Notice them

We're at the very start of autumn where the weather is still warm and the nights are starting too cool down a little, but before we know it, it will be blustery and cold and firmly in that fall-winter weather. Something I always start to think about this time of year is how lucky I am to have a warm home, a pantry of food, running water and a nice bed to sleep in. I am very aware of how many people are not as fortunate as I am.

Last year at a gas station when it was so cold outside I couldn't take my hands out of my pockets for even a minute before they turned stiff, I met a man sitting outside a gas station. He appeared to have no where to go to warm up, and everyone who walked by just ignored him. He didn't ask anyone for anything, but he was clearly cold, hungry, and possibly homeless. No one noticed him, and it was making me so upset as I sat waiting for our gas to finish pumping that I got out of the car and went over to talk to him. I was frustrated all I had to offer him was an unopened water bottle and gatorade I brought with me in the car -- no money, no blanket. I offered him the gloves I was wearing but he was so grateful for the water and said it was enough. I wished him well, got back in the car, we left, and I immediately started crying.

I hate feeling helpless and selfish in that moment -- that I have so much and could do so little. This year, I'm getting ahead of that feeling by stocking my car with things. Today, I went on Amazon and put together a pack of 12 essentials to keep in my car (and Peter's) that I can give to people asking for help, or just looking like they may need it. I rarely have cash on me, and working in Drug Court I know sometimes giving homeless people money makes them nervous, but there are things we can do to help. First, we can notice them. Second, we can offer them some basics. I thought I'd share what's in my essential pack in case anyone who feels like I do when they see someone on the side of the road wants to put something together themselves.

First, I bought a 12-pack of plain black drawstring backpacks. I thought this would be a good, discrete way of giving people items. Useful to deliver the items in for them, and it would still be useful after they have used everything inside all up. I got this pack of 12 for $16.99 on Amazon.

What's inside:
*Unless stated otherwise, I bought the following items in packs of 12 to make a dozen essentials kits.
  • Emergency Mylar Blankets (Only $9.95): These are great and SO affordable. They reflect body heat if worn one way, and reflect the heat from the sun if flipped the other way. They're also weather-proof and fold down very compact.
  • Baby Wipes (I bought these from Amazon, but bulk stores/other brands may have better deals): Some people may not have access to showers, but getting to clean your face and wipe down your hands/arms makes a world of a difference. Baby wipes are gentle, usually don't have a lot of perfumes, and can be found in more affordable bulk prices than makeup removing wipes.
  • Gum (Wintermint): Freshens mouth and something to chew on. Chewing gum is also a great way to temporarily trick the stomach into thinking it is full/getting food. It is also great for people who have smoked.
  • Hearty Soup with Pop-Tab Open (I got a case of Progresso): Progresso is great because they have the easy-open pop-tab tops. I was looking at tuna, but most of the cans needed a can opener. This soup, I got the beef and vegetable flavor, is heavy and filling and can be eaten warmed up or straight from the can.
  • Chapstick (Pack of 24): Being out in the weather has a way of drying out the lips, and there's nothing so uncomfortable as cracking lips getting worse in the wind. The pack of 24 lets me put two chapsticks in each bag.
  • Hats (Unisex Beanies): This one's easy. Cold nights equal cold ears, and heat escapes so quickly and easily through your head. These hats come in a few colors, I got gray, and will work for men and women and fit anyone. 
  • Gloves (Stretchy Knit): This follows the hats. These one-size gloves should fit most people, and while they're not as warm as fleece gloves, they will definitely help. I got them in gray/stripes so they show dirt less, and are not a loud/bright color that would draw attention. 
  • Granola Bars (Pack of 36, 3 bars in each kit): Another quick, easy food to add in that is nutritious and easy to eat. This jumbo pack from Nature Valley I bought comes with enough bars that I can have three in each kit, and it's very affordable!
  • Hanes Socks (I bought two packs of 12 so each kit could have 2 pairs): Warm, dry feet make a huge difference. I remember one year my shoes got wet from the snow and I had to walk around in them, with cold, wet socks, for the rest of the day. It was miserable, my feet ached, and it made me even colder than I already was. I was going to get only one pack of 12, but I figured 2 packs would be better so I could include two dry pairs of socks that they could rotate so hopefully they always had a dry pair.
I am also planning on buying a pack or two of Gatorade at the store to include in the kits. I may also include water with the Gatorade, but I want to give a sugary/salty drink that will help stay hydrated longer. All in all, for making a dozen kits with all of the materials above, each pack comes out to about $17 each -- which is what I would spend if I bought lunch at work. 

This is very doable. We don't have to keep looking away and avoiding eye contact when we see someone on the streets. It feels so much better to be able to DO something for them, and this is so, so doable. It's affordable, it's easy (thanks to stores like Amazon, where I can order everything online at affordable prices and get delivered right to my door). I know I can't help everyone, but I can help some. 

We need to stop ignoring people and start noticing them. I will never look at the money I put toward this and regret doing it. I would surely regret not doing it the first time I saw someone on the streets I can't help. It's time to start doing something.

Make yourself at home

I lived in every bedroom in the house I grew up in -- except the master bedroom of course. I tried to convince my dad to let me also try the basement or the den off the living room that we reserved for all of our musical instruments to stand sentry until we were ready for them again (I would have moved my bed under the piano, if he'd let me). For the longest time, I believed I kept relocating my things because I was fidgety and loved the purge of organizing everything in a new spot. I'd dump all my drawers, move them over one at a time and be forced to reconcile their contents: did these things make me happy? Did I need them or could I donate or trash them? It was my do-over.

Maybe it's because I grew up reading lots of books and watching sitcoms, but I always thought that a person's room says a lot about them. The way they decorate it, whether it is clean or dirty, what it smells like... Anytime I made a new friend and went over to their house and saw their room for the first time, I felt like I was learning something new about them. A bedroom, in my mind, was very much a tell of someone's character, for better or worse.

So what did that mean about me, then, that I couldn't settle down? That I had this urge every few months to get out and start over? To try again?

I think for a good part of my childhood -- the part that I was a bit more in control of deciding how I presented myself to the world, where I was slightly more in charge of the message and the delivery of said message -- I tried to show myself through my room. I kept attempting to make the spaces I slept in feel like home, feel like me.

I'd paint the walls, hang posters and tuck pictures into mirrors. I'd find string lights and lanterns and eclectic lamps. Curtains, blankets, stacks of books, new candles. I tried so hard to make it feel right, but I couldn't settle, and then I'd pack it all up and try again somewhere new.

It's strange to realize that my childhood home didn't feel like home to me, no matter how many versions of it I attempted. The first time I lived somewhere that that feeling really "clicked" was when I first moved to Annapolis and had my own place. It was all mine, it was safe and happy, and even though I was now stressed with "adult problems" like paying rent, I loved it. It was home.

It's fun now, living where I do now with Peter and Violet, seeing how we can make this small cottage in the woods our home. I love getting to watch it all come together. Bookshelves keep popping up, I now have a workspace in the office, and our bedroom is super cozy and has the greatest surround of windows. We've lived there for about four or five months now, and I count myself lucky everyday to wake up surrounded by trees, birds, and the ones I love most. It is nice, for the first time in my life, to be able to make myself at home with my own small family.

A bit of faith

I so very badly want to believe in God. When I was younger, I tried so hard every day to have faith. Even though not a lot of it made sense to me, I went through the motions hoping that one day, something would click. I'd have that moment of understanding or calm that I heard people saying religion brought them.

It's strange when I think of my relationship with religion. I remember being frustrated and scared as a kid, praying every night and getting what I considered crickets in response. There are a few nights in particular that I remember small Erica, maybe six or seven, kneeling next to her little twin mattress with her fingers all tangled together, looking out the window at the dark woods and the stars above and just crying because I thought I was doing it wrong. Maybe I was asking in the wrong way, or asking too much, but I couldn't figure out why when I prayed for things to get better, they didn't.

After a while, I figured God was too busy so I moved on and started praying to relatives. My grandfather on my father's side died decades before I was born (and just months before my father was born), but I thought he would have a pretty big stake in how my life turned out -- and I believed through every story I knew of him that he was a good, brave person. I had hoped he would be able to help me. So I prayed to a man I did not really know, hoping he knew me well enough to... I don't know what I wanted exactly. Love, I suppose. Protection or understanding.

At the time, I figured I had hit another dead end. That maybe praying was a waste of my time, so I fell out of it. I fell out of religion. I hadn't had a good run of it when I was in Catholic school, or religious ed after that.

Creeds and psalms didn't matter. Organized religion frustrated me, and many people I knew wielded their texts in ways I found despicable. So I became a more casual observer of faith. Rather be a good person who does their best to love than someone who attends church every Sunday.

About a year or so ago, things changed. Gradually, I fell back toward God. I found myself whispering prayers to myself before falling asleep every now and then, I began remembering the good things religion gave me. I went to a volunteer project with Peter's church (Appalachian Service Project) where I found something close to the silence and calm I'd always wanted to experience and never thought I'd get to.

I started to think that maybe I wasn't getting crickets all those years after all -- I was given something better than a solution to my problems: I was taught strength and courage and how to love in the darkest of circumstances.

Tonight, I'm getting a new tattoo on my right wrist. It's one of the only Bible verses I've held in my heart all these years, no matter how far I've walked away from the church. Ironically, the verse is 1 Peter 4:8. (Peter's birthday is the 8th of April and this dual meaning of the verse has been spinning me for a while now.)
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.
There are days when I look around at all the love I am surrounded by and find it hard to consider it anything but a miracle. I may not still be exactly where I want to be with my relationship with religion, and it still makes me uncomfortable at times to talk about God, but things are growing. I have a little bit of faith opening me up.

"Today we are speechless"

Annapolis, MD, USA

I'm a writer. I was (and sometimes still am) a journalist. Reporting the news and covering a community is a tough job to do in a balanced yet empathetic way when such events occur. I can only imagine the difficulty of doing that on a day like today, but journalists do not rest. They report the news, even when it is unbearable, even when they are speechless.

I did not grow up in Annapolis but it has become my home. I read The Capital Gazette (and its parent paper the Baltimore Sun) growing up. I ate crabs on these newspapers, used them to wrap gifts in or clipped articles from them to pin to my walls. I studied these papers in journalism class.

I could have been working there -- I wanted to work there. But I was not. I got to go home and hug my loved ones, unlike the five journalists who lost their lives. We can honor them by remembering their names and tuning in more consciously to the news.

The first amendment is the first for a reason: the best way to fight back against injustice and evil is to arm the public with information. Stay informed, support the press.

Gerald Fischman | Rob Hiaasen | John McNamara | Rebecca Smith | Wendi Winters

Where you're loved

Don't stay where you are needed. Go where you are loved. Lang Lev
Abuse is strange. There's a cycle to the violence: tension builds up (verbally, non-verbally) and then there's an attack, followed by this strange period of apologies and loving gestures and remorse. And during that "after" period, you start to think things like... Maybe I was over reacting, maybe this won't happen again, maybe they were having a bad day and made a mistake and maybe I did something wrong that brought it on so next time -- next time I won't act like that and that could stop it from happening again.

But then it happens again and you try to look for how you were wrong during this one. And you do it over and over and over again, because you want to believe the love the abuser promised you they have.

A lot of people ask survivors of abuse why they stayed. Answers vary, of course, because no two situations are the same. Some people have no option but to stay, no money to leave or no one to go with for help. Some people believe it will get better, eventually. Some people stay because they feel they have to, out of obligation. I relate to all of the above but belong especially to that last one.

In my experience, the tension that built up to the physical abuse made me feel like I couldn't leave because I needed to stay, despite whatever came next. It was sometimes anger and yelling and hatred, but it was also lethargy and sickness and desperation. I witnessed depression and mood swings and complete absence from life and substance abuse. It was me seeing things I couldn't in good conscience turn my back on and walk away from, letting it continue (or get worse).

I was needed: to fix things, to cover up, to make things function like nothing was wrong. Every day, I felt I had no choice but to stay, even when it was at its worst.

The truth is, it never should have mattered if I was needed. I was a child and nothing that happened was my responsibility to fix. It was never mine to carry. Being needed is not the same as being loved. It's not enough, and does not ever excuse such behavior.

On hard days, I still get upset at myself for not finding a way out. Or, on the other hand, I get upset that I didn't do enough to make it better. Some nights I am devastated remembering the abuse I saw, and other nights I am a wreck wondering why my abuser didn't love me. It's possible for me to have both of these feelings, but it is a tumultuous storm to carry inside.

I still have trouble talking openly and honestly with people about everything because I know it upsets some people and makes them uncomfortable. But it's no longer a secret I'm burdened to keep. Opening up makes it all a little lighter for me.

Don't stay where you are needed. Go where you are loved. (And go there, in love, yourself.)

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