Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Blessing of a Ragpicker (part three)

"What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me."  Job 3:25

"Have caution, pointing out potholes in a road that hasn't been poured."  J. Patrick Bennett - Poet

We don't know.

I think that's what disturbs us most of all, plagues us in the stillness of moments, and is at the very root of our deepest fears.  We don't know...anything.  And we want to.  

The encounter with Harry occurred nearly 20 years ago, and although I had a sense that something important had changed within me, I wasn't yet consciously aware of what that change was.   He impacted my life, my view, in so many different ways, and on such a profound level, that, looking back at it now, it took some time, and the walking through experiences of my own, to finally grow into what it was that was given to me that day. 

The one most important thing I walked away with that day is this:  I was wrong.  Mistaken.  My initial view of Harry, my first thoughts regarding him were wrong.  It's like finding out someone we love has lied to us.  We've been steadily going along thinking everything is a certain way, making ourselves right about it, and behaving accordingly, and then wham!, we're knocked sideways with the knowledge of just how wrong we were.  From that moment on, our mind automatically, naturally, goes to asking, questioning, what else have they lied about?  We feel our mind tripping backward, to one moment after the next, all of it clicking together, like a line of dominoes on a journey to the ultimate finish...the truth. 

We realize later, the truth had always been there.  Evident.  We simply didn't see it.  Or...even more disturbing...didn't want to see it...because of what we were afraid it might mean. 

I felt just like that after meeting and talking with Harry.  But this time, it was myself that I realized I couldn't trust.

What do you do with that?  

If I could name anything that began the practice of being honest with myself, it was my encounter with Harry.  I wasn't even nice about it.  The light of my focus to get real, truthful with myself, was brutal, like the sun hitting eyes that had grown accustomed to a dark cell.  I didn't like the idea of being a mystery to myself.  I couldn't understand how that was even in the realm of possibility.  But it was.  It was.  Self deception, come to find out, is an epidemic.  I had wondered how Jesus could forgive those who were murdering Him, but He stated, simply, how He could do it "...they know not what they do."  Yup.  A mystery, even to themselves.  Never thinking to question their motivations, or their views.  Simply making themselves right about what it was they thought they knew, and acted accordingly.  

We don't know.

Harry asked me, "Why do you lock your car?"  A simple enough question, on the surface, but asked within the context of the conversation we were having, regarding freedom, it took me awhile to understand why I felt a deep tremor within my being.  An unraveling, a letting go, began occurring within that moment right there.  I can see it plainly now, the truth, so plainly evident, but at the time, I was trapped, enslaved, by too much fear to go there and even want to look at it.  If anything, I wanted to run, hard and fast, away from what his simple question evoked in me.  It wasn't until much later that his question came back to me, like a light bursting into the darkness, a seed planted long ago, waiting for the time it would break through the hard ground of my mind and heart, that I finally understood why he asked it. 

I've walked this road a long time, this road to love.  In the beginning, I didn't know love was the answer, the medicine, for fear.  We think the answer to our fear is more safety and security.  We gear our entire lives in the attempt to stop bad, scary things from happening to us.  We plan for them.  We believe we are loving ourselves in making sure we stay safe from all those enemies out there. 

But that practice is nothing more than a reaction to fear.  That is us, listening to the voice of our fear within us...believing it, and worse, making ourselves right about it.  We look at the homeless, the poor, the sick, the grieving, the darkness of the night outside our window, and all of it is merely a representation of our own fear.  We don't want to see our own thoughts, or even admit them, "Thank God it's them and not me."  But something tells us it could be.  If it's possible for them, it's possible for me....

So to counter it, that fearful thought, we want to think we have control of the situation...those situational "what ifs" that whisper darkly in the background of our mind.  Insurance companies make millions of free dollars playing on this one thing within us.  We fork over, freely!, our hard earned money to pay for what?  Security against "...potholes in a road that hasn't been poured."  We even practice that in our relationships, protecting ourselves on a constant basis from what we think might happen. 

We want to believe bad things don't happen to good people.  We want to believe that if we're good, or if we work hard enough, long enough, have enough money, and a thousand other things we come up with in our mind to keep the dark at bay, that it won't, and can't happen to us.  We won't be left by our loved ones if we're good.  Nothing bad will happen to our children if we don't allow them to play in the dirt, or swing on the monkey bars.  We won't suffer...if we build secure enough walls, or high enough fences around us.

And our world gets smaller, and smaller...

So we look at others who bad things have happened to, and because of our own relationship to our own fear, believe they must have done something wrong.  Somewhere in there, they must deserve what they got.  And we busily begin looking for it so it'll make sense, find reasons, latching onto them, anything to keep the truth at bay. 

We don't see the human who stands before us, who needs our love, even if all we have to give is the act of simply noticing them, seeing them, making them real.  Or the human who is weak, and scared from a disease attacking their own body, and needs the best care, or help we can provide.  We don't see the grieving heart of a fellow human, and reach out our hand to give comfort, or reassurance, or simply...a listening, compassionate presence.  We don't see the stars of hope glittering in the night, outside our window, or the moon that touches everything with soft, silvery beams of light. 

What we decide to see, and listen to, and believe instead, is a fear that projects into the future, even as near and as far as the very next moment, secure, and safe within the knowledge that we know what will happen, as nightmarish as it may appear, and we move...constantly protect ourselves from it.  Preparing for the worst, locking our doors made of glass.

We don't know.  And we don't trust ourselves enough to know...until our greatest fear happens to us. 

There is something about facing, and walking through our deepest fears that frees us.  I think about what Harry said, "I found a kind of freedom.."  I didn't believe him then, but I understand now what he was saying.  After living the majority of the past 3 years, and particularly within the past 6 months, with no job, no income, having to depend solely on the mercy and kindness of others for my very survival, facing my greatest fears, walking it, knowing I was doing everything within my power to rise out of it, and even surrendering my pride, and asking for help, only to find out, painfully, that so many were like Harry's parents...driving by, pretending they didn't know me.

I've walked through fear, boldly, bravely, choosing again and again, to meet each moment with love.  For I know now, the only thing we can control...the only thing we need to that, whatever happens in the next moment...we'll be able to meet it.  We'll live.  And not only that, we might be pleasantly surprised.  We might find goodness there.  The only control we have is our choice to face that moment, whatever happens, with all the strength of love and dignity and grace that we can muster.  And sometimes, most times, we don't know how much we have. or what we are made of, until we're confronted with a situation or condition of having to dig down deep to find it. 

Which is why I can honestly say that you, me, we're all made of much stronger, and more exquisitely beautiful stuff than most of us can possibly comprehend.  But we won't know that until we let go.  Let go.  Love is letting go.  What are we letting go of?  Our fear.  In each moment we face, with each person, or thing, who stands before us, within that vast empty space of not knowing what will happen, the choice before us is a simple one.  Let go of fear.  Do not be afraid.  For when we do that, we find love was and is the only thing that was ever real within us, always near, always present...we just didn't see it, or even trust it.  All along, we didn't know, that it was we who we needed to trust.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Brief Intermission Because of My Internet Provider

I haven't forgotten that I wrote I'd be back with some commentary regarding what I learned from my encounter with Harry.  I had some internet issues yesterday, and the only thing I could open and use with any real success was my email.  Ntelos, the satellite internet provider I use, gave me a little warning the day I wrote my last post that I was close to using up my quota of internet for the month.  Not that I was done using it, but close to using it up, and they warned me that since I was close, my internet use would be slow from that point on.  How that could be is beyond me, and, as it is, I don't quite remember that being a part of the original contract.  It wasn't like purchasing so many minutes on my go phone that I can use in a month, and once I've reached my limit it's done.  There is no, "well, you're close to your minutes being done, so we'll only allow you to call intermittently.  No, it's pretty cut and dried.  Once you're done, you're done, and you have full access up to, and until you've used your max of minutes.  It's that simple.

So I thought maybe I can add money to my account, like with a go phone, buy more minutes, whatever, and that will fix the slow internet issue.  Apparently, not even that is allowed, and my payment won't take affect until my time for the month is up!  How that makes any sense, I haven't the slightest idea, but there you have it.

So my internet access is insanely slow at the moment.  I'll be back when Ntelos says I can have full access.  And hopefully, I'll be able to even post this little note on here!


Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Blessing of a Ragpicker (part two)

"I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet."  Old Persian Sufi Proverb

I sat down next to him, on the other end of the bench, making sure to keep enough space between us so we didn't touch.  Surprisingly, as dirty as he appeared, he didn't smell.  To counteract my nerves, I busied myself for a moment by lighting a cigarette before giving him my full attention, and when I finally looked over at him I found him studying me with a curious smile.  I felt a sudden flush rise up inside me, feeling uncomfortable under his gaze.  His eyes seemed to see right through me, and it was disconcerting to think that maybe he saw more than I wanted him to.  I asked him his name.

"You can call me Harry," was his answer.

Well that made me smile, I couldn't help it.  Looking pointedly at his hair and beard, I asked, "Is that your real name, or did you just make that up?"  He threw back his head and laughed.  His laughter had a nice, rich sound to it, and I felt some of the tension I was feeling begin to release.  He answered, "Is that important?"  I suppose it wasn't, and told him so.  Then he asked my name, and after some hesitation, I answered him truthfully.  With a twinkle in his eye, he teasingly asked if I'd just made it up.  I countered with the same question he'd asked, "Is that important?"  He laughed and said, "Oh, I like you.  Yes, I like you already."

From where we sat, we had a perfect view of the Superstition Mountains.  The sky was clear, with the only exception being the clouds that hung heavily over the mountains, leftovers from the rain we had the night before, giving the mountains a dark, mysterious, brooding look, contrasting beautifully with the brightness from the sun shining on everything surrounding them.  It was shaping up to be an unusually cold and rainy winter for the desert, and the forecasters had predicted warmer, sunnier weather for the next couple of days.  It looked like they were right...this time.  I love the rain, but it felt good to be sitting in the sun's warmth. 

I sat looking at the mountains in silence, not knowing what to say or do next.  I heard Harry give a little sigh, then he said, "Days go by without any conversation, or company.  I miss having conversation sometimes."  Then he looked at me, "But more than that, no one ever looks at me, or even sees me.  There are times I've wondered if I'm a ghost." 

Well that did it, pulled right on my heart strings, and I felt compassion begin to rise within me.  I could relate to the feeling of invisibility, if not quite in the same way this man did.  However, quick on the tail of that empathetic thought came guilt.  Until recently, I had been exactly what he was talking about, one of those people who didn't look at people like him.  He may as well have been a ghost to me, now that I thought about it.  For the first time, I questioned why that was.  What was it about the homeless that had me treating them, or even viewing them the way I less than human...any different from me.  I didn't much care for the answer, but once I discovered it's root came from fear, I began making some serious changes.

He continued, "I've seen you around.  And the one thing that makes you stand out more than anyone else is you looked at me.  Saw me.  Do you understand how many people walk by me daily?  I'm not kidding when I say that days can go by without anyone making eye contact with me.  But you did, and I didn't know how much I needed it until you did.  It made me feel real for the first time in a long time."

I didn't know what to say to that, or what to feel about it for that matter, so I asked the first question that popped into my mind, "What about family, or friends?  Do you not have any?" 

His expression suddenly grew as dark, and brooding as the mountains, and I could tell he struggled with an answer.  I apologized to him, not meaning to pry.  His face softened then, and he said, "Nah.  It's okay, and a fair question I suppose.  I lost my family in a fire eight years ago.  My son and my wife." 

I felt my heart break for him, and I honestly didn't know how to respond.  What could I say?  But more than that, it was in the way he spoke of his loss.  If not for the split second of darkness he let escape onto his expression, he may as well have been talking about someone else.  But then, I guess he was.  Eight years was a long time ago.

My curiosity, and interest in this man and his life took over, "What about your parents?  Are they alive?" I asked bravely.

Before answering, he gave a harsh laugh that sounded more like a bark, "Yes, my parents are alive...and like to pretend they don't know me."  I heard a bitterness creep into his voice, "There were times I'd see them drive by me, on the street.  I've become too much of an embarrassment for them now."  I thought of my little 5 year old daughter at home, and couldn't imagine a day ever coming that I would pretend she wasn't my child, no matter how she lived.   

I offered Harry another smoke, and after we both lit our cigarettes, he continued, "I haven't always lived this way.  Before the fire, I was a different man.  I worked hard, supporting my family.  And I tried, I really did try to continue working after I buried my family.  But I just couldn't find a reason to do it anymore, for doing anything.  The pain of losing them was just too much.  My parents...didn't understand."  I honestly didn't want to imagine what that must be like, losing a family, but I didn't think my response to losing my daughter would be much different.  I found myself already hating his mom and dad, and I didn't even know them, and I told him as much.  He looked at me, eyes full of understanding, and some hidden wisdom, and said, "No.  They lost a grandson, a daughter in law, who they loved too, and then, from their view at least, that fire also killed the only son they ever had."  Well, crap, I thought, my hate for his parents spent before it even got started, he made a good point.  I didn't think about what they'd lost.  Still, they could have behaved better toward their son...

"I changed.  The loss changed me," he said.  And as if he were answering my thoughts, "They want me back the way I was then, before the fire, living the dream we were all striving toward.  That dream, for me, burnt down in the fire.  You see, I worked for my father, helping him build his company.  He had a company to run, and an image to keep with it."  I remember thinking, with my curiosity waning, maybe I didn't want to know anymore.  All this was too painful, and too grey, with no clean black and white lines.

As if sensing my change in mood, Harry suddenly switched gears, "What about you?  What's your story?  I'll bet you're spoiled, living a life of ease, protected and fed since the day you were born, and haven't known a day of hardship in your life."  That brought my horns out, and I took the bait in defense before I saw the teasing amusement in his eyes.  I told him he was an asshole.  He laughed out loud, and said, "I've been called worse.  Yeah, I like you."  Still feeling a bit miffed, it took me a few more minutes to retract my claws.

We spent the next couple of hours covering our views regarding politics, religion, the weather.  It surprised me, how much I enjoyed our conversation.  Harry was intelligent, articulate, educated, and seemed to keep up with current events.  "A newspaper can always be found floating around somewhere," he said at one point.  I remember thinking he was living proof that we really can't judge a book by it's cover. 

I had always made it a rule, especially after I was in the Army, having talked with so many people from so many different backgrounds, to steer clear of conversations regarding politics and religion.  Too many of those conversations ended up going south, with others getting angry with me, and even budding friendships ending, because my view differed from theirs.  But this man was easy to talk to, and didn't get his underwear in a bundle if our views differed.  He had a way of stimulating conversation, making it interesting, and listening as if he were sincerely interested in what I had to say, even if he didn't agree with it.  He simply accepted it, and then shared his own view.  Up to that point, I'd not really had any conversation quite as enjoyable as ours.  Or maybe, I thought later, he wasn't the only one who missed having good conversation.  And maybe...I felt as he I was being seen for the first time in way too long.  Whatever it was, our conversation was working a kind of magic in me. 

I knew that when the time came, I would not look at any "stranger" the same way ever again.  It's like everyone's life just opened up for me.  I watched as people walked by, and despite the disapproving looks I received, which had me wondering if, before this day, I looked like that, and gave off the same vibe, I felt myself wondering, 'what's their story?'  Maybe they've got the same fear I do.  Maybe they're simply afraid.  What that fear was exactly, I hadn't discovered yet, but I knew I would, given time.  I promised myself I'd look into it.

At one point I got brave, "Are you homeless, Harry?"  He answered, "If what you are asking is do I live in a house, then no, I don't live in a house." Which begged the question, "Where do you live then?"  He was quiet for a long time before answering, and I felt maybe I'd crossed a line, but he finally said, "Mostly, you'll find me behind the laundry mat in AJ.  I wait until the city goes to sleep, however, before I go there."  He sighed, and I heard him mumble, "At least you're honest."  Then he said louder, "I see the questions you have for me written all over you.  You're honest, and that's something I don't get a whole lot of, so I'm going to give you honesty in return.  I don't want to live any differently right now.  Oh, at first, the first few years in fact, it was grief that drove me to this way of living.  I didn't care if I lived or died.  But at some point, now...I found a kind of freedom in living this way.  You'd be surprised by how all these people walking around with their money, who think they are free, really aren't."  That made no sense, and as I went to ask him what he meant, he stopped me by putting up his hand and said, "Wait.  Let me ask you a question.  Did you lock your car before leaving it to go into the store?"  Frowning, I told him I did.  He then asked me why, when anyone could easily break into it if they had a mind to.  Honestly, I didn't know what he was talking about, nor how it related to freedom, or to how he was living.  But I could feel something inside me beginning to react, feeling a little freaked out by his question, and he must have sensed it, because he let the matter drop, not pushing for an answer. 

I began feeling hunger pains, and told Harry I had to go eat, but before leaving I asked him if he wanted me to get him anything, or give him some money for some food.  I told him I didn't have much on me, but he could have it if he needed it.  I'll never forget the look on his face, one of such tenderness it had me feeling embarrassed.  He softly said, "Cindy, you've given me more than enough today.  You made me forget myself for a time.  I'm alright, and don't need your money.  I can always find food.  I've got certain restaurants I go to at certain times of the day.  You'd be surprised how much food people throw out.  Wasteful, really."  I was horrified by what he'd just said, and despite what he said to the contrary, I didn't believe him when he said he chose to live this way.  There was something in his voice that betrayed him.  He was talking about it all too lightly.  But before I could say anything about it, he said, "I would be grateful if you left me a couple of cigarettes, though.  They're harder to come by."  I handed him what was left of my pack instead, including my lighter.  He hesitated, looking surprised by my gift, and said, "You are a rare breed.  Thank you.  It's been a joy." 

Before turning away, I said the pleasure was mine, really, and thanked him in return.  And then I said the words aloud for the very first time, "Bless you, Harry."  I left him sitting there, smiling.

I never saw him again.  The next time I bought cigarettes, I thought of Harry, and kept a couple of packs handy to give to him whenever I saw him next.  A couple of nights later, the cold rains returned, and I found myself thinking of him, out there in it, maybe cold and shivering.  I finally couldn't stand it, couldn't go to sleep, so I got up and got an extra blanket out of the closet, and drove to the laundry place where he said he stayed at night.  I had a flashlight in my truck, and had to use it while looking for him, calling out his name in the rain.  No one was there.  I don't know how long I searched, but finally I made my way home, and on the way, I sent out a little prayer for him, a prayer of warmth, and comfort, a light that he could follow to some sort of home.

( be continued with some commentary.  Next blog up on July 24th.)


Friday, July 20, 2012

The Blessing of a Ragpicker (part one)

I kept seeing him, outside stores where I regularly shopped.  Walking into the grocery store, glancing over to my right, there he'd be, sitting in the shade at one of the break tables, where he'd smile and nod at me.  Or, on another day, in another section of town, I'd see him hanging around the health food store.  Once, I saw him walking toward the alley behind the store, and as if he sensed my presence, he turned, looked right at me, and nodded his head in greeting before disappearing behind the building.

He was tall, with long, unkempt, greyish brown hair.  He had a long, bushy beard that hung down to his chest, and blended perfectly with his wild hair.  His clothes were old, stained, and judging from the way they hung loosely over his body, maybe 2 sizes too big.  Everything about his appearance, from head to toe, said he needed a good washing.  But his eyes seemed friendly enough, smiling in blue. 

Maybe he'd always been around, and I simply hadn't noticed before.  I had, after all, begun a new practice of sending silent blessings, as I went through my day, to all who came within my line of sight.  I had started a journey the year before, of learning all I could about love, and not long before this man appeared, I read something that caught my interest, and I felt it was important in some way to the lesson of love.  I wanted to put it to the test, practice it, give it an earnest try, to see where it led my heart.  It was a suggestion to bless all those I meet, all those I see.  To send out silent blessings for all.  The author (Annalee Skarin) went on to say that those silent blessings helped more than we could possibly comprehend, because the energy from our thoughts was real, and had the capacity to wing their way out to embrace a world.

At the time, I knew I was filled with fear, and saw the world, and the people in it, as a very dangerous place.  One in which I most definitely did not feel safe.  I viewed everyone as a stranger, with my primary focus on how they could potentially harm me.  I gave my trust to no one.  So after I read that suggestion, I thought maybe the people in the world weren't all bad, and it was me who needed to change my view.  Maybe it would help if I walked in the world with the intention of sending out blessings to all those strangers.  Perhaps it'd help me see the world as a friendly place to walk, instead of one that produced anxiety attacks within me. Maybe the cause of my anxiety wasn't them so much, but stemmed from the way I was viewing them.

So I put a cap on my fear, and made a conscious effort to bless all who came into my line of sight.

The first thing I noticed, depending on my mood, was just how much I was in the habit of keeping my head and eyes down.  On the flip side of that was a cold, unsmiling, defensive stance that definitely sent an unwelcome message.  With the realization of both defensive stances came the awareness of just how much I generalized people, and how hard it is to bless a person when you're looking at them as the enemy.  And to me, they were all potential enemies.  There was something in me that wanted to be right about what I saw, or what I was thinking, of how they could hurt me, and that didn't produce good enough feelings toward them to even be able to think two words, "Bless them."  To rectify that, I decided to break it down, and take one person at a time, as an individual, and get honest.  Easier said than done, believe me.  So I came up with a list of questions, the most important reminders being, "Can I honestly say I really know this person to pass judgement on them?"  And, "Has this person done anything at all to me...yet?"  Keep in mind, they were strangers!  I didn't know one thing about any of them at all!  I realized I was approaching everyone as guilty before anything ever really happened! 

I began to see a lot more homeless, or poor people than I anticipated.  I'd never noticed them before, my eyes simply sliding right by them as if they weren't there.  I'd never, ever made eye contact with one.  I treated them as if they were a non-entity, or some sort of strange phenomenon.  But with this new practice, my eyes were open to seeing people, and homeless folks were among them.  And let me tell come face to face with my thoughts and feelings regarding them was an unpleasant surprise.  None of my thoughts were good.  It remains one of the most disturbing discoveries I've ever made about myself.

So when the man I described at the start of this post kept appearing in my line of vision, I was not a happy camper.  A blessing for him couldn't be found within me.  In fact, I was a little freaked out, and wondered if maybe he was following me. 

Then, one cold day, I saw him sitting on a bench in front of the store, and again, he looked up as I walked by, and smiled a greeting.  It took everything in me to give a little smile and a greeting back to him.  Silent blessings were one thing, their appeal to me being that they're silent, but the book said nothing about actually engaging anyone, and a blessing was as far as I was willing to take it at that time.   

However, that day, a feeling, a sense, some strong thing within me, said to give to him.  I had no idea what to give to him.  What does someone like this want?  Everything I have maybe?  And as if he knew what I was feeling, he suddenly asked as I walked by, "You wouldn't happen to have a light, would you?"  A light?  I even said that out loud to him.  It was the last thing I was thinking he wanted, so my brain heard the word as if spoken in some foreign language.  He held up a cigarette butt for me to see that he'd probably gotten from one of the ashtrays sitting in front of the store.  I said, "Oh!  Uh...yes, just a sec..."  I dug around in my purse, and found my lighter nestled by my own cigarettes, and that's when it hit me...I could give him a cigarette.  The thought of him smoking a cigarette butt thrown away by someone else made my stomach turn.  But I understood the need for a smoke, and knew how hard it was to go without one.  I couldn't imagine it, but if I was ever so desperate as to even think to go looking for smoke butts, that would be my cue it was time to quit. 

So I pulled out a cigarette and offered it to him, along with my lighter.  He stared at it, then me, for so long I grew impatient and I said with a shrug, "Take it.  I can relate."  He gave a crooked smile, and took it with a gracious bow of the head, saying, "Thank you."  After lighting it, he inhaled deeply, and said, "Ah.  Fresh tobacco.  Nothing like it."  I stood there wondering if I wanted my lighter back after he'd touched it, and when he moved to return it to me...I suddenly felt something mysterious in me let go.  As I reached to take my lighter back, I looked at him squarely in the eyes, and asked him if there was anything else I could do for him.  He met my gaze, and said, "You could sit with me and talk to me for a bit."  When he saw my hesitation, he said, "I won't hurt you."

I sat down, and the conversation started...

( be continued.  Look for part two on Sunday, 22 July.)