Guest Post: One Breath
Collecting straws and spinning gold is work all of us must do, and to that end, straw & spindle is a place for sharing the words of fellow scholars, writers, thinkers, doers, philosophers, poets, academics and ponderers.
For our first guest post I have chosen a piece by my husband, Dana Andrew Benjamin. He wrote it just about a year ago, during a Portland cold snap that has been far outdistanced by the snowpocalypse of 2017. This year's freeze, however, is what has prompted me to select this piece.
As my husband so eloquently expresses, it is simply kindness that we need. Extending kindness to the damaged and struggling members of our community creates a space within which those people can be heard.
Without further ado, I leave you to One Breath. . .Enjoy!
One Breath, by Dana Andrew Benjamin
I was walking around the area of NW 22nd Place and Burnside Street yesterday morning, getting kitty food. I heard a man singing to himself amongst the music of his rattling cans. Hood slung over his head. Black plastic bag slung over his shoulder emitting the song of aluminum cans. Freedom. Freezing outside. Miserably cold. Yet he was singing while he worked.
I approached him and said good morning and he greeted me with a big healthy, “Hello,” matched by a wide, toothless smile. Despite the smile he seemed shocked that I was talking to him. After all, my mental illness, physical liabilities and poverty are camouflaged by a tall guy with a kind smile, nice clothes and boots, and a long stride. The hardest things to get help for are the invisible wounds. That is why I don't care how people like this guy got to where they are. They are there. I believe with all of my heart that the fault lies with all of us. Us meaning the community. We are only as good as our neighbor. We are all brothers and sisters. Once you are warm. Once you are dry. Once you are clean. Once you are fed. And once you are loved and spoken too then, and only then, can the healing commence. Then, and only then, can all of those things — things like pulling yourself up by your own boot-straps — that the others and the outsiders and the elites of their world preach, be accomplished.
Anyway, he did not reek of alcohol and had a very level eye. I handed him $2. After having no money for days, my wife had a good night at work the night before. We always like to give some away when we are rewarded. I told him I wanted him to take the $2 and get something warm for his belly. Food, or hot chocolate or coffee or whatever. If he wanted to get a beer, I had also provided him that opportunity. But I told him to be safe, and to take extra time in the store shopping for his purchase as it would be warm inside.
He smiled and said “thank you sir” with the most grateful, kind, yet surprised-that-this-was-happening look on his face, as he reached for the money. I told him that I appreciated him and that I appreciated what he was doing out here — trying to care for himself. He was confused. I explained to him that I appreciated him walking around peacefully gathering cans and working for himself. Helping himself. It's hard work simply surviving. We are all veterans of this life.
Who says all of these people on the street don't want to live, that they have given up on life and themselves? They could easily jump from one of the many bridges in the city that they call home. Many people all over the world simply leap in front of trains. We have many of those here too. Heroin makes you feel really good, if you wake up, but using Heroin is pleasure seeking behavior, not active suicidal ideation. Plenty of that here. Men and woman like this guy, however, can also be strong, admirable people who just don't know how to ask for help. They don't know how to ask for help for many reasons, but have often been brave enough to break away from some sort of oppressive life. Where they are is better than where they came from. Dwell on that thought.
Why I didn't ask his name I don't know, I guess it doesn't even matter at all, but I always prefer proper social etiquette. He had a strong, confident handshake that he himself initiated. After thanking me wholeheartedly a few times he told me that, "It has been pretty hard out here the last month." He said it with a smile. I told him that I have been freezing all month too and that I live indoors. I told him that I can't afford to turn the heaters on. We bonded in that moment. Who's situation was worse wasn’t the point. Didn't matter. Reciprocal empathy. Understanding. Togetherness. Support. We are all not alone.
Although I wanted to take him with me and do more for him, I settled for wishing him a good day and continued strength as I forced myself to walk away. I told him that I cared about him and he smiled again. As I got about a half a block up the street I turned to find him looking at the bills I had given him. On my way back to my car a few minutes later I spied him strolling down the street like a darker version of Santa, but with that same bag of goodies over his shoulder and that same friendly, approachable grin.
"It has been pretty hard out here the last month" doesn't make me feel better about myself or my situation. Rather, it makes me feel a kinship, a bond with my fellow community members, a bond that becomes a small spark of positivity and healing for each of us. My power to assist those in my community that are disadvantaged, oppressed and shut out — those that can't help themselves — does not fall into the category of financial assistance alone ($2 is a small amount in the grand scheme of things), but rather in more direct, life saving actions. In other words, if people like me don't create opportunities for acceptance and hope inside of moments of love and recognition once in awhile, those moments will become farther and farther in between for people like this man, until they cease to exist entirely. And thus, we all cease to exist.
Everyone of us needs the opportunity to come up for air once in awhile. If the disadvantaged and disregarded in our communities don't get any gasps of fresh air they will never be capable of seeking the assistance that so many outsiders, others and elites preach that they need. Frankly, many times the "help" that they, we, are told to get doesn't exist. What passes for a support system in this country is just a facade placed over a structure and foundation that has crumbled. Maybe people should be the structure, huh?!
We are all one breath away from each other’s existence.