That Jewish Lady

I see two green arrows pointing down over doors with no windows. I wonder, and later ask, what do the arrows mean? Does it indicate a safe house? A protected entry? An emergency drop off? Turns out it just indicates where the doors are – no adjective needed. The mind makes associations, not necessarily intended, especially when the context is not your own. I am at a shelter for homeless women and children.

I walk the halls, corporate (alien) (white) (dressed up) visitor. I am hosted and greeted and kindly welcomed in, while reminded that I am in families’ homes. The floors are immaculate. The faces of the women do not immediately brighten when looking up from their babies’ heads or the bowl they are washing. One or two don’t even notice us as they are deep in conversation, working on a computer, or pushing a stroller while repeating to a staff member, “…but I don’t have that. Why are they saying I have that? I don’t. I don’t even know what that is,” voice growing tauter as her angst audibly rises with each protested proclamation of confusion.

I am weirdly outfitted with a set of skills that can help. Didn’t intend to have or develop these skills, but there they are, collected over time through school, reading, relationships, mistakes and practice. They can be of use, so shouldn’t we use them? Shouldn’t we use these things I know how to do?

It’s just that my race screams out, announcing my outsider-here-to-lend-a-hand-self. I want to swoop up babies and women and people and families and say, “I know I look different and weird, but I think we can connect. I think we can learn from each other. I don’t mean to preach.”

I am that Jewish lady. White roots showing. Hair frizzy from summer humidity. Draped in Eileen Fisher to cover my overeaten middle age. I have a career, a job, status, a son, a husband, an ex, a car, and health insurance….

I have “embaritude” – embarrassed gratitude. I am glad to have a chance to DO. Yet, nauseous with embarrassment to be an outsider coming in to “help,” as if just the offer indicates an assumption of superiority. I am desperate and anxious to explain that I don’t see it that way, don’t feel that way, am not “betterthan.” We are like each other: somehow, through decisions and consequences – our own and others – we are dislocated from our own agency, our connection to hope, and, sure, sometimes our families. We are walking through day-by-day not expecting laughter. And then again, not at all like each other, the systems that hatched us shaping us in such antithetical ways.

I am that Jewish lady, embarrassed. How dare I take my white, religious, educated self into someone else’s home and extend my hand? And yet if not me, then who?

© Gabriella Strecker, 2016