As we sat in reflection this morning, as we do twice a day on the Street Retreat, two images came out strongly. One was the flat Civic Center Plaza we sat in, mirrored by the large flat building facades surrounding it. They invoked thoughts of oppression or a depression-like emotional flatness in some retreatants. The other image was of a ladder, six stories up on a building, with a construction worker balanced on the top rung (the one that says “do not step here”). This invoked a sense of instability and fear in the retreatant who noticed it - a feeling I resonate with, while also imagining the sometimes precarious places we must put ourselves in to reach high points in our lives.
Where do we find those high points, and what do we risk in search of them?
Sometimes, time on the streets feels flat - barely more than one long wait in line: for each meal, for a shelter bed, for a shower, for a medical appointment, for the city to wind down enough to allow me to lay down my cardboard and go to bed, for the time to get off the streets to come. What does it mean to spend your days (not just for a week-long stretch like this one) going to meals which are good enough, but almost never exciting? Or to spend your time surviving, not feeling like you are truly living? As I write this, I recognize this is not a manner of existence exclusive to those living on the streets, but may have been an epidemic in our society over the past decades...
What does it take for us to feel most alive?
I recall two experiences as I imagine the construction worker on the ladder high above the city streets. One was at Burning Man, riding around the huge flat expanse know as “The Playa,” and seeing a huge ladder - seemingly 100ft - reaching up to the empty sky. My first reaction to this sight was “I should climb it.” This was quickly followed by a fear felt in the soles of my feet as I imagined myself halfway up the ladder sweating and shaking once my long-held fear of heights kicked in. My response to this fear of fear was to return to the camp which served as my home at Burning Man.
The other experience was scaling the side of my parents’ home - clinging only to pipes and electrical conduit - to install parts of the haunted house we were building there at the time. The fear of heights evaporated under those conditions, and I felt free and alive! It seems like the fear is not so much about the strength of what supports me, but maybe more about what I feel I’m working towards. Or how I sense my purpose.
While on the streets this year, I have not felt much flatness. For the most part I have been able to see this Retreat as a process of personal development and a deepening understanding of the resources available on the streets of San Francisco. I'm grateful to be able to see my time as purposeful, and hope that can be true for all as they walk their paths.