Village Zendo Home
December 09 Contents

Street RetreatA 4-day retreat on the streets of Manhattan
Two Poems"The Way" and "Beside Me"
Avalokiteshvara's ArmAvalokiteshvara's Missing ArmA broken statue
Poet Anne Waldman"While I'm Here I'll Do the Work"Interview with poet Anne Waldman
Winter HaikuThree poems
Musho's TeahousePainting

I've waited for words to come to describe the street retreat.  The result has been fragments and images scattered on pages and scraps defying organization like so many opposing magnets.  Attempts to dress the recollections of experiences and feelings in language have been no more satisfactory than unfocused black and white photos of brilliant fall landscapes and vistas highlighted with odors and sensations of the outdoors.  Perhaps the attempts were to assign words to the emotion of the closing circle when no words came at all.  Or possibly to locate the source of tears that did not see fit to cease on the bus ride back to Maine in Columbus Day traffic.  What was unsaid will remain unsaid if not lost.  So what is there to say?  Nothing really.  But I've waited too long to say it and there are already too many regrets from procrastination.

Sometime after 3:00pm Tuesday we sat in a circle, discussed concerns, thoughts, reservations, and agreed on the basic conduct to be observed for the next four days.  A few passersby took pictures.  They took pictures of the squirrels as well.


Entering the Bowery Mission was like leaving one world and entering another, as if there was a world to leave or another to enter.  Have to be in the chapel before the door closes or no dinner.  It is returning home, albeit a home I had no strong urge to revisit.  A friend who had been here in times of greater need had told me, "You've got to stoop for the soup."  "God is good!"  The congregation grows restless waiting for colorless food generously served.

Shuttling in pairs from the alley in which we tried to sleep to the nearly all night McDonald's past two padlocked porta-loos, the reality of the evening burrowed in.  The alley that had seemed like an adventure on arrival lost its charm as the rain reconstituted urine donated by countless past wanderers.  Early dump trucks provided the morning call and from there the week dissolved into a discontinuity of paths and stops connecting the next place to eat or rest or sit or chant with the next place to sleep.

No pretending that the stench is not arising in the alley

or that I can't sleep for the smell.


Johnny just wanted to talk, to not be alone.  

How many people had walked away?


An hour begging and one kind dollar received.

Not knowing for days with nothing beyond arms length.


He was once handsome and still proud, now with a Santa beard and few teeth.

"No one needs to starve in this town" he tells us.


Most pass as if homelessness was contagious.

So many eyes cast down or away,

but not the children.


Pain and joy pass through the same gates.

Who knows what might wander into an open heart?

So much generosity unnoticed.


Lying on the rugs in the Sufi meeting, tea, dates

Rags and dirt embraced by heaven

I wish I could stay. 

During these days no distinction

between what is and what is supposed to be

Perhaps it wasn't wise to leave so quickly after the final circle with less of a change of clothes than I'd have liked.   Someone wiser suggested as much.   But there were bus tickets, breakfast with a friend, a memorial service for another, and the false security of my reclusive existence drawing me.  In truth at 12:01 Friday after four days of not running, the contract to be present expired.  In truth the pledge had become too difficult to honor.

Days later I had a dream, long and vivid.  All of us were there (with a few others visiting from other dreams), back on the street.  In the dream there were no blisters and, as happens in dreams, we were spirited between locations rather than trudging from spot to spot.  Everything was much cleaner although the streets were still an empty gray.  Shortly after waking from the dream I contacted the people with whom I lived eyebrow to eyebrow for so many moments, those with whom I'd become so improbably close.  But now, again, I sit in comfort amidst my attachments and all the suffering that attachments bring.  I'm now haunted by nearly daily images of empty eyes and failing hope and a need to do more.  Interwoven is a guiltless gratitude for knowing where I'll sleep tomorrow before I even wake today.  Where will my foot fall next?


« Back to December 09 table of contents