One of our co-founders, Mary Ellen, wrote this piece in 2005 about her time at the Open Door in Atlanta. We hope it provides some insight not only about her experience there, but also answers some questions about why she and Meridith decided to found Lydia’s House.
I am listening to this Merle Haggard CD, and I have decided that I really like Merle Haggard. It is good for me to be able to add a respectable artist to my musical repertoire, because overall it is embarrassingly limited. When I meet new people and they ask what kind of music I like, just to make polite small talk, I tell them my mother never let us listen to secular music, or much music at all, during our formative years—so I don’t really have a favorite. Aside from my mother’s issues, I think music might be an unfortunate reminder of the extent to which I am tone deaf. All that said, I am pleased with my discovery of Merle.
The first song on this CD, the one I really like, is called “Wishing All These Old Things Were New.” The chorus goes “wishing all these old things were new, thinking about the good old days before it all fell through.” I am not sure why I like it so much. It isn’t like there are a lot of “old things” to wish for when one is twenty-four. At the moment, maybe it speaks to me because I sense myself in a brief moment of restoration. I feel kind of new. It has been a long season and I have many essays to outline the ups and downs of January through May 2005. I am not going to go as far as to say that the boundary lines are falling again in pleasant places, as the last two years have taught me to be cautiously optimistic. My outlook is like driving in Atlanta… look behind you, look in front of you, peer around the car that is blocking your view of what’s really out there, and then pull out, vision still obstructed, and hope that the other driver values his/ her life enough to stop and let you in. So a couple of weeks ago I pulled out, and I haven’t gotten hit yet (both literally and figuratively).
There are obvious things that are kind of “new,” or at least different, lately. The black cloud that hung over the last twelve months, that being my mom’s leukemia, seems to be graying to a non-threatening state. For her, this means no more weeks in the hospital, no more morphine addictions, and no more months that she can’t remember and hopes not to. For me, it means that I haven’t made a trip to Olive Branch, MS for well over a month, maybe almost two. My soul protests when I tell it we have to go there. It doesn’t like hospital sofa beds, it doesn’t like the mausoleum effect created by the floral print décor of my mother’s house, and it doesn’t like that at least 6 SUV’s on the block have a “W The President” sticker still proudly displayed, seven months after the election. It knows who the President is. I tried to convince it that we should get an “F The President” sticker in response, but it said that would be unkind. Instead, while in Olive Branch, my soul and I sleep a lot, watch General Hospital, and eat corn chips.
Besides that, I am no longer substitute teaching. I am no longer elder sitting. I am no longer tutoring for the SAT. These were not exactly jobs that were “life giving.”
I am no longer doing any of that because I have moved back to Atlanta. Move number sixteen, or something like that, since I graduated from college. I realize that some day I will, hopefully, deal with down turns in my life by staying where I am and “blooming where I am planted.” I had some greeting cards once that announced that adage in italicized pink letters, along with a quaint picture of a little girl watering a potted plant. The whole thing struck me as a nice idea. However, for the moment, moving seems to be a good coping strategy.
My latest move brought me to my present locale, 910 Ponce de Leon, better known as the Open Door. The Open Door is an intentional Christian community, mostly made up of well-educated white folks like myself, and formerly homeless people. I imagine that we are all here because we want something different than what life used to offer us, and we realize that, to get what we want, we need each other. To paraphrase this move in the words of my mother “Mary Ellen has moved to Atlanta to live in a homeless shelter.” And oddly enough I have found refuge here.
I think it would be safe to say that the Open Door specializes in taking old things, broken down things, discarded things (and people) and hoping to make them new. It is appropriate in light of Jesus’ proclamation along those lines “ I have come to make all things new.” I imagine Jesus might have inspired Merle, and I know he inspires the Open Door.
To explain why staying in a house with thirty other people in Atlanta in June with no air-conditioning would be the life that gives me life would take a while, and a lot of history from the last three years. However, I guess I will start with just lately. Today the high may have only been about 79, and the humidity was low. There is a breeze. I feel thankful for it in a way that those with air conditioning can’t really understand. I also feel thankful for the dinner of butter beans and cabbage and corn bread that a volunteer named “Miss Millie” made for us. Apparently she comes every Friday, and makes the same thing, and people always love it. That’s probably why she keeps coming back: because when people love something here they let you know. Yesterday Ana, the resident four year old, who is one of the few children that makes me think “ I would really like to have children sometime this decade,” came up to me in the yard and hugged me and said “ I love you Mary Ellen.” We met last week. I play hide and seek with her and hold her upside down sometimes while she laughs hysterically, and in return she loves me.
I have a qualification that I like to use for people to set them aside from simply nice or even kind and that is “quality.” The people here are quality. They go to Grady Hospital, the only hospital that serves the poor for free in Atlanta, at 11pm and wait until 2am to get someone else medicine. They applaud at dinner each night for whoever the cook was and whatever he or she cooked, whether that be rice and beans or spaghetti or reheated leftovers. They never miss anyone’s birthday or anniversary and even if they have already celebrated two this week, they celebrate the third like it is the best thing that ever happened. On Monday and Tuesday they get up at 5:30am and serve breakfast to the homeless. The children here, who are four, five, six and ten, raise up prayers like “I love my mom” or “We hope Murphy will get better.” Murphy is the co-founder of this place, and she has had cancer on and off for about ten years. The kids don’t know her very well because she is so often quarantined, but even still they pray for her, or someone else does, almost every night. The motto here is “We gonna do the best we can, till we can’t,” and so often it seems an extravagant understatement.
All this isn’t to say that I haven’t been around other quality people this year, but only to point out that, here and now, I am surrounded by them. I can’t help but feel some kind of personal potential being drawn out in their presence… like maybe by osmosis the person that God created me to be, who is residing latent somewhere deep within, will emerge.
Restoration has manifested itself in many forms around this place, this week. Last night we did the foot clinic. I love the foot clinic, despite the fact that “humble servant” would not be the first two (or amongst the first 200) words that most would use to describe me. I like sitting on the floor and giving homeless men pedicures. I like the small talk that accompanies it. I like the sense of accomplishment that comes with cutting off a three inch long piece of toenail, or digging under it to get out the fungus. I like the jokes that inevitably emerge from the foot clinic waiting room, like “ I hope you are ready to go on a dig if you are gonna touch Willis’ toes” or “God speed,” as I invite Ralph in. I probably like most when they get up out of the chair and walk the awkward “ I am not sure I should walk on something as beautiful as my new feet” walk away.
I know I am also feeling better because, at the moment, I have a project to work on. I can’t detail the intricacies of this personality trait, but I really like to make things look better (thus, probably, the love of the foot clinic) and I really like projects. I am not a decorator; I am a restorer. I have done it for years—to a mirror I found in the basement when I was five, to my grandma’s disordered house when I was twelve, and now I am working on the Open Door side yard. I am working on it because it needs to be done. I am also working on it because I need to do it. Following a season when it seemed that everything I touched broke, I need to fix something. I need to use my nebulous spiritual gifts of finagling donations and conning people into working on a Saturday morning, just for the sake of using them, so they don’t get rusty. And, as a bi-product, I think this yard will look better. So tomorrow we will dispose of the broken swing set and excavate the abandoned sand box and rake up leaves that have been piling up for, likely, fifteen years. We will make something old new.
There is an idea that I am fond of, which is that we are called to be resurrection Christians in a Good Friday world. As one preacher put, “It’s Friday, but look out, cuz Sunday’s coming.” Well, Lord knows, Good Friday has lasted a long, long time. It was like Good Friday meets Ground Hog Day (the movie) for me this year. But then small things started to come back to life: the ground finally thawed in Cincinnati, and about May, the sun started shining. My water-drenched laptop started working again. A cucumber actually grew in the little, pathetic, not to mention untended, garden that my nephew Peter and I attempted in my sister’s back yard. The cucumber alone serves as a testament to the power of life to overcome death. So finally, after hitting snooze about twelve times, my whole person has agreed to get out of bed, pick up some nail clippers and a rake, put Merle Haggard on re-peat, and do the best it can, until it can’t.