Sunday, September 5, 2010
Conversations In Brief
I have a friend who is unhoused, and I fear he always will be. He’s been given a ‘diagnosis’ — a label for a mental disorder — but he doesn’t necessarily know this, or prefers not to acknowledge it. To get housing, he’d have to sign away his sanity in order to qualify for disability payments, and this is something he’s either unable or unwilling to do.
When I read comments on blogs about ‘the homeless,’ and hear them described bitterly — ‘bums, no-goods, get-a-job’ — I think how my friend would be someone the commenters would be referring to if they just saw him on the sidewalk. Except he worked all his life. He also attended two elite universities, excelling in physics and chemistry, and served in the military. But somewhere along the line his mother died, and things in his mind and emotions began to unravel. His last job, which he did faithfully, was drinks manager at a drive-in restaurant.
The fog deepened. Before long, he was on the street.
I think about him often, worry about him, too. When the homeless-haters talk about the drunks and addicts on the street, I think of how my friend is clean and sober. When they talk about the thugs that are the homeless, I recall his gentleness and nonviolence.
I brought him a new coat during the cold winter weather last year, and as he was transferring his belongings from his filthy torn jacket to the new one, I saw that he had one possession — a tattered pocket-sized New Testament.
How does he survive out there in the hellish land of street life? It’s hard to imagine and painful to ponder. I question him about it, but his answers, as always, reveal little. They, and he, are enigmatic to a point. I asked him recently if he felt safe. ”Not really,” he said. Not too long ago, he had a bad wound on his forearm, and I wanted to know what happened. ”I don’t remember,” he replied. But I can’t push for more. He can’t tolerate a lot of conversation. This summer I asked, “How are you in this heat?” ”Hot,” he said. Last winter I wanted to know, “How were you during the snow last week?” ”Well, cold,” was his reply — two words rather than one! That’s an improvement. I’ve known him about four years, and it’s taken our conversation that long to progress to this level.
Today I sat beside him in a meeting where our county’s public hospital was being discussed. ”Do you use Parkland Hospital?” I leaned over and whispered to him. He must not have heard me right, because he turned and looked me full in the eye [he usually communicates only sideways and in murmurs] and replied, emphatically and perhaps a little testily, “PARKLAND. MEMORIAL. HOSPITAL.” He apparently thought that either it was a vacuous question or that I was hard of hearing. I didn’t give up, though: ”I know, but do you use it?” (One has to hold one’s own.) He went into a brief and mumbled explanation — something to do with ‘phases’ — but the words trailed off and I couldn’t hear them.
His fingernails today were long but very clean (a first), but his t-shirt was quite grubby. I’d luckily brought along a new t-shirt for him from Target in a dark gray, because it will probably need to go at least a month without washing.
“Where do you eat?” I asked him recently. ”Nowhere.” ”Well, how do you get by?” ”Oh, Pepsodent helps.” [Three words!] I burst out laughing, and he did, too. Eating toothpaste? A little street and gallows humor. So once in a while I bring along a sack of fruit cups and those little tins of tuna salad with crackers. Today I had some fresh organic bananas, which he pulled out and ate on the spot. One day, I stuck in a couple of croissants. ”Oh, croissants!” he said, delighted. Two words again.
I feel very powerless about my friend sometimes, because I am powerless. I often fall back into the old trap of wanting to ‘fix it.’ I can’t, though. On a good day, I can take that step beyond fixing it and fall headlong into Grace — landing on banks of beautiful, towering, white, fluffy cumulus clouds, like the ones on greeting cards that talk about Heaven — and I can genuinely trust that everything will be fine.
Other days, I repeat to myself (not necessarily believing it and certainly not being able to live by it), ‘If you pray, don’t worry. If you worry, don’t pray,’ a misquote, I believe, of Martin Luther.
On yet other days, I realize that to be near my friend — in his presence — is to know God directly. I don’t have to do anything — just show up and realize that Love has shown up, too.
The hard part of being his friend is accepting that I can do nothing — letting go of expectations, forgetting that he’s a genius with unfulfilled ‘potential’, not expecting ‘progress’ on some sort of pie-in-the-sky bar chart. ’Progress’ may come, or it may not. However, it is not up to me. But our culture doesn’t really allow for the possibility of not ‘moving up,’ does it? Not ‘taking the pills’ in order to ‘get well’ or at least ‘function at an acceptable level’ in order to ‘fit in’? Most of the time, neither do my own built-in biases. This friendship constantly challenges me to see life… not in gradesABCDF… or dollars1to7figures… or positionsdirectorofsomething… or contributionsinkindfinancialgivingofyourtalentsandabilities — but as something that can just be still, and be more than OK — be holy and sacred.