( The First Night )
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover"
- H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
There is a drafty breeze in Denver tonight; the kind that comes and goes through the city as if someone propped open a window right outside of town, letting cool air crawl down from the Rockies, across plains and foothills, through rows of streetlights in the suburbs and right down into the city. The stuffy air which sat out hot, dry, and heavy during the day is undergoing it's nightly renewal.
There isn't anything quite as amazing as walking around big cities or country fields on windy nights like this, thinking about what I'm going to do in life, all the places in the world to go, the things waiting to be done, and the people to meet on nights just like this one. I wonder where all my past, present, and future friends are at this exact moment. They're taking in breathe's. They're seeing things. I wonder what they are breathing in, what they see, and will do with their lives. I wish they were here with me or I with them so we could walk together. These nights are filled with thoughts of the who I will be, the lives of the strangers all around me, the girl I'll marry, redeeming social issues, playing hero, crashing, burning, and rising from the ashes.
These nights comfort me in the way I wanted as a kid. The wind is constant and changing at the same time, not making sense of everything, but not confusing either. I don't know what exactly is going on in my head; the experiences and knowledge, chemicals and faith, the physical and psychological process of everything mixing around to form what is right and wrong in the world to shape my life. The wind is nature’s way of stirring up my imagination and makes anything seem possible, even probable, while walking around on nights like these.
These moments are important to return to because I get discouraged or caught up with thinking about some thing or person or identity I want. It's easy to forget the type of plans which actually matter; learning to love others better, live with those who are hurting, search for ways to practice humility, self discipline, patience, caring, listening, trying, sacrificing, and loving – and trying to do it unconditionally. It seems right to love by eating with people, laughing with people, comforting people, falling asleep and waking up next to people who I might otherwise never meet. it's an amazing opportunity to give and get hope by pursuing it with others. Show light in a dark world by stepping into the darkest places and being light. Be a friend to the world and do so without holding anything back. Take a risk of doing more than telling people about love. Rather than letting my identity form around actions or actions forming around an identity it makes sense for both to form around what I truly believe.
Tonight I'm in love. In love with the city of Denver and these people and this type of adventure and how the pursuit of this life can come as simply as the breeze out tonight; cooly consuming, renewing, and wishfully never ending.
This is how I ended up here with this breeze under this dark sky on the kind of night I wish to walk around in, but tonight it's different. Previous late night walks were spent wandering around thinking of faith and working around a wish, but had no action capable of matching it. Tonight, it's real. I'm not walking around imagining, but just woke up and am laying on the ground in a place and next to people I have just wondered about before. Now it’s all action, not a figment of my imagination, as every thought and dream and idea has worked it's way into reality. There are details, objects, smells, and a sweet cool night breeze wrapping it all together. There are people to learn from, people to lift up on my shoulders, people to love well. They are all around me. Any wondering of what it’s like to actually go out and do something and any doubt of this being possible is fading away into reality.
I find a spot to sleep on the walkway between either bus lane on 16th street. With a little shoving my backpack fits under the bench, but I forgot to get my toothpaste, so I pull the backpack out again, grabbing my toothpaste to brush my teeth. The little half-dime-sized glob of minty paste on my brush is a normal thing existing in an abnormal way. I brush my teeth every night, but now there are eight other homeless people, some already sleeping, others watching a chess game. I sink down to the cement, sit on my mat and lean against the seat of the bench, shyly scrubbing my teeth and watching people walk by. I spit the white foam into a small drain closer to the where the chess is being played. There’s no sink to rinse my mouth out. I hadn’t thought of that before, but grab my water and waterfall it into my mouth, swishing and spitting once more into the drain.
This is my first time laying down on a city street, but I move quickly to try to act like it isn't. The sidewalk is cooler than I would have imagined, but I've got blankets and a small eight inch by eight-inch pillow. I feel a and look up to see a man squirting a bottle around his spot near my feet. The scent is of pine. It’s strong enough to make my eyes burn and well up with tears. I'm exhausted, but there is too much going on around me to fall asleep, and the pine smell is making me cough a little.
It's the middle of the night now. I pull my feet back under my blanket to warm them up and escape as best as I can from it all right now. Hiding from reality is useless, however escaping from it's necessary at times. Anyone who tells you differently probably does not understand what it's like to have something worth escaping. I'm doing my best not to escape completely, I'd only be doing it because it's easy, but to calm down for a few minutes. This is why I'm out here; understanding pain too much to be ignorant towards it and knowing good too much to let pain win.
When I first laid down my nerves and surroundings made it near impossible to fall asleep. I thought how I always do when I struggle to sleep or am afraid about how the morning will come, all will be fine, and I will fall asleep sometime between now and then. Thinking is the reason I can't sleep and other times it's the only way I can manage to find some rest.
Now the wind is just stronger, colder than is comfortable, and brings with it dust and dirt to coat my skin and get in my eyes. A ways down the street a piece of garbage skids across the ground. I watch as it slides all the way up ad sticks against my body, pressing against my leg with it's edges flapping in the air. I'm sleeping with trash. This is new to me, but it's normal for someone else. I grab the garbage and try putting it into the trashcan near my head, but it flicks off the rim, flying into the wind to find its next victim.
Lights from a restaurant to my right shine brightly. I roll over and look out to a similar view on my left. It's a little darker, but I still see them; people's feet and ankles moving by on the sidewalk. Laying on the ground, looking out with my face on the cement, the percussive thumping and scratching of footsteps becomes my world.
A bus comes humming up the street and rolls by, a pedicab following closely behind, their tires break my view of the peoples feet. Everyone is going home, reminding me of the decision I have made to live out here. To be vulnerable. To feel very alone.
I bring my blanket over my head like I used to as a child to feel safe from the dark and unknown. It's funny to me how people do this; put a thin layer over their face to feel safe. What is even more odd is how it works. A piece of cloth over your face keeps you from being afraid of what is around without actually changing anything besides the view. My feet come out from under the blanket again. I sit up, careful not to hit my head on the bench I'm lying under.
I lift the corners of the blanket to readjust as I have so many times already. The wind picks up, sending the blanket fluttering into the air, displaying the crest of my college above me like a flag. The blanket is a necessity, but choosing the one with the crest was my attempt to retain a little reminder of where I came from. Any hint normalcy is gone the moment the blanket blows around and lands in a pile to my side and another piece of garbage slides by, leaving me feeling extremely un-collegiate.
I rub my eyes again to work up some moisture. They've been burning ever since a man near my feet squirted a pine scented liquid around his spot when I first laid down. After pulling my hands away from my eyes I look to where he was lying to see him sitting up, staring straight at me. My eyes lock into his, but his seem as empty as the air between us. He looks right through me, like I'm a pane of glass with something more interesting on the other side, as if he can't recognize there is anything going on in front of him. His demeanor is frail; his legs wrapped up in a sleeping bag, his old cheap clothes, the yellow plastic and metal of his headphones wrapping over the top of his head, sticking into his ears, their cord disappearing somewhere into his clothes. He grips the edges of his unzipped jacket tightly, one arm crossing over the other, holding it shut as he rocks back and forth whispering quiet frantic words to himself. His eyes dart from the ground, to the streetlights under the dark sky, back to the ground, and up to look right through me again.
The breeze calms down and the engines of the buses become distant. We are just a few feet away from each other in two completely different lives; mine some fraction of attempt, his something more complete. Both our realities have moved from yesterday to today and tomorrow unknowing of the other until now. His eyes snap away from the nothingness and, he really looks at me, tilting his head a little and letting his face soften before squinting and cracking a smile. It lasts a breath or two, exposing his tar brown teeth, before he starts mumbling again and slowly lays back down without losing eye contact, straining his neck to look at me as if to refuse letting go of the moment as long as he can. His attention finally breaks, and he stares vaguely up into nothing with the same absent grin on his face which only comes out between whispered words. Beyond him there are eight others lying around chess tables and benches. They sleep as others walk by. For now this remains the story of our lives; passerby, passed by, and whatever I'm.
Just last night I slept in my bed in Michigan, in my house, by myself, protected from the lives of others, from being passed by, a figurative blanket covering my eyes, assuming innocence by lack of association with anything uncomfortable. Now I'm on the streets of Denver staring at the reality of this man who, I imagine, might have been more like me, or I like him, if it weren't for some differences in our lives.
Around 10,000 homeless people live in Denver live separated from hundreds of thousands of others who call this city home, but not so much so separated as it seemed before. Being here, laying down on the sidewalk, makes the barriers of nice clothes and doors and roofs and miles upon miles of roads with glowing streetlights between us and them seem a less convincing division.
Us and them is a funny thing to think about right now. Being in the middle of everyone changes “us and them” to “me and them” to ”you, me, and them” so “you and them” is no longer designated to anyone group so everyone just becomes “us”. It's like people have forgot we are built of the same stuff. We have the same anatomy and same heart and similar minds allowing the rest of our same bodies to function. There is no doubt how mind, body, knowledge and experiences of a person speaks into who they are. I just believe these terms speak a little kinder to some than others, and it's not my job to reprimand the suffering.
I lay back down and look up at the same sky as the man at my feet does. When I was a child I used to lay in the grass or stare out my window and look up at the sky and the moon and the stars. I thought about times when I would be a taller, older, and a more grown-up version of myself. I looked to the sky for comfort in knowing, someday, I would look up again and during that later time my current problems and discomfort and pain would be gone. I imagined things would get better and there might be less pain. I started to think about how everyone has been under the same sky just like me. It stared down on my mother and father when they were kids and for my brothers and friends. It’s been there for absolutely everyone. The same skies have been there for every homeless person, orphan, inmate, enemy, president and prostitute as a rooftop to the decisions people make to become whoever they will be.
Thinking of things in the future which will come has always helped me understand life. I will grow older. I won't always be stuck in a difficult situation. I will feel pain. The pain won't last forever. I will feel joy. I will get to make decisions which shape me. Through it all I will look up and see the same sun or stars and will remember how the moment I'm experiencing is a moment which, in the not so distant past, was a future moment I trusted would come.
The sky grounds me because it was there in a thought which came a long time ago. This same sky is the one I will walk under when I leave Denver for the last time. It's the same sky I will look up to the moment I realize I have met my wife. It's the same sky I will see the first time my child wraps his or her hand around my finger. It's the same sky which will make me smile when I'm about to shut my eyes for the last time ever.
I don't want to overstate the importance of thinking about the future. I'm blinded by time, but I feel the future regardless of what is between. Thinking about things as they will happen rather than might gives a sense gravity which orients me in a disorienting world. I will go to bed. I will wake up tomorrow. I will leave Denver. I will fall in love. I will die. I know my actions between now and the inevitable future matter. How we treat people matters. Our choices matter because they stand a chance to be good choices. I stand a chance at a good story.
Tonight the sky is hazy and gray. Planes move slowly along their routes, disappearing behind a building or into a cloud. Time passes and a new one comes along. I wonder about the similarity of our stories, how everyone sees the same thing yet looks at the world so differently, treats others so good or bad, or steps aside indifferently. Somewhere in this air every prayer has risen and every doubt has fallen upon people just like me and just the opposite of me. Somewhere in it all, under the massively endless expanse, there is potential to be like anyone or different than anyone. Potential to be extremely good or extremely bad or extremely both.
Right now is an in-between time, an avenue to love others better, a time to stop pretending I'm so big or right and learn what it looks like to create real opportunities in an effort to be a less judging and more sympathetic friend to the world. I want to find my voice, be among the things which make me laugh and hurt. I want to move by trial and fire into what aches and excites my heart and find a place to lose my individuality, or gain it, in something more a part of humanity than it's apart from humanity.
All the thoughts and dreams coming to reality has made this night uncomfortably scary and also quite beautiful. The sounds and lights which fill the streets hold me in their airy arms and bring me to the hand of the unknown; tired, alone, and dirty. I can't wait for the moment, which I very much trust will come, when I can look up at these same skies and know even a little bit of what I have wondered about. I used to think nights like this just happened to a few lucky people who get to experience inspired lives. Now I know nights like this are everywhere to be had.
This is just the first night, a beginning. Reality is unfolding around me. The man is asleep now. His pine scent stays in the breeze. This is becoming something of what I thought it could.