Bert Stern has taught in the Dorchester Program for nine years. He is a writer, editor, and poet, a retired English professor and retired chief editor of Hilton Publishing. He and his wife, Tam Neville, co-edit Off the Grid Press, which publishes poetry books by writers over 60.
From December 23 – January 20, Changing Lives, Changing Minds will post every two weeks. After that we’ll pick back up with our regular schedule. See you in 2010!
Our days were organized around soup kitchens, breakfast at St. Francis, lunch at the Pine Street Inn, where at night 280 men and 363 women sleep in beds if they sign in on time. We didn’t try for beds in the shelters because, though food is abundant, beds are not.
What were we doing there? The question was never easy for me to answer. The Zen Peacemakers, who sponsor the street retreats, describe them as “a powerful practice of not knowing and bearing witness.” “Not knowing,” on the literal level, came easy. To live on the streets, to place oneself in radically new circumstance, simply to enter conversation with people whose lives and ways are radically different from those of you and your friends – all this is not knowing. It requires that we enter experience without pre-conception, seeing and feeling without reference to our established ideas or value systems, being willing to be naked as a babe again.
Not knowing, in my experience, meant also the luxury of hanging out for hours without thinking about what will come next, let alone what should come next. I sat on a bench for a long time in a park near MIT. People, with and without children or dogs, passed by, fathers and sons shot baskets, children played in shallow sliding pools, sometimes getting wet with their clothes on, sometimes feeling the edge of the water from the walk, glancing back at a parent to see how far they could go. It was a brilliant summer day, touched by a mild breeze. I had nothing to do, no compulsion to interpret anything, let alone the brilliance of the leaves of trees in the sun.