In this third of a lifetime, I have trudged my way to work in -22C weather for almost a week (an hour’s commute by train and bus), woolly bobble hat pulled over my eyebrows, scarf wrapped twice around my mouth and nose just so I could breathe, looking distinctly like the Michelin/Marshmallow man rolling through the gates. I have spider-crunched my way through freak amounts of snow. I have dashed “ouch”ing for cover through freak hailstorms and horizontal rain. I have huddled against bus stop posts for warmth while waiting for a bus that never came.
But at the end of each of these journeys was a warm apartment or an overheated office/cubicle or a university library or computer lab. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve spent a fair few years of this life living in little, 18-21 sqm (193-223 sqft) student apartments. They were small, but they were mine, and, most of all, when I was coming in from a whole day out in the cold, mummified in eight layers of wool and synthetics, bobble hat drooping, damp from snow or rain and grinchy from being around people for too long….. they were WARM and cosy, they each had a little bathroom with a hot shower and/or a bathtub, they had little hidden shelves where I put my fluffy towels, and a hot stove, a tin of hot chocolate, and a stoppered test-tube of vanilla beans. All there, just waiting, all day, for me to come home.
And I would stand at the window, head wrapped in a fluffy towel and an oversized pink towel sarong wrapped around the rest of me, clutching a mug of hot vanilla chocolate, looking out the window at a howling storm or heavy snowfall, with tears in my eyes. I know very well that you can’t save the world with warm fuzzy feelings. But, in those moments, I can’t help but think of the image of people huddled in little more than cardboard boxes and tin shacks and newspapers and their will to survive. I know it is a horrible, smug, sanctimonious thing, to be grateful for something only when you see the real effects of others not having it, but that seems to be how many of us come to realise our good fortune– even just by being born in the right place, at the right time in history.
There are 100 million to 200 million homeless people in the world. The first figure is a conservative estimate and it doesn’t even include people living in shacks and unsafe housing. Most of the homeless are women and children. And it shocked me when I first looked up figures, the places in which there were thousands of homeless– in some of the richest countries in the world. Here’s one concise and interesting summary.
And today, when I think about -50C temperatures in the United States’ northeast (where, incidentally, one of my cousins lives), I am reminded– almost chastened– to be grateful for a safe, warm place that’s mine.