By Alexia Saleem
There’s a lady that comes to the church across the road from us every evening. She’s there Monday to Saturday, hail, rain or shine.
The first few times I ignored her. I guess I didn’t want her coming to me for money because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give her anything. The fact that I felt that way filled me with guilt and shame. What had happened to charity and loving thy neighbour?
The more uncomfortable I felt and the more I tried to avoid her, the more I found myself judging her, and myself.
I wished she would go away rather than stand there in the same dirty clothes day in and day out making me feel bad for my privileged life. I also didn’t like feeling bad that I didn’t have as much money as I’d like to be able to help her more.
I knew in my heart that what I was feeling had everything to do with me and nothing to do with her. Had I made different life choices I could very well have been her. Yet I continued to resent her for highlighting my own discomfort and prejudices.
I also found myself judging her for claiming to have no money and yet having enough money to have a smartphone. I judged her when I gave her €20 and she came looking for more the following week. I judged her for talking badly about people with money, when she relied on those very same people to give her money. And I judged her the most when she took the money I gave her but not the jumper I offered her.
I kept all these judgements to myself, making a point of not sharing them with my children. How could I? I was deeply ashamed of them, for who was I to judge? I felt my heart tightening every time I ran into her but couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to give this particular lady money. I have given money to others in the past, so why not her?
Despite my inner torment, over time we have developed a relationship of sorts and my children love her. I know this because they have told me.
I now know her name, her age, her birthday, how many children she has and about the daughter she lost. But that’s about it. It’s not that I don’t ask, it’s just she doesn’t give much away.
I don’t know why Lia chooses to beg for money. She says she can’t work. Something about an eye condition. I used to judge her for that too, thinking she was trying to con me.
Part of me admires her for having the courage to ask strangers for money. It can’t be easy to swallow your pride and do that. Or maybe it is. I don’t know, I haven’t asked her. One day I might. My children have asked me why we give her money. I don’t really have an answer I can articulate clearly. Instead I just shrug and say because she needs it and because we can. My answer has satisfied them.
My children don’t notice Lia’s dirty clothes. I love that and feel even more ashamed that I do. This shouldn’t surprise me as they don’t notice skin colour, body shape, a person’s looks, wealth or any of the superficial things that most adults make judgements about. How long will they be this way? I hope forever.
I can’t help but ask myself what happens to us when we grow up? Why can’t we always look at the world and other people through children’s eyes? Why do we continually choose fear over love? Why can’t we just run up to strangers and say hello with open hearts? Why don’t we let go and forgive easily instead of clinging to past resentments and hurts?
Just last week my son was worried Lia had no friends and that she would have no one to make her a birthday cake. He asked me if I would make her one. My children told me she might like almond and raspberry like the one I’d just taken out of the oven.
I tried not to think of the jumper she’d turned away. Would she even want a cake? Would I feel hurt if she rejected my gift?
As for worrying about whether or not Lia had friends, my niece told my son that she most definitely did have friends. For one, “Alexia is her friend,” she told him.
I smiled to myself at the beauty and simplicity of her seven-year-old logic. In that moment I realised I am Lia’s friend of sorts. I don’t feel like a very good one mind you, although these days I judge her less. I do continue to judge myself, but not as much as I did, for I know she’s in my life to teach me something.
These days I try to see Lia through my children’s eyes. With love, warmth and no judgement.
I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to how I used to be before I became a grown up with all this excess baggage. Is it even possible to get rid of it all in one lifetime? Some say it is. All I can do is try. In the meantime, I’ll follow my children’s lead.