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.
I entered this experience without much anxiety. Despite my age, I’m fit, and also stable enough that anxiety rarely rides me anymore. Hunger was never a problem. I learned that in America hunger need never be a problem, at least for those sufficiently able-bodied and clear-minded to get to a soup kitchen. Outside one kitchen we saw a dumpster topped by a solid layer of wrapped sandwiches that the kitchen had been unable to give away. In general, the portions served to us were a kind of parody of American eating habits – three large scoops of rice covered with sloppy joe mix, or, to my surprise, a serving of lobster salad that must have weighed half a pound. A lot of this food was scraped into a garbage can at the end of the meal, although I did see men eat as if there were no tomorrow.
There were plenty of reasons to be unsure about one’s next meal: arriving too late to be fed, getting caught in bad weather, or enduring any number of the other mishaps or harms the street has to offer. Still, the food was there. Outside the soup kitchens, food is hard to get. We talked about panhandling for meals but discovered that, between us, we could never put together more than enough for morning coffee.
I didn’t mind the indifferent and sometimes hostile looks I got from people I tried to beg from. I didn’t need them to see me in order to confirm that I exist. Yet the denial of one’s humanity those looks were meant to convey can cut. Ten years ago Ellen Burstyn, the actress, went on a street retreat in New York. Her knees were bad and walking was painful, yet at one point she had to get from the lower west side to uptown, so she set out panhandling change to buy a subway token. A woman finally gave her the dollar that put her over the top. Then, as Burstyn crossed the street heading for the subway entrance, she burst into tears, because the woman who gave the dollar never looked at her.