Skye Levin, second from left, with fellow street retreat participants and leader, Roshi Genro Gauntt, on the far right.
Cardboard Boxes, Begging and Birdsong – Reflection from Street Retreat in Chicago
By Skye Lavin
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, USA. The bottom line is, the Street Retreat did change me. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life to date. The opportunity to look my fears directly in the eye in the company of wise and equally vulnerable Zen teachers and students was transformative.
Our leader was Roshi Genro Gauntt of the Hudson River Zen Center in NY. So you have a visual; he looked like the actor William Macy (or maybe Jeff Bridges) if William Macy had had many, many transcendently ecstatic experiences in his life, with tumbleweed gray hair and a deeply unassuming aura of cool. He had a very laid back, generous and kind approach to sharing the wisdom he’s gained on over 50 street retreats all over the world.
The retreat started with sunshine and meditation in a park, and I was excited. That first night, however, as we looked for the right place to sleep, examining secluded parks, abandoned lots, park benches, little cul-de-sacs of gravel and trash and weeds, I hit my fear wall. I am normally somewhat concerned to drive in certain parts of Chicago after dark and here I was ready to go into the unguarded state of sleep exposed to all comers on those same streets. A few blocks over there were encampments of homeless people, mainly vets and ex-cons, settled around bonfires down by the river. Because our group was composed of five women and one man, we didn’t feel that joining them was a good option. So there we were, next to a big puddle shiny with oil swirls, amidst the cigarette butts as I quietly freaked out. I imagined once and future squatters under the deaths’ head marquee of a punk club, and all my alarm/personal safety bells began to ring. I just kept walking with the group. I had the opportunity to walk with my fears and to cultivate faith that all would be well. Or it wouldn’t! Either way, the night would pass and I made the commitment to observe what happened. We ended up sleeping in cardboard boxes on the banks of the Chicago River in a nicely secluded and clean place, where the biggest concerns were meeting adventurous metal scrap pickers, the cold, or getting kicked out by the owners of the lot. I didn’t sleep much, but I felt the cold to be a deep cleansing, the rocks breaking through my cardboard box to be incentives to stay aware, and the birds on the river were surprising rushes of interconnected joy. I felt so blessed to be in the company I was in. As the sun rose and the sky lightened, I came out the other side of my fears and that was personally so beautiful in a way that words can’t capture. That was just the first night!
We ate in soup kitchens. What I have to report is that the food in these Chicagoan soup kitchens, in the main, is on the border of inedible and had to be slurped down in a rush, though we greedily looked forward to our meals and were grateful for them. I did not succeed that much in striking up conversations with my table mates, some of whom seemed a bit shut down and shut off. But there were many companionable silences. At one food pantry, I did meet a gentleman who was a health nut, who suggested I keep hydrated and exclaimed joyfully that walking in the open air was like going to the gym for free.
And did we ever walk. One question I’ve fielded a few times after I got back is: how did you spend your days? Walking! Searching for the next meal. Begging for coffee or taking free squirts of sunscreen from Whole Foods beauty samplers to help with my beet red face. We also rested in the sunlight of open parks, meditated in our circle, and held intimate councils where we processed the experience we were having together. I was wearing layers of pants and skirts and sweaters that kept me warm (the second night the temperature got down to 39 degrees, which was as Roshi Genro said, “survivable” though some of us compared surviving the midnight cold experience by the river to the intensities of childbirth) but I looked pretty disheveled by the second or third day and was hobbling along, thinking it’d be very hard to be a diabetic on the street, or to have any other conditions, as so many people on the street do, from post-traumatic disorder to substance abuse to mental health conditions.
Since the retreat, I’ve found myself interacting with street people with much more of a sense of solidarity, awareness of a shared humanity, and with much less fear. A new awareness of the need for continued, committed generosity to individuals persists in me. Cousin Lia asked me what concrete steps do I think we can all do to help ameliorate the suffering of street people. The best answer I have right now is sharing a shift in my personal approach to interacting with homeless people, adapted from a practice I learned from the leader of the trip. Certainly there is so much more that needs to happen on political, philanthropic, and pragmatic levels. But it starts with us right?
Genro shared his practice of putting aside a portion of his budget for giving on the street. He carries a little cash on him that he gives out to all askers until the money is gone, and after that he shares genuine greetings with eye contact, which is just as needed. One of the traumas of being on the streets is feeling invisible. I am adapting this practice to the individuals I meet in my life. I am aiming at much less avoidance of people begging (with eyes averted and the “sorry” mumbled as I hurry past as if the homelessness is contagious or the person might bite me) and more engagement and sharing of resources and humanity. Less fear, more empathy. This is my goal.
Skye Lavin lives in Oak Park, Illinois, where she is a librarian and member of the Zen Life and Meditation Center. This was her first Street Retreat.
Thank you for writing about your experience and for writing your story so beautifully and from the heart.