I took a quick trip across the pond this week. It was a last-minute jaunt to the city Dickens wrote about – a four day break between jobs and a sure fire way to peek back at myself when I was younger, independent, courageous and even a bit feisty. Huh, Zoe? All that is embodied in one town where they drive on the wrong side of the road?
I guess I need to explain why London, unlike any other city in the world, makes me remember where I came from, what I can surmount, and that the world is big. Bigger than we realize every day as we wade through our little lives and think about our problems, forgetting that probably only 10% of them matter.
My first real job was working at a non-profit in Philadelphia where I had the luxury of meeting senior statesmen, politicians, national news anchors, and scholars whose circles included dignitaries and muckety mucks. I did not, however, have the luxury of making much money. I grossed about $875 a month, which was $40 a month more than other new hires. Apparently, this higher starting salary was due to my Ivy League degree. [Note to self: blog about value of an Ivy League degree….at least $500 a year.]
So about a year into this job I decided to take a sabbatical and move to London for the summer to work for nothing at all. Zilch. And, just in case that sounds too posh, I lived in a Methodist Mission House that served as a women’s shelter on one side and a student social worker dorm on the other. My days were spent working at a homeless shelter, peeling potatoes when I was lucky and mopping bathroom floors when not so. Nonetheless, it was one of the most important experiences of my life.
I was 22, I smoked cigarettes, and I had opinions. My co-workers, meanwhile, had questions. Not cute questions, mind you. But things like, “Why is Reagan such a warmonger?” “Why do Americans think the world revolves around them?” or “Why do Americans think they’re superior?”
So, as the weeks unfolded and I went from feeling alone and conscious of how my thick and hard edged accent sounded next to their bouncy British lyrics, I realized that the summer was going to be about me succeeding on my own. Not making friends, but earning them.
No one was going to include me in outings or parties just because. No one was going to make sure I had plans on Friday night. I had to prove that I offered something worthwhile. That I wasn’t just some Yankee who popped over to “do good” while enjoying some mighty fine lager.
I had to show that I could think for myself while taking in the perspectives of others. I had to learn about poverty and homelessness and I had to learn it on their terms – not mine. My team leader called it the “sponge theory.” Soaking in ideas without trying to assign blame.
So I went back to the East End this week. I knocked on the door of the Mission House and was greeted by a woman not much older than I was in 1986. She showed me around and explained that the building was now a “self-catering hotel” (aka a hotel with a kitchenette) and I, in turn, told her a little bit of the history of the place. That at one point it housed women who were a step away from the streets. It bunked 18- and 19-years olds looking to start social work careers. And for a brief period of time an American looking to find strength, courage, and her inner voice lived in the kitchen bedroom.
She was kind and indulgent and begged me to tell her more. But any additional stories I could share would hold little meaning for her. She will no doubt learn on her own that the world is big. That there is always more than one way to do something. And that sometimes, you may need discomfort in order to ultimately find comfort.