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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Vagabond - The Art of Living Homeless - Kerry Echo

Kerry Echo lives on the streets and has a blog for her essays. I appreciate her perspective on life so I am including one of her essays here - with a link to her web site so you can follow her journey. - Vesta

Love is Not All
By Kerry Echo

Love is not meat or drink, but it can get very, very lonely being homeless without it.

Most homeless people have no roof whatsoever, and those of us who do are living out of a car, truck, or van, which barely provides enough room for one person. Assuming two people could get along under one small mobile roof, there is still the problem of lack of privacy with having to situate the "roof" on a side street or in a parking lot. Truly, I wish I had had a choice about listening to Sheila and Brian argue, break up, kiss, and make up every few days.

The homeless are up early and turn in early to avoid encounters with the housed and the police. There are just too many logistics to handle as it is, and the police can rattle your nerves even when they park next to you at Seven-Eleven. And I can live without the nervous, faux cheeriness of the housed when they have an unexpected encounter in a public washroom --- I only have my bra on so far and I'm brushing my teeth. Somehow, they want to chatter at such a time, perhaps to pretend that I am just like them. Except for the homeless part.

It is not that often, though, that I meet the middle- and upper-middle class housed. Most of the time the public restrooms are empty, and I can relax and enjoy the breeze coming through the open-roof structure and look out at the tree tops. One public washroom has dovecotes, whether by accident or design: instead of a single pitched roof, there are two pyramidal roofs separated by a breezeway, each with its own skylighted pavilion perched at the top. Doves can be heard flying around the empty, upper interior. They have taken over the roofs and nest on top of the walls separating the toilets, which places the humans doing their business on the first floor.

The birdsong of the mourning dove permeates my earliest memories, so having this particular, familiar bird attendant upon my toilette is a luxury and a joy. Even if the biggest problem with having birds in the attic looks nasty --- the excrement that has dripped down and dried on the upper walls --- it seems fitting.

One day while doing my toilette, I was surprised by two very well-dressed women, so well-dressed it was startling. They were in skirts and high heels, made-up, perfectly coiffed, and wearing expensive jewelry. There was a pleasant hint of perfume in the air that spread like an aura throughout the washroom. We exchanged greetings as they entered and each took a stall. I continued washing my face.

"You ladies are really dressed up for the public washroom this morning!"

"Oh," said one of the ladies as she left her stall, "We're Jehovah Witnesses."

There is usually an internal "uh-oh" response whenever I hear Jehovah Witnesses since they are generally so pesky, all but ramrodding their way through your front door and into your living room. But, of course, I do not have a front door or anything else resembling a house. I decided in that moment to be all the person I am, to be bigger than my reservations, and to stay open and honest.

By now I was brushing my teeth. It seemed a little awkward, but the ladies stayed a while to chat. Most of the chat was about their missionary work. I told them I respect their belief as I do all beliefs, which turned out to be an opening for one of them to ask what my belief was. I told them I am spiritual, that I have outgrown religion, that I love Jesus, but I want to be able to communicate with everyone on the planet regardless of their belief.

My answer elicited a pause; I think it impressed them because no one can honestly deny the need to relate to all people. They may also have been relieved not to have to defend their own belief, as I am sure they meet with plenty of diatribe against the JWs. At any rate, the two well-dressed women took their leave; and I have to say I liked them. My impressions of people include a disaster scenario and whether they could weather a storm with me. I do not want to hear, "I broke my nail!" when we all need to be bailing water. These women were tough on the inside. I could tell.

A few mornings earlier as I had just finished in the washroom, a car drove into the parking lot blaring the sound of the Beatles. So few radio stations play the Beatles anymore and, where I live, no one listens to them. It was unusual. Then my friend, Sheila, pops out of the car and runs over, as usual, lunging at me with an enormous embrace.

Unless by way of a well-honed internal guidance system, I never know how Sheila finds me. She behaved as though she expected to see me right there right then. Even uncannier is the fact that I am not staying out by the yacht club anymore where Sheila last saw me, but further south in Mission Bay.

Sheila's lover is still in jail, and she is pining away. She is pining so much she decided to go back to school to become a nurse, maybe to keep busy. But Sheila always sounds a little drunk, so I am hoping she succeeds despite her boyfriend and the addiction. Unfortunately, because she pops into my life unannounced, I usually have something else to do and must leave her company sooner than I would like. That was the case a few days ago. Sheila is no longer homeless, but she still retains some of the footloose habits that homelessness engenders; and I will see her again.

One of the subtle effects of homelessness over time is to make a person more truly herself. I have been given back to myself through this simple way of life, which has few distractions. I tend to be completely honest, even honest about dishonesty on the rare occasion that I must employ it. One of the most important features of this new integrity has been a progressive ability to be in the present moment much of the time and to make the best of my surroundings and everything in it.

I am no longer fixated.

It is remarkable when I review my life to see how often I denied my reality. I was always waiting for the perfect friend, lover, sister, brother, mother, job, apartment, exercise plan, vacation, and the list goes on. I was in the future and stuck in the past, unable to love what I had; and I am only beginning to enjoy imperfection as the capstone of things rare and extraordinary.

Letting go of fixations --- who can be my friends, who can be my lover or soul mate, who is interesting or not --- has allowed me to accept the things around me and experience them in greater depth and detail. The narrow romantic-love vision of the 1950's household of my childhood no longer applies under my present circumstances and may be, in fact, obsolete. Certainly, if one is looking to live life to the fullest and have the experience of joy, there is no other way but to leave oneself open to the excitement of possibilities and to a childlike fascination with what might happen next.

For example, bird visitations are a regular feature of the outdoor shower at public restrooms. One day, a silly gull perched on the shower wall was behaving just as my beloved, deceased dog would have and seemed to stand guard overhead while I washed. In fact, I came to believe my beloved dead dog was inhabiting a bird body. Fantasy? Magical thinking? Perhaps, but the experience was real and something I will never forget.

Then there are the elusive Bob, Steve "the Wonder," and my girlfriend, Sheila, exotic creatures in their own right. If I look for Bob or Steve or Sheila, I cannot find them. They just appear and our relationships continue, renewed and updated. These people have blessed my life with the richness of their personalities.

There is nurturance in relating to everything around oneself. There is a sense of belonging, a feeling of security, and love that comes with it. It is not just what one gives or what one gets, but the relationship itself, the in-betweenness, that brings joy to me. That third element is what I seek, that subtle energy of life between and among all living things, the gravitational pull that draws us into one strange, wonderful whole.

Love is Not All
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

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