The Four Letter Word

By: Colleen Sinsky

I was thrown off the first time that “Emily,” one of our housed folks ended a conversation with “Bye Colleen, I love you so much!” I had a split second of confusion… ‘wait.. you’re not in my family, not a close friend, and not some boy I’ve been dating a while, not my dog… what do I respond with here?’

That first time Emily said that I sputtered off an automatic “love you too Emily, see you later!” But it wasn’t until I was sitting in my car and had time to think that I realized that I really did love Emily. This realization shocked even myself, and I immediately started stressing about that blurry but very present line between “clients” and “caseworkers.” Where, if anywhere, does love fit into that relationship?

Until recently, the L-word had a very specific place in my life and in my relationships, and keeping that feeling safely segregated helped me feel aloof, and protected from being able to care too much about people outside of my “bubble.” Realizing that I do, in fact, love those strangers sleeping on the streets or precariously housed was a scary, humbling, and vulnerable moment. It’s much easier to operate from a place of sterile assistance rather than opening my heart and being awake to our shared humanity.

A great Jesuit in El Salvador described the feeling of opening up to the world we’d rather ignore better than I ever could. He talks about those of us who experience poverty and find ourselves investing in and being changed by the people we meet and the stories they share: “A sweet shame comes over them, not bitter remorse but more like the shame one feels when falling in love. The visitors feel…the world that is made up of important people like them and unimportant people losing its grip on them.

As the poet Yeats says, “things fall apart;” the visitors’ world is coming unhinged. They feel resistance, naturally, to a current that threatens to sweep them out of control. They feel a little confused –again—like the disorientation of falling in love. In fact, that is what is happening, a kind of falling in love. The earth trembles. My horizon is opening up. I’m on unfamiliar ground, entering a richer, more real world.”

I didn’t expect to find this love in urban poverty, or to work in an environment where it’s okay to embrace and run with this feeling. Love is a scary word in general, but for it to exist in social service is a rare and wonderful thing. At JOIN, love is regularly cleaning out a chronic hoarder’s bedbug-ridden apartment so that she won’t be kicked out. It’s rehousing, and choosing to help the stubborn jerks that no one else will work with. It’s saying “no” and ending rental support. It’s Sara, our Data Guru’s saint-like patience or Ellene waking up early on her first Sunday on the job to do a move. It’s Keith putting everything on hold at the end of a crazy day on the House to have a heart to heart with Don. Love is Lio telling someone to “get your head out of your a**” and Quinn endlessly talking Yankees with Tom, and a thousand other examples of love as a verb. It’s the tangible grief that settled over the office when Lee Critchlow died, or having the respect to step back and let our folks make their own mistakes along the road to self-sufficiency. Love is constantly bending over backwards to lengths I don’t always understand.

Last night I found an old voicemail in my phone of Emily calling me late one night from the hospital to check in and tell me that she loves me. I was humbled, and honored that I can be that person for someone. Her life has been devoid of many experiences of love that I take for granted, yet she shares it and says it so easily. In a society where talking about this kind of love has become taboo, there is a lot to be learned from this woman. I love you too Emily.