Twelve or 13 years ago, in Indonesia, I saw a homeless woman resting in the shadows of a side street holding a sick child in her arms. She looked up indifferently at me as I passed through the shadows, but I saw her eyes.
They were part of a portrait of incurable poverty, not drugs or alcohol. I saw no family, no food, no resources and no hope.
It is a moment I can’t forget.
She was so beaten down. I could not tell her age. Her child was so young and quiet. Her eyes seemed vacant and without hope. It was a combination of abject poverty and also a renaissance portrait of Madonna and child.
Without thinking, I surprised myself. I reached into my pocket and handed her what I had. I have no idea how much money I gave to her. It was everything but it was a foreign currency.
I was instantly embarrassed at this unexpected burst of emotions, so I didn’t look back. I just kept walking.
I have come to conclude that no matter where we go, we live in our American culture, its vision of itself, and only caricatures of the outside world which have been baked into me and I take for granted. As Americans, we believe ourselves to be kind, but while it may be our nature to be kind, we protect ourselves from caricatures, like the poverty of strangers when it becomes too much.
When the caricatures fall apart, a different world takes its place.
She was not begging. I just found myself giving her a fistful of money and I kept walking. The money was balled up into my fist when I gave it to her.
I didn’t see her after I gave it to her.
When I turned away, I left the shadows and went into the sunlight and tried to leave it all behind. To forget about what I saw and what I had done. I was surprised to find that she had gotten up and followed me. She’d put her hand on my shoulder. Was she touching me to acknowledge the amount of money I had given her?
Yes I think so, but I think it was something more.
She pointed at my camera as if to say, “thank you and remember me.” She did not smile as I took her picture. She just looked at me with those eyes I can’t forget. I don’t need the photo but I return to it off and on.
I wonder if they are both gone now. It was a while ago. I still have that photograph. It is posted here. I want to remember her and never think of her as a caricatures of poverty.