Grey winter’s day, driving down the Interstate between Seattle and Portland, on our way to a consulting job. Temperature hanging in the low-40’s F, (about 6-7 Centigrade), yet a high sky, so we were catching glimpses of big mountains running along the eastern horizon. After a few hours driving and a latte, we needed a stop near Vancouver, WA at the Columbia River Rest Stop. Pulled off the road into the parking area. A young woman, maybe early-30’s was sitting on the hood of her car holding a sign, “Family in need. Any help gratefully accepted.” As we were parking I saw a man hand her a folded dollar. She smiled wanly, thanked him, and started to cry just as I was walking by. “Would you like a hug?” Oh the privilege of being a graying 60-something year old woman who can offer such a gesture to a person in hurt.
Nodded yes. I took her in my arms and she started to sob. “This is not what God has in mind for me and my children,” she said… “I just don’t know what else to do.” Out tumbles the story that she was laid off, and has applied for every job she can think of and while she’s waiting for her pay-by-the-minute cell-phone to ring in response to these applications, while her 3 boys are in school, released from their one small room at Motel Six, she has come to the rest stop to beg in the rain. “It’s hard,” she says. “This isn’t how I was raised… but my unemployment insurance just doesn’t give us enough to both sleep somewhere and eat.”
I hand her all the food we’ve got along in the car—almonds, apples, and some cheddar cheese. I give her $20.00, “Are you sure?” she says. “Yes, I’m sure… It takes courage to do what you are doing. How are you inside?”
The more that pieces of her story come pouring forth, the more I am sure she is the real deal: really who she says she is, really trying to take care of herself and her children, really capable of doing a good job for somebody, somewhere…and really brave.
She is practicing one of the basic PeerSpirit Circle agreements, and one of The Seven Whispers, to Ask for what you need and offer what you can. She is practicing it with strangers, in public, without protection or community around her. She is learning, she says, how much her need makes people uncomfortable, and how many people are kind to her anyway.
I say to her, “America is in a huge learning curve… more and more people are getting dropped into the cracks, and we all as a collective are being asked to get creative in our responses to one another and to change our ideas of what we can offer in these times. You are having this hard time now… next year it could be me. It’s hard to be the point person. I wish I lived closer. Tell me your name…”
“Leia,” she says.
“Like the Princess in Star Wars?” She nods shyly. Obi Wan Kenobi is not coming to this rest stop along the Interstate… There is only us—two strangers asking for what we need and offering what we can. I pray it is enough.
She is not there when we head north a few days later.