Well, it is official, the Blog Action Day '08 immersion is over--I have showered, eaten a home-cooked meal, slept in bed, and used the bathroom without undue hesitation. I am back!
The homecoming wasn't exactly what I had envisioned though. I thought it would be easier to put the whole experience behind me and dive, face-first, back into the comforts of my life. Sure, I would be extra thankful, but, I mean, 24 hours doesn't exactly have the power to undo almost 24 years of conditioning, right?
Wrong. Well, sort of.
I didn't do anything rash like haul my quilt and pillow curbside to sleep, or dumpster-dive for a meal, but I did have a problem taking all of the things I did without on the street for granted like I used to. As I luxuriated in a (much needed) hot shower, instead of surrendering the tension in my shoulders to the scalding streams I tensed up, remembering how much I would have liked that same shower while I was cranky, cold, and huddled against the morning rain.
Instead of stumbling, half-awake, in and out of the bathroom for a middle-of-the night (you guessed it!) pee, I was wide awake and uncomfortable with thoughts of how hard it was to find a secure place on the street to do the same.
Each time I do something that I couldn't do while out on the street I get a pang. Of guilt? Not exactly. Of remorse? Certainly not for myself, though definitely for the other people still in that situation. I guess, if I have to put a name to it, I get a pang of remembrance. And it brings my mind and my focus back to what I have, how lucky I am to have it, and what life could be without it.
And frankly? It won't let me sleep.
You would think this kind of gratitude would be a warm, fuzzy feeling, but it isn't. It is the tension that cramps my shoulders up near my ears, it is the scratchy whisper in the back of my head, and it is the resentment I could see in the eyes of those I spoke to sometimes. I tossed and turned all night last night, I couldn't get comfortable. But the problem wasn't the bed, it was my mind.
How can I live in a world that lets people live this way?
The way people on the streets live is not acceptable. No access to nutritious food. Constant lack of sleep. No public bathrooms and, what is worse, no viable alternative to the lifestyle. Our elderly, our mentally ill, our traumatized and addicted. Our downtrodden. In this light the positive attitude, the optimism, and the community I encountered on the street is even more impressive.
I am still processing everything that I have seen. I am processing my gratitude, my confusion, my anger, my sadness, and my discomfort. I would say that my life was more simple when I was only intellectually aware of poverty's face, but I would also say that that simplicity was born of an absence of understanding.
So, bring it on. Bring on the understanding, bring on the change, bring on the awareness.
Bring. It. On.
As handful of people from our staff and volunteers volunteered to spend 24 hours on the streets in conjunction with Blog Action Day 2008, I spent the day indoors. Feels a little guilty to do so on this rainy, humid day. It's been incredibly eye-opening to read the accounts of those on the streets over these past 22 hours. They are on the home stretch (no pun intended) with three hours to go.
I don't often blog here on the MLF site, but today it can't be helped as I stand in solidarity with fellow bloggers on this Blog Action Day. Since I can't give you a first hand account of life on the streets, I'd thought I'd give you a different perspective....and a challenge. I'd like to use this opportunity to introduce you to one of the many faces of poverty that I have come to know.
I know the face of Linda. She stands on the corner of Mopac and Barton Skyway each morning panhandling so that she can raise the $49 a day to stay in the seediest nightly rate motel you've ever seen.
Every time I see Linda I roll down my window to wave and say hi. She smiles. Her demeanor immediately changes from one of isolation and despair to one of happiness and love...if only for that brief moment. She typically replies with something like, "have a great day beautiful!" Amazing, isn't it?!?! That a complete stranger (although I do know Linda through my work at MLF) can tell me what will probably be the nicest thing anyone will tell me all day. A homeless woman. A woman who has lost all hope, identity, and self-respect tells me that I'm beautiful and wishes me a happy day. I'm baffled by it.
My work as the Development Director at Mobile Loaves & Fishes over the past three years has changed the way I look at and treat the face of poverty. I now know that there are actually people behind these faces. Yes they are often broken people, but they are indeed people and deserve to be treated as such.
Most of us have passed by hundreds if not thousands of homeless people in our lives without so much as acknowledging their existence. I know I have. Since I work with the homeless, my friends often ask...."what am I supposed to do, give them money every time." I have no answer to that. I say give when you want, if you want....don't if you don't. But...I do think there is something that we all could do...make that should do....acknowledge them.
So what can you do? Well, it's simple and I challenge you to do just this...
The next time you see someone on the street corner I ask you to simply look them in the eye and smile. Maybe throw in a wave if you feel so inclined. That's all....just a very simple act of sheer acknowledgment.
Just a smile, just a wave, just that eye contact will change them....and even more important it WILL change YOU!
Hello, Rachel here again.
Much relieved now, but I am going to write about the agonizing almost 50 minutes I spent sitting outside the public library waiting for it to open so I could use the bathroom.
I was almost positive I would pee my pants before the 50 minutes were up, so I took a trip around the library looking for some private foliage, a nook, a somewhat secluded patch of greenery...anything, really.
There was nothing, unless I broke the law blatantly and used the ladies on the manicured lawn of one of those historical mansions-turned-office buildings. Which, although I was in considerable need, didn't seem like an option.
So I did my funny walk back to the table and chairs where the immersionists were parked and looked at the clock. I had 41 minutes.
I tweeted, I blogged, I looked imploringly from face to face to face to dog and back to face again. A minute had ticked by. I took my picture to immortalize the occasion:
To spare you the agonizing suspense I will tell you: I MADE IT.
Right at 10:00 they opened the doors and less than a minute later I was able to bound out, a new woman.
It wasn't until then, until my bladder was empty and no longer a legitimate emergency, that I was able to realize something profound. I had been, for the past 41 minutes, living in the moment wholly and completely.
This may not be remarkable in and of itself, but in the context of my (admittedly) neurotic, over-hyped, and anxious mind it is near miraculous.
I wake up thinking ahead, go to sleep thinking ahead, and sometimes can't even focus enough on the present task to read emails all the way through on my Blackberry. (First world problem, hello!) I try to do yoga, garden, and take long walks with the dog to mitigate this tendency--research shows that people this anxious are some of the first to die, after all.
Hah, would you believe it? I lost track...
So living in the present moment, concentrating on my here and now? For almost an hour?
Thank you streets of Austin.
Rachel here, considerably more rumpled and considerably more covered in damp dog hair than when we last spoke. Which was, I believe, in a wistful, mooning blog post about how incredibly soothing the street songs were to my tired ears.
Until the rain came, that is.
At about 3:45 am the skies opened up and within a bewildered, fumbling minute Sarah, Alan, Mike and I were huddled under a small overhang with all of our bedding, and a wet dog. We tried to wait the rain out for a half hour or so, but alas, the rain won and we all acknowledged the start of our day by putting our sleeping materials away resolutely. Or tenderly, with longing, if you were me.
4 am is dark, in case it has been a while since you last visited. And a little windswept, and pretty lonely, if you get right down to it. Especially on a rainy night. Even though there are four of us along for this immersion, the conversation had grown quiet and the mood (or at least my mood) had taken a turn for the more meloncholy. There seems to be so much to think about in the pre-dawn hours.
Biscuts and gravy at the University Church of Christ on the UT campus couldn't come soon enough--I was so excited to see faces looming out of the darkness and into the stark light of the breakfast room. Within 10 minutes I was laughing, smiling, and feeling much less forlorn about the whole lack-of-sleep thing. I met a man whose best friend "literally shot him in the back," a few smiles of recognition from the men who had been waiting for the MLF truck with us yesterday, and plenty of time to sit back and absorb the feeling of community.
I can see why people without homes gather in communities on the street. Community lifts you up, gives you the sparkle that the sleepless nights, sweltering muggy days, and hunger pangs take away. As I yawned my way through several interesting conversations I apologized, and the men around me simply said "it isn't no thing. everyone here is tired, we just get used to it."
Which brings me to my next (potentially rambling) point--the homeless in Austin (and I would venture to guess elsewhere) are chronically sleep deprived. Take one example of a daily routine: Breakfast is at 5:45 am so you have to leave your camp spot around 3:45 am because you camp outside the city limits. That is the only way it is legal to camp. So, 5:45 am comes and goes and you get to the work office at 7:00, get off work at 5:00, try to cash your check before 7:00, and get back to your camp at 9:30 or 10:30. Get to sleep by 11:30. That is a little more than 4 hours of sleep.
Every night, just to survive. To survive with free food and without a house.
You get ticketed if you day sleep in public parks, get kicked out of the library if people see you nodding off, and get asked to leave the ARCH if you put your head down. Where can you sleep?
Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "not enough hours in the day" doesn't it?
Wish me luck, the youngest and arguably most wimpy of the four immersionists had a tough night on the street.
So, we found somewhere to sleep...a quite Austin parking lot sandwiched by the backside of the PTA and a few historic homes that have been converted to high-dollar offices. There was somebody here already, but I think he wanted a place to call his own, so shortly after we spread ourselves out he walked off, singing, muttering, and finally yelling "heil Hitler" into the darkness.
Would it be unfair and close-minded of me to say that I am glad he left?
After some real-live urban bush peeing, some nesting, and some giddy picture taking I am sitting here watching the moon through the trees and listening to the AC unit kick on and off. An urban song and dance, just for me.
Milli is taut and alert beside the perimeter of my sleeping bag, and even though I know I should feel differently, this gesture of loyalty, and the ambient comfort of urban noise, and the cool fall breeze, are all conspiring to lull me into the most improbable of sleeps.
A sleep on the streets. Asleep on the streets.
Thanks to the sage advice of a woman at the ARCH I avoided what I liked to call the great urban bush pee.
Hey, it gets real out here.
One of the portapotties actually had a lock on it...truly a different world. Also, apologies for the sideways picture...