Lights out

Helena Chan was a volunteer at the interfaith shelter last week. She composed this reflection on the experience after taking a long hike on Saturday.


Something to hang on to
Random letters and the board upside
down sideways
right side up

Not everybody has the same view.
Not everybody has the same hand, the same luck, the same skill.
Not everybody deserves to win.
I win. I am good.

10 PM Lights out. Taste of Compline in my throat.
Feels good. Pitch Black.Warm bodies behind plastic tarp and PVC.
A sliver of light from the parking lot lights.

Should the kitchen door be closed?
Block out all light. Lights out.

A snoring tenor rises in a dramatic crescendo.
Full of drama, gasping for breath. Life and death.
I am wide awake, tense.

Creaking cots. Muffled coughs.
I am wide awake, scared.
A tense silence in the wake of the rumbling snoring chorus.

This is not white noise.
Will there be a fight?
Surely this must end!

There is shuffling. Frustration. Restlessness.

Someone goes to the kitchen and closes the door.
Is he going to sleep on the floor?

I look at the glowing face of my watch.
This is going to be a long night.
God, thank you that somebody is getting sleep.

People get up, shuffle around and go out-
all through and around the maze of snores that float and hang above the cots.
Nothing happens.

Outside, people walk by giggling. It’s Friday night, late.
The chorus, I swear is breathing the same length of breath.
I am inspired.
I try to synchronize my waking breath with the chorus.
A feeble prayer. A breath prayer for sleep.

The creaking cot a few away is like a beacon.
I am here and I can’t sleep either, she says with the creak.
I told you at dinner that you would appreciate your bed when you leave this place.
I am from Orange County.

Jesus, where are You?
I am here.
You know how I feel now.

My consciousness is fighting to stay terrified, but it loses to exhaustion.
I get a few minutes of sleep.
A shuffle or the door opening and closing wakes me.

Now it is getting into the morning.

Occasionally the crack of light from the kitchen widens to a beam as someone exits and enters. Fumbling in the dark someone digs around in a duffel bag.
Periodic shadows and glimmers of light play on the ceiling.

I am wide awake.
Someone has a flashlight.
What happened to lights out?
or is this how it’s always been?

I’m not a host.
This place is alien to me. This is the night, not the day.
I can’t believe I’m sleeping in the Guild Room where the forums are held.
This place is not for sleeping.

I try not to think the thought that tomorrow night I won’t be here.
That’s not fair to think that. That’s a cop-out.
I’m supposed to be present here to these people and me.

My car keys and flashlight in my pocket press against my left thigh as I turn to my side. No good. Try the right.
My wallet slips to a spot that doesn’t dig. This’ll be okay.
Do the sheets smell funky or is it the cot?

I am beyond consolation.
Almost burst out in hysterical laughter.
My cohort across the way is snoring a fortissimo aria all on his own out of sync with the rest.

I feel jealous, angry, and betrayed.
How dare he join the heavenly host without me?
The world isn’t fair.
Not everybody deserves to sleep.
This time, I lose. I feel bad.

Another wave of exhaustion hits.
Merciful sleep.
I awaken to the kitchen door ajar.
Is the tenant moving out?
I am afraid to look. I hear a sigh and the sound of a can opening.
Is it soda or beer?

The way in and out of the PVC-tarp compound has me as a border.
I feel vulnerable.

Only a few more hours left until day light.
But it’s late. My back and butt are freezing cold.
They forgot to tell us to bring sleeping bags.
I shrugged it off earlier when the lights were on.
Now I feel cold.

Flashlight man is digging in his duffel again.
A lady shuffles past my head and bangs into something in the dark.
There are so many people awake.
Yet it is dark.
Are we all praying for the snoring to end?

Thanks for praying over us she had said before lights out. We’re not supposed to proselytize.
Every 10 min or so someone is entering or exiting, door open, door close, some things don’t change.
How is this helping if people can’t sleep?

It’s warmer in here.

It’s less dangerous and random in here.
I know. Snoring is the shadow of chanting.
I’m getting Jungian now.

My feet are freezing.
I reach down to get my socks out of my shoes and put them on under my covers.
So thankful somebody got me a blanket.

Finally a knock on the door and I leap out of the cot to answer it.
Daylight has arrived.

The one who knocked couldn’t believe how many people quickly were awake.
The silent man said It was the snoring.
She unlocks the showers.

It is a new day.
Everybody deserves hope.
I hope.

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