63: Helping Hands

63: Helping Hands

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

Helping Hands

My values, our values, aren’t about pointing fingers. They are about offering a helping hand.

~Kathleen Blanco

At fifty-two, I was broke and homeless. When I walked into my friend’s small apartment with only one suitcase and an air mattress, Barbara’s warm, welcoming smile and big bear hug wrapped me in a cocoon of love and acceptance. But the packing boxes I saw scattered throughout her apartment reminded me that she was moving in two weeks, and the clock was ticking. I had to start looking for my next place to stay.

Before Barbara took me in, I’d already spent three months bouncing between various family and friends’ homes. To those who knew me, it seemed my life was spinning out of control. But, more often than not, I felt at peace. Although I wasn’t able to dodge the financial crash my own choices had set into motion, I had spent time every day working to quiet the fearful thoughts my difficult circumstances stirred up. I meditated. I journaled. I took long walks. And I savored all that was good in my life, which was still plentiful.

Having created this mess, I figured I probably wasn’t the best judge of how to fix it. So, after giving away the bulk of my furniture, putting my most precious belongings in storage, and leaving my apartment with no idea where I was going to land, I let go of trying to figure out or control what should happen next. I surrendered completely.

Full of curiosity about what new life direction might emerge, I felt excited rather than scared, at least most of the time. When I did feel some worry or fear start to creep in through a side door, I’d close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, and reconnect with that place deep inside where I knew everything was going to be all right.

By the time I arrived at Barbara’s, my new life had already begun to manifest. One day, I got a call from a friend who was inspired in a meditation to ask if I wanted to write for him. In all the years I’d worked with authors, it had never occurred to me to provide writing and book-promotion services. Without hesitation, I said, “Yes! I’d love to!” It opened up a whole new way of working with clients and earning a living.

But at that point, I was only making a few hundred dollars a month and couldn’t afford to pay rent. So I placed an ad on Craigslist offering home-care services in exchange for a place to live. Since Barbara didn’t have an Internet connection, I’d take my laptop and drive to a nearby Starbucks every day, where I’d order a cup of tea, connect to their Wi-Fi, and settle in for an hour or so to go online. I’d check to see if anyone had answered my ad, respond to any live-in help or house-sitting ads that looked like they could be a good fit, and remind my friends that I still needed a place to crash for a while, casting as wide a net as possible.

Several days in a row, I noticed a woman around my age who also brought her laptop with her and went online while sipping her coffee. After saying hello a few times in passing, we struck up a conversation one day and discovered we were in the same situation. Shelly, too, had to move on August first and was using Craigslist to look for a rent-exchange living situation. A woman of deep faith, Shelly trusted that God had her life well in hand. While she was taking appropriate actions to find a new place to work and live, she had a strong and steady faith that she was being guided and cared for every step of the way. We became instant friends and a source of support for each other.

The days sped by, without either of us having any success, but our spirits remained high. Even so, Shelly, who at one point had lived in her car for several months, started giving me lessons on how to live in my car safely just in case I couldn’t find a place to stay. I listened intently, yet couldn’t bring myself to believe it would actually come to that. So far, things had always worked out. But the fact that I was seriously considering strategies for living in my car was scary.

When I was down to the last forty-eight hours, Barbara encouraged me to work non-stop to find my next place to stay. Yet my inner guidance gave me different advice. Deciding to trust that still, small voice inside me, I spent most of Saturday curled up with my laptop, writing and living the life I wanted to create.

With the very real possibility I could be living in my car in two days, the thought I might be deluding myself certainly crossed my mind. But by the time I’d finished my daily ritual of meditation and journaling, the doubt had mostly passed.

After writing for hours, I drove to Starbucks to check my e-mail, but no one had answered my ad. On the way back, I stopped at Shelly’s to drop off a book she’d loaned me.

Shelly had an unusual rent-exchange situation, in that she was paid for the work she did with a fully furnished two-bedroom vacation rental house while her employer, Miriam, lived elsewhere. She invited me to have dinner with her and spend the night in the spare bedroom, since she knew I’d been sleeping on an air mattress.

Shelly’s invitation moved me deeply, not only because we’d known each other for such a short time, but because it felt like my intention to spend the day living the life I wanted to create had opened a portal through which miracles were beginning to flow.

Shelly cooked us a lovely dinner, and an idea begin to percolate as we were eating. I said to Shelly, “Since neither one of us has a place to move to on Monday, what if we bartered with Miriam for some extra time in this house? I have some diamond jewelry I’d be willing to use as payment.”

At first, Shelly was against the idea. “I’m a woman of my word,” she said, “and I told Miriam I’d be out of the house on Monday.” But the next morning, she started to soften, and by the afternoon, we’d hatched a plan. Shelly sent an e-mail telling Miriam she needed another week in the house and would consider it payment for the extra hours she’d worked beyond their agreement. She told Miriam I was moving in, and that if we needed the house for more than a week, I had some valuable jewelry to barter with for more time.

It worked!

That evening, I went back to Barbara’s, and on Monday morning, we hugged and said our goodbyes. Barbara left for her new home, and I drove over to Shelly’s. Since we’d been given a week’s reprieve, Shelly and I treated ourselves to a relaxing lunch before getting back to the business of finding our next living situation. When Shelly got online, she found an e-mail from a potential employer asking for an interview. Since Shelly didn’t have a car and it was quite a distance away, I said I’d be happy to drive her.

When we were back at the house, I got a call from Barbara. Before she’d even made it out of town, her car had died. She needed a place to stay while shopping for a new car. I told Shelly, who said immediately, “Tell her to come on over, the more the merrier.” With a daybed in the dining room, there was plenty of space for all three of us.

That night, as we were chatting about what an elegant solution life had come up with to take care of all three of us in our hour of need, my phone rang. Joyce introduced herself and said, “I’m not a big Craigslist fan. In fact, I don’t really trust the people who advertise on it. But I woke up in the middle of the night inspired to check it out. I saw your ad, went to your website, and liked what I saw.” Joyce was about to start another round of chemotherapy, and she wanted someone to support her through the process. I shared with her that I had taken care of my mother through her cancer journey, and we set up a time to meet.

The week sped by as I drove Shelly to her interview, she came with me to mine, and Barbara shopped for a reliable used car. Our interviews went well, so both Shelly and I had our next homes lined up, and Barbara got a great deal on a car.

There was only one problem . . . my job didn’t start for two more weeks. As I was contemplating what to do next, Shelly said, “I’m not leaving you out in the cold. If I have to postpone my new job so we can stay in this house until you have a place to go, I will.” Shelly, whom I’d known for less than two weeks, wasn’t going anywhere until she knew I was taken care of.

After calling her new employer, Shelly turned to me with a smile on her face. “Julie,” she said, “go get packed. She’d rather have you come with me than have me postpone my starting date.”

I stayed with Shelly in her new garage apartment for almost a week, and then spent a few nights each with other friends before moving in with Joyce. During that thirty-day period, I stayed in seven different homes — reaping the benefits of many helping hands, both seen and unseen. By the time I left Joyce’s, eight months later, I was making enough money from my new author services to start paying rent again and leave homelessness behind.

What didn’t get left behind — and has continued to deepen and grow since then — are my respect and appreciation for the kindness and generosity of others. When I was at my lowest point, literally broke and homeless, friends and strangers alike stepped up and offered their support in whatever way they could — whether a shoulder to lean on, a bag of groceries, or a place to stay.

~Julie Isaac

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