The fall has settled upon us like a dense fog. The fall has settled upon us, silently easing down and weaving its way around while we were lost in work and restless sleep, while we were caught in crisis after crisis relentless as September rain and deafening as the sound of thunder on steel. So far, it’s been a damp and foggy October and I’m just beginning to find my footing, to see through the breathless and dizzying haze of last month. And gradually, from here, my head begins to clear. Gradually, from here, I begin to sense the seasons shifting and know that something in me and around me is changing. “There is a turn in things that makes the heart catch,” writes Marge Piercy, and my heart catches in my chest as I breathe, as I look around at the trees catching flame, as I feel a kind of love strengthening my frame.
We have just lived through the “Ten Days of Awe” in the Jewish calendar between Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year—and Yom Kippur—the Day of Attonement. We have just lived through the ten days of wonder and repentance and now we sit with hollow bellies and “afflicted souls.” We sit and breathe, contemplating the past and future, tethered to the present by our grumbling stomachs and grinding hearts, by our hunger for mercy and for bread. Despite my best attempt at living into the depths of Ordinary Time, something in me longs for something sacred so I sink into the holy days of other traditions, humbly gleaning all I can from centuries of wisdom, centuries of wrestling, centuries of breathing meaning into madness, madness into meaning.
During my month of breathlessness, I spent more time in hospitals than I did on the streets. I entered into the angst of emergency rooms accompanying people with addiction and mental health crises, seizures and infections, head wounds and liver failure. I went in with the broken and bloodied and uninsured, with the man who kept his headphones on to drown out the voices in his head, with the man who squeezed my hand as we talked about songs for his funeral, as we laughed and wept together before his death. I went in dazed from the revolving door that spins from the streets to the hospitals and back, lost in the long hours of waiting, in the maze of systems that cannot heal. Yes, I went in lost and reeling, but came out feeling found. I went in blind and heaving, but came out with shifted sight. And now, as I sit and breathe on this “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” I wonder what happened to me inside those sterile walls.
. . .
On a sweltering summer day some months ago, I sat in the alley near 5th and Main and listened to Kentucky talk about life, friendship, and the struggles of being confined to a wheelchair on the streets. I listened as cop cars passed us by, as dust and trash danced in the hot breeze around us. Kentucky was wearing the lion-face shirt we picked out together at Thrift Smart, he had a half-empty 40 tucked between his leg and his chair, and his eyes flashed the most electric blue against his deeply sunburnt skin. He looked to his friend Jerry who is, without glasses, nearly blind, and then looked to me. Together, these men and others on the streets have taught me, even at their grittiest, more about sight, more about caring for one another, than the halls of any church or seminary. “Well, I’m crippled and Jerry’s blind,” Kentucky explained, “so when he pushes me across the street, I say, ‘Whoa! I’ll be your eyes and you be my legs.’ And so we go, the crippled leading the blind.”
And sometimes, on days like this when I’m remembering how to breathe, I wonder if I’m the one who is crippled, if I’m the one who is blind.
Lately, several people on the streets have handed me their glasses. They hand me their glasses and say, “here, take a look,” so I take the frames and put them on—the amber-tinted sunglasses, the bent bifocals, the flimsy reading glasses. I put them on and look at the blurred, amber-tinted world for as long as I can stand it. I squint at their faces, at the sky, at the rush of cars speeding by, and for a moment, I realize how differently everything looks from here. The glasses are an invitation to see through their eyes, to step into their world where nothing is clear and everything smudged with grime, scratched with grit, and tinted in shades of amber, shades of gray.
Yes, if I’ve learned anything on the streets, it’s that nothing is clear-cut, nothing is black or white. Everything, everyone, is layered in endless complexities while “good and evil,” “sacred and profane,” “deserving and undeserving,” melt into each other like hot wax. As my dear friend Kate Savage recently said about our experiences with Occupy Nashville, “Do you want to know what happens to truth when you’re out there on the plaza? Truth drops out of itself. Truth evaporates into rumor. You crack open an egg of a fact and you discover it is hollow inside.” So I strain to see through the lenses as through lifting fog, mystified, wondering about the nature of sight, wondering about the nature of truth and justice and mercy, wondering if I’m even asking the right questions.
As I sat for the fourth time with Dave, the seizing man in the hospital, I asked him what he thought would change things for him, what he thought he was missing. He was finally wounded enough to cease his fighting, his swollen eyes the blood-red color of beets ripening beneath the ground. Someone had pounded in his face, his ribs, his will when he was too drunk to defend himself. This time, he was miserable enough to let the nurses poke him, to let them tether his beaten body to machines. This time, it would be harder to walk out against medical advice, and graciously, Samuel pulled the longer hours of waiting.
“So what do you think would changes things,” I asked while I gave Samuel a break. “What do you think is missing?” After scowling at me, after wincing at the pain, after thinking, Dave gave his reply. “It’s like the story of Rumplestilskin tearing himself in two,” he said, looking down at his sky-blue hospital socks. “He unraveled himself and one part of him lived in London and the other in Paris. And he went on living like that for years and years, but all along, he knew something was missing… It’s like sometimes what you’re missing is a piece of yourself that you may never be able to get back, you know?”
. . .
We are crippled and blind, torn in two, our bodies pummeled like dough and broken like bread. We’re offered up to the gods of wayward systems, the gods of addiction, the gods of greed and the status quo. Take and eat O gods, fill your bloated bellies with our want. Take our money, take our agency, take our dignity. We may never get them back.
A couple weeks after another man was released from detox, he received his hospital bill: over $14,000 for his seven day stay. Because of that hospitalization, he’s alive, in housing, and more sober. He has a shot at life and is looking for ways to heal. But now, he’s in even deeper debt. When the police arrested him for public intox on the streets, he was hit with meager court fees, but when he went to the hospital seeking help, seeking life, seeking treatment, his bill was more than he’s made in years. Yes, take and eat. This is our body, broken for your profit. This is our body, broken so the boat is never rocked.
So I hurl the same questions out into the universe: What would change things? What is missing? Why does this continue to happen? Why are our systems of “healing,” of “justice,” so disjointed? We blindly shovel the broken bodies like coal into the furnace, believing that the blood of the crushed will appease our Western gods, that it will keep us comfortable, secure, and, above all, free. “Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing,” says Simone Weil. “It is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”
These questions are always on my mind, and as I search for answers, I put on the lenses of the damned, wade through the dusty streets and sterile halls, and try, somehow, to place my body, my heart, on their side. And then, there is a turn in things. And then, another set of questions begin to haunt me: Why in this fog of brokenness do I feel more whole? Why in this maze of loss do I feel found?
“James,” the dying carpenter with kind eyes and a thoughtful presence, James, the “gentle giant” of a man everyone loved, could still squeeze my hand even after he lost his ability to talk, to eat, to open his eyes. He could still squeeze my hand and hear everything we said until he passed from this jaded world to the mystery of the next. James was 45 and dying from liver failure, his jaundiced skin yellowing by the day. We got him to the hospital in time to find his family in Virginia, in time to say goodbye to the ones he loved, to escape the despair of dying alone on the streets, but not in time to curve his fate.
We brought his friends in to see him and they told story after story about the ways he helped them over the years. His friend who greeted him as “big cat daddy” said that whenever he was thrown in jail for a few days, James kept his buggy and all his worldly belongings safe until he was released. Jerry told us about a time when both he and Kentucky were in wheelchairs. When night came and it was time to find a safe place to rest, James pushed Kentucky up a block and then went back, got Jerry, and pushed him up that block. He alternated one block for Kentucky and one for Jerry until he got them to the porch of a church. He made sure they had what they needed and then came back in the morning to push them to a local service provider with food and laundry facilities and showers. He pushed them, rain or shine, across streets, through alleys, and up the hill on Shelby Avenue. And so they went, the dying leading the crippled leading the blind.
Yes, there is a turn in things that makes the heart catch. Perhaps it’s not James who is lost, it’s not Kentucky who is crippled, it’s not Jerry who is blind. Perhaps it’s me, perhaps it’s the collective “us.” What will it take to remove the scales from our eyes? What will it take for us to challenge the gods and drive a spoke into the wheel that crushes the poor, that crushes us all? When we hunger for mercy, for bread, let us be broken only for each other. Let us go, churning meaning into madness and madness into meaning. Let us go together turning and breathing and being found. The twisted lenses have been handed to us—“here, take a look”—and if we have the courage to put them on, to look at the world from this perspective, this side, what we see may just change our lives, and the lives we save may be our own.