About a month ago, I get a Facebook message from a woman in my neighborhood.
I met her last fall on the playground of our local elementary school, Reiche, while I was out walking around talking to folks, attempting to get elected to the Portland City Council.
A young mom. Hip. Gauges in her ears, tattoos on her arms and a Joy Division t-shirt. Chatting comfortably with the other public school parents, watching one of her kids bounce around on the jungle gym. She seemed like a really good neighbor.
She’s texting me to find out if I know anybody working at the Shalom House, one of the local social service agencies. Sure, I do. What’s up?
She tells me that she smelled a strange smell coming from the apartment next to her family’s earlier in the day. “We thought it may have been a sewage leak,” she says. “I was the only tenant that said something.”
A short while later, the building’s maintenance crew shows up, opens the door and finds her neighbor dead, his body slowly rotting. He’s been lying there for a week. Alone. “It sounds so crude and horrible,” she says. “It’s just such a sad way to end a life. I started crying, and I didn’t even know him.”
She’s hungry to connect with somebody who did.
“I don’t even know what I would say other than give condolences,” she messages me. “I just have an overwhelming feeling to reach out to anyone that knew him.”
So I put her in touch with a friend of mine who works at Shalom House, where her neighbor used to work, and it turns out that my friend not only knew her neighbor pretty well, but even trained him to do his job.
The conversation helps her to feel a little more centered. She’s still shaken up, but at least she’s found somebody who knows her neighbor’s story. It helps.
When I ask her why she reached out to me, especially given that she didn’t know me very well, she says that something I’d written came up when she searched Facebook for “Shalom House,” and she thought I might be a good person to talk to.
“Your actions make it clear,” she says, “that you actually care about people and want to try to make Portland better.” I love the way she phrases that. Because she’s right, I do want to try.
Trying is hard. It’s exhausting, frequently thankless, often futile. A lot of the time I get distracted, get bummed, stop trying. But I definitely want to be somebody who tries. I want to be somebody who doesn’t just give in and acquiesce to the soul-sucking vampire of a world with so much odious cruelty.
That stench bothers me. And it’s not just the stink of a body rotting in a West End apartment.
It’s the stink of neglect as dozens of people with no place to go die in the streets of Portland every year. It’s the acrid smell of bombs, bought with our tax dollars, exploding in villages across the Middle East. It’s the lingering scent of garbage as our society creates more and more waste.
I hate it. But this stench is reality, and I love it for that. I try to accept us humans for what we are. Flawed.
Life can be heavy, but I don’t have any big heavy solutions.
Nothing I write these days takes very long to read. I’m not offering a week’s worth of groceries or even a full meal. I write snacks. A ceramic plate of apple slices. A basket of salt and vinegar potato chips. Doughnut holes.
I love imagining people taking a break, sipping some coffee and following a Facebook link to read something I wrote. Finding a little sweetness. Sharing it with a friend. And going back to work, a little bit more grounded. A little bit lifted out of their daily grind. The smell of cinnamon in the air.