I landed in Phoenix, then took a shuttle to Prescott. It dropped me off at a hotel in the middle of downtown. Unlike people my age, Kris doesn’t keep her cell phone glued to her side at all times (a trait I admire), so naturally when I called to let her know I had arrived, she didn’t answer. So, with an adventurous spirit I took off walking with my colorful carpet bag in the direction of her shelter.
“Embrace people into your lives with unapologetic warmth”
When I arrived she walked out the door exclaiming “You’re alive!” and embraced me like an old friend. It didn’t feel like this was someone I had only met once. This was the first lesson I learned. To embrace people into your lives with unapologetic warmth. When I walked in I was in awe of the space. It was about ten in the morning but there already was a small gathering of people sitting inside. Rodney was one man whose story really affected me. He was younger than my own dad, probably in his late forties, but looked like he was in his sixties. That is what happens to people who live on the street. Like Claudia (a realist painter) says, they have much more character in their faces than someone their same age who lived a comfortable life. I wouldn’t have known it unless Kris told me, but he was dying. He had congenital heart failure, his lungs were filled with liquid. He described it as feeling like he was constantly having the wind knocked out of him. Nevertheless, he insisted on doing the dishes and walked around with a smile on his face.
“We don’t know if our loved ones will walk back in the door on any given day, so we need to appreciate every moment we have with them, and be fully in the present.”
Kris had a habit of saying ‘It is what it is’. To some people, it might sound harsh. But for someone like her who has witnessed so many people come and go, get sick, die, get addicted again, it becomes extremely important to accept reality. I personally haven’t had people close to me pass away, or watch anyone die, and I’ll be honest- it scares me, makes me anxious. We talked a lot about life and death during that week. Maybe it was because for the homeless, death was just one cold night away. Rodney left to go to the hospital the same day I arrived. Kris said she had learned to accept that when these people left, often she didn’t know if they would ever come back, and the same was true for Rodney, so she tried to appreciate the time she had with them while they were there. I realized that same belief could be applied to anyone in my life. We don’t know if our loved ones will walk back in the door on any given day, so we need to appreciate every moment we have with them, and be fully in the present.
My time at the shelter talking with these people helped me see the fragility of life. I spoke with a man who had a mansion, a girl, a good job, everything, and it was all gone the blink of an eye. His bony face and missing teeth had me guessing it could have been the result drug use. It is unspoken code at The Garage not to poke into these people’s lives, or ask what it was that got them on the street, so I didn’t pry.
Sadly, while it is true that many homeless have drug abuse problems that caused their homelessness, there is also a high rate of mental illness and war veterans on the street. Kris has been seeing Vietnam vets for years, but now Iraq vets have started trickling in. It’s a short path from the time they return from war to them ending up on the streets. I learned this by talking to an Iraqi vet who was sent home after shrapnel blew the back of his head open while in the field. He had been homeless pretty much since he left the hospital. I asked about government aid, and he responded nonchalantly “I have twenty more months before I get my money”….twenty months?? How are they expected to get by while they wait? Most of these veterans are too disabled to find work. Without government aid or housing, they end up on the street lickety-split. That conversation reaffirmed by belief that our veterans’ services are far from sufficient.
Another conversation I had was not with a guest of The Garage, but with a volunteer. His name was Lance, and he was a white man who had converted to Sufism twenty-three years ago. Sufism is a sect of Islam, just like Shiite and Sunni. Shiite are generally more strict or fundamentalist, Sunni are traditional, middle of the road (like my family), and Sufis are the more mystical, free-loving group. It was funny, he had never sat down and had a conversation with a Sunni, and I had never met a Sufi, to for those three hours we talked we were trying to find beliefs that we both had in common.
“Every religion is simply a tool to become closer to God, or Allah, or Jehovah, or the Great Spirit, and once we realize that we break down the barriers between religions and beliefs and can respect and love each other as fellow human beings”
This was such an interesting conversation. Lance spoke about the way he worshiped, so different from the way traditional Muslims pray. He spoke about how in his sect they believed that we are all one, that all of our hearts are connected, and the heart of religion is in all of us. One thing he said that I thought was particularly beautiful, was that every religion is simply a tool to become closer to God, or Allah, or Jehovah, or the Great Spirit, and once we realize that we break down the barriers between religions and beliefs and can respect and love each other as fellow human beings.
This conversation was such a blessing. It taught me that as human beings we should search for the beliefs we have in common with others rather than our differences. That is what truly strengthens our bonds. It just so happened that I met Lance the last day I was in Prescott, and that very same day Rodney returned from his second trip to the hospital. The first time he left, it was for one day, but the second time I wasn’t sure his sparkling blue eyes would ever make another appearance. When I caught the first glimpse of him I was able to see just how sick he was before- his complexion was grey. Now, it was like a warm light was glowing inside him, he was rosy and pink! The operation had worked- he could breathe again, the pain was gone. What a gift to see this man’s health brought back to him.
This was another lesson I learned while watching Kris (65) walk to and fro- Health is wealth. Without it, everyday tasks become difficult, and it’s easy to slip into despair. Kris didn’t drive (unless it was a long way away), she walked everywhere. She was more active and self-sufficient at her age than I have ever been. There is something about getting somewhere with the strength of your own body that makes it all the more gratifying.
At the end of that week she drove me to Sedona to visit my friend from art school, Rachel. We took a winding mountain road, and the views brought tears to my eyes. The sky looked so big. How could someone see a mountain and not want to climb it? Kris believed that that’s why people who grow up in the West have such a sense of adventure, the world seems endless, and there could be something waiting just over the next hill.
The first night in Sedona we made a campfire in the middle of the desert and gazed at the stars. There I saw Orion’s belt and the Seven Sisters. We studied the colors of distant mountains. Not once did I feel the urge to check my Facebook notifications. This was real life.
The next morning we drove up to an artesian spring on the side of Oak Creek Canyon. This was the kind of water people drank before it was polluted and needed to be filtered. Something about it felt more alive…it must have been all the natural minerals, or the energy of the mountain. On the way down we stopped at two Native American jewelry stands, and visited an outpost. There I got some souvenirs for my younger siblings: carved fox tooth and toe bone necklaces.
We eventually made it to Doe Mountain, our designated hiking spot. Every couple of turns up the zig-zagged path I had to stop and observe the view in awe. I think that experience has gotten me hooked on hiking. When we got to the top we sat and exchanged life stories and philosophies. It was therapeutic, and meditative. We played on a wooden flute while a little bird sat nearby and listened.
There is something magical about the West. It’s no wonder that people flocked to it, and still do today. That trip was an amazing life experience. Did I have money to spare? No. Did I have the time to go? Of course not! These are the two biggest excuses we all use to prevent ourselves from living life to the fullest. If I learned one thing from this trip, is that time stops for no one. You just gotta do it!
**Read the story of Quixote and her inspiration for the name:
Don Quixote is the main character in the story The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, who reads so many chivalric romances that he loses his sanity and decides to set out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, and bring justice to the world (Wikipedia). He fights for “things as they should be, not at they are”- he is an idealist. This is the influence for the name Quixote’s Garage. Though she recognizes that her work may not change the world, Kris is working for things as they should be, and helping one person at a time in her small community. She is an inspirational woman.
This is a love story more touching than any other I have heard, and reaffirms my reasons for asking people that I meet about their lives. It proves that real love trumps all odds. This is a coworker of mine, she is a middle aged Mexican woman dripping in affection and sass, and I liked her almost instantly.
I have changed her name in the story for her privacy. I chose to call her the female Spanish name Balere, meaning “strong”.
When I first met Balere , I thought she had a very thick Mexican accent, and it was difficult to understand her. It wasn't until later that I learned that she had suffered a stroke which affected her ability to speak. You would never know that she had gone through what she did if she didn't choose to tell you. Today, I asked her how she met her husband, and the story was too beautiful not to share.
In her late 20's, Balere worked as a journalist. She described her work patterns for writing projects and it reminded me of my own art work. Her journalism career consisted of big project after big project, all coming in back-to-back waves, so often times it was hard to get away from her work. She had a friend who lived in the Netherlands, also Mexican, who had been asking her to come visit for years.
Balere had began working on a project with the government, which she hated, so she decided to take a leap and quit. Shortly after she told her friend from the Netherlands that she was now free to come visit. Her friend was very excited, so excited in fact, that she set up a dating profile for Balere in the Netherlands without her knowing. She called and showed her the profile, with Balere went along with with good humor.
She arrived in the Netherlands, and stayed with her friend. While she was there, she began chatting online with a man that would eventually become her husband. She tells me that they used to talk all day, 6am to 2pm, and this lasted two months. Finally, they decided it was time to meet in person. He told her to meet him on the big bridge in the city.
Balere brought her friend with her, and as they walked up to the spot they realized that there were two big bridges in the same area. He hadn't specified which bridge. Her friend, excited about the prospects of Balere meeting her possible soul mate, was upset and worked up. Amid her fit of swearing she looked over and said, “Balere , there he is!” He had also brought a friend. They were finally united, and the chemistry was instantaneous.
They fell in love, and while still in the Netherlands, moved in together and lived happily together for three months. Then, the Mexican government notified Balere that she could no longer stay in the Netherlands. Crushed, they parted ways, and Balere returned to Mexico.
Back in Mexico, Balere was living with her parents at the time. She continued to keep in contact with her long-distance boyfriend online. One day, she complained to him of headaches and dizziness. She went to the bathroom, and cant remember anything after that. She had fainted, and her mom heard her hit the floor. She had suffered a stroke.
Her boyfriend hadn't heard from her in a long time, and was desperately trying to get in contact with her, to find her. Finally, he tracked down Balere 's friend in the Netherlands and asked her what happened. Her friend reported sadly that she had suffered a stroke.
Her memory was intact, but she had lost all function in her left side. For the next five years she would be subject to daily visits to physical therapy, hospital visits, and blood work. Balere finally reached out to her boyfriend and told him, “This is what happened, you can choose to move on with your life, you don't have to wait for me.” He said, “No, I'm staying,” and was on a plane to Mexico shortly after. As Balere tells me this part of the story, she is tearing up, and I am too.
He came to Mexico and took care of her. She had trouble with her speech, she had gained weight, she was miserable, but through it all he was there. She had her stroke in November, they were married May of that same year. After she had recovered they moved to the United States together, and have been happily together ever since.
What an amazing story. Even after being forced to move back to Mexico, even after suffering a stroke and believing all hope was lost for their love, it triumphed. This goes to show that if something is meant to be, it will happen.
“An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break.”