Monday, April 13, 2009

Emptiness of Our Hands Series Still Available

Though I'm falling silent for the foreseeable future, my special series of posts on this blog about The Emptiness of Our Hands will remain accessible. The series ran from February 22 through April 12, 2009. If you wish to read (or reread) those posts, just click on the appropriate archive page(s), listed by date at the right.

If you wish to purchase a copy of The Emptiness of Our Hands for your own use or for use by a group to which you belong, please visit the Store at www.phylliscoledai.com. You may also contact me directly through that site for special rates on bulk orders. Remember, 20% of all sales proceeds support programs benefiting homeless persons.

Thank you.

Deep peace,
PCD

Blog Suspended for Now

Time for me to be quiet, at least for the foreseeable future. With gratitude for your readership, I wish you

Deep peace, until next time—
PCD

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Day 47: The Emptiness of Our Hands (From "Sage" and "Silence")

Note: Since Wednesday, Feb. 25, I've been blogging through The Emptiness of Our Hands: A Lent Lived on the Streets, which I co-authored with James Murray. This has been in observance of the ten-year anniversary of the 47 days James and I lived voluntarily on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, the nation's 15th-largest city. More so, it has been in recognition that nearly four million people experience homelessness every year in this country.

To read the brief portion of the book's text on which I'll be reflecting today
the last day in this special series of postsjust click on its thumbnail. You can then read the text and, if you'd like, print it out using your browser's "Print" command.


Such a strange thing. Here we are, on the last of our 47 days, and I can't write a single sentence about this final portion of text. It demands I let it stand without comment; let the end be the end. Say nothing more than what's already been written: So it says to me.

Read it. Perhaps you'll understand.

Today is Easter, 2009. Butterflies alight on lilies. New life strides forth from the grave, starts dancing to a penny-whistler's jig. Hope arises, indestructible.

What shall be done with it? Where shall we go from here?

I can't answer these questions for you. At the moment, I can't even answer them for myself. After ten years of public speaking about my streets experience—ten years I never planned, ten years that just happened—it's time for me to stop. Not stop caring, not stop working, but stop telling the story. It's a difficult thing to do, when millions of people in this country are still experiencing homelessness each year, and millions more are walking the edge. The story is as relevant as ever; my compassion, as deep and unrelenting. But The Emptiness of Our Hands will have to do the storytelling now.

I don't know what I'll be doing next, except staying home. Home, where my son and husband are. Home, where I can rest, and tend my health. Home, where I can walk across the street to a feeding ministry and help tend its guests. Home, where I can be in community, seeking to address local (as well as national and global) needs and injustices. Home, where I can love and write and compose and play and garden and wash windows and ride bike and meditate and (did I say love? did I say play?) just be there.

This then, is the word with which I want to leave you today, on Easter, this last day of these 47, at the close of these ten years:

Just be there, and the Thing will come (as indeed it came for James and me, leading us to the streets, and into deeper presence there). Just be there, and always, always, it will come: The Thing that calls your soul out in the service of love; the Thing that, though you didn't seek it, you recognize when it crosses your path; the Thing that, when you see it, you reach out for and seize by the hand, and trust, and go along with.

The Thing comes again and again, even in the space of an ordinary day, wearing this face or that, taking this form or that. Be vigilant. If you're watching for it, you can't miss it. Believe me. It won't let you miss it.

So watch. See. Go. Wherever the Thing takes you—someplace near, someplace far—you'll never be the same for it, and neither will the world.

And now, I must thank you. Thank you for walking the way with me during this Lent and Holy Week. Thank you, too, for walking the way with me over the past decade. Wherever you may be on this holy day, and whatever the Thing may ask of you tomorrow—a holy day of its own—may you always be filled with

Deep peace—
PCD

This is my final post about The Emptiness of Our Hands,
though I'll be happy to answer any questions
or respond to any comments you send my way.
It will also be the final post
of my "Practicing Presence" blog,

at least for the foreseeable future.
It's time now for me to be quiet.
Someday, perhaps, it will be time again to speak.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Day 46: The Emptiness of Our Hands ("Fire")

Note: From Wednesday, Feb. 25, through Sunday, April 12, I'll be blogging through The Emptiness of Our Hands: A Lent Lived on the Streets, which I co-authored with James Murray. This is in observance of the ten-year anniversary of the 47 days James and I lived voluntarily on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, the nation's 15th-largest city. More so, it's in recognition that nearly four million people experience homelessness every year in this country.

To read the brief portion of the book's text on which I'll be reflecting today, just click on its thumbnails. You can then read the text and, if you'd like, print it out using your browser's "Print" command.



Just before James and I walked out home's door, we borrowed the strength of ceremony, marking each other's foreheads with ash, as Cain is said to have been marked by God before setting out into the unknown, better to learn the keeping of his brother. Ever since, we've continued to draw sustenance from spontaneous rituals. Now, on the eve of Easter, our last night on the streets, we turn to ceremony once more. Beginnings and endings, especially, seem to demand some semblance of ceremony—some sort of container bigger than we are, capable of holding the strong emotions that might otherwise overwhelm us.

This night's ceremony is a vessel into which we pour our love, our compassion, our grief, our hope, our gratitude. It consists of a few simple, cherished things: candles, light, fire, and names—every homeless person whom we've met; every group or individual who has tried to help us; every person who has taught us through his or her kindness, or ignorance, or hardness of heart.

We speak until we can speak no more....

Writing this at a distance of ten years, on Easter eve, 2009, I can so easily put myself back in camp that night, huddling with James over that cookpot, trying to protect those tender flames from the dripping rain and rising breeze. The emotions are still there; less raw, but no less powerful.

I can see now that, in a way, the ritual of that night has never ended for me. I reenact it, in condensed form, almost every day. On the windowsill overlooking my desk is a relic brought home from the streets—the tin candle holder that, when bedding down in camp, I'd always stash with a book of matches within easy reach, in case my wounded spirit panicked in the pressing dark. I found the candle holder while dumpster-diving in a very exclusive part of town, price tag still attached, the candle inside still unused. Apparently brand-new, the candle holder had been tossed into the trash as if worthless. I was thrilled beyond words to find it. In the long weeks to come, it would give me light. It would give me warmth. It would give me cheer. It would help me stay sane.

Over these past ten years, I've probably burned hundreds of candles in that candle holder. I burn it when writing at my desk or composing at the piano. I carry it with me to burn when speaking in public. It's my way of remembering what once was; a way of acknowledging what still is.

It's also a way of recommitting myself to the work that remains to be done, even when I'm not sure what form it should take; a way of rededicating myself to the practice of being present, even when I'm not sure how to proceed. It's okay, I've learned, to be without the what and the how. The what and the how always make themselves known, eventually, to the heart that wants to love more fully, care more unconditionally, bless more abundantly.

As I write this, of course, the candle in my candle holder is burning. This time, every time, it burns for the world. This time, every time, it burns
for you.

Remember this, when life is hard. A candle's burning for you.

Deep peace, until next time—
PCD

Friday, April 10, 2009

Day 45: The Emptiness of Our Hands (from "Spikes")

Note: From Wednesday, Feb. 25, through Sunday, April 12, I'll be blogging through The Emptiness of Our Hands: A Lent Lived on the Streets, which I co-authored with James Murray. This is in observance of the ten-year anniversary of the 47 days James and I lived voluntarily on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, the nation's 15th-largest city. More so, it's in recognition that nearly four million people experience homelessness every year in this country.

To read the brief portion of the book's text on which I'll be reflecting
today, just click on its thumbnail. You can then read the text and, if you'd like, print it out using your browser's "Print" command.


Last night, a Good Friday dream: I was planting trees in the downtown in memory of all the homeless people who have died, and are dying now—so many people, so many trees, there wasn't enough room for them all, so like a giant I began knocking down skyscrapers, angrily tearing them apart with my bare hands, making room for the planting....

Was there a tree for Rooster? I see him for the last time in White Castle, in early morning. He's full of violent ranting, this time against Sarge, but falls silent, suddenly, when I tell him that James and I will soon leave the riverbank.

Was there a tree for Aaron, who so wanted to get sober, and somehow did, if only for a short spell? On our way to Holy Family for lunch, we see him for the last time, wasted, scarcely able to stand, yelling at the world, yelling at James, begging James to stay with him as we walk away, leaving him behind, forcing ourselves not to look back, eyes filling with tears, no words to say.

Was there a tree for Maddy, who so missed her children that she would cut herself, inflicting on her body the pain of her heart? We see her for the last time in early afternoon, lying on the sidewalk on the other side of Broad Street from where we stand, heartbroken and powerless to help.

So many trees. So many lives. So many bodies, spirits, broken.

Up and down the railroad bed near camp, old spikes lie scattered in the gravel. Once upon a time they held the crossties in place; rusty now, some of them bent and twisted, you don't think of them as all that substantial, till you pick one up and feel its weight, so solid, in your hand.

James and I collect spikes by the handfuls, tossing dozens into piles. It's a task we've saved till today; appropriate, somehow, for Good Friday, when Jesus the Nazarene was nailed to a Roman cross. These spikes we'll take home with us. We'll give them, one by one, to friends and to strangers: reminders of how every human being, homeless and otherwise, must inevitably suffer; and how no human being, homeless or otherwise, can endure that suffering without love, without compassion.

Love and compassion: These two—our wish for another's happiness, and our wish for their anguish to end—are the strength of us. Like old railroad spikes, they may not be perfect, but they can endure.

Endure even heartbreak. Again and again.

Sometimes love and compassion not only endure, but they surprise you with joy. You'll be standing on a corner, waiting for the streetlight to change, when joy comes, in the form of an older man and his grandson, six or seven years old. They'll walk up next to you, hand in hand, and you'll glance down at the boy and drop a smile. In shyness, or from fear, he'll press closer to his grandfather, but the old man, unafraid, will say to the boy, "Why don't you ask the nice woman if maybe she'd like a donut?" After all, he says, that's where they're headed—to the donut shop. And though the boy will stare up at you with a forlorn expression, and chew on his lip, for all the world not wanting to ask you, your aching heart will thrill to have been seen, and greeted, and considered worthy of inclusion, and out of love you'll politely decline the invitation before it's made, allowing the youngster his jaunt with his poppa—

Yes, your heart will thrill, and though it's only Good Friday, you won't be able to contain yourself. "Happy Easter!" you'll cry out to them both, and the old man will exclaim, "Same to you! Yes, happy, happy Easter!"

Deep peace, until next time—
PCD

Photo credits (in order of appearance): Dark Gift Design, Caleb Kenna/Boston Globe.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Day 44: The Emptiness of Our Hands (from "Staying [4])"

Note: From Wednesday, Feb. 25, through Sunday, April 12, I'll be blogging through The Emptiness of Our Hands: A Lent Lived on the Streets, which I co-authored with James Murray. This is in observance of the ten-year anniversary of the 47 days James and I lived voluntarily on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, the nation's 15th-largest city. More so, it's in recognition that nearly four million people experience homelessness every year in this country.

To read the brief portion of the book's text on which I'll be reflecting today, just click on its thumbnail. You can then read the text and, if you'd like, print it out using your browser's "Print" command.

Whenever I'd read a newspaper while living on the streets, I was drawn to stories and photographs about refugees from the war in Yugoslavia, which appeared fairly often. The streets provided a unique vantage point from which to imagine, and more easily understand, the refugees' homelessness, hunger, helplessness, fear; in a word, their suffering.

Trudging the railroad tracks near camp, as I did for some distance every day, I often thought of the refugees who at that very moment might have been doing the same, by the thousands; a long, long human line, following the tracks through the cold of the mountains, mile after mile after mile, not knowing whether they were actually heading toward safety. I could feel the tracks wearing down their slow, slow feet. I could feel their bundles and bags growing heavier by the step. I wondered what they'd chosen to take with them on their long march into the unknown (if in fact they'd had time to choose), and how many of those things they'd end up abandoning along the way out of sheer exhaustion, or out of compassion, letting go of possessions to carry a child.

What would you choose to take with you if you had to leave behind the life you'd always lived, and all you could take with you is what you could carry?

Perhaps what is truly yours, to keep and to give, can't be carried at all....


In today's portion of text, I find myself staring at a teenage girl from Kosovo as she wipes away the tears of her much younger sister, the two of them finally safe (I hope) but all alone in a Macedonian refugee camp. I look closely at this teenager's face, and I know nothing: not her name, or whose eyes she has, or the lullabies she heard as a baby, her favorite color, the childhood toy she'd kept hidden away while pretending to be all grown up, what she wants to be someday, or whether she'll always be mother to this crying little girl....

I look closely at this teenager's face, and I see a story not known. And in her story not known, I see the stories of homeless people, not known. Stories that make them more than statistics. Stories that make them human.

At different times over these past years, I've searched the Internet in vain for the photograph of that teenager and her baby sister. Let me set before you, instead, this nameless, story-less child, who for all we know might have been that teenager's relative, or friend, or neighbor. She, too, took refuge in a Macedonian camp in April, 1999. Look at her. Imagine her life. Wonder about her. Ask questions of her. Hear the stark silence in response, and grieve.

The newspaper's accounts of the war in Yugoslavia and its great throngs of refugees broadened my perspective while I was on the streets. They reminded me that however much I was suffering, my suffering was a small thing, and not only because my own choices had helped create it. No, my suffering was a small thing because all of humanity suffers. Every single person on the planet. Our suffering doesn't make us special. It makes us the same.

It's my place in the world, as I understand it, to do what I can to help alleviate suffering. Self-pity accomplishes nothing, I reminded myself as I stared into the faces of those refugee children, as I looked into the eyes of my homeless friends. Neither does sadness. Feel the sadness, then give it up. Give it up, and get going. There's work—much work—to be done.

Deep peace, until next time—
PCD

Photo credits (in order of appearance): United Nations, Roger LeMoyne/Liaison Agency.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Day 43: The Emptiness of Our Hands ("Goodbye")

Note: From Wednesday, Feb. 25, through Sunday, April 12, I'll be blogging through The Emptiness of Our Hands: A Lent Lived on the Streets, which I co-authored with James Murray. This is in observance of the ten-year anniversary of the 47 days James and I lived voluntarily on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, the nation's 15th-largest city. More so, it's in recognition that nearly four million people experience homelessness every year in this country.

To read the brief portion of the book's text on which I'll be focusing my comments today, just click on its thumbnail. You can then read the text and, if you'd like, print it out using your browser's "Print" command.

Jake and I meet up in the chaos of Holy Family Soup Kitchen. Our exchange is brief. His eyes are sunken; his voice, dead. He's still in terrible danger from Rooster, and we both know there's no escaping it. Not for long. Not if Jake stays on the streets.

Perhaps his fear of Rooster lies behind Jake's decision to enter rehab this afternoon. But I want to believe there's more to it. Jake has so often expressed dissatisfaction with his life, has so often wished aloud for a different sort of existence, and despaired of ever having it. Maybe, just maybe, he's hit bottom now, and he's finally giving in to hope, letting it carry him away.

This is what I want to believe, but there's no way of knowing for sure why Jake's going into rehab or if, in fact, he'll actually do it. Like most human beings, Jake's not above telling a lie, even to himself, if that's what it takes.


I hug Jake goodbye. Twice. I can think of nothing to say. The moment's too short, my heart too full. He walks away from me, and even as I watch him go, the thought circles like a vulture: You'll never see him again.

As it turned out, I was wrong about that. I did see Jake again, though he never knew it. A couple of months after leaving
the streets, having sufficiently recovered from the ordeal, I started socializing again. One weekday I agreed to meet two women friends for lunch at Columbus's North Market, a popular place to shop, eat, mingle and people-watch.

Arriving at the Market before my friends, I wandered the place, trying to decide what I'd like to eat. Trying, too, not to panic. The free-flowing crowd, all the noise, all the aromas, all the colors—it was overwhelming. Sensory overload: one of the chief symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, for which I was being treated.

Then, all at once, I saw him, waiting in a line of customers at a merchant stall. I couldn't believe my eyes. Obviously Jake had gone into rehab, as promised, and as Harold and Ada Martin had eventually confirmed. He radiated good health. He'd put on a little weight, as well as a little class, all dressed up in a clean, spiffy suit. I rushed to greet him, zigzagging through the crowd until I was standing right next to him. As yet, he hadn't noticed me.

Heart racing, I touched him lightly on the arm. He looked at me then, and I rejoiced to see his eyes large and full of light.

"Jake," I gushed, "how ya doin'? When'dya get outa rehab? You look terrific!" The words came out so fast, I hardly knew what I was saying, or how loud.

He gazed at me a moment, then smiled a little, said gently, "I'm sorry. I think you've mistaken me for someone else."

The world stood still. My mind spun. I stared at the man, dumbfounded. I looked him up and down, then backed away, stammering an apology. What had I been thinking? This man bore little resemblance at all to Jake; just a slight likeness around the eyes, and the mouth, and something brotherly in his bearing, as he stood there.

Not much of a resemblance at all, yet the instant I laid eyes on him, I'd been certain he was Jake, and hurried to say hello. Now that he wasn't Jake, I couldn't get away from him fast enough. I ran, to nowhere.
My eyes were hot with tears. I was terrified and confused, trembling, wanting to retch.

It wasn't just embarrassment. It wasn't just disappointment. It was grief.

In the weeks and months after the streets, my mind and heart were trying so hard to piece together a world in which I could feel safe again, and trust again, and thrive again. But sometimes, no matter how strong those stitches were, they just couldn't hold. When they ripped, what I felt, more than anything, was grief. All kinds of grief. Grief for those I'd left behind on the streets. Grief for the person I'd once been, and would never be again. Grief for a life that was gone. Grief, grief, grief....

Sometimes, despite our longing, there's just no way to say goodbye.


Deep peace, until next time—
PCD

Photo credits: Mary Dimercurio Prasad (North Market);
http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3586/3333819066_9cce617138_b.jpg
(bottom photo).