Community Outreach - Light of the City

The is the true joy in life,
the being used for a purpose recognized
by yourself as a mighty one.
— George Bernard Shaw

The next time you want to complain about Seattle City Light, remember this story.

For many years I saw an eccentric bearded man walking his dog in my neighborhood. I would occasionally stop to chat with him and we would engage in lengthy philosophical discussions about the miracle and preciousness of life. I thought he was a kind man, and quite Zen in his approach to life. I always looked for him and would notice him walking his dog Pongo, but I never knew where he lived. One day on my walk I saw him standing on the dilapidated porch of his old home. The house was clearly beyond run-down, with overgrown bushes, piles of wood, and a ladder being used to replace a missing handrail. It was then that realized that my Zen friend was a hoarder.

By now, most people have seen the show Hoarders. A crew of televised helpers moves in to someone’s home of tunneled belongings, and often times filth, to help the recipient stay in their home and cope with the change that come with the purging of heir precious stuff. It’s an emotional process that leaves the dweller feeling increasing anxiety and the viewer wondering how on earth such a situation could come into being. Hoarding is a diagnosable disorder that is classified under anxiety and obsessive/compulsive disorders. Collecting things - almost anything it seems - creates a sense of safety for people for a variety of reasons. Whenever I see that show, I look around my own house and wonder where I am on the continuum of this ailment that causes such distress. The process of de-cluttering creates stress for most people. So many items are imbued with importance. All of the things that are sentimental, for example, or the items that might someday be useful and therefore wasteful to discard. For the true hoarder, somehow it all gets out of hand and tangled up in old defenses, out of control anxiety, and shame. The treatment can be long, distressing, and sometimes involves drastic intervention.

On my walk today I notice that my neighbor Jack’s street is blocked off. Several trucks and two dumpsters line the street. Table saws are set up next to stacks of two-by-fours. I can’t help it - I detour my route to investigate. I run into several people wearing Seattle City Light tee shirts. They proudly tell me that they have been at Jack’s for two days doing renovation. The work actually began months ago as they assessed and discussed the plans with Jack. It turns out that every April 27th, Seattle City Light works with a program called Rebuilding Together where employees volunteer along with 1500 other volunteers and numerous businesses across the city to help repair the homes of people in need. Jack had a leaky roof and his local senior center helped him apply for assistance.

The workers tell me stories about Jack I never knew. He has a masters’ degree in English Literature. He loves stones and collects them in his yard in various shapes and sizes. He plays the washtub bass - a string attached to a broom handle with a notch that fits onto the brim of an overturned steel tub. Jack is a Korean War veteran who also served in Viet Nam. When he returned to the U.S., he was fired from the university where he taught for speaking out against the war. He spent the rest of his working days repairing Volkswagens. He is now eighty-one and his beloved Pongo died recently.

With Jack’s permission, the crew has spent two days trimming trees, clearing brush, hauling debris, re-roofing, planting flowers, painting, and rebuilding the porch where I had seen him standing month’s before. He had to use a plunger to wash his clothes in an old broken washing machine that would no longer agitate. They replaced the broken washing machine with a new one. He now has a new stove - the old one had only one burner that worked. There were many electrical and plumbing problems, which were repaired. In honor of his military service, they hung an American flag off the porch of his1909 home. 

Involuntary, tears well in my eyes as I hear these stories. I wipe them away but they keep coming. I am surprised by this, but I know the feeling - I am experiencing a heart-opening moment. They see that I am deeply moved, and invite me for a tour of the home. Everywhere we go, they tell me, “You couldn’t walk through here, there was so much stuff.” Jack could not part with everything, so there are still some piles of wood and stones in the yard. There’s an old shack in the backyard that I am warned I do not want to enter. I am informed that this was the dwelling that the original owners lived in while they built the main home. It probably dates to the late 1800’s. Jack has a claw foot tub in his bathroom and he has cleverly jerry-rigged a hand-held shower-head to a two-by-four so he can shower. The crew shows me the new stove and tells me they have washed all of his dishes. They add that every neighbor has visited today.

I am guided through the small house to a room Jack calls “the parlor” where he is standing with his washtub bass. He welcomes me kindly by shaking my hand and grins from ear to ear through his grey beard. He is so very grateful and says that he won’t sleep tonight with all the excitement. He can’t believe that all of these volunteers have come out to help him. “It’s a miracle,” I say. He agrees as he recounts all of the work that has been done. He is especially pleased with the new porch, the roof that no longer leaks, and the washing machine. Two dog beds sit in the corner. He had five, but just couldn’t depart with all of them. A framed photo of his home in better days hangs on the wall. The matting is signed by all of the volunteers. He offers me a lesson in washtub bass playing.

The miracle is that a community can come together in such a loving way to make life so much better for one person. I witnessed people and local businesses who have enough in their own lives and organizations giving their time, energy, money and supplies to a man who has served his country, spoken out about a senseless war, and sacrificed his livelihood as a result; a man who loves animals, music and literature. He asked for very little and was given much while inadvertently giving neighbors an opportunity for a heart opening. None of it was televised; no money made; no people sitting in their living rooms gawking in wonder at the mess and mayhem - just simple generosity.

I’ve heard it said that it is the volunteers in this world that make things happen. The first hospice program was volunteer run. Shanti was the first program that served people with HIV/AIDS and was volunteer-based. These volunteers on April 27th made it possible for Jack to stay in his home, doing so respectfully, while enlivening a neighborhood. Community outreach is truly the light of a city. Anything is possible when that light shines.