The phone rang early this morning. The phone number for Amikas, the non-profit I founded in 2009 to house homeless women and children, is set to ring at my house outside of office hours, when the calls from women at the end of their rope always seem to come.
I can hear in her voice that she had probably been awake all night worrying about what to do next and I wanted to offer her some bit of hope. But Amikas reluctantly closed our group and shared housing over a year ago because we ran out of funds. Still, those desperate, early-morning calls keep coming. And they drain the life out of me because I have nothing to offer, except being willing to listen to their story, and to promise that I’m working on this – this problem of no place to go – this nightmare that a real mother, or grandmother, or veteran or runaway is trying to survive…
I’ve been having a problem with migraine headaches and vertigo lately. As I hang up the phone I start to see the auras that are the first sign I’m about to be laid low with the headache from hell. It’s the stress, the feeling of frustration that I can’t help, that I’m so damn tired of the bullshit from people who can sleep through a thunderstorm without wondering how those folks on the sidewalk downtown are going to get through the night… When I need to de-stress, I go feed the chickens.
We keep their feed in a metal box that’s coated with thick black stuff. It was something a gardening friend was going to throw out and I glommed it to store our chicken feed, safe from rats and rain. (Yes, our chicken feed has it better than over 3,000 people in the City of San Diego.) Because of the coating, the latch on this box is so snug that the only way I can open or close it is to sit on the lid to loosen the pressure on it. Today, after I’ve scattered the feed pellets about and plopped myself onto the lid to close the latch, one of the chickens decided she would rather hop onto my lap than fight her sisters for food.
As I sat there, rewarding her attention with gentle strokes on the back of her neck, I wondered if it was worth it to keep at this homeless thing. I’m not getting paid and yet it takes up most of my life. I could be gardening, or writing, or taking better care of myself. Or even earning money at a real job. But we are so close to getting these emergency bridge communities built, I know I just have to see this through, if I can just keep these migraines at bay.
Sitting there, watching the chickens, I thought about that first night that my husband, Juan and I put the young chicks into their fenced area with the coop we’d just built for them. I was amazed that as dusk set in, the chicks simply marched into the coop, hopped onto the lower roost and went to sleep.
“I wish my kids had been that easy to put to bed!” I recalled saying to Indian elder, Roy Cook, at an event in the Tecolote Canyon Nature Center the following day. My husband had been eager to introduce me to Roy, who had become a mentor to him since he had joined AIWA (American Indian Warriors Association), teaching him the Indian ways and gourd dancing at Pow Wows. Based on the measure of respect and esteem Juan held for Roy, I was pleasantly surprised by how approachable he was and how easily our conversation had flowed to our recent foray into raising chickens. When I mentioned that, because we live on the canyon, I was worried that one of the chickens might fly over the wall and become dinner for a coyote, his response caught me off guard, “We just consider that a donation,” he quipped.
A donation! That was hard for me to swallow, since I was getting quite attached to our chickens. Could life and death be such a casual thing that one could consider the death of a pet just a donation?
Four months after meeting Roy, I learned that he had passed on. My husband and I joined the celebration of his life at a memorial at Viejas. I was hesitant to share my only story of Roy with those who knew him so well, but they laughed and said that was so typical of Roy. It seemed, listening to their stories about all of the good things Roy had done in his life, that he knew all about donations – his living of his life had been a donation to the world.
There is a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that I put on the homepage of our new website for Amikas: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Sitting here in my yard, with a brown chicken named “Chicana” nestled on my lap, it occurred to me that the wise Roy Cook had given me a valuable lesson in our one brief encounter – about life and death being a donation – a gift we are compelled to both receive and give. Giving of ourselves, doing for others… this gives our lives purpose and meaning.
There will come a day, soon I hope, when I will get a phone call from a mother about to become homeless, and I will be able to say to her, “I have a place where you and your children can stay tonight, while we find a real home for you.” Until then, I will continue answering “life’s most persistent and urgent question.”