Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Art of Walking the Streets

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Marin, on May 31, 2015.

A Seven-Day Street Retreat is an extended ritual of gathering, walking the streets and living in reflection, and regathering to reflect together. As Performance and Ritual share the same mother, it is also my favorite work of performance art. In concluding this year’s retreat, I asked:

“What is the art of walking the streets?”

...and wrote in response:

No room for the Fools, even in the manger.
“In this performance, eight Fools went out into the streets of downtown SF, with only what they could carry, living as they imagined they would if they were homeless. There were spectators, who merely observed the Fools from a distance, as well as other players - some willing, some not. Some played along, treating these Fools like the roles they imagined they were in. Others treated them like the actors they knew them to be.

“Sometimes, it was hard to know the difference.

“Did the Fools change how they see themselves by walking through this space of confused identity?

“Did how the world sees itself, or how the world sees people on the streets, change by the Fools being seen in these roles?

“How would we know?”

Of course, we can’t know. But we do know that art changes the world, through changing how we see it. A great work of art does not change the world in one specific way, as it is seen and interpreted in countless ways. Art that attempts to speak only one message is called “propaganda.”

This is not what we are attempting in presenting the Street Retreat.

What is changed when Faithful Fools sleep outside of a church on sheets of cardboard? When rain soaks through their sleeping bags? When they gather under the eaves of another church, in front of a painting of a manger? When a man who has lived on the streets for years joins them, after being run off by a security guard, from another part of that church’s property? When that same security guard comes upon the group of them, tells them they can rest there a moment, but not the whole night - and does not return to make sure they don’t stay?

We may not see the change, but we know it’s there.

On the last morning of the Retreat, I stood outside my favorite coffee shop, begging for a hot cup. It isn’t easy for me to ask for help, and especially not for money. I hoped the empty cup in my hand, my tiredness, and slept-in clothes would tell the story for me, as I said “good morning!” to everyone who passed. Some returned the greeting on the way into, or out of, the coffee shop. One man tied up his two dogs, and asked me to watch them while he was inside. I did.

After standing there for over an hour and getting nothing, I realized I was glad to be playing the role of morning greeter. In the city I want to live in, people say “hi” to each other on the street.

Something changed.

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