Things You Learn and Things You Need

In college studying journalism, I had this flame haired, free-spirited, and eminently centered classmate named Lisa who later went on to law school. Knowing Lisa--her intelligence, her sense of responsibility, her hatred of corruption, and her compassion, I know she'll be a great lawyer. Lisa was a believer in karma. She understood life is hard, and The Path is littered with obstacles, but she believed every day, and every experience taught you something. Someplace else I heard--can't remember where--that when you're ready to learn, the teacher will appear.

There are some experiences that affect you so deeply you never forget the lessons learned from them. So it was--and is--with my stay in a New York City homeless shelter for women. Here, I learned quickly what I really need and what I don't...

As in death, in homelessness you can't take it all with you. Organizing your belongings is critical. Checking, prioritizing, arranging: everything in its place. Especially papers. The right papers can get you back your life, or win you a brand new one. Why you often see homeless people digging, rummaging through their bags. They have no file cabinets back at the office. They carry their file cabinets with them.

When you have no permanent address, and no home, your stuff is with you all the time, and carrying it around becomes a burden, so you jettison a lot of it. You discover--maybe for the first time--what's really important.

For one woman, it's a green plastic milk crate. In the world of the homeless, this plastic crate has value. This is a sturdy chair. It allows her to rest. It's the only thing between her and the cold, hard sidewalk. She carries it everywhere because, as she explained, "These are valuable out here. You put it down and it's gone."

For Cynthia, it was her blanket. As it was nearly impossible to sleep in the shelter's chairs at night, she spent her afternoons in Central Park snoozing under a tree. Insects didn't bite her, she said, because she threw her blanket down on the grass. Asked if she was afraid to sleep alone in the open like that, she answered no, because there were people all around her in the park, and she wasn't alone.

Catherine had her faith and Jehovah's Witness pamphlets, which she generously shared.

"Jesus will come to avenge the poor who are suffering because of the greed and materialism in the world," she said.

My faith in saviors--whether of political or religious persuasion, has been severely tried in recent years, but I read her pamphlets and found the truths within to be universal. And while I may be a cynic, I hope she's right.

Another thing about this life: there's no bullshit here, no fake people. Much like the Vietnam War vets I've known, veterans of homelessness have no time for falseness. What you see here in Homeless Lane may not always be pretty, but it's always real. And sometimes, it's beautiful.

It turns out the things you need the most--that make life not just bearable but transcendent, are slippery. Words spoken with intent; images of truth glimpsed in a ragged dream, old songs, sung together, shared shampoo. The things that make life soar above the street, and above struggle, are hard to nail down. Difficult, maybe impossible to put into words. These things are formless, but have substance.

When you smack up against it, if your eyes are open, you'll be clear about it--as clear as the full moon on a cloudless night. The thing that makes all this not just bearable--but worth fighting for--is unmistakable. When you come face to face with it, you will recognize it, know it's all you need, and wonder why it took so long: for it to find you, for you to find it.

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