I Will Always Know Your Name.

All my life, people have spelled or pronounced my name incorrectly. As a result, I’ve always tried not to do that to other people. When I became a volunteer at Franciscan Outreach, I didn’t know how well that would serve me in the soup kitchen.

Names are more than labels or curses from our parents. A name is holy, a marker for a particular person; even if we share ours with someone else, we make it unique in how it comes out of our mouths. It tells the person who hears it that they are known by someone else. I have a lot of favorite moments from the kitchen, but few gave me the same pure joy as the reactions I got when guests weren’t expecting to hear their names.

I remember a Polish man named Jan looking childishly happy when I knew his name even though I hadn’t seen him for weeks. “You remember me?” he said through grinning teeth.

I remember a tall man named Ivan who once dubbed me “Lady with the Names” like it was an official title. I considered having it embroidered on my apron.

I relished all the double takes and sudden changes of expression as people said, smiling, “You must have a great memory.” That happened at least twice a week, every week.

Calling someone by name tells them, “I will remember you when no one else does. You are a person to me too.” I thought about this a lot when guests disappeared for weeks or, sometimes months, at a time. Pretty often, I’d mention someone I hadn’t seen in awhile and they would respond with, “Which one was that again?” In those moments, I felt a sympathetic fragment of the sting of loneliness that comes with being forgotten. I always tried harder to hold onto those people.

If committing at least two hundred poor and homeless individuals’ names to memory was my gift to my friends in the soup kitchen, hearing my name back was their gift to me. Many times, after a few days of greeting someone with more than just “Sir” or “Ma’am,” they would approach me and say, “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.” Then I’d tell them and they’d make their own connections so they’d remember too. One of our musical guests liked to call me “KC and the Sunshine Band.” I got “Casey at the Bat” pretty consistently. I even achieved “Case” status with a couple of guys. Sometimes guests apologized for forgetting my name or calling me the wrong one—because they know how much it hurts to be seen as just a body or as someone you’re not.

The names are the most sacred thing I hope to take away from my year in the kitchen, because in some ways, they’ve made more lasting impressions than any practical skills I’ve developed. If I ever forget Steve or Boleslaw, Don or Charley, I will mourn a lot more than I would if I forgot how to make twelve pounds of rice in one sitting or how long it takes to grill 120 hamburgers. I will save all their pictures and write their stories for myself so they will never seem too far away. I will carry them in my heart so they will always have “a home that’s not a house,” as Raul likes to say.

 

Breaking Open.

{This is a belated followup to a post I wrote back in December, called Breaking. I like to think it’s a little more grounded than the first attempt.}

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A couple of our guests died this year.

Others went crazy, or crazier.

Some days at work, I felt too broken and far from put together enough to be of much help to anyone—until I realized it wasn’t my job to fall apart for them like an ill-conceived martyr.

It’s important not to let the broken places harden.

It’s also very difficult.

It has helped to see Willie still wearing the same coat and hat in April that I gave him in October.

And to find that, no matter how dark the days get, we still have baseball. And food. And backpacks with built-in ponchos.

I think that taking a gap year before grad school was important to me for a lot of reasons, but a major one is that it has taught me how much I still have to learn about giving love as abundantly as the bread I hand out every day. Each day confirmed that I was supposed to be here as I was challenged all the time to care more for others than about my shortsighted plans for my own life. Direct service is really humbling because when you’re in it, you can’t be more important than the person you’re serving. And for a pretty self-important person, that was something I needed to learn by experience. Sometimes, the guests surprised me with how much they cared about me and how often I was left feeling like they had given me more than I had to offer them.

The more I grew to love these people and feel them becoming a part of me, the harder it was for me to handle my growing knowledge of their realities outside of the kitchen. It also got harder for me not to become callused to very basic necessities people requested, simply because I was bombarded with them all the time. There’s something about handing out hundreds of socks, toiletries, and t-shirts over the course of twelve months that just sort of loses its fuzzy feeling after awhile. But it seems like committing to this kind of service makes you learn how valuable it is to be open to people even when you don’t feel like you can be, because it means a lot more to them when it’s not easy or fun for you anymore.

It says a lot that, even now, I’m pretty adamant about being open to people and letting them hold your heart when they ask to (I’m a little more cautious about that now in some respects, but in the right ways, I hope). And I’m even more adamant about giving others a place to let their hearts rest and find a little solace in someone else’s brokenness for awhile. Because despite the pain and just plain shit I saw this year, I’ve never really doubted that loving our guests was worth it—because no matter what happened to them, they never stopped loving me.

I found this picture on another volunteer program's website when I was perusing dozens of options senior year. I didn't know how much it would stay with me.

I found this picture on another volunteer program’s website when I was perusing dozens of options senior year. I didn’t know how much it would stay with me.

Filter.

Filter was my first coffee shop in Chicago, so even though it was close and overflowing with hipsters, I think it was still always my favorite.

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They always had excellent mugs.

It was the coziest of the places I've found.

It was the coziest of the places I’ve found.

My favorite spot.

My favorite spot.

It was where I worked on grad school applications, and where I read some of my favorite people.

It was where I worked on grad school applications, and where I read some of my favorite people.

 

Where I was willing to spend six dollars on a smoothie.

Where I was willing to spend six dollars on a smoothie.

 

And where I was reminded what I must do.

And where I was reminded what I must do.

Filter was a safe space for me, a place where I was never disappointed. In some ways, it will be my standard by which all coffeehouses will be measured—not because it was the best place I’ve found, but because it was home.

My Name is Casie, and I’m a Writer.

One night, an unexpectedly talkative guest asked me what I studied in school. When I answered, “Philosophy,” he responded, “Wow! Do you write poems?” He recommended a format where I could share my work with the guests and let them give me their feedback. “If you start getting some encouragement, that’ll build up your confidence; if nobody likes them, well, maybe you should find another field!”

Never has someone been so confused and so right about my career hopes. I’ve never figured out how he connected poetry to philosophy, or how he developed such an elaborate scheme so quickly, but regardless, in that moment I felt known.

Another afternoon, as lunch was was settling down, a guest waved me over to show me something. When I approached, he handed me a literary magazine opened to a couple of poems; they were his. A twenty-minute conversation about the writing life followed. I asked him a lot of questions about where he’s lived and how he writes and where he’s been published. He gave me advice about where to find good magazines and how to “put yourself out there.”

I never told him that I’ve been doing research about this kind of stuff for months, because he still seemed to know more than I did. He told me about the chapbook he published and I said I’d like to write one too. In the course of one day, I felt the kind of writer’s communion I’d wanted all year with someone I didn’t even know was a writer.

When I came to Chicago, I knew I wanted to figure out what being a writer could look like for me. A big step in that process was getting to the point where I could actually tell people that I am one. And even though I may not be ending the year with any semblance of a real manuscript, much less a finished one, these kinds of moments were better than anything I could have written myself.

Leavings.

There isn’t much to say about these. Just some important pictures from the last days together.Junecontinues 254

Our last Tuesday all together with Jorg.

Our last Tuesday all together with Jorg.

Last Wormhole trip with Jonas.

Last Wormhole trip with Jonas.

Last outing with Patrick.

Last outing with Patrick.

 

Last night as a kitchen crew. Plus Hector.

Last night as a kitchen crew. Plus Hector.

Shrill Shrew.

Shrill Shrew.

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Holly's last dinner.

Holly’s last dinner.

Last Scrabble game.

Last Scrabble game.

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Carissa's last week.

Carissa’s last week.

Last community night as the majority.

Last community night as the majority.

My last Tuesday with sweet Jorg.

My last Tuesday with sweet Jorg.

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There are many more, including so many pictures with guests that won’t make their way to this blog. The album from the rest of the pictures is here:

Leavings.

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The Room on West Le Moyne.

In my head, it was always just The Yellow Room.

It was a perfect match to the shade of the wall in van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” I know because there was a print of it above my desk.

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The ceilings were twice as high as in my room back home.

The view outside my window was of a nineteenth-century church. That was as close as I got to one in any institutional sense this year.

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The vintage floral armchair was the best piece of furniture I’ve ever inhabited, period.

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It had everything I could need, except for an actual bookcase. My Cubs-colored crates always served the purpose well enough.

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I tried to keep it simple though it often teemed with clutter. It was square and spacious, and it gave me the perfect place for the solitude I needed.

My life will feel a little less full when I can no longer sleep with my window open, bringing in the peaceful noise of Wicker Park. I will miss the quiet rumble of the Blue Line and the way the natural breeze feels across my sheets. Having a room of my own this year was vital, and it will always be a part of me wherever I go.