Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Meeting in the Margins by Cynthia Trenshaw

Meeting in the Margins: An Invitation to Encounter Society’s Invisible People is a powerful read. Cynthia Trenshaw, a recently widowed Grand Rapids, MI chaplain and massage therapist, moved to San Francisco to obtain a post-graduate degree in theology. After two years she planned to return to Michigan to become a chaplain for Hospice of Greater Grand Rapids. Instead, she began hanging out with the “untouchable people of the streets,” connecting “skin-to-skin” as she offered herself through massages. Carrying her backpack filled with clean towels, antibacterial gel, and massage lotion, Trenshaw met Gloria.
My hands curve around her right ankle to raise her foot; I cup her heel in my left palm and place my right hand over her arch. No need to do anything else, just hold this dark, callused foot of this unknown woman, just hold it, just breathe into the moment. There is nowhere else to be but this place where my skin touches her skin, no time but this time when her feet have brought her to this park and my hands have offered this work.  Our shared connection at her foot becomes a bridge across which her stories and mine now begin wordlessly to cross.
As my fingers stroke lotion over her foot, her skin hears the silent story of the therapeutic skills I’ve learned for her. As I trace the bones of her misshapen foot, my thumbs listen to her mute memoir. Her feet are dirty, her toes deformed; fungus grows under her nails. Chunks of dirt and slough fall from wherever I touch.  It does not matter because beneath my fingers I can feel a softening in her tired and neglected feet.
The kindness and pleasure she receives now are echoing back from her feet to my hands; I am lost in the return of that same kindness and pleasure. The feet I am massaging have become my own feet, and I can feel the strength of my thumbs kneading at the base of my own toes. The woman whom I touch has mysteriously become me; her journey has become mine.”
Trenshaw soon learns from Gloria that it “isn’t just about the massage,” it’s about receiving and about giving. Gloria, a homeless prostitute, taught her something that it had taken her years to understand. “It’s reciprocal.” 

Trenshaw realizes that she isn’t supposed to fix people and this single phrase is worth the price of her book: The intention to “fix” includes an assumption of brokenness; seeing a person as “broken” and “needy” means you already have negative judgments about her; she is defective in some way. And seeing a person as defective is a judgment that helps create the margins in the first place. When Trenshaw saw that the people she encountered on the street were not broken, she was the one who grew. As she tells her story and those of the people she meets, she modifies our beliefs about how to be with “the other.”

Trenshaw uses spot-on metaphors to turn her stories “slant” and to tell them in new ways that resonate and allow the reader to enter into her world even with our fear of getting dirty or of changing ourselves. When Trenshaw began working on the street she became more grateful for her own possessions, particularly for the doorknobs that protected her and, that allowed her to sleep without fear. Then one day she heard Father Richard Rohr tell a story about a poor man in Nairobi who asked God never to let him live in a stone house because in a stone house you put your possessions behind a door so they won’t be available to the others in your village. That made Trenshaw think about the contrast between what she had, what she protected with her doorknobs, and what street people had. She noticed how so many street people had an “innate elusive sense of sufficiency, of enough-ness.” She began to redefine the word enough and to realize something. “We have to have faith that, at our core, we’re essentially fine, whole, healthy. And we have to believe this about everyone, not just ourselves. We are enough.” 

Trenshaw also addresses the question every reader of this book will ask: “Why would anyone ever deliberately go into the margins if they didn’t have to?” She goes for four reasons:
“To offer the intangible gifts that each of us has
To receive the intangible gifts that are offered in return
To carry precious stories from the periphery back to the mainstream where they need to be heard as the missing pieces of our communal story
Because we can”

Seeing things you’ve always known to be true – yet still avoided -- and reading them in new ways through the stories of marginalized people makes Meeting in the Margins a powerful and dangerous book. Trenshaw’s ability to enter the lives of those we rarely see is enough; it’s just enough to change even the most jaded reader. 

Summing it Up: Cynthia Trenshaw’s stories of the lives of people living on the margins will change you. It will bring you almost within touching distance of the lives of the invisible people living in the margins and it will make you realize that you need to bridge the gap – for your own well-being. Read this book!

Note: Tomorrow is Maundy or Holy Thursday, the day western Christians “do this in remembrance of me.”  If there ever were a day to think about foot-washing and people on the margins, that day and this week when we also watched another attack in Europe by people on the margins, is it.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Nonfiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Soul Food, Book Club
Publication date: October 2, 2015
Author Website:
Reading Group Guide: The last section of the book shares the “verbal portraits” of seven people living in the margins.  After each story, Trenshaw offers questions that would make for excellent discussion in a book club or study group.
What Others are Saying:
Publishers Weekly: “This well-written, often moving account of Trenshaw’s experiences among the homeless and other forgotten individuals at society’s margins evokes a range of responses: apprehension, admiration, revulsion, recognition, and perhaps shame in anyone who’s ever avoided the sight of a street person. Trenshaw, a chaplain and massage practitioner with a degree in theology, shares her experiences seeking out these invisible men and women and offering them not only massage (relaxing for both body and mind) but the greater gift of affirming their 'realness' and 'worth.'”

Meeting in the Margins is a dangerous book. It will move you, shake you, change you, and leave you with a profound sense that you have been in the presence of the holy. Cynthia Trenshaw’s intention is to do just that. She is a brilliant writer. Simply by telling the truth in stories that she herself has lived, she takes us into touching distance of those whom Rabindrinath Tagore called ‘the poorest, the lowliest, and lost.’”
—Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and With Others, and How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice

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