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Do Not Neglect Your Gods
If I gave to every beggar I passed during my commute, I wouldn’t be able to afford the subway. When I first came to New York, I was horrified to see them at nearly every turn: ragged, broken, homeless people whom I associated with working in soup kitchens with my church as a teenager. But the poor are very one-dimensional to a bi-yearly volunteer, embodying flimsy archetypes that seem to exist for the sole purpose of making the privileged feel like they are contributing to society.
It was disturbingly easy to get used to. Within less than a month of getting my first job in Manhattan I had learned how to turn my head, look fixedly into the distance as if lost in some profound thought, and shrug off the fatigued, despairing gazes of those who had so much less than I did, even as a poor debt-burdened college graduate.
As skilled as I’ve gotten at ignoring for the sake of functioning, there are some people who have worked their way into my mind and stayed there. The homeless vet who sat in front of my grocery store with his adopted pit bull behind a cardboard sign reading “Help Us Strays.” The mother clad only in a hot pink bikini top and ragged men’s boxers, singing obscene hip hop lyrics to her baby in broken English.
Then there was the weeping woman. She showed up outside my office building the year I got pregnant with my first son, seven years after I first moved to the city and three years after I married my grad school boyfriend. It was the first time I had really bad morning sickness. Up until that point, my pregnancy was cause for general celebration and happiness, but it didn’t seem to have any more significance than a mildly interesting long-term science project. I could just imagine my high school biology teacher saying, “Okay guys, this year we will be learning about sexual reproduction by growing our own human offspring! Everybody partner up!”
It wasn’t until I knelt in my bathroom and watched a yellow arc of bile spatter into the toilet bowl that I felt a dull thud of realization: Somewhere within my deepest, strongest, bloodiest parts, a person was taking shape, nutrients becoming cells becoming tissues becoming organs becoming a body housing a sentient being.
I was still feeling shaky when I walked up to the door of my office and saw the weeping woman sitting a few feet away. She had long, tangled dark hair and wore a tattered embroidered robe. Her feet were bare. She had the look of someone whose beauty had been ruined by tragedy; her face was statuesque, frozen in a grief-stricken expression, and tears streamed from her dark eyes. I felt a strange, fleeting pang of envy for her ability to cry so elegantly – her face did not redden or crumple, there was no snot, no hiccupping – and I found myself walking over to her.
I always give something to people who have babies or pets with them, because they have taken on the responsibility of caring for something even more helpless than themselves. This woman was alone, but something compelled me to offer her a dollar from my purse.
She didn’t take it.
She looked straight ahead, gazing at nothing, the same look I imagine came into my eyes when I pretended not to see people like her. She did not acknowledge my presence at all. The only signs of life she exhibited were the tears running in identical trickles down her stony cheeks.
I didn’t know what to do. No homeless person had ever refused money from me before. Was this some weird piece of performance art? I awkwardly withdrew my hand and let the bill flutter gently onto the sidewalk.
“Do not neglect your gods,” she whispered by way of thanks, without looking at me. Her lips barely moved. As she spoke, my mind flashed to a story in the battered volume of Greek myths that graced my bedside table during my childhood. The narrative came back to me in fragments: A haughty queen. Angry gods. Dead children.
“Naiobi.” I murmured the name of the cursed mother, placing my hand protectively over my belly. The weeping woman said nothing. For a moment I felt connected to her, as if we had briefly shared the same vision.
I turned away and went inside as if nothing had happened. I went through the entire week without saying anything to my husband, who was in the freakout stage of expectant fatherhood and didn’t need any more excuses to have minor panic attacks during breakfast and memory lapses during work. Nor did I voice my concerns to my mother, who could tell from hearing my voice on the phone that something was wrong and decided that the best way to make me relax was to remind me over and over again that stress was bad for the baby.
I kept quiet, telling myself that nothing had happened at all. Yet that Sunday, I woke up early in the morning and found myself in church for the first time in seven years.