The most annoying and disturbing thing happened yesterday. I tried to encourage compassion in my child and almost ended up throttling a homeless person.
Here's what happened. Sophie and I were walking out of a neighborhood bookstore we frequent and passed a homeless older woman sitting on the sidewalk collecting coins in a plastic cup. I usually give Sophie a little money to give to homeless people, especially those we see regularly around town (there are quite a few; Berkeley has good weather and a liberal temperament). I've tried to teach her that not everyone is as fortunate as we are and that it's good to share what you have. But as I fished in my purse, Sophie beat me to it and produced a few coins from her jacket pocket, which she placed in the woman's cup. The woman glared at Sophie, and I wasn't sure if she said anything. When Sophie came over to me I asked her if the woman had thanked her. The woman heard this, threw the coins from her cup and started hurling what I'm sure were obscenities in some other language at Sophie. I quickly placed myself between the two of them and hustled Sophie off.
Sophie was frightened and confused about what had happened. We then had one of those conversations where I know she is asking really important questions but I'm totally making it up as I go and mostly talking out my ass. I tried to explain that she did not do anything wrong and that some people are sort of crazy in the head and do and say things that don't always make sense [at least to us]. Maybe she wanted more money and was offended by the few coins [although Sophie didn't consider the amount meager at all]. Sophie wanted to know why people are poor. I told her that many people are born poor, that some [like this woman] come from other countries that they had to leave because there was nothing to eat or a war [probably sponsored by us]. But many homeless people start off just like us but then go to fight in a war and see and experience things so horrible that they are never the same and can't get or hold down a job. Like what things? she asked. Like people [maybe your family, your children] being killed, like being driven from your home. Too much information for a child? Maybe, but it's true and a reality for children all over the world.
I was trying to model compassion and understanding. I was happy when Sophie said that what happened wouldn't stop her from giving money to other homeless people because she said she knows not all people are the same. But she wished she could have her coins the woman threw on the ground back. And she had bad dreams last night about this woman coming to hurt us. I pointed out that the woman doesn't know where we live and that her daddy and I were there to protect her.
But while I was espousing compassion, I was boiling. I wanted to kick that woman off her grubby spot of pavement, smack her across the face, make her apologize to my daughter, say thank you. And how reasonable is that? I want a homeless beggar to be well-mannered even though she is treated with contempt and indifference, grateful for charity I can't imagine what it must be like to depend on. And I have to admit, when I'm alone, I often walk past these people as if they don't exist. It's only with my child that I feel pulled into their proximity and am asked to consider their existence.
Sophie will be eight tomorrow. She is growing by leaps and bounds, in both body and spirit. I try to teach her, but I'm continually amazed by what she teaches me. Eight years: What a long, strange [but good] trip it's been.