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The Freedom Wall….is one of inspiration

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On my way home from work this afternoon I took the long way home to ride past this free-art project and see the progress. It is titled the Freedom Wall and is sponsored by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This, to me, in these uncertain times and with all the “wall building talk,” it is so inspiring to see a wall such as this with a positive purpose. Here:s an excerpt from their website:

“This space provides the ideal surface for a mural that will respond to the significance of the location as the entrance into the Historic Corridor and that celebrates our nation’s civil rights legacy. The Freedom Wall project (working title) will utilize the design of the wall, divided into sections, to depict portraits of 28 notable civil rights leaders in American history, past and present. The scale of the wall creates a unique opportunity to present a historical narrative that recognizes well-known national activists alongside equally important but less-widely-known local leaders.”

I was glad to see there were a few people working on the wall when I rode up to it, and they were all too eager to talk to me about it and tell me about some of what was going on. Directly below is one of the artists, Edreys Wajed, he’s working on a portrait of William Wells Brown who spent some time in Buffalo at one point. The photo below is a nice young women who is not one of the artists but described herself as a helper, she helps the artists fill things in, she told me. She also gave me a great deal of information about the project. And in the photo directly below that is a rap artist who was being filmed performing in front of Dr. King. In all, there are 28 portraits being painted by four artists and the wall stretches around the corner for two city blocks.

The project is slated to be completed in the next couple weeks and there will be an opening with a street party. This, to me, is really inspiring and worth pedaling a few blocks out of my way to pass it on my way to work.

To learn more about the project, the artists, and the list of people being portrayed, visit their web site here. For directions to the Freedom Wall, click here.

Urban Simplicity.

 

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Two Guys Talking on a Street Corner

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[This is part of a series on Faces of the Homeless and street people, for more in this series click here.)

All things are linked with one another, and this oneness is sacred; there is nothing that is not interconnected with everything else.” ~Marcus Aurelius

At first glance one would not likely think that Gary would be asking for money on the street. Dressed in khakis and a turquoise colored Polo-style shirt embroidered with a little sailboat insignia, he would appear to be just an average middle-aged guy waiting for a bus. But there was something in the way that he scanned people as they passed that I new he was panhandling. I was on my way to a local tavern when I first noticed him as I crossed the street. He looked both shy and a little scared when he asked politely, “Excuse me sir, can you spare some change for a disabled veteran?” Knowing the only money I had on me was a twenty dollar bill, and I was on my way for a beer, I looked him in the eyes and politely but selfishly replied, “No, sorry buddy, I can’t.” As the words came out of my mouth I thought to myself, “can’t” or “won’t,” but still I walked over to the tavern which was just a storefront away.

After the bartender brought me a pint she set my change on the bar, and as I looked at it I couldn’t help but think of Gary who was standing just a storefront away. So I set my book next to my beer, grabbed a ten from the change, told the bartender I’d be right back and walked over to Gary. He looked a bit startled as I walked back towards him, and without offering any money I introduced myself and asked if it would be okay to ask him a few questions and possibly take his photo. Not surprisingly he was leery and wanted to know why. I gave him my card with my blog address and explained to him that I was doing a sort of research with people on the street, that I wanted to hear their stories. He agreed, so here is Gary’s story.

Gary is 49, he’ll be 50 next month. He’s not homeless, he has an apartment which is subsidized. I asked him why he is on the street asking people for money and he told me to help pay his bills. His apartment is subsidized but it’s not free, he told me, and he also added that he doesn’t drink or do drugs. He’s only been panhandling for a “short while,” he also told me. When I asked him what it was like when he first started asking people for money, he averted his eyes, looked down and said, “It was humiliating, it still is, but I have no other choice.”

Gary is a veteran who served our country but here he was on a street corner asking people for money. In the age of affluence in which we live, how can this be, I wondered? He didn’t look physically disabled, I knew it had to be something else, so I asked him. “I hear voices,” he told me, “that’s why I can’t hold a job.” It first started while he was in the Marine Corps, back in 1989. Doing the math, Gary would have been in his early twenties, the age at which schizophrenia often emerges in a person, and this is what he is diagnosed with.

I have found that often people just need someone to listen, and that’s what I did. The two of us on a city street corner on a beautiful summer evening. Just two guys talking.

“I have tried so hard,” Gary told me. He asked me to imagine what it would be like to try to hold a job while people were talking to you from inside your own head. I cannot imagine, I told him. “I have fought back with this disease,” he added. He earned his associates degree from Alfred State, and also holds an electrician certificate. He’s tried to hold jobs, but he can’t. “I’m scared,” he said, “I try so hard but I just can’t do it.” His voice changed and there were tears in his eyes as he said this, which caused tears to well in my own eyes, and now it was me looking away uncomfortably.

It was getting dark now and I asked Gary if he has ever been harassed. A little, he told me, but nothing serious. I encouraged him to be as cautious as he could on this street. It is popular with panhandlers in the evening and I have witnessed some being verbally abused by young college kids coming here for the bars. He knew that he said, and he was planning on heading back to his apartment soon.

Before parting I handed Gary the ten dollar bill and asked again if I could take his photo. I took one of him and was surprised at the big grin he offered to the camera. “I smiled,” he said and then asked to see the photo. On an impulse I asked if we could take one together, which we did. Before parting I offered Gary a bit of encouragement and that I hoped he stays safe and that things will keep getting better. He hoped so also, he replied. Uncharacteristically of me, I almost asked Gary if I could say a prayer for him, but I didn’t, I couldn’t. Instead we talked some more, and I listened.

Back at the bar as I sipped my beer I thought of Gary and hoped he was safe as he made his way back to his apartment. I also thought of how we are all connected in some indescribable way. All of us. Most the time this is difficult to remember, but other times—such as tonight—it is not. It’s as if we enter a thin space, as the Celts call it. That place that is thin enough to get a glimpse through the veil, to see the reality of life and what it means to be alive. While I didn’t offer Gary a verbal prayer, in many ways our conversation—him talking and me mostly listening to his story—was a sort of prayer, something sacred. I need to remember this more often, the sacredness of human interaction. This is what I thought about as I sipped my beer on a warm summer evening with a breeze blowing in the opened front door.

Six Churches in Three Hours…

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I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Two weeks ago I was in New York City, had a day to myself, and went on a sort of self-guided tour to photograph some of that city’s magnificent churches. Whether or not one considers themselves spiritual I cannot imagine not being moved by these incredible buildings. I have, for most of my adult life, enjoyed sitting in the quiet of an empty or near-empty sanctuary. I find it so incredible calming. The first time I noticed this was after not having been in a church for many years. I was in my late twenties and had crossed the border to Tijuana for a day trip. After many beers and walking in the hot sun I passed the Catedral de Nuestra and her doors were open so I went in. I probably sat there in the cool of the silent sanctuary for more than an hour. Since then, whenever I travel, I often find myself sitting in the quiet of a sanctuary if even for just a few minutes. Anyhow, here’s a bit of info with this photo series.

I wanted to start uptown and work my way down, which is what I did. I was staying at Union Square so I took the train to the upper west side, to Riverside, and began at Riverside Church (pictured above). Why I started with this church, and why it has a bit of personal attachment, is because almost three years ago to the day, I sat in the third pew from the front at the isle seat. It was three days after our ordination as interfaith ministers and on that day it was our graduation. The church, on that day, was packed to the gills with nearly fifteen hundred people. It is a day I will never forget. After taking this photo I went and sat in the same spot. It gave me goosebumps.

The rest of the photos I will simply say which church they are as I don’t feel the need to write a dissertation on them. But, if you are at all interested in this type of thing, I urge you to google them and their histories. So many of them have had activist ministers and congregations and interesting histories. Here’s the rest of the churches.

After Riverside, I walked down to St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University (and oddly this is the only one where photography was not allowed…I found out after snapping a photo without a flash). The next church, and the most impressive is is the Cathedral of St. John, which is not only NY’s largest church it takes up multiple city blocks. I then walked over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and arrived just as they were offering Communion at their noontime mass. I sat for a few minutes and then accepted communion as the priests offered it, even though I am not Catholic and the walls did not crumble. From there I took the subway down to lower Manhattan and stopped at two of my favorite churches. First St. Paul’s Chapel (where George Washington worshiped on the eve of his inauguration), and then Trinity Wall Street. Both of these churches are very close to Ground Zero and offered aid and shelter to the rescue workers during their services. Click any image for a slightly larger view.

Urban Simplicity.

The Goodness of Others…

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There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Last night I was supremely humbled and nearly moved to tears. I have never been one to use the phrase, God works in mysterious ways, nor do I even like it. It seems too hokey to me. But here I am thinking it is appropriate to my experience last night.

It was Friday evening and I had planned on going out by bike to feed and converse with the homeless or street people. As you likely know, if you’ve been to this blog prior, I do this on occasion but lately I’ve been doing it more intentionally as part of a project for a course in which I am currently enrolled. With this said, I have to admit I just wasn’t feeling it. That’s okay, I suppose, but it is the truth. For a variety of reasons I simply felt spent, as if I had nothing to offer. Nonetheless, I loaded my bike with some bottles of water and bags of chips and headed out.

I pedaled and coasted slowly downtown and stopped at Fireman’s Park, which is a small patch of greenery near the bus station and Cathedral Park. When I arrived there were people on many of the benches, and most looked as if they could be homeless or on the verge of it. Not speaking with anyone, I stopped at an empty bench, parked the bike, and pulled out a book to read. The book, Instructions to the Cook, A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a life That Matters, is about a Zen community that started a bakery, among other ventures, in and around New York City as a way to serve the homeless. But, as the subtitle suggests, it is also advice on living a life that matters.

Reading was inspiring me, and glancing up from my book I noticed a guy sitting opposite me, maybe 20 feet away, was reading also. Just as I noticed this a woman approached him. I couldn’t hear their conversation but she had animated gestures and I’m assuming she was asking him for money. He didn’t give her money but instead handed her his book. It wasn’t until then that I noticed he was reading a bible. They talked a couple minutes longer and she walked away looking at the bible in her hands. I wondered if the book would offer her any solace.

Then a few people got up and started to walk past me. I turned to see where they were heading. There was a car parked with its trunk opened. Two guys were handing out plastic bags filled with something. A woman passed me and as she did I asked what they were handing out. “Food,” she replied. “Come on, hun,” she added, “they won’t stay long.” She thought I was homeless and was helping me get food.

Wanting to speak to the people handing out the food, I packed up my bag, strapped it to my bike, and began to walk towards the car. It’s interesting, I thought to myself, I’m a city guy who seems to blend in easily. Whether I’m in NYC, Toronto, or even Paris, people seem to assume I am a local and ask me for directions. It was at this point when I looked at my bike with a bag of my personal stuff strapped to the front and chips and water in a basket on the rear, that I realized how I could be mistaken as homeless.

When I approached the car I stood to the side of the line, waiting for everyone to go through so I could speak to the two guys. As I stood there another woman, who was now at the head of the line, looks over at me and says, “Are you a first timer?” A bit taken aback, all I could stammer was, “Yes.” Then she looks at one of the guys handing out food and says, “Give him some first, he’s new here.” Holding up my hand in a sort of protest, I was handed a bag of food, “Here you go, brother,” was what he said when he handed it to me. I thanked him and the woman, who now took her share and began to walk away, and I stood there waiting for the last of the people to go through the line.

There was no longer me and them, it was just us, and it felt odd—but extremely humbling—to be on the receiving end.

Just as the last person went through the line, and they were starting to pack up their things and close the trunk of the car, another person came up. He must have been a regular because they spoke to him by name and apologized that they did not have anything left. Awkwardly, I handed him my bag which he readily accepted.

After introducing myself to the guys I found out that they are with a group called Buffalo’s Good Neighbors. There’s a variety of people who help out, they told me, and they are there once or twice a week. They just want to help people out, he added. I asked if I could take their photo and they reluctantly agreed. I gave them a card and shook their hands before I parted. When I asked them their names, the one whose hand was still in mine at the time, looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “My name is Anonymous.”

 

When I walked my bike back through the park and approached the opposite side, I could see some sweaters laid out on a bench and a guy holding one up to his chest to check the sizing. I asked him where the cloths came from and he told me, “Church people bring them.” I looked at them and could see that they were new shirts. “Go on,” he added, holding the sweater towards my chest for sizing, “they’re free, one will fit you.” I thanked him and hopped on my bike and rode the short distance to Cathedral Park. This is the park which is home to the homeless Jesus statue.

 

There were three people in this micro-park and the first that I noticed was a man sleeping on a bench. It would be impossible to miss the similarity to the sleeping man to that of the Jesus statue which were only a few yards apart. I pulled up to the other two people and asked if they wanted some water and chips. “Yes, please,” they both seemed to say in sync. After handing them each bottles of water and rummaging in the bag of chips to find the type they liked I could see that the sleeping man was awake and now facing me, so I called over and asked him if he, too, would like some water and chips. He didn’t look great as he approached so I asked him how he was doing. “I’m okay,” he said, “but I’ve got a summer cold that’s kicking my butt.” This is probably why he was sleeping covered up on such a warm evening, I thought. I can’t imagine being homeless and sick. When I’m sick all I want to do is lay in my bed or couch. This guy had a bench. 

I sat down on one of the benches and talked with the other guy for a few minutes, just chitchat about the weather, etc. Then as he was finishing his bag of chips he holds up the remaining two, crumbles them in his hands and sprinkles them on the ground for the birds. “They gotta eat, too,” he said with a gleam in his eye as he looked at me.

When I began this evening I was tired. I had been up since 4:30am, it was the end of a long work week, and I was not feeling particularly compassionate. But the series of events that transpired changed things, and in a way changed me. There was the woman who encouraged me to get in line for food, the other woman who let me go ahead of her because I was a “first timer,” the guy who was helping me pick out free clothing, and now this guy sharing his food with birds like some modern day St. Francis. My heart, which in some ways was hardened earlier, was now malleable and split wide open. The light, which is always there but sometimes difficult to see, burst forth and shone not only in the cracks of my own heart but also in those who I met this evening. 

So this is what happened on a particularly humid and windless spring evening in two downtown parks, which in many ways, woke me up to life right in front of me.

It is in giving that we receive.”

~St. Francis

This Too Shall Pass…

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So I’m in NYC for a few days and staying at my usual place just off Union Square. Yesterday afternoon aa I was heading back to my room I came across this art installation by David Datuna. The reason I know who the artist is because as I was photographing the instillation a young woman who helped install it came up to first t ask if I was with the media, and then to tell me a bit about it. The instillation is made of blocks of dry ice which spell out the word Trump. It is the artist’s response to Number 45 pulling out of the Paris Agreement. What’s interesting is that the artist used dry ice, which is a frozen gas (carbon dioxide), rather than regular ice (which of course is frozen water). The instillation, as it melts, doesn’t leave a puddle. It simply dissipates into thin air…

Urban Simplicity.

Meet James…He’s Walking for Water

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It’s interesting, the people one may encounter when walking or biking and not rushing by in a 2000lb shell, otherwise known as a car. Such was the case when I was pedaling home from a coffee shop this morning. I noticed this guy walking with a trailer attached to his waist. That’s interesting, I thought. Then I see a newscaster getting her gear set up to interview him. So I stopped. It turns out James is walking across the country, from Princeton, NJ to San Jose, CA to raise money and awareness to the inaccessibility to drinking water in Africa. He was passing through Buffalo today and on to Canada tomorrow. Here’s some info from his website:

“Hi, my name is James Leitner. When I was seventeen, I was completing a project for one of my high school classes and searched for “water issues” on Google. What I wanted to do with my life changed with that simple search. I learned that 1 billion people in the world do not have access to clean drinking water. At that moment, I wanted to dedicate my life to helping people gain access to this vital aspect of life. Since then, I have helped various nonprofits raise funds in order to build wells in the Central African Republic and Tanzania. I have provided technical assistance to villages in Tanzania and assisted them in maintaining their wells.”

 

With so much negativity in the news these days it is really refreshing to see the good work so many do in our world, such as what James is doing. To donate or read more about his mission (there’s tons of information), visit his website or Facebook page.

A Day in a Life. Journal entry 5.14.17

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“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

 ~Allen Saunders (but often inaccurately attributed to John Lennon)

Sunday.

I wake before the alarm goes off,

and I lay there for a few minutes.

Thinking.

When I go downstairs I turn on the coffee maker.

The dogs scurry about.

They act as if they haven’t seen me in 8 years instead of 8 hours.

I feed them.

Franklin, the finicky one, just looks at me.

I have to feed him a couple pieces of food by hand to get him started.

Coffee ready and dogs in the backyard,

I check emails, the NY Times, and scroll Facebook.

Looking at the clock I realize I’m running late for church,

and I’m scheduled as head usher.

Showered, I wheel one of the bikes down the plank on the porch,

and when I do I notice a tulip in a neighbor’s yard.

It’s withered.

Just yesterday it was in full bloom.

Nothing is permanent, I think to myself.

I snap it’s photo.

As I pedal to church the air feels good.

It’s chilly but the sun is out.

It’s Mother’s Day, and during worship the pastor speaks of mothers.

I think of my mother, who left us too soon.

I think of a specific time and tears well in my eyes.

I hold back tears as I ready myself for collection.

So many years later and I still feel.

I am grateful.

On my way home I stop at a coffee shop,

to read and write.

But it’s crowded and I can’t focus,

so I leave.

I have an egg sandwich for lunch and feed the dogs pieces of the crust.

I lay down and am surprised that I fall asleep for just a few minutes.

After a few stretches I sit on a cushion in front of the small altar,

which is off to the side of the room.

I pray, asking mostly for guidance.

Then I meditate for a few minutes.

I have to pick up photos from a show that came down last week.

But it’s raining, so I make coffee and scroll Facebook,

and wait.

I use my large bike, and a trailer, to retrieve the photos.

The gallery is about two miles away, and I push hard into a strong headwind.

I huff and puff but know that the wind will be at my back on return.

The reward.

Pushing the bike up the plank I notice the tulip again.

Now is all we have.

I switch bikes,

To a shorter one,

then head to the JCC for a steam and swim.

I love riding this particular bike,

but there is an incessant click in the crank,

and it’s gotten louder.

The street is slow and crowded,

I keep pace with traffic,

but I pull over to the side to inspect the sound.

When I do the person behind me beeps

and yells an obscenity out their window.

I make eye contact as they pass and say nothing.

I feel sorry for them.

Angry and saddled to their car.

When I swim it feels good.

In the buoyancy of the water nothing aches.

The steam room feels even better.

I have leftovers for dinner.

Rice-and-beans with roast vegetables.

My dogs stare at me while I eat.

I don’t give them any; they’ve had their meal.

It’s still early so I decide to stop out for a couple beers.

As I pass my neighbor’s I notice the tulip again.

It’s beautiful, even in its weathered and wilted state.

A snapshot of life, I suppose.

Real life.

I walk to the tavern.

It’s still light outside but dark inside.

The first sip of beer tastes good.

If fizzes across my tongue.

When I return home my dogs greet me as if I’ve been gone for two days.

I sit on the floor and let them crawl all over me.

This is now, I think.

Now.

Tomorrow is tomorrow.

Another day in a life.

But now is now.

And it’s beautiful.

But sometimes I need reminders.

To remember.

To return to now.

And that’s okay.

“Every moment and every event of every person’s life on earth plants something in their soul.”

~Fr. Thomas Merton

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