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Before my last trip to Southern California, I polled my friends and coworkers on fun things to do for a girls’ trip in Los Angeles. “What is something fun we can do…when we haven’t showered in three days?” I asked. I was looking forward to having a fun time with my best friend in L.A., but I was worried about how my appearance was going to be.
In the city where appearances are everything, I couldn’t imagine myself sipping cocktails by the ocean looking like a sewer rat.
And not the cute rat from “Ratatouille.” I am not one of those women who can just braid her hair, put on a cute headband, and make it look like the dirtiness is part of the outfit. Nope, my wayward hair has scouts that reach out to touch the world. And yet it also stays slicked back tight against my head so my big ears look awkward, and my face looks extra fat. Grungy is not my forte.
By the time my best friend, Crystal, and I made it to see what we could of L.A., we had spent two days on an island in the Pacific Ocean. I thoroughly loved Channel Islands National Park, but the best for personal hygiene it provides is pit toilets. After we landed back on the mainland in Ventura, California, we hurriedly changed and tried to freshen up as much as we could for a night in L.A.
After we tidied ourselves up as best we could, Crystal looked at me and said, “Why are you wearing a hat, if you put dry shampoo in your hair?” I pulled off the hat and gave her a shrug, showing my still greasy, slicked-back hair with its random tentacles sticking out.
A coworker of mine who used to live in Los Angeles told me not to worry about my appearance. “You’ll fit right in. We used to play ‘hipster or homeless?’”
But as we drove through the streets of Los Angeles looking for Hollywood Boulevard, we saw countless tents set up in the alleyways, in fenced-off areas, and just on the sidewalks.
It made me think of my own tent, a $400 MSR Hubba Hubba backpacking tent. I also thought about my five sleeping bags I have to choose from to make the temperature just right.
And I realized the dichotomy between hipsters and the homeless.
By the time we made it to Hollywood Boulevard to wander around looking for celebrities’ stars on the Walk of Fame, it was late at night. We fit right with the people also wandering the streets at that time. I had no need to worry about my appearance.
This is the season of Lent. And even though I am not Catholic, I attended Catholic school as a child, where I learned a lot about Catholicism. Lent symbolized the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, so Christians fast from something in the 40 days leading up to Easter. I don’t give up things for Lent, but I do use it as a time to reflect on what’s blocking my mind from growing, what is something maybe I overindulge in, and how can I use what privileges I have to help others.
My trip to Los Angeles showed me what a privilege it is to “pretend to be homeless.”
In the spirit of Lent, it’s a good time to meditate on how that privilege can be used for good. How we can use this surface-level similarity to help those who are not as fortunate as we are.
In Stephanie Land’s book, “Maid,” – a memoir of a single mother who was briefly homeless and struggled on a low income as a maid – she speaks most fondly of those who treated her like a human. She states how many people assumed she was a drug addict, alcoholic, bad mother, and abusing the system.
These are things people could have assumed about me and my stinky bad appearance in Los Angeles.
When I volunteer with the homeless in my hometown, one of the ways I like “giving them something” is just to treat them like they are human. Starting with the assumption that they are no different from me, but just down on their luck, is a good start.
The last time I had a roommate, it ended badly. It ended in screaming and name-calling. I had to leave; it was toxic. One Friday night I had enough. I got off of work, went home, grabbed the Christmas tree – ornaments still hanging on it and all – and loaded it into my car. It was my tree and ornaments. I’m not that much of a Grinch. Although, I did feel like him. I went back in and started grabbing my books. When my car was piled full of my most prized possessions, I pulled out of the driveway and called my parents. “I want to come back home.”
Throughout her book, author Land shows how not having a family to lean on can be crippling. I have a family to lean on. This privilege is what separates me from Land. I had somewhere to land and did not end up homeless.
Reflecting on this privilege shows me ways to empathize with those less fortunate than me. And being able to empathize, helps us to serve others better and meet them where their need is. Jesus teaches us to humble ourselves and serve others.