Most of the long-term homeless struggle to maintain sanity, while some of them never really had it to begin with, and many of them fall somewhere in the spectrum of genius. My ex-husband’s father was homeless. I met him once in the desert, just outside of Las Vegas. It had been 15 years since anyone had heard from him, and most of his family had all but given up hope that he may still be alive. He was bi-polar and schizophrenic, so he often traveled between worlds of consciousness. In one of his more lucid moments, he reached out to his son to congratulate him on his upcoming marriage. We were engage at the time, how he knew this without having spoken to any of his children in over a decade, still amazes me. Nervous and eager to reconnect with his father, we made the trip out to the middle of the desert, to visit him in his shanty.
It was full of wonderful, crude inventions that he had fashioned out of garbage, or leftover parts, in order to survive the brutal summers, and frigid winter nights. We saw him several more times over the next few days, to feed him, buy him clothes and supplies. We mostly just wanted to spend time with him, since we didn’t know when he would slip back into a different reality, then my ex would lose his father all over again. As we were getting ready to head back to Denver, he hugged us both, as though we were his only anchor into this world, then looked at me intensely and said, “You’re either crazy because you’re homeless, or you’re homeless because you’re crazy.” I thanked him for sharing his time with us, for reaching out, and for letting me be a part of his experience. I assume he has since passed away, and we are long since divorced, but I still think of him often.
Fast forward nearly twenty years to last Sunday. I was heading out to a meeting and, as usual, I was running late. S was downstairs, cleaning my car (because he’s awesome, what can I say?) and was talking to a man holding onto the handlebars of his bike. I was irked because I knew that I was going to get pulled into a conversation, which would make me later than I already was. This man was asking for some sort of favor and I didn’t have time to get pulled into the issue, but he turned to me and smiled so wide, the corners of his eyes turned up. He stuck his hand out and said, “My is name is Kaleem. How are you?” I shook his hand and smiled, still anxious that I was late for my meeting.
BKS Iyengar believed, “the body needs tough love to be kicked into mindfulness.” Although, I think that everyday life will usually do it for us. Living downtown, we meet a lot of homeless people. We know their daily migration habits, which bus bench they will be sleeping on in the morning, and where they like to spend their afternoons. We know which ones need new shoes and who just acquired a new rain coat. Occasionally, they ask for money, to which I always reply no, but I am happy to buy them lunch, their bus fare, water, etc. I will not, however, enable them to use money to buy drugs or alcohol to further aid in any more suffering they may want to inflict on themselves, but I am happy to help them with a hand up. Most of the time, they are not an annoyance, unless they are threatening me with harm. They are human beings who are a part of our community.
After shaking hands, S said, “he’s got a hell of a story. Kaleem, will you share what you told me?” He was proud to say that he had just started a new job a couple of days ago, hence why he was wearing his uniform. He had gone to college after high school, but there were no jobs in his field, so he’d been living on the street. Today, he needed $12, so that he could stay at the hostel, wash his uniform and take a shower. It’d been a few days, and he was afraid that he was starting to smell so bad that they might fire him, but he wouldn’t get his first paycheck until the end of the week and couldn’t afford to lose the first job he’d had in nearly two years. His eyes gazed down, ashamed that he couldn’t make ends meet, ashamed that I may be offended by his smell.
In my hurry of misappropriated priorities, Kaleem reminded me that being present for those who are suffering is one of the most sacred responsibilities we have as one another’s keepers. I remembered that same look when I said goodbye to my father-in-law, so I broke my own stupid rule, reached into my wallet and handed him a $20 bill. I probably would have given him more, but it was the only cash I had on me at the time. So what if the story was true, or it wasn’t true, it was his truth and that was all that really mattered. I hope the $20 gets him through to payday. More than anything, I hope that he felt better knowing that someone listened, saw him as a fellow human being, and treated him with compassion.
Thank you, Kaleem. I needed that kick back into mindfulness.