Belonging to one another

street sleeping

Mother Teresa tells us to find the divine in each person, the divine in all its distressing disguises.

“If you really want to do something,” she said, “go out on the streets. Find someone living there who believes they are alone and convince them that they are not.”

I remember the first time I saw a homeless person sleeping in the street in New York City. I was a child on my way to a Broadway musical with my parents, when we literally stumbled over someone.

“Dad stop. There’s a man that needs your help. We’ll have to go to the show later. Look at him. He’s fallen to the sidewalk and is staying there.”

My father shook his head, giving my hand a tug. “We can’t stop for every bum in New York or we’ll never get anywhere.”

“But how do you know he’s a bum? Maybe he’s a good person who just fell down and got dirty? It’s getting dark and cold. What will happen to him?”

Father’s well groomed hand shown in sharp contrast to the crusted skin of the man on the ground.  “It’s the way of the world, Karen. Get used to it.”

But I never did get used to it and doubt I ever will. How easy it is for us to react and judge, and how different life would be if we stopped to tend our brothers and sisters. How often I have heard words like, “They’re just a bunch of street people, losers and drug addicts. They’re not contributing to society. You can’t help them because they don’t want to be helped. They could work if they wanted to. They’re just a bunch of stinking vagrants, thieves and boozers. They should  get a job like everybody else.”

So, let’s back up a little. None of us comes into this world as a dirty drugged out homeless person. We come in as innocent beings full of light, dependent on those around us to feed, comfort, house and nurture our spirits.  When that doesn’t happen, we go into hiding, and when hiding isn’t enough and bad things keep happening over and over again, we become smaller, fearful and broken, finally believing that life and all the beautiful things in it belong to someone else.

The solution is rarely a question of providing a disadvantaged person a job, rather it’s a matter of slowly building trust, so they are able to overcome self-loathing, beliefs of not deserving, and fears that have been rooted in physical and emotional trauma. Wounding that manifests in self-sabotaging acts, like addictions and bitterness need to be addressed before life can be successful. Because all healing is first a healing of the heart.

One late evening in my thirties, I was riding around the streets of Portland, Oregon in a shopping cart. Yep, that’s what I said, a shopping cart. I no longer remember who was doing the pushing but know there must have been a few glasses of Merlot involved. We’d come from giving a late night performance at Storefront Theater and needed to let off steam. I was sitting on my coat, balancing a bouquet of roses I’d been given at the end of the show and acting silly and loud.

“Look at me. I’m the queen of the grocery cart, the queen of the city. And all I survey is my kingdom.”

I saw a woman sitting against a storefront window as we rounded the corner on airborne wheels. “Over there,” I said. “Take me over there!”  I was a tad too trapped and tipsy to leave the cart, so I bent over the front.

“Here, these are for you dear lady. Now you can be the queen of the city.” She stared up at me, confused. “Take them,” I said. “I’ve come all this way to give them to you.”

“No.”  She cast her eyes down. “I don’t deserve them.”

“Oh, but you do. You most definitely do.”

She refused, so I tossed the long green stems and blood red blooms near her blanket, where they surprised me by scattering against the cement like garbage. That’s what burned into my senses, the way a symbol of love and celebration in my reality transformed into trash when they landed in hers, like they’d passed through an energetic field that changed all meaning and relevance.

We create different realities by our thoughts and beliefs but we are not really different: the homeless person, the housewife, the corporate president or bus driver. We like to think we are because of our station in life and all we’ve achieved but inside we’re the same.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.” Mother Teresa.

Feed Yourself Beauty

weaving-rugRobin was a fellow performer from Storefront Theater who taught me to use a loom.  Her weavings, like many of her paintings, looked like she had reached into the sunrise and convinced every shimmering hue to come to life through her hands. Threads sparkled, wools blended, and fuzzy threads adhered to make a radiant representation. Anyone fortunate enough to own one of her winter scarves could plan on being stopped several times on the street, so strangers could touch and admire her work. There has never been an artist who could touch my heart and sense of wonder like Robin.

When I first started lessons, I wanted to purchase inexpensive threads because I was a beginner. I reasoned that no one, including myself, would want my products for some time, so why waste money? But Robin stopped me immediately. ‘No,” she counseled, “buy yourself the most beautiful threads you can find, no matter the cost, because part of weaving is nurturing your senses with what you see and what you touch. Feed yourself beauty. You will handle each thread several times, beginning with the warping board, then while dressing the loom, and finally passing the shuttle back and forth to completion. Everything you feel and think goes into your work. Your products radiate your touch and energy, so it’s important to understand the unique power of each weaving.”

A friend knew of a loom stored in a studio space and after several phone calls the owner agreed to let me use it. Things were looking up. I had a studio and loom without cost. I’d tune in Oregon Public Radio and fill the space and my spirit with classical music. It was an uplifting time with Mozart drifting back and forth among the fibers, gently encouraging both inner peace and inspiration.

Weaving was one of the few places that invited my voice into song. I was comforted by sitting alone and filling the room with the years of music I’d learned but rarely sang. It was in one of these precious moods that I reached for a letter I’d stuffed in my pocket. It was from my mother. She had enclosed an article about brain tumors and strongly suggested that I have a physician look at me. “It would explain your behavior,” she wrote. “You’ve never been quite right.”

Tears fell on the threads of my weaving for days from the innocence and malevolence of such a letter. I couldn’t look at it when I cut it from the loom, and didn’t want anyone else to touch such sadness, so I walked outside and dumped it in the trash.

Although never approaching the majesty of Robin’s work, my skill became marketable. I fashioned purses, scarves, table runners and wall hangings. Robin had a tailor’s skill, so her fibers became jackets and dresses displayed in Portland and Seattle galleries, while I used my work to trade for health care and fire wood.

One winter, I took a weaving class at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts, a very expensive class, but didn’t finish. The faculty made weaving business-like, mathematical and unpleasant. I realized that if I had begun with formal instruction, instead of Robin’s loving hand, I would never have been a weaver. I could not follow directions. I could create a free flowing design in my head, but following a pattern laid out on graph paper in tiny blue colored boxes was hopeless.

I stopped weaving when my allergy to wool became unbearable. Tiny flecks of fibers floated in the air whenever I worked, and wearing a mask felt wrong, so I changed to cottons threads, but felt too limited. It was a sad day when I sold the loom I had finally managed to buy, but Robin’s lessons remained. Feed yourself beauty at any cost.

The Crush

crazy-piano-guyBusiness began at Storefront Theater with daily gatherings to write music and a script about energy conservation. I became the Energy God Mother on roller skates, and propelled myself across countless school auditoriums teaching children how to conserve energy so they could, have a brighter tomorrow. I also made a special guest appearance near the end of the show as a pink satin washing machine. Not the career in opera I had trained for, but I was having fun.

Unfortunately, I developed a terrific crush on Charles, the piano player. Men were the ones to make advances in my world, like the wedding proposal I received from a complete stranger between shows in Alaska, so I had no skill for initiating. When the time came to speak to Charles about anything but work, I was silent, tongue-tied, frozen.

Did you want something, he’d ask?

No, no, I’d lie, as I disappeared quickly behind the stage. Just wanted to say you played well.

Finally I’d had enough. I was standing in the lower hallway after rehearsal and saw Charles making his way to the elevator. Do it, I told myself. For God sake put an end to this and ask him. Ask him what? I couldn’t remember. He was getting closer to the elevator, running for it. Each step brought him nearer. If I didn’t speak he would run right past. I had to do it. It was now or never. I would not let him go by without settling this. It was essential I speak, but nothing was coming out of my mouth. He was getting away. I couldn’t let it happen.

In frustration I reached out and grabbed his belt loop. He kept going, never even slowed down as it ripped completely off his pants. He heard the rip, felt the tug. He ran to the elevator, leaned against the back wall, looked down at his torn pants and out at me. There I stood with dazed eyes, his belt loop wrapped around my finger, long threads dangling in space. He gave me a look that said, oh my God, it’s you. I should have known. I winced, sorry Charles, sorry.

We worked together for the next six months, and neither of us mentioned the belt loop incident. Charles fell in love with another woman, which was just as well.  I’d decided I wasn’t in love with him after all. It was just too darned hard.

A Beautiful Pretending

I was taught to perform, an interesting occupation for an introvert.

We all were. My voice was in compliance. It ran clear and crystal in its range.

My body was acceptable. I knew how to smile when I didn’t feel happy. I was looking for love, so acceptance in the form of applause worked well.

I loved being different characters. I could be anyone, channel the essence of another person so completely it was like having them in the room. I could make other people laugh or cry with my skill and intention. But eventually I began to lose track of myself, of my central character. I lost track of the essence of me.

Ray, the man who built our costumes, picked me up in the theater company’s dirty van each morning, the one that said, Storefront Theater on the side. Ray was a rotund gay man who could build a stunning wardrobe out of cast-off clothing in seconds. Ray would study me for a moment when I walked from the house, wondering not so subtly just who he was picking up that morning.

Would it be Anna, the man-hater who made a life in men’s clothes and hiking boots? Or maybe Olga, the Swede, who wore her golden braids wrapped around her head, a rayon dress below and a shawl thrown across her shoulders. Maybe it was the ditsy Energy Godmother, who appeared in roller skates and felt good about everyone and everything. She was all sunshine and love.

I put on new characters each day, the way most people select different clothes from the closet. It wasn’t, What do I feel like wearing today, but who do I feel like being?

I once met a man at Harvard when I was pretending to be a woman from France. He was a third generation attorney named Percevial Harkness Granger the Third. What began as a simple conversation in a coffee shop turned into much more than I intended. Each time we went out, I thought I’d tell him the truth, but he was so captivated by everything about her, this ideal exotic perfect woman, that I could not bring myself to do it. Finally after a full year, I revealed the truth of my pretending. I simply had to stop it, because he was falling in love with her, and she was not me, not even close. He was appalled when I told him.

“Sorry! Didn’t mean for this to go on so long! I just did not know how to stop it.”

Theater companies loved my work, but I was shy, the audition process painful and tense. I didn’t want my characters to be judged and evaluated. I didn’t want other people’s words coming out of their mouths. I just wanted to give them life. It’s been a challenge to choose a central character and be her, to let her be all that I am. It’s also a little boring. When you’re the same person for too long, life gets stale.

I once had a party where we all came as our over-seeing angels. We addressed one another that way and stayed in character the whole evening.

So, how is it going with Karen? someone would ask.

Oh you know, the usual. She’s doing really well on many fronts, but I still have to give her a kick in the butt to get her out of the house. How’s it going with yours?

John’s been a problem lately. He’s stuck in that same job, you know and still dating those unavailable women. Maybe you could come by some time and take a look. Give me some new ideas.

I used to live next to my friend B’Lou, short for Betty Lou. We had a community of houses on 11th and Thompson in NE Portland, all occupied by artists. B’Lou was a tall thin dancer who smoked long brown cigarettes and found it hard to smile. She covered her dining room walls with mirrors, polished the hardwood floors and made it a dance studio, then turned her pantry into a costume closet. A piano greeted you when the door opened; a piano, her art work and a hand carved chair from Belgium.

B’Lou and I gave great parties together with lots of theater, music and dance. The neighborhood kids wore ivy crowns, dressed in long gowns and handed out programs. When you walked into B’Lou’s house, you stopped being yourself, went immediately to the pantry and became whatever character you felt like being.

B’Lou was an exercise nut who lived on the edge. Those long brown cigarettes finally did her in. Her funeral was the same as her parties, with one difference. This time there was a sign on the front door with her photograph. The sign said, Come in and play. Be somebody else for awhile and smile. I only died.

written July 26, 2008