25: Brand-New Socks

25: Brand-New Socks

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Brand-New Socks

If there is to be any peace it will come through being, not having.

~Henry Miller

I spent two weeks in 2007 as a seminary student at Ghost Ranch in Santa Fe, completing a course in transcultural ministry. We’d been invited to join a group of people who took water and breakfast to a local park where day laborers gathered, hoping to be chosen for work. We pulled up and let down the tailgate of the truck carrying the bottles of water and the rolls we handed out to the immigrant men who gathered around us. My classmates and I spoke with the men, hoping to learn more about their stories. My friend Kim and I ended up in conversation with a Mexican man in his forties named Natal, handsome with his long black hair. He wore a T-shirt and faded jeans. Next to him, on the low wall where he sat, rested a large backpack and a bedroll.

Natal spoke very little English and we spoke even less Spanish. Nonetheless, we had a wonderful conversation, ranging from the difficulty of finding work to artwork, from Santa Fe history to Natal’s “beautiful home,” as he described it. As we sat under the protection of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose image was carved into the metal roof of the gazebo so that her shadow appeared on the concrete floor when the sun shone through, Natal told us of his travels in search of work. He had traveled all over the U.S. and Canada, taking jobs where he found them, meeting people, and seeing the sights. He told us he’d especially loved Oregon.

He was filled with praise, too, for the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside Santa Fe and for all the history in the town. We agreed that the area was stunning. He grinned and told us it was important to appreciate beauty. Then, he invited us to visit him in his home in the mountains. When we demurred, Natal assured us that it was only a twenty-minute walk from the park. He wanted to show us the beauty of the trees and have us smell the freshness in the mountains. He wanted to be a good host.

Natal introduced us to some of the men in the park. They told stories about their lives and asked us about ours. I felt such an awareness of my own privilege as the conversation proceeded. I had engaged in a gratitude practice for years, writing in a journal each night about the things for which I was grateful. However, this experience was really a wake-up call for me, a reminder that I could never be grateful enough for what I had.

We continued to talk and it became clear that Natal’s “home” was a clearing under the trees. His bed was the bedroll he carried with him, spread on the ground under the starlight. He loved it there and wanted to share it with us. We declined, telling him that we were honored by the invitation, but that our classes would keep us too busy to make the trip. He told us that we could find him in this park any morning and that, if we found the time, we could come for a visit anytime. I was very touched by the appreciation in this homeless man’s voice for his “beautiful home,” and sad that he didn’t have an actual home. It made me think about all the faults I was always finding with my own home, a 1923 bungalow with central heat and hot water in a suburb of Cleveland. What a whiner I was!

Natal’s love of his “home” was in sharp contrast to my griping about the water in my pipes not heating up fast enough, about my bedroom ceiling being too low, about not having central air conditioning, about my lack of a fenced yard. What a brat I was!

If I was amazed by his appreciation for everything he had, I was completely floored by what happened next. I have always hated socks and it was a warm June day, so I was wearing palm tree–printed sneakers with no socks. In the midst of conversation, Natal noticed that I had no socks on my feet. He pointed and asked if I needed socks. I looked at my feet as though they had just grown there. He commented that I wasn’t wearing socks and that I must need socks. I quickly told him that, no, no, I didn’t need socks. He looked a bit offended, opened his backpack, pulled out a package of socks, and showed me. He assured me that they were clean socks, brand-new.

He thought I felt his socks weren’t good enough for me, so he wanted me to know they had never been worn by anyone. Brand-new! Good enough! I told him I was honored he would give me his socks but that I truly disliked wearing socks. Natal thought I was crazy, telling one of his companions in rapid-fire Spanish that I was a loca. However, he accepted that I wasn’t disturbed by the idea of wearing his socks; I just didn’t want any socks at all.

What he didn’t know was that I was absolutely astonished, touched and humbled, almost to the point of tears. This man who had so very little, the sum total of his possessions a backpack and a bedroll, was offering me his brand-new socks. Here I was, a minister-in-training, going along to the park to help these poor men who had so little. There Natal was, ministering to me, with an open heart and an open backpack. I have never forgotten his appreciation for the world or his generosity. We volunteers sometimes think we are the only ones with something to give. Let’s not forget that we are never the only ones with something to give — and many times, when we reach out to help others, we receive more than we give. What a blessing for us.

~Daria Schaffnit

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