Unconditional Soup

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to convince people to give my little organization, Time of the Month Club, money to buy homeless women tampons and pads which, once used, will be heaved into some landfill along with disposable diapers and other unpleasant detritus of lives lived in the city.

If one subscribes to the notion that teaching a man (or woman) to fish is superior to giving them fish, then I ought to be doing something more substantial, more enduring that handing somebody a freezer bag of 20 tampons which will be used and tossed in a week’s time. Next month the same woman will need 20 more and the month after that and the month after that. It’s endless.

It’s the challenge that food pantries and meal programs face. The same people come in week after week, nothing really changes. Your good soup served up doesn’t change the reality of poverty. It’s just soup, not an elixir. It functions only in the moment and doesn’t build anything, lead anyone anywhere, teach them how not be a person needing soup. It is just soup.

Frustrated by the limitations of soup, some do-gooders decide to make receipt of their soup conditional, as in, I will give you soup if you come to this employment workshop or I will give you soup if you sign up for food stamps (presumably so you will not longer need donated soup). The conditions are intended to generate progress, a changed, improved state in which one is no longer dependent on the generosity of do-gooders to get by. And that is a good thing, I guess.

But it puts me, the do-gooder, in the driver’s seat of a car I don’t own.

It’s not up to me to hold tampons and pads – or soup if I peddled soup – hostage, pending someone’s compliance with what I think they ought to do with their lives. It’s also not up to me to judge anyone, to decide that some people are more worthy of my precious tampons and pads than others. The parameters around what I do through my wee organization are very tightly drawn. I give homeless women tampons and pads and walk away.

They don’t owe me anything. You see, I’m not giving people menstrual supplies in order to changes their lives. I’m doing it because the thought of women having to scrounge up toilet paper or paper towels or socks to deal with their periods is awful, just on its own, not as a symptom of anything else. The lack of menstrual supplies readily lends itself to a systemic analysis of gender bias and ten thousand other terrible, cosmic things but I don’t think about that. I just think about some poor girl stuck in a stall in a public bathroom with no clue how she’s going to pull herself together and walk out into the world. There’s no ambitious change envisioned by helping her with tampons and pads. The goal is just to help her get out of the stall with her pants and dignity intact.

So once I’ve delivered menstrual supplies and they’re received, the transaction is complete. No one owes anyone anything. No one has a hold over anyone else. Everyone is free to make their next move in the world. I like that way of thinking an awful lot. It feels like respect to me, like what I would want if I was stuck in a bathroom stall or needed a bowl of soup.

Why Not Friday Round-Up

Why, Arizona can be a question or a place depending on whether you use a comma. The first time we came through “town” I saw the official sign for Why that included when it was established and how many people live there. So the whole time we were somewhere else I thought about how clever it would be to Instagram a photo of that sign with the caption, “This is Why,” but we couldn’t find the sign coming back without making a dozen U-turns to check out signs which you don’t want to do on AZ 85 when the sun is setting.

We’ve been gone for much of March, first to Alaska and then to Arizona. In both places we drank their local beer and we came home fat from thinking every night was a special occasion. We live now in the land of corporate beer and an unforgiving scale which I constantly adjust to make sure the line is exactly on the zero before I weigh myself. I lost half a pound that way this morning.

I stopped writing for a week and it felt good. It felt like I was out from under for a while, free of practically every obligation (being out of town and on the road a fair amount of time will do that), and free from thinking about whether anyone was reading what I had written. I quit the constant checking of my phone, turned off the reinforcement faucet for a while. I decided not to write anything until I missed writing which I did, finally, this morning. In anticipation, I started to make a list of themes last night but I forgot them until now.

Being physically present is no accident. We took a bit of a detour on our way from Phoenix to Organ Pipe National Park to see our grandkids in San Diego. And their parents. But mostly the grandkids – 5 year old twin boys and a 14 year old girl. It was six hours each way which is a lot for most people but not really for us because we like being on the road so much. The next morning while I sat watching TV with one boy, the other one, slow to wake, came out of his room, climbed up on the bed  and hugged me. I sat feeling his blond head resting on my back, his little wordless morning self. I didn’t want to breathe or speak lest he quit to run off and begin his day.

I delivered 4,379 tampons and pads and 60 pairs of women’s underwear to the Salvation Army today. This was after lunch with a good friend who asked me, quite pointedly, if delivering menstrual supplies was my end game for my Time of the Month Club effort or was there a bigger agenda and I told her, yes, that collecting menstrual supplies for homeless women gives me ‘talking rights’ on policy and programs which is true but also true is that packing my pink bags with boxes of tampons and pads and new underwear for women I don’t know and will probably never meet is weirdly the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Don’t even ask me why. I have no clue.








Mornings in the Polar Vortex

She was an old woman who sat with her purse on her lap like she was waiting to be called to have her blood pressure checked. Instead, she was waiting for breakfast to be served at the homeless warming room and watching the TV mounted on the wall. It was all about the polar vortex, the wind chill, and how dangerous it was for people to be outside where the temperature was 23 degrees below zero.

She wore pedal pushers. That’s what I noticed first. Old fashioned pedal pushers with a rolled-up cuff falling just below her knee, pants I might have worn fifty years ago riding my bike on the dirt roads near our house. Maybe she has long pants stowed somewhere else, that happens, people look like they don’t have adequate gear but then their backpacks explode with jackets and hats. I didn’t think so. She just seemed to have her purse.

She wore white sneakers, substantial ones, not the thin skimmers, and white crew socks which were very thin. Both look like they’d come from the donation bin. Somebody else had put a lot of miles on her shoes before she’d laced them up. And the socks had come from well-meaning but thrifty folks who bought the 10-pack at Walmart, bless them, though, because without them, her ankles would be bare.

The space between her rolled up pedal pusher cuffs and the tops of her thin socks hit me hard. Her bare skin, her calves, swollen like thick poles from knee to ankle. Before she came in here – to this warming room that opens when it is 20 degrees or colder – she was walking around on the streets of Milwaukee in her pedal pushers.

I didn’t talk to her. She was sitting in the middle of a row of people watching TV and waiting for breakfast so there was no opportunity to sit down and chat, figure out if she wanted some pants that went all the way to her shoes. She didn’t ask. Neither did I.

Yesterday, my victory in the warming room was finding Depends on the very top shelf of the storeroom for a woman who had whispered her request to me, her not wanting anyone to hear meant I could barely hear her but I pieced together her request. So I was happy when I scored the Depends on the top shelf and I packed six in a plastic bag and took them to her. She was surprised, I think, because she’d pegged me for someone who couldn’t find the Depends or who wouldn’t try to find the Depends. No, sorry, they’re all out.

Today, a man got upset with me because I couldn’t hear him. He talked fast and so, so low, his voice trailing down his shirt. There was much he wanted to tell me but I focused again on his clothes, how spare his jacket was and how fragile his shoes which were duct-taped together. He had no patience with my preoccupation with his clothes and had other things to tell me and then finally backed up, exasperated with me when I asked yet again for him to “Say again.” It felt like a failure and a defeat and like I shouldn’t come back.

But then in the kitchen, I saw a man from last year’s warming room and he remembered me and hugged me. And we stood and talked because I could hear him easily, his voice being of the tenor and volume that work perfectly with my cochlear implant. It was good to see him although not in that place; I wish I’d run into him at Target when he was buying towels for his new apartment. But maybe that will happen later.

I volunteer at the warming room because I think I should but I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll never know what I’m doing. I just go there in my long pants and my unreliable hearing and it feels like a solidarity thing but it’s meager, so meager. Today felt really meager, between the pedal pushers and the frustrated, unheard man. But I’m going back. I’m not sure why but I am.

Step Sister

It was hot on the bus. Especially if we were parked waiting for our friends to emerge from under the bridges or the woods where they were living. The wait was never too long since they knew we were coming – Street Angels shows up in our mini-bus every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. We hand out hot meals, bag lunches and a host of other things – batteries, underwear, blankets. soap, razors, flashlights, t-shirts, jeans, and socks, many socks. You see, when you are homeless and your socks are worn out and dirty, you throw them away. Washing clothes takes a whole level of storage and wherewithal – it doesn’t work when you carry what you own on your back.

A woman shows up at the bus door. She looks exactly the same as when I saw her two weeks before. She is self-sufficient looking, the type of woman who could change the locks on her doors herself, and right away, I wonder what’s her story. Why is she out here? Does she have friends? Does she travel alone? Is she afraid? What was her life before? Does she want to go back there? She walks off after getting a bag full of food and an extra t-shirt, her backpack slung over one shoulder as if she is youth hosteling through Europe but she isn’t. She’s living outside in a park and she has been for a long time.

The men come in pairs and groups. And I wonder how much their being in a group defines who they are and how much they would be surrendering if they left their friends to go alone into subsidized housing. Sometimes people turn down offers of housing and I am slowly understanding why. We can’t imagine it but there is a sacrifice there, a giving up of a way of life that includes shared hardship and little survivals as a trade for what must seem like isolation, sheltered but cut off from the camaraderie of street life. I hypothesize this but there are limits to what I can ask. I don’t have to know everything the minute I want to know it.

We stop where a woman is sleeping on a step covered by layers of blankets. She wakes, smiling. Though it is hot, she is zipped up in a parka, the hood pulled tight around her face making her look like a little girl bundled up by her mother for the worst winter weather. She sits up, smiles widely, and chats with us. The light from the street lamp lights her face and she seems merry almost, which maybe she is in that moment, because we are there with our own smiles and our hot food and supplies. She radiates the kindness we are trying to deliver as if, under different circumstances, she would just as likely be ministering to us.

Driving away on the bus, I want to know the woman’s story. Why is she there? Why can’t she find a place in shelter? Isn’t she afraid to sleep alone in a public place, sleep with her back to the street?

I get home about 11 and head to bed. My husband is sleeping. I turn first to face the window that looks out onto the street and then turn to face his back, his soundly sleeping self. The pillows are rough and I can feel down feathers poking through the pillowcases, my nightgown twists on my legs and needs straightening every time I turn from one side to the other. My arm, which I hurt in a fall a few days before, aches from hustling the hot meals and bag lunches into carrying bags but what is keeping me awake is having been so close to the woman sleeping on the step, seeing the faded crocheted blanket that was the first layer of her bedding, each successive layer spread so neatly and correctly. How had she come to that step?

I will myself to lie still and let go of the need to know. The answers won’t change that she is sleeping on the step. Or that I am not.


Photo by Mattias Russo-Larsson on Unsplash


My sister sat outside the bathroom door yelling instructions to me. It went on forever, mostly because what she was telling me to do was unbelievable.

It was my first tampon lesson.

Now I collect tampons and pads and give them to women who are homeless. I have a ton of both in my dining room right now waiting to be bagged up and delivered to shelters. It has become my thing. So much so people seek me out. Would I take 28 boxes of Depends? That is a lot of Depends – 80 to a box x 28 = 2,240 Depends. All Small-Medium. So you can be incontinent and homeless but hopefully you are on the small side.

It’s odd to have a long career and have its ending achievement be the collection of products that soak up bodily fluids.

My work is about data and program evaluation, strategic planning and advocacy. I write reports thick with numbers, studies that uncover policy flaws and program mishaps. Unintended consequences is my favorite topic. What did people not think of when they decided on a new approach, what went unexpectedly wrong? I loved those questions. They were candy.

But I have somehow gotten bored with candy.

I want to drive to a shelter, pull down the tailgate on our truck, push in the button that releases the step that folds down, and climb into the truck bed to unload pink garbage bags full of tampons and pads. I want to struggle, have to hoist myself, do a little mind over matter to get where I want to be. I want to be a bit out of breath when I’m done unloading and maybe ache a little that night. I want a physical life.

My sister told me that if I didn’t use tampons, I’d have to sit out from swim practice. I’d have to be one of those girls up in the bleachers in a plaid skirt and knee socks doing her homework and looking extra dainty. And while I never had anything against using pads, I hated the idea of “dainty.” Like somehow a girl was sick or incapacitated because she was having her period. That wasn’t for me. I was the anti-dainty. And I guess I still am.

I think that’s where my new and very deep love of loaded trucks comes from. I want to keep swimming. I never want to sit out.


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7 Steps to Organizing a Menstrual Supplies Drive for Homeless Women

Women who are homeless suffer a lot of indignities. One of them is being without tampons and pads when their periods occur. Put yourself in their place. How would you feel?

Homeless shelters do a tremendous job of providing a safe place to sleep and a warm meal but they often have to rely on what is donated to them. Funding sources don’t generally include a tampon and pad line item. And frankly, it just doesn’t occur to most people to donate menstrual supplies. Who wants to drive up to a shelter with a bag full of tampons when winter coats and mittens seem so much more essential?

If you’re somebody who thinks it’s important to help homeless women keep their dignity by having access to clean, safe menstrual supplies, then you should think about doing a tampon and pad donation drive in your town. Here’s my quick guidebook:

1. Talk to your local women’s shelter first. Connect with the executive director or volunteer coordinator and tell them what you want to do. This is important because when you solicit donations, you will want to say where the donations will be going. So having a shelter on board, basically saying that you can use their name in your asks, is essential. This gave donors confidence that their contribution would end up in the right place.

2. Give your effort a name and a look. I used “Time of the Month Club” for my campaign and asked a friend who is a graphic artist to give the Club a ‘look’. You can use anything but it needs to be smart and snappy. Jan’s Tampon Drive doesn’t do it. Time of the Month Club has some personality (it’s also copyrighted so you’ll have to find another name). You want that because you will be wearing out the airwaves with your pitches. See #3.

3. Fire up the social media engine. Before you do anything, you need to have a decent number of Facebook friends or other social media followers. If you’re a little weak on that front, partner with one or two other people who have a lot of followers. Then in terms of social media strategy: first, I messaged every female Facebook friend who I thought would possibly donate or organize a donation drive at her office. Second, I posted Facebook updates about the drive, not just asking people for donations but posting pictures of anyone who donated and tagging them to make sure the photo had the widest possible circulation.

4. Encourage group giving. One inspired person can inspire others if she thinks of it, like, ‘hey, wait, instead of just buying a couple of boxes of pads, I could get everybody in the office to buy a couple and then we’d have a big bag to donate!’ Talk to your friends and colleagues about hosting a drive at their place of work, church, or club. I bring them a box and flyers to help in their outreach. Promising to come back and pick up the box is key, though, so be prepared for some heavy lifting!

5. Make it easy to donate. I offered to drive anywhere to pick up a donation. I also had a box on my front porch labeled Time of the Month Club where people could leave donations night or day. Some people wanted to take their donations directly to the shelter. That’s fine but I encouraged people to bring them to me so I could keep a count, bag up donations in consistent amounts, and drop them off gradually so as not to swamp the shelter.

6. Thank donors A LOT. I thanked donors and am still trying to come up with ways to thank them. I’m not done yet on that front. I thanked them in person, via email, and on Facebook. Facebook was huge because it had the effect of reminding people of the donation drive but with a new face. Every time someone handed me a bag or a box, I’d ask to take their picture and ask if it was okay for me to post it. Most people said yes when I told them that other people would be inspired by seeing that they had donated.

7. Keep track. Time of the Month Club collects close to 50,000 tampons and pads over the course of a year. That’s a lot of misery and embarrassment avoided. In addition to keeping count, write down who donated, especially those who organized mini drives at their offices, book clubs or among their friends. This will be useful information if you decide to do a second drive.

Time of the Month Club is really about sisterhood. Maybe we haven’t all shared the experience of homelessness, but we have shared this: We are women. We menstruate. It needs to be dealt with in a way that allows us to carry on with life. If our homeless sisters don’t have what they need, those of us who are housed can ante up. It’s that simple really.

If you decide to do a drive, let me know. If you have questions, ask me. You can reach me via email at jwilberg2000@gmail.com.

Go forth. Collect. Have fun.

Time of the Month Club: Indignity Prevention

Is there possibly a cruder phrase than ‘she’s on the rag?’ I don’t think so. We hear it now as a nasty, sexist reference but it wasn’t all that long ago that this was a woman’s monthly reality.

My mother told me that when she was a teenager growing up in a small town during the Depression, she and her sister actually used rags that were washed and bleached and hung out on the clothesline to dry, each rag hand-fed through a wringer washer. Nothing came easy then.  If you were going to be on the rag, you better learn to wash them. Harsh business.

Being on the rag is not a situation for me anymore. One of the many benefits of getting older is being able to wear white pants anytime, not having to rummage through the drawer for a Tampax like I was looking for the last remaining cigarette on earth, the one that would save me from nicotine withdrawal and wanting to kill all my children and ram my car up against a brick wall. There is also no dead reckoning with a roll of toilet paper, the only protection standing between me and a roomful of men gathered around the tiny fire of an endless meeting, none of whom likely to have a little tubular savior in their jackets, their pockets already crammed with silk pocket squares.

Aging is liberating in ways you might not suspect. There is a reduction in certain indignities. I’ve heard that the indignities resume at some point but I think I have a few years’ breather. The rags may resurface as strangers wipe the oatmeal off my chin.

In the meantime, I’m into this notion about how lack of rags or more appropriately put, feminine hygiene products, is one of the crummiest indignities visited on women who are homeless.

Picture this. No, picture yourself. You’re homeless. You’re walking around downtown because that’s what you do when you’re homeless, you keep moving around. Every hour or so you stop in another public bathroom and stuff more toilet paper in your pants, you try to get a lady to give you money for the tampon machine but she looks at you and sniffs her way out the door. You keep walking and now you feel it, the wetness and you know the toilet paper has failed. But you’ve got to get to the meal program for dinner or you’ll have nothing to eat. And so you go and you hope no one will notice but they do. They all do.

Because it’s rank. You’re rank.

It’s just one more piece of crap that gets handed to you if you’re a homeless woman.

So last year it occurred to me after I visited a homeless shelter for women where the person at the front desk told me that one of the hardest things she had to do was tell a homeless woman stopping in for help that she had no tampons to give her, that it made sense to run a donation drive for feminine hygiene products. It was simple. I asked my good artist friend to design a graphic and I posted on Facebook and, damn, if I didn’t get a ton of sanitary napkins and tampons, big garbage bags full of every type you could imagine, my trunk would overflow with ways to keep women from having only toilet paper to put in their damn pants. Because you know, there’s got to be a floor to the essential indignity of being homeless.

Women deserve this one small thing whether they are homeless or living at the Ritz.

So I’m starting up my ‘feminine hygiene products’ drive again and if you’d like to do the same, do it. If you want to have a Time of the Month Club, use the graphic. Let me know, though, so I can be happy about it. The homeless shelters in your town will be super glad when you show up with a bag full of tampons. But call them first to coordinate.

It’s not all glamour helping women, not all about the Supreme Court, and leaning in. Sometimes, it’s just about helping them make sure they don’t bleed through.

You know?