all of the selves we Have ever been
Back on July 26th I wrote about satisfaction, a lesson divined at the dumpster.
Last week, I returned to the dumpster for more enlightenment.
I wasn’t actively seeking enlightenment, I was just taking out the trash, but enlightenment comes when it will. The spirit knows what we need, and it finds us.
As I approached the metal bins on Tuesday morning, I noticed a man already there. His back was to me, and he was pulling items from the smaller of the two dumpsters. A long, brightly colored fleece scarf and a black wool jacket were draped over the side of the bin. The man’s head popped up, and in his hand was a backpack, black canvas with brown leather trim. The man studied the backpack carefully.
I said hello as I approached. The man held out the backpack, “Look how nice this is. Why would anyone throw this away?” I agreed the backpack was very nice as he continued to study it.
“Oh! It’s missing a snap. I can fix that!”
“Are you the man who lives behind the storage facility next door,” I asked.
“No, that’s Dave, but I watch out for him. I just found him a coat,” and he pulled the black wool jacket from the side of the dumpster. As if on cue, Dave and a woman walked up behind me.
“Hey, take this,” and he tossed the jacket to Dave. “Winter is coming. You’re gonna need it.” Dave thanked him and walked on.
Ed introduced himself and explained how he became homeless. “I didn’t always live like this,” he said. “I’ve come and gone from this life mostly due to drugs.” Ed explained that he was a skilled tradesman and once lived a good middle class life, owning a boat and sailing for a hobby. Ed struggles with bi-polar disorder, and the prescription medication makes him feel lifeless and numb. For years, he has been waging his own war on drugs. Sometimes he thinks he is winning. Other times, he becomes a traitor, doing business for the other side. Most recently, he has been going to the local methadone clinic every day and trying to stay clean except for the occasional use of reefer.
I couldn’t help but notice that Ed is a handsome man. His face is tan and glowing on a chilly morning. He has a broad and easy smile that reveals straight white teeth. He is clean shaven and fit. Ed explains that he gets around on a bicycle and logs hundreds of miles a week. He uses his bicycle basket and a grocery cart to gather and deliver goods to other homeless people in the area. He is their Robinhood. Ed is using his talent as a skilled tradesman to craft a shelter from the loose pieces and parts that he finds. I see him eyeing an old gas range. “That’s a nice stove,” he says. I wonder how he will get it to his makeshift home. I have no doubt that he can get it working.
As we chatted, Ed continued to poke around inside the dumpster. He pulled out a soft drink can that was unopened. That find is followed by a sealed bag of ground coffee. “Look,” he said as he held the grocery items out toward me. “Someone kind must have left these for me.”
Later that day as I grudgingly “made time for exercise” and pushed myself outdoors onto the shared bike/walking path, Ed zipped by me on his bicycle. He was pedaling hard. The wind was in his face, a wool cap covered his head. Ed looked happy. And free.
And a spirit rose from the dumpster and whispered to me: Free is a lifestyle. A frame of mind. A choice.
Admonished, I walked on pondering my own recent restlessness and moments of dissatisfaction. A combination of pandemic boredom and isolation leave me feeling like a prisoner some days. Despite my best efforts to stay engaged and in touch, there are times when I feel as though I am living someone else’s life, I entered the wrong movie set. I wonder where my life went. I hear my friends and neighbors speaking of these same experiences. They tell me that despite their boredom and loneliness, they are finding it hard to rally the motivation to move beyond it. They feel stuck.
There seems to be a new type of long-COVID affecting even those who never suffered the disease. Meaning dripped from our lives during the long months as COVID stretched out like a pipe full of pin holes. The initial emotional response to fight and survive has diminished. People are weary and searching for where the meaning might be. There is an awareness that things have changed. We have changed. Our pre-COVID lives are not coming back. What will our new lives look like? How will we get there?
And then there is Ed. He is the star of a survivor show, a winner at an extreme sport, a master of an obstacle course. Like others who take on hard for fun, Ed finds a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity in his homeless lifestyle--all of the ingredients of resilience and a good life. He does not struggle to explain himself or to fit in. He is an expert and an adventurer without the limitations of expectations and the pain of failures.
Ed speaks with energy and with joy – his day is filled with exercise and doing, moving mountains even if made of trash. I am envious. He has no shame. He accepts himself and his lifestyle. He is busy doing good for others. He still believes people are kind. He doesn’t examine the discarded groceries for expiration dates or wonder why someone might be lazy or careless in throwing them into the dumpster.
Ed lives on a rugged urban frontier, a grocery cart his covered wagon. He is focused on survival, but he is not self-centered. His survival is possible because he is protecting the survival of others. He lives without technology but is well equipped to live in the world and to master it. He is not a social problem, he is a problem solver. Discarded himself, he sees potential in everything.
When we have all the time in the world, it is hard to fill that time with meaning. I can see in Ed that effort gives meaning to action, to life. Life is better when you keep moving and keep believing that people are kind and looking out for you, when you take pride in looking out for them.
Mick Jagger never did come to meet me at the dumpster, but on Tuesday, Ed was there to greet me.
Ed is a rock star, too.
Robinson Crusoe had a right-hand man.
Crusoe discovered his faithful assistant while shipwrecked on a deserted island. Crusoe named the guy Friday after the day of the week on which they met.
The Guy Friday role didn’t stick outside the confines of fiction (and colonialism and slavery). Men may have sidekicks, but not doting subservient male assistants. Men are too competitive with each other, and a subservient male is not…well, not really a man in the cultural opinion. Hence, the right-hand man became the right-hand woman, a Girl Friday, someone who assists men in powerful positions. Think Della Street to Perry Mason.
Men need help attending to the details, but they don’t like to admit it. For too many years, powerful men acted as though they were doing the ladies a favor by “letting them work,” allowing them a front row seat to power, so long as they dusted off the chair and served the coffee while it was hot. They might even have paid the ladies a few bucks to buy a pretty dress.
Despite the fact that Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, described Della Street as fast as hell on her feet, and someone who had been places, it was Perry Mason who got his own show. Perry Mason was known to put up a good fight in the courtroom and come out a winner, and men are known for the classic response of fight or flight when under stress. Women, on the other hand, fall back on tend and befriend which leaves them cleaning up a lot of the aftermath of fight and flight. Women do the stuff that men don’t want to do. Rather than admit it is important work too, women’s work has been minimized in value because value has been calculated by what men found interesting.
Men had it all because women did it all. The division of labor was not a balanced equation. Men could build careers and power because they could single-mindedly focus on careers and power. A woman’s attention had to be divided, and her time shared with household duties, childbearing, spouse, children, neighbors, community, aging parents, bosses, co-workers…
Della Street was certainly smart enough to have her own law firm, but if Ruth Bader Ginsburg couldn’t find a job in one, Della was at an even greater disadvantage. Today, she might get that job, but she must also be prepared to take care of everything else including homeschooling the kids through a pandemic, caring for aging parents and in-laws, chairing the PTA, keeping everyone, including the pets, up-to-date on their health care and vaccinations... She might be doing all of this while also recovering from the wounds of war and military service, or while recovering from the many transitions of serving as a military spouse. Men are judged on one role: man. Women serve as wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, friends, coworkers, and are judged ceaselessly on an endless set of expectations.
People discard these kinds of thoughts coming from women as “man-hating.” It is another form of disregard for women’s needs and opinions. It turns the conversation into a fight from which women too often flee. This is a necessary and timely conversation. It is not about starting a fight with men. It is about tending to the contributions of women: caring for others matters, attending to details matters, cleaning up messes matters. The world doesn’t work without it--for women or for men.
A man calls his faithful assistant Friday, a practical name reminding him of the day of the week on which they met. To get Friday to do the dirty work, Crusoe enslaved him. Women don’t want to be enslaved. Women do want to work and perform well in all of their roles chosen and assigned. And while women need some help too, they don’t have faithful assistants or servants; they have friends. And they tend to them every day of the week.
Let’s face it, if all the men in the country took the same day off, there might be peace on earth. If all of the women took the same day off, the country would collapse, proof that women ARE infrastructure. Women tend and befriend, and they bend. We can’t allow them to break. The country owes a debt to women who keep the world working. Mitch McConnell, Joe Manchin, and the rest of you who show up in clean laundry--the bill is past due. Women need faithful assistance too.
(And, here, I must give a shout-out to my own Gal Friday. She came into my life as a coworker when I was shipwrecked in Columbus, Ohio. She had landed on the same deserted island a few months earlier. We sat next to each other at work for many years. She was a faithful co-worker and has remained a faithful friend. During the pandemic, I experienced a period of declining vision which increased my isolation. My Gal Friday came faithfully every Friday evening to offer friendship, companionship, assistance, and adventure. She has been my steady, unbending infrastructure in a time of biological and social collapse. My Gal Friday is pretty good Saturday through Thursday too! I am grateful to you, Kristi, well beyond these few words.)