the first thirty minutes in conversation with screeners before they’re admitted for the night. As far as I knew, Mac never failed the screening. 

After the shelter closed each season, I would see Mac hanging out by the gazebo in Pioneer Park, near my home. My dog and I frequently walk through the small park, which is a way-stop for homeless folks. We’re usually greeted cordially and rarely asked for money — which I never carry. 

One day Mac, alone at the gazebo, surprised me by asking if I could spare a few bucks. I assured him I don’t carry cash and continued home, troubled as I walked. I thought about Mac’s willingness to follow the shelter’s rules, his futile efforts to find work, his estrangement from family. I grabbed a twenty dollar bill, got in my car, and drove back to the gazebo. 

“I know you, Mac,” I said, “and I know you’ll spend this the right way.” 

The next day I again saw Mac in the park, drunk out of his mind. That was last spring. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’d taken the easy way out, thrown money at the problem. At the very least, I could’ve driven to a fast food joint and bought a gift card. Mac ultimately died of acute alcohol poisoning. I am sadder and wiser.

All the money in the world couldn’t help Mac, but don’t misunderstand me. It’s vital that we invest in ways to help, both through private charities and public (tax) dollars. There are no quick, one-size-fits-all solutions. Obviously, homelessness is symptomatic of deeper problems. More than a half-million people in our country are homeless any given night. Washington’s homeless population ranks us among the nation’s top ten problem states. 

Still, homelessness is not hopelessness. I’ve witnessed repeatedly how shelter guests move onward and upward — with help: help from friends or families, help from nonprofit or government programs, help from a combination of efforts, from a willingness to give and receive help. Homelessness is not hopelessness, as long as we — all of us neighbors — are willing to help.

Flood waters: A week of flow going

The normally placid Okanogan River that flows past my home decided to exert its authority this week, egged on by its major tributary, the volatile Similkameen. What, I wonder, makes a tributary a tributary, especially when the supposedly junior partner runs amok?

We on the U.S. end of these two international rivers have not been as adversely impacted as our neighbors in British Columbia. I’ve not been impacted at all other than hypnotized while watching the urgent flow of forceful currents.

Ordinarily, especially at this time of year, the Okanogan is one of the slowest moving rivers in Washington state. Its source is a series of lakes in Canada. The southernmost, Lake Osoyoos, ushers the river into the United States, after which it drops a mere 125 feet along seventy-seven miles to the mighty Columbia. Contrast that to its raucous neighbor, the Methow, which drops 1,740 feet in its final fifty miles to the Columbia. 

White water rafters prefer the Methow during runoff in spring, while the Okanogan plays host on hot summer days to inner tubers who lazily drift, often towing a floatable cooler. My husband and I used to keep a small motor boat in the river during high water months, usually April into June. At that time of year, there was just enough current to create a wee bit of white water upriver. John delighted in taking grandchildren to experience what they dubbed the “wimpy rapids.”

Canada geese scramble for higher ground as the river inundates their small island

At this time of year, the most frequent river residents are mallards and Canada geese, serenely riding the slow current. Their tranquility was rudely interrupted this week when the river began to gradually rise from its normal five-foot level. Suddenly, in forty-eight hours’ time, it skyrocketed to 15.48 feet, officially a flood.

All of this at the insistence of the Similkameen, which joins the Okanogan some forty miles or so north of my home and contributes seventy-five percent of its flow. I’ve tried to determine if there’s some kind of standard for distinguishing between a tributary and main channel. The best Google could offer was that a tributary feeds into a larger river. 

Well. The Similkameen at 122 miles has a seven-mile edge over the Okanogan’s 115 total. At their confluence, the Similkameen clearly has the greater volume, turning the Okanogan’s clear, lake-fed water muddy brown. My husband called it “Similkameen silt.” Shouldn’t this river (and the valley it created) be named Similkameen?

It’s futile to suggest. Our tourist industry, which spends beaucoup dollars promoting “Okanogan Country,” probably wouldn’t want to rebrand. Their website goes so far as to dismiss the Similkameen as a “small, scenic river,” about four miles long. Which brings up the question of where does a river actually begin, but we’ll ponder that at another time.

At least we’ve managed to retain an indigenous name, or something close to it. Maps created by early fur traders in the 1800s tried to name the river Caledonia, but the British Empire lost out. Okanogan is an anglicized version of the native term. In his book “Late Frontier,” historian Bruce Wilson tracked down fifty ways newcomers tried to spell the word that they were hearing natives speak. Attempts ranged from “Cachenawga” to “Otchenaukane.” Even the U.S. and Canada can’t agree on its spelling. In Canada, it’s the same river and valley but spelled O-k-a-n-a-g-a-n.

Similkameen reportedly means “treacherous waters” — true enough when flooding. The translation of Okanogan is “rendezvous” or “meeting place.” Yeah, probably better for tourism. By week’s end, as flood waters recede, I’m just happy to go with the flow.

One Simple Move

I moved my chair. I mention this only because you may have a chair like mine. It’s your sanctum sanctorum, your refuge dedicated to comfort, relaxation and an occasional nap. On an adjacent table you may have piled books, newspapers, magazines, beverage of choice, digital devices, remote controls … whatever sedentary activities your chair accommodates. 

Your chair may be a recliner. Mine is not. It’s the old-fashioned Queen Anne wing style with a high back so I can rest my head when I feel a snooze coming on. Both chair and matching foot stool have been reupholstered twice over their many years of service. They’re looking worn and dingy yet again.

It’s discomforting, this new location. I can’t say I like it better. In fact, I may not like it at all. Yet, there are advantages. The light is better for reading. The chair previously blocked a section of bookcase that I needed to reference frequently. I could’ve moved the books, but the chair was easier. Now it blocks a closet that houses out-of-season clothes. I’ll need to shove the chair aside only a couple times a year.

The real reason for relocating is a change of perspective. I needed a new way of looking at the world, because the world itself isn’t looking at all the same. Most — maybe all of us — are experiencing that sense of unfamiliarity. A poll cited in “The Week” magazine reports that eighty-one percent of Americans do not expect life to return to normal anytime soon. Twenty-six percent say life will never return to normal. Whatever normal was. 

And was normal all that great? My dad liked to say that “the ‘good old days’ were formerly known as ‘these trying times.’”

I can still watch the Okanogan River from my chair’s new location. At the risk of overextending a metaphor, my previous view was upriver. The current, along with occasional flotsam and jetsam, headed my way. Now my view is downriver and the flow of energy pulls away from me. I trust it won’t pull from my own energy.

Whether looking upriver or down, I watch the constant activity of wildlife: birds, ducks, geese, great blue heron, eagles returning soon, the occasional leaping fish, and playful river otters. Add to that, I now face the downriver bridge with a different kind of wildlife. It’s a busy little bridge with a steady stream of trucks, cars, and buses. From this distance, I can’t make out the people inside the vehicles. I don’t know their gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, political preferences, income level, intelligence, interests, or skill set. But I feel connected. I extend a silent blessing, because they’re people on a bridge, coming from somewhere, going somewhere.

That’s pretty much where we all are these days. On a bridge, headed somewhere even though the destination may be uncertain. Some people believe we’re headed nowhere. If that’s your point of view, it might help to move your chair.

Beyond Vanity: Admit it — You too are gifted

At the beginning of a book discussion group on Zoom, one of our members offered to sing a song he’d composed. First, he apologized, “I hope this isn’t too vain.” He’s no amateur singer/song writer, so his offer was more than welcome.

The song proved to be an ideal introduction to the evening’s topic. At the same time, his use of the word “vain” evoked a memory from my sophomore year in college. A friend had asked me to join her in visiting the family of a mutual friend. Their father had recently been killed when a shed he was dismantling collapsed on top of him. As we sat with the family, trying to share their grief, they asked me to play the piano. I hesitated. Outside of a church setting, I was uncomfortable, even fearful of “performing.” I was a victim of my own false vanity.

Nervously I sat down at the aged upright piano and played a complex piece I’d been working on. The music ended with thundering chords, after which came utter silence. I turned from the piano to see tears of gratitude on every face. The mother said simple words I would always remember: “Never withhold your gift. Always share it.”

My musical gift is relatively small. Over the years I’ve been humbled and gratified to play with musicians whose gifts are far greater. Sometimes, too, I’ve played with those whose smaller gift was enabled, maybe even enlarged, through my accompaniment.

The Bible reminds us (1 Corinthians 12) that each of us has a variety of gifts. Every one of us is a gifted individual, but gifts fall into the use-it-or-lose-it category. Gifts have to recognized and shared, or they disappear.

I’m especially appreciative of people whose hands are gifted in various ways. Too often manual labor is under-appreciated and underpaid. In recent months around my house, I’ve enjoyed watching the craftsmanship of a carpenter, the patience of painters, the efficiency of a window washer, the youthful energy of kids pulling weeds in my garden.

The joy of heaven is found on earth when we share our gifts. Back to that vanity issue, it’s a tricky maneuver, finding just the right balance between confidence and humility. For most people, honing and offering their various gifts earns a paycheck. The real reward, though — the reward that keeps our world going round — is the gratitude of those with whom we’ve shared, for whom we’ve opened our treasure chest of gifts.

This week I renewed acquaintance through email with an 85-year-old man whom I hadn’t been in touch with for more than forty years. Even then he had an uncanny gift of vision. He recognizes ideas that will impact the future in positive ways. As an entrepreneur he has launched numerous businesses and is still at it. His visionary gift has made him wealthy. More important to him, he’s created job opportunities for hundreds, probably thousands of people.