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Shelter from the storm

Sometimes, serenity presents itself where it has no right to be. One night a week, for more than 10 years, I sat in an office without windows or much ventilation and looked at a stalk of pussy willow that never grew. The mental health clinician at the homeless shelter had clipped it from his backyard and placed it in a glass on top of a filing cabinet with drawers that didn’t close. Those drawers were filled with hundreds of intake folders; people who came for help, disappeared, reappeared, changed their names, changed their genders, changed their habits, or, because their lives were impossible, didn’t. The pussy willow never grew — but it never died, either.

Strictly speaking, the office was a mess. It was just off the shelter dining room, by the women’s dorm. When my colleague needed to find one of the female guests, he would open the door and holler a warning down the rows of bunk beds: “Man in the dorm!” There was intermittent lighting overhead, and the floor was sticky. We argued over a small desk fan, and because he was a gentleman, I usually won. Once, after I’d been sitting in a chair all night, my colleague suddenly remembered to warn me that its last occupant had been struck down with Norovirus a few hours earlier.

Figure in the Woods, by Melissa Olson, 2012.

Originally, the office had been a neutral color. Then someone painted it dark evergreen. The color created a false sense of verdancy — but also, a true one. Something worthy grew there. It had to do with the piles of plastic garbage bags that filled every corner. Each was stuffed with personal clothes, books, photos, journals, cosmetics, hospital discharge summaries — no sharps, weapons, or drugs. One held a suitcase. Another held art supplies.

They all looked the same — who can tell this Hefty from that one? — yet my colleague kept them all straight. He knew exactly which unmarked bag belonged to which client. It was a miracle of professionalism.

All night, people would pound on the door, interrupting our scheduled appointments (and blessedly letting a little fresh air in), to ask for their bag. They were also looking for their first conversation of the day, even though it was 7 o’clock at night, or for respite from chaos or for a mostly clean chair to drop into. Often they were reluctant to leave. The room itself was grim and overgrown, but the visitors wanted to stay, and my colleague never hurried them. He seemed to have all the time in the world. He knew what was in each bag, and he knew what was in each person.

Over the years, the bags changed in size and shape, of course; one pile was continually replaced by the next because departures and arrivals in a shelter never end. Some bags went unclaimed for weeks, but he didn’t throw them out. That would have been a negation of existence.

We sat in an evergreen, windowless room, among garbage bags filled with lives — an odd place for promoting mental health. And yet, it did. On top of its filing cabinet, in its low-key, unfussy way, the pussy willow neither flourished nor faded but somehow, survived. ■