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If you watch the biographical film THE LADY IN THE VAN, you could have many reactions. First, you could be dazzled by the superb acting of Maggie Smith as an elderly vagrant woman living out of a dilapidated, broken-down van. Second, you could wonder how author Alan Bennett could be patient enough to allow a surly, filthy homeless woman to live in his driveway beside his front door for 15 years—even if she did provide him with material for his writing. Finally, you could be touched that the people in Camden (an upscale British neighborhood) and the social work system in the UK would support a woman who didn’t seem to have any resources.
As someone who is fascinated by people’s personal stories, I couldn’t help being caught up in Margaret Fairchild’s life. She was an extremely talented musician who was crushed by her guilty misunderstanding of a tragic situation and then by the domination of unfeeling, dictatorial nuns in the convent she attempted to join. As a result, her talents were lost with her sense of self. How many of our homeless have similarly tragic tales? How far do any of us walk from such a downfall?
Perhaps because I’ve entered the final chapters of my life, I was most impressed by the images of a national social system and neighbors who tried to help. I know full well that if I became homeless and seemed to be hugely disconnected from reality, I could most probably look forward to spending my last days beneath a bridge—being chased away by people who wouldn’t want to see any evidence of my ruin. I think of American law enforcement personnel sent to sweep away the tents of people without brick and mortar homes—burning the tents so their tenants have nowhere to go when the shelters are full. Some Americans chafe at the idea of welfare of any kind.
The support of all those who have fallen through the cracks of “normal” society is a big question these days. Are we our brothers’ keepers? I have no simple answers for a problem that isn’t simple. I can only say how impressed I was that one woman from the neighborhood where the van was parked bought Margaret a new van. Others brought food. Alan Bennett gave her a parking spot on his driveway so she couldn’t be sent away by parking restrictions. And, finally, the social worker made sure she had a wheelchair, clean clothes, and a bath. As for the nuns (I don’t recall the order involved), a law enforcement officer who knew her story, and her family members—those I would expect to be most sensitive and giving—they refused to give even the smallest aid.
Perhaps my takeaway is a comment I’ve repeated several times these past few months: talk is easy. We value what we act to value. We don’t get brownie points for nice words. Religion doesn’t lie in what we say but what we do. Every time we look away from pain and suffering—yes, even dirty people who smell bad—we’re denying that we hold kindness as a standard. Perhaps we’re too busy laying up our treasures in cash to bother with polishing our souls.