It had been a lazy siesta at the beach with two friends, a bottle of champagne, sun-softened cheese, crackers, grapes, and chocolate almonds. It was a spot of heaven and mental / emotional reprieve from the retreat we had been attending.
We consumed like royalty on our beach blanket, laughing, talking, collecting shore captive treasures, noticing svelte bikinied girls, and talking with young man who was not very good at catching a frisbee based on the number of times we had barely avoided toe and head decapitations. At the end of our afternoon we wrapped up the remaining crumbs and giggled our way back up the cliff-stairs – knowing we needed to toss out our champagne bottle before returning to the retreat location that had strict rules about libations.
A vagabond stood on the stairs.
Once on the stairs, you couldn’t miss her; she was dirty, disheveled, and honestly (I’m sorry) disgusting. I smiled sweetly, trying to have Jesus-eyes, yet held my breath as I passed by her – the odor of urine was overwhelming and turned my stomach. I wrestled my thoughts to remain Jesusy. It was a cooler overcast day at the beach, yet not cool enough to explain the heavy rawhide jacket she wore; several sizes to large for her slight frame. Her hair was dark and wild, spilling over the jacket like tangled shore-stranded seaweed. Her mouth buckled in and her lips were pursed as she gnawed on a dry sandwich. She stared at the sea with contempt and avoided eye contact with the clean and pretty people.
Passing by her my heart panged for the shrunken vessel she had become. It was nearly like her life’s sorrow was thrown on me as my exposed arm brushed her jacket. But with most like her, as I’ve learned from countless books and documentaries, it seems to be a state they prefer. I know that sounds odd. But being a vagabond, a drifter, is the lesser of two evils. They are so removed from society and social graces – that the return is unthinkable, too hard, unbearable. I thought how I could easily be two or three tragedies away from being her. Hopeless and angry.
What came next was either an act of loving kindness or belittling benevolence. My friends and I thought it would be kind to offer her our grapes, crackers, and almonds – the bravest of us (not me) approached the woman with our scraps. And in the moment my friend approached her I had second thoughts. My inner voice was yelling, “No! No! No! don’t do that to her! Do not treat her like a dog at the foot of the table!” Why did I think this was a good idea?
I was unsurprised that she declined our leftovers; and my stomach sank at the whole scene. We offered trash, when maybe we should have offered a hot meal – a filet mignon and fine wine. My mind was racing through the parable of the wedding feast or entertaining angels. It was too late to do the right thing, whatever that was. How long had she watched us, laughing on the beach, drinking champagne, living a life she no longer knew. How long had it been since someone offered her a hug; how long had it been since someone touched her; how long had she been overlooked; how long had her mind been lost? I reflected with some pain on what Jesus might have done. I began to understand the angst on her face. I tried to console myself with the fact that we DID noticed her and offered food – even if it wasn’t “new” food. And that had to mean something. We didn’t just pass by. We did something. But something wasn’t right. I prayed, “God, what does it mean – what could we do?” Seems God wasn’t much in the talking mood right then; and still seems content to remain silent and let me work through this on my own.
Clearly this moment has stayed with me, I still see her leathered face in my mind’s eye – and I presume there is a lesson in this for me. Otherwise I would not be rehashing the memory.
What keeps playing over in my head is that I wonder, when it comes to the overlooked, if I, we, should be more concerned for one’s spiritual needs instead of their physical needs. That attention should be focused on the soul as opposed to the vessel. But doing this is far more daring than I typically want to be. It’s harder and riskier than offering food or money. It’s about offering myself, my pride; and this is always harder and has been the road less traveled.