The tips of my ears burst into flame as I hustled the girls across the sun-baked parking lot and into the car. I felt sure that everyone in the store was staring at me, the foreign young mom who had just tried to do a good deed and spontaneously combusted. I couldn’t bring myself to look back, I couldn’t, and a new wave of heat billowed up my cheeks. What had I just taught my girls? Patronization? Irresponsibility? Penance, maybe? Were they learning cowardice from me in that very moment? I hoped they wouldn’t tell Dan. Really, my only coping strategy was to pray that we’d escape notice, and I wished with all the fervor of the shame-flushed that the woman we’d left on the curb would forget my face the moment we drove away.
That morning had unfolded with the sticky sweetness of late summer. The girls and I had breakfasted, hung the laundry, and headed to the grocery store to pick up some essentials. I was working out just how many ripe watermelons I could justify as essential (considering the one already taking up half our fridge, my husband would have said none; I would have said five, so I figured a compromise was somewhere in the two to three range) when I saw her. She wasn’t selling anything that day, only standing in the parking lot like an uprooted willow swaying in the heat. That she was there at all, trading in her time for the kindness or indifference of strangers, showed a heartbreaking kind of hope. It pierced me to remember how I had judged the spectacle of that hope in the past, how I had brushed away her courage and vulnerability as an annoyance. I knew this was the do-over I had prayed for.
She’s thirsty. A heart-nudge, one of those whispers of intuition that I’ve come to recognize as divine grace notes, steered my cart to a shelf of water bottles, and I tucked one among the watermelons. I felt instantly self-conscious—tampon aisle self-conscious—as if the item I’d just slipped into my cart would end up on the evening news and provoke international shock… but why? Even if I were to announce over the store’s loudspeaker that the bottle of water was meant for the woman in the parking lot, no one would care. Why was I so thoroughly discomfited?
I dawdled over checking out and putting groceries in the car, but finally it was just me with a water bottle in my hand and two little girls following me uncertainly toward the woman. She sat on a curb now, deflated, and I felt ridiculous in my sunglasses clutching the key to my air-conditioned car. Our disparity nauseated me with guilt. I felt a wild need to apologize for being born into a different life than she was, for buying watermelons while she begged, and for walking up to her now offering what she had not asked of me. Instead, I stammered out, “Here’s a bottle of water for you. I thought… with the heat…” I couldn’t meet her eyes, not even when she said a timid thank you and began to drink, and the only other word I could remember in that moment was “goodbye.”
My do-over was done, and as I hurried back to the car with flaming face, I couldn’t figure out at which aspect of it I had failed the most. According to insistent voices from my memory, I was damaging the economy by giving hard-won resources to a freeloader. All the You don’t work, you don’t eat philosophies I’ve ever heard converged to berate me for encouraging this woman’s lifestyle, and somewhere in there, the old adage about teaching a man to fish groped around for a point. From the other side of the spectrum, hyper-compassionate ideologies blasted me for not having done enough. Only a measly bottle of water to a woman who in need? My actions had made a mockery of her situation. The ostrich part of my personality mumbled from deep in the sand that I had presumed far too much, involved myself in something that wasn’t my business. My polite Southern roots chided me for my horrible attempt at conversation. I shouldn’t have done anything, I should have done more, I should have bought an umbrella back in December and cleared myself of any further obligation, I should have at least asked her name. My ears burned.
The water bottle incident happened last summer, and I still haven’t figured out where to assign my feelings about helping the down-and-out we encounter on a weekly basis. I know that poverty can be a politically charged minefield, and even though I prefer to stay out of those debates—like, continents away—I still tend to see a lot of issues in the epic scope of The Common Good. And it makes me crazy. (See above.) Of course I’m going to over-think a bottle of water until it becomes an economic and moral crisis; that’s how I’m made. It’s not how I want to be, though, subjecting the needs of my fellow humans to a gauntlet of opinions as I combust with guilt. I just want simplicity, the freedom to follow my heart-nudges with a whole mind.
That’s where people like Erika come in. Erika is the kind of soul-sister who would have snuck me out to go dancing had we known each other in our teens (maybe we’ll sneak out of the same nursing home together one day?), and she posted a story yesterday about a homeless man and a trip to Froyo World that undid about a million years of politically-correct anxiety in my chest. Loving with intention—that’s it. No expectations or grand schemes to change the world. No pressure to manage others’ lives. No political formulas or lines in the sand, and certainly no cost-benefit analysis. Just love plus intention.
Since that bungled parking lot encounter last summer, I’ve been waiting for answers, rows of watertight logic to categorize my debate so that I can make a clearly informed decision next time I see a beggar. What I wasn’t expecting was to realize that the debate no longer matters to me. It really doesn’t though. When I read that Erika and her family are buying an extra coffee each time they go to Starbucks so they can share it with someone who needs a lift, my heart jumps in recognition. This is it, the versatile beauty of love packed into cup, and maybe it’s not meant to feel comfortable, but I can finally let go of needing it to feel reasonable. Love has never followed the rules of reason anyway.
I’m not saying that it’s suddenly going to be easy for me to walk up to strangers and offer bottles of water. I still have the self-consciousness thing working against me, remember, and I’m guessing the should/shouldn’t debate will try to make itself heard again. But goodness, if any kind of intentional living is worth practicing on a regular basis, love is it. All I need now is another do-over.