Somebody Can’t Breathe

My tenth column has been published on Spokane Faith & Values, thanks to Tracy Simmons.

Somebody Can’t Breathe

Has anyone noticed how many impressions the Universe has been sending forth, to the effect that somebody, somewhere cannot breathe? I can think of four for starts:

1. The Covid-19 pandemic strikes the planet Earth, bringing on a deadly disease that attacks the lungs, restricting the breathing of many of the earth’s inhabitants.

2. As Dr. Anthony Fauci and other knowledgeable health officials rise up to emphasize the benefits of wearing masks, a movement of “anti-maskers” rises up in return. We often hear them proclaiming that to wear a mask restricts their breathing, as well as other freedoms associated with being an American. 

Although I do not identify as an anti-masker (and I do, by the way, identify as an American), I have also felt the restriction of breathing that we all certainly notice – however slight or negligible – when wearing a mask.

3. The world watches as a group of callous cops casually sap the life out of George Floyd throughout nearly nine minutes of brutal torture. During this time, Floyd repeatedly shouts: “I can’t breathe!” 

Then, similar stories emerge. Many are the accounts of people of color who have been treated in a similarly heinous fashion. Many of them also uttered the words: “I can’t breathe.”

4. Wildfires have engulfed the Pacific Northwest.  A few days ago when I stepped outside my house, I literally saw smoke emerging from the two big breaths that I took without thinking. After 10 minutes of a phone call with a friend, I went back inside the house, because my breathing had been affected by the sheer force of the fire that rages throughout the present day.

What does all this mean?  I am no prophet, nor do I claim to know the answer.  But one cannot help but have noticed the eerie commonality in all these events. 

Are we allowing each other to breathe? Or are we virtually choking each other to death, in the ongoing Internet shouting match that is promulgated through social media?  Are we giving grace and peace to those with whom we differ? Or are we, as the Scripture says, “biting and devouring” each other, in light of our unwillingness to love?

“The entire law is fulfilled in a single decree: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  But if you keep on biting and devouring one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.”                             Galatians 5:14-15

The time-honored words of St. Paul are no less true today than they were two thousand years ago. But included in that warning is a note of hope. No matter how hard we may have wielded the power of hate in the first century A.D., we did not succeed in destroying ourselves altogether.  Nor need we destroy ourselves now, if we but heed the call. The antidote to hateful behavior is the fulfillment of the law — in Love. 

The words of Jesus have rarely rung more clear: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.’ (Matthew 25:45).  If we make it difficult for any of us to breathe — literally or figuratively — then how can the Spirit of Christ breathe freely among us?  Let us cease to restrict the breathing of the Lord and Giver of Life!  

That man hung on a Cross and endured torture for hours on end, in order to spare a fallen humanity the fate that arguably, we all deserve. We need to come to realize, as a people, as a planet, that God is Love. We need to remember what this nation has all but forgotten. We are to love one another, rather than bicker with each other in mean-spirited pettiness — propelled by social media and especially by Facebook. In doing so, it as as though we seek to put Jesus Christ to death for a second time. We need not do so, nor is it humanly possible. He will always live and show Himself in this world, despite our efforts to eradicate Him. He will always be the sovereign source of life. But do we allow Him to live in our hearts?

Jesus gave his last human breath that we might live forever. We need to honor that act of sacrificial love, if His spirit is truly to live and breathe throughout our land.

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Sheltering in Place: the Opposite of Living Outdoors

Below the image and link is an almost-verbatim transcript of my most recently published column in Street Spirit. There may or may not be one more column. Then for reasons largely related to the PTSD that I acquired while homeless, I have decided to bow out of this particular gig. Alastair Boone the editor-in-chief has been wonderful to work with, as was Terry Messman, the previous editor who first hired me.

A watercolor image of a house.

Click Here for Original Version

When I first heard the expression “sheltering in place,” an immediate thought came to mind. For a long time, during many years of homelessness, I lived in a place where there is no shelter. Now that sheltering in place is required, I am living a lifestyle that is the direct opposite of my previous manner of life. Once I recognized that polarity, it opened me up to a wealth of useful observations.

For one thing, I noticed that the way I had been living since moving indoors was in many ways not so much different than how I had lived when I was still homeless. Before the pandemic, I still found myself wandering from place to place throughout the day, looking for places to plug in my laptop. I still would spend two or three bucks at coffee shops and fast food joints, as though I had just managed to scrounge up that much money on the streets.

Moreover, even though I had lived indoors for almost four years, I was still feeling halfway uneasy in many of these establishments. In the same way as when I was homeless, I felt as though I wasn’t quite “supposed” to be there. But why? 

As I began to shelter in place, I realized that I had still been using the library, the McDonald’s, and even the hospital in such a way that suggested I had nowhere else to go. In any of these places, I would sit down, plug in my laptop, and hang out for hours on end. After all, I live near a hospital where they have free Starbucks coffee and unlimited refills. Seriously! You can even get a nice home-cooked breakfast for just under three bucks.

Since I did have a place to go—my own apartment—it seemed a bit odd that I wasn’t spending more time there. But after the shelter-in-place order, when I was no longer replicating my homeless life by wandering from spot to spot throughout the day, I found that I appreciated my apartment all the more. 

So I asked myself: “Why should I spend hours walking from one building in town to another? Why should I spend money in cyber cafes, when I have my own dwelling place now, with my own power outlets, and food in the cupboard? My rent money, like that of many, is over half of my monthly check. Why was I wasting the full benefits of my apartment by using it only as a crash pad?” 

It then dawned on me that this, too, had been carried over from my former homeless experience. When I was homeless, did I ever go back to my sleeping spot in the middle of the day and hang out there? Of course not! My sleeping space was tucked away where hopefully no one would find me during the night. It would have been pretty self-defeating to hang out there during the daytime, in broad daylight. 

But now that I had my own indoor place, what was the sense in continuing to avoid my own home during the daytime? There may have been a certain twisted sense in continuing to avoid washing the dishes and taking out the garbage, but other than that, it was sheer laziness that kept me from properly accessing and maintaining my own dwelling place, as well as a waste of rent money. 

As I have begun to spend more time inside my apartment, I have also become better at certain household tasks. I am no longer intimidated by the kitchen. I no longer limit the extent of my cooking potential to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. I don’t fear the condition of the bathroom, and I broke out a vacuum cleaner for the first time in a good fifteen years. 

The things that make a home nice are also being illuminated. Paintings are hanging on the wall now, whereas before they were only leaning against it. All that is changing for the better— and I’m glad.  For where before there was no shelter, and all my deeds were out in the open, now there is only shelter — outside of daily exercise and the occasional errand — and virtually all my deeds are secluded.

With that revelation, finally, there is gratitude. Gratitude for the food stocked up in the cupboard, and for its being the food of my own choice—not food served or granted by those helping me, but food determined by my own agency and wherewithal. Gratitude that the condiments of hygiene may be found in my medicine cabinet; indeed, that I even have a medicine cabinet in which such things may be kept. The grounds for gratitude, for all the simple things in life I longed for in all those years of homelessness, are greatly increased — and illuminated — through the phenomenon of sheltering in place.

Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing. Andy Pope is a free-lance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and is the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.

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When We Were Homeless

When we were homeless, we did not feel we had the prerogative to process difficult feelings. If something happened that was hurtful to us, and we showed our hurt, it would have been seen as a sign of weakness. And somebody on the streets would have taken advantage of that weakness.

What we did instead was to intellectualize. What we did instead was to analyze. We would get together, four or five of us who had not only fallen on hard times, but had ceased to believe that things would ever get any better. Then, instead of facing our feelings, we made an effort to determine what factors in our society were feeding this unacceptable phenomenon called homelessness.

Since we thought of ourselves as intelligent, decent people, we hoped that these sociological analyses would one day be utilized for the benefit of humanity.

Once I found myself in the Emergency Room, again hoping for a three day stay in a psychiatric facility, for the sole purpose that I was tired of being rained on. The E.T. technicians, believing me to be a sane but manipulative man — that is to say, a scammer – saw through my none-too-subtle ploy. As they dismissed me, I asked for a blanket, that I might have covering whilst I slept in the rain.

I was given a garbage bag, as the medical personnel and security guards on the graveyard shift burst into callous laughter.

Who inhabits a garbage bag?

A piece of garbage.

Miserable Male With A Cold stock illustration ...

Now more than ever, when 40,000,000 Americans have lost their jobs in the past three months, and the streets will be brimming with naive newbies, we really need to do something about this unacceptable phenomenon.

I have even come close to petitioning those who have escaped homelessness to consider returning, at least temporarily, to that realm. You and I might be blessed, but half of those newbies wouldn’t last five days on the more treacherous of the urban city streets. They need our guidance and counsel.

But there is a greater need than that. I hope I don’t have to tell you what it is.

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Isleton

My pockets full of skeletons are rattling my bones​
roaming endless hallways among carefully hidden doors​
to rooms guarded by men with battle wounds from time at war alone
Where the future fights the past to control what the present is for​

If there’s beauty in things broken, welcome to Paradise​

My pockets full of skeleton keys are rattling to the floor
to rooms concealed by trust revealed by truths written in code​
while truth is a lie exposed beyond these impervious secret doors
Pocket full of keys and still a dream of a road that leads to home​

On an isolated island
Streets paved with dreams forgotten
Holding houses built on backs of
ghosts guilty they cannot die​
small town lights flicker over a river
of lies down to the bottom ​
Masks concealing faces of those
who would rather kill than cry​

If there’s beauty in things broken, welcome, welcome to Paradise

©2020 by Angela Mary Pope

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Somebody Gave Easily (Part Two)

In four days, it will be four years that I have lived indoors, after years and years of living outside, mostly on urban city streets.   And I’m not sure if anyone’s noticed this, but I am often very disappointed in myself. 

It seems to me that these days I have been granted a huge amount of freedom, compared to how restricted my freedom has been in the past.   Yet I do not use this new freedom to its highest advantage.  My life is full of the very opportunities I so longed for, during all the years when I was homeless.   But I do I use those opportunities to their fullest?    

I have a shower – a bathtub even.   How often have I relaxed and sat down and drawn a nice hot bath?    Twice, I believe, in three years inside this apartment.   I have a dishwasher.  Do I use it?   I have a carpet.   Do I vacuum it?   I have an ironing board.  But do I iron my shirts?   What’s wrong with me?   I have a bed, a couch, and a few comforters.   But do I even have a pair of pajamas?   Half the time I sleep in my street clothes — just as I used to, when I slept on the streets.  

I have a piano now.  I have two home computers now.  I have music production software.   I have the capability to create high-quality sound files and videos, both on computer and on smartphone –– which is something I also have.  Not to mention, I can type all night if I want to, and nobody is going to complain about the constant pitter-patter.  I have space.  I have options.  I have freedom.   But do I fully utilize that freedom?  I don’t think I do.   Why am I not more grateful?

When I was homeless,  I didn’t have any of those things.  Like, for years.  Thoughts of “if only” often intruded my prayers.  I would be looking up to the sky at night, and saying things like: “If only I can ever get inside again — and not one of these facilities where they throw all the homeless people — places with all kinds of restrictions and curfews, where they confiscate your laptop along with your belt and your shoelaces, and they won’t even let you outside without supervision, much less trust you to go out for a jog and back.   If only I could ever have my own place  — if only . . .”

The inner assumption with “if only” is that it will never actually occur.  It was therefore painful to dwell on it.  Painful, yet inevitable.  All throughout my day to day existence, I was feeling the lack.    (Again, just the opposite of what I feel nowadays.)

Lack of money to get myself inside temporary situations where they would let me do my thing.   Lack of free power outlets where I could plug in my laptop.   Lack of sufficient change to warrant stays in coffeehouses.  Lack of supportive people who respected me as an Artist — or even as a man, as a father, as a human being.   And of course, there was the big one — lack of a roof over my head.  

And even worse: lack of confidence that there will ever again be a roof over my head.   

To get that roof, I would need money.  Usually, there was a direct proportion between the amount of money I raised, and the number of recommendations for affordable living situations that then came my way.

Invariably, these recommendations carried with them a price that was equal to or greater than the monetary price of admission.  The price was not only in the area of a restriction of personal freedoms, but also in the area of an imposition of potentially punitive rules and regulations, geared toward keeping the peace in an environment comprised largely of street criminals, practicing alcoholics and drug addicts, and people with severe, untreated mental health conditions.

The places I refer to are halfway houses, rehabs, homeless shelters, transitional living facilities, psychiatric institutions, board & care homes, and other group living situations.  All of these naturally carried a price tag that exceeded the relatively low amount of money one would need for admission.  Naturally, huge manuals full of restrictions and ultimatums were developed in order to accommodate such a freaky clientele.   But between the excess of regulation, and the intimidating influence of the inhabitants themselves, I found I had a very low tolerance for these kinds of living arrangements.  I might have lasted a few weeks or even months, but ultimately I always came to a place where living outdoors seemed preferable.

Living outdoors, there was at least the semblance of freedom.   Living in a shelter felt like being trapped in a glorified jailhouse.  Now — one might be taken aback by the expression “glorified jailhouse.” So let’s look a bit more closely at what it means.   

A jailhouse is a place where one lives if one has committed a crime.   While one may not necessarily have committed any crimes in order to be admitted into a homeless shelter, there are certainly enough people entering into shelters who have committed crimes, that the criminal element of the clientele must be taken into consideration.   So restrictions and ultimatums are developed according to the least common denominator.

The problem with this is that the person seeking shelter who is not criminally minded is suspected of criminality just the same as another person to whom the least common denominator might more justifiably apply.  This criminalization comes not only from the higher-ups at the shelter, but also from many who are living there and coexisting alongside each other.   One gets the sense that, while one had left the streets in order to remove oneself from an atmosphere that entailed great suspicion, one had instead relocated to an atmosphere of even greater suspicion and distrust.  

In leaving such an facility, on deciding to return to the streets of preference, I always felt as though I were leaving a place where my freedoms were very severely restricted, in favor of a place where my freedoms were less severely restricted.   And the cost factor was less, as well.  

But the cost factor involved in acceding to a dignified living situation was greater.   I remember having $1000 once, because I had been prepaid half the fee of musical-directing a children’s show.   The director hired me over Craigslist, and she didn’t know I was homeless.  I was in San Francisco at the time, so I took the $1000 down to what they called a Twelve Step House, which was really a cheaply run rehab organization that then offered me a room with a roommate in a house with twelve other men in exchange for $700.  This seemed the easiest way to get inside quickly, which after all I would need to do, now that I had a job.

But what would have been the cost factor involved in getting my own place?   As a renter, that would mean a first and last month’s rent, plus deposit.  I remember at the time of my leaving the Bay Area, a friend of mine was paying $1800/mo. for his one bedroom apartment.  By that gauge, I would need $3600 to start, plus whatever the security deposit turned out to be, could be another $1800, not unlikely.   The point is that the obstacles toward my securing a place of my own liking were pretty sizable.  That is, as long as I remained in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Moving up to North Idaho was about the smartest thing I did in maybe fifteen years or more.   Here I have a one-bedroom for $450 in a nice secluded spot with quiet, friendly neighbors, in a town with an extremely low crime rate.   An apartment like this could cost me $3000 or more right now in San Francisco.  And yet, my retirement income is exactly the same, here there or everywhere.   

I always wonder why I didn’t do it sooner.  But I stop wondering when I remember the true reason.

Low self-esteem.   If you’re treated like a criminal, if you’re continually demeaned and brought to think that you are somehow worse or lesser than the people around you — only because you have become homeless — it eventually gets to you.   I imagine people of higher self-esteem might have brought themselves up by their own bootstraps a bit sooner than I did.  But I basically felt so ashamed of having become homeless, that I bought into all the self-definitions that people were laying on me.  The upside of this ultimately was that it took a gigantic leap in my self-esteem for me to decide, in July 2016, to make the relatively few moves I needed to make in order to start a new and better life.

Don’t get me wrong.  It wasn’t just being criminalized.   Poor people and people of color are criminalized.   Homeless people are criminalized too — but there’s something that affects homeless people that is even deeper than criminalization.  It’s dehumanization — and people of color will know about this — you’re not just a “criminal” but some kind of “animal” or in some other way, not quite fully human.  Even when your humanity is acknowledged, you are then often not regarded as mature or adult, even though you many be a couple generations older than the authority figure who passes that judgment upon you.

It is not thought that you can make decisions for yourself.   It is assumed that you need caseworkers, and caregivers, and people to make your decisions for you.  Even the simple decision to leave the city of Berkeley was met with much resistance.

Once, when I was considering leaving town, I made mention of this to someone who was in a position of some power in the community, whom I believe was the Director of the Homeless Action Center.  She then asked:  “Where will you go if you’re not in Berkeley?”

“Well, my friend in Georgia might have a room for me.  She has to talk to her husband.”

“Well, I don’t know anything about your friend in Georgia, but I know what it’s like when someone’s starting to have a manic episode!  You start thinking of wanting to take long trips to distant places.”

True.  Sudden spontaneous trips out of town are hallmarks of mania.   But this is besides the point.   Why could this person not “know” that my friend in Georgia might have provided a roof over my head, and that sleeping on the Berkeley city streets would naturally be less preferable than staying with a friend in Georgia inside a house?   Why was it a problem in me — “manic episode” or what-have-you —  to want to not sleep on the Berkeley streets anymore, and sleep inside a warm house — even it meant moving to Georgia?   Did Berkeley own me?

Of course not.   But there were many in that city who acted as though they did.  It was thought that I could not make my own choices.   It was assumed that, because I had become homeless, I had no ability to fend for myself, and someone else ought to be doing it for me.

Once I became friends with somebody who had an official position in the City, and she came and saw me at my Spot after one of the times when I had escaped the halfway house.

“Andy, what are you doing back here?”

“I’m in my sixties, Carmen.   I don’t like being treated like a juvenile delinquent.”

Now another type of person might have said: “Okay, I’ll suck it up.  I’ll be treated like a truant schoolboy for another seven months or so.  It will be worth it to get myself into a better place.”

I respect that reasoning and the implicit patience and strength of character.  But I don’t buy it.   Why not?

There is no evidence that people who treat other people like that have any power to get them into a “better place.”   That power, when it did come — either came from deep inside me, or from God – or some combination thereof.   I had to get to the point where I believed in Andy.   I had to get to the place where I stopped buying into every negative self-definition that was being thrown my way by people who were doing materially better than me.  I had to somehow get with Andy, and know what would work — for Andy.

To be honest, I don’t know how I did it.  I don’t know it how it happened.  There was that prayer I always talk about, that I’ve written about  And there was a lot of sudden resolve.   I don’t know how it happened, really.   I’m just glad it did.

What I’m not glad about is that I’m not more grateful, and that I don’t have as much to show for myself throughout these past four years than I’d hoped.   But maybe I have more to show for myself than I know.

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Seventh Column Published on Religious News Site

My seventh column has now been published on Spokane Faith and Values, thanks to editor-in-chief Tracy Simmons.   I wrote it to show how the current combination of a patriotic people who also feel very entitled could easily lead to a spirit of Fascism such as engulfed Nazi Germany in the 30’s.    

Capture

Entitlement and Patriotism 

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Musical Script Available

If anyone wants to read the script to my musical Eden in Babylon, I’ve got it posted right here:

EDEN IN BABYLON (MUSICAL LIBRETTO)

I had been working on some revisions, mainly removing some of the harsher “street language,” so as to increase the likelihood it might be produced at the high school level.   Prior to COVID-19, we began discussing shooting for a high school production, since at that level, there is no taboo against producing large-cast shows.   

As an American musical in the tradition of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Eden in Babylon has a cast of 27, which is fairly large.  This makes it difficult to produce in a world that naturally values economy.   The musical is usually rejected these days on cast size alone, without anyone actually looking at the script.

Theatre Masks Clipart | Free download best Theatre Masks Clipart on ClipArtMag.com

I knew this when I was writing it.   But I guess I had a chip on my shoulder.  You see, I like the traditional American musical.  It’s a nice medium between the straight play (Shaw, Albee, etc.) and British Comic Light Opera (such as Gilbert & Sullivan.)  It’s also a uniquely American genre — though perhaps that point can be argued.   

I had this crazy idea that if I used the traditional American musical concept — which is to present life not as it is, but as it ought to be) – and wrote a musical in traditional American musical form, I might just be able to appeal to those who can afford season’s tickets at community or regional theaters — you know, people who enjoy musicals.

And the final Scene definitely does not present life as it is.   But it sure presents it as it ought to be.    So — hope you like my work.   

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Fifth Column Published on Religious News Site

Just to let you know, my story from the previous blog post has been published on the religious news site, Spokane Faith and Values. Here’s a snapshot of an RT from Tracy Simmons, the editor in chief, followed by a link to the story below.

 

Capture

Social Distancing and the Summer of Love to Come

 

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The Summer of Love to Come

In the summer of 1967, a movement generated from the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco evolved into the now famous “Summer of Love.”

I suggest that our current social distancing is the exact opposite of what that Summer of “Love” entailed. And this is not entirely a bad thing.

The form of love that was exalted in that movement was the passionate love known as eros in the language of New Testament Greek. In that same language, three other forms of love are described in different words. But all those words translate to the single English word “love” in modern English — even in the Holy Bible.

This linguistic cluster has created great cultural difficulties. The slogan of the Summer of Love, “Make Love Not War” centered around the notion that the passions involved in destructive acts of war could be more positively channeled through passionate acts of sexual love. So everybody basically took all their clothes off, did a lot of drugs, and thus inaugurated the so-called Sexual Revolution.

The problems that arose from this massive disregard of common sense are obvious. And they linger to this day. What began as “love” morphed into mass jealousy. STD’s were promulgated alongside vicious rumors. Finally, the rate of abortions rose so drastically it propelled a right-wing reaction, pitting those who were “pro-choice” against those who were “pro-life,” in disregard for the realities in which such a toxic dichotomy were rooted.

Now we are faced with an almost opposing challenge. In an atmosphere of social distancing, we will be touching each other much less than before — rather than much more. While this has its own pitfalls, I would suggest that it might also bring unanticipated advantages.

Rather than exult in the false sense of community that spawned a Sixties travesty, let us all turn inward, and reflect in solitude upon our singular purposes, as individuals immersed in a culture that has changed radically overnight.

Maybe this is the time for each of us to get in touch with our own hearts — our own callings — our own life-purposes and destinies. We will serve the community of humanity in a far greater way if we all take some time to reflect, and to find out what each of us — as the unique divinely drafted individuals that we are — is really and truly all about.

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The Writing on the Wall

At that moment the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. As the king watched the hand that was writing, his face grew pale and his thoughts so alarmed him that his hips gave way and his knees knocked together.

The king called out for the enchanters, astrologers, and diviners to be brought in, and he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this inscription and tells me its interpretation will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

So all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the inscription or interpret it for him. Then King Belshazzar became even more terrified, his face grew even more pale, and his nobles were bewildered.

Hearing the outcry of the king and his nobles, the queen entered the banquet hall. “O king, may you live forever!” she said. “Do not let your thoughts terrify you, or your face grow pale. There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the days of your father he was found to have insight, intelligence, and wisdom like that of the gods.

Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers, and diviners. Your own father, the king, did this because Daniel, the one he named Belteshazzar, was found to have an extraordinary spirit, as well as knowledge, understanding, and the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles, and solve difficult problems. Summon Daniel, therefore, and he will give you the interpretation.”

So Daniel was brought before the king, who asked him, “Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you, and that you have insight, intelligence, and extraordinary wisdom.

Now the wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this inscription and interpret it for me, but they could not give its interpretation. But I have heard about you, that you are able to give interpretations and solve difficult problems. Therefore, if you can read this inscription and give me its interpretation, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

In response, Daniel said to the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the inscription for the king and interpret it for him. As for you, O king, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness, glory and honor. Because of the greatness that He bestowed on him, the people of every nation and language trembled in fear before him. He killed whom he wished and kept alive whom he wished; he exalted whom he wished and humbled whom he wished.

But when his heart became arrogant and his spirit was hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne, and his glory was taken from him. He was driven away from mankind, and his mind was like that of a beast. He lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like an ox, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until he acknowledged that the Most High God is ruler over the kingdom of mankind, and He sets over it whom He wishes.

But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this. Instead, you have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven. The vessels from His house were brought to you, and as you drank wine from them with your nobles, wives, and concubines, you praised your gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you have failed to glorify the God who holds in His hand your very breath and all your ways.

–Daniel 5:5-23

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My Story on Cancel Culture Published in the Spokesman

I had the honor this month of being the guest columnist in the Faith and Values section of the Spokesman-Review, the main newspaper of the city of Spokane, Washington.   The story may be found online here, and a verbatim transcript is below.  

CaptureWhat is cancel culture? In a nutshell, it’s a subculture that consists of people who have eliminated other people from their lives, based on perceptions of their having behaved inappropriately. Those who perform these eliminations also encourage others to eliminate them as well, on the grounds that their offenses are irredeemable, and so no one should have to tolerate them.

None of us particularly relish the futility of arguing against someone’s egregious conduct. But the problems with advocating such a full-fledged “cancellation” of another human being are ultimately more serious than those which arise from that person’s unacceptable behavior in the first place.

On October 29, speaking at an Obama Foundation event, the former president declared: “Among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people’ and that’s enough.”

That’s not activism,” Obama went on. “That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”

It’s interesting that Obama stresses how this phenomenon is propelled by social media. I’ve often been aghast at what people get away with on social media that they couldn’t do in their real, non-wired lives – such as block someone from a group and still participate in that group. In real life, this wouldn’t be possible. You’d either attend the group or not. You wouldn’t be able to simply render yourself invisible to somebody you don’t want to deal with.

But when it comes to cancel culture, people come close to doing just that. Those who have been “cancelled” are not only blocked on social media, but in every aspect of their lives. From that moment on, there is no prospect for redemption on the part of the offenders. They are like condemned buildings, destroyed by the wrecking ball. And who has condemned them? Fallible human beings, who may later find themselves condemned as well.

What about the First Amendment? An open debate over difficult differences is a touchstone of democracy. As Obama said in a speech to college students, as early as 2015: “Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”

What is at the root of such a twisted culture? In a certain light, it can be seen as just another instance of our human urge to seek personal glory at the expense of the greater good. When someone succeeds in calling out an adversary, of course that person feels exalted. As Obama explained: “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself.”

The idea of removing others from our sight is not something that serves humanity on the whole. It’s self-serving. And it’s been around for a long time. People used to be “banished” in the Middle Ages. Even today, how often do we walk past scores of homeless people on the sidewalks, and act as though they don’t exist?

In my view, we could all open our eyes just a little bit more, and start doing the small things for others that will gradually help us to rebuild a broken society. If we don’t, historically speaking, something will happen to open our eyes for us. And those events have not normally been very pretty.

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Paralyzed

Meant to get this to you earlier.  It was first published in the October “special issue” of Street Spirit and subsequently submitted to the International Network of Street Papers, where it has been published elsewhere.   And now, here as well.   Hope you enjoy it.  

Paralyzed: The Demons That Prey on the Homeless
by Andy Pope

When one is homeless, one is by definition exposed to all kinds of elements that escape the confines of one who lives indoors.  Weather is only one such element.  There are also predatorial elements — people who invade the space of someone who has no physical barrier to separate them from intruders of the night.

There is also another kind of predator sometimes encountered in the darkness.  This is the supernatural predator, often colloquially referred to as a “demon” — an entity that invades one’s dream states, or states of half-sleep.

Homeless friends of mine reported being “hassled” or “attacked” by malevolent entities that seemed to hover over various outdoor spots where we tried to sleep.  I sometimes sensed these invasions as well.  Typically, I would become paralyzed, and suddenly feel as though an invisible hostile creature was grabbing me and rubbing or scratching me with things that felt like paws or claws.  Sometimes I would feel as though I were being pounded on.  I would hear abusive voices as this happened: “Andy, you scum bag!! You are a total piece of shit!!!!”

Whether these were truly alien invaders from outer space, or merely the subconscious reflection of my own low self-esteem, I cannot say.

I learned that these attacks have a name: sleep paralysis.  Sleep paralysis is a condition where one is awake to one’s surroundings but lacks motor control.  In other words, you’re not awake enough to move your body, but awake enough to know what’s going on.  It often strikes during times when the usual patterns of sleep have been disrupted.  In my experience, very few things have disrupted my normal sleep patterns as much as the overall conditions of homelessness.

As a person who has had sleep paralysis since the age of 14, I am among the 8 percent of the population for whom this condition is commonplace.  When I was homeless, I noticed that these intrusions would be different depending on when and where they occurred.  For example, intrusions in Ohlone Park were different than those that took place on the steps of St. Joseph the Worker church or outside the Rubicon building.  I always sensed that I was being assaulted by some kind of invisible entity, but the nature of the entity would differ according to where it was that I was trying (unsuccessfully) to sleep.

If I were to take a daytime nap on Bart, however, I noticed that I was free of these mysterious assailants.  However, when the train would stop, sometimes they would attack.  This gave rise to the theory that they lived in a reality that intersected the normal Earth-based reality at certain spots, but that they were unable to traverse the surface of the Earth — at least not at speeds corresponding to those of rapid transit.   This theory is reminiscent of the concept of the “tesseract” expounded in the book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l’Engel.  

Another theory had to do with the veracity of these demon-riddled reports.  How plausible were they really?   How credible were those who reported them?   And most of all, who was most likely to believe them?  I could not help but notice that those who were impoverished, homeless, on disability, working poor, or low-wage blue collar or assembly line workers were the quickest to embrace and believe my reports of sleep paralysis.  Often, people in the lower socio-economic brackets would share their own similar experiences of encounters with “demons.”  But people in the scientific community, upper level academicians, white collar workers, and corporate business people seemed often to scoff at our accounts, writing them off the same way that they wrote off all of our statements.  To be sure, this is another type of paralysis — one that is relentless, and occurs in broad daylight.

Whatever the cause or effect of these widespread stories, one thing seemed most disturbingly clear.  There were legions of demons haunting the realm of the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, the unprotected, and the abandoned.  Whether they meet us in dream states or in harsh reality, there are far more homeless demons than meet the eye.

Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.   

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Tuesday Tuneup 65

Q. What are you doing here?

A. Why do you ask?

Q. Isn’t it Wednesday?

A. So what?

Q. Aren’t you supposed to write these on Tuesdays?

A. How consistent have I been with that? 

Q. Didn’t I ask you?

A. Well then.  You have your answer.   It’s Wednesday morning.   It’s Christmas.   I wrote two of them yesterday and hated them both.   I’ll be tempted to delete this one, like I deleted both of the others.  I hate this day.  It’s a day of celebration for others, and of mourning and grieving for me.  It’s this day that I used to love and have come to dread.  It’s finally here.  It’s upon me.   And I’m miserable.

Q. Aren’t you forgetting the “reason for the season?”

A. Thanks for reminding me of the most ludicrous cliche imaginable.  If Jesus Himself  down and expressed His own disgust with this ridiculous sham of a so-called holy day, would you ask Him that same question?

Q. Aren’t you only projecting your own disgust onto Him?

A. I beg your pardon!   I’m only asking a question.  To be honest with you, I don’t believe Jesus has any particular opinion about this holiday at all.   I believe He relates to individuals on an individual basis, whoever it is who seeks relationship with Him.  He is therefore pleased with some people on Christmas, and not others.

Q. And you are one of the ones He is pleased with?

A. I didn’t say that!   How can He possibly be pleased with me if I am not at all pleased with myself?

Q. Are you suggesting that He would suddenly become pleased with you if you were to become pleased with your own self?

A. Of course not!   I could become pleased with myself over the slightest success or victory at damned near anything — whether Jesus was tracking with it or not.

Q. Seriously?

A. Yes – seriously!  I’m the type of person who feels good when he’s accomplished something successfully, and feels lousy when he hasn’t.  Isn’t that obvious?  Aren’t I transparent?

Q. When was the last time you accomplished something successfully?

A. Too long ago.  It’s been days, at least.  Maybe weeks.

Q. So then it’s not really Christmas that is the issue, is it?

A. No, not really.  But I’ll make no bones about it.  I do not like this holiday!  I don’t believe it has much to do with the birth of Jesus, or His life or teachings, much at all.  We hear the stories at church, if we go to church, and then leave them behind.   It’s a sham; it’s disgusting – but yes, you’re right.  That’s my own disgust, not His.

Q. So why the disgust?

A. Because — it used to be — there was family.  There was connection, there was warmth.  We opened gifts.  We had a Christmas tree.  I played the piano, and we sang carols together.

Q. What happened to all that?

A. At some point, I just became  —  I don’t know.  Uninvited.   Mom and Dad are long gone, there isn’t a “parent’s house” anymore.   I tried to reestablish family, but I failed.

Q. Why is everything about your personal success or failure?

A. I don’t know.  My dad was kinda hard on me, kept saying I couldn’t do anything right.   I just want to prove that I can do some things right.  When I get something right, I feel warm inside.  Like loved.

Q. Loved?

A. Yes. Loved.  God loves me because He lets me get some things right.

Q. Isn’t that a rather limited view of love?

A. It’s a start.

Q. Wouldn’t you have started long ago?

A. Of course.  But maybe I was barking up the wrong tree.

Q. What do you mean?

A. It might not be in my destiny for me to be a very successful family man.

Q. But are you content to be alone?

A. Usually.  But not on Christmas.   And not lately, to be honest with you.  Ever since my daughter left, just kinda — lonely, and feeling like I failed.  

Christmas loneliness and grief 'very, very common', says clinical counsellor | CBC News

Q. How is it that Christmas brings about these feelings of discontent?

A. It is on Christmas that the pain of knowing that other people are with family, seeming to have a good time, is most highlighted.  The pain that I am excluded — for some reason.  Naturally this leads to misery.  Especially when combined with the fact that everything closes down.  No food services.  No Starbucks, no MacDonald’s.  No library.   No restaurants.   How do I get food?  I have to stock up — well, you know, you get through the season, you get through the day.   I’m thinking MacDonald’s might be open till noon on some kind of truncated schedule.   Might as well hoof it down there once this thing’s over.

Q. So that is your idea of Christmas?   Spending the morning at a McDonald’s?

A. No.  My idea is still to gather around somewhere where there’s family and play a piano — but that’s long past.

Q. Could it not also be future?

A. Do I have a very good history at holding a family together?

Q. Could you have given up too easily?

A. Perhaps.

Q. Might you be blaming yourself too much?

A. Maybe.

Q. So what is your strategy?   How will you get through the day?

A. Well – I can start by repenting.

Q. What sin have you committed?

A. I mean – repenting of my attitude.  Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.  I lack faith right now.

Q. How can you get faith?

A. By choosing it.

Q. And what then?

A. Um –  I can pray.  I’ll start praying again.

Q. Why and when did you stop?

A. It was a few days back, after — something horrible happened personally, involving the loss of a friend — or maybe just the misplacement of the friend — she did wish me a happy Christmas back this morning, by text —

Q. Then she has not abandoned you, has she?

A. Maybe not.  Then again, she might have just been being nice.

Q. Isn’t that a start?

A. Yeah.  Lots of things can be starts.

Q. So what’s the strategy?

A. You make it sound like I’m fighting a war.

Q. Aren’t you?

A. I shouldn’t be.  I should just be surrendering, trusting in God, having faith, looking expectantly for the good that will inevitably come . . .

Q. On this horrible day of Christmas?

A. You said it.

Q. I’m curious, though.   Why did the severance with your friend cause you to stop praying?

A. She has always reflected Christ in my life.  I can’t explain it.  Maybe I put too much of a burden on her.   There were times when nobody else even believed I was a Christian, and yet she still had faith in me.  And now she’s gone.

Q. Can you — pray anyway?

A. And not be reminded of her?   I can’t even read my Bible anymore.  I read it — but it’s not the same.  It’s as though I’m reading her Bible, not mine.   

Q. So you’re — experiencing loss?

A. Loss upon loss.  Here I’ve already given up.  I’ll just say it:

Christmas in America is a time for people of privilege to enjoy the presence of other people of privilege.   They could at least invite those who lack over to their houses.  But they don’t.   And what’s that got to do with the so-called spirit of Christmas?  It’s not spiritual in any sense to exclude others from a gathering that is supposed to be held holy and pleasing in the eyes of God.

Q. Come on now!   Do you truly believe that Christmas has been reduced to only this?

A. Only this and worse.  I used to have a friend.   And I don’t any longer.

Q. But don’t you have a friend in Jesus?

A. I do.  And honestly, thank you for reminding me.  If I can just make my mind turn to Him – maybe when I’m on the way to that McDonald’s — I bet they’re open — and it can’t possibly be as bad as that one Christmas was when I was homeless and it was raining — and nobody would let us in  . . . 

Q. Your Christmas has been a lot worse than this one, hasn’t it?

A. Well yeah – it beats that one year, I think it was 2015, the only people I saw all day were about twenty-five other angry homeless people, it was pouring rain, I remember logging onto Facebook and just screaming at everybody — it just seemed heartless that they could keep flashing all these festivities on their timelines — if one even suggested being invited over on Christmas Day, they made you feel like you were a horrible person for even thinking such a thing . . . 

Q. But you are not homeless now, are you?

A. No I’m not.   

Q. And have you not become heartless in your own rite?   

A: I have not!

Q. How many homeless people are you letting in on Christmas?

Pause.  

A. I’ve let a lot of homeless people in this house, and you know it.

Q. What about Christmas?

A. You know I have my reasons.

Q. Didn’t they all have their reasons?

A. No doubt.  To put it mildly, to let strangers inside your house is risky business.  But I wasn’t a stranger to any of those people I was buzzing on Christmas Day on Facebook in the rain that day.   They all knew me.   They knew exactly what my situation was.

Q. And their response was?

A. Denial and disdain.   

Q. Why do you think that was?

A. Who likes a party–pooper?   Why should I be raining on their parade?

Q. You’re not raining on them now, are you?

A. Not that I know of  —  unless some of the more lurkish among them are reading these words, and feeling the storm.  

Q. And you’re not being rained on now either, are you?

A. More like snowed on.  But not at the moment, no.   I’m indoors – and I should be grateful.

Q. Are you?

A.  Grateful?   One wishes the word did not apply.   But yes, come to think of it, I am grateful.   I should be, after all.  Things could be a lot worse.   I could be robbed of anything approaching a First Amendment right in some parts of the world.   I could be put to death just for writing these words.

Q. So – what’s your strategy?

A. Well . . .  I don’t know how strategic it is, but I just made a decision.   This tuneup needs to be wrapped up anyway.   It’s dragging on kinda long.

Q. What’s your decision?

A. I’m going to go down to that McDonald’s and find someone more miserable than myself.

Q. Then what?

A. I’ll take it from there.   I’m at least usually a happy person.  I can share my happiness with them, even if I don’t experience it at the time.

Q. But won’t you just be just like the people on Facebook, flaunting their festivities?

A. I’ll try not to be.  Thanks for the warning.

Q. Anything else?

A. Not that I can think of.

Q. Cold feet?

A. Some.

Q. Just do it?   

A. Wish me luck.  

The Questioner is silent.  

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Fourth Column Published

At some point, I slacked on getting these Street Spirit columns posted on Thursdays in a timely fashion.   Here’s my 4th column, as it was published in the November issue.  More to come.   

The Homeless Habits that Followed Me Indoors
by Andy Pope

One of the many unexpected challenges that arose during my transition from homelessness to indoor living stemmed from the fact that I had simply gotten used to living outdoors. This caused many of the practices that worked for me when I was homeless to be carried over into the context of indoor living. While some of these lingering habits clearly didn’t apply indoors, others of them worked fairly well, both inside and out. In any case, all of them were surprisingly hard to shake. These hard-to shake habits fell into four main categories: Sleeping, eating, livelihood, and self-esteem.

Sleeping

When I was homeless, I got used to sleeping on two or three layers of cardboard placed over a hard surface.  I often slept on sidewalks, stairways, ramps, and cement alcoves positioned beneath awnings.   To off-set the hardness of such surfaces, I would pile on layers of cardboard until it simulated the effect of a mattress.

The problem with this, as far as my transition is concerned, was that I found I needed to use the same set-up in order to functionally sleep inside.  I tried sleeping in the bed that was provided in my first indoor room, but it just didn’t feel right.  I wasn’t used to sleeping in a bed.  So I set up three layers of cardboard on the hardwood floor, piled on an ample amount of blankets, and found I went right to sleep.  In fact, I slept much better than I’d ever slept outdoors.  I had combined the comfort of my preferred set-up with the added security of sleeping inside, where I was no longer vulnerable to the numerous assailants that roam the outdoor nights.  So I got the best of both worlds.

Another thing: Even though I had moved far away from Berkeley to a place where the temperatures were often below freezing in the winter, I found that I had to leave my window wide open at all times.  I had gotten so used to sleeping in the open air, I felt suffocated if I wasn’t getting a huge blast of fresh air in my face.  Also, for a long time I had to visualize one of my former outdoor sleeping spots in order to calm my mind enough to get to sleep at night.  This eventually faded with time, but evidenced an overall nostalgia for the homeless experience that flew in the face of reason.

Eating

My ideas around food, its availability, and one’s ability to feed oneself also changed radically as a result of my years of homelessness.  When food came my way while I was on the streets, I cheerfully shared it with those in my midst, assured that others would do the same for me.   Generally, I was right.  This is one of the small ways in which people on the streets take care of each other.

But without a street community to share resources with, managing my grocery shopping and eating habits was a struggle.  Having a kitchen for the first time in years, and being on a fixed income from Social Security, I naturally stocked up on food after I had paid rent and other bills.  But with this surplus of food available to me, I found myself overeating, using up my food supply long before the month was over, and thus gaining weight.   It took some time for me to become comfortable with stretching my groceries to last all month.

Livelihood 

I had also become accustomed to flying a sign on a sidewalk in order to accumulate pocket change to get through the day, as well as an occasional sandwich or other form of foodstuffs.  But in my current situation, there weren’t any panhandlers, let alone “silent sign-flyers” as I would have characterized myself.  Had I showed up on Main Street with my sign, I’d have stuck out like a sore thumb.  The local cops would have been on me in a heartbeat.  But I missed flying a sign for many reasons, not the least of which is that I simply was used to that means of livelihood.

In fact, I so missed flying my sign that on two occasions I invested over $50 on a round trip bus ticket to the nearest large city, when I hooked up with the homeless people who hung out by the station, and flew my sign until it was time for the bus to leave.   Unfortunately, I made less than $50 each time, so it as not even a cost-effective venture.  But it did satisfy my enormous urge to earn money in my customary fashion, if only for a day or two.

The overall inability to panhandle in a small rural community resulted in a form of food insecurity I had not at all anticipated.  After all, it was difficult to experience true food insecurity in Berkeley, where there were up to four free community meals each day.  Now, without community meals or the ability to fly a sign, I found myself suffering midway through each month.  I scrambled to make more money without the option of having a “street hustle,” and found that my job-related skills had suffered greatly as a result of years of unemployment.

Seeing the people in my midst who seemed not to have a problem feeding themselves, jealousy burned within me.  Whereas before, I had been jealous of practically anyone who had a roof over their head, I now found myself jealous of homeless people who were able to feed themselves more readily than I was, such as many of the homeless people in the city of Berkeley, where so much free food is abundant.

low self-esteem.png

Self-esteem 

By far, however, the most difficult transition to navigate was in the area of my self-esteem.  As much as I despised seeing the way that privileged people who lived indoors treated homeless people who were suffering, I had simply gotten used to being treated like a piece of shit.  Unbelievably, when people began to treat me humanely, as though I were “one of them,” I found I couldn’t handle it.  

For example, I had been quietly hanging out out at a local coffee house for a couple of weeks before one of the baristas extended her hand and asked what my name was.  Afterwards, I literally had to go into the bathroom and cry.  I could not believe that an employee in a public business establishment cared what my name was. I had gotten so used to being viewed with suspicion, as though it were assumed I could only be a troublemaker, that the experience of having an employee actually treat me with dignity was almost too much for me. While I soaked it all in with a natural delight, it also caused me to wonder why on earth I and my homeless brothers and sisters had put up with such pejorative treatment to begin with. 

The closest I’ve come to an answer is that we all simply got used to it. We didn’t think things would ever be any different or any better. The overall message that society gave us was that we would always be homeless, and that we were without hope in a world where an uncrossable gulf was fixed between those who were within and those who were without. We even got the feeling that we should always remain homeless – that we belonged, not in the privileged world of renters and homeowners – but in the leprous realm of the ostracized, the abandoned, and the untouchable. For we were not such as were worthy of dignified indoor living.

When such a bombardment of dehumanizing messages is blasted at a person day in and day out, it messes fairly severely with one’s head. Had I not known the amazing community that existed between me and my fellow homeless people, I would never have found the strength to come out alive.

Homeless No More is a column that features the stories of people making the transition from homelessness to housing.  Andy Pope is a freelance writer who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and the author of Eden in Babylon, a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.   

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To Those Who Are at Ease

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria,
the notable men of the first of the nations,
to whom the house of Israel comes!
Pass over to Calneh, and see,
and from there go to Hamath the great;
then go down to Gath of the Philistines.
Are you better than these kingdoms?
Or is their territory greater than your territory,
O you who put far away the day of disaster
and bring near the seat of violence?

“Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
and calves from the midst of the stall,
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
who drink wine in bowls
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
and the revelry of those who stretch themselves shall pass away.”

— Amos 6:1-7

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The Homeless Link

Below is a verbatim transcript of my column Rebuilding Trust by Strengthening the “Homeless Link” as it was recently published on the independent news site, Spokane Faith and Values, under the editorship of Tracy Simmons.   

When asked to write about our need to address the erosion of trust in our national consciousness, the first thing that crossed my mind is that I’ve never fully succeeded at rebuilding trust on a personal level. But I don’t think this failure is unique to me alone.

In today’s society, when friendships or business relationships go sour, it is much more likely that one will simply “move on” than that a person will expend the energy needed to repair a broken relationship. After all, such an energy expense is often painful, and people don’t like to endure pain unless it’s absolutely necessary. And with so many options for replacing unfavorable associations with more promising ones, why should one concern oneself with mending fences?

Through increased mobility and the phenomenal interactive potential of social media, it’s more accurate to depict people as jumping several fences in succession – more-or-less like hurdles in a track meet – than going back to mend any of them. The unusual ease with which people sever their personal contacts these days is assisted by the fact that through electronic communications and social media, one is able to block, delete, or ignore someone completely unilaterally. People take advantage of this convenience, often without prior word of warning or common courtesy.

Though social media has the potential to build bridges, it also helps us to burn them. Our worlds have become increasingly fragmented, and it is common on instant messengers for people to drop out of conversations abruptly and leap over to a new conversation without answering the last question or even saying goodbye. How can trust possibly be built when so many interactions are left incomplete?

Moreover, busy people may receive 500 emails a day and not have time to answer five of them. We have come to accept non-response as a response, but what does that response say? We have no idea, really. We only know that they won’t talk to us, we don’t know why, and the mass phenomenon of all this electronic dismissal, one of another, has eaten away at the morale of an entire nation.

If we’re going to think about rebuilding trust, we need first to consider that there will never be trust at the expense of communication. This applies not only to personal relationships, but to human associations at all levels of society. We don’t trust our educational system, we don’t trust our clergy, we don’t trust the politicians whom we have elected to represent us, and we certainly don’t trust corporate officers. While I would be the last to advocate a reactionary return to a less inclusive era, I will be the first to propose that a revival of misplaced values such as common courtesy and mutual respect would be a good place to start if we are to go about rebuilding trust on a grander scale.

Our devaluing of respectful communication is, to my view, a function of our inordinate love of personal pleasures. It is natural that in a culture so fraught with danger, we would seek escape in diversions that distract us from our troubles. But for many, it has become more important to feel good than to do good. When given a choice between feeling good and doing good, we often choose the former.

A man storms out of the house after an argument with his wife. Instead of returning to bless her with a surprise bouquet, he takes that money to a poker game and escapes into a night of male bonding with the boys. We take our ten dollar bills to the movie theater in order to entertain ourselves, and we ignore the beggar outside the theater whose life might end in the cold that night if he doesn’t get two dollars for an all-night bus pass. We justify our self-serving nature by rationalizing that the person on the other end of our avarice has made bad choices in their lives, and that they need to learn from their mistakes by being deprived of basic needs. But we are neither gods nor goddesses, and no human being is in the moral position to judge another for their station in life, especially when we have no idea what the conditions were that got them there.

As cities become more congested, and the rapid pace of life accelerates, we stigmatize. We hesitate to take the time to listen to the unique stories of those who cross our paths. Instead, we view people according to what “box” we can place them in. The box of leftie. The box of drug addict. The boxes of codependent, feminist, fundamentalist. The list goes on and on. We judge people according to their “boxes,” rather than recognize them as the unique individuals whom they are.

Nowhere is this stereotyping more flagrant than in typical attitudes toward the homeless. Every homeless person has their story, and I have found that these stories are generally told truthfully. But because of our fast-paced agendas and stigmatic notions as to what the homeless are about, we don’t stop to engage these fellow citizens, especially if we feel interrupted. People do not like to witness visible poverty in all its ugliness, so we turn our heads away from the very people who may need our attention the most.

In hearing any stranger’s story, of course we will have doubts as to its veracity. In the case of a homeless stranger’s story, one often suspects it is only a covert plea for financial assistance. But how do we know that if we don’t stop to hear them out? The fact is, unless the homeless person is visibly drunk or loaded, we have no idea how they are going to spend that money. A recent study by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction estimates that 27 percent of homeless people are drug-addicted. Yet I have lived in big cities where homelessness and drug addiction are thought to be synonymous in the eyes of passersby.

Well, we think, if we give the homeless person food, then we’re still doing good, and we’re on the safe side. So we drop some food off every now and then and wash our hands of the matter. What matter? The matter that we haven’t engaged them, we haven’t heard their voices. We haven’t made no effort to discern whether a hand-up might be more applicable than a hand-out.

I’m not suggesting we cease to feed the hungry. I’m suggesting we get to know the hungry. Talk to a homeless person about something other than their homelessness. Take the time to learn what kind of person they are. Do they want to remain homeless all their lives? Some do. Most don’t. The only way we come to find out is by involving them, by treating the homeless with dignity — as equals, with respect — and not as lesser sub-human mutants or inanimate objects to step over around and over whilst they sleep.

That is the core of the true homeless problem, and it also would be a great place to start in rebuilding trust within the society as a whole. If we want to restore unity in a divided culture, why don’t we first bring inclusion to those who have been the most abandoned? In doing so, we could conceivably inaugurate a chain reaction, and trust may be ignited all the way up the scale. A chain, after all, is only as strong as its weakest link. What link could possibly be weaker than that of the homeless?

I say we strengthen the Homeless Link. Provide for a homeless person neither pity nor judgment, but encouragement, hope, and respect. Maybe — just maybe — this is what it will take to renew the lost strength of an entire nation.

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Inequity (Part Five)

Of the five “inequities” that I have chosen to discuss in an effort to illuminate how the world appears from the eyes of those who have been chronically homeless in large urban areas, this one will probably be the most controversial.   There is a huge disparity among all those who dwell on this subject as to how the homeless person can actually be helped.  

When I made the decision to join an intentional homeless community on April 15, 2011, I was thrown into a group of people who were predominantly White, mostly male, and mostly people who had worked all their lives until some costly crisis landed them on the streets.  Most of my fellow White male homeless people were lifelong conservatives, and it was bizarrely expected that all of them were supposed to change their lifelong political ideologies, and become “liberals,” only because they had fallen on hard times.

Why?  Because in the failed social experiment that is the City of Berkeley, the pseudo-socialist leaders of the churches that were feeding us believed that, because we had become homeless, our life-philosophies must have failed us, and they were eager to teach us another way.  The idea that anybody in the San Francisco Bay Area could have become homeless due to socio-economic factors entirely beyond their control — viz, a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco might rent for upwards of $3000/mo — was never brought into consideration.   So we, who comprised approximately 35% of the then one thousand visible homeless people in Berkeley, were lumped into the same group as practicing thieves, hustlers, and hardened criminals on the one hand, and completely developmentally disabled (or at least chronically unemployable) individuals on the other.

In the process, we found ourselves continually demeaned and dehumanized by social workers whose politics invariably leaned to the Left.  My lifelong identity meant nothing to these people, and the none-too-subtle message that I would be homeless for the rest of my days — and rightly so — was hammered into me day in and day out, until I found myself beginning to believe it.

Those who leaned to the Right were another story.  I usually did not feel dehumanized per se, but I often felt stereotyped and stigmatized.  An example would be in Salvation Army workers trying to “save” me or convert me to Christianity, when the truth was that I was already a Christian who was clinging to Jesus more than ever during an uneasy, unsettling time of life.

My first experience at a homeless “feed” was that I and others were treated with complete indignity.  It was assumed that we were either criminally minded, completely mentally handicapped, or both.  Security guards barked orders at us and herded us around like cattle.  All this to get a bite to eat?   No, thanks!

Somebody I met throughout this process told me I ought to try “flying a sign.”  I had no idea what the expression meant at the time, but he showed me that all I had to do was sit silently on the sidewalk with a piece of cardboard and an explanatory statement, and I would probably get cash and food within a three or four hour shift.  (I’m glad he included the word “silently,” because I tried using the words “can you spare some change?” once and only once.  The judgmental shaking of the head and scornful reply, “Not for you, buddy!” was enough to convince me that verbal begging was not for me.)

But in displaying my sign in silence, making eye contact with passersby, I found that I averaged about $17/day working three hours daily at my “spot,” and often got a sandwich or two as well.   I usually sat there between about 9 am and noon.   After that, I felt free to vacate the homeless pandemonium, get on a BART train, and find a place where I could chill out, plug in my laptop (if it hadn’t gotten stolen) and gather my bearings for the next morning on the streets.

Those with whom I associated agreed with me that all of these homeless services, aside from being demeaning, primarily served to keep homeless people homeless.  And as far as the homeless “feeds,” it became clear after a while that they were simply feeding the wrong people.

Think about it.  If you were a street hustler who never cared to do a lick of decent work in your life, and you wanted to get food without working for it, where would you turn?  Of course you would head to one of those community meals.   You would do anything you could to get something for nothing — even steal.

The sad thing is that people with legitimate disabilities who needed caregivers and case workers, and who would thrive best in situations like board-and-care homes, were also mixed into the batch.   Many of them were stuck in the cracks of the system, and I saw quite a few die on the streets.

Another sad thing — or rather a maddening thing — is that it was assumed that I and my similar companions were unemployable, assumed we had landed on the streets due to drug addiction or alcoholism, assumed  we were insane, and basically assumed that unless we thought as they did, acted in the manner they wanted us to act, and believed the ideology that they wanted us to believe, then there was something wrong with us.  

Although I did vacate the premises after 19 months in order to rent a cottage in a rural area in the Central Valley — and there created nine talks on the subject based on what I had learned thus far — I wish I hadn’t been so eager to get inside.  The place I landed was in a horrible area, surrounded by tweakers, and it dawned on me that there weren’t too many places in that part of California where I could get a place in the $400/mo. range that were going to be any different.   So, once I finished the 9th talk, I returned to Berkeley for more research.

That might have been a mistake.

Three years later, I was having the devil of a time digging myself out of the hole that had been dug.   Years of sleep deprivation began to wear on my mental health.   I was constantly being awakened in the middle of the night by other homeless people (if not cops or security guards), my belongings would disappear over night, and I even dabbled in street drugs in an effort to keep my sanity and desensitize myself from all the chaos.

My self-esteem grew lower and lower.   Social workers who wanted to “help” me referred me to all kinds of programs with strict regimens, and I found I didn’t belong in any of them.  Not to mention, I’m one of those Introverted types who cherishes his privacy, and I learned that I would rather sleep outdoors in secluded spots on the outskirts of town, than stay crammed into a homeless shelter with about fifty other guys, where the rate of theft was even greater.

Finally, after one particularly disturbing instance when I was kicked out of a homeless shelter because I had caught the flu there, I got down on my knees and shouted to Whoever might hear my prayer:

“I do not care who they are telling me I am!
I do not care about drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness,
or being a loser, or being a lazy bum, or being a worthless piece of crap!
I care about HOMELESSNESS!!
Please God put on end to all these years
of totally unpredicable, totally unreliable,
anything can happen, anytime, anywhere, HOMELESSNESS!!!”

I literally screamed that petition to the stars of a seemingly indifferent sky, hurting my knees from the impact of the concrete outside the Sequoia Station in Redwood City.

Long story short (and it’s a story that has been often told elsewhere), within three or four weeks, I had an affordable room in North Idaho, renting for about one fourth of what it would have rented in Berkeley, and a job playing piano at a small church, after being considered unemployable and mentally insane in the State of California for years.

How did I get there?  It wasn’t from a handout.  It was from a hand-up – in the form of a $200 bus ticket granted by an old associate of mine, a retired music teacher whom I’d worked with years ago on the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula, before all of the sordid homelessness began.

Which brings me to my point.  The only homeless people who are into receiving “hand outs” from the system are those who either cannot fend for themselves, or choose not to, because they’d rather work the system.  The rest could use a hand-up.  I got one, and three and a half years later, on Thanksgiving Day, I must say I am thankful.  I’ve paid my rent on time in a place of my own choosing, a place of solitude and dignity, since September 1st, 2016.

So let that be food for thought on Thanksgiving Day.   You may use this information as you choose.   Maybe if somebody gives a hand-up to a person who could truly use it, then Somebody will give a hand-up to you.

Can I give you a hand? (Words and phrases for helping others) – About Words – Cambridge ...

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Inequity (Part Four)

Apparently, some people don’t think I know how to spell.   I’m referring to my recent use of the word “inequity.”  Some think I am referring to “iniquity.”  Others believe I am talking about “inequality.”   Neither is the case.  The truth is that I have spelled the word correctly: “inequity.”

inequity.JPG

Of the three nouns cited, the second one corresponds to the usage of the word as it pertains to this series.   The first “instance of injustice or unfairness” has to do with how homeless people are assumed to have done something terribly wrong in order to have become homeless, and that therefore homelessness is their due.  The second has to do with the notion that the homeless person is not qualified to engage in normal conversations or activities that people who live indoors are permitted to indulge.   The third has to do with privacy — how homeless people are deprived access to it, and regarded with suspicion if they seek it.

Today I would like to discuss a fourth inequity: how it is assumed that the homeless person does not have a job.  In some cases, it is even assumed that he could not have a job, and in other cases, that he should not have a job.  This is all part of the Overall Homeless Inequity.

A 2017 report by the Washington Council of Governments concluded that 22% of single homeless people, and 25% of homeless people in families, are employed.   These figures are remarkably similar to a report citing that 22% of homeless people are drug-addicted.  While it is often supposed that nearly all homeless people are drug-addicted (and no homeless people are working), the two statistics have a striking commonality.  Both of them equate homelessness with something that homelessness is not.

Homelessness is not the same thing as drug addiction.  Yet many people assume that a homeless person is an addict.   It is not the same thing as unemployment either.  Yet people will pass a homeless person on the street, and shout: Get a job!   Having been homeless for a number of years, I can tell you why I think people are content with these misconceptions.   Simply put, they justify the idea that the person is homeless because of some factor that that they can control; and that therefore, homelessness is their choice.  These comfortable fallacies free people from having to sympathize with the homeless person’s plight.

Now when I became homeless by choice, it was a choice made after seven years of struggling in and out of homeless and borderline-homeless situations, all the while finding my entire set of options for personal progress completely negated by the detrimental effects of any living situation I was able to afford.   While people assumed my main problem was something other than this, the fact of the matter is that I was making $50,000 a year and doing quite well before circumstances led to homelessness.  I then found homelessness nearly impossible to escape.

Many people have no idea how deep the hole of homelessness is dug.  Again and again, I tried my hardest to climb out of it.  But in the urban Bay Area reality, where studio apartments often rent for $2500/mo. or more, I could not get back on my feet.  The situations I could afford were limited to shelters, halfway houses, board-and-care homes, and (if I got desperate) psych wards and rehab facilities.  All of these resorts were undignifying, the last two were downright dehumanizing and criminalizing, and every one of them wound up leading me back to the streets.   Finally, I figured I better start learning how to be a functional homeless person, since that is where I continually found myself landing.  So on April 15, 2011, I left the last of numerous lousy living situations in order to join an intentional homeless community in Berkeley, California.

In Berkeley, where there were over one thousand visible homeless people on the streets, it wasn’t generally supposed that any of us were capable of working.  Combine that with a “progressive” quasi-socialist climate, and one was more likely to be encouraged to seek government aid through mental health disability than to get a job.  In short, it was assumed that I was unemployable.  This is another facet of this inequity.

Only once did someone shout at me: “Get a job!”  And when he did, I was damn near ready to go to the Social Security Office and ask them to cancel my disability paychecks.  It was so rare that someone believed I could work that what was intended to be a demeaning insult was actually refreshing.

Then, when I left Berkeley and moved to low-rent district in the Pacific Northwest, I found that within five days, I was able to secure a one year lease on a studio room, within three weeks, had secured a job, and was employed part-time shortly thereafter.  This was after being considered unemployable for years in Berkeley!   And as I always am quick to say, despite what many of my old associates in California believed, I did not change at all on a 48 hour one way bus trip.

What this points to is that when dealing with homeless people, we need to consider the socio-economic factors first and foremost, before we make judgments as to their personal character and choices.   The exact same person who secured a lease and a job as soon as he moved to Idaho was the one who flew a sign on a sidewalk for five years in California.

To those who still think people generally become homeless because they are drug addicts, alcoholics, nut cases, losers, or lazy bums, I say, please think again.   While this is sometimes the case, it is more often true that prolonged homelessness brings about any or all of those factors.  Please think a lot.   This culture gone awry needs the best thinking of us all.

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Tuesday Tuneup 59

Q. What are you doing here?

A. Killing time.

Q. Have you ever really stopped to think about that expression?

A. What expression?

Q. Killing time?

A. No, not really.

Q. Well, think about it!  How can time be killed?

A. But — it’s only an expression.

Q. Why do you not answer my question directly?

A. All right, all right.  Literally speaking, I have no idea how time can be killed.

Q. Then what makes you think you can kill it?

A. That would seem rather presumptuous of me.

Q. So!  What are you really doing here?

A. Waiting.

Q. Waiting for what?

A. For it to be 11:24.

Q. What time is it now?

A. 11:05.

Q. What happens at 11:24?

A. The bus comes.

Q. Are you sitting at the bus stop right now?

A. No, I’m sitting in the Courtyard Cafe with my computer.

Q. How long will it take you to get from the Courtyard Cafe to the bus stop?

A. About two minutes.

Q. Then shouldn’t you have said you were waiting for it to be 11:22?   Won’t you miss the bus if you wait all the way till 11:24?

A. All right, then.   I’m waiting for it to become 11:22.

Q. What time is it now?

A. 11:08.

Q. So for how many more minutes will you need to keep this up?

A. For 14 minutes, sir.

Q. Why did you call me “sir?”

A. I don’t know.  It seemed — courteous.

the GADFLY - Music Venues - 117 Elm St, La Grande, OR ...Q. But what makes you think I’m a man?   Couldn’t I be a woman?   Why didn’t you call me “madam” instead?   Why did you assume I am a man?

A. I don’t know — uh maybe some kind of unconscious sexism of some sort?

Q. Sexism?   Don’t you believe in equal rights for women?

A. Equal, uh, er, rights, yes — and equal opportunity — but perhaps not equality in terms of — of —

Q. In terms of what, may I ask?

A. Well, I mean, anybody knows there are innate differences in the way men and women process information . . .

Q. Are you saying that women are less intelligent than men?

A. Don’t put words in my mouth!   I said nothing of the kind!

Q. Well then!   Just what are these innate differences you’re so convinced exist?

A. Um . . . for one thing, it’s well-known that men are more solution-oriented, and that women are — are —

Q. More problem-oriented?!   Is that what you’re suggesting?   That all we do is cause problems??

(Awkward pause.)

A. What time is it?

Q. Aren’t I supposed to be asking you the questions?

A. All right, it’s 11:14 already.

Q. And just how do you propose to spend the next 8 minutes?

A. In total silence, preferably.

Q. How the hell are you going to get that to happen?

A. Probably only if one of us stops talking.

Q. And who might that be?

A. I would hope that you would be the one to stop talking first!

Q. And if I don’t?

The Answerer is silent.

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Inequity (Part Two)

Another function of long-term homelessness — at least of the kind of homelessness that I and others experienced in an urban environment as part of an intentional homeless community — was that it was hell trying to get off the subject.   Of homelessness, that is.

Phrased positively, it was always refreshing when I found myself engaged in happy small talk, say at a McDonald’s or a Starbucks early in the morning.  These were spots where those of us who were homeless would eagerly gather come daybreak, these being the two places that opened the earliest.   Of course, our motive was to get out of wandering mode and become situated within a seemingly normal context.   If we were lucky, we might even blend with the early risers having themselves emerged from the indoors.   After all, what was to distinguish us from those who dwelt inside?   Maybe an unkempt appearance, possibly a smell.  But we were usually pretty good about taking care of that stuff.  And in a college town?   You didn’t really expect everyone to be doing the three-piece business suits.

Now, the Starbucks was a different scene than the McDonald’s.  I needed more money to get in, and it opened a half hour earlier (at five in the morning, rather than 5:30.)   There was no such thing as a Senior Cup for 65 cents.  I had to at least get a tall coffee, and probably spend $1.75 at the time.   But there was also the advantage that, once I had consumed the coffee, they were in no particular hurry to kick me out.  The McDonald’s, however, had a twenty minute sit-down limit — obviously targeting the myriad homeless people seeming to invade the joint upon opening.   And while others were permitted refills, they had an unwritten policy not to give a refill to a homeless person.   So obviously, the MacDonald’s was the less savory — though less expensive — of the two options.

At times, I had the advantage of owning a laptop I could plug in at the Starbucks.  Once I was working away, I differed in no discernible way from an older student, or perhaps a professor.   If I happened to be at the counter, and no one was around to “out” me, I stood a good chance of blending.   I recall once a fellow sat near me on the counter with a newspaper.  He nodded at me, “Good morning!”  I did the same.  I liked that feeling.  No wall had yet been erected between us.   We were just two human beings, and the homelessness of one of the two human beings had not yet been so imposing as to have erected one.

“You following the Warriors?” the man asked casually, looking up from his paper.

“Not a big basketball fan,” I replied.  “I hear they’re having an unusually good season.”

“Yup.”

So far so good, I thought.   Waiting a moment or two, I decided to comment on the music being piped through the Starbucks speakers.

“I love this Wagner, Symphony in C Major.   Seems to match my mood swings somehow.”

“Oh really.  How so?”

“Well you hear it — it’s almost dissonant, then lands on these big blasts of major chords — you enjoy classical music?”

“Not so much.  The wife always gets me to go to the San Francisco Symphony.”

“Ah, Michael Tilson Thomas.”

“I guess,” he replied softly, looking back down at the paper.

Returning to my work, I felt a clear sense of satisfaction.   Almost ten minutes had gone by.  I hadn’t managed to out myself, and nobody else had come by to — uh, oh here comes Hunter, I thought, literally worried that I was thinking too loud.

“Hey Andy, do you have any change?”

“Am I going to change?” I replied, dodging the question.  “No, I wasn’t planning on it.”

“No, I mean, do you have any change?  Have you even been at your Spot yet?  Oh, never mind.”

Obviously having displayed some familiarity with me, my friend walked away quite randomly.  But it wasn’t random at all to the fellow with whom I’d been chit-chatting.

“You’re HOMELESS??!!” he cried out.  

“Well, uh, yeah,” I admitted, still trying to keep things “low key.”

“Aargh!” he barked.  “Well, here’s what you do.  You dial 2-1-1, you do know about 2-1-1, don’t you?”

Of course I knew about 2-1-1, but that’s beside the point.  The wall had been erected between us, that wall has proven to be virtually insurmountable, and it would be downhill from here.  I’d thought I’d been going to get away with having a normal conversation for once.  But I thought wrong.  As soon as I was outed, and my homeless credentials revealed, the subject reverted back to the usual topic of homelessness.   And it might have been very fresh for the one who picked up that ball, possibly even an exciting first-time conversation.  But to us it was one we’d heard all too often. It was one thing to be living it 24/7.  It was quite another to be expected to talk to every Tom, Dick & Harry about it, total strangers that we would literally meet off the streets, daily.

“You know, you don’t look homeless.  I’m having a hard time believing you’re really homeless.   It just seems like you don’t belong there, and there must be something you can do to get yourself out of it.  Ever think of that?”

Nope, never thought about it once at all!  I mean, really!  Can you imagine if I had been Black, or Hispanic, or any other easily recognized minority in such a context?   Would a stranger, on realizing my ethnicity, immediately launch into a monologue about my being Black or Hispanic, and what I ought to be doing about it?  Of course not!  But that’s the extent to which homelessness is unrecognized.   When one is homeless, one is not generally recognized as representing a legitimate minority in our culture.  This is why a stranger with no true knowledge of the homeless person’s individual circumstances will often feel qualified to lecture the homeless total stranger on how they are to go about living.  It stems from a lack of respect for the obvious human fact that the homeless person has a right to govern their own life, no more and no less than any other kind of person in society.

Until we honor this basic human fact, and respect each homeless individual’s right to have made choices that have seemed most prudent to them under the circumstances, no real progress will be made in solving the “homeless problem.”  This is because the essence of the problem is in the dehumanization of a massive group of human beings in our culture, those being they who are without homes in society.   If many of us extended to a homeless person the same courtesy and dignity we might extend to one of different race, gender, genetic culture, or sexual orientation, we might be surprised at the results.

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Psalm 52

Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man?
     The loving devotion of God endures all day long.
Your tongue devises destruction
     like a sharpened razor.
     O worker of deceit.
You love evil more than good,
    falsehood more than speaking truth.

You love every word that devours,
     O deceitful tongue.
Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin;
     He will snatch you up and tear you away from your tent;
     He will uproot you from the land of the living.

The righteous will see and fear;
     they will mock the evildoer, saying,
Look at the man
     who did not make God his refuge,
but trusted in the abundance of his wealth
     and strengthened himself by destruction.

But I am like an olive tree
     flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in the loving devotion of God
     forever and ever.
I will praise You forever,
     because You have done it.
I will wait on Your name–
     for it is good–
     in the presence of Your saints.

— Psalm 52 BSB

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Justice and Righteousness

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
     Why would you have the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, and not light;
     as if a man fled from a lion,
     and a bear met him;
or went into the house and leaned
          with his hand against the wall,
     and a serpent bit him.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness,
          and not light,
    and gloom with no brightness in it?

“I hate, I despise your feasts,
     and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies,
Even though you offer Me your burnt offerings
          and cereal offerings,
     I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
     I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
      to the melody of your harps
      I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
     and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  

–Amos 5:18-24 RSV

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The Refuse of the World

For who makes you so superior?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you did receive it,
why do you boast as though you did not?

Already you have all you want.
Already you have become rich.
Without us, you have become kings.
How I wish you really were kings,
so that we might be kings with you. 
For it seems to me that God has displayed us apostles
at the end of the procession,
like prisoners appointed for death.
We have become a spectacle to the whole world,
to angels as well as to men.

We are fools for Christ,
but you are wise in Christ.
We are weak,
but you are strong.
You are honored,
but we are dishonored. 
To this very hour we are hungry and thirsty,
we are poorly clothed,
we are brutally treated,
we are homeless. 

We work hard with our own hands.
When we are vilified, we bless;
when we are persecuted, we endure it; 
when we are slandered, we answer gently.
Up to this moment
we have become the scum of the earth,
the refuse of the world.

–1 Corinthians 4:7-13

Homelessness and PTSD

Trigger warning: some people may be triggered by information contained in this entry that pertains to personal violation.  Please proceed with caution, and read at your own risk.  

Earlier, when I created a talk on this theme, I did not believe I could capsulize my thoughts into a single blog post.   So I talked for a half hour instead.

I’ve since changed my mind.   It’s taken over a week for me to discover how to present these ideas more succinctly, in a logical order.  The first thing I would like to address is that people are generally unaware that homelessness — with all its confusing, unpredictable, and dangerous components — is as much a breeding grounds for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as situations arising in combat or from having been physically or sexually abused.

PTSD is triggered when something happens to remind a person of past trauma, the memories of which are often buried.  When the reminder occurs, one leaps into the context of the trauma formerly inflicted.  And then, one begins to relive the entire circumstances involved in that traumatic event.

See the source imageSevere abuse comes with the homeless territory.  A person who is exposed, out in the open twenty-four hours a day, is a visible target.  This person is made even more vulnerable when they are sleeping.  When I was homeless, I was pistol-whipped, subjected to strong arm robbery, sexually abused, subjected to arson, and physically abused multiple times.  Any one of those situations can lead to PTSD — let alone all of them in confluence.

Because the first of these traumatic events was a sexual violation that took place on a very hot day when I could find no way out of it, I have been triggered on extremely hot days when I was lost and did not have clear directions to where I was going.  My PTSD counselor and I worked out a series of steps that I would take automatically if I felt that the PTSD had been triggered.  I would stop and take a number of deep breaths while looking for a shady spot.  Then I would sit in the shady spot, no longer moving around or looking where I might go, until the PTSD had subdued.

The reason for taking such steps is because I was reliving the horrific event of a sexual assault.  When the horrible event was over, and the rapist disappeared, I was so freaked out that I ran five miles in 90F degree weather.  That single event has affected my sexual attitudes for life.

But that was only a solitary example of numerous violations that were to ensue during the twelve years when I was homeless and “borderline-homelessness” — by which I mean staying in motels, residence hotels, and other sketch indoor situations.   The overall experience of homelessness carried with it its own set of triggers.   By and large, these were based on two things:

(1) A sense of inequality with, and inferiority to, the people around me.  

(2) A sense of being fully exposed in a context where most of the people were concealed.  

An example of something that triggered me was the event of having a story of mine published on a news site that permitted comments from its readers.  All of the readers had usernames and avatars.  One of them referred to having known me personally — but I had no idea, nor was I able to learn, who this person was.  This bore enough resemblance to the homeless context that I began to relive my homeless experience.

More information about PTSD triggers may be found here, for starts.  An excellent article exploring PTSD among the homeless may be found here.  And of course, further information on the Homeless Experience can be found all over this blog.

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Gratitude List 1221

1. Slept well, got up at 4:00 am exactly.

2. Daily money manifested at around that time, and this time I was able to hold off on coffee till I got to the Courtyard (where the coffee is free).

3. Nice breakfast at Courtyard. First time in weeks I’ve been able to finish the whole breakfast.

4. Weight was up two pounds at the doctor, which is okay, as I had been losing rapidly. Heart still 56, blood pressure 108/60, temp 97.2. Finally, after three years, all vital signs are down to what they usually were in Berkeley.

5. Doc prescribed Trazodone for insomnia and (hopefully) sleep paralysis.  My daughter says it’s effective, and it appears it may be the lesser of evils. I was honest with the doctor about use of benzos and cannabis, past and present, respectively.  Well — I’m not convinced how much of the solution can possibly lie in the medical realm, but I’m grateful I made it to the appointment anyway, like a responsible human being.

6. Worked the door again last night, great young band from Vancouver, fresh out of high school, advanced garage band style. Brandy gave me a $40 gift card.

7. Nice weather this morning 69F degrees, breezy, conducive to brisk exercise.

8. Nice talk with my friend Kent this morning.

9. Made another speech, again spontaneously, though this one has some undeveloped themes and must be re-done.  I’m calling it “The Perception of Inequality.”  I posted it here before deciding it falls too far short of my artistic standards on too many levels for it to be live in its current state.   So I have pulled it until it has been rightly adjusted.   I took eight lengthy notes for an expanded revision, and am hoping to post the updated version on Wednesday morning.

10. Though still hung up on “Oracle,” the vocal score revisions are proceeding aright. I feel on track with all my homework, actually, if for no other reason than that I no longer shun or shirk the task. It helps to enjoy what you’re doing. God is Good.

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Published in Berkeleyside

Good news.  Recently, as you may know, my work began appearing in a regular column called “Homeless No More,” published in the newspaper Street Spirit, which has a 25,000 monthly distribution in Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California.  As of yesterday morning at 8am, my first story in the column, entitled “How I Got Inside,” has now been taken up by Berkeleyside, the award-winning, independent news site covering Berkeley and the East Bay.  

How I Got Inside

Berkeleyside-1

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Bigger and Better than the Streets

I wrote this, like the one last Thursday, on request from Alastair Boone, the editor-in-chief of Street Spirit.  There might be a similar entry next Thursday.  

When I was homeless in the San Francisco Bay Area, I relied to a large degree on the moral support of lifelong friends and family who were not. For one reason or another, it was not feasible for any of them to let me stay in their homes for any substantial length of time. Still, they frequently provided me with encouragement, and on occasion sent me money. While I was often upset that nobody was “letting me in,” I nonetheless was dependent on their emotional and financial support in order to endure the ongoing conditions of homelessness.

One of the reasons why I delayed the decision to leave the Bay Area for so long was because I was attached to my support group. I felt that my old friends and family members were just about the only people who knew that I was a competent guy who had landed on the streets as the result of a costly medical misdiagnosis. They were the ones who knew that a mistreated health condition had led to a mental breakdown, as my inability to properly manage a health condition threw me into first-time homelessness at the age of 51.

They were the ones who watched in horror, as one by one I lost all my accounts, and could no longer keep up with the high cost of living on the S.F. Bay Area Peninsula. But still, they believed in me, and they did what they could to help me get back on my feet. The only thing they didn’t do was to let me stay with them. Ironically, to have offered me housing, even temporarily, would probably have been the only thing that could have possibly helped me to get back on my feet. The depth of the gutter where the homeless are consigned to dwell is really that deep. For me, at the time, it seemed inescapable.

So I continued to live outdoors, where I found myself gathering with other homeless people at “feeds” and at places like the Multi-Agency Service Center (MASC) in Berkeley. Though I and my fellow homeless people had arrived at homelessness by a variety of different paths, we had one thing in common: we were homeless. To the social workers who tried to help us, there was no distinction between a man who had been an elementary school music teacher, and a man who had been brought up on the streets, taught by his parents to steal laptops from an early age. Graphic artist and con artist were one and the same. We were all in this boat together.

Related image

We were all homeless – and we indeed bonded together. After all, the laptop thief was my equal, no more or less endowed by the Creator with inalienable human rights like my own. But the only people who still saw me as a competent, employable human being were the ones who had known me prior to my “fall.” My fellow homeless people saw me as a homeless person — as one of them, an equal. Social workers and police officers saw me as a homeless person, though by and large they did not see me as equal, but as someone who was somehow below them in the hierarchy of human rights. My old friends and family members saw me as Andy, the guy they’d known and loved all their lives, whether homeless or not. Of course I needed their support!

But were they helping me with the one thing I needed? That is, to “get inside?” No – they were not. They had their own concerns. Meanwhile, I watched while the sordid conditions of homelessness gradually transformed me from a naive, overweight singing teacher to a scrawny fraction of my former self. Gradually, I got to be half-crazed from protracted sleep deprivation. Often, I became fully crazed from feeling that I was treated like a sub-human mutant, rather than an equal. Passersby sneered at me in disgust. They viewed my visible poverty as an unsightly blot on society, a piece of garbage to be swept off the streets, along with the rest of my fellow eyesores. Were it not for the bonding with my fellow homeless citizens, I’d have lost all shreds of human dignity.

In order to cope with this massive sense of ever-increasing dehumanization, I turned at first to marijuana, though I’d smoked no more than twice since the 80’s — certainly less than most of my friends who still lived indoors. Then, during the last three years of my homeless sojourn, I turned to a harder drug. I used speed to desensitize me from the cold – both the physical coldness of temperature, and the spiritual coldness of the condescending mockers in my midst. One by one, my old friends and family members, with rare exception, abandoned me. One of them recently told me: “We were all just waiting to read your obituary.”

Finally, in June of 2016, I picked up my check and walked out of the city of Berkeley without saying a word. “If the drugs won’t kill me,” I told myself, “the thugs who dispense them will.”

For a month I wandered the other side of the Bay in search of a permanent answer. But nothing seemed to work. In a shelter, I caught a flu, and was kicked out for that reason. The hospital wouldn’t let me in, because if they let me in, they’d have to let all of us in. They gave me some pills and told me to rest in bed for ten days. But I had no bed! I got kicked off of the all night bus for fear of contaminating the other homeless people, who relied on the all-night bus as a shelter.

Finally, in desperation, I got down on my knees. I told the Universe that all I wanted was “a lock on a door, a window, and a power outlet.”

Then I took action. I began googling keywords until I found a place in the Pacific Northwest that rented for only $275/mo. – something that would easily have gone for $900/mo. in the Bay Area. It was a tiny room in a converted hotel — but it would do the job. I called an old associate, someone whom I’d worked with long ago when he was a music teacher at a middle school. Hearing my story, he agreed to front me $200 for a one way Greyhound ticket to a new life. After that, I told my story to the prospective landlord, whom I called while still in San Francisco. To my amazement, he agreed to hold the place for me until I got there! Forty-eight hours later, I was sleeping in my new room — and it had a window, two power outlets, and three locks on the door. Four days after that, I signed a one year lease. Three weeks later, after years of being considered unemployable in the San Francisco Bay Area, I landed a part-time job as a piano player at a small town church.

A part of me still wishes I had made the decision earlier. It would have spared me the last three years of psychic hell, as the pain of my homelessness was doused with street drugs, and the combination threatened to plummet me toward an untimely death. But had I made the decision earlier, I would have abandoned the bulk of my support group. How thankful I am to have lost their support all the same! For at the moment when I finally decided to leave the Bay Area for a low rent district in a distant State, I had no one left to lose – and everything to gain.

Though the sheltered world does not know it, homelessness is not the same thing as alcoholism, drug addiction, or incompetence. It’s not the kind of thing where one needs to “change their ways” in order to overcome it. In order to overcome homelessness, what one needs is dignity. It doesn’t matter whether we were music teachers or laptop thieves. We are all created equal; we are all endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are all bigger and better than the streets.

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A Light for the Nations

Here is My Servant, whom I uphold,
My Chosen One, in whom My soul delights.
I will put My Spirit on Him,
and He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or raise His voice,
nor make His voice heard in the streets.
A bruised reed He will not break
and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow weak or discouraged
until He has established justice on the earth.
In His law the islands will put their hope.”
Thus says God the LORD—
He who created the heavens
and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and its offspring,
who gives breath to the people on it
and life to those who walk in it—
“I, the LORD, have called you
for a righteous purpose,
and I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and appoint you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light to the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring prisoners out of the dungeon,
and those sitting in darkness
out from the prison house.”

–Isaiah 42:1-7

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A Light to the Nations

Here is My Servant, whom I uphold,
My Chosen One, in whom My soul delights.
I will put My Spirit on Him,
and He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or raise His voice,
nor make His voice heard in the streets.
A bruised reed He will not break
and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow weak or discouraged
until He has established justice on the earth.
In His law the islands will put their hope.”
Thus says God the LORD—
He who created the heavens
and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and its offspring,
who gives breath to the people on it
and life to those who walk in it—
“I, the LORD, have called you
for a righteous purpose,
and I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and appoint you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light to the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring prisoners out of the dungeon,
and those sitting in darkness
out from the prison house.”

–Isaiah 42:1-7

They Err in Vision

Ah, the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim,
       and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
       which is on the head of the rich valley of those overcome with wine!
Behold, the Lord has one who is mighty and strong;
       like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest,
like a storm of mighty, overflowing waters,
       he casts down to the earth with his hand.
The proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim
       will be trodden underfoot;
and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,
       which is on the head of the rich valley,
will be like a first-ripe fig before the summer:
       when someone sees it, he swallows it
       as soon as it is in his hand.

In that day the LORD of hosts will be a crown of glory,
       and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people,
and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment,
       and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.

These also reel with wine
       and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
       they are swallowed by wine,
       they stagger with strong drink,
       they err in vision,
       they stumble in giving judgment.
For all tables are full of filthy vomit,
       with no space left.

“To whom will he teach knowledge,
       and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
       those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
       line upon line, line upon line,
       here a little, there a little.”

For by people of strange lips
       and with a foreign tongue
the LORD will speak to this people,
       to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
       give rest to the weary;
and this is repose” —
       yet they would not listen.

Isaiah 28:1-12

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Gratitude List 1063

My list from yesterday morning.

1. I feel kinda “normal” this morning.  I like it when I’m at my norm, when nothing is setting me off.

2. I noticed, as of this morning, that I’m able to pray again. When people have come to mind, I’ve been able to pray for them rather than just worry about them or (worse yet) be indifferent toward them. It’s the evidence of a prayer life that I associate with the state of sobriety that I find to be the best, most useful state.

3. Slept during a normal time frame. I forget when I went to bed (8 or 9) but awoke at around 4am feeling rested and refreshed. Dreamed a lot too.

4. Heard from my daughter for the first time in a long time.   All she said was “hey daddy, love you hope you’re well” and then didn’t reply to any of my following, very immediate, most excited texts. Still, that’s better than nothing.  Grateful to hear that she is (1) alive, and (2) breathing.  It does make a difference.  ;)

5. This coffee is great, from the Sunset. I enjoyed jogging to the store and back in the 18 degrees. It didn’t feel oppressively cold, and the nice guy was working graveyard shift. Got a large Hi-Rev coffee, still working on it.

6. This is a really nice spot, where my apartment is. I like my desk, and where it sits, and the view. The seclusion really sits well with me, if truly appreciated and used properly. I like the early morning hours.

7. Nice chat with a good friend, one of the volunteers at the Center.   

8. Soon I’ll be in the cafe, probably at the Round Table, probably writing music, probably smiling.  Looking forward to church this morning, too.  And you know — my life is good these days. There really is a lot to be grateful for.

9. Working on a big number in Act Two for the vocal score.   It’s intriguing.  There’s an interesting tension between the powerful statement of solidarity and the weird campy musical theatre show tune aspect. That’s the tension I’ve got to work with, in order to make this number truly great.  And I will do so.

10. His blessings are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness.

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