It all comes down to the details. Details matter ever so much. Details are what sock us in the gut.
Have you ever noticed that? We can blithely ignore things until something devastating catches our attention.
I believe this must be true for all of us. Or is it just writers that feel this punch when something tiny, emblematic, and ever so powerful just bowls us over?
I don’t know. All I know is that sometimes I feel like I have to shield myself from the details.
If I blur my eyes, cultivate a brisk walk, a breezy voice, a nonchalant expression, I’ll be safe. I’ll be in my cocoon. The details can’t get in.
The thing is, these days, it’s harder for me to do that. It’s suddenly a lot harder.
After years, nay, decades, of living with the homeless all around me, underfoot, camped out on sidewalks, in doorways, pushing carts, panhandling, yelling, I had gotten good at ignoring them.
It felt like self-preservation. Maybe it was. Maybe it is. I don’t know.
All I know is that my defences are crumbling, and fast, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, and I’m not sure if I should shore them up or not, and I’m not sure what I should do, what I can do, if I decide not to shore them up.
Because, you see, these “homeless,” this “blight,” these are people.
They are not only people. In many cases, they are unusually handsome people. Unusually polite, tender, gentle, awake, aware, in pain. Some of them have the most erect posture. A handsome head. A handsome face. Devastating eyes. Beautiful hands.
I noticed this a few weeks ago at the Project Open Hand volunteer opportunity I joined for work. My colleague Gene invited me and six or seven others from work. We were led to a long wooden table lined with plastic cutting boards on which were set lightweight chef’s knives. Behind each board was a large bin of white onions. We were to peel and chop onions all morning.
When I had just begun on my first onion, Gene approached me.
“Do you want to work in the dining room?” he asked. “You’re good at connecting with people.”
He led me through the building to the kitchen, where a gruff, heavyset man showed me the ropes. I was to deliver drinks — coffee, tea, or water.
People began filtering in a short while later. They ran the gamut of what you’d expect. Most were dirty, dishevelled, carrying sleeping bags, plastic bags, and other possessions. They were the people I’ve gotten used to walking past every day. I no longer saw them as individuals.
Serving the Project Open Hand population that showed up for lunch that day forced me to connect with each individual. Realizing they were individuals shook me to my core. How awful is that? Obviously these are individuals, but I had conveniently chosen to overlook that fact. For years.
Approaching each person as they sat down, looking them in the eye, asking them if they’d like coffee, tea, or water, forced me to confront my own cold heart, which melted more with each interaction.
The first thing that surprised me was how polite almost to a fault every diner was, save one. “Yes, please.” “Thank you.” “I appreciate you.”
I heard these three phrases over and over again for those two or three hours I served the homeless.
And once I looked into their eyes, I couldn’t help but notice the other features of so many of these people. The man with the erect bearing, elegant neck and head. Many had an innate dignity, something I’m sure I would not have seen passing them on the street. Beautiful men and women, somebody’s babies.
It was the eyes that killed me though. In many cases, the majority, the eyes I encountered shocked me with their transparency, pain, and compassion.
I see those eyes now in B, as well, my ex- who has been living with us for several weeks now as he navigates his third depressive-psychotic episode in four years. When he gazes at me, when I’m brave enough to meet his gaze, I am confronted by B’s self. His naked plea. His urgent need for connection. His fear. There is no filter, no self-protection.
I moved B in four weeks ago after our trip to the grocery store.
I had a little time before picking up our daughter at school and decided to stop by. We knew he was struggling again. I thought we were keeping an eye on it.
I said, “Let’s go to the store and get some provisions.” B wasn’t too keen on the idea, but he acquiesced.
He insisted on keeping our food separate. In his part of the cart, he put bananas, wheat bread, and peanut butter. And a hunk of cheddar cheese.
“Is that all you need?” I kept asking.
I got eggs, pasta, potatoes, and a few other things for him as well.
When we got to the car, B fell onto the food. He tore open his bag and with a single-mindedness that was intense, pulled out the bread, the bananas, and the peanut butter. He tore open the bread, unaware I had stopped turning the key in the ignition.
I watched as he hurriedly stripped a banana, stuffed it between two slices of bread, and crammed it into his mouth. And as he began making a second one, I thought, “My God. I have a starving man in the car. And he’s the father of my children.”
I made the decision then and there to bring him home. I saw the pits in his cheeks and temples. I heard the little animal sounds of desperation and relief he emitted as he swallowed the food.
Two weeks later, when B’s sister and I cleaned his room, I found a half-empty jar of peanut butter. It was clear he’s been surviving in his room on peanut butter for who knows how long. Maybe bread and bananas as well. Not very much of it though, God knows.
He’s lost 40 pounds this time.
Incredibly, even though he’s been here for a month now, B is even thinner than when he arrived. He won’t eat if we’re not here, which means he doesn’t eat all day long while we’re at work and school. He eats only when we cook or heat up food and place it in front of him.
The last two days when I got home from work, B was doubled over in the kitchen, whimpering. He said his stomach hurt.
“Of course your stomach hurts,” I snapped. “Your body is eating itself. That’s what starvation is.”
It makes me mad. Mental illness is intensely frustrating. I leave a refrigerator stocked full of good food, and it’s not touched.
B is suspicious of food. He’s afraid it’s old, it’s bad, it’s poisoned. Somehow, when we prepare and place it before him, he’s still nervous, but his instinct for survival, or just the visceral need of his body, takes over, and he’s able to eat.
I dropped B. off at his therapy appointment with Jose this morning. I parked around the corner and decided to go for a walk. I walked up to Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a block or two north of University in Berkeley. I was waiting for the light to change, thinking I’d make my way toward the University of California campus, walk along the creek, and then make my way back to Berkeley Mental Health to pick up B.
As I waited for the light to turn green, a tall, swarthy man carrying several plastic bags and dragging a sleeping bag strode into the intersection, crossing diagonally in front of a car. The car honked. The man continued to my side of the street, muttering angrily, and passed me.
I heard sobbing. I turned. The man had collapsed against the side of the building behind me.
The light turned green. I hesitated.
I turned. “Can I help you?” I asked. I expected him to yell at me. I was ready to jump away.
“I lost my phone!” the man sobbed. He was frantically patting his body, his pockets, the folds of his clothes, clawing through his bags.
I said, “What can I do?”
“Can you call the number?” he asked.
Tears streamed down his face.
I said of course. He recited a number. I dialled it. It went straight to voicemail. There was no ringing phone on his person.
“I lost it! I lost my phone!” the man wailed.
He was tall, lanky, about 45. He wore several strings of beads and some kind of transponder around his neck. His hair was black. His hands were black with grime.
I said, “Can I get you something to eat?”
He wailed, “Yes, please.”
My heart clenched.
As he dug through his things looking for the missing phone, a half-empty plastic jar of peanut butter rolled out.
It wasn’t the peanut butter that made me connect this man to B. I’d obviously already done that. It just deepened the connection and added a good dose of irony and pathos as well.
We’re gradually coming to accept that B is mentally ill for real and that it’s permanent (apparently). I realize of course this could be our B. If B didn’t have me, his kids, his sister, his old girlfriend Tori who first brought him to Berkeley Mental Health, he’d be on the street too, just like this man. There’s no doubt about it.
I knew when I was serving the indigent at Project Open Hand that these were all facsimiles of B. That B could be any of these people. The man who sat in the corner with scabs all over the left side of his face. The man with the walker. The one who limped in, grimacing.
I crossed the street to a Greek Cafe and bought a pastry with ham, gruyere cheese, and tomatoes. I got a medium coffee and a separate cup for milk. I got a packet of sugar.
I brought this back. I set it down. The man was still crying.
“Did you find the phone?” I asked.
“No. I just had it. I just had it. It’s my mother’s. She died.”
“I’m sorry.” I paused. Then I said, “I brought you some food.” I opened the container. I said, “Do you want milk and sugar in your coffee?”
“Yes, please,” he said.
There it was again. The manners, the unexpected manners.
I prepared his coffee and set it near the pastry.
Then the man said, “I appreciate you.”
The Details of Life Are What Matter
The peanut butter, the sobbing, the coral necklace. The incredible, unexpected manners.
These are the details of which I speak.
The phone. The story of the mother. The dead mother.
The peanut butter that rolled from the bag. The peanut butter jar we found in B’s room. The peanut butter he tore into in my car.
I’m beginning to hate peanut butter.
It’s the details in life that give it poignancy, immediacy, devastation. It’s the details that hurt, isn’t it?
What does that mean, I wonder?
Why do details do the work? Why do they sear us so? What does it mean that I shield myself from them now?
What would it mean to go forth in life and open up that window again, and let the details in? To pay attention, to really pay attention? To field these things, to know what they signify, to really understand?
What will living this way do for me? Do I want it?
I do want it. It’s poignancy that I seek, and that hurts. The little things. The glimmerings of pure, immediate emotion, need, insight, realization.
What is life without these things? These clues of our time here, of our need, of our humanness?
Noticing them means noticing one another. And I know that’s hard to do. We’re all so busy. Who has time for that?
But maybe we gain something from it too. Maybe opening up to these details give us grace. The ability to see and feel life in its raw element. To be present. Allowing the details to touch us, to scorch us, forces us to be present. Perhaps that’s the greatest gift of all.
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