Thank you, Harper Lee

I loved To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved Atticus Finch. I loved Scout. A high point of my childhood was meeting Mary Badham, the young actress who played her, at my uncle’s swimming pool in South Carolina – the same pool where, another year, I went swimming with Strom Thurmond.

And yet – all these years, while loving the book, the movie, the characters – there was something about it that made me uneasy. Something that didn’t sit true.

Because, you see, my Southern mother, my Yankee father, and everyone I knew in their generation and social circle, loved it too. They loved the story. They loved Atticus Finch. What’s more, they thought they were Atticus Finch – judicious, wise, willing to take an unpopular stand against the white-trash racists who were more “other” to them than the wise Negro housekeeper and “my uncle’s man,” who tended my uncle’s garden and fixed what needed fixing around the house.

Now, from what I know about To Set a Watchman, I know they were Atticus Finch. Those words people are so shocked to hear coming out of his mouth? – the ones about Blacks “being in their childhood as a people?” – those are words I heard out of the mouths of the white adults who raised me. I can’t quite imagine any of them at a Klan meeting, but there is probably a lot I don’t know, too.

So thank you, Harper Lee, for allowing this fuller picture of the incredible complexity of racism to come to the light of day.

I was a Yankee child who came South every summer. Even with my mother’s attempt to inculcate me in her brand of genteel and soul-crippling racism, I stood outside it enough to notice, to wonder, and later, when I was older, to begin to understand.

And that “Mockingbird” model of Atticus Finch, I feared – lovely as it is – worked powerfully in my parents’ generation to reinforce that genteel racism. They, too, would go to the ends of the earth for individual Negroes. And they, too, like the “Watchman” Atticus, persisted in believing that those Negroes – while they deserved a fair shake, every one of them would agree – were not fully human, not as human as they were, or at least not fully adult.

It pains me to write this. I loved my family. I still do love them, those who remain alive and those who have passed on. And, this I know: as white people we need to examine the roots and branches of the white supremacy that is in every one of us. We need to see the Atticus Finch – the “Watchman” Atticus and the “Mockingbird” Atticus, in our upbringings and our attitudes, in our families and our streets and our economy and our prison system. To identify with the “Mockingbird” Atticus, for any of us, is white denial, and we can’t afford to live there.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the complexity of the racism I was steeped in as I grew up. Because while I met Mary Badham and Strom Thurmond by the side of my uncle’s swimming pool, I also “met” W.E.B. DuBois there. One summer, in my adolescence, I ran out of reading material, and I picked up a book I found on my uncle’s bookshelf. It was Souls of Black Folk, and reading it there in South Carolina began a process of transformation inside me that I will never complete but hope to continue.

I never asked my uncle why he had that book, or what he thought of it. I wish I had. Maybe that would have begun a conversation that both of us needed to have.

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On the streets: FOUR

Eight Faithful Fools went out to spend a retreat week in April, living on the streets of San Francisco – sleeping on concrete and standing in food lines for our meals the way so many of our neighbors do. Over the next days, I will be reflecting on our days and nights in this space.

The streets are hard, and sometimes, the streets are magic.

We talk often about the “generosity” of the streets. We are aware that for that week, we are largely living inside a gift economy, where no money changes hands and where we trust that we will find what we need to live. It almost makes me giddy; living with that kind of trust in the universe is far outside my usual way of being in the world. I don’t think I’m the only one for whom that’s true.

The eight of us lean on each other, a lot. We count on each other to broaden our experience; when we come together for reflection twice a day, we get to hear not only what we are seeing and feeling, but what seven others are seeing and feeling. We balance each other, too; if we are down, we usually feel lighter after sharing it with the group. And sometimes the group will bring me back to earth, when I tend to run off the cliff into a cloud of mystical unknowing.

Poet in a bagNobody is better at that than Ed. Ed lives in the Tenderloin, closer than most to the kind of poverty that can strip a person of any shred of dignity, and he works at the Gubbio Project, which allows tired people to sleep in the pews of a beautiful church. It is all around us in the TL, that poverty, and Ed can get pretty jarred. His reflections can be filled with despair, even rage. Lucky for him and for the world, he pours all that into poetry that is raw and real and awake.

But one day I read a poem by Rumi to the group:

Your waterbead lets go
and drops into the ocean,
where it came from.
It no longer has the form it had,
but it’s still water.
The essence is the same.
This giving up is not a repenting.
It’s a deep honoring of yourself.
When the ocean comes to you as a lover,
marry at once, quickly,
for God’s sake!
Don’t postpone it!
Existence has no better gift.

“Try reading that,” Ed says, “to the crack whore on the corner.”

I’d thought I was the oldest of the eight of us, but it turns out Ed is actually a bit older. My body is hurting, but I have good shoes and at least my feet are okay. Ed has shoes that are new to him, and his feet are killing him.

One weekend afternoon, four of us trudge to the Embarcadero where a group is serving free soup in the midst of the tourist scene. We sit on the sidewalk sipping our soup, watching folks who’d had fun dressing up for the How-Weird Street Fair, watching the tourists and the people lining up for soup, watching a kid take a spill from a skateboard, the whole human scene. We talk about Ed, how he really needs better shoes, size 9.

Next thing we know, a guy is standing over us, asking, “Anybody here wear size 9 shoes? I have a pair of shoes for free, they’re size 9.”

“We don’t,” says Carmen, “but our friend does.”

He hands them down to us – a nice pair of sturdy all-weather walking boots, size 9. “We’ll take em,” Carmen says. After a while, Ed finds us on the sidewalk at the Embarcadero. The new shoes don’t have laces, so he takes the laces from his old, uncomfortable boots, and puts them on the new ones. They fit perfectly.

We laugh about that a lot. “I think what it takes for the universe to give you something,” Carmen says, “is a clear ask.”

One of the founding stories of the Faithful Fools involves a guy in a store asking Kay for “just two cents so I can buy this drink,” as he holds up a soda in his hand. Just minutes earlier, Kay, walking on the street, had encountered another guy who seemed to have thrown two pennies in her direction. The guy in the store knows just what he needs – two pennies. A clear ask, and the universe, through Kay, provides.

When the streets get to be too much for me, I go to the library where – bonanza! – I find on the shelf a novel I’ve been longing to read, a new one which, I later discover, is on hold for a line of nine people. I pick it up and read the first 50 pages. Next day, it’s still there; I read 100 more. On the last day – when I won’t have long to carry it around with me – it’s still there, and I check it out and take it home.

It’s The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. A week later, near the end of the book, I read this:

“If you’d cured Henry the Seventh’s TB with a course of ethambutol, or given Isaac Newton an hour’s access to the Hubble telescope, or shown an off-the-shelf 3D printer to the regulars at the Captaiin Marlowe in the 1980s, you would have had the M-word thrown your way, too. Some magic is merely normality that you’re not yet used to.”

A week after we leave the streets, the eight of us meet again, for a final reflection circle together. Ed is in better spirits than he’d been many days on the retreat. It’s really hard out there, he acknowledges, and he adds, “but there’s magic on the streets.”

He is wearing his new shoes.

Photo by Carmen Barsody

On the streets: THREE

Eight Faithful Fools went out to spend a retreat week in April, living on the streets of San Francisco – sleeping on concrete and standing in food lines for our meals the way so many of our neighbors do. Over the next days, I will be reflecting on our days and nights in this space.

DarkDaysBigger    First night joy: clean cardboard! – right on our path, as we trudge toward the church grounds where we will pass the night. We can’t believe our good fortune, not to have to go hunting for cardboard to put between the concrete and our sleeping bags. We divvy it up for carrying, help each other balance it with all the other stuff we carry, and make our way up the hill.

We gather on the porch, near the alcove where we plan to rest. Light rain is predicted; none of us believes it will materialize. It’s the end of what used to be called “rainy season,” in the years before California’s protracted drought, and how many times has rain been forecast, and nary a drop? Should it come, regardless, there is an overhang that will protect four or five of us; the rest will sleep near the front door, where the overhang is smaller.

We are full of good spirits, chatting and singing like friends on vacation, waiting to be ready to lay our bodies down. Then: a guy pushes his cart into the alcove. We are in his place, he tells us. He sleeps here, right here, 365 days a year! His place. We stall. Any way you could share it? – one of us ventures. My blankets’ll get wet if I do, is his answer, and we don’t know him so we’re not too sure about sleeping right next to him anyway.

We were there first, and probably he’s exaggerating about the 365 days. But we are keenly aware that after seven nights we will each be in beds, and he will not. Last thing we want is to join the forces of displacement that are likely responsible for him being on the streets in the first place. We move.

And find a good place, good second choice: a grate over a parking garage. A tree that would filter the rain, should any of it actually materialize.

And it does materialize, three hours earlier than forecast. OK, the sleeping bag is staying dry inside. I put my scarf over my face so I won’t be awakened, should sleep eventually come, by the occasional big  drop. Heavier. Still mostly dry inside. Very heavy. Shifting myself on the cardboard, I realize I am getting soaked.

After a while, the four of us move across the street to the overhang at a neighboring church. There we are protected from the rain, but we are already drenched. Thom from the Night Ministry brings blankets, which are dry and help a lot. but there is no dry cardboard, and no way to lie down. My teeth chatter.

Then the church’s overnight guard comes by. He looks pained. “You’re here just for a moment’s respite. Right? You’ll be gone, when I come by again?” Yes, we tell him. We would have told him anything to stay there, protected from what was now a downpour. Blessed man, he does not come by again, and we do not have to go out walking in the rain.

It isn’t until the next day that we realize that we spent the night, crouched and shivering before a mural of the Bethlehem stable.

It crosses my mind, many times that night, that I could walk over to Hyde Street to the Faithful Fools, go inside and warm up in a shower. How is it, I ask myself, not for the first time, that I am so privileged?

Finally, morning. We unfold our frozen bodies and move across to the Unitarian Universalist church, waiting for it to open. The sexton, Fulton, actually seems glad to see us. What a gift, to be welcomed inside, to be handed a cup of coffee. JD and I spread our sleeping bags and wet clothes out in her office, where the heat functions overtime and where they might actually get dry. A colleague gives me $10 so I can dry them at the Laundromat, if needed. So much kindness.

Later in the week, once I have actually learned to sleep for an hour or two on the streets outside, I dream of Fulton floating toward me on angel wings, holding out a cup of coffee.

This was District Assembly Day for the Pacific Central District, happening in the San Francisco church. The Faithful Fools are to be given the offering; JD and I are to speak, briefly, about the Fools in the worship service. That day, we are to sit inside, at a table, selling T-shirts and noses, talking to people about the work of the Fools. At the end of the day, Kay will receive the Patti Lawrence Distinguished Service Award from the District.

I do not warm up until sometime after noon, when I sit outside in the sun for 15 minutes.

Photo by Carmen Barsody

On the streets: TWO

Eight Faithful Fools went out to spend a retreat week in April, living on the streets of San Francisco – sleeping on concrete and standing in food lines for our meals the way so many of our neighbors do. Over the next days, I will be reflecting on our days and nights in this space.

When I tell people I spent a week on the streets, they often wonder: did you take food with you? What did you eat, and where?

Was I ever hungry, during my week on the streets?

Well, yes. I carried a few nut bars with me, but they were consumed pretty quickly, and then they were gone. I had no money with me, so I couldn’t buy something to eat just any time I wanted to. But could I keep myself nourished? Yes, and sometimes better than I do at home. In part, because I couldn’t eat whenever I wanted to.

When you go out on a street retreat, you consciously remove yourself from the money economy, the swirl of commerce that surrounds anyone living in a city. I might be hungry; I might pass a restaurant and see people dining inside; I might register delicious smells wafting out of the doorway. But these have nothing to do with me. I am living, for this one week, in another economy.

The first night, we ate at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in the Mission. There’s a group that cooks there once or twice a month for whoever shows up, and this night there weren’t many who did. All vegan food: stir-fry, potatoes, black beans, salad, corn on the cob. If I hadn’t vowed not to use my cellphone on this retreat, I’d have taken a picture of this glorious meal and posted it on Facebook.

We found it, and many other delicious meals, on the “Free Eats” chart put out by “freeprintshop.dot.org.”

Why so few to eat so much food, and listen to the musicians lined up to entertain us at St. John’s? Rebekah thinks maybe it’s because it’s outside the Tenderloin – not far, but a bit of a walk; maybe it’s hard for people who are struggling to move outside their comfort zone. (Of course, there are homeless people in the Mission, too). Maybe people don’t know about the “Free Eats” chart, or maybe they don’t have a smartphone or access to a computer to view it. Or maybe they’d had enough of walking miles to a place for food that didn’t materialize, because that can happen, too, on the streets.

But we are still in our first day, so our energy is strong. Plus, we know we are leaving the streets after only a week; we know there are beds and homes and showers, our own regular routines waiting for us after just seven nights.

Maybe it’s that people stay away because it’s a church, and they think they will have to listen to a sermon to get fed. Another time on the streets, we were told that meals like that are “ear-bangers.”

Turns out, it’s not the church at all, but an anarchist group that uses the church to serve food for anyone who is hungry. Volxkuche has a logo that shows a knife, a fork, and a spoon falling into the wheels of a machine. They pass out stickers; I put one on my water bottle. A tall, bearded man wielding a spatula over the outdoor firepit says Volxkuche began in Germany as a way to bring people together for food and community.logo voku

Friday night was the culinary high point of our seven days on the street, but I had good meals every day – at St. Anthony’s Dining Room, at St. Martin dePorres, served on the street by the Sisters of Notre Dame or Food Not Bombs, and breakfasts at the Curry Senior Center and the Living Room. Oddly, I never got to Glide, not once this week, but many of our people ate there too. JD said eating at Glide made her feel that she was in prison, because nobody looked at her; nobody smiled.

As a senior citizen, I could assert privilege and go to the front of the line at St. Anthony’s. It was near the end of the month, so the lines were long. They were tense, too, sometimes. At Curry Senior Center, there was a lot of anger about line-jumping; there seemed a racial element to it, but as a white person I don’t necessarily trust my perceptions of that. Personally, I felt tense because they wouldn’t let the little old disabled ladies sit on the steps while we were waiting for the doors to open. The security guard told us the management insists, because if people sit on the steps they might be drug dealers. Oh c’mon, we argued: you can’t tell drug dealers from these little old ladies with their canes? But he just shrugged: following orders. And we didn’t want to give him too hard a time; he loses his job, he could be standing in line too. That’s the way the U.S. economy works; throwing people out of work and out of housing is intrinsic to the machinery.

Anyway, now you know: people who live on the streets of San Francisco have abundant food available to them, if they have the strength and wherewithal to stand on sore, tired or disabled legs in a long line, or if they can get to where it is being served, or if they don’t miss the limited times it is offered. The food is usually nourishing, and, though it doesn’t always look appetizing, it is often tasty. It is cooked and served by people who even sometimes, often, look at the people they are feeding and offer a smile of kindness — recognition of a fellow human being.

Are you thinking that delicious and abundant food should not be given away to people who live on the street, and to people who have limited resources? Are you thinking they don’t need or deserve the kindness of a smile? If you are, please join us on a one-day street retreat. We promise you nourishment: a day of opening your eyes and perhaps your heart to what is.

Next up: Where to pass the night

On the Streets: ONE

Eight Faithful Fools went out to spend a retreat week in April, living on the streets of San Francisco – sleeping on concrete and standing in food lines for our meals the way so many of our neighbors do. Over the next days, I will be reflecting on our days and nights in this space.

This was the fourth time I had spent a week living on the streets.

The last time was eight years ago, so I expected it to be different.

There are more people on the streets now. I don’t know if the “homeless count” verifies that, but I do know there is more competition for safe places to sleep. I do know that the food lines are longer.

The racial balance on the street seems to be changing, too. There seem to be more Black people on the streets, compared to other races. Eight or 10 years ago, I remember looking around St. Anthony’s Dining Hall and seeing majority white faces. Now I look around and see a strong Black majority. This is a bit puzzling, since the African-American population in San Francisco is 6 percent and dropping.

Civic Center Plaza: When did it get to be that almost the only people in a public park are people who are homeless / desititute / down and out (choose one)? Does anybody who has the money for it build their own private parks to sit in? What about all the people in between? Besides the tourists, I mean. There are lots of tourists, walking among Hung Yi’s whimsical and fantastical animal sculptures. But anybody who is sitting or lying down? They look homeless.

What makes a person look homeless? I’m quite sure JD and I look homeless, even though we’re not yet one night on the streets and we’re still pretty fresh-faced. We’re two women in our 60s, and we’re carrying sleeping bags and big backpacks (not backpacker big, but healthy and heavy). A young person with this much gear could be on an urban lark; women our age, not so much. We’d have to be homeless.

Same with nearly everyone I see sitting or lying in the park: they have sleeping bags or rucksacks, and they have a hand or foot stretched out touching all of it. Some of them have their shoes off. Bare feet in the sun – what a relief! Our shoes were on; we hadn’t been out long enough, yet, to need air on our toes.

But we would learn. Today’s nap was a luxury, occasioned by the lure of the sun and also the tiredness – already – from the unaccustomed carrying of everything we have for the week on our backs.

It was like being at the beach, almost. The sun was hot. My eyes were closed. Voices of people at play. Tourists, I suppose. The wind was sharp, so I huddled into my down jacket, squeezed closer to the ground. Slept. Until the dude woke us up: “I’ve got a bunch of kids coming in here to play soccer.” We moved to the side and fell asleep again … but it wasn’t quite as sweet a sleep, and the soccer game did not begin for another two hours. Still, when my eyes closed, there was the sun, and the sound of people having fun. Just like the beach.

Later in the week, Day 5, the sleep was more urgent. People who are homeless often can’t sleep on the streets. It’s noisy, dangerous. Sleep deprivation is real. It causes longterm illnesses like diabetes and psychosis, and short-term lapses in judgment. You are a human being reading this; you know what it means not to get enough sleep. If you have been homeless or caring for an infant or any of a number of other life situations, you know what it means.

On this day, the sound of people at play took on a menacing quality. A Frisbee, whizzing over our heads, and the heads of the two or three other people who were occupying the same stretch of grass. As I become aware of the Frisbee game, I also become aware that we were part of the fun. Not that they were trying to hit us; they were trying not to hit us (I believe), but the awareness that they might miss not hitting us added an extra frisson to their game.

And, sure enough, whack! – across my thighs. Hey! I shout, sitting up. I toss the guy his Frisbee. “Be careful!” “I’m sorry,” he says, laughing. JD yells, “Can’t you see there are four people sleeping here? Go play somewhere else!” “You can sleep anywhere,” he says. Huh? Now I’m mad. When the Frisbee comes near us again, JD runs for it saying, “I’m going to throw it away!” After this, they leave.

Awake now, bruised and charged with adrenalin, I pick up Bernie Glassman’s Bearing Witness, a book about street retreats he led in New York City. The very page I turn to is about how people who are homeless sleep all day because they can’t sleep at night – it’s cold, it’s not safe, the cops chase them away – and because they have to walk, a lot – from their sleeping place to stand in line to eat, then to somewhere they can rest, then to another food line, then back to a sleeping place … thousands of steps each day.  I want to run after Frisbee man and shake the book in his face. “See? See?”CivicCenterRest

Why sleep on the streets?

Ah, it’s a funny question —

— if you are reading this on a computer in a coffee shop, or on your laptop at home, or on a tablet on the BART train on your way to work.

On the other hand, if you are reading this in the library, where you have taken refuge from the cold or sun, and where you are now allowed 10 minutes or 30 minutes or an hour online; if you will head out to the streets again when the library closes for the evening, to search for cardboard to put under your body or to stand in line for a shelter bed – then maybe it’s not so funny.

It is people more like the first sorts who often ask us, as we Faithful Fools prepare ourselves to head out onto the streets for a seven-day, six-night retreat. Why sleep on the streets, you ask, without necessarily voicing this part of the question, when you don’t have to? 

            It is just this incredulity of the asking that provides one answer to the question.

We sleep on the streets because it allows for less separation between “us” – you and I and all of us who normally sleep indoors – and “them” – you who sleep on the streets or in shelters, people who don’t have other options. We think – we hope – that the separation shrinks, not just for those of us who do this thing every year, but also for those of you inside who know us, who care about us, who give some attention to what we are doing. We will come “home” off the streets and talk with you about what we found. And you may find that the next time you see someone who lives on the streets, you may feel a little less separate from that person. That person may seem a little less strange to you, not because you can catch a glimpse into his experience, but because somebody who isn’t so “strange” (well, not a stranger, anyway) has been out there with him.

So that’s one answer.

Here’s what the answer isn’t. We don’t sleep outside to see what it’s like to be homeless. We know we’re going home in six days. That means, we can’t really imagine what it’s like to be on the streets, day after day, with no change in sight.

Still: part of what happens when I sleep on the streets is that I get bone tired in a way I never experience in my daily life. I get so tired that it’s all I can do to keep my body fed and plan where I’ll take my next pee break. So even though I can’t get close to what it’s like to be there for a month or a year or 10, I can know, in another, deeper, body-real way, why it doesn’t make sense to ask a homeless person why she doesn’t just get a job.

Besides, a lot of homeless persons that I meet on the street already do have a job.

Here’s one last reason why we take our retreat on the streets: because it’s our neighborhood, and, like any place we move through day after day, we tend to stop seeing what’s there. I do, anyway. If I make myself slow down, not just for an hour or an afternoon or a day but for a whole week, I find the neighborhood again. It’s new to me, again. I forget what I think I know about it, and open my mind and heart to seeing what’s there. This is the part I really look forward to.

Breaking laws in the park

I am a lawbreaker, I admit it. Every day I break the law — 6.04.080 OMC, to be precise. That’s the ordinance by which this sign is posted in Mosswood Park:

NoDogs

Toby and I, we sail right past it.

Mosswood Park is a magical place where time apparently ceases to exist. That sounds poetic but I mean it literally. All time seems to happen there all at once, which is another way of saying that it doesn’t happen at all.

It’s January — and just into the park we are walking on a golden pathway of gingko leaves. We are under the branches of the largest gingko I have ever seen. Maybe it’s because of its size and its age that it is not bound by the usual laws of the seasons. Most places in the world, gingkos turn yellow in November.  In Japan, where seasons always proceed in orderly fashion, these little fan-shaped leaves all turn yellow overnight, every tree, every leaf. Then, a couple of weeks later, over another night,  the gingkos drop their leaves. They all drop them. They drop every one of them.

Even in the San FraMosswoodGingkoncisco Bay Area, where nobody does anything in concert with anyone else, most gingkos are yellow by December, and lose nearly all their leaves by the New Year. But this grand tree in Mosswood Park? — only now, in the middle of January, has it turned yellow. and it has dropped about half its leaves, to turn the pathway gold.

Toby and I follow the path in toward a small stand of redwoods that circle a tiny amphitheater; then the path turns us around, and back another way toward the edge of the park.

On this side of the park, two tulip trees are finishing their blooming, and the path is scattered with velvet, magenta petals. The branches stand out bare and stark against the sky, a few blossoms still clinging — a brush painting, or a woodcut.

TulipTreeMosswoodTulip trees, also known as Japanese Magnolias — along with plums, first to bloom in the spring.

It’s January, deep as winter gets in California. One side of the park, autumn has finally arrived. Other side, spring is moving on.

If I am here another year, I will understand this one side flowering, one side dropping leaves, as signs of January. But now, this first winter back in California, Toby and I walk in a place outside the laws of time.