There is a magic that happens in being there.
This is something I’ve learned in spending time on the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin with the Faithful Fools, and streets throughout the country over the past ten years. I learn about the place I’m in with the intimacy of posters on telephone poles, smells wafting from restaurants and alleys, and street corner rants. Taking the time to really be with a place gives me the time to really be with myself, too. I get to learn to read my own internal signs (what makes me uncomfortable, fearful, curious, full of joy?), to know my own smells, and to hear my own rants (what do I care about, right now?). It also calls attention to the peoples’ needs, society’s failings, and the beauty that persists through it all.
This morning I went out into the streets, where I will stay for the next seven days. I left with my ID, library card, a couple books, a sleeping bag, and (hopefully) enough clothes to keep me warm and dry as the weather turns toward San Francisco’s winter this week. I also leave with a cold, triggering questions about how people with no place of their own get healthy. Will I be able to get into a shelter if I need? Where do I go when the warm library (where I sit writing this) closes? Can I find warm drinks? How do I deal with the consequences of staying hydrated when public bathrooms are scarce? How would all this feel if I didn’t know I will have a warm home and bed to return to next Saturday night?
Of course, we can never really know how another feels - this is part of what it means to be separate people. Fortunately, we can get closer to them, and sometimes something important comes across in those moments. This is part of the magic of the Occupy Movement started on Wall Street and now present in cities throughout the U.S. and the world, including San Francisco: by choosing to be close to the centers of financial and political power, the Occupiers create a space for understanding. With so many in our country and the world struggling to afford housing, good food, and health care, we can no longer afford for those who have plenty to pretend they aren’t a part of it.
We go into the streets to make our struggles visible. Some have no other place to go, some would say they are there by choice, and some would say they are compelled to be there. It is a symptom of society’s sickness. I am here to learn about that sickness, and to engage in the healing process. I will spend my next seven days and nights among those most beaten down by a system that has become too efficient at making a few people rich, and among those putting their bodies on the line to call attention to the sickness and engage in a process of healing our power relationships. I will be one of the thousands occupying the streets.
I invite you to join me: in the streets at your local Occupy location, in reflection on where you fit into this story of sickness and healing, in spirit by taking a moment each day to think of us on the streets, or to meet with the eight of us on Street Retreat this week at 10:15 in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza or 5 pm at UN Plaza, where we’ll be daily.
Thanks for your time and compassion.