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.