Saturday, August 28, 2010

For Those Without Walls

I started a summer running challenge on Memorial Day. A twitter friend suggested running 150 miles from the beginning of summer to Labor Day. At the time, I was looking for a little motivation to run with the dog who lives at my house. (If you know me, you know he poops under my sewing machine when I don't take him. Jerk.) I don't accept any running challenge without assessing the feasibility. I figured even if I only ran a mile or two a day, I could easily squeeze in 150 miles, as staggering as the number seemed on May 30.

As I ran my regular short path near my neighborhood, I grew stronger and more capable of running longer distances, so I started exploring the trail to see where it would lead and how long it extended. I ran over a bridge one day, looked underneath as I did so, and noticed two figures in repose under a light blanket. A bucket and a box lined up against the concrete abutment of the bridge. In a flash, I made my decision to run in the opposite direction.

I ran in the opposite direction from the homeless people all summer. Never ventured under or beyond the bridge. Each day in passing, thoughts flooded through me; conflicting ideas, emotions and questions. Should I help? What would I do? Why are they there? How awful! How infuriating! How gross! (I should say here that it never ceases to amaze me the vast expanse and complexity of human emotions that so much can run through me so quickly.)

Finally, my running endurance was such that I needed to run under that bridge, and I'm embarrassed to say that I felt nervous. I didn't want to disturb them or, worse, interact with them. I didn't want my dog rummaging around in their business. I just wanted to run by and get on with it. Running above them on the bridge was entirely different from running past them. My awareness of them as humans came into disturbing relief.

It seemed like I invaded their space, that I had just trampled through their bedroom. That thought made me angry on two levels, and they are not pretty. To be perfectly honest, my first thought was an incredibly selfish, "This is NOT your living room. It is a running trail." My second was to kick myself for my ignorance. "How can I possibly run by these people every day and not act?"

All summer, I tried to think of what I would do about it, but I never did anything. Two days ago, I ran under the bridge on my way home and I beheld the most grim vision that has spurred me. The woman crouched over an old bucket to relieve herself. As gross as that might seem, the reality is there is no dignity for a person without walls. I don't know her story, I don't know why she's there but I do know that every person deserves food, clothing and shelter.

I've been thinking about walls on my runs this summer and I've written about them before. Here is another kind of wall. Or to be more precise, a lack of walls that builds a distinct barrier. I know, with absolute clarity, that I need to do something about this. I still don't know what it is. I'm thinking, I'm praying, and now I'm asking you, my friends. I want to help. I want to say that I acknowledge them as humans. I want to show compassion to my brothers and sisters. Will anything I do make a real difference? Will it house the multitudes? I don't know but I have to stop running by and start doing. What should I do?

I made my goal and then some, by the way. When I accepted the challenge to run 150 miles, I didn't know that it would potentially take me, and my community even farther than that.

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