Los Angeles – June 8 through 12, 2014
I spent five days at the LAX Hilton for Amma’s programs. While there i wanted to have dinner at the Renaissance Hotel which is a couple of blocks away. Years ago when i lived on Maui with my then partner and our young son we used to stay at this hotel as we passed through LA on our way to Mexico City to visit my Mom who lived in Cuernavaca. I have memories of delicious food and a very kind Spanish speaking waiter.
On my first or second evening i decided to go for a walk, buy some supplies for the astrology table where i was doing seva (selfless service) this tour, and then have dinner at the Renaissance for old times sake. I would walk passed it on the way to Office Depot, so i figured to swing by there on the way back.
I went out the side door of the hotel, took a left on 98th and found myself on Airport Blvd. The directions i was given were like “head up another long block to Westchester Pkwy take a left and keep walking passed the big airport parking lots until you see the Office Depot store in a shopping area on the right”. It seemed like a doable walk, in a “i have no idea where i am” kind of place. I figured i would keep going for a while and if i didn’t see the store i would turn around, come back and have dinner at the R. I did find the store, got the supplies and headed back.
On my return walk there was a road i had noticed earlier. It seemed to cut between the parking lots and it looked like it would come out right across from the Renaissance.
“Do i turn?…. who knows where it goes…. it goes to the Renaissance, just turn, it’s a short cut…. how do you know… Because i can see where the hotel is…. Just turn! Okay… went the familiar internal debate that comes up when i contemplate doing something that i feel uncertain about.
I turned right and the street ended on W. 96th which leads, a couple of blocks away, to the Renaissance. Cool. I crossed the street and started walking towards the hotel. The side walk was kinda wide. As i looked ahead i saw a large black mound that, at first, i couldn’t make out. As i got closer i saw what looked like tall piles of black plastic bags, the large garbage bag size. They were at least my height, around five and a half feet tall. I felt a contraction in my chest. What is this? What is all this garbage doing here? Why would all these garbage bags be here next to the airport and the fancy hotels? It didn’t make sense. Flash back to garbage strikes in New York City. I felt very uncomfortable, hesitant and decided to go wide leaving as much space as i could between me and it.
As i passed what turned out to be two tall piles there was an open space between them and a woman was laying there on the ground. Her head was propped up on the edge of one of the bags. Her eyes were closed. I thought she was dead! A plastic tarp covered her like a blanket. Her arms were folded across her chest above the blanket. My heart stopped … and then i saw her stir, her eyes started to open. I kept walking. I had a body experience of being catapulted into a different reality! What had i just seen? I couldn’t make sense of the images. It was as if i had walked through someone’s bedroom out in the middle of the sidewalk. What do i do? Do i call someone? Who would i call? What if that makes things worse for her! I had no idea what was going on! I felt so overwhelmed! I wanted to get grounded! I wanted to help, to do something for her! I heard my grandmother’s voice. “You can get her some food.” There was a Burger King just up the block.
I have no memory of the last time i was in a Burger King… if ever. I looked at the menu. What can she eat? I don’t want to make her sick. Something easy to chew and digest…. and tasty. Yeah tasty. I don’t want to buy meat. How about one of those fruit shakes? She might not like that. I wanted to give her care. I have no idea how long i stood there looking at the menu as if it were written in some foreign language. I didn’t even know how to order. The young man behind the counter spoke Spanish as did the ladies putting the orders together. I spoke to him in the language of my childhood. Somehow this felt grounding, connecting, comforting. I chose a fish sandwich for protein, fries and a Sprite for familiar…. at least i hoped! Hopefully this will be easy for her to eat. I headed back towards the woman. I wasn’t even sure she was still going to be there. Was she even there when i walked by? I reached the pile of black bags …. and she was there. I got to her side and squatted down facing her. She opened her eyes. “I brought you some food”. She propped herself up and smiled. Her fingers were bent and swollen and her skin had stains like black soot. The smell of urine hung in the air. She took the Burger King bag and peered into it smiling, like a child looking into a surprise package.
I remember being aware as i was walking back towards her that i didn’t want to touch her…. Afraid i might ‘get’ something. And here i am a few blocks from where Amma is hugging anyone and everyone who comes to Her. Yep … and i am just me and i have all these fears and uncertainties that cling to me like static because that is what they have always done. And i am just winging it, completely in unchartered territory. How to come back to self acceptance? Even today as i write this. Words like ‘right’ and ‘should’ permeate my self talk. Afraid that those who read this will judge me. Wanting to be held with care and understanding. Wanting to hold myself, to rock myself in loving kindness…. just like Amma does.
As she looked into the Burger King bag i stood up and walked away…. heading towards the Renaissance. I walked into the hotel. I felt like i was in a trance. What am i doing here? Oh yeah i used to come here with my family. Something about memories. But this was no longer the place of years ago. I ordered fish, a salad and some tea. For more than twice the amount i had paid at Burger King.
How does all this come to be? How does a woman end up laying on the street amidst large black plastic bags in LA, just a block from fancy hotels and a huge international airport? Here in the land of the Stars and wealthy! Why is she alone? Where is her family? How does this happen? Should i call some agency? How do i know what this person needs? Is there a right way of doing this? How do i know? This strong sense that i didn’t want to interfere, to intervene in someone’s life without having a clue about what their life is about and what they need! There was such a loud inner voice telling me to not step over this very clear yet invisible line. Was i being irresponsible? How could i leave her there alone?
I went through the motions of eating my dinner. Put old memories to rest and headed back to my hotel. I needed to talk to someone, needed help in processing this. I was sharing the room with three women. One of them, Parimala, is from Switzerland. I knew she was familiar with the consciousness of Non Violent Communication and i felt safe asking her to listen to me, to hold space, to be present. I felt confident that she could do that. As i reached the door to our room she was walking out. “I need to talk, would you have time this evening?” I asked. She did and we agreed to meet later back in the room.
Later, as we talked, i told her the whole story. I can still connect with this sense of despair of not knowing what was the ‘right’ thing to do. And the HOW???? The ‘how does this happen?’ kept coming back. Parimala stayed with me, reflected, supported me as i went deeper and finally connected with the loneliness. This sense of desolation and my fear of being alone. This dark void of nothingness! This fear that has gripped me since i was very little. And it was here, in front of me, facing me in this woman laying on the sidewalk amidst the garbage bags. I didn’t want her to be alone. It was as if Amma brought me face to face with the depth of my fear, my despair of being alone.
I decided i would go back the next morning to check on her. I wanted to know if she was okay. I had no idea what i was going to do but i wanted to go. I had to know. I got up early, i didn’t want to wait. It was a clear morning, the air felt refreshing. A part of me thought no one was going to be there. She would be gone. All the plastic removed, no trace. As if it had never happened. It was like being in an early morning twilight zone! I passed the Burger King and i saw the black plastic mounds ahead. In the distance i saw a figure standing, facing the chain link fence behind the bags. She was shaking something in front of her. In the way one would shake out a blanket or a space rug. As i got closer i realized that she was someone else. The woman from yesterday lay exactly as i had seen her the first time. I stood by this new woman and said “Hello”. She turned a bit towards me and responded “Hello” and then continued folding a black plastic sheet. I saw that within one of the mounds there was a space like a cave surrounded by black plastic bags and i imagined that this was where this woman was living. It was as if she was tidying up her living space as so many of us do in the morning. These large black bags that are labeled garbage or trash bags are used by some homeless people to carry all their belongings, to build their homes and to use as blankets.
“I was here yesterday and i wanted to know if she is okay.”
“Yeah, she’s okay, she’s my sister.” She glanced at me briefly, looked down at the woman on the ground and then continued folding. She didn’t look at me again.
As we spoke the woman laying down opened her eyes. I was facing her, the other woman standing between us. She looked straight at me and smiled. Her eyes were big and bright blue green. Her teeth were white and even, not decayed as i had imagined. The whole time i stood there she looked at me smiling without blinking. It was as if i were being given darshan. I pray that i will always remember her eyes and her smile. There was so much light in her and around her. It was as if we knew each other.
I remained silent. I didn’t want to intrude. I wanted to respect their space. I had a sense that for a brief moment in time our universes ran parallel and i didn’t want to step into theirs without being invited. Her sister told me she was okay. Was her ‘okay’ not credible because of her circumstances? Who was i to determine what was okay, or not for these two women?
All these questions remind me of what Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet:
“….. be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer……”
How do i ‘be’ in the questions and the discomfort that often arises within them? How to allow the discomfort to ‘be’?
I turned and walked back toward the hotel and Amma…. Amma who as always had been with me, carrying me all along.
She is not alone.…She is not alone…. She has a sister. She has family! I felt alive, joyous and present in the moment.
I never got her name. I want to remember her by a name other than ‘the woman laying on the sidewalk surrounded by black plastic bags’. To support connection, humanity. Because she is a significant part of my dance, of my journey toward self. Because we are interconnected. Today I looked up the name of the street i decided to turn on. Jenny St. I now think of her as Jenny.
I loved this story Arati and I so enjoy reading your blog. So well written, open, gentle, human. It is a joy. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful part of yourself.
Thank you Harsha for letting me know that reading this post was joyful and meaningful to you. I value your letting me know that this contributed to you.
Loved reading about Jenny. Remembering when you shared this story with me on tour on seeing new insights as you write about it now. Thanks for sharing.
I am so glad you had this experience. It is such an important one, and one you will remember for ever. Such an opportunity to see a person as a part of you and your world instead of “the other”.