Notes From Home: The Contest

Trudy Wischemann

Last week I was awarded a free box of kittens, which I discovered just moments after I’d finished writing the last column. I opened the drapes, ready to start my interactions with the world, and there it was, sitting on my sidewalk. It looked like a box of toys at first, but when I lifted the curly-furred stuffed cow on the top, four three-week-old kittens started to mew, then struggle to get out. I did what any red-blooded American would do: I took them in and began responding to their needs.

As with any caregiving situation, there is a contest between the needs of the caregiver and the caregiven. These kittens didn’t like the taste of the milk replacer at first, so there was some struggle to get them to drink it through the artificial nipple of the baby bottle. My patience was put up against their unhappy hunger, and both patience and hunger won out in the end. As of this writing they are four weeks old and learning to lick; they’ll be drinking from a tiny bowl by the time you read this.

It wasn’t until I picked up the box, however, that I knew I’d been entered in a contest for my humanity, or realized that every day is a contest which we can accept or decline, with unanticipated consequences either way. That’s been the real gift of that box.

Not everyone is given a box with such easy contents to care for. In between feedings last week, I heard a news story on Valley Public Radio’s “Valley Edition” about a Fresno homeless camp that got “displaced” by CalTrans. The people who lived in that camp suddenly not only had no homes but no place to lay their heads. An advocate for homeless people mentioned another camp run by a woman named Dez Martinez as part of her nonprofit, We Are Not Invisible, which she calls “a Safe Camp.’ So, suddenly there were 17 people needing tents and a place to pitch them, more than doubling her Safe Camp’s population.

The story is quite beautiful, actually. Martinez’s appeal to the Fresno City Council met with the kind of conflicted non-responsiveness you might expect: Councilmembers Esmeralda Soria (a Lindsay native, I might add) and Miguel Arias spoke in support, while Gary Bredefeld protested against getting involved, putting off a decision until the April 8 meeting. Members of the community stepped in with donations of shelters, food and money in the meantime, while members of the camp, old and new, worked to make room for the newcomers. One newcomer, a former tile and granite installer, was building a walkway and handrail out of pallets to make it easier for the elderly members to walk to the bathroom. Another longtime resident was clearing ground for tents, appropriately spaced for virus control, while a woman known for her mechanical abilities and strength, was erecting the donated sheds and shelters.

The contest here, I think, is whether or not we think “these people” are our neighbors. Dez Martinez thinks they are, and has put her eggs in their basket. It’s not without pain or exhaustion, but in this contest, she wins. “The thing that keeps me going is when I break, it’s them that hold me together. Nobody else, it’s them. Because they see me break down a lot lately.”

As I thought about this story, I remembered a beautiful thought from one of Wendell Berry’s, “The Wild Birds.” I find it quoted often, because it is profoundly simple. “The thing of it is,” says the main character, “we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who’s a member and who’s not, but who knows it and who don’t.”

The beauty is that we find our own membership card automatically renewed when we respond to the needs of other members.

Trudy Wischemann is an avid reader who writes. You can send her your bottle-feeding stories c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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