Sunday, November 15, 2009

On being him...

I don’t know his name, where he’s from or what makes him tick. He’s a man who sometimes intersects with me amidst this web of routine and necessity that ties us all together without our necessarily knowing much about one another, or about ourselves.

What is our appetite to know each other, which is a way to know ourselves?

He’s a man I see from time to time, knowing very little about him. I know I like him, though. We always have a brief, pleasant interaction while he bags my soup and the roll that comes with it at a shoebox-sized cafe on the far west side of Greenwich Village. The place has good food but it’s quite out of my way; I rarely get there, especially during these last weeks when I was sidelined by surgery. Recuperating at home meant a few sacrifices, including a long period during which I contented myself with inferior versions of my favorite treats.

But those treats beckoned the other night when it was cold and windy... one of those quintessential late fall nights when good soup seems particularly welcome. So I made a special effort to walk way west and try my luck at the shoebox after a long hiatus.

When I entered the shop shortly before closing time, he was busy behind the counter, as usual. He had the same pleasant, gentle, easy-going manner as he picked and packaged orders for customers ahead of me in line. Except there was a difference: He looked painfully thin compared with how I remembered him from a month earlier. The smooth texture of his pale brown skin was stretched tightly over his handsome face. Those high cheekbones were sharply visible, and his arms were like spindles. It seemed like special effort was required for him to do the simple things he was long accustomed to doing.

While he busied himself, a woman suddenly appeared from the shop’s nether regions – a worker there, or perhaps the owner. “You’re looking better,” she said to him sympathetically as we customers eavesdropped. “You think so?” he asked quietly as he continued putting orders together. “Yeah,” she said, adding gently “but you could gain a little more weight.” He said something in agreement with her assessment, but I unconsciously tuned out their conversation because I couldn’t handle the feelings this situation was conjuring up inside me.

Who was this man, really, and what had happened to him? He had obviously been through a severe illness, and I could relate to that, having only recently emerged from my own recuperative cocoon with a deficit of five pounds shed from my frame. I had felt great vulnerability for the past several weeks and was just starting to feel “like myself” again. How interesting that feeling less vulnerable was the more normal feeling to which the compass in my head was pointing. How ironic that I had conceived of my visit to this cafe as a happy step on my way back to normalcy, only to have the visit feel anything but normal or upbeat.

We all know that “normal” is a dangerous word, a grotesque pretense, but most of us operate most of the time as if there were such a thing. This is certainly true for me – I adore routines, predictability. My little habits, my assumptions and prejudices, foster the illusion that I can expect order and stability from my days and nights. Though I might complain about it at times, yearning to be more daring, predictability is a lot more comfortable for me than confronting the uncertainty that rules all our lives. But that uncertainty can’t be denied for very long....reading in the newspapers about people who have lost their jobs and their homes, I feel uneasy because it reminds me of what I’ve lost or could lose. Walking into a little cafe where all I had expected to do was buy some soup I was suddenly uneasy seeing someone skeletal, even more skeletal than I was.

So I was caught up in the mystery of my own reflection in the face and body of another person. I was confronting my shock at the connection and my inability to do anything with or about it.

There are many layers to this elephantine uncertainty that is always there: What will become of me? What will other people think of whatever happens to me, and how much of what “happens” will actually, in my mind, be other people’s perceptions of the bare facts of my life? Do I look good, and is that being noticed by the right people? Do I look like I have things under control? Am I being properly valued by others, do they recognize what I have to offer? If they don’t recognize my offering, whose fault is that and what do I do with that feeling? Etcetera...

This is a common way of being in the world: insecurity expressed through self-torment about the way others see us. This insecurity is big business: It propels up to 50% of consumer spending (, which in turn accounts for 70% of U.S. economic activity. But surely it is possible to look at something (or someone) without having, or feeling the need to have, an opinion about it (them). Or in the context of this cafe encounter, surely it is possible to bear witness to something painful without implicating ourselves in it or trying to “fix” it. And if we see these possibilities, then we also see the potential to live securely without worrying about the shadowy judgments we imagine are continually made and re-made by others...about us.

On that chilly night, my intellectual grasp of these notions was completely useless to me. It was upsetting to see this pleasant man looking so frail. He was so publicly frail... did I look so obviously “not myself” to the people around me? Had my illness left its mark on my face and bearing, however temporarily, arousing pity in others? Would pity be a proper valuation of what I have to offer, or was I “better” than that? Why would pity felt on my behalf be so terrible that I would shun it like a newly minted leper shuns a leper colony? Why was it so painful to feel – and witness pity felt – for this other man? This man, much younger but about my size and a million miles away behind a deli counter in that bright, well worn space.

And then it hit me... I was feeling my innate helplessness yet again. I was experiencing my reality, a reality that normally gets papered over by the clutter of routine sleepwalking. Witnessing the suffering of someone else without having a way to ease that suffering was just a kissing cousin of my three days on the streets of Manhattan or my two weeks recovering from surgery. It was the mirror image of what I had been experiencing – it was my image. In that little cafe, the helplessness of others and their utter dependence on me was fully on display right next to the crab meat sandwiches and the beet salad. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have any better tools to work with the suffering of others than I had had to cope with my own suffering. And I couldn’t just bear witness to what was going on – I felt the need to react. The result: more suffering!

As the man behind the counter talked with his co-worker, as the customers ahead of me in line shifted restlessly on their feet, I was feeling the pain of my inescapable connection to sickness and uncertainty. Not knowing what to do with that pain, I bided my time until it was my turn to order. When my turn came, I stepped up to the counter, said hello to the man as cheerfully as I could and told him what I wanted. We chatted pleasantly while he got my soup, behaving as if nothing unusual had happened to either of us. And then I took my paper bag and left the shop, walking slowly eastward.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On being at home...

What is it like to be helpless... to beg... to be homeless? If we look honestly at our lives, we recognize that the answer to this question is always right in front of us, no matter how much we’d prefer to think otherwise. I think that we are all helpless, all the time. We are all begging, all the time. We are all homeless, all the time. Put another way, there are very few things that truly matter in life... and we don’t control any of those things. Instead, we live at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves, completely exposed even as we pretend to have it all neatly contained, under control.

The inescapable reality of my own helplessness is rolling around in my head in the wake of two very different episodes of exposure, of deprivation. The first episode was my three days and nights living on the streets of New York, closely followed by two weeks during which I was confined to an apartment while recovering from surgery. These very different experiences, far from existing separately in parallel universes, overlapped and echoed one another in unexpected ways.

Life on the streets without money or a dwelling to go to means utter dependency. You depend on the missions and soup kitchens for meals... on the rare bits of change or the rarer glances given by strangers for little comforts...on the cops to have better things to do than hassle you... on the weather to be warm and dry and the garbage trucks to be quick about their work so you can sleep a little. Life on the streets also means freedom because most of the time you have no illusion that there’s anything to be gained or lost. You just exist.

Being bedridden without the ability to go out means utter dependency. You depend on others to ask how you’re doing and to inquire if you need anything... to buy your food and, sometimes, to cook it for you. You depend on a body that seems out of control, wracked with pain and weakness, to somehow claw its way back to the surface and liberate you from isolation and incapacity. You depend on your mind to grow along the surface of your pain like a vine splashing color on a building in the autumn sun. You just exist.

Just existing has never been my specialty. I find direct experience scary and hard to process, preferring instead to dress up my experience in big, shiny words. I use words to create concepts and abstractions that dull the pain of reality and that also tend to impress other people, keeping them at a safe and manageable distance. It naturally follows, then, that being dependent on other people has never been my specialty either. I’m very attached to the idea that I can do everything for myself, never relying on anyone for anything if I can help it. Relying on others is difficult for me because of the uncertainty that goes along with that reliance. This uncertainty comes out of my expectations of others, and the painful probability that my expectations will be unfulfilled. By dropping my expectations I don’t have to rely on others... I can simply be dependent upon them. This is a critical distinction: I am dependent upon others, but I do not rely upon them. In this completely dependent and perpetually uncertain state, any outcome is possible and any outcome is the right outcome.

When I just existed, either on the streets or after surgery, I depended completely on others. Could depending completely on others while they depend completely on me be one way – the way – to define life itself?

There was something intoxicating about standing on a sidewalk, shaking a cup in one hand and playing a harmonica with the other, asking passersby for spare change. Begging openly, instead of covertly like I usually do, felt exhilarating. Then, too, there was the perverse pleasure of inviting perfect strangers to confront their imperfect feelings of guilt, embarrassment, disdain and, occasionally, pity. These dark sentiments, so unwelcome and yet so necessary, help to explain why the homeless are such outcasts in our society: They force all of us to feel something, in public. When I begged, I wasn’t embarrassed in the least: I felt unbound, exultant, even a little superior, making snide comments as people tried to slink by without a glance of acknowledgement.

Dependency after surgery was much harder for me than dependency on the streets. It was harder to admit to my friends and acquaintances that I needed help than it was to shake a begging bowl anonymously on Houston Street. The truth of my powerlessness hit closer to home after surgery because it wasn’t so easily contained or managed as my brush with homelessness had been. Retreating to bed, barely able to move, I wasn’t playing a role or chasing the essence of someone else’s daily experience. I was wrestling with the very real limits of my body and the constant pain of my wounds.

It was easier for me to beg when the choice to beg was mine alone and, perversely, when the chances of success were slim to none. I chose to be homeless, for a predetermined time frame and under controlled conditions. But I didn’t choose to be a sick person, and asking for the help I really needed after surgery – and had reason to expect might be forthcoming – was of an entirely different order. Begging on the streets felt empowering; begging in private felt weak and pathetic, even. The difference was that the veneer of choice offered me a comforting illusion of control, but when I didn’t have a choice even that illusion was gone. And that was frightening.

Convalescing from surgery, I often wondered what would have become of me if I didn’t have an apartment to stay in after leaving the hospital. What happens to the homeless person who gets an operation that requires a long, painful recovery? In several notorious cases uncovered recently in Los Angeles, hospitals stuck homeless people in vans and dumped them on downtown streets near rescue missions without any concern for their welfare. I doubt that those tactics are confined to Los Angeles, and if I didn’t have a place to stay after my operation it might very well have happened to me. In this narrow sense I am not homeless – I do have a private space that I can access on demand. But when I start to think of that space as anything more than a door to close and a bed to lie upon, when I imbue it with an emotional resonance beyond its practical (and very temporary) function, I know I’m deluding myself.

What is a home? It is a delusion that helps people imagine that they have control over their lives. It is a place where people imagine they have a separate world, their most private world, where they can avoid the things and people they want to avoid. By definition, these imaginings are accompanied by the idea that people can separate themselves from one another, and especially from untouchables like the homeless. Homeless people do not have any such imaginary place to which they can go. They are exposed – all the time – to the real world and its most insistent phenomena. No experience is off limits in the broad, exhausting space they inhabit.

What is a home? Trees and animals don’t have homes... they just live somewhere, they just exist. The world is their home, though they usually inhabit a definable range or part of the world where conditions favor their survival and reproduction. Humans are the only creatures that can control their environment to such an extent that their range covers the globe, and beyond. Humans are also the only creatures that own things and maintain a notion of property. We are told that what makes us human is that we have self-awareness and can think and act out of that self-awareness. But with so much of the thinking and acting done by people directed toward the acquisition and protection of property, it often seems like property is what truly makes us human. And if property makes a human what he or she is, what does that say about someone who has little to no property, or little to no interest in obtaining it?

In the United States, we seem to live in a world of ever-proliferating choice and specificity. We ponder, make and “outgrow” our various choices, and this is how we supposedly express our identities and maintain control of our lives. Everything is a product, and products form the basis of what marketers and the media incessantly tell us we must have... a lifestyle. We cannot simply live, or live simply. Instead we must style ourselves as unique individuals endowed with attractive and differentiated characteristics that we express by purchasing and displaying products. In this consumption-centric culture, people also tend to view one another as products that are chosen or rejected based on their perceived utility.

By this warped standard the homeless and the very sick would seem to be nobodies, because buying products isn’t on their radar screen. In a society burdened by too many choices, the very poor and the very sick have few choices, which is the key to their inherent freedom and also why they frighten other people. Homelessness and sickness could never be called lifestyles or marketed as such. Instead, they give rise to deeply human states of need, longing, isolation, anger and sadness tinged with the warmth of human connections, sought and unsought. Pain is not, and never will be, a product; rather, it is the antidote to all products, the remedy for and the end of all illusory choices.

Let me spice these abstractions by now being honest enough to admit the obvious: that I’ve made, and will make, plenty of illusory choices. Let me confess that I am highly attached to my apartment and the things it contains, things I have carefully purchased, found or made and that I display with fastidious care. Let me say clearly that I am complicit in this hugely dysfunctional system that I also criticize. In this sense I am very impure, which is a perfect expression of my humanity, analogous to my pretending to be independent despite my obvious helplessness and need. My impurity perfects my criticism of myself, and this criticism may well be my only hope.

When I lived with my dependency both on and off the streets, when I fully experienced it, the physical sensation was one of exhaustion. Pain and need are exhausting, whether they arise from an endless night huddled on cardboard in a piss-perfumed alley or an endless night spent in a narcotic haze, unable even to writhe properly. On the streets I rarely slept, and never rested; recovering from surgery, sleeping was about all I could look forward to. In both cases I felt completely wrung out from the cumulative weight of my suffering. And that suffering included the keen awareness that there were many people suffering far more than I was at the time. My mind couldn’t simply hold my feelings – it needed context to process my experience safely through ideas, concepts and abstractions. This text is a perfect example of that same need, and yet another manifestation of my own suffering.

My recent experiences have reminded me that I don’t control anything important and that I really am quite helpless, whether I choose to acknowledge it or not. Superficially examined, such thoughts might seem horribly negative and self-defeating. But reality is neither positive nor negative, while the denial of reality that is practiced on such a massive scale by our society is far more self-defeating than a cold, hard look at the facts. Embracing my reality, I see that I am always vulnerable and recognize this vulnerability as a great asset. It is an asset because to be truly vulnerable is to extinguish all fear. By embracing our own vulnerability instead of denying it, by being who and what we really are, we actually become fear and, as Krishnamurti says, fear comes totally to an end. What could be more liberating than the end of all fear? What could be more wonderful than always being at home?