As I write, feet of snow sit on the ground outside my window, and more falls, peacefully, making me thankful for a dog at my feet and a mug of tea in my hand. I wrap my hand around the mug and breathe in deeply the scent of the tea leaves. Their earthy scent helps me recall spring time, May days, and I can almost imagine the bare branches covered in green again. I remember a scene from my favorite book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Francie, although her family is destitute, is allowed one mug of hot coffee each day, even though she doesn’t drink it. She prefers to sit and smell it and feel the warmth of the mug. When her mother, Katie, is challenged on this luxury, she says, “Francie is entitled to one cup each meal like the rest. If it makes her feel better to throw it away rather than to drink it, all right. I think it’s good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging.”
I’m in a strange place right now. A lifelong battle with depression that ebbs and flows is flowing again, with a strong current. Tasks sit undone, days run together. These last two weeks of semester break, there has not been any programming going on at my internship, so I haven’t had my usual distractions that fill my time and inspire me to reach past the fog. Last Monday though, we had a painting day for our youth program, and 20 kids trudged into the space, shocked from the cold that is hard for us Chicagoans but even more burdensome if you grew up in Africa. I was excited to see them, and remembering my love of winter break as a school child, asked what they had been doing for two weeks.
“We’re bored,” said one 3rd grader. “We want to learn again!”
“I have to help my mom more when I’m out of school and the babies scream all day. I can’t wait to go back,” said another.
I realized that perhaps my clients had a situation not unlike mine: when you have disturbing thoughts and memories, time alone with them can seem endless. My clients are poor. These are not the kids from my school years who went on Disney vacations over break, or spent time being showered in gifts by grandparents before hitting the slopes. Their break is two weeks of watching television inside a cramped city apartment when they are used to roaming a warm village or camp to play with their friends outdoors. They work. They struggle to find a corner of the world where they can be alone.
At snack time, we handed out goldfish crackers and fruit snacks. Still unaccustomed to American pre-packaged foods, many of our kids reject these snacks that even the pickiest American kids will devour. I know some of them might be very hungry. But as I sit here and watch the snow and warm my hands with a mug of tea, I think of my favorite book character Francie Nolan pouring her coffee down the drain. And I remember a mountain of goldfish crackers left uneaten by hungry kids. I am glad that they have something that can be disposed; I am glad that even in such a small, silly way, they can exercise some agency in a life that has been terrorized and uprooted and dictated by others.
And so tonight I think of them as I, like them, count the hours until I have places to be and distractions from the cold and gloom. And in a cliche way that I have challenged myself on to make sure it is authentic, I pull strength from their ability to face another day. I am buoyed by their goldfish mountain.
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