The homeless encampment along Beaudry in downtown LA is returning. Tent by tent, cardboard by cardboard. Brown homes popping up like urban Navajo hogans. I dread their return. I never know what to do when stopped at a red light confronted with a sign held by a homeless person begging for money. Do I have to give every day? And if so, how much? Like in the old days when the collection plate was passed in church. Does everyone know how much I’m giving? And more importantly, will it get me into heaven? I always end up feeling confused and bad no matter what I do. Guilty for what I have and they don’t.
But this time there was a tent that made me laugh out loud. There were pinwheels merrily turning in the wind, plastic flowers and pink butterfly wings climbing the chain link fence, a hibachi and a lawn chair locked together, and a sign in pride of place stating in big bold letters BRUSH YOUR TEETH!
The paradoxical whimsy of this sign, flapping in the breeze, visible to the gridlock on the freeways merging below triggered the echo of my mother’s voice yelling up the stairs when I was a kid, (and now from the other side), “Brush your Teeth!” It made me recall the recent voice of my seven year old niece as she watched my morning ablutions, “You must turn off the water when you brush your teeth!” High-five for water conservation!
Along with the laughter my heart swelled with compassion at the recognition of the human desire to create a home with whatever means necessary, the indomitable spirit that strives to make the square of sidewalk or patch of earth our own. Then I wept, thinking about those who have no home, human and animal; whether by natural disaster, war, economics, bad health, climate change, pollution, or bad luck.
I am so easily overwhelmed by the plight of the homeless. Perhaps because I have been close to that edge in my life, I readily identify. I imagine what it must be like to have no place to escape and recover from the slings and arrows of the day. I see the wear and tear on the bodies, the dirt and the grim. I smell the sour smell. I feel the waves of desperation, the empathy rising up in response that threatens to drown me.
Years ago, a wise woman I was in conversation with introduced me to a practice she called Circumnavigating the Sea of Tears ~ keeping one’s eyes and heart open to the suffering ~ and crucially, not falling into the sea oneself. Can I use this practice to gain some detachment, rebalance myself when I am overwhelmed by the suffering I see? Can I stand still for just one moment, trusting my mind and my heart to lead me to what Buddhists call right action?
I stop at the red light on Beaudry at the end of the line of tents. A man holds a sign. I don’t give him a dollar, or roll up my window, or pray for the light to turn green. Instead I ask him his name. “Daniel,” he says, coming forward. “Danny.” We shake hands. I introduce myself. We chat about the weather, his bum foot, his day so far, my day so far, then the light turns green and I wave, drive off. A human exchange. Two people chatting. Not one homeless and one not. In that moment we just are. Balancing together at the edge of the sea.
~ Megan Rose