We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.
The Truth is heavy, therefore few care to carry it.
The following week (after the senior seminar in Prologue I), class meets in the Dorothy Day center in downtown St. Paul, for Sheryl Rose’s seminar on social responsibility.
We traverse a cavernous room populated by homeless people slumped around small round tables, awaiting breakfast. Solitary ragged men, droopy women, and listless children glance at us as we tag along after Father John en route to our conference room, a select group of well-dressed, well-fed, earnest-looking consumers. Those who look me in the eyes, I look back in theirs.
Looking in the eyes of strangers is something you don’t do in the polite world if you aim to “pass”. Looking in the eyes is for animals, primitives, survivors. Looking in the eyes is a risk, one the polite world would rather not take. Looking in the eyes is facing the truth. You might have to respond.
It’s also what children do, both those whose parents encourage their unmediated engagement with the world, and those so unprotected that they have to look out for their own security. I belonged in both camps.
Looking had been my signature, an open door to the unexpected. I grew up looking directly in the eyes of everyone I ever spoke with, everyone I passed on the street, or sat across from on a bus. I was known for my looking, and didn’t begin to curtail it until very late – long after my own son was born, after I’d earned some sense of the normalcy that spells security, and I realized that my looking marked me.
That shared look that passes, also, between unknown members of a common sub-culture. Entering the coffee-shop and locking eyes with the other lesbian, gay man, black man, goth girl, what-ever markable subculture you belong to. Acknowledgement, recognition, reconnoitering, reviewing the chess-board – which pieces are mine, which are my opponent’s – an assessment only the self-assuredly dominant can afford to forgo. The rest of us instinctively seek to connect with reassuring eye contact, contact I had not shared with my own kind, a woman of my ilk, in decades. A connecting glance I had all but forgotten, and find myself yearning for these days.
So it was natural that with these people, in this place that echoed an earlier self, I looked. I looked, and saw what we’re afraid of. Suffering, despair, want, need, death, scorn. The inevitable leavings of our security. Reflection of the scarcity built into the structure of civilization.
These were my people. Identical to those I grew up with. I knew those eyes – how they’d look in love and in rage, the implicit and inevitable accusation.
For those few moments, on the way to that meeting room, I was no longer an alien. I was where I belonged. I felt a visceral sensation of a veil lifting, a membrane dissolving, awash in the pulsing of home. As a girl, I could have come here looking for my mother and found her, cozying into one of these clumps, listening in rapture to a crippled Vietnam vet regale her with tales about his communications with Mars via a tinfoil ring, communing with her clan, there for them in a way she’d long since ceased being there for me. It was like those dim, worn, and dusty gospel missions in old storefronts on Hennepin, where it crosses Nicollet Island heading into downtown, back in the early sixties, when that stretch still had sidewalk-abutting storefronts, which were vacant then, but for the occasional run-down bar and those renegade churches we frequented when I was a kid, for the free army-surplus sandwiches & half-pint cartons of milk, squeezing down the pews past the stale and acrid smell of slack-faced grizzle-chinned bums, who gazed over us protectively as we sat through the sermons, an easy price to pay for the free food. You could feel the yearning our grubby childish presence aroused in those sad-eyed men, a reminder of all that was good and innocent and normal and lost to them. It was the one place our little wild-animal selves felt that sense of adult adoration, an extra unconscious plus to go with the meal.
Those sorry, frayed, smelly, listless, hungry people were mine. I could have stopped all my pretense. I could have dropped my habitual warm and friendly smile and relaxed this face that, unguarded, reveals such sorrow I cringe to see it in the mirror.
Those people were mine, but unless they could read it in my eyes, they’d never know it now. For I’d disowned them.
I have spent my whole adult life leaving that world behind. Closing my heart to a past I hear howling in the night, always rattling at the boundaries of my constructed reality, awaiting a misstep, eager to drag me back out there. I have hauled myself up out of that pit, with a hardened heart, and an iron will. By adopting the air of a self-assured dominance; by learning not to look strangers in the eyes.
By the time we settle into the meeting room where hot coffee awaits us (while the homeless still await theirs) and begin our talk, those eyes have done their work. In the round of introductions all I can say is “I’m just going to sit here and cry for awhile. Those are my people out there, and I’ve been avoiding them for decades.”
The rest of the morning, tears stream down my face. The group discusses the Center and it’s mission, poverty, politics and how that all relates to leadership. We tour the facilities, nod to the bunches of homeless, and in spite of my special position in the center of this particular Venn diagram, where these two circles – the homeless and advanced-leadership- degree seekers – overlap, all I can contribute to the conversation is my tears. I make no effort to stop, hide or explain them. I leave my classmates to assume whatever comes to them, based on last week’s disclosure, and they compassionately let me be, with only an occasional kind look or caring touch. Aside from my classmates, I know one thing – among my people tears require no explanation and the causes can’t be fixed. They are nothing to be ashamed of – unlike in the world of my weekdays, wherein one tear is long remembered by everyone and a lingering source of shame to the one who shed it.