April showers bring May flowers. But today, I want to tell you about Meechie’s flowers.
We met Meechie when we were passing out Dayenu Ministries’ “Homeless Kits” in Lower Wacker Drive. For those of you from the Chicagoland area, you know Lower Wacker. For those of you from other areas, or even more than an arm’s reach from Chicago, let me explain…
Lower Wacker Drive is one of the streets that runs underneath downtown Chicago. Yes, that’s correct. Under the hustle and bustle of the City, there is a whole complex maze of streets one level, and in some places two levels underground. If you have ever been using GPS to get somewhere on “Upper” Wacker Drive and accidentally end up on “Lower” Wacker Drive, you will discover that GPS may know where you are, but not quite understand whether you are above or below ground. The triumphant voice telling you that “you have arrived at your destination” – when you pull up next to a dumpster rather than the fancy restaurant you were aiming for – is a comical and confusing glitch in the current abilities of GPS.
Lower Wacker Drive has, for decades, been a year-round encampment for many homeless. If you venture down there, you will see individuals who have set up their spot far away from others, making an intentional choice to have their own space. You will find other places where rows of small tents or make-shift shelters, create a tiny neighborhood of people who have chosen to stay close to one another. Perhaps for the community and perhaps for the benefits of safety in numbers.
It is fascinating to see the spectrum of living arrangements. Sometimes you’ll see a tangle of blankets and have to look hard before you realize there is a person underneath. But there are others, like Robert, who has pictures taped to an iron post, his extra clothing hung from a bolt on the same post, an old broom leaning against the concrete wall behind him. Robert had a recent haircut and was neatly dressed in a black turtleneck, jeans and a belt. Everything about his area was orderly. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Even Robert himself sat neatly, kneeling with his legs tucked beneath him, hands folded in his lap, barefoot with his shoes placed neatly to the side. He had an overturned milk crate serving as a table with what looked like a loaf of freshly baked bread and some fruit. Clearly, before we arrived with our offering of toiletries, socks, snacks and a Bible, someone else had visited Robert with a gift of food. I felt glad to see evidence of others before us, and undoubtedly after us, trying in some small way to care for the folks down here.
But back to Meechie and her flowers. Robert lived at the very start of Lower Wacker Drive, sheltered from the elements, yet still able to enjoy the sunlight and see a sliver of the Chicago River. But Meechie lived much further down the drive. No sunlight. Only the pinkish-orange hue of the streetlights that Chicagoans know so well, bouncing off the concrete walls, ceiling, and asphalt.
Meechie and her neighbors were one of the groups that had chosen to dwell huddled in a row on one side of the street. Tents & tarps lined up like abstract underground representations of the rows of vintage townhouses filled with well-to-do people just one level up. Meechie, like Robert, had been intentional about making her dwelling feel like home. She also had a milkcrate table beside her sleeping area. I first saw two oranges placed side-by-side. Perhaps from the same person who had given Robert the loaf of bread. Next to the oranges, was a plant. You know…one of those tropical looking plants with colored foil wrapping a plastic pot, that people give to you as a token get-well or contratulation gift. They’re generally finicky plants, or rather, aren’t meant to live in offices or hospital rooms. Soon they dry up, die and are discarded.
It was after the point of “discarding” that Meechie must have come to find this plant. Clearly, the plant was dead. But even more clearly, it was cherished by Meechie and in a place of honor in her home. Now, I‘m a nature lover. I’m the one that rescues worms from puddles, I’m the one who neighbors show up at the door to hand me a bird with a broken wing, or a baby rabbit, or a newborn squirrel (that’s a story for a different blog…). If there is a singular shrub in a parking lot, I will park next to it – even if it means a longer walk – just so I can be close to a speck of nature.
So, me being me, I told Meechie “I like your flower. It’s very pretty!” She smiled and said, “Thank you! Would you like to have it?” I said, “Oh, no Meechie…I couldn’t take your flower…you should keep it.” She said, “No, I want you to have it.” I could tell this meant something to her, to be able to offer me something as we had offered her something. I felt that she wanted to be able to give me a gift. One last time I tried to dissuade her and said, “Meechie, I would feel bad taking your flower.” To which she responded, “Why would you feel bad if someone offered?” And she’s right. A component of giving and of serving others is to recognize when they are trying to give and serve you. There is a blessing in giving and we should be watchful and careful that we are not shutting down people’s efforts to serve, give, and care for us. So feeling humbled by her gesture, I told her, “Okay. That is very nice of you. I’ll take very good care of it.”
There are many reasons a person ends up living on Lower Wacker: life circumstances, substance abuse, and mental illness rank high amongst them. It’s hard to know which of these led Meechie to be here. But it was evident that mental deficit or illness contributed and held grip of her mind. But not of her heart. Before giving me the flower, she told me that she wanted to tell it good-bye. She held the flowerpot close to her chest. Gave the plant a kiss and told it she loved it. She told it to be good and that she would miss it.
I got the sense that she wanted her plant to have an opportunity that she didn’t have. A chance to live a better, or at least a different, life than hers. Meechie lives undergound. She sees no sunlight, no rain. Her sky is the concrete underside of the street above. It’s hard to imagine a person living in those circumstances. I think she didn’t want her flower to live in those circumstances anymore. As we all hope for our children to experience their best life possible, I believe she wanted that for her flower.
I am so honored and humbled by Meechie’s gift to me of her beloved plant. It may have been discarded before Meechie found it and treasured it. But it will not be discarded again. I have planted it in a corner of our yard. Yes, it is still dead. There is not quite that miraculous of an ending to this story that the plant came back to life… But the roots of Meechie’s plant will slowly decay into the soil and nourish the plants growing around it. The cycle of life will carry on. Aided, just a little bit, by Meechie’s flowers.