Where better to begin than with the letter I sent to friends and family about what compels me to go on retreat?
On February 23, I will begin my third weeklong Street Retreat. I’m excited to go on retreat and also to share with you what this practice means to me.
First, the logistics are that I will carry with me what I need (warm clothes, sleeping bag, toothbrush) and will (temporarily) let go of for seven days the privileges I can – cell phone, money, house keys. The “retreat center” for me and my group is the streets of San Francisco, which will provide what we need.
I am most excited for the quiet mind and simplicity of needs (food, reflection, sleep) during this time. Retreating in February, I expect it may be colder and wetter than my prior April retreats, and I welcome whatever this experience holds.
I have heard, “do not criticize another person until you have walked a mile in their shoes.” What about helping? Can you know how to really help another person before you’ve walked closely beside them for a while?
It can be hard work to listen to someone, without just trying to solve their problems. When someone shares a request, it can be hard to decide how to respond. Is there a deeper request unspoken? In the absence of a request, one may still offer or even insist on giving help. Where do we cross the line from accompanying someone with a generosity of spirit to reducing them to an object of charity in our own identity as a hero?
When I walk the streets on retreat, I walk in my own shoes. My shoes may get soaked. My feet may get sore. My back may start to ache. But they are all my own. The experience is mine.
I go on retreat not to pretend to be something I am not, but to listen more deeply inside myself. I go on retreat to learn about myself and to open myself to new perspectives by experiencing our society and systems from the street.
I am grateful to the Faithful Fools, with whom I have volunteered for five years and have worked full-time these past two years, for making experiences like this possible. As I go into the streets with eleven companions from February 23 to March 1, I invite you to be with me this year by sharing a question or poem or object that you’d like me to walk with during this time. I also invite you to join me on a one day (day-time) street retreat in the coming weeks or months.
I want to reassure you that I will be safe and that living on the street is not a lifestyle I am adopting, but rather that poverty is complex and painful and worth trying to understand.