Sunday, November 13, 2011

Flying a Sign

How many times a day do we say or hear comments like....."times like these", " in these uncertain times", " times we have never seen before", " in these challenging times".....Ever feel like we are living in a Bob Dylan "Times These Are A Changin" bubble? Well, the times do seem different to me and they are a changin, particularly when it comes to hopefulness. People seem to carry more worry and anxiety, more fear and more anger. Have you noticed it in the grocery line? or the store parking lot? on the soccer field? Something happens that tips the precarious balance of coping in "these challenging times" and distress fills the space.
People are trying to get by and find a pathway through the uncertainty. It's hard. Still, an uncertain road through unsettling times offers something within the twists and turns--opportunities for witness, experience, and for offering kindness and help. Neighbors, families, and institutions are coming up with new ways to share, collaborate, extend, and involve themselves in caring for community needs outpacing available resources. As these responders live into the challenges, other responders take an approach of battening down the hatches, circling the wagons, or protecting what we have. These markers are also part of the landscape in "these times".

This was on my mind last week, when Harvey asked me this question: Do you know about flying a sign?"
Harvey has been at the same address for almost a year, following 11 years of living on the streets and in shelters in Cincinnati. It takes a lot of figuring out "how to get by" in street life, and Harvey was well acquainted with "flying a sign".  When food is low, short on the rent, or some maybe just want a beer-Harvey says, you can fly a sign. And so began my education around the back story of people I pass everyday. These are the people standing at the intersections of city streets and exit ramps, in all kinds of weather as they hold a cardboard sign. Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs......
For some people, its a regular gig. Others fly a sign when they can't find work and run out of money. Some completely make up a story, others write a spin,some tell it just like it is about getting quick money, he says. Usually, you get some.
I've wondered for a long time if this is something people do on their own, or it there is a meeting of some kind, a flying signs union where the messages are divied up and the locations assigned. Harvey says there is no formal organization....People write their own message, pick their spot and when the day is done, there is usually something more than was had before. Flying a sign, imagine that.
Driving home after this conversation with Harvey, I paid particular notice to the sign fliers along the way......"out of work", "I have cancer", "Need food", "Iraq vet". Almost all of the signs end with "God Bless You" or "Thanks".
Maybe you have wondered about the people behind the signs. My thoughts usually run like this: What's going on? Thank God that I am on this side of the sign.  Is this a scam? Should I stop and visit? What if I went and got a sandwich? Didn't I just see this person out yesterday in a different part of town? Isn't there a better way to get what you need? Why isn't there more work available? and then comes the explanation: "These Challenging Times". Well, the story probably has more layers than that three word summary though the times must be part of the picture. These can be overwhelming, and discouraging times, times seeking a quick fix, like the one that comes in a can of coins at the end of a day of flying a sign. Experience has shown us that the quick fix is just that. Quick and without staying power. Much more is needed.

Which strategies might create the resources for a just and whole community in these times is the question, isn't it? It feels almost too large for one individual to entertain. In the day to day of my own life, I find that small things do matter and can make a difference. Small kindnesses and acts of generosity can be enough to en-courage someone who is at the end of their rope, to bring hope and laughter into burdens great and small. We all are carrying something, some more than others. We all have something to offer. Maybe we can lay down the paper and markers, and fly real signs, be real signs of help and hope to each other in these challenging times.

So many difficult circumstances are situational-yet, they somehow become expressions of the value of a human life, or rather expressions devaluing human life. Job loss or an unexpected hospitalization are just two examples which can quickly lead to fiscal vulnerability or spiraling toward a completely fresh start. How often circumstances like these lead to the mistaken perception that what we have and do is what defines our value as humans. It can feel like there is little within my scope for changing the underpinnings of "times like these". Most of us are powerless to affect the larger things in life, but each of us is equipped to speak from our own experience and giftedness. Instead of standing on a corner asking for help, what if we wade deeply into the crowd and fly a new kind of sign, a sign offering hope and kindness, patience and care? Flying signs. Living signs. Sharing signs. Being signs of hope and company to one another,  in these challenging times.

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