Down there on a Visit Part III

A park bench mysteriously piled with socks

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!

Down there on a Visit Part I
Down there on a Visit Part II

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.

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Down there on a Visit Part II

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.

This is part 2 of 3 in “Down there for a Visit.” Read part 1

The first night we slept at the top of a staircase on the portico of Boston’s Trinity Church. The young men slept below, under lights, and they were also more exposed than we were – our early warning system. The gray stone where we slept was stained here and there with time or old human secretions, and at our left was a weathered wooden door that belonged to a Gothic castle. The traffic on Clarendon Street just below us stayed loud until long into the night.

I slept well enough that night to wake up rested, yet the night had its dramas. A young man and woman at one point settled into the lower floor at the opposite end from my friends, he to smoke crack, she to skin pop. An old man came up and, with great difficulty, took a shit. Once, a man with a woman started to climb the stair to the place where we elders slept, then saw us, said something about “the fucking bums,” and retreated. I asked Jim the next morning what he’d have done if the man kept coming. “There’s be a point where the toe of my boot would have met the front of his face,” Jim said, suggesting that even for Buddhists self-defense was sometimes necessary.

But the most dangerous thing that happened came early that morning when Jim Ryudo Bastien, our leader, went out to panhandle money for our morning coffee. As he was about to walk the church, a man slumped down in a park bench with a nearly empty fifth of something in one hand looked up and asked Jim to go across the street and get him some cigarettes. He was holding in his other hand a big roll of bills, presumably disability money, and Jim answered, “Sure, but how about giving me five bucks.”

The man was enraged. He’d already told Jim that he’d been at war for most of the past twenty years, and Jim took his anger seriously. He also took seriously the fact that he’d done the wrong thing, driven not by any concern for the man but by his own fixation on buying coffee. Jim walked for a while, but it was still too early to panhandle so he circled back to the church, where he passed the man again. This time he apologized for his selfishness. “Just give me the money for the cigarettes and I’ll be glad to buy the cigarettes.” “How do I know you’ll come back?” the other man said. Jim said he’d take the guy across the street, where he could stand outside the door and wait for Jim to come out. The man seemed to fear buying the cigarettes himself in his bad state.

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Down There on a Visit Part I

Bert Stern has taught in the Dorchester CLTL 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.

This is the first in a three part series by Bert Stern.  Check back next week for part two.

In two days and two nights on the street I didn’t learn what it was like to be homeless. I did learn to sit among men ripe with loss, some of them stripped down to their last scraps of spirit. A stated aim by the Zen Peacemakers, under whose auspices I made my visit, was to taste the “generosity of the streets.” And we did taste it, not only in soup kitchens, where, in one case, servers actually brought our food to the table in separate trays, but in occasional handouts of food and, more rarely, spare change that we panhandled for morning coffee.

In Changing Lives Through Literature, I’d seen people awaken from despair. I cherish the experience of sharing people’s journeys to their better selves, a journey I too have taken through all its phases. I suppose I expected similar experiences on the retreat.

But my actual experience was that I walked among shadows – shadows of people walking through the space where I slept, shadows of burdened day-lit lives that I could observe but did not enter, my own shadow cast on the top of a stairway outside Trinity Church where I spread out my cardboard bed in preparation for a sleep that did not come easy or remain so.

The core of Buddhism is kindness and generosity to others. This does not mean charity or even generosity in the ordinary sense. It means helping others become fearless by undoing the traps ego has set for them, thus opening them to the dharma, the truth of the teachings. The movement is toward “emptiness,” an unfortunate translation for the Sanskrit “Shunyata,” which, simply put, means an openness of reality unfiltered by our senses, thoughts (even thoughts so basic as form), or feelings, an openness so complete that subjectivity is dissolved. Maybe if I’d remained on retreat for weeks instead of days I might have found way to be an agent of such charity. As it was, I did not.

The kindness I did experience was in the excellent company of my companions – two men in their twenties, two in their early sixties (I myself am going on eighty), company that included much laughter and wisdom. Twice each day we’d meditate in a circle together, often in a park, and then hold a council, initiated by the lighting of a candle and incense, then one or the other of us dedicated the council to, for example, “family,” by one of the young men who at lunch that day experienced among the men around him the raw absence of the family love he himself enjoyed. We’d then go on to share our individual experiences.

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Rescue, Redemption, and the Heroic Journey

Lori Bradley is a graduate student working on her the Master’s Degree in Professional Writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.  She holds graduate degrees in art and art education and teaches in the Art Education Department at UMD.  She maintains a studio in New Bedford ( where she creates art that embodies a sense of place.  She loves dogs.

Michael Mountain, founder of the renowned Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, understands the value of a positive story.  The success of his organization is, in part, due to the positive stories he publishes about rescued animals.  Mountain swears he will never get bogged down in the draining negativity and jaded cynicism often overwhelming to animal rescue volunteers.  People don’t want to hear the horror stories – the dead end tale.  People want and need redemption stories.

A great story about redemption and rescue is Prison Dogs, a program at Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing, KS in which prisoners train and rehabilitate abused “death row” dogs with behavior problems and adopt them out as pets and service dogs.  Participating in the animal rescue and redemption process can improve the lives of prisoners – relieving guilt and depression, leading to a sense of atonement and hope.

Each rescued animal becomes a hero – embarking on a journey of redemption. Prisoners can connect and identify with the animal as protagonist taking a journey of learning and readjustment.

Reading literature and identifying intensely with a character undertaking a heroic journey can have a similar impact on lives. A great heroic journey story is a gift from writer to reader.  Different stories are more compelling at different stages in life – but the archetypal trip is the same – the resistance to change, the eventual push, finding a mentor or guide through difficult times, the fall into the depths of oblivion and a sudden awareness that signals the way up and out, and finally, the return to a new normal – with new, special knowledge leading to a better life.

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