There’s a being of light who sits beside the stoplight at the freeway onramp that I use every morning to get to work, yoga, wherever I am going…I see him often, regularly. I always wave, or throw him the peace sign. And he smiles.
I don’t have the means to give plentifully. I’ve given a few ones here, a five there, but more often than not I offer the most sacred thing I have…eye contact.
I took a class in college, a Humanities class, which focused on the sixties. My teacher was a haggardly wonderful and supremely intimidating woman. She wore tie-dye, a long, gray braid and Birkenstocks. She took no shit. One of the most haunting subjects we studied was that of the homeless population. The sheer quantity that is comprised of war veterans. Men who saw unfathomable horror, now displaced amongst society, shattered in ways no one but a fellow brother could ever imagine and wrecked in terms of achieving “normalcy” by general standards. My professor said a good number of her friends were homeless, a beautiful byproduct of volunteering at the shelter. She told us that the one thing they all had in common was that no one ever looked them in the eye.
This was haunting for me. The idea that no one would look these human beings in the eye. Even upon giving money, people would look down, or away. When walking by them on the street their eyes would be downcast, looking at phones, looking out at traffic. Anywhere but on the life that was in front of them. I realized, in this class, that it’s true. We do look away, instinctively. We do it out of a myriad of reflexive feelings; perhaps respect for their circumstances, not wanting to stare; perhaps to protect oneself from the reality of taking in what it would be like to walk in another’s shoes; perhaps out of discomfort, disgust, misunderstanding, any range of human emotion that any unique person might feel given the sight of a homeless person asking for help.
We begin to label ourselves, and them, as “this” or “that.” I just typed it myself, “homeless person.” Why not just “person?” I don’t call myself a “home-having person.” Our true home is inside us, it goes with us wherever we go, and we can never begin to understand what has happened in the layers of another’s existence to bring them to where they are right now. We can’t begin to attribute our own perceived notions to someone else’s way of living. Perhaps it’s freeing; perhaps it’s liberating in ways unknown to us who are tethered to our automobiles, mobile phones, corporate jobs and fancy homes. Perhaps it’s devastating; perhaps there’s extreme loss, tragedy, trauma and horror surrounding some’s state of homelessness. We don’t know. We can’t know, and so we can’t judge. But what we can do is give. Give of ourselves, of our humanity, we can give less and yet give so much more if our heart is behind it.
We don’t have to give money…yeah, money helps. Money buys “things.” That can’t be argued. Our society is built around money. But money, as a show of generosity especially, can be complicated. Some people don’t have extra money to give. Others do, but don’t believe in giving money to those in need, for whatever reason. Some people don’t believe in supporting anything uncertain. How can they know their hard-earned money won’t be used to buy alcohol, or something they don’t support? But the truth is this: we can never know when it comes to other beings. We can never even really know when it comes to ourselves. Some people are firmly rooted in their beliefs on the topic and I’m not here to say anything is right or wrong. We all choose for ourselves. I’m just here with the reminder that we can give so much without really giving anything…
I was given no money by this man this morning, nothing tangible to carry away from our interaction…and yet he gave me so much. He sat cross-legged, with a tiny little cardboard shred of a sign that had no words written on it. He wore a sideways smile and dirty clothes, clutching the piece of cardboard, nothing else in his hands. I pulled up to the stoplight with my window cracked about six inches. He turned his goofy grin to me and asked,
How ya doin’ sweetheart?
I said I’m doing well, how’re you doin’?
I’m good, I’m alive, he said. Then, I love your car, it’s a great color. I smiled and nodded.
Thanks, I love it too. He told me he’d had twelve bugs, and a rabbit, and that “they” had had to cut him out of the rabbit. Suddenly he was far away, still smiling, but lost in a memory. I listened, fully, giving him complete eye contact. I wondered, quietly to myself as he mumbled on, whether he’d really had twelve volkswagons. I wondered what had happened for him to have to be cut out of the last one. He interrupted my reverie by saying pointedly, look at my sign. It was about 3″ by 3″, clean cardboard, totally blank.
Fill in the blank, I said, smiling. He laughed, started to say something, and then the light turned green. I gave him the peace sign and said take care of yourself, God bless you.
As I pulled away, he raised his peace fingers with another grin and said I love you sweetheart.
As my car rounded the turn, his words floated into my window and into the very depths of my soul. They permeated me. How human. How real. How raw. I felt so deeply touched. I wasn’t capable of giving him anything that would have mattered more than the exchange we had just shared. What I gave him, we are all capable of giving. What he gave me, that takes a truly tender soul. To sit in one’s own skin, in one’s own human condition, and have a chat with a stranger. His cardboard sign to my yellow car. One of us dirty, the other clean. One of us a bit tipsy, the other sober. One male, one female. One asking for help, the other holding space for that. We are one and the same. For him to treat me as an equal, to talk to me candidly, to still smile and look me in the eye though I wasn’t offering him money, fills me with warmth. There’s a purity one must admire, for someone to have no airs like that. To just be. To make space for me to meet him where he is, unchanging in my position, him unchanging in his. Each of us owning where we are in the present moment. Some unspoken knowing that we are both where we need to be right this moment. Maybe he needs sunlight and fresh air and the simple conversation of passing strangers more than a shelter and government assistance and whatever else society has to offer. Maybe what has driven him to be “homeless” is bigger than any aide can ease. Maybe he’s exactly where he needs to be. Maybe eye contact and compassion will carry him and clothe him and feed him more than a wrinkled five dollar bill. Maybe love is enough, this morning.
As I drove away I thought, I love him too. It almost made me laugh, to love a stranger whose silly smile and humble ways only touch my life for moments at a time. But I do. Because he is God. He is God as I am God as you are God, and everything that happens here is Divine. No matter the container or the shell that we’re in, no matter our stories, we are here for so much more. We are here to do great work, whether it’s on the corner with a sign, or in a car with a meaningful gaze. We are here for those small moments in the light of morning with the window cracked. We are here for the stories and memories, the intangible exchanges that feed the soul even if the belly is hungry. But then again…what do I know?
I know this: the titles are just a disguise. To label someone as homeless, to label someone as successful, to label someone as wounded or healed; we’re all on this path to transformation, and we all need these little bits to hold us together. These little perceived identifications. Not because they’re who we are, but because it serves as a temporary container for who we truly are. The story serves as a container, a net really, a hammock for us to slink into, to hold us while we discover the exquisite reasons why we’re really here. The trick is seeing all the little things that we think comprise our entire lives, our entire beings, as what they really are. A container. Not even a container but a net, truly, a hammock with holes so we can see through, breathe through, so we can float bits of our souls through…and eventually someday, one would hope, break free of it altogether. Shatter the net, the webbing, or just permeate it entirely…liberation. Nothingness. A return to the stardust and bliss and space that we are made of, from which we originated.