Monday, June 15, 2015

Five Fingers

At the soup kitchen late in April, I spotted what appeared to be a woman I was pretty close friends with soon after I arrived in S.F., 32 years ago now. We lost touch 20 or so years ago, and I have often wondered what became of her, but her last name is very common and there was no chance of finding her online, though I tried now and then. I stood there trying to decide if it was her, and if so, what her role was. She was very professionally dressed, chatting calmly with another nicely dressed woman. When I was last in touch with K., she was training to become a therapist or psychologist. Perhaps she was conducting a study or writing a book. I decided it was her and walked over.

We greeted each other warmly, and I asked, “Where have you been?” “I’ve been everywhere,” she replied. “I’ve been here and there—around the world—and now I’m homeless.” It was utterly shocking. K. is smart, educated, charming, capable. When I knew her, she was a serious student of Buddhism—in fact, a student of Howie’s. In fact, she was the person who took me to Howie in the first place. She and I are the same age.

She told me later on that same day that she has been homeless for a year, ten months of which she spent sleeping on the ground in the Mission before getting into a shelter, which she loves because of the showers. Losing a job is what set her on the path to homelessness. She has three siblings and a mother, including a brother who lives not far off, which you would think would make a difference, but in our culture, not necessarily.

I mentioned this encounter to my esteemed Indian co-worker, who was horrified. She agreed that siblings might have differences. She said, “All five fingers might not be the same length, but you remember that not everyone is perfect and you take care of your family.” She said that if she became homeless, her sister or brother would take her in. She said their parents stressed that they must care for each other, and that she and her husband tell their two sons all the time to be kind to each other: your brother is the one who will always be there.

In my family, and I only mention it because I think it’s probably typical, no one said we had to get along with our siblings simply because they were our siblings. I was told that you don’t have to be friends with people just because they’re family members, and that if even a close family member doesn’t want to be friendly, it’s out of your control. This is in line with the American ideal of independence. My co-worker diplomatically said she tries to find good things in every culture, but that there are things she learned in her own culture that remain values for her.
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