(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2012)
I am currently in the throes of rewriting a novel I first completed in 2003, rewrote entirely in 2006, and then did not touch for six years. I have only undertaken this kind of extended creative venture a few times in my life because most of my long dormant creations do not stand the test of time for me; so I have no interest in spending another thousand hours remaking them. Nor would I have had the opportunity to rewrite any of these long slumbering works had I been a more successful writer with publishers and producers clambering for my works as I completed them the first time. In any case, these books and plays and screenplays I remake multiple times over the course of many years are my favorite creations, regardless of their commercial fates.
This novel I am rewriting is a quasi-autobiographical tale about a middle-aged man who invites a homeless woman and her four-year-old son to live with him. His relationship with the boy is loving and parental, his relationship with the woman in no way sexual, though sexuality is one of the larger subjects of the novel. And though I am still keenly interested in the book’s exploration of sexuality, I am most interested (at the moment) in the subject of homelessness, for I was reminded when I read this manuscript that homelessness has played a central role in many of my books and stories, both published and unpublished.
When I lived in Sacramento in the 1980’s, I became fascinated with several of the many homeless people who gathered downtown in Plaza Park before the park was gussied up and gentrified and made off limits to those outcastes I came to know quite well. The result of my fascination was a novel entitled Two Rivers, four years in the making, an epic stream-of-consciousness prose poem I was never able to publish, though two unusual literary agents and three brave New York editors fell in love with the book and strove mightily to convince the powers that be to publish it. In retrospect, I understand why the book was anathema to corporate publishers, for the interlocking stories composing the novel lay bare the truth of our society’s great shame—the abandonment of those most in need and the terrible legacy of that mass abandonment.
Because homelessness has recently returned to the fore of my consciousness, I am keenly aware that homelessness is almost never mentioned by any of the politicians currently running for local and national office. There is much talk of the great stress being put on the middle class and elderly by the current economic crisis, but homeless people and homeless families are rarely spoken about, though their ranks grow larger every day. Of course, homeless people do not vote, so why should politicians waste their precious cash appealing to the victims of our failing system of governance? Yet it is the unspoken specter of homelessness that is the very monster driving voters into the arms of countless crackpots who blame Big Government for the woes of our society, when our government is not acting in nearly big enough ways to do what must be done to resurrect a viable safety net for all our citizens.
If you are under forty you will not remember when there were virtually no homeless people in America, but that’s the way it was before Ronald Reagan became governor of California and then President of the United States. Certainly there were poor people and itinerant alcoholic bums before Reaganomics became the de facto law of the land, but there were not millions of homeless families in America or even thousands of them. I will not attempt to sum up the sickening history of how Reagan’s overseers shifted the political and social sands to create the economic forces that created the epidemic of homelessness we have today, but be assured that homelessness is the direct and recent result of the craven and amoral rigging of our systems of taxation to benefit the wealthy while sacking those social programs aimed at helping the economically disadvantaged.
What interests me more than the financial mechanics that caused so many millions of people to become economically disenfranchised is what homelessness means as a reflection of our collective response to such suffering. And I think our collective response, which is to do nothing to reverse the horrific policies of our so-called leaders over the last thirty years, is a reflection of a totally false and tactically implanted fear in all of us that there is not enough food and shelter and security for everyone, so that sharing our wealth with others is perceived to be the direct path to homelessness. That may seem simplistic, but that is what I observe in individuals and groups in response to individual homeless people and to homeless people as a growing sector of our population. The homeless are to be pitied or scorned, but not given the means to substantively improve their lives, for we have been programmed to believe that such giving will only impoverish us, when, in fact, the opposite is true.
For many years before I wrote Buddha In A Teacup, a collection of forty-two contemporary dharma tales, I was immersed in the writings of several excellent Buddhist teachers, and what I discovered time and again was that generosity, the sharing of one’s self with others, not only underpins all aspects of Buddhist philosophy, but is apparently the most difficult concept for Americans to fully understand and incorporate into their lives. And the reason for this difficulty, according to many Buddhist teachers, is that American are deeply entrained to believe that the purpose of giving is to get something in return, whereas the essence of true generosity is to give without any expectation of recompense.
Here is the tale Generosity from Buddha In A Teacup. I would be very curious to know how this little story makes you feel.
Tess, a slender woman with brilliant blue eyes and long gray hair, lives in Golden Gate Park—her camping place known only to her.
“I don’t leave anything there when I come out. If you were standing right on it, you wouldn’t know anyone lived there because it’s just a place along the way. I leave no indentation. Even if you found me there you wouldn’t know I lived there because I might just be a tourist sitting in the park. I only have my knapsack.” She smiles. “The only way they could bust me is if they found me there at night, but no one comes there at night. Except me. It’s such an unlikely place for a person to live.”
Tess and a middle-aged man named Thomas are having lunch at a café a few blocks from the park. Thomas has known Tess for three years. They met at an arts faire in downtown San Francisco where Tess was selling handmade greeting cards. Each card contains one of Tess’s original poems. She is a highly skilled botanical illustrator. Most of her cards are scientifically accurate drawings of flowers rendered with fine-tipped pens.
The first card he bought from her—Crimson Columbine—contained the following poem.
but no prisoner
A few months later, Thomas met Tess walking on Ocean Beach. They were both searching for unbroken sand dollars. He introduced himself and asked if he might hire her to make a drawing of the leaves and flowers of camellia sinensis—tea—for his business card and stationery. She was happy to make the drawing for him and he was thrilled with the result. Since then they have met every week for lunch.
“I made you something,” she says, handing him a greeting card. “That’s Arnica mollis. Cordilleran Arnica. I love how the yellow flower stands out against the dusky green leaves.”
He opens the card.
Winter is nearly upon us.
May I sleep on your sofa at night until Spring?
I will be quieter than a mouse.
I will leave no indentation.
For the rest of my life,
I will make drawings and poems for you.
Blessings and Love,