There’s an eery quiet around here.
I had to close the windows. A sharpness in the air feels like fall. Soon it will be cold and he will be out there. I close the windows with a prayer: “Watch out for my Judah.”
He’s gone. Taken his pack and his plans hitching a ride down south with no particular destination.
That’s how it was when I met Judah. He walked around the university campus with a walking stick and a beanie looking like any college kid–except not quite. He had a big limp and a quiet demeanor. His walk came from losing his leg in an accident, the quiet may have come from that too.
Speaking in small sentences when I saw him, I made little offerings: a cup of coffee, a couple of bucks, a writing pad. We became friends. His story emerged but never fully.
Judah had been “traveling” for about two years. He roamed from the east coast back to the northwest where his mother was. There was trauma beyond his leg but he didn’t speak about it.
In the year and a half he stayed with me he had two jobs, four state issued I.D’s and countless other things which came and went. Each time he would shrug as if he didn’t care but it seemed every loss made the light in him dimmer.
Each time he left it seemed he came back diminished. His ID and possessions were stolen over and over or lost, and so were parts of his spirit. He became down hearted and then down right angry.
Judah operated in powerful and clear metaphor. When I first met him his prize was a small notebook and pen. He wrote, took notes from books, and drew. He laughed easily, danced to music and cooked vegetarian meals, he played with spices and teas in the kitchen bouncing to his music and he had a shy smile. He read every book he could get and would talk about what he was learning deep into the night.
He transcribed spiritual texts into a book he carried with him. “This is the best way to get it in my mind.” he said.
His seeking had a clear symbol.
He took a job. It was hard work but he was loved there and he fit. He saved his money and dreamed of traveling to Europe and beyond.
Then he quit. All of it.
He left. I never knew why. Not really.
The next time I saw him he was obsessed with knives and sticks he could hone into clubs. He had been hurt. I could see it but he didn’t discuss it. His love of books and notebooks were buried beneath words he never shared.
But eventually he tried again. He got another job, he saved some money, paid some rent, made some friends. He was given a guitar. He played it all day. And all day I thought, “This sounds unusually rough even for a beginner.” I teased him and he played louder with more resolve. We laughed. Sometimes I fled the house to work in coffee shops without “music.”
But we hung in there and eventually he could play–whole songs–pretty well. He smiled more when he played. He also took up sewing. He stitched patches and little bags. He rummaged for decals, beads, pretty things to make his creations. A lanky kid with a needle and thread and guitar by his side. He looked happy again. So was I.
His creation also was a clear symbol. He made himself–again–chord by chord, stitch by stitch.
But then again the quiet came. He quit his job.
He left. He planned to head east.
He never made it. Something happened.
On his last visit locks were his metaphor.
He had a padlock and a key. He wanted to lock things up. Once again all of his things were stolen, including the guitar he had worked for months to learn. His little sewing kit and the cool patches he made for his jacket we found at Goodwill–all gone.
My Judah had slipped beneath rage and fury. Then he was gone.
This is what he left behind on a small lined piece of paper:
“The wheel keeps on turning, life after life we wander. Over and over the same thing is all we have to ponder. Suffering of suffering, all is suffering. Illusions only cloud the mind. Let go of the easy, grasp the hard, for we are all just doing time. The other side of the shore, so close yet so far. How can we cross over except in the dark?”
How many times can a person have something taken-a backpack, a guitar, identity, a leg-before they give up?
Living rough, on the streets or in camps, changes people. Whoever you are before that experience, you become someone different. The longer people are out there the more they change. Being homeless is a trauma. It does not matter if you claim to choose it or it happens to you. For some, trauma creates strength and resolve, it tests metal. For others it can be the thing, the final thing, to break them.
After more than two decades in telling the stories of the homeless- my first assignment was in 1983- I feel convinced the condition of sleeplessness, loss, isolation and grief is too much. Being an outlier is not the right soil for human kindness to grow. I’m also convinced if we don’t try to intervene in the life of the homeless, however hopeless it may look, we lose these people and all they have to offer.
I don’t know what his metaphor is today. I hope it speaks of hope. I don’t know where his home may one day be-but I hope he finds it.
We all need home…however long it takes us to get there.
I wrap a robe around me in the morning’s first chill and pray an intention for Judah. I most likely always will.