Just Another Day at the Office – Rain, Polarities, Peace

I have a very hard time putting the macro level of trauma and neglect out of my mind for long. As the poem says (and I am to be sure no poetry person!) “-the world is too much with us.” Certainly true for me. Scarcely a day passes when I don’t strongly feel and proclaim loudly to my husband, “Thank god we live indoors!” Especially in these dark, wet and cold months. I am an admitted sun worshipper and have little tolerance for cold. After a protracted drought in the San Francisco Bay Area USA, rain has returned, and our prolific and notorious unhoused population appears more motley and godforsaken even than usual. I drive past one wind whipped tent city under the freeway on my way home from my Oakland office. The City of San Francisco where I live, has failed miserably at finding viable solutions, not only for the housing problem, but also for the intermingled mental health and substance disorder problems. So, we live with them, lapsing in and out of remembering and forgetting, much like all the other varieties of trauma and neglect, occasionally forced to see and feel.

I was pondering my end of the year blog as I drove to Oakland, the other morning. It was a truly dark morning, pouring rain. And for me, who has little to no tolerance for cold, it was icy. I am also a lousy rain driver, so I drive like the old lady that I am, in inclement weather. So I was concentrating on driving, and also brainstorming about the blog, when I somewhat absently arrived at the office, hurrying to get in, out of the weather. Walking up the stairs I was uncharacteristically met by newspaper billowing around, and when I reached the top of the stairs, I was started “awake” to find a very large man sleeping right smack in front of our office door, huddled under the awning to be out of the rain. I rather jumped back. What was I going to do? The rain pelting down, how would I get in?

I took a breath, and very gingerly said to the sleeping man, “excuse me…” He half opened his most likely drug loaded eyes, “Could I please get around you to open the door?” I was scared, but super solicitous and cautious, not knowing what sort of person with what sort of diagnosis he might be. He sleepily scooted aside, I stepped around him, shakily unlocked the door and slipped inside, hurriedly shutting it behind me. I got safely in and he rolled over and promptly returned to is slumber. Once safely inside, the outside locked door, and my double doored locked office, I sat down. I imagined I was safe now, but what do I do?

I certainly did not want my clients to arrive and find a sleeping, not too clean unhoused person blocking their entry to their psychotherapy session. So what do I do? Do I call the police? The Oakland Police. I did not have the heart to call them. What would the Oakland Police do with/to a poor African-American homeless guy, withdrawing from god knows which drug, very likely toting some psychiatric diagnosis or other? I shuddered to think? I imagined there are non-police homeless services that provide help that does not involve the law or criminal justice system. I simply did not know what they were. As I began to calm down, I settled on texting the landlord. And then calling my husband, so I did both, ang got some tea water going, filled with feelings.

I stayed barricaded in my office, as if there was anything he could do to me, all the while aware of how cold and wet it was out there. The poor guy did not even seem to have any “stuff.” I saw a pair of shoes, a mostly eaten bag of chips, and newspaper. I thought I should see if I had any food to give him? Money? But I did not want to go out there, and certainly did not want to encourage him or make him feel welcome. And to be honest, I did not even want to venture out of my safe four walls and see if he was still there.

A flashbulb memory intruded, I was maybe 22 and traveling in Latin America by myself. I was in a hot dusty desert town, having bought some sort of street food to eat. I was sitting on a stump in my reverie, eating my picturesque lunch. A small band of maybe six little girls appeared. They were dirt poor, dressed in rags and skinny. They began circling around me. I knew they were trying to figure out how to rob this “rich white lady,” even though I was a young activist “kid,” myself traveling in rustic youth hostel style. To them I was the rich American, they might as well have happened on Elon Musk. Back then I was torn by the same feelings as now. On one hand my heart was breaking for them, and I was deeply troubled by the way they must live, by the circumstances of this crazy world. And on the other, I was scared for my own safety, and somewhat “spooked.” I felt guilty, and also reflected on how did it happen that I was born into the life and world that I was born into, and they theirs? So often I had bemoaned my victimhood or loneliness and wondered “what about me?” Now it was what about them? I found a way to steal myself away from there. I don’t remember. But I do remember that feeling, and how it finished me from wanting to travel in the Third World” anymore. It was no longer fun or adventurous for me. I would find other ways to help. I simply could not bear feeling torn apart like that, the same way I felt now in the privilege of my safe and cozy Oakland office.

After about an hour the landlord texted me back. He said he would be right over. By the time my first client arrived, the doorway was clear and cleaned up. There were a few firefighters milling around the parking lot and security people in neon rain gear looking rather busy doing who knows what? I learned later, that the man had meanwhile relocated to a a neighboring doorway and begun to start a fire, but not before relieving himself, over there thankfully. Again, I felt guilty about my self-concern, and perhaps again haunted by the polarity of “me against him?”

It is an age-old duality, a timeless koan of relationship, certainly of trauma and neglect. Why me? What about me? It is all my fault… The mystery of who gets what and how the suffering is doled out in this world, and the joy I always in that signature neglect/self -reliant way, felt unable to turn away from the suffering of anyone, even those who hurt me the most, and felt the quaking conflict of feelings, the “me or you?” So many with haunting stories (or absence of stories) of trauma and neglect, wrangle with long, hard residual feelings: “They did the best they could…” Certainly in my case, my parents’ trauma, even the little that I knew of their dramatic pasts, were so wounded and scarred by their own lot. How could I complain, hold it against them? They didn’t do the work that I did, they did not have the advantage of being able to do the work, that I have had. One of the tangled and challenging tasks of our healing. I still have not resolved it.

The world seems plagued with these dualities, probably no more now than throughout history, but who knows? It is the “bottom of the year,” at least in our hemisphere, to me dark and cold here, but certainly not nearly as much as in many other places. And I have the joyous privilege of being able to flee to warm and peaceful climes, and rest! I hate to leave you with such heavy musings as we are all struggling with the mandate to be merry and bright. As ever, we must strive to manage both.

Wishing you the best of the season. Thank you for sharing the journey with me throughout this very full year.

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