People line up outside of Pete’s Place in Santa Fe well before the glass doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. For dozens each night, the winter emergency homeless shelter offers nourishment and beds, community and safety.
To serve meals, the shelter relies on legions of volunteers like the eight of us who have come from Upaya Zen Center. We have spent several days getting ready for this pre-Thanksgiving feast with the help of our sangha members. Dressed in “normal” clothes instead of our usual Zen black, we unpack a Subaru full of prepped veggies, spices, oils, and kitchenware and lug it all into Pete’s kitchen. Debbie, who works at the shelter, greets us energetically and shows us how to make dinner, how to serve, and when to sit and eat with the guests.
As we unload the car in trips, walking back and forth through the parking lot, we pass a dozen people. They’re looking in through the still-locked doors, pacing, resting on the sidewalk, catching up, smoking. A sangha volunteer whispers to me, “This is where I get shy.” I feel an old shyness, too. I see clients who appear to be on drugs. A group of women are yelling in the parking lot corner. A man catcalls me. I notice a thought arise: these people are different than me. I feel self-doubt. I’m afraid our differences are too big for us to connect, that I won’t know the right thing to say or do.
It’s snowing out, and as we settle in, the kitchen begins to smell like the holidays. Chicken soup and chili are simmering in massive pots on the gas stove. Sweet potatoes are roasting, and green beans are steaming.
During an unusually cold winter in 2005, 25 people died from hypothermia in Santa Fe. This birthed a local-led initiative for a winter emergency shelter. Those who come to Pete’s are only a fraction of the city’s homeless—in 2014, the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness estimated the number to be around 1,400.
From one perspective, serving food at Pete’s for a night seems miniscule. What about systemic oppression and poverty? What about luck and circumstance, and how it seems that some people are set up for homelessness? With these massive contexts in mind, what is one dinner for one night? Considering these endemic and global problems, my zazen [meditation] practice suddenly begins to feel like a vapid waste of time. What is the point of sitting on a cushion, focusing on nonaction, when people are sleeping on streets and freezing to death? In this headspace, where all the world’s injustice seems to be weighing on my shoulders, I am fearful and frenzied.
The philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote, “Action has meaning only in relationship. Without understanding relationship, action on any level will only bring conflict. The understanding of relationships is infinitely more important than the search for any plan of action.” This aligns with Zen teacher Bernie Glassman’s practice of bearing witness and street retreats, during which participants sleep on sidewalks, beg for food, and eat at shelters. In line with that philosophy, this dinner would be about connecting and listening. We also hoped it would be free of delusions about “fixing.”
As we’re serving, a young man my age with snow on his shoulders tells us we “look a little different than most [volunteer] groups.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Oh, I don’t know.” He gets shy. “Just different.”
I place a brownie next to his salad and catch the bowl of chili from falling off of his full plate.
“Ah,” I say, and we nod and smile. I begin to feel at home in my body and my ability to relate. I again start to trust how meaningful a moment of connection can be. The dinner guests are grateful and kind. We relish in the huge size of the brownies and talk about how delicious ranch dressing is—tiny meaningless things that nevertheless hold weight and are an avenue for connection and love. A woman shares that she worries about the two little girls standing outside with their “cracked out” mother. “They don’t have coats,” she says, looking teary-eyed toward the snow.
I have an older brother who has schizophrenia. When medicated, he is gentle and foggy. But when we were children, he was violent and planted one of my first seeds of terror. I remember him at his worst states—when police cuffed and jailed him after he put a knife to my neck, when he beat my mother with an iron rod. Now I see him as a person who was once racked with uncontrollable states of violence because his mind was convincing him of an alternate reality. At Pete’s, I look around and wonder if he would be sitting here if our mother hadn’t urged him to be medicated and stabilized through social services. Would he be less safe? Would I know where he was sleeping? Would I know if he were alive?
While I serve each person, I think of my brother, who could so easily be here or in much more dangerous places. The differentiating mind I noted in the parking lot when we arrived dissipates. An ease comes over me. In every face, I recognize something that has scratched at my own heart: hunger, gratitude, exhaustion, shyness, goofiness, pride, vulnerability.
Another Upaya resident steps in to take my place, and I sit down to eat. A mother and her two tiny girls are just leaving the table. They are 6 and 9, shy, with wide eyes and long hair. They walked in from the snow without coats, their sweater sleeves soaked. Before their mother yanks them from the table, she yells at them to hurry up eating their brownies “or else.”
I feel a collapse. I am frustrated that I cannot fold them in a hug and protect them from a world that feels too harsh too soon. Hello, discomfort. Hello, helplessness. What is bearing witness, really, and how much strength and grace does it require? Seeing those girls and imagining their lives makes me want to turn toward something lighter. Or maybe worse, try to do something before I have any idea of how to do something skillful. Can the world be fixed? Should it be fixed? Why do I think I’m a fixer?
The day after the shelter dinner, I cross paths with a homeless man on Marcy Street in downtown Santa Fe. Our eyes meet on the crosswalk. We meet hearts, too, in the crossing. I realize how unafraid of him I am. That feels new to me. I don’t mean I’m unafraid in a careless manner; I’m aware of the extra caution it requires to walk the world as a woman. The man smiles, and his long Santa beard moves with it. I nod back as if it were a bow. This feels normal, humane—totally ordinary, but profound. As I walk on, I feel guilt grow like a cold metallic pearl in my gut. Shame. What does it mean that the ability to see my own face in a homeless person feels new? It’s not that I’ve ignored homelessness, not at all. It’s that I’ve been othering it.
Yet to see the world, or people, as needing fixed implies I see the world as broken and see myself as the person to fix that brokenness. This feels delusional. Who am I to believe I can be the world’s—or anyone’s—balm? What is it about fixing that feels easier than “suffering with”? Is the belief that I can fix anything simply a buffer—a weekend project, if you will—against the large and uncomfortable complexity of life and suffering?
Suddenly this fix-it mind feels to me to be a sly and convincing story that is on the surface about helping but actually is concealing a deep discomfort with suffering, and has at its root the fundamental belief that I am on a higher level than those who would need helping. I’ve distanced myself from suffering by believing I can help fix it. This realization makes me sick to my stomach. “Fixing” has been the delusional highway meant to transport me to the equally delusional land of Problem Solved. More than anything, it prevented me from seeing anything but difference between myself and someone living on the street.
In the 2015 film Time Out of Mind, the actor Richard Gere plays a homeless man. Employing method acting, Gere lived on the streets for periods of time. He told Rolling Stone magazine how it was the only time since he became famous that he was ignored.
“It wasn’t that folks didn’t notice me; they could see someone asking for change from two blocks away. It was that they saw the embodiment of failure—and failure is something that people fear will suck them in,” Gere said.
The journalist Michaela Haas called the turning away from America’s homeless “out of sight, out of heart.” Since the dinner at Pete’s, I have felt a kind of growing up that, at 28 years old, has nothing to do with my age. It has to do with taking responsibility for recognizing, and then undoing, my conditioning that normalized the rotten and subtle art of othering.
This is what our Zen practice is about—being honest about our prejudices, taking note of our internal stickiness, confronting our conditioning, and uncovering an original and basic goodness that, when dusted off, enables us to actually see ourselves in another.
At the bottom of the homepage on Pete’s website, they list the names of shelter clients who died in 2015:
We remember you who were one of us—the people of Pete’s Place . . . We remember your laughter, your tears, your friendship, your troubles. We remember something you said to us one day that eased our suffering, or made us giggle, or caused us to stop and see that we are truly kin.
There are 24 names listed, ranging in age from 33 to 72. At the end of the list of 24 names, there is an asterisk followed by the word “unknown,” signifying the deaths that remain unaccounted for. What does it mean when communities cannot name the people dying in their streets?
In an article on Bernie Glassman’s work with homelessness, Haas wrote, “We need to find ways of weaving our suffering into the tapestry of our lives, individually and as a community. We need to bravely explore a new relationship with pain and sorrow and ask where it fits in. We need to make room for it to fit in. Because it is already here. Shutting it out just means shutting ourselves in. Connecting with the homeless is the only way to bring them home.”
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