Oddly joyous, deeply melancholy, it’s as haunting a song as I’ve heard in years. “Homeless,” on Paul Simon’s new album “Graceland,” is sung by South African blacks. Its piercing images — “we are homeless, homeless,/moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake” — rise over a rich and eerie melody, pain and beauty inextricably entwined.
So, too, are our lives entwined, winding around each other like the roots of an old tree, nourished by the same deep grief and wild delight. Yet, like buried treasure, the truth of our oneness is disguised. It’s the differences we notice: some sleep tonight in fine houses, while others curl up in cardboard boxes, or flop down in work camps far from their families, or peer out of refugee tents at the rags of an unfamiliar sky.
Yet the wish, deep down, is the same. We all long to return to our true home, though we call it by different names. We wander in search of love, or security, or a little peace of mind. Maybe the poor think it means more money while the rich think it means more time. One dreams of a home as splendid as the heavens; the other longs for a few days camped out under the sky. What amnesiacs we are, wandering in search of ourselves, looking for our original nature as if it were a needle lost in the haystack of life!
“The mask each man wears,” Thomas Merton wrote, “may well be a disguise, not only for that man’s inner self but for God, wandering as a pilgrim and an exile.” The Hindus, too, speak of God disguised, and of creation as an exquisitely subtle game of hide-and-seek, in which God looks for God through a million different eyes. What a disguise! I’m thankful for each glimpse I’ve had behind it, reminding me not to judge others for seeming to wander in circles, lost in a dream that’s momentarily more bewitching than mine.
Compassion, after all, isn’t just for the downtrodden in South Africa, but for rich and poor alike. Being moved when I listen to “Homeless” is important. But to really weep for the homeless is to weep for the world, to embrace the grief not only of those who yearn for a roof and four walls, for dignity, for human rights, but of those who long to feel at home, instead of confused and lonely, estranged from their own lives.
Is my heart that big? Where was my compassion for the man who came to my door the other night, a pilgrim and an exile, a man I’ve known for years? Did I see a kindred soul, God in disguise? Or did I just see the mask: his face (“beat like a bent fender,” he once described it) and his big pack with all his possessions in it and his tall, lanky body bent under the weight of even these few things, all that was left of his worldly burdens, except for the sadness in his eyes.
Didn’t I sense his sorrow? Then why did I tell him he couldn’t stay? Why did I watch as he stepped outside, the moon shining down on him with all its great pity and sweetness, its light touching him as longingly as a mother touches her child? Why did I send him away when he only wanted to sit here for a while? Why, at the last moment, before he was down the stairs, did I reach out, not to touch him tenderly, but to slap him on the back, like a coach at half time sending him out for a run at glory, when I was only sending him into the friendless night?
A long time ago, before his life shattered and the pieces flew away from him, when he had a home and a job and a family, when his broken-heartedness had a different shape and the shards were still inside, we were neighbors for a while.
We lived in the midst of dairy farms a few miles from Chapel Hill: red barns and white silos perched on hillsides; pastures rising and falling like deep, slow breaths; the grass as lush and green as grass is allowed to get.
They were small farms that had been in the same families for generations; the land was still treated with respect. But we weren’t farmers. We just enjoyed the isolation of the country, and ended up across the road from each other, in the kind of houses hippies looked for: shadowed from the world, rundown enough to be affordable, exquisite in their studied neglect.
The houses were old, more than a hundred years old, and had probably been built by slaves. What stories those creaking floorboards held: what a succession of strivings, of lives that once shimmered as distinctly as yours and mine but which were now forgotten — forgotten and yet oddly transformed, joined in that strange way time has of joining everything that once was separate, gathering together all those distinct lives, those unique moments, like beads on the same thread.
So came we in our moment, our journeys braiding around each other briefly, he from Ohio with a wife and a son, me from New York, married and with a child on the way. We shared an interest in literature, in philosophy, in finding new meanings for familiar things. We were fellow travelers on a fool’s chase — fools in the eyes of the world, that’s for sure. I’d just started this magazine; he talked about starting one, too. We’d walk over to the nearby farm, lean against the rough wooden fence, studying the cows and talking about our fugitive dreams — but always according to some unstated etiquette that kept our innermost joys and fears from being expressed. We never became really good friends, who could say anything to each other, laugh or cry or just be quiet together. I think we were both wary of an unnamed sadness in the other, a hint of desolation we knew all too well in ourselves.
He was a handsome man, tough and in good shape, with ropy muscles and a strong back from his college football days. His face was craggy like a mountain, shadowed with dark weathers that would blow in from somewhere and stay. The shadows lengthened: he came into a modest inheritance and spent it; the magazine he started failed after a couple of issues; he lost one job after another; he and his wife had one too many arguments and went their separate ways. He hit the road, maybe to look for something better, maybe to run away. But the motion became a kind of life, taking him deeper and deeper into an isolation most of us can’t understand, or perhaps keep under better control, trimming and pruning what in him ran wild, so that his loneliness over the years grew tall and spindly, enormous, unassailable. The light it lived on was the light that drained from his face.
North for the summer, south for the winter, a step ahead of the weather, he’d sleep in shelters, in churches, on the hard ground, in alleys, in those outlawed precincts that harbor the homeless, those places with their own unyielding protocols, their unwritten rules; ignore them, and you might wake up in the morning with your pack or your money missing, or not wake up at all. Like a monk, he lived in that narrow range between not enough and too much; perhaps the rules for survival and salvation are pretty much the same. It’s tempting to romanticize such a life — the dark textures, the vulnerability, the risks — and that’s not my wish. It surely isn’t a monk’s life. But to me there’s something mystifying and compelling in how someone keeps going this way; it’s meaningless, perhaps, yet if for him it means everything, what is there to say? A man takes a step away from his life and discovers he has to keep walking, with no idea when his lostness may turn back into exaltation or when he can believe in himself again. For now, he believes only in getting through one more day.
When he passes through Chapel Hill, he stops by to see me. We talk and drink some coffee, but I’m never sure what to say. If we make small talk, we get bored quickly. If the conversation turns serious, he looks away. It’s as if we’re still leaning against that fence, talking about everything except what’s important.
I ask about his son, whom he hasn’t seen in years. “He doesn’t want to see me,” he says, and I can tell it’s all he wants to say. But there’s grief here. I know he’s not uncaring. I saw him take too much pleasure with his son when we were neighbors. He may not have been a good husband, or even a good father, but he loved that boy, and love like that doesn’t fade away.
Is it for his sake I want him to talk, or for mine? And why are the words so important — these words which are always so imprecise? Asking him to talk is like asking a famished man to feed me. Yet silence isn’t enough of a meal. If he’s here to visit, I want him to have something to say.
I wonder if he’s forgiven himself the failed marriage. Breaking up certainly left him broken; how wounded he was, and how unerringly new wounds call to heartaches from the past. We were all wounded as children, and those long-buried memories come back to haunt us. If we face them, we grow stronger; if we run, we grow bitter and self-pitying; there’s no middle way.
He tells me of having been arrested up north — a case of mistaken identity — and of spending a month in jail. I say he must have been happy to get out. “It didn’t matter,” he shrugs. “It wasn’t as if I had a home to go to.” I realize that his pain is his home, and his homelessness a way of escaping. He’s right: it doesn’t matter. As long as he thinks this way, he’ll be homeless wherever he is.
What an odd mixture of sadness and anger I feel around him. His pain is poignant beyond measure, but something in me rebels against his hopelessness, insists on wrenching him from his grief. I remind him we can shape our own reality. He agrees in principle, then tells me that for him there are no opportunities, that he’s forty and can’t get a break. That’s only one way to see it, I say, and it’s way too eclipsed. Well, he says, there’s a job at the all-night grocery. Take it, I implore him. Even a low-paying job is something. A job, a small room, a chance to build a life again! Relearn the bourgeois values: hard work, temperance, thrift!
What am I doing? He’s not going to take the job. Why am I forgetting that the outer life is a reflection of the inner? Why am I insisting on a quick fix? Is it so I won’t feel guilty for not being more compassionate — for not taking him home with me, feeding him, giving him a place to live?
But where would it end? How long would I be willing to give up my privacy, to sacrifice my time with my family, or my hours alone, which invariably happens when there’s a guest? I’d even begun to feel it as an intrusion when he’d stop by the office. Was he coming to see me, or was he here because the office was warm and friendly, a change from Hardee’s and the library and the streets? Or was there another attraction? Did he look to me, perhaps, as the embodiment of a fantasy? Here I am, running my own magazine, happily married, with a nice home. Did I symbolize something that might still be attainable? But a symbol isn’t a person; it isn’t me.
On his most recent visit to Chapel Hill, he started coming by more often, even when I wasn’t here. I didn’t like that. I knew I was being ungenerous, but my feelings were confused. I told Catherine, our office manager, that if I wasn’t around, I didn’t want her to let him in.
Late one afternoon, after taking a nap, I got up to make some coffee, and practically tripped over him. It was nearly evening and he was sitting by the window, in the dusky light. I was startled. He was so absorbed with the book he was reading, he barely noticed me.
I glanced crossly at Catherine, who shrugged helplessly; she couldn’t say no; her heart was too big. But I was troubled by his presence. I didn’t want to talk to him, and I didn’t want him making himself at home, his pack propped against the desk, his books and papers and cigarettes in front of him.
I was grumpy, from having just gotten up, and frustrated: his pain felt oppressive, and short of giving him what I didn’t want to give, I didn’t know what to do for him. I knew I was being mean-spirited, stingy with my space and with my time, and blameful, which is the worst sin. This made me feel even darker. My voice quivered with emotion as I laid down the law to him.
If he wanted to visit me, and I wasn’t busy, he was welcome; but he wasn’t invited to hang out, and now he had to leave. My tone was far too emphatic, as if I expected an argument; but all he did was look at me, his eyes showing no surprise: what melancholy eyes, what depths of defeat. This was just one more piece of bad news, one more proof — as if it were needed — that no one cared for him. What remorse I felt! Yet my predicament remained. I had no idea what to do just then: take him in my arms, or toss him in the street? I wondered, did it really matter?
I realized — though it took me a few dark days, wandering through the dungeon gloom of that sad goodbye — that what mattered was this: “Do what you will with another person,” in the words of Neem Karoli Baba, “only never shut him out of your heart.” Yet that was precisely what I’d done, because my friend’s suffering, and my helplessness in the face of it, so threatened me.
Surely a loving “go” would have been more merciful than a grudging “stay,” as surely the words were less important than what leapt from soul to soul. As it was, I gave him neither the comfort he asked for, nor the kindness he really sought. And why was that? Because he wore so openly what others hide so well, what I hide, and protect myself from, with my lists and my rituals, my stern self-control?
What feels most tender in me is exactly what’s most terrifying. It’s the child I was, who still wanders inside me, confused and lonely, with nowhere to go. When he calls, I often pretend not to listen. His need feels too great. I turn away, toward something safer, more important. I tell the kid I’ll see him later, but not to wait; there’s the door.