It is September 11th, 2019, which is meaningful in itself, aside from the detail that it is oddly hot and muggy. This weather could be a by-product of Hurricane Dorian, a side effect of our burning world, or just weather. I don’t believe the last possibility. I wrote it in case you wanted a laugh. Ha.There.
It is mid-afternoon and I drive to Barrie, an Ontario town on the west shore of Lake Simcoe. My van has no AC, so I’m hot, but my windows are down, I have water, and I move fast up highway 400; all good. My plan is to find a park bench and read next to the lake, and then attend an evening meditation class at a Buddhist centre there. I’ve been focusing on Buddhist thought and meditation full-on since the spring–you know, trying to find a way to tolerate the harshness of the current human insanity. Buddhist thought and related concepts of living in the now, are my new jam and I’m working diligently to make them a reflex–I am too emotionally mutable otherwise. Yesterday, on my way in to an appointment, I dumped most of the coffee out of my travel mug onto my front instead of into my face, thanks to a bad seal. I was on it, telling myself that this was not a problem. It wasn’t. It was coffee on my shirt. And pants, and the seat. I drove home, changed my clothes and was still on time for the appointment. In the scheme of things, my spilled coffee was funny.
Back to Barrie:
I get downtown and drive along Dunlop Street scanning doorways for the address I want. I am not familiar with the town, and the construction on the street doesn’t help. But something is going on...
I will come clean with you here–I feel that I am being tested. The scenario is too bizarre to be otherwise: There are meth-heads (or users of whatever drugs) everywhere. I almost can’t believe what I see and drive with my jaw in my lap. Everywhere I look I see broken, sad bodies with weathered, hard-worn faces–ghostly versions of their once vibrant selves, perhaps. Some sit on the curb, others walk, or lean against a building. I can’t find my address, so I park near the lake so that I can regroup and check the map on my phone. I hear a voice and notice a woman standing on the grass in front of my van. She is talking to a small hill in front of her. She leaves quickly as a police cruiser parks nearby.
I take a deep breath, wind back through the streets and finally find my sacred door. The address I have is incorrect. The entrance to the building is on a different street, but there it is, and namasté! I pull into a parking spot close to the door and next to some kind of park. Trees line the street and though they give me shade, they also hide what is beyond them. I can see a stream down at the bottom of a hill that roles from the sidewalk. Everything is green and it might be a lovely place to pass an afternoon. Or score some tweak. Is that the term? I see what I am sure is a drug deal between someone I can’t see in behind some shrubs, and a party of three. The party then climbs the hill and heads toward the street.
The meditation doesn’t start for another two hours. I sit in my van, heartbroken and upset. Aside from this, my commuter bike is in full view in the back of my van, as is camping gear from my recent trip out west. Since I don’t know where I can safely park, I sense a risk of the van being broken in to. My gut tells me to go home. I do.
Let’s be clear: I know that these people are not monsters. They are hurting and seek relief from a world that has laid them out and left them wounded, but I just wasn't ready. I drive back into my town and see rows of Conservative election signs and I feel like I might soon join the beaten crew out on the curb. This is not spilled coffee.
I am not planning this, but the following day, I decide to go back to Barrie. I want to see if what I saw and felt were true. If I could get myself into full presence with the perspective of a sincere observer instead of a thrown, unprepared and overwhelmed tourist, I thought I might be okay. Part of me felt that this effort might be nuts. The other part told it to shut up–in a nice way, of course.
Shortly after noon, I pull into the same parking spot next to the park with the trees. I pass the door to the Buddhist centre and keep going to the main street. I slow my steps, and see some of the troubled souls whose strife upset me so much yesterday. Yes, they are stereotypical in appearance, but so what? The feeling I get while walking past some of the nice shops and businesses, is that those ghoulish bodies are a nuisance. I speak to a mother pushing a stroller. I ask her about the situation down here. She acknowledges that it’s a problem, but in the same breath, directs me to her favourite coffee shop. “It’s really good,” and then she is gone. She misses my intention, or perhaps purposely deflects, because the problem is tiresome to her. She just wants to live here and there is nothing wrong with that.
I take her cue though, and walk into the shop and order. I speak with one of the young men working behind the counter.
“Yesterday there was a fight in the alley. Last night, I went to put the garbage out and there was a woman sobbing near the bins,” he says.
So this trouble is not new. I walk down to the lake past the marinas and new condo buildings. I see the police station attached to the bus depot, and almost directly next to the Social Services building. People that I pass smile–seem genuinely friendly; this town is a paradox. But, as I make the loop back towards my van, I see a young woman, possibly 26 years-old, sitting on the sidewalk with her back against the traffic signal light post. Not far from her is a tangle of young men and women sitting, standing together like warriors off of their horses for the moment. While I wait for the light to change, I see the woman begin to cry. I know that I can’t simply walk past her. The light changes, I walk to her slowly like it's just a day, then crouch down beside her so that we are both looking off in the same direction and I am not confrontational.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
She continues to cry, but tucks into telling me her story without a second of hesitation. I respond as best I can, focused like hell on compassionate listening; no judgement. She lights a cigarette and tells me about the pain she experiences, and the situation her boyfriend is in. I ask a few questions to get a better idea of her scenario, but nothing too prying. She takes a couple quick looks at me, as if any connection is a risk, but her general gaze is fixed on the tangle close by. She curses like a sailor but I can see this is a coping mechanism–a posturing protection, and nothing close to vicious. There are moments when we are just quiet, watching the tangle together. I want to bring her home and give her soup and a couple days to live on my sofa and recoup, but I know I can’t. The best I can do is say:
“Hey, I’m sorry that things are tough for you right now. I have to go, but I hope things get better in your life,” and I mean every single word.
She turns and looks at me–longer this time, and "Thanks," as if for a split-second, she drops her armour. And in that moment, I am honoured; I feel that the whole street corner is a dome of God-like energy. I love the woman. As I stand, the tangle walks toward me on their way to cross the street behind me. I am not the least bit uncomfortable; I love them too. In fact, in this moment–in their essence, they are stunningly beautiful.