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And then this happened…

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(Photo taken in 2014)

The beginning is always today. 

~ Mary Shelly 

It was a beautiful morning, and the day still is. On my ride to church I was thinking how beautiful it was. I was scheduled as an usher so arrived a bit early, and I also hadn’t been to worship in a couple weeks so I was looking forward to it. Anyhow, I was locking my bike in my usual fashion…set the opened u-lock on the rear basket while I thread the long cable through both wheels. Then as I grabbed the u-lock to secure it all together there was a sharp pain in the palm of my hand, it caused me to shake it and exclaim. I hadn’t seen anything and didn’t even know what happened. Then I saw a bee—wasp, I think—crawling on the ground and then fly away. It was then that that I realized, with the telltale redness and stinging, that I had just been stung. But still, I stood there for a minute or so in disbelief. The next emotion was one of panic and fear, at least a little. You see, two years ago after being stung by a wasp I discovered in a very scary way that I am allergic to wasps and bees. At that time I had, after two trips to the ER in 20 hours—as the nurse read from her data base today—“an extreme anaphylactic reaction.” I am supposed to carry an EpiPen with me at all times, and at first I did, but I have become lax. Today, as I looked at my hand I knew that I did not have one with me. 

So I calmly went into church and asked another congregant if they would cover my usher duties for the day, and I hopped on my bike to ride the mile or so to the nearest hospital. On the way I was monitoring the reaction my body was having, other than a slight chill everything seemed okay. Unconsciously I began to say a silent prayer that I have said many times prior…Loving God, creator of all things, remove my fear and replace it with your love.  

When I approached the receptionist and told her I would like to see a physician she asked me why, and when I explained that I have been stung by a bee and was allergic they took me almost immediately. After connecting me to all sorts of wires, taking my vitals, giving me medications, and asking me tons of questions, they left me to rest for more than an hour, likely to see if there would be any reactions. Thankfully there have been only minor ones at this point (but they can take up to 36 hours to arise I am told). One reaction was the aforementioned chills, but this was very minor compared to those I had two years ago where I shook so violently it was difficult to stand. The nurse told me she would turn on the TV if I wanted but I told her no thank you.

As I lay there I couldn’t help but think how fragile we are…these bags of skin and bones which house our spirit. I often forget this, that something as simple as an inch-long insect could take me out. And as I was thinking this I thought that I should pray. I tried, but no words would come. But what did come was this sense that I didn’t need to pray, at least not at this time, because the Divine Presence was with me right there as it always was with me as with everyone equally. I stopped shivering and it was as if the sound was turned down. That’s the only way I can explain it. Even though I could still hear the nurses in the hall and the sound of beeps of electronics connected to me and others, everything as quiet and still. It lasted only a few seconds (I think) but it was enough to calm me. Reassure me. My blood pressure dropped. 

Now as I sit comfortably at home, drowsy from Benadryl, I think of the following words that wrote in my journal a few weeks ago…One of the most incredible things about living is that we can begin again. Not just each day but each moment. I don’t feel this every day, of course, but I do now. So on this day at this very moment I choose to begin again, because it is a choice…a mind-shift. And tomorrow I will likely need to begin again, again.

Earlier when I tried to pray but couldn’t I believe I was in some ways. In the peace and calm that I felt, even if it was just for a few seconds, I knew everything would be okay no matter the outcome. So in some way I believe I was consciously or unconsciously giving thanks. And that may be enough. 

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.  

~ Meister Eckhart

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Lily Dale…Where Lines are Blurred

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I heard again and again. People say they can feel Lily Dale’s power when they enter the gates. It calms some people and revs others up.”

~Christine Wicker

So I just finished reading the book about the tiny spiritualist community that resides about 60 miles south of Buffalo, Lily Dale, The Town that Talks to the Dead, by Christine Wicker. I’ve been intrigued by this community for years and finally got around to visiting, thus this is a two part posting. It is about my thoughts of the book and also of my visit, which in many ways meld together. But before I begin I have to tell you about my journey to get there, which has been 27 years in the making.

On a beautiful day in the summer of 1990, not unlike the one when I visited Lily Dale last week or the one now as I type these words, my girlfriend and I were on our way for a day trip to Lily Dale. It was upon her insistence as I had never heard of the hamlet. We were young and had so much ahead of us. We would later marry, have a child, who is now a beautiful young man not much younger than we were when this story began, and then later we would separate but remain friends. Anyhow, for some reason I can remember the day but not what the argument was about. As we drove down Interstate 90 we got into such an argument that we actually halted the trip and turned around. In retrospect I wonder if something was keeping us from our visit. Over the years I thought of visiting many times but never did, until last week, but again it was a struggle to get there.

As many of you know I do not own a car but am a member of Zip Car, so a week ahead of my planned trip I reserved a vehicle. The evening before my trip I received a phone call telling me there was a problem with the vehicle and they had to cancel my reservation, and sorry but there are no more vehicles available. What, I thought to myself? I decided to check their website and there was a vehicle available but it was about 4 miles away; I booked it anyhow as I had planned other errands prior to driving to Lily Dale. So the morning of the reservation I rode my trusty little folding bike to the car and put it in the back. Noticing it had only a half-tank of gas I stopped to fill it. For those that don’t know, gas is free with a car-share; the cost is worked into your membership. So I stopped at a gas station and attempted to put gas in the vehicle using the Zip Car credit card and my membership number. It wouldn’t work so I went inside the store to ask the clerk for help. She ran the card, then looked up at me awkwardly and says, “It says you’re an invalid driver.” What?

So I call the company, and yes, they say there is a problem with my card, you’ll be issued a new one but in the meantime use your own card and you will be reimbursed. Ugh, okay, so I used my own card. I then drove out to the suburbs, at Empire State College, to meet with my mentor. I get there and he wasn’t. Really? We had made a change in our plans and he didn’t make the change in his calendar. My blood pressure was slowly rising.

Okay, I thought, I’ll stop at a diner for lunch before the ride. After lunch I get in the vehicle and it won’t start. Nothing. Nada. Are you freaking kidding me? Blood pressure continues to rise. So I call the company again, they agree that it is a “weird occurrence,” but they are able to diagnose the problem and start the vehicle remotely. After the vehicle was started I sat for a minute to collect myself and I spoke aloud to the Universe, “Look, I’m not sure what the deal is, but I am going to make it to Lily Dale today, with or without your help or permission,” and then I drove off. The remainder of the ride was uneventful other than the front end of the vehicle needed a wheel alignment (I’m assuming) and felt at times that someone was pulling the wheel from the left and then to the right. Nonetheless, I did make it, and the minute I entered the gates I felt peaceful and calm.

Christine Wicker first went to Lily Dale about 20 years ago as a reporter from a large Texas newspaper. She had gone with an open mind; not necessarily a believer but not there to debunk either. What was supposed to be a short stint ended up being multiple visits spanning a couple years. In this same way, I approached Lily Dale as both a believer and a skeptic. In short, I am open to most things until proven false. I also believe in mind power and that there is far more to this existence that our puny human senses can perceive.

What would later be called spiritualism, began in 1848 in a small cottage in Hydesville, NY, which was owned by the Fox family. They began hearing “knocks” at night, and could communicate with the knocks by offering variable knocks in return. It was deduced that the knocks came from the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered and buried in the cellar of the cottage. Feeling as though the spirit was speaking directly to them, two of the Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret, eventually went on to speak in front of large audiences. Thus was the very beginning of spiritualists offering “messages” from the spirit world.

According to Wicker, during the 1800’s Western and Central New York became so known for the “mighty works of the spirit” that the region became known as the “burned over district,” because of the fires of Christian revivals that swept through the area. Another example of this “fire” can be seen with Joseph Smith, who in 1823 claims to have received golden plates from an angel, which happened just outside Rochester, NY. Smith, of course, went on to found Mormonism and the plates were translated into the Book of Mormon.

Lily Dale was originally founded as a sort of revivalist tent camp, eventually buildings were added and it became the quaint Victorian town that it is today. Interestingly, the town is still referred to as a camp by it’s residents and summer is called camping season. The Fox cottage was moved to Lily Dale in 1916 but burned to the ground in 1955. Today, the patch of ground on which the cottage sat is considered a sort of holy ground by spiritualists.

In her interesting and highly entertaining book, Christine Wicker profiles many of the towns eclectic residents, those that currently reside there and those that have crossed over to the spirit world (as they are not referred to as dead in Lily Dale). One of the residents that I would loved to have met is Lynne Mahaffey. According to Wicker, Lynne first came to Lily Dale in the 1940s, and when arriving she felt the urge to immediately remove her shoes because she knew she was on holy ground. At the time of writing the book, Lynne is described as an elderly grandmother who rides around Lily Dale each morning on an old Schwinn bicycle. She does it for her heart and the world, the author states. She would ride for the physical exercise but also would pray for all of humanity as she rode. I’m assuming, given her age at the time and the time lapsed since the book was written, that Lynne has crossed over to the spirit world. She did not communicate with me on my visit. 

I have to admit that there is something to Lily Dale; there is a certain feel to the place. After my frustrating morning I did feel a sense of calm the minute I arrived. Maybe it’s the throwback feel of the village…the unpaved roads and quaint Victorian buildings transported me to another time. Or maybe it was just all in my head. Nonetheless, it was real to me at the time. I felt at peace.

One of the things I noticed right away were all the figurines. They were everywhere. Small statues of angels, elves, fairies, gnomes, cats, dogs, you name it, they were everywhere. In windows, front lawns, and in the woods, one could not escape the tiny statues. It was while I was squatting down to take a photo of some figurines in a front lawn that a golf cart rode up behind me. “Are you interested in fairies,” the person questioned? Somewhat startled, I turned, “What,” was all I said. “Well, I see you’re taking photos of fairies, have you been to the Fairy Trail?” When I told the cheerful and welcoming woman that I hadn’t, she told me it was on the opposite end of the camp, and then said, “Hop in, I’ll take you there.” Under “normal circumstances” I would not have gotten into the golf cart of someone I didn’t know, but I surprised myself when I did.

As we rode I received a sort of impromptu tour of the camp. My guide asked if it was my first time there. Yes, I told her, and that I was reading a book about Lily Dale and wanted to visit. The Town that Talks to the Dead book, she questioned? I told her it was. She simply smiled and told me she was in the book. Her name is Shelly, she told me after I asked. I’ll remember her name, I said, because I have a sister by the same name. She has summered at Lily Dale for 40 years, she also told me.

After arriving home that evening I flipped through the book. It turns out there are large portions of the book devoted to Shelly. She is a retired psychologist who, at the time of the writing of the book, lived at Lily Dale with Frank, her husband and retired philosophy professor. On our tour Shelly did not speak of Frank but she did talk about her children and grandchildren. She drove me past Mother’s Garden, where here children had just planted flowers.

Shelly founded the esoteric group, Lower Archy of the Pink Sisterhood of the Metafuzzies and Blissninnies, whose motto is “We don’t know jack shit, but we care.” A no-nonsense type of a person, regarding her thoughts on the secrets of the mediums she is quoted in the book, “Either they’re crazy or I’m stupid.” In the short time I was in Shelly’s golf cart she pointed me in the directions of the Fairy Trail, the Pet Cemetery, the museum, and the Buddhist Monks who were preparing a sand mandala in the fire hall. Before parting I asked if I could take a selfie of us, she readily obliged.

After visiting all of the said places, I meandered over to Inspiration Stump, which resides in Leolyn Woods and is considered the holiest place in Lily Dale. It is here that people gather twice daily and mediums offer free messages to a few people. I was surprised at how beautiful it was, I felt as if I were in a sort of outdoor cathedral, and in some ways I suppose I was. The person introducing the mediums claimed that the area was a vortex or portal to the spirit world. I’m not sure how I felt about that, but it was very pleasant. Unfortunately, I found the message service uninspiring. I stayed to listen to three mediums which all followed the same format. They would choose a person from the audience and ask if they could “come to them,” or “enter their energy.” They would then say what they were “getting,” which to me seemed pretty vague, such as an aunt or grandmother from the spirit world wanted to let the person know that they were doing well and that they were proud of them. Maybe it would have been different if a medium entered my energy where specifics meant something, but these messages just seemed vague. The thing is, I really do believe that there are people that can channel energies or make connections to something unexplainable, but on this day I don’t believe I witnessed it.

I also went to a service at the open-aired auditorium, which are conducted free twice daily. This, to me, resembled more of a church service. People gathered, sung hymns, and a medium spoke. They refer to their talks as messages and not sermons. I enjoyed the daily message, which like most of the messages at Lily Dale, fortified being a good person, believing in yourself, and believing in others. The speaker quoted from Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dryer, and other New Thought authors. She also spoke of the power of personal affirmations, and recited a couple of the principles of Spiritualism which were posted in large letters next to the stage. The fifth principle is the only one that I personally have difficulty with, and that seems to be a main focus at Lily Dale. Honestly, I went away feeling positive and feeling good about myself and the world. The message did it’s job.

Principles of Spiritualism

1 We believe in God.

2 We believe that God is expressed through all Nature.

3 True religion is living in obedience to Nature’s Laws.

4 We never die.

5 Spiritualism proves that we can talk with people in the Spirit World.

6 Be kind, do good, and others will do likewise.

7 We bring unhappiness to ourselves by the errors we make and we will be happy if we obey the laws of life.

8 Everyday is a new beginning.

9 Prophecy and healing are expressions of God.

Throughout it’s history many famous people have been drawn to Lily Dale. Susan B Anthony was a regular, for example. While I was in the museum the attendant showed me a photo of Susan B. Anthony at the camp and flanked by bodyguards because, according to the attendant, her life was in danger. May West was also a regular at the camp and had a personal medium, Jack Kelly, who was a celebrity himself among the mediums. Harry Houdini also visited the camp on several occasions and was able to debunk many of the fraudulent activities. He was so feared by the mediums that it is said they would lock their doors when there was news of him at the camp.

In her book, Christine Wicker discusses the many classes she took and messages that were given by countless mediums, and it seems she wanted to believe so badly but flip-flopped between belief and unbelief. She doesn’t speaks disparagingly about the mediums or their practices, and in the end she seems to have come to terms with what she felt the camp is really about, a sort of transformation, “It’s as though we live inside a big egg, whose shell is made up of a million perceptions, comments, and occurrences that have hardened around us and blocked our view of anything else. All we see are the calcified remains of our experience, and everyday the shell gets thicker. Lily Dale’s spirits tap, tap, tap away until they break a tiny pinhole in the shell. A strange light comes through. And some of us start to kick our way out.”

In the beginning of reading this book a problem I had with it—and I don’t mean this to sound snarky—is that I felt like this movement was a bit self-centered in that it focused on the individual rather than others. Mostly I felt like it was about trying to speak with the dearly departed. What I’ve come to think is that it is more about healing and transformation. Many people go to Lily Dale to be healed, physically or emotionally, which in turn can transform them. And like any transformation they then can then offer love to others, such as Lynne when she rode her bike and prayed for the world as a whole, but also on a smaller more individual level, to help a person feel good about themselves and those around them. Because if a person feels good about themselves they can spread good. A person first has to love themselves before they can love another..

So at the end of the day and the end of the book what do I think or believe? Well, as aforementioned, I do believe there is more than we can see, and I do believe that there are mysteries in this world. Like many, I myself have had mystical experiences, but at the same time I feel they sound trite when verbalized. Are there people—mediums—who can communicate with those “on the other side?” Yes, likely. Can everyone at Lily Dale do it (or are all of us capable of doing it as they claim)? Also, was there “something” keeping me from making my visit to the camp as outlined in the beginning of this writing? Maybe, I don’t know, but doubtful. I don’t mean for that to sound skeptical even though it likely does.

It’s interesting though how many people began going to this small hamlet with a visit and became entranced, many stayed for the rest of their lives. I have to admit, that on driving through the gates I felt good, and even though I have only spent one day there I seem to be thinking about it a lot over this past week. But why, I wonder. Maybe there is something to the place that is unexplainable. Maybe I need to visit again, and I will. Soon. Very soon. 

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

The Invisibles.

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Oh no I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough.”

Michael Stipe

I saw him coming. He was walking his bike towards me and eyeing me, but I really wasn’t in the mood; I wasn’t feeling generous or giving. Brandon Lee, that was his name, he told me when I asked. “I’m not homeless,” he also added, after asking me for money. His bike was loaded down, not in the way someone does if they were touring, but more so it was loaded down with what looked like everything he owned. His bike, he told me, keeps him young. He’s 54, he also added. I’m just a year older than him, I told him, and that I also ride bikes. Such similarities but so many differences. He asked me again for money, to which I skirted the subject by asking him a question, “Hey Brandon, if I wanted to offer food to the homeless, where should I go?” “Outside the bus station would be a good place to start,” he said.” “Really, I was thinking about the homeless Jesus statue,” I countered. “Naw man,” he continued, “That’s just where people go to grab stuff that church people leave for them. The bus station, outside the City Mission, under the bridges by the Mission, that’s where you’ll find them.” I reached for my wallet and handed him two dollars, I felt like I was paying an informant. When I handed him the money he thanked me, called me his brother, and then started rattling off other places to find the homeless. He was still talking as I rounded the corner. I could no longer see him but I could still hear him.

It’snothing new for me to offer street people money, or at least engage with them and offer a little dignity. One person talking to another person. But this was different, in a way. This is a project I am doing for a class I am currently enrolled, Society and Religious Belief. Truth be told, I’ve thought of doing this in the past on my own but never have. This, I thought, would give me the initiative. I was given much leeway with this project and this is what I chose, and now I questioned myself. When offering change and conversation on the streets I’m familiar with, that’s on my terms, but in some ways what I was about to embark on was theirs.

My original plan was to make sandwiches and coffee and carry them on one of my cargo bikes. But I wasn’t sure what to expect and didn’t want things to go to waste, so as a start I opted for bottled water and snack chips. So armed with a case of water and a 24 pack of chip varieties, I headed out by bike.

Against Brandon’s advice, I thought I’d stop at the homeless Jesus statue first as it is only a couple blocks from the bus station, but I stopped before I arrived. Though Buffalo is going through a great renaissance, downtown on a Thursday night after 5pm still turns into a ghost town.

I was stopped at a traffic light at a major intersection and to my right was a guy sitting on a ledge with bags next to him. We were just a few feet apart. I looked over at him and our eyes met, “How you doing, man,” I asked him? He looked down, started shaking his head from side to side and was speaking but it was so soft I couldn’t hear him. He looked to be about my age and was a rather large guy. So I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.” Now he looked up directly into my eyes and said, “I’m hungry.” I asked him first if he new of the soup kitchens around the city and then recommended a couple. I pulled the bike over and asked if he wanted some chips and water, which he did. After handing him a couple bottles of water I asked him what kind of chips he wanted. “Whichever kind you don’t like,” he responded. He didn’t want to eat the ones that I liked. When I handed them to him he opened them immediately and started eating. His vice was barley audible. His name is Jeff and he’s a veteran of the Air Force. He’s been on the streets “for a while.” I shook his hand and asked if he wanted more chips or water. He didn’t. He never asked me for money or food, or anything.

When I arrived at the homeless Jesus statue there were a few people there so I sat down on a ledge next to the statue. After a few minutes a guy I saw earlier on my ride came by. He was wearing sweatpants and bright orange sneakers that seemed too large for his feet. Walking in a hurried manner somewhat anxious manner, he carried a garbage bag which I could tell was filled with empty bottles and cans, which one person referred to as “homeless currency.” They’ll steal that shit the same as they steal money, he told me. Anyhow, when he approached he started rummaging through a garbage can for more empties. One he pulled out, I could see as he examined it, was full with the tab intact. He popped the tab, I could hear it’s fizzy release from where I was sitting, and then chugged a little. I decided to head to the bus station and as I passed him I asked him if he would like any chips or water. “Oh, no thanks brother, I’m just collecting cans.”

I stopped in front of the bus shelter for just a brief period as there was not much happening there. But while I was there, and as I passed a statue of a buffalo (as in Buffalo, NY), it reminded me of another time I saw this statue after taking a bus from Nashville. I had just returned from externship from culinary school. Both of my parent were already deceased and while I was gone our family home was sold. It was an odd feeling. I remember seeing this statue at night while waiting for one of my sisters to pick me up. I was an adult, of course, but I felt like an orphan. And in some ways that feeling has never left me. I can not imagine the loneliness one must feel when they are on the street. Alone and invisible.

I don’t want to paint this with rose colored glasses in that the homeless are all gentle street people and nice. On the contrary. Many have problems that keep them on the street and being able to function in “normal society (what is normal?), but it doesn’t mean they are not fellow equal humans on planet earth. No one, as little kids, intends to or aspires to end up on the street, but many do. Anyhow, as I coasted to another stop at a red light at a rather deserted intersection there was a person sitting on the sidewalk reading a book. With many bags next to them, they were so bundled up head-to-toe I could not tell if they were a man or women. I look over at them, say hello. “Fuck you,” is all they blurt back without looking up from their book. I was just going to offer you some water or chips if you’d like some, I say. “Fuck you. Get the fuck away from me,” is how they replied. So I rode on.

Then there is Ann. I’ve seen her on a few occasions but just learned her name yesterday. She was in a doorway with her belongings next to her on a particularly desolate and somewhat dangerous street. She was shivering and looked scared. The clothes she wore would be more appropriate on a younger woman but she may have been younger than she looked. I coasted to a stop in front of her, said hello, and asked if she would like some water or chips. Yes, she said. I handed her two bottles of water and asked what kid of chips she wanted, “Any kind is fine,” she said. After talking with her for a couple minutes she interrupted and asked abruptly, “You married?” Taken aback, I smiled and blushed a little by the surprise of the question so out of context, “Nope, divorced,” I told her, “How ‘bout you?” The same, she said. 

 

Night was falling and I wanted to head home, but on my way I thought I’d stop by the bridges that Brandon had mentioned. I’d seen them before as I’d ridden by on bikes or in cars, the people sleeping under the viaducts. When I approached the first bridge it was empty, except for some trash and other evidence. But when I surveyed the upper ledge where they would sleep—where I would sleep if I were without a home—I could see that there were steel bars installed to keep people from laying there.

I pedaled on, and at this point (sorry to be so graphic) but I had to urinate. This is not a problem if one is part of normal society but what if one is homeless. What about defecation. Such basic private bodily functions I take for granted. 

 

At the second of the two bridges there was a small encampment at the top of the bridge. Not at the very top—the shelf, as I’m told it is call—but the next level. This bridge had double metal bars to keep people from laying in it’s most secure spot. I called up, “Yo, you up there?” No answer. I stood there for a minute, trying to imagine that this was my home, temporary or not. The smell of sewer wafted in my nostrils and I shivered a little. I walked up the incline and set two bottles of water and two bags of chips next to the sleeping bag. I pedaled on.

I’m almost home and stop at a bar for a beer, mostly to relive myself but also because I know there is free live music and I need some beauty. I feel fragile. After ordering a beer I retreat to the restroom. I’ve been here before and know that as I stand at the urinal there is a large mirror behind me. A passage of the book, Down To This, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, comes to mind. The author voluntarily spends time in Toronto’s shanty town, which at the time (early 90’’s) was the largest in North America. He panhandles and plays billiards in bars for money. Anyhow, there’s a passage where he talks about flirting with a person in the bar. He then goes to the restroom and sees himself in the mirror and almost doesn’t recognize himself. He had forgotten, for a minute, that he was homeless and was surprised at how disheveled he looked.

After relieving myself and washing my hands I walked past the mirror but consciously looked away. I didn’t know who I would see.

We’re all just walking each other home.

~Ram Dass

Urban Simplicity.

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

Mystery…two brief stories about the same thing

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The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

~Albert Einstein

I have always believed in the mystery of the unseen. No, I am not referring to ghosts, but simply that there is more to this life than we can see. What is reality, after all? Science will tell you that everything we can see and touch is not actually solid but is moving and vibratory (Google string theory as one example). But I have to restate my opening sentence, or at least amend it.

I have always believed in the mystery of the unseen but don’t always remember or know it. By this, I mean that I am not always open to it. Such has been the case these past few months. Trying to manage a full-time job, a part-time job, and 8 credits of schooling (and trying to have a life) has been trying to say the least. So I just shut things out and live in the material world, which isn’t always my favorite place. The irony is that some of the credits I’m taking, and the class that has been most challenging for me, is a religious studies class. The reading and writing required for the class is approached academically rather than theologically or devotional, in short in my head not my heart. When I get like this I sometimes need a slap in the face to wake me out of my slumber so I can again see the incredible mystery that is all around me. And this is what happened a few days ago.

As with all of us, there are certain dates of the calendar year that have great significance to me. I’m not referring to holidays, but personal dates we remember each year. There’s one such date that I remember each year and on that day take a sort of pause, to remember. What the date means to me is something I’d rather not share in this public forum other than it is very personal. It has had life-altering significance and on that day I simply remember. But this year I didn’t remember; I forgot. I didn’t realize I forgot but I did. Then, out of the blue, I received a text from someone who made reference to the date. 

Slap! Wake up, it was telling me. When I read the text I felt like I was in a movie…reading it but not really able to comprehend. I was groggy from being woken up. My skin tingles now as I type these words.

There is so much mystery around and it is so easy to see and feel but when I am so engulfed in my own issues it’s as if I shut everything out and live externally rather than internally, which for an INFJ can be a very scary place. The text reminded me to stop and remember not just that particular day but life, each and every day. The difficult part—the real work—is to keep it going.

The day after I received the aforementioned text I had the day off. It was early and I was heading out to a coffee shop. As I rolled my bike down the plank on my front porch I half-expected a squirrel to run up. No I am not crazy (okay, maybe a bit), there is a squirrel that lives in the eave of my neighbor’s porch and in the spring and summer it runs up to you as you leave the house. My neighbor named it George but we’re questioning whether we should rename him Georgina because he may be a she. But the squirrel didn’t show.

When I bring my bike down the porch I have to set it on its kickstand so I can go back up the porch to lock the front door. It, being a rather large bike, has a rather large kickstand which makes a sound when unfolded. Anyhow, when I set the bike on it’s stand and it made it’s predictable sound I heard the sound of feathers being ruffled. It came from the direction of my neighbor’s porch where George/Georgina resides. I look up to see a peregrine falcon perched directly above the squirrel’s hole, which is only about 15 feet from where I was standing. Holy shit!, is what I’m pretty sure I said aloud. It was waiting for George/Georgina. Did he/she have babies in it’s nest, I wondered?

Then the falcon flew to a tree branch, which was actually closer to me but higher. And for another few seconds it looked down at me then flew away. I tingled. The cycle of life I thought. Even in the city these wildlife things happen.

I hopped on my bike and rode to the coffee shop, and as I did I thought of how incredibly strange life is and what was real. Both of these stories are really about the same thing, the mystery of life.

After a lifetime of working in kitchens I don’t have any money to speak of and have (mostly) stopped worrying about it. I really don’t desire things any longer. Experience is what excites me, and life is about experience. That, to me, is reality.

As I pedaled I thought of the famous conversation Buddha had with his disciples, as recorded in Dona Sutta. I’m abridging and paraphrasing, but it goes something like this. He was first asked if he was a god or messiah to which he answered no. Then asked if he was healer or teacher, also no. Then what are you, he was finally questioned. To which he simply answered, I am awake.

I need constant reminders in my life to stay awake. The text was one—that really was a slap—and the falcon another. I need them constantly, we all do I suppose. When I came home this afternoon George/Georgina came running up to me, as usual a bit too close for my comfort, so I stomped my foot for him/her to stop. And when he/she did I told him/her to be careful, to stay awake, that the falcon knows where you live. I don’t think he/she understood me.

In a way, I suppose, when I warned George/Georgina I was really warning myself. Stay awake, because the falcon (ego) knows where you live. Stay awake lest it plucks you away. Next year, I’m sure I will not forget the date.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

~ 2 Corinthians 4:18

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