Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Echos of Irony in the Library of Congress

Ornate. Impressive. Unparalleled. Historic. Ironic.

Last week, after a grueling but good day of getting kids in front of congresspersons to talk about how sucky homelessness is (because the kids know firsthand), the gang HEAR US transported from PA for the event were headed for the subway station. The 16-year-old girl, Ashley, asked if we could stop in the Library of Congress.

I was tired, but agreeable, and everyone seemed to want this detour, so I said sure. Ironically, for all my trips to DC, for my history of being a stellar library club member in high school, and my love of books, I've never been to the Library of Congress.

It was late, about 4:30, and they closed at 5, but we were right there. The kids scattered within eye-shot, and were being good. Leslie, one of the 2 moms in our group, and I ended up standing together--first marveling at the astounding beauty and history before us--then talking about her and her family's fall from housed to house-less.

The story was as unique as everyone's, stereotypes be damned. Homelessness happens to all kinds of folks. Her life was as "normal" as could be. She's educated, has a work history deserving of a congressional medal of honor, and she's tried to do the right thing for her kids.

The thread that seems to flow through lives of those without homes is a string of bad luck. Health problems, mechanical failures of a car, and unscrupulous employers seemed to do the trick for her. From housed and independent to unhoused and dependent on others, teetering on a thin-ice support system, her tumble into the vortex of homelessness was in many ways ironic.

What struck me, as she quietly laid out to me how her life shattered, was the irony--her story would make a good book. She's telling this tale in the palatial surroundings of the Library of Congress, where her kids romped enthusiastically, marveling at this massive tribute to knowledge--teeming with volumes of every kind of information. But we evidently lack the wisdom needed to address homelessness.

As we talked, Ashley copied all of the quotes high on the walls in the Great Hall, including:
Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586),
Arcadia (1590)
Teachers have reminded students time after time: our noble thoughts keep us from being alone. But thoughts are not enough. We need to act upon them--at least the noble ones.

Maybe, in our quest for learning, we ignore what we have before us. TMI? We know more than we need to know to make the world right, or at least to provide the bridge between the nomadic lives millions find themselves in and a secure, basic existence that would be a welcomed improvement.

Perhaps our next Capitol event should be a one-on-one Library of Congress tour with Members of Congress led by an expert in homelessness--the parent, youth or kid who can explain how they got into this situation, and be wise enough to point to the path out of it.

By the time the tour ended it would be perfectly clear--those elected officials accompanied by noble thoughts, and those who should be left alone.