Thursday, May 22, 2014


Last week we had another little heat wavelet. The first day I worked from home and hid indoors all day with the shades down, and went to Howie’s in the evening. There I spoke with a kind and friendly young woman, one of our volunteers, who works for one of the foremost tech companies (not Google) and, yes, takes a bus to get there! This is very good, to balance the faceless “them” with this person I know and like. I told her, honestly, that of course it’s good for people to take buses to work rather than for each to travel by car; that the buses have become a symbol of the difficult changes in the neighborhood, and that it would have helped a lot if Google hadn’t ignored the criticism for months, which allowed ill feeling to take root and spread.

At the first whiff of trouble, they should have responded by showing they understood people’s distress (about having lost their place to live) or anxiety (about potentially doing so) and they should have given a million dollars to a Mission-based non-profit and pledged to be a partner in finding housing solutions. Instead, they pretended nothing was happening, and when it got so bad that protesters showed up at one of their events, not to mention the various protests against the buses themselves, they treated it as an opportunity for a mindfulness exercise. That’s always appropriate, but willfully blocking out context is never helpful. It made them look clueless and raised the ire of at least one blogger.

I forgot the part about parallel transportation systems being created for those who can afford them while the municipal services rot away, but then, that’s not my sangha member’s doing.

That evening, I finished reading On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, the first of her works I’ve read, and considered starting over at the beginning right away. Her gift for speech and dialogue brought her characters so vividly alive that I felt kind of lonely for them when the book was over.

A week ago, I went back to the soup kitchen for another four-hour shift and once again loved being there, though I may not be cut out to be a production vegetable chopper, as the symptom I’ve spent a small fortune trying to get rid of in physical therapy flared up severely. I could hear my PT’s voice in my head saying that if I’m doing something that is causing the symptom, I should stop doing it (before the brain gets rewired to think it should always produce that symptom in that situation), but I felt it would be weenie-ish to walk away from the mountain of raw carrots I and four or five others were working on. But that was not so smart. I decided that next time, I would just say that I’m happy to chop up peppers, greens, and herbs, but can’t do root vegetables. I suspect that kind of limitation would not be a problem at all—that whatever people are able to offer is welcome—but I’ve thought of an even better solution, which I’ll get to in a future post.

It’s a completely disorganized place, in the nicest way. There is evidently no email list of volunteers, no schedule showing who is coming when: the new day dawns, and whoever shows up shows up. They don’t do any fundraising, either. There is a core group of people who live together—extremely frugally—and work at the soup kitchen day in and day out (not necessarily every person every day). Once you hear that, and hear that they don’t do any fundraising, you want to give them money and items they might be able to use, and you want to volunteer.

My second time there, I liked already recognizing a number of the guests and being able to say hello to them by name. One said something like, “This is why I like talking to you—because you understand what I mean,” as if we’d been chatting for years. I also got to talk for a while to one of the people who lives in the associated intentional community. I can see that once my company’s 16 paid community service hours have been exhausted, I will have to find some other way to be there regularly.

Once again, it brought Carlos close to mind. There was a fellow there who reminded me so much of him—smallish in stature, with a white halo of hair and white beard, and a colorful artistic shirt. From the back, that was Carlos. And there was another who smiled in that very kind way he had.

And then there was the fact that it wasn’t exactly the way it had been the week before, of all things. It turns out that the soup kitchen is just as subject to impermanence as any other place, so I got to observe my mind’s array of reactions to that. Like last week, it was a bit hard to leave when I had to go back to work, and the afternoon seemed a little empty once I wasn’t there. As I passed the bus stop on the corner, one of the guests, a woman, called after me, “Bye bye, sunshine!” That sweetness makes me feel a little teary, as does the simple humanity of all who come to eat, and their vulnerability.


J at said...

What a lovely thing, that your company allows 16 hours of paid volunteer time! My company doesn't have a set policy at all, but my boss lets me take a 2 hour lunch every Thursday so I can volunteer and deliver Meals on Wheels. That's 52 hours a year, which is pretty great.

I've not done much in soup kitchens. Went to Glide Memorial once, and it was really great. I can see that going back to the same place repeatedly would have its own bonus, as you learn to recognize people and know their names.

Bugwalk said...

How very nice of your boss! I know how meaningful that work has been for you, and I know your visitees must love you.