On Gratitude

Recently, I had the opportunity to contribute to a new magazine, Yoga Iowa, which is focused on yoga and related practices here in Des Moines. The inaugural theme of the publication was blessings and gratitude, which seems to be a theme heard frequently of late both in and outside of the holistic living world. I’ve had a couple of reasons to consider gratitude in the last few months, and it seems easy to lose sight of it and what it truly means.

Some time this spring I was driving around East 4th and passed a warehouse with a sign in front of it reading “Joppa.” My eye was caught not only because of its location but because of the stained glass windows hanging in the store front, incongruently beautiful in the utilitarian surroundings. I looked into it at the time and learned it was an organization that provided outreach to the homeless around Des Moines. Because I was preparing to leave I put it aside, but made a mental note to reach out to the organization when I returned.

Reach out I did, and on Sunday I went out with Joppa volunteers for the first time. We set out from the warehouse after loading the car with coolers stocked with meat, vegetables, and fruit. Prepared meals are put together for distribution, along with coats, blankets, toilet paper, water, blankets, and anything else that might be needed. Every Sunday teams of two to four volunteers load up all of the above and take predetermined routes to hand them out to those living without a home.

We began our afternoon on a lonely stretch of road used by – presumably – a utility company on the southeast side. The road is barricaded by a gate, and to the right of the barricade is a slope leading down to a bank of trees. Clearly forbidden entry is a recurring problem in this area, as there were cement barricades placed down the slope, almost reaching to the trees line. Apparently Larry, a resourceful volunteer with a couple of years under his belt, was used to simply off-roading with his Jeep and skirting around the last barricade. Also apparent was that someone didn’t like this and had towed a felled tree into place, rendering it impassable.

Impassable until Larry just pulled out a tow rope, descended down the hill, and moved the tree out of his way with his Jeep. Larry’s resourcefulness and “nothing will stop me” attitude reminded me of one my favorite friends in Brazil; they are both the kind of men who always have the right kind of tool at the right time.

After the obstacle was removed, we reconvened on the other side of the barrier. The bank of trees stretched between the road and the river, the brightly colored foliage not quite obscuring the view of camps. Soon after arriving we met Eric, who had emerged from the woods after noticing the ruckus we made getting to the road.

Eric lives in the woods in a camp by himself. As we walked back to his home with him, the usual questions were asked: “How are you keeping yourself warm? What’s your plan for the winter? Is there anything you need?” Eric’s camp was set up within sight of the riverbank. Downed trees which I suspect will eventually be used for firewood were arranged around the fire ring, offering seating to his guests. He plopped down in his camp chair and invited us to take a seat. Larry asked him questions about his situation, his needs and some of the other homeless people known to be in that area.

Joppa’s annual fundraiser is coming up this weekend and the director of the organization, Joe, had hired someone to film the outreach efforts for that afternoon. The outreach efforts carried on while the cameraman circled the group and the camp with his camera, after Eric gave his permission. Eric focused on rolling himself a cigarette during the conversation while answering and providing helpful information. I gazed around while he talked, taking in the camp and trying to imagine just how it was to live there. It was clear from the conversation that Eric was no stranger to Joppa volunteers and had a friendly relationship with them.

At the conclusion of the visit, Joe and Larry stood to go and asked Eric if he wanted to say a few words into the camera about the volunteers. He did, and he said “I want to say God bless ‘em. If it weren’t for them, we would die out here.” He looked down at the gnarled hands that were absent-mindedly handling the cigarette just as raw emotion flit briefly across his face. Quiet fell over everyone – the kind of heavy hush that falls when sadness or vulnerability unexpectedly breaks through the veneer. Eric thanked us again and we left, moving on to visit other camps.

All of the camps differed in some way. One site held a home that was so well-constructed that I first thought it was a shack that had been turned into a home. In fact, it was rather beautifully built out of plywood, lumber, and cardboard with clean lines and solid craftsmanship. Most live in tents or make shift constructions made of tarp, scrap lumber, and anything else that might be of use. Some live in groups and live their lives in a communal setting, helping one another out. The camps themselves varied from organized chaos to, well, chaos. As the temperature dropped we encountered more and more wood fires, the hazy smoke and burning pitch making it easier to pick out the sites among the trees.

We delivered throughout the afternoon, and our last stop was a visit to a man named Dale. Dale emerged from the trees to meet us at the road, since he prefers to keep his camp private. He was excited over the prepared meals, and when he spied clementine oranges in the cooler, nearly danced with joy. Dale was the last stop and could have taken as much food as we had left over from the day’s run. He declined. Larry asked Dale if he needed more food, water, toilet paper. He declined. Dale told us that he had enough and they should be saved for others that might need them. “I’ve got enough,” he said. “I’m really blessed.”

I met some friends for tea at Smokey Row later that day and we were sharing the events of our weekends. After I explained my trip out with Joppa, one asked “How does this change how you view the homeless situation in Des Moines?” I had to respond that it didn’t, since I truly didn’t know enough about it and went in with no pre-conceived notions. “How did it change how you view homeless people?” It didn’t change how I viewed them – they’re just people. I thought about how I’d just met a man who lives in a self-made camp nestled among the pine trees, takes only the minimum of what he needs, and counts himself as blessed. I finally responded that it changed the way I viewed life, or more specifically, gratitude. I

It’s not about comparing. Comparing my situation to someone else’s involves having to make a judgment (about my situation or theirs); it’s a slippery slope and we usually don’t have the full picture when making these comparisons anyway. It’s about finding the excitement for the basics, for the little things. It’s so easy to forget blessings when I find myself on a Monday afternoon on my living room couch, swamped with to-do lists and stress, surrounded by half-empty coffee mugs and leftovers, lamenting the dozens of phone calls I need to make but keep putting off, trying to figure out my next move. It’s so easy to lose the meaning of gratitude in the midst of distraction, but in the end it comes down to simplicity. I have a roof over my head, food to eat, the love of family and friends. What more does one really need?

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