Teaching Street Meditation

Cigarettes sucked to the butt, lie dead on the sidewalk like flat white and orange cancer worms. Not my ideal place to meditate, but I’ve committed to 2 hours of sitting on this grungy street in the Mission District of San Francisco. The handwritten sign above my head reads Free Meditation scrawled with one of my son’s purple smelly markers. I’m surrounded by a small legless dog, its toothless owner, and a woman muttering to herself. They are waiting to take a free mobile shower thanks to the nonprofit Lava Mae. I had some kind of fantasy that the cardboard box campers, hungover, strung out, would sit with me, close their eyes, allow me to guide them through some mindful breathing. Instead the first hour is me and them, the guy blasting AC/DC on his cassette player boom box, a mom with two toddler children sitting in my guest meditation chairs, and a homeless kid talking to himself about fairies. I close my eyes, breathe in the secondhand smoke, try to ignore the broken needle on the curb a few feet away. The Lava Mae staff encourage people to sit with me. We are offering meditation today Charlie, want to try it? They ask the toothless man. But Charlie just looks through me like he’s on his 3rd tour in the ‘Nam. They all ignore me, like they ignore the Back in Black screeching out into the foggy Saturday morning air.

I try to meditate, sometimes with my eyes closed, sometimes catching glimpses of people throwing their used towels into a bin as they trudge away to get dirty again. Then this guy sits down next to me to dry off after his shower. My altruistic heart skips a beat. This is what I’m here for, to save someone, to be an example of peace, to add hope to the psyche of the streets. He’s tall, maybe 6’6, light skinned, African American, carrying a large blanket like a cape, like a king. You meditating man? He asks. Yes, would you like to sit with me? I say, almost sounding like Linus speaking about the Great Pumpkin. Nah man, but that meditation stuff is some good shit, I like that shit, but I came here to get my ass clean. His eyes look at me clearly, no booze on his breath, no weed smell around his edges. You’ve meditated? I ask. Yeah, meditated, yoga, visualization, all that shit. We talk about his hoops career, (he played divison one ball in college), his ex-wife, his old job selling cars, his race (Man, I didn’t discover my blackness until I was like 20, I was raised by white folks who’d adopted me), his descent into crystal meth. I ask him about living on the streets. Dan, man, I never miss a meal, I sometimes walk 12 miles a day from place to place. I sleep wherever, in a tent, in a box, on the bus to the casino up north. I don’t ask him if he’s still using, but my money says yes. You want to get off the streets? I ask. Yeah, but I want someone to write my story. I was a pro baller in Europe man, fuck, people need to know about this shit. I look down at my watch, an hour has passed talking with Dennis and my time is up. I grab my sign, say goodbye to the Lava Mae people, then to Dennis. I want to give him my card, meet with him again, write his story, save him from his end, but all I can manage is, really good to meet you, stay strong. With that he is off, clutching his blanket, a giant of a man, almost elegant, owned by addiction.

I get home and immediately go to my computer. There he is, averaged 9.7 points a game his senior year, his LinkedIn profile shows his last job as a car sales manager near Sacramento. He was telling the truth, I think. A real man, a real human being, off the grid, gone, maybe forever.

Keep Writing

I love it when friends tell me they are going to do a little writing, maybe spend some time thinking poetically. It’s like they are going to drink a glass of chardonnay. I’m happy for them. I am. For me, writing is the equivalent of starting with an IPA, then quaffing a bourbon, then a whole bottle of cab; I get obsessed, addicted even. I’ve tried doing Natalie Goldberg-inspired timed writes, but I just turn off the timer when it rings and keep going. You might find this impressive, but my wife and kids think I’m annoying. Even when I do turn off the computer, I’m still thinking; about words, sentences, plotting when I can sneak back on and write a bit more. It really can be a problem, which is why I stopped writing for 6 months. During that time I meditated, read, spent more moments with my family. But recently I got published in a magazine, won a prize in a national poetry contest, and the writing bug is itching.

It is a little voice whispering, you have some talent, nurture it, hone it, own it. And I have to admit, I do like identifying as a writer/poet. It is mine, something I control, something I can do alone, like meditation, but very different. But how do I tame the beast? I’ve learned not to blog everyday, I did that for awhile, it drove me crazy and the quality of my work was precarious. One day I produced something halfway decent, the next day I’m writing a recollection about eating sugary cereal and watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. The discipline of writing that way was great, but the self-induced pressure to publish something all the time was ridiculous.

There is also the intense reading involved with writing. To all of my friends out there who want to write, I adhere to Bill Roorbach’s adage, reading is writing. Meaning, time spent reading definitely adds to one’s writing mojo. I don’t mean like People Magazine or even the San Francisco Chronicle. You say, I want to write poetry. So who are you reading? Or do you create poems from memories of Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein? Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not me. I have to take out volumes of Jane Kenyon, C.K. Williams, Li-Young Lee, Frost even, and actually read them, alot, before poems start to arrive. Yes, I can have poetic impulses, but full poems? That comes from me reading a ton.

So do I stop writing? The better question probably is, did I ever stop? If reading is writing, then one could argue that observing life is writing too. During those six months I didn’t stop reading, and I didn’t stop creating internal narratives to go along with people, observations, and experiences; they just weren’t going into a Google Doc.. What is the answer? The words don’t lie, fingers on the keys, ideas in the brain, I’m writing, can’t stop now.