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.
Nobody 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