Thursday, May 08, 2008

 

The Emptiness of Our Hands

I just finished reading The Emptiness of Our Hands: A Lent Lived on the Streets. Here's the book description from the back cover:
During Lent and Holy Week, 1999, Phyllis Cole-Dai and James Murray lived voluntarily on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, the nation's fifteenth largest city. They didn't go out on the streets to satisfy idle curiosity, or to experience a strange new world. They didn't go out to find answers to questions, solutions to problems. They didn't go out to save anyone, or to hand out donations of food and blankets. They went out with one primary aim: to be as present as possible to everyone they met-to love their neighbor as themselves. Doing so, they were reminded just how difficult the practice of compassion can be, especially because of personal judgments, assumptions, fears and desires, all habits of mind that harden one's regard for and behavior toward other people.

The Emptiness of Our Hands: A Lent Lived on the Streets is a meditative narrative accompanied by nearly thirty black and white photographs, most of them shot by James using crude pinhole cameras that he constructed from trash. This book will thrust you out the door of your comfortable life, straight into the unknown. What can happen to a person without a home? Indeed, what might happen to you?
Although they were not shot, stabbed, or beaten, the simple experience of living as homeless people (but with the sure knowledge they had loving families and homes to return to whenever they so chose) for just forty-seven days so traumatized Cole-Dai and Murray that they were diagnosed with and treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Their book is a remarkable expose of what it is like to be homeless in America. Below are three excerpts from the book:

rent(men's overflow shelter, bexley, evening.) Lying on his cot, James glances around at his fellows, thinks, We don't pay any money to sleep here, but staying isn't free. We pay psychological rent. Every face shows it. Nobody brightens, entering this room. Might as well be a sign hanging out front: CHECK JOY AT DOOR. [p. 52]

specimen

(downtown.) This morning my spirit is fragile, easily wounded. As I walk along Broad Street under a warm sun, resentment surges. One minute I feel like a specimen under a microscope--stared at, mostly from cars. The next minute, being shunned by pedestrians, I feel utterly invisible. Maybe they don't look at me because my appearance disgusts them, or maybe they're afraid I'll beg; maybe they don't want to enter my pain, and one look at me is all it would take. Whatever the reason, they do their best not to see me, while my warped reflection fills their sunglasses:

I'm just a lazy bum. I wanna handout, a free ride. I'm a stupid drunk, a strungout junkie. I'm violent, I'm schizo, I'm paranoid. I don't care about anybody but me. I'm on the streets 'cause I wanna be. I'm a lost soul ...

Maybe I'm many of these things, maybe none at all--what do you people know? But my worst flaws and frailties aren't so different from yours. Some of you are lazy. Some of you would like a free ride, buying your lottery tickets, going on game shows, leaping at frivolous lawsuits, obsessing over stocks. Some of you are addicts, grappling with hidden cravings, appetites out of control. Some of you are violent, especially at home, behind closed doors. Some of you are afraid, depressed, messed up in the head. Some of you are self-absorbed. Some of you have made tragic choices out of desperation, anger, overwhelming grief. Some of you feel lost, like me--

You probably don't like admitting these things. maybe that's why I offend you: I'm a public reminder of your own imperfections; your own shame, even. If you ignore me, maybe you can go on pretending you've got no problems.

But I'll tell you something. Whatever problems you've got, whatever problems I've got, they're not who we are. Nobody's a caricature. You and me, we're human beings. It's just we forget sometimes, and need each other's help remembering. [p. 98]

mercy

(camp, late evening.) James and I go up top, just before bedtime, to use the restroom and payphone at Wendy's. By the time we return, a half hour later, some angel of mercy has deposited two brownbags of munchies and sandwiches, even some fruit, on the roof of our shelter, plus some slightly used candles, and two more blankets. We laugh till we hurt.

From a pamphlet left with the food: "Jesus was homeless. Rejected by his family, accused of being a drunkard and thought to be crazy, Jesus walked from town to town, spending most of his time with people out on the streets. He was criticized for associating with poor and dirty people, and often was in trouble with the authorities; he occasionally got run out of town. He knew what it was to be hungry, thirsty, and tired. ..." [p. 116]

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Comments:
I lived outside by myself for ten months in 1989 although I remember it as the best time in my life. I guess the difference was that I chose to hitchhike and travel. Since I was on a "vision quest" it didn't matter to me that I was invisible to other people, but I did remember noticing that they thought of me like a crazy homeless person. I don't know why it didn't bother me. I found it amusing. I guess to be in this world but not of this world was my goal, so I didn't miss people.

What DID give me post traumatic stress was wearing hijab for ten years and seeing how people treat you. Maybe Phyllis should try that next Lent!
 
Hi! This is Phyllis Cole-Dai (www.phylliscoledai.com)--just found this blog entry. Let me just say while our book might give a "glimpse" into homelessness, James Murray and I were not truly homeless, as the blog author said. Each truly homeless person has his/her own reaction to the experience. Each is unique. And unfortunately, the number of homeless people in this country seems to be increasing daily, with new tent cities arising in metropolitan areas, etc.

People who are vagabonds, who choose homelessness for the adventure (such as the 5-9 anonymous commentator), probably don't suffer as much trauma as the truly homeless, who end up without homes against their will. Just a guess on my part.

And no, I won't be trying to wear hijab for 10 years, but thanks for the suggestion! :)

Deep peace to all,
PCD
 
Thanks for your book and your comments here, Phyllis. I think the suggestion was that you consider wearing the hijab for Lent, not that you wear it for ten years. Here is a post about the hijab and solidarity.
 
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