CLARA DIED YESTERDAY. I saw her for the first time several months ago while we were visiting relatives in her hometown. I had heard about her before, but the sight was more than I expected. The locals called her the “Garbage Lady.”
She couldn’t get inside her house, because it was full of garbage. Piles stood six-to-eight-feet high in every room. Her front door stood open, like a silent entry, unable to be closed because of the rubble. Garbage cluttered her entire front porch. In fact, the porch was more than cluttered, much more. It was totally covered with tin cans, empty boxes, old rags, an the residue of years of living. Garbages spilled over the sides of the porch, like a cascading waterfall of filth that ran into the yard and filled it too. Clara sat on top of one particular heap, five feet high, like a cherry atop some grotesque sundae made of giant scoops of garbage.
There was a blackness that surrounded that house; a sadness surrounded that little eighty-year-old lady. And life all around her walked on by, trying not to notice the stench of it all.
Day or night, rain or shine, summer or winter, she could be found sitting in her front yard, covered with a thin sheet of plastic. She busied herself by feeding the hundred-or-so cats that called her house their own private dump. Frequently, she would talk about why she could not go back into her house; some unmentionable event that caused her to fear its safety. “Aren’t you afraid out here in the dark and cold?” a passerby would ask. “Yes,” she’d reply. “I’m very often afraid. But I can’t go inside.” She didn’t spend days or weeks sitting in the midst of that squalor and filth. She spent … years.
Every morning, a kind neighbor would bring coffee to her, and local residents would walk by and wave and speak. But no one took the responsibility to clean up Clara’s garbage. After all, it’s a free country, and if you want to sit on a pile of garbage for the rest of your life, well…. And yesterday was the rest of Clara’s life. That kindly neighbor brought over the coffee and found her wrapped in her thin sheet of plastic, surrounded by her cats; a lifeless form atop a mound of garbage. Hypothermia and exposure to the elements were listed as the cause of death. But the truth is, Clara never learned to deal with the garbage.
I saw him again this morning. In fact, I look into his face every morning as I shave. Thinking about that garbage lady made me wonder how he was doing at taking out the garbage in his life. I wondered how many people walk by his life every day and wish he’d do something about his anger or resentment or pride. I wondered about how many rooms in his life were unavailable to him because unresolved issues stand in the doorway like a silent sentry. What fears and insecurities keep him from God’s very best for his life?
Garbage is a by-product of living. And I can either acknowledge that much of the time, life is a bunch of garbage — and grow — or wrap myself in some plastic facade, climb atop my own personal pile of life’s inequities, and die spiritually.
The difference between the two is the difference between the smell of the city dump and the smell of a beautiful rose…fertilized with a compost heap.