Powered by WebRing®.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Musings from the Parking Lot

It is late evening, and I am sitting in my truck in a parking lot. It has been one of those days in which past aggravations nag at me and cling like a dense fog. The loneliness of homeless life lends itself to wrong-headed musings; and as the night deepens, the lack of the physical presence of companions is felt even more keenly.

There is a sweetness to saying "Good night" to people whom you love and with whom you live whenever one is lucky enough to have that situation. I look back with envy at those times in my life when, flushed from a long day and a wonderful meal together, I, friends, and beloved pets retreated to our separate rooms. The day's end together was a prayer that sent us off to soft sleep and gentle dreaming.

I have been challenged to renew my perspective, to believe there is more in the world than my immediate troubles, to believe that I can have a future once again and a home made up of dear friends. But there are swells of hope followed by deep troughs, and I must admit there are days when I wish it were over, which means I have not yet found the proper way to navigate and to enjoy my own kind of life on the Mississippi, as it were.

I feel quite certain that ending an incomplete life is failure. While it may alleviate present pain and the future possibility of more, I shrink in horror at the idea of having to take the same rotten lesson again. I want to go out with the victory. Otherwise, I am hard pressed to understand the point of being here and taking so much time at it.

What I want to believe in earnest is that I can only die when I have become happy. About everything. It would be the ultimate accomplishment to be at peace with my life, every part of it in every second, and to own it as my own unique work of art. I could die then and feel ready for something entirely new. But to die in frustration, despising my death because too much was left undone, is nightmarish. All feelings reverberate past us and into the channels and cracks of the future, here or there; and there is no percentage in dying the wrong way.

A great saint once said it is a sin to be unhappy, and I agree. Of course, the theological reasoning was that the Son of God shed His innocent blood for our redemption, our souls' salvation guaranteed through the sacrifice. Therefore with our souls saved, there is nothing to be unhappy about. But that always sounded too much like Mom nagging me about being ungrateful and how someone somewhere is starving in the world. You know what I mean.

My revisionist take on this notion of sin, minus all the theology, is that unhappiness is a waste of time and must be avoided as much as possible; and wherever God is, if that place is too far away from where I am, there is no hope anyway. So I conclude that God is a part of me (or the other way around) and nowhere else. In which case, learning to love oneself and everything in, about, and around one's life, inner and outer, is the only route to becoming whole, well, and happy, the way I wish to die.

The good news about homelessness is that it strips away most everything but what is essential so there is very little distraction. One's thoughts and feelings become rather stark against this backdrop, and there is an excess of time to think, write, walk, nap, or whatever else one is inclined to do. Homelessness, in other words, can be good for you.

It has been good to me.

Following the death of my beautiful dog, it were as though a curtain had been drawn across my mind. I had no inner light; it had been snuffed out. The morgue in my heart contrasted strangely against the typical cerulean days of southernmost California, light so bright and stimulating that it is rapturous. To be honest, I was afraid. I had never before been swallowed up so dramatically by grief, and it dwelt in every cell of my body. The darkness lived with me for weeks on end. It stayed so long it altered me.

That darkness over the death of beautiful Inde made any disturbance in my surroundings unbearable. The wearisome noise of television, the mindless antics of housemates, and the inane routines of making money were overwhelming me. There was no reason left to tolerate any of it.

I decided to go homeless.

My dog's death was the last domino in a long line of losses. I attribute my recovery, at least from deep gloom, to the smell of salt air, cool breezes off the ocean, sleep like death, and my innate determination to outlive it. Ben Stiller movies help. So do milkshakes. Never underestimate the need for distraction at such times, and the byword on that is "whatever it takes."

The climb back up is steep. It is steeper than it should be because the American Dream is not what we can or should continue to have, but the old structures are still with us. America has been a wasteland of people driven insane by the harried pace of making a living and the deep-down unspoken guilt and grief of killing off all other living things in the process; and that takes a lot more energy now than Coca Cola was giving us a generation ago: the new fix is Starbucks, Rockstar, or Red Bull, with caffeine and sugar levels so high they could rival a Class-B controlled substance.

Survival has just become too difficult, at the same time our deeply-ingrained notions of progress and modernity tell us that life should be easier. Perhaps, the new economic order of depression and chaos is an attempt by the collective unconscious to change the game. Maybe, at the ancient source and primordial depths of our existence, the system is suspending operations pending a restart along very different lines.

Despite the fact that most people would like to take the canoe down the river and pitch tent somewhere else, there is nowhere else. In lieu of a new frontier, we must get really creative, but not without humility and respect for limitations. We have to get beyond the Christian programming that leads us to martyr and crucify ourselves and other people daily and even further beyond that to a recognition, not only of universal human rights, but the universal rights of all living things.

Homelessness, from the point of view of critically-needed changes in the world, is a badge of courage. At the very least, the homeless have taken a step beyond the cultural routine and usual outcomes that are too narrow to be truly inclusive of all races, classes, creeds, religions, and species. Homelessness may be one of the few sanctuaries afforded a weary population of tired bourgeois capitalists. And we need sanctuary more than ever from the cruelty of the daily meat-grind of work as we know it and having to juggle the internal conflicts of conscience.

Homelessness can be that sanctuary that was once provided by the Sabbath and the church that would open its doors (literally, not figuratively) to people who needed rest. It is the least expensive retreat; and as good retreats do, it offers time for contemplation, exploring feelings and their meaning, and letting go.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

For Your Reading Pleasure

For your reading pleasure and greater literary edification, here is the poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay to which my last post refers:

Sonnet: Love is Not All
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

Love is Not All

Love is not meat or drink, but it can get very, very lonely being homeless without it.

Most homeless people have no roof whatsoever, and those of us who do are living out of a car, truck, or van, which barely provides enough room for one person. Assuming two people could get along under one small mobile roof, there is still the problem of lack of privacy with having to situate the "roof" on a side street or in a parking lot. Truly, I wish I had had a choice about listening to Sheila and Brian argue, break up, kiss, and make up every few days.

The homeless are up early and turn in early to avoid encounters with the housed and the police. There are just too many logistics to handle as it is, and the police can rattle your nerves even when they park next to you at Seven-Eleven. And I can live without the nervous, faux cheeriness of the housed when they have an unexpected encounter in a public washroom --- I only have my bra on so far and I'm brushing my teeth. Somehow, they want to chatter at such a time, perhaps to pretend that I am just like them. Except for the homeless part.

It is not that often, though, that I meet the middle- and upper-middle class housed. Most of the time the public restrooms are empty, and I can relax and enjoy the breeze coming through the open-roof structure and look out at the tree tops. One public washroom has dovecotes, whether by accident or design: instead of a single pitched roof, there are two pyramidal roofs separated by a breezeway, each with its own skylighted pavilion perched at the top. Doves can be heard flying around the empty, upper interior. They have taken over the roofs and nest on top of the walls separating the toilets, which places the humans doing their business on the first floor.

The birdsong of the mourning dove permeates my earliest memories, so having this particular, familiar bird attendant upon my toilette is a luxury and a joy. Even if the biggest problem with having birds in the attic looks nasty --- the excrement that has dripped down and dried on the upper walls --- it seems fitting.

One day while doing my toilette, I was surprised by two very well-dressed women, so well-dressed it was startling. They were in skirts and high heels, made-up, perfectly coiffed, and wearing expensive jewelry. There was a pleasant hint of perfume in the air that spread like an aura throughout the washroom. We exchanged greetings as they entered and each took a stall. I continued washing my face.

"You ladies are really dressed up for the public washroom this morning!"

"Oh," said one of the ladies as she left her stall, "We're Jehovah Witnesses."

There is usually an internal "uh-oh" response whenever I hear Jehovah Witnesses since they are generally so pesky, all but ramrodding their way through your front door and into your living room. But, of course, I do not have a front door or anything else resembling a house. I decided in that moment to be all the person I am, to be bigger than my reservations, and to stay open and honest.

By now I was brushing my teeth. It seemed a little awkward, but the ladies stayed a while to chat. Most of the chat was about their missionary work. I told them I respect their belief as I do all beliefs, which turned out to be an opening for one of them to ask what my belief was. I told them I am spiritual, that I have outgrown religion, that I love Jesus, but I want to be able to communicate with everyone on the planet regardless of their belief.

My answer elicited a pause; I think it impressed them because no one can honestly deny the need to relate to all people. They may also have been relieved not to have to defend their own belief, as I am sure they meet with plenty of diatribe against the JWs. At any rate, the two well-dressed women took their leave; and I have to say I liked them. My impressions of people include a disaster scenario and whether they could weather a storm with me. I do not want to hear, "I broke my nail!" when we all need to be bailing water. These women were tough on the inside. I could tell.

A few mornings earlier as I had just finished in the washroom, a car drove into the parking lot blaring the sound of the Beatles. So few radio stations play the Beatles anymore and, where I live, no one listens to them. It was unusual. Then my friend, Sheila, pops out of the car and runs over, as usual, lunging at me with an enormous embrace.

Unless by way of a well-honed internal guidance system, I never know how Sheila finds me. She behaved as though she expected to see me right there right then. Even uncannier is the fact that I am not staying out by the yacht club anymore where Sheila last saw me, but further south in Mission Bay.

Sheila's lover is still in jail, and she is pining away. She is pining so much she decided to go back to school to become a nurse, maybe to keep busy. But Sheila always sounds a little drunk, so I am hoping she succeeds despite her boyfriend and the addiction. Unfortunately, because she pops into my life unannounced, I usually have something else to do and must leave her company sooner than I would like. That was the case a few days ago. Sheila is no longer homeless, but she still retains some of the footloose habits that homelessness engenders; and I will see her again.

One of the subtle effects of homelessness over time is to make a person more truly herself. I have been given back to myself through this simple way of life, which has few distractions. I tend to be completely honest, even honest about dishonesty on the rare occasion that I must employ it. One of the most important features of this new integrity has been a progressive ability to be in the present moment much of the time and to make the best of my surroundings and everything in it.

I am no longer fixated.

It is remarkable when I review my life to see how often I denied my reality. I was always waiting for the perfect friend, lover, sister, brother, mother, job, apartment, exercise plan, vacation, and the list goes on. I was in the future and stuck in the past, unable to love what I had; and I am only beginning to enjoy imperfection as the capstone of things rare and extraordinary.

Letting go of fixations --- who can be my friends, who can be my lover or soul mate, who is interesting or not --- has allowed me to accept the things around me and experience them in greater depth and detail. The narrow romantic-love vision of the 1950's household of my childhood no longer applies under my present circumstances and may be, in fact, obsolete. Certainly, if one is looking to live life to the fullest and have the experience of joy, there is no other way but to leave oneself open to the excitement of possibilities and to a childlike fascination with what might happen next.

For example, bird visitations are a regular feature of the outdoor shower at public restrooms. One day, a silly gull perched on the shower wall was behaving just as my beloved, deceased dog would have and seemed to stand guard overhead while I washed. In fact, I came to believe my beloved dead dog was inhabiting a bird body. Fantasy? Magical thinking? Perhaps, but the experience was real and something I will never forget.

Then there are the elusive Bob, Steve "the Wonder," and my girlfriend, Sheila, exotic creatures in their own right. If I look for Bob or Steve or Sheila, I cannot find them. They just appear and our relationships continue, renewed and updated. These people have blessed my life with the richness of their personalities.

There is nurturance in relating to everything around oneself. There is a sense of belonging, a feeling of security, and love that comes with it. It is not just what one gives or what one gets, but the relationship itself, the in-betweenness, that brings joy to me. That third element is what I seek, that subtle energy of life between and among all living things, the gravitational pull that draws us into one strange, wonderful whole.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Near the End, Part II: Happy Court

I would never have believed it could happen.

It was a scene out of one of those perfect-world daydreams. A gentleman walked down the center aisle to ask if anyone were too warm because he would open the windows, a curious thing since the audience consisted of homeless people, not a theatre crowd. The officials of the Court sauntered in, milled around, smiling and relaxed as though they had all just stepped out of a hot bath after hitting the gym.

The two prosecutors were the only exceptions to the otherwise distinctly pleasant atmosphere --- business-like, lonely in their front corner of the room, and glued to the screens of their laptops --- whom, the Public Defender, Steve Binder, asked us all to thank on our way out for their kindness and cooperation. After all, with few if any exceptions, the cases before the judge were dismissed right and left; and that was the happiest judge I have ever seen. Steve believes that judges become judges to have a positive impact on society, and he has no difficulty recruiting them for Homeless Court. One judge is reported to have exclaimed, “This is the most fun I’ve had as a judge!"

It was a great day of victories over the very unimportant intrusions and slights that thrust themselves upon the lives of the homeless.

(Well, of course, I thanked the prosecutors, but neither acknowledged me, a clear invitation which I could not pass up: I thrust my hand out and kept it there. One of them, still looking at her computer screen, finally bothered to shake it since it must have seemed my hand would not go away otherwise. I left the Court amid a profusion of approving smiles, nods, and thumbs-up.)

However, by far the greatest boon to visiting Homeless Court was meeting Steve Binder.

I would like to think that all greatness were measured by Steve Binder's stature. While I believe there has been an increasing lack of concern for the poor and homeless over the past several decades and that there is an entire class of people who are quite conscious of their contempt and act on it, Mr. Binder believes everyone would like to help, but does not know how. And that is why I like him so much. He is good, and he sees the world through that lens.

I interviewed Mr. Binder some time after my Homeless Court date. He told me he liked to hang around the courthouse when he was growing up. He was fascinated by the attorneys, but became deeply impressed with the people who needed them. He observed these men and women, noting their appearance and expressions as they entered and exited the courtroom. It became clear that a day in court could make or break a person, or an entire family. Steve knew he would become a lawyer.

As a San Diego Public Defender, Mr. Binder was one of those who answered the call for legal professionals to participate in the first Stand Down in 1988, a grassroots, community-based event to which volunteers donate their time and expertise to caring for homeless Vietnam veterans. When those participating veterans were interviewed, it was found that the greatest need among them was help with outstanding bench warrants.

A bench warrant is issued by a judge for contempt of court, such as the failure to appear or the failure to pay, which often presents difficulties for the homeless, the underlying assumption being that one has money and means, which are not the usual situation for homeless persons. I have mentioned in other posts how the way back up and into society can be stymied by the status of homelessness itself and how something simple, like an unpaid citation, can exponentially explode over time into more fines, confiscation of one's vehicle, and even arrest. A bench warrant gives law enforcement the authority to arrest and take the subject to jail.

Homelessness can become a fugitive lifestyle.

Moreover, because the homeless are not a protected class, what happens after arrest and jail is anyone's guess. No one has been able to tell me how long a homeless person is incarcerated and where he goes after his release. Presumably, they are back living on the street again, facing the same challenges. However, my friend, Robin, of whom I spoke in previous posts, knew of many incidences of homeless who were "disappeared," that is, never seen again. The isolation of the homeless, their lack of strong family and community ties, may make them prey to criminal elements who operate with impunity for that very reason: no one knows, cares about, or misses the homeless, so they are fair game.

Mr. Binder's innovation was to extend and expand the legal services offered to homeless veterans at Stand Down to all homeless people, making the court system accessible, collaborative, and user-friendly. The Homeless Court Program, begun in 1989, consists of volunteer legal professionals in cooperation with various community-based services that can support the homeless individual's rehabilitation. The Municipal Court judge essentially erases the individual's record by imposing an alternative sentence, such as participation in a recovery program, attending computer classes, and so on. The location of the court, too, is far less imposing, being held in the community, usually in a homeless shelter.

It was a fateful day when I happened to phone the San Diego Municipal Court's Traffic Division and talk to a young clerk there whom I questioned about my options in regard to the most recent, very-pricey citation I had to pay or manage to clear. I summoned the nerve to say I was homeless and that there should be some different standard applied in such a case. She said quite casually, "Well, there's Homeless Court."

"Homeless Court?"


"OK. Where is Homeless Court?"

"Oh, you can't just go there. You have to call the Public Defender's office. You want to talk to Steve Binder."

I was on to the next phone call in an instant and left a message. I left a message the next day and the day after that. I even left a few bold snippy messages. It was a full two weeks before my call was answered.

In the meantime, I thought I would try going into Traffic Court before the set date in the hope of learning from the judge what I could do to lessen the financial burden of the ticket and if the judge could refer me to this thing called Homeless Court. Clearly, I was impatient for an answer, or I would not have tried sitting in the court room.

Picture it: the judge enters wearing the black robes of the legal priesthood, and she sits an entire story above the sinners seated in purgatory. One poor sinner after another comes up to the bench as his name is called and faces the judge. Everyone can hear what the judge and the defendant are saying. No matter what the outcomes, I am embarrassed at hearing about someone else's problems with the law.

After a half-hour of this, I start to cry and cannot stop. The idea of standing before the judge and begging for mercy because I am homeless in front of a hundred other people is mortifying. One of the court officials passes me a box of tissues, but it does nothing to alleviate the fear. All the same, I needed help; so I stand up and approach the bench when I hear my name. I am still crying and can barely remember what it was I intended to ask. The judge completely misreads my intentions and merely postpones my court date. What a relief it was to get a call back from the Public Defender.

The truth is no one benefits by homelessness, which should be treated as an affliction in a healthy society. The legal system suffers from a back log of minor cases and the opprobrium of being dehumanizing and punitive, and the community suffers from having a part of its population inactive and unable to contribute. No one can be happy seeing the homeless at every major intersection in every city of the United States begging for anything we can spare.

Fortunately, Homeless Courts are spreading all over the United States. The Homeless Court Program is transforming the lives of the homeless, as well as transforming the legal system through its working relationships to agencies and services in the community. The community at large is healthier and freer.

Steve Binder, as it turns out, is widely-known and respected and was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005. Ashoka International recognizes and supports social entrepreneurs across the globe. Ashoka Fellows undergo a stringent selection process based on four criteria: the candidate possesses, first, a new solution to a social problem; secondly, creativity; third, leadership; and, lastly, ethical fiber. The final criterion is weighted more heavily than the others. If there is any doubt about the last quality, the candidate will not pass. So the last question asked in regard to any candidate to the Ashoka Fellowship is "Do you trust this person absolutely?"

I knew nothing of Mr. Binder's reputation when we first met by telephone and in the brief time he acted on my behalf as Public Defender. My own answer to the question above, unequivocally, was and still is "Yes!"

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Readers and fans of Vagabond, I apologize for the hiatus without warning. My computer underwent a major repair one week, and then I spent a week visiting a dear friend. Yes, I, too, was housed, but there is something claustrophic about it. I was happy to return home to life under the palm trees and views of the Bay. I am not sure what that means, to you or me. Perhaps I have gone native in some sense. In any case, I want to assure you that I will be back with a new posting very soon.