I went to the First Congregational Church of Leverett today to hear Gillian Budine talk about impoverished families living in our area.

Gillian works for the Community Network for Children, and has the job of visiting parents with a new baby to make sure that over the next several years they’ll be ready for school. But she spoke to the fact that this is a much bigger web, that in fact for a child to have some good early childhood, the family needs to be stable—a stable and warm home, healthy food, and lots of attention from devoted parents.

What she runs into instead are families with minimum-wage jobs, if any, worrying about whether to pay for food or for rent or for heat this terrible winter, with no cars and little access to public transportation so they can’t bring their children to Head Start or other enrichment programs, parents so stressed by the business of living they can barely take care of themselves, never mind their children.

Pastor Lee Barstow introduced Gillian, in part, by saying: Gillian has an Early Childhood background. He was obviously referring to her education, but I laughed inside. Don’t we all have an early childhood background? Aren’t we supposed to?

A woman joined me on my walk to my car afterwards and told me it’s hard for her to hear such stories. I have so much in comparison to these families, she said. Hearing about them depresses me. Doesn’t it depress you?

No, I told her. Once it did, but not for a long time. Now I actually feel fortunate when life brings me to the margins of things.

At that we parted ways, and I’m not sure she understood what I meant.

Life feels at its most raw when people have little, when they worry about paying rent as opposed to paying for heat, covering the grocery bill as opposed to buying their children new winter coats. They are closer than me to that most basic instinct of all, survival.

It’s why I like to talk to street people, especially this freezing winter.

Where are you staying tonight? I ask a panhandler by the Greenfield Co-op.

Me and my friend gotta tent we put out behind the park, but if it gets too cold we could go indoors somewhere, she says vaguely. She looks 50 and I’ll bet she’s a lot younger. Her hands are red, chapped, and swollen as she takes off a woolen glove to unwrap a cigarette. I ask her about food, about staying warm—and though I myself don’t have those challenges, the conversation returns me to what’s essential, reminding me of what it is to be human.

When we prosper, when we’re healthy, well, and full of energy, our life playing out the way we think it should, we’re on top of the world. As in above the world, attaining an unnatural height from which we can look down at things far, far away, like we do from the window of an airplane.

When we’re close to the margins of life, when we see how easy it is to lose it all—health, home, friends, jobs, lovers, children, and yes, early childhood—we’re brought back down to size, our true size, our human size. We remember that just living without giving offense, just taking care of ourselves and our family without adding substantively to the quotient of suffering in the world, is a big deal.

The most heroic people I ever met were the single mothers in Yonkers whom I’d see standing with their children waiting for school buses on the other side of the park from Greyston. Often their children wore warm winter coats while theirs were shabby and worn, they were hatless and gloveless from rushing out even as their children wore hats and gloves. Some worked two shifts a day, and they’d stamp their feet to keep warm and banter with each other while their children played, craning their necks for a view of the orange school bus coming up from Ashburton Ave.

Just before Gillian began her talk, the choir sang Hush, Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name. To hear yourself be called, to hear your true name, there often has to be some kind of absence. But remember to turn towards it rather than looking away.