Thursday, April 28, 2011

follow up

A couple months ago I would, with some regularity, interrupt unrelated conversations with Mark by bursting into tears over the situations some of my clients were facing. I was taking in enough of the pain and difficulty people told me about that it started overflowing into other parts of my life. I knew it wasn’t healthy or sustainable, but as the pace and volume of my work began to escalate with tax season I found myself absorbing less and less. A few weeks ago I even caught myself being short with my blind or illiterate tax clients who hadn’t filled out their intake forms while waiting to be seen.

But apparently my capacity for compassion is back, and with an unlikely object.

I have sustained, long-term contact with only a few of my clients. Most of them I see once, call to follow up with, and that’s it. But there are a few. One guy in particular came in several months ago looking for a job and was immediately “one of those”. Sarcastic, self-deprecating, and disagreeable, I didn’t expect him to stick with our organizations’ program, but he did. He had gotten fired a few years away from retirement, was behind on his rent, and really needed a job. I kept badgering him over the course of several weeks to sign up for a free cellphone, and at some point he decided I wasn’t all that bad. He started stopping by my desk every time he came back to the office for a job interview. Over the course of the last few months he hasn’t found a job, has had to go on welfare (which means he has to spend 5 days a week at a dead-end city “job center”), and got evicted from his apartment. Worst of all was how I could see all of it in the new lines and hollows in his face when he stopped in a few days ago.

My teary outbursts are less frequent now, but I’ll admit I still don’t know what to do with the stories.

Friday, April 22, 2011

washing feet

I spent a good part of my afternoon yesterday in a meeting listening to higher-up administrators of some of the city's social services agencies give glowing accounts (accompanied by colorful charts and optimistic statistics) of the programs they operate for the city's poor. It was hard to believe these efficient, responsive, generous programs are the same ones my clients tell me about.

Yesterday was also Maundy Thursday, and I read these words from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on the blog for the NPR radio show On Being. He was speaking in reference to a medieval tradition in which monarchs washed the feet of the poor in commemoration of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper:
What about having a new law that made all Cabinet members and leaders of political parties, editors of national papers and the hundred most successful financiers in the UK spent a couple hours every year serving dinners in a primary school on a council estate, or cleaning bathrooms in a residential home?
What if those administrators, the mayor, and the Wall Street bankers spent a few hours doing some of the assignments in the Work Experience Program, like picking up trash on the sidewalks and cleaning public restrooms without pay?