Writing—and paying attention

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The plaza on a different day. Imagine us on the bench at the right, looking over at a bench on the left.

This fall I became a volunteer mentor for Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs New York City public high school girls who have a passion for writing with professional women writers who pass on their craft. I find myself going back to basics, trying different writing styles and genres; it’s a little like being a baby writer again.

My mentee and I began with exercises in the building blocks of writing: interviewing, note-taking, description. Last week, we did character description. We sat on a bench in a plaza outside a mall and picked out a man sitting a couple of benches away. For 15 minutes, we both wrote as minutely detailed a description of him as we could, then compared our texts. We chose a woman and repeated the exercise, this time trying to write in the other’s voice.

As it turned out, the comparison wasn’t that interesting, for we had noted pretty much the same items—clothes, details of face, hair, what the woman was carrying, what we thought the person was feeling—and made rather similar observations. What really struck me was how interested and involved I became in these two quite unremarkable people.

I had felt rather resistant to this exercise, perhaps because I associated it with fiction, which I haven’t tried to write in a long time, although I’ve done essentially the same type of description in my nonfiction. But it turned out to be intensely engaging. By the time we finished I was dying to know these people. The man appeared to be Latino, maybe 60, with a poker face; the woman was black, about 40, very well groomed and dressed, and looked tired. Each obligingly stayed put on a bench for just the 15 minutes we needed.

I see now that my shift from faint hostility to fascination resulted purely from the quality of attention forced on me by the exercise. Because of the set, almost grim expression on the man’s face I assumed he was bad-tempered. I kept watching, because I had to, and saw him smile at the antics of a couple of children running around; his expression changed completely. Suddenly I saw him as quite kindly.

We had guessed that the woman might be waiting for someone (since she looked at her watch), but then I thought: maybe she was taking this rest on the bench as a brief respite—time for herself before she had to go home, cook dinner, and take care of other people. The more I watched, the more I felt for her, shouldering these obligations after working all day. Maybe I was right—no one came, and eventually she hoisted her bags and walked off. But I wished I could have talked to both of them and found out.

So what generated this involvement? Simply: paying attention. There’s a famous story about Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist who taught for many years at Harvard. His new students were presented with a preserved fish on a tin platter. He would tell the student to look carefully at the fish, then leave the room, not to return for hours. One student,

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Haemulon carbonarium, a member of the fish family that Samuel Scudder observed. By Williams, J. T.; Carpenter, K. E.; Van Tassell, J. L.; Hoetjes, P.; Toller, W.; Etnoyer, P.; Smith, M. [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Scudder, wrote an account of being left alone with the smelly, hideous fish. He thought he had seen everything there was to see in that fish after 10 minutes; but after several hours, desperate, he had the idea of drawing it, “and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.” But when Agassiz returned, and he proudly recited his discoveries, the professor said, “‘You have not looked very carefully… Look again; look again!’” And he left me to my misery.” With nothing else to do, Scudder started to see still more in the fish. Each time he gave Agassiz a new list of observations, the professor said, “That is good, but that is not all; go on.” The misery continued for “three long days.” Only later did Scudder realize “the inestimable value” of this lesson in how to observe.

And here was I, feeling pressured by having to observe for 15 minutes. After 10, I too thought there wasn’t much left to notice. What would have happened if I had extended my observation for an hour?

The lesson I draw isn’t the same as Scudder’s. It’s about a different effect of close attention: the emergence of interest, curiosity, empathy, even loving kindness. In meditation you are supposed to observe with nonjudging “bare attention,” without agenda or assumptions. I wasn’t even doing that—I had the opposite of an open mind—yet look how this brief exercise changed my mental state.

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A happy, peaceful demo

Coming to this late, but I’ve been ruminating.

The People’s Climate March was perhaps the most enjoyable demo I’ve ever been on. Maybe partly because I marched with my Buddhist group, and our staging area was on a block of West 58th St with many different faith groups, including a variety of other Buddhists. That was a new flavor for me—in the past I marched with political groups.

At the back of the block where we were, during a looong wait before we got to start walking, people were friendly, even joyful. The crowd was so dense toward the other end, where there were speakers, that we never got close enough to hear what they were saying. I walked around where I could and checked out who was there. Here are some of them (click any image for a full-res view):

A woman from the Earth Initiative of the Zen Mountain Monastery told me her group was studying the beliefs of “the other side,” in order to avoid “liberal self-righteousness.” I loved that motive. Someone should do the same for leftist self-righteousness. Any self-righteousness is like a pair of blinders. We want to apply our spiritual values to how we treat the planet, but what about our attitude toward those who don’t agree with us? I remember a friend saying she loved going on demonstrations because you could yell at people at the top of your voice. Of course anger (of which self-righteousness is one form) may initially motivate us, but is it a good way to get people to change?

A few more:

hawaiian leaves

These words are Hawaiian for “care for the earth.” These young women carried the leaves for a friend who couldn’t be there. They themselves were marching with the Episcopalians.

black institute

Walking down Sixth Avenue

Carmelite friar (I think)

Carmelite friar (I think)

At last we got moving and merged into the larger demo which included many young people shouting the standard slogans: “Hey hey hey, ho ho ho, climate change has got to go!” “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!!!!”

But they weren’t angry and confrontational in the way I recall from demos dating back to Vietnam. The widely hailed “people power” of this march felt different from “Power to the people!”

The police too were different, especially in how they deployed barricades. I don’t know whether to credit Mayor de Blasio’s new policies or the nature of the march itself, but there was not that sense of being corralled and threatened that I felt at the antiwar demos of the past decade.

Meditators in Central Park. Sign reads "Earth Vigil"

Meditators in Central Park along the march route. Sign reads “Earth Vigil”

Two ironies:

On the subway going home I sat opposite two women who had a shopping cart loaded with copies of the newspaper of a far-left political party. Open-heartedness evaporated, self-righteousness surfaced: my first thought was “Hah! Glad they couldn’t get rid of all those papers.” I avoided eye contact so as not to have a paper shoved at me and be proselytized. But as I got up at my stop they called out to me. I pretended not to hear but they persisted so I finally looked at them.

“What brand are your shoes?” one called out.

“Keens,” I said.

“Oh, we thought so,” she exclaimed, and pointed to her friend’s feet, sporting Keens in a different style. There would have been some shoe discussion, but I had to get off before the doors closed. So, a lesson in finding commonality even with hard-line Communists.

Then I came home and learned that a friend in California was standing by ready to be evacuated because the roaring King fire was blasting its way toward her house through a forest dry as tinder due to the long drought there. A nervous few days, until the wind cooperated and the thousands of firefighters controlled the blaze. I marched, but she suffered.

 

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Preserve net neutrality!

Without equal access to high internet speeds, blogs like this one would sink into total obscurity. So I’m lending this space today to the campaign to preserve the internet for everyone. Wait for the bar to load:

anigif
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How [high][deep][wide][fine] can awareness extend?

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“Reflexology” by PradaDearest, used under CC license 2.0, cropped from original.

Into your little toe, at least.

During twenty years of writing with master body therapist Yamuna Zake, I’ve learned to keep my feet healthy. Key is maintaining the space between the toes, normally squished together by shoes. I use both Yamuna’s techniques and my yoga practice.

For example, before doing some standing poses I always spread my toes with my hands. As I did this recently, an exercise from a book Yamuna and I wrote (The Ultimate Body Rolling Workout) popped into my mind.

  • Can you raise all your toes together, and then, starting with the little toe, place each toe on the floor separately, without letting the toes touch?

Back when we wrote the book, I couldn’t do it. But this time, to my amazement, I could.

foot with bkdg

Tricky separation: 3d from 4th. Photo: Loren Weybright

What thrilled me was not so much the muscular feat as the sense of differentiated awareness that came with it. Before, my five toes felt like one big toe. I could only raise and lower them as a unit—maybe with a fanning movement that brought the big toe down last.

But now I discovered a thread of awareness running from my mind into each separate toe, as though a set of nerves that were asleep had woken up and started transmitting signals. I could instruct each toe to act on its own, even the tricky, recalcitrant 4th and 5th.

I once interviewed Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, a movement artist and therapist with a seemingly unlimited ability to develop an exquisitely differentiated, conscious connection to every tissue of her body. In a workshop I attended she instructed us to “move from your lymph.” Completely bewildered, I asked her later how such a thing was possible. You can develop an awareness of any organ or tissue in the body, and move it, she explained. You can move your little finger because you have an inner sensory awareness of it. In the same way you can develop sensory feedback from your lymph fluid—or your blood, or cerebrospinal fluid—and move that.

I’m pretty far from feeling my lymph, but I now have that inner sensory awareness of my toes.

And, what’s really intriguing: if I can do this with my toes, why not anything else? One of Bainbridge Cohen’s students told me he could feel into the cells of his heart. Another said she could feel into her brain.

And, beyond the body—how much farther can awareness expand? How fine-grained can we get? In the previous post I described a group session with the awakened teacher Jean Klein. Klein kept referring to the notion of the separate, individual self as an illusion, and one man began to argue about this. Finally Klein told him, “I don’t experience any distinction at all, even a physical one, between you and myself.” The man was sitting a good 50 feet from him. Klein was saying that having completely let go of the identification with being an individual self, he felt literally one with everything and everyone.

Physicists say that atoms consist mostly of empty space. A chair, say, contains more space than matter. But we experience it as solid. What I imagine is that Klein could perceive the basic energetic substrate from which we all arise, which temporarily assumes each of our various forms until we pass on, like waves in the ocean. From this view, the individual self, the “me” that we take as such an absolute, undeniable reality, does not seem solid.

It’s quite a way from talking to your toe to living in such a state of expanded awareness. But even the slightest evidence that it’s possible is so inspiring!

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Where does writing come from? (part 3)

In the early 1990s I had the wonderful fortune of spending time with Jean Klein, a teacher in the Hindu Advaita tradition. Klein grew up in Czechoslovakia and Vienna between the wars, studied medicine and music in Berlin, then when the Nazis came to power fled to France and Algeria. He left Europe in the early 1950s for India, where he met a teacher and experienced a complete awakening. He returned to Europe and began to teach himself.

Tibetan_Dharmacakra

The gankyil, a Tibetan Buddhist symbol of nonduality. By Kava09 and authors of File:Korea-Buk-01.jpg, File:Sam Taeguk.svg (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the time I encountered him, I had little experience or intellectual knowledge of Advaita, Buddhism, or meditation, so my reaction was pretty naïve—not a bad thing, I guess. What I mostly remember was the extraordinary experience of being in his presence. It is amazing to be with someone who has no agenda, no needs, no defenses or barriers, no fears, no expectations, no anger, but only total openness, acceptance, and loving kindness. You can actually see the meaning of that puzzling Buddhist term emptiness. It’s as though the personality is transparent. (At one session, Klein remarked that “the personality is a tool you use when life asks. Then when the situation is over, you lay it down and it’s not there.”)

Advaita sees the entire universe as one undivided reality; its nondualist teaching resembles aspects of Buddhism. Meetings with a teacher take the form of dialogues.

One dialogue I attended took place just before my first book was published in 1992. About to leave for a mini-book tour in California, I alternated between states of expansive excitement and contracted fear. I got up the nerve to ask Klein about this.

He slewed around in his chair to look at me and said, “Ask the question more precisely.”

I explained that I was about to do public speaking and could feel my energy expand because I was happy that people appreciated my work. Then I’d get scared and contract. I didn’t mention that the “work” was a book.

“You want the appreciation,” he said. “You were seeing yourself as a doer.”

“Yes, I was,” I said.

He looked at me and said, “If a man writes a book, he’s not really writing that book.”

I knew instantly that was the heart of the issue. “Well,” I said, “I’ve written a book, and I know I didn’t write that book—but I forget.”

He looked at me a few moments longer—there was immense kindness in his gaze—but said no more, likely because he saw I had gotten it.

And I did, at least in my mind. I’d forgotten the awareness I had had, during the process of writing, that the book was actually coming through me. Instead I saw my self being “the author” and my fear was of that identity being undermined.

My fear didn’t all drop away after that. I remember vividly how petrified I was the first time I sat in a radio broadcast studio waiting for the host’s first question. Yet during that segment, as well as the later interviews and talks I gave, I found myself responding out of a space much like that mysterious source of writing (described in this post and this one). My answers were far more skillful than if they had been formulated purely by my intellect. To put it as Jean Klein had, I wasn’t really answering those questions. The question to ask then is: who was?

Find out more about Jean Klein here and here.

 

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Where does writing come from? (part 2)

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Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton, Woman Writing in an Interior, 1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Mavis Gallant, a Canadian short-story writer, died in February at 94. A notice in the New Yorker got me curious about her. After a brief early marriage, she moved to Europe in 1950, at 28, giving herself two years make a living entirely from writing. And she did it, making the tradeoff so many women have felt compelled to make: “She has quite deliberately chosen to have neither husband nor children, those two great deterrents to any woman’s attempt to live by and for writing,” as one scholar put it. So when she explains what drives someone to become a writer, she knows what she’s talking about.

In an afterword to a collection titled Paris Stories, Gallant says:

The impulse to write and the stubbornness needed to keepclick to go to Amazon book page going are supposed to come out of some drastic shaking up, early in life. There is even a term for it: the shock of change. Probably, it means a jolt that unbolts the door between perception and imagination and leaves it ajar for life, or that fuses memory and language and waking dreams. Some writers may just simply come into the world with overlapping visions of things seen and things as they might be seen. All have a gift for holding their breath while going on breathing. It is the basic requirement.

What interests me is this phrase holding the breath while going on breathing. And why it’s the basic requirement.

To me, it sounds like an ability to inhabit two alternate realities at the same time, or two different levels of existence, one a kind of internal timeless being and the other the world of objects in time. There is a meditation practice of shifting focus from an object of concentration to just the awareness of the knowing of that object. As I understand it, this practice trains you to be increasingly able to experience pure awareness.

With respect to writing, I think “holding the breath” equals accessing the timeless subjectless place ideas arise from, at the same time that you’re finding language and constructing sentences that make these ideas into an object—the words on the page (or screen) that exists in time and space. I’ve had the experience of dissolving into the process of writing such that my sense of myself simply evaporated. I have usually only gotten to this point when I was able to work continuously over a period of time. Once someone called me at such a time—not a close friend, but someone I knew more than casually—and I embarrassed myself by forgetting who she was.

This is the best experience of writing that I know of. Nothing beats it. Sometimes I think that my entire motivation for writing another book is just to have it again. Perhaps Mavis Gallant felt the same.

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Suzuki Harunobu, A Woman Writing, circa 1764–circa 1768, Brooklyn Museum

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When did the universe begin—or did it? And what are we doing in our little piece of it? And …

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Two galaxies colliding.
Credit: Debra Meloy Elmegreen (Vassar College), et al., & the Hubble Heritage Team (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/Space Telescope Science Institute/NASA)

Theoretical physics doesn’t come easily to me, but Sean Carroll manages to put more of it across than I’d have thought possible for someone whose math education stopped at intermediate algebra. His book From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time asks the question: Why does time only move in one direction?

The answer, says Carroll, is connected to the phenomenon of entropy, which also goes only one way: it increases. Exploring this connection leads him through some of the deepest questions scientists ponder: relativity, spacetime, quantum physics, the nature of the universe, and, ultimately, the meaning of human life. Why are we here? Is it by design of someone or something? Carroll rejects the argument from design. He sees us “not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon.” Meaning and purpose don’t arise from any “laws of nature” created by a divinity; they’re for us to determine. And he takes pride in the scientific struggle to understand those laws.

But I have another question: should we even be asking?

It turns out that these same grand questions were hot philosophical topics during the Buddha’s time. Many people wanted him to answer them, but he refused. There is a list of 10 of these “unanswerable” questions (14 in some traditions), including:

  • Is the universe eternal or not?
  • Is it finite or infinite?
  • Are the soul and body the same thing or different?
  • Does an enlightened person still exist after death?

And so on. The Buddha explained that trying to answer these questions doesn’t help end suffering but actually increases it, and furthermore doesn’t lead to awakening, or enlightenment. The questions are only a distraction.

Nor is he the only sage to take this position. A very highly realized teacher I was fortunate to see several times—said to be enlightened himself—was asked, “When did the universe begin?” He responded, “The question is meaningless: there is no time and space.” When someone else wanted to know, “What is the meaning of life?” he said, “You can’t ever know the answer to that, so why think about it?”

Click image for more info from HubbleSite

Never before seen galaxies that existed shortly after the Big Bang, billions of years distant, photographed by the Hubble telescope. Credit: NASA, European Space Agency, S. Beckwith (STScI), and the HUDF Team. Click image for more info from HubbleSite.

So why did I want to read the Carroll book? Because I would like to know the nature of the universe, especially since that might shed light on the nature of the self, another of those unanswerable questions that interests me even more.

I’ve struggled a bit with this desire to know, and concluded that my interest isn’t just metaphysical; it’s practical. That is, I don’t want simply to define the self in absolute terms, but still more to understand how the ways we conceptualize it affect us, as individuals and as a society. We may aspire to the realm of the absolute, but we also lead everyday, relative lives, and on this plane how we define our self is important, because it determines how we live, and our impact on everyone around us.

No doubt knowing the answers to the unanswerable questions would enable us to construct an absolute definition of ourselves. But since we can’t, best to admit that all the definitions we have made are relative. So perhaps the best answer to the questions in the title of this post is: Who knows?

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My house is my castle

Many old houses in Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods have beautiful ironwork enclosing their yards. For example:pretty fence 1

pretty fence 2

 

 

 

 

 

(Click the photos to see the details more clearly.)

First-floor windows, easily accessible from the street, often have iron grilles to prevent break-ins. These too are often quite handsome. grilles 2

Years ago I played host to a group of visitors from a small town in Ohio who laughed merrily when they saw similar grilles on houses on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They couldn’t get over the idea that all these people were putting themselves behind bars. Imagine living like that! I’d gotten used to seeing them and remember feeling rather defensive.

But not long ago I came across the house below, and found myself in the same position as the giggling Ohioans.

stockade

I don’t know who lives here so have no idea when or why the current owners (or earlier ones) put up this structure. At the time the neighborhood was likely unsafe and prone to break-ins. Just last summer, a couple of blocks from this house, I noticed some damage to rose bushes planted in tubs along the sidewalk. A homeowner told me that a bunch of kids had come through the night before and turned all the tubs over. There was nothing to steal, they just wanted to ruin something.

Still, this stockade sticks out on its block, since the other houses have the customary low fences. From a bystander’s point of view, it looks pretty unfriendly.

So I let my imagination weave itself around those bars. I’ve long been interested in the powerful current of individualism in this country and how it shapes our character, politics, art, and economy, and in particular contributes to the way we define our sense of self. To me this fence evokes a self that wants to close itself off and clearly demarcate the boundary between itself and everything else. Is that a healthy sense of autonomy—or is it like living in a cage?

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Where does writing come from? (part 1)

Angelica Kauffman painting

Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry. The painter is at left.

I’ve been mulling over some journal entries by Flannery O’Connor, written in 1946–47, when she was twenty-one and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The entries show her struggling with the tension between her ambition to be a successful writer and her desire, as a devout Catholic, to think about God “all the time.”

You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. … what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by this shadow that is nothing. …

What I am asking for is really very ridiculous… at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. (New Yorker, 9/15/2013)

She wants success but she’s also afraid it will give her a swelled head, which will get in the way of being able “to love God all the way.” So she keeps reminding herself of things that will keep the shadow from growing.

When she produces a story after a dry period, O’Connor notes that it wasn’t really she who wrote it. “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” Then she begs him to make the story a “sound,” good one because she doesn’t know how to do that herself.

Some time later, she cycles back into discouragement. “If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing.”

I am not a mystic, much less a Catholic or even a Christian, but this strikes a chord for me. If you disregard the specifics of her terminology, she is simply talking about where the inspiration to write something comes from. In my experience, that’s a mystery: the ultimate source isn’t one’s self and isn’t under one’s control. (I felt this most purely with my own two books, which I wrote from the greatest depths I was capable of. But even in collaborations, when I’m setting out other people’s ideas, I often find solutions to problems of structure or expression arising in intuitive leaps out of “nowhere”—not quite the same, but close enough.)

In the early stages of conceptualizing my first book, The Women Outside, I remember sitting on my knees on the floor and suddenly having a sense of a column of energy—or something—streaming upward from my head and mingling with some larger entity “out there.” Or maybe the energy from out there was coming down into me. It’s been so long I don’t recall. But the feeling that I was connecting to something larger than myself was clear. It never happened again, but as I worked on this and my other book, Slaying the Mermaid, I felt quite distinctly that they were coming through me from somewhere else, entering in the region of my solar plexus, then traveling upward to where my brain could operate on them.

I wouldn’t call that larger something God, but there are other options: the collective unconscious, universal mind, nondual awareness, the unconditioned,  Buddha-mind, rigpa, consciousness with a capital C… and those are just from traditions I know something about.

Poussin_Inspiration_of_the_poet_Louvre

Nicolas Poussin, The Inspiration of the Poet (1630). A poet writes under the inspiration of Apollo, who is accompanied by a muse and two cherubs.

It’s quite literally inspiration, which comes from a Greek word meaning God-breathed and a Latin word meaning blow into. That is, a divine being is breathing something into you. The ancients spoke of the muses, O’Connor speaks of God. I don’t know what to speak of, but I know what it feels like.

And I agree with O’Connor that it’s good not to get a swelled head, but rather to remember the mystery.

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The writer and the archetypes

In the late 70s–early 80s I volunteered in a shelter for homeless women run by nuns. It was the era of “shopping bag ladies,” women who lived on the street and carried their possessions around in bags. To the non-homeless they were mythical figures; no one knew where they came from or why they “chose” to live that way. Theories abounded, and their contradictions intrigued me. I decided to discover the reality.

doll radios

Doll radios from the 1970s. Click photo for better resolution image.

It turned out to be pretty prosaic. The largest single factor in making these women homeless was a political decision: emptying the state mental hospitals without making adequate provision to support the ex-inmates in the community. Personal events, like the death of a husband who took care of business, also played a big role; many women who were middle-aged at that time had been raised to be good wives, which meant not knowing how to manage a checkbook and pay bills. (My book The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness is based on my experience at the shelter.)

But people in extreme situations lose their grounding in the realm of the ordinary. Their minds are invaded by myth. The women I met acted out vivid archetypes of femaleness that feminists were then just beginning to analyze. Deeply influenced by Jung at the time, I found myself plunged into a world where the archetypes walked around breathing and speaking in symbols. One incident in particular comes to me now.

The mission of the Franciscan nuns who founded the shelter was to follow St. Francis’ example by serving those in need, which to the sisters meant the homeless women they saw on the streets of midtown Manhattan. So the nuns and the women of the streets came together in a single household—a four-story brownstone in an area then known as Hell’s Kitchen. To the nuns, each woman was a precious soul whom they welcomed into the community of spirit they created there. But other people perceived only the archetypes. I remember making a phone call to the VA to see if I could get help for a homeless woman who had served in the army. The nice lady I spoke to couldn’t understand why I was calling about someone old enough to be a veteran; when she heard “homeless women,” she assumed we were all young and pregnant.

The first “bag lady” to show up when the shelter opened was a woman I’ll call Dora. Probably in her 50s, she walked bent over, shuffling along in sneakers and white socks. Her voice was deep, snuffly, nasal. She soon moved into a nearby hotel, but dropped in frequently for meals and company, always toting a couple of bags. Dora was gregarious, and what she said was generally sensible and often quite penetrating.

Like many women at the shelter, Dora was much concerned with her own femininity and sexuality. She told me about her boyfriend, who had died ten years before (“I’ll never see a man like him again”), and pondered her prospects of getting another one. She grilled me about whether I was married, why I had gotten divorced, and whether I had a boyfriend now.

That Christmas she gave Sister Elizabeth a present: a transistor radio in the shape of a sexy doll, blonde and naked, sitting on her folded legs (I had seen the same one in a junk store nearby). The doll had enormous breasts with huge red nipples; one was the on-off-volume switch, the other the tuner. The radio itself was in the bottom.

It was totally characteristic of Dora’s perceptiveness (and her streak of malice) that she chose to give this grotesquely vulgar object to Elizabeth, the most “nunny” of the sisters, the one whose sexuality was least in evidence. (These were post–Vatican II nuns, who lived uncloistered and wore jeans instead of habits.) The radio was a reminder of something that, in Dora’s mind, the nuns were getting away with forgetting. In a way she was speaking for all the women at the shelter—victims of rape, their own desires, unwanted pregnancy, abuse and desertion by men, society’s condemnation and indifference—coming face to face with the five sisters, toward whose deliberately nonsexual lives they felt (I sensed) an obscure hostility. Dora was sending a telegram:

HERE—GIVING BACK WHAT YOU THREW AWAY.

Sexy Linda doll radio

Vintage Sexy Linda “Radio Doll” Novelty Transistor Radio, Made in Hong Kong. Photo by Joe Haupt

I don’t know whether Elizabeth got the message, but I drank it in. That place was so fruitful for a writer’s imagination: I didn’t have to invent images, a cornucopia was offered me every day. The danger, though, was falling into the archetypes myself—but that’s another story.

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