archives, wisdom

Life Intervenes When Your Brain Fears Everything.

On Sunday mornings, I walk 20 blocks south from where I am residing at the Bellevue Homeless Housing Facility in mid-town Manhattan to a small church on the lower east side of Greenwich Village.

I don’t go for religious reasons; I go for a sense of community, to get involved with and support their social justice and artistic programs, and to enjoy a home-cooked meal.

I’ve done this sort of thing all my life. When I was young, my parents would take my brother and sister and me to a church in an Eastern European ethnic enclave where my dad grew up. Both of my parents were first-generation Americans. This was their way of staying in touch with their extended family members, language and culture.

We are all tribal, like it or not, accept it or not. The only times tribalism becomes a problem and dangerous is when one tribe starts believing that it’s better than others. I never once heard either of my parents talk down on any person for their culture, race or religion.

The pastor of the little East Village church, a vivacious Black woman named Jacqui, knowing how I live, asked me, “What gets you through?”

I’d first like to say something about how I live. I am not staying in a homeless shelter because my life fell apart. I am living there because the society and economy around me has fallen apart.

I came to NYC six weeks ago to meet with someone who is publishing an excerpt of my latest book, Facing Homelessness. I can’t afford NYC rents; only about one percent of the population can. So I moved into the notorious Bellevue Shelter. It’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

In regard to Jacqui’s question, I don’t think that it’s any different for me than for anyone else getting through a difficult situation. Hasn’t everyone gotten themselves into a situation they weren’t sure how to get through? Hasn’t everyone propitiated God with promises to never do that again if you can just you get through it this time?

Of course we all have; we’re human.

I can recall a recent denouement or climax of a situation that forced me into a different way of being in order to survive.

It occurred after spending two years fending off my sister and a cadre of lawyers who were attempting to remove my mother from her home and place her god-knows-where. At this time, her home was the only place she felt safe in. Whenever my mother and I left the house together, she’d grab my arm in a death grip and would not release it until we got home again.

In the end, I won the argument in court and my mother spent her last days in her own home. But it exhausted me, and afterward I could not force myself to play any more legal games with my sister and her lawyers. If you want the damn thing so much — a modest house not worth much in the real estate market — take it.

That’s how I found myself in a dive motel room staring up at a smoke- stained ceiling, not understanding what had just happened and why. I lay on the bed, closed my eyes and prayed, “Lord, God, whoever or whatever, I need your help. I can’t get out of this by myself.”

I recall listening to a Steve Harvey radio show when he was talking about going to court after his wife sued him for divorce. He’s worth a lot of money, so he was greeted at court by a stable of high-priced thoroughbred lawyers.

He felt overwhelmed, scared, as I had been in court. In the end, his wife and her lawyers did not bleed him dry the way he had expected them to. He reminisced afterward about how he regretted not having more faith in a favorable outcome. “With all her lawyers,” he said,“God and me sill outnumbered them.”

I wouldn’t express it quite that way, but when I looked back on my experience, I felt a similar regret for lacking faith that Life would make things right.

If I have any sage advice to offer about this, it’s to not get so overwhelmed by the enormity of your situation that you fail to pay attention to the small and quirky ways that Life or God is trying to help you out.

Like the time my sister sent adult protective services to investigate my mother and me. The caseworker walked into our home like she owned it, got right up in my mother’s face and said, “What’s going here?” My mother looked right back at her, “I’m dying and my son’s taking care of me. What’s going on with you?”

Damn Mama, good one!

Or when we did end up in court. The only way my sister’s lawyers could get my mother out of my care into a professional care facility was to impugn my character with salacious personal attacks. Wow is right.

After they finished, I said to the judge, pointing out the obvious, “Your Honor, none of these lawyers have taken the time or had the courtesy to meet and talk to my mother or me. These lawyers are saying these things about me because my sister is stuffing 100-dollar bills into their pockets.”

Silence. Guess it wasn’t so universally obvious.

Then I heard my mother’s voice break the silence. When I turned around, she was standing up in the back of the courtroom, cheering, “Give ‘em hell,  Jimmy, Give ’em hell!” Her court-appointed guardian — a certifiable idiot — turned to me and asked, “Does she know what’s going on here?”

When I look back now, I find that I was simply doing the right thing. When I came back from India in 2008, I knew something had changed, something was not right with my mother. I took her to a general practitioner who diagnosed her with early-stage Alzheimer’s. There’s no cure for it and it’s fatal.

Of course, they didn’t say this in front of my mother. But what mom can’t read her child’s mind, or sense the pain and sorrow in their heart?

When we got home, my mother turned me around so that I was facing her, looked me in the eyes, and said, “You’ve got to promise me. Whatever happens here, you’ll never let anyone put me away.”

That’s a sacred bond. Of course, Life is going to respect that and support you to carry it out.

So then why do we doubt? I’m not sure. It probably has a lot to do with how most of us are raised in fear of doing the wrong thing. If you keep doing this or that, this terribleness awaits you.

Our brain gets mixed up and fears everything. But this is where, for me, Life or God, Grace or whatever you want to call it, steps in to intervene.

Around this time, I was just taking a walk one day, feeling a bit melancholic. All this drama, and for what, I was asking myself. Is this really the best Life has to offer? I was on a newly-paved sidewalk with very little space between the new sections of cement. When I looked down, I saw a dandelion squeezing up through the tiniest of spaces between the sections.

I couldn’t even see any dirt for it to grow from, but its flower head was golden, glorious.

So, what gets me through? My recognition that Life not only wills us to live, but exhorts us to live this gift exuberantly.  

Just like my Mama said.


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James Abro
James Abro is the author of six novels, a few books and a couple of plays. His latest book, An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net, is a personal memoir of homelessness and recovery. Mr. Abro is on a mission to end homelessness in the community where he lives. He is also a regular contributor to The Center for American Progress blog Talk Poverty, and The Nation magazine.
James Abro
James Abro
James Abro