It is the hot pink socks that I immediately notice. And then the wool sweater. And her swollen ankles and feet. I can’t see her face because she holds her head in her hands. Her long, grey hair hangs like a shroud.
My first thought is, I hope she’s not a regular. The day of our arrival in Montreal, we have parked our car behind the building where we’ve rented a flat for three weeks, and as we round the corner from the alley, I see her sitting on the stoop in front of the building three doors from ours.
I hope she’s not a regular. This immediate thought I hate admitting, but I’m quite sure that I want in no way to feel responsible for a homeless woman this summer. And if I am forced to pass her everyday on this same stoop, this woman with her head – and misery – in her hands, that is exactly how I will feel: responsible.
Three days I see her on the stoop wearing her uniform of the street: wool sweater and hot pink socks, capri jeans clinging tightly to her legs. The air is thick in Montreal our first week here. The sun falls hard on the streets and café umbrellas. It falls harder on those who have only wool to pull from the closet.
On day four, I decide we’ll make acquaintance. Clearly, she’s a regular. Clearly, I can’t attempt to do much writing about Jesus with a homeless woman sitting three stoops away from my front door. And when I’ve dropped the kids off at summer camp and park the van in the back of our building, I round the corner like I’ve done every day for the better part of a week. She is there. I approach.
Her face is tanned, her grey hair thick and beautiful. Today, she watches the world as it passes her on the sidewalk. As I come closer, I see her eyebrows arched in thick pencil. She has colored cynicism on her face.
“Hi. I’ve just noticed you the past couple of days and thought we should say hello. What’s your name?”
She stares at me blankly. “Why?”
The question hangs there a moment. I’ve begun stupidly. I try again. “I see you here most days and because I’m always walking by, I just thought I could introduce myself and be friendly. I’m Jen.” I stick my hand out to shake hers. And funny, I can’t remember now whether she took it.
That is where our conversation ends. I walk to the café where I plan to spend the day writing. And wonder just what kind of pain it is that makes a woman learn to doubt the motives of the world, just what kind of pain it is that leaves a woman with her head in her hands and bags at her feet, with only wool to wear in July.
It’s a couple of days later (every time now I pass, there is a hello from me, a nod from her – sometimes I might even suspect a faint smile when the children are with me). This time, I catch her in animated conversation with a man. They stand in front of her stoop. As we pass, he turns and I catch his eyes. They are empty blue, the kind you can stare straight through. I think it’s the translucent sorrow of mental illness. I say nothing, nod at the woman.
Months ago, I attended a lecture on Christian art. What exactly is Christian art? Are you a Christian artist because you write and paint scenes from Scriptures? Are you a Christian artist because your canvas radiates the incandescence of hope? Is Christian art only synonymous with beauty and illumination? And where, if ever, is there a place in Christian art for the underbelly of life? Calvin Seerveld, the lecturer for the event, had this to say about Christian art: beware of beauty. In his words, the art that is most Christian has a “wipe-open aperture for human suffering.” That sounds about right to me.
The least of these. The woman in the hot pink socks, wearing wool in July. I remember her today and capture her life for your notice, my memory. And it is altogether too small an act, but it might be argued that all acts of faithfulness are: small. We fear what we do may never amount to much; what can be made from the sands of our life and love? But I’m reminded, in the words of Barbara Kingsolver, that, “in our nervously cynical society. . .we ridicule the small gesture. . . [But] small, stepwise changes . . . aren’t trivial. Ultimately they will, or won’t, add up to having been the thing that mattered.”