No Place to Lay My Head

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04/27/14

Mill Valley, CA

It was 6 AM.  Church didn’t start until 10:30. And it was still raining.

I waited under the church’s awning for about two hours until the idea of waiting in a coffee shop finally made its way into my addled brain.

I walked into a coffee shop and breathed a loud sigh of relief.  A man looked up from this paper and stared at me in annoyance. I bought a mint tea, sat down, an defrosted.

Closer to 10:30, I went back to the church.  It had stopped raining. The moment I walked in, everyone greeted me. They saw my bag and walking stick and asked me where I was going. When I told them about the walk, they immediately invited me to a community lunch after the service.

Once the music started, I began to weep. I tried to rise to my feet, but I couldn’t. I tried to sing, but my throat was too closed up. All I could do was clasp my hands together and sob.

It was a good service. It was Earth Day, and the sermon was about how God gave the earth to human beings so that we could take care of it. The pastor had a really great sense of humor. We were constantly laughing throughout the service.

Afterwards, I went to the church lunch. They have it every fourth Sunday. It’s for the homeless and anyone else who wants to come.

This meal was prepared and served by volunteers from the church and the local high school. There were pasta noodles, lasagna, dumplings, chicken, different types of rice, roasted vegetables, salads, fruit, different kinds of sandwiches, cookies, pie, ice cream…it was a feast and it was all delicious.

People kept encouraging me to eat and take food with me for the road. I had good conversation with several members of the congregation and with a recently retired pastor. Thought about asking for a place to stay that night, but it didn’t feel right. I’d already been given so much in terms of food and a general raising of my spirit – to ask for more would have been grasping.

Leonard offered to drive from Sausalito to Mill Valley, pick me up, and then take me to Corte Madera. So after lunch, I got a ride from him and his fiance Sarah.

“So Corte Madera, huh?” said Leonard.
“Yep!” I said.
“You sure that’s as far as you want me to take you? Because it’s literally the next exit.”
“Oh. Um…”
“You want me to take you to San Rafael?”
“Um..sure!”

Once we reached San Rafael, Sarah told Leonard to find a certain street where “all the young people hang out” in hopes that I could meet someone that would let me crash with them.

“Hey, why don’t I take him to the marshes!” said Leonard.  “He could meet some of the guys down there that I know!”
“You don’t know any guys at the marshes,” said Sarah.
“Yes, I do. I know a couple.”
“But those are all homeless people. He doesn’t want to hang out with them!”
“Yeah, but he’s homeless too!”
“No, he’s not. You know what I mean.”
“I’m houseless,” I offered.
“See?” said Leonard. “He’s houseless.”
“But it’s a marsh!” said Sarah. “It’s damp and wet. He doesn’t want to sleep in a damp and wet place.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” said Leonard. “Probably a bad idea.”

Leonard offered to help me out with some bus fare, but I felt I needed to keep walking for now. They dropped me off at the library. I checked my email, tried to find a cheap dive motel (no luck) and headed out to find shelter at a church.

I’m in downtown San Rafael; lots of cops and churches with “No Trespassing” signs. I walked into a Catholic mission (tourist site) and looked at a depiction of the 14 stages of the Cross. I take note of how people tried to ease Christ’s suffering on his way to Calvary – offering him water, wiping his face, carrying the cross part of the way for him.  But none of them could save him from his ultimate fate: crucifixion.  Of course, he does rise from the dead three days later, but to get there, he had to walk the Via Dolorosa.

I made my way to an Episcopal church and saw a bluebird on a gate near the entrance. I smiled. The official bird of my pilgrimage, a sign of hope and happiness.

The door to the church was unlocked. I walked into a huge waiting area, saw a set of stairs and a comfy couch.

“Hello?” I yelled.  No response.

I walked around the building. There was no one there. I sat on the couch, not sure what to do. Was this Providence?  A free place to crash? I prayed, but the only response I got was to rest.

I so sat there. Waiting. Resting. Hoping someone would show up.

After waiting about ten minutes, I decided I wasn’t comfortable being there without having permission.  Sleeping outside a church is one thing. Sleeping inside it without the go-ahead is something else.

I called the church to see if I could get a contact number from the office voicemail. I lucked out and got the pastor’s number.

“Hello?”
“Hi, is this the pastor?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“My name is Daryl. I’m on a faith walk. I started in San Francisco and am on my way to Mt. Shasta. I was looking for sanctuary tonight, as I haven’t slept in a while and am pretty tired. But I saw that your church is totally unlocked, and I didn’t feel right about resting here or being inside without calling you first.”

Silence. Then…

Well, thank you, Daryl. That was very responsible of you to call me.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
And then the call was disconnected.

I stared at my phone. Did he just hang up on me?

No. He wouldn’t do that. There’s no way he’d do that.

I tried calling him back. Busy signal. I tried him again. He answered this time.

“Hi,” I said. “We got disconnected and I wasn’t sure if it was by accident or if you were just done with the conversation.” (I said it much more politely than how it reads on paper/a computer screen)

“So Daryl,” he said, “Was the door WIDE OPEN?”
“Nope,” I said, “It was just unlocked.”
“That’s strange,” he said. “I was the last one there and I’m usually good about locking up. In any case, thank you for calling. As far as staying overnight though, that’s just not possible. We have pre-school here in the morning, and we just can’t have someone sleeping here overnight.”
“I see,” I said.
“Have you tried looking at shelters?” He started to list some.
“You know,” I said, “I based this walk on Matthew 6:33, and I only want to receive aid which is freely given. I make an exception when it comes to churches, because their stated mission is to help the weary. I have nothing against shelters. I believe they provide a necessary and valuable resource to people who need places to sleep, but the one time I went to one to try to find a bed, there was a sort of cold, ruthless efficiency to it all. I didn’t like it. I don’t want to receive help from someone because they’re being paid to help me. I want to receive help from people who feel a true motivation from their heart.”
“I understand,” he said, “and I wish we could accommodate a pilgrim as earnest as yourself, but with the kind of world we live in today, it’s just not possible. You’re more than welcome to stay for a while; there’s a retreat that’s happening at the church later, and I told the folks running it that you would be there for a bit. But you can’t stay the night.”

After we hung up, I sat back down on the couch and began to cry. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so unfair. It wasn’t so much being told, “No.” It was the blanket, impersonal mistrust that went along with it.

“Why, God?” I prayed. “Why? I just want to sleep. Why can’t anyone trust me?” I felt the spirits wrap their arms around me, comforting me, lending me their strength and love.

I decided that this whole debacle had been a test of my integrity.  If I had just slept there without warning anyone – especially the people already on their way – the consequences might have been disastrous.

I was going to have to get used to this kind of mistrust, even if it was undeserved.

I looked at my map and saw that there was a cemetery in north San Rafael. I heard that Peace Pilgrim used to sleep in cemeteries. She said they were very peaceful.

That’s what I’d do. I’d sleep in a cemetery.

I was no longer sad. Now I was angry. But my anger fueled my determination to continue. I made use of the bathroom, washing my face and some clothes, putting on some deodorant, and brushing my teeth.  As I laced up my boots, I looked at myself in the mirror.  It’d been a bad night, but I didn’t look too worse for wear. I’d be okay. I put on my hat and smiled at myself.

You’re the Mad Griot, remember?

I left the church right as the retreat people arrived.  They were on the phone with the pastor, and when I told them who I was, they informed the pastor that I was leaving now.

On my way to the cemetery, I passed a Thai-Laos Christian congregation. At this point, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Everyone was really friendly; they were finishing up dinner, so they offered me fish, rice, and vegetables. They called the pastor who ran the space to see if I could sleep there, but I was denied because people have vandalized the place in the past. I was disappointed, but was still very grateful for the food and fellowship.  One of the men I was talking with asked me if I had a Bible.  I said, “No,” and within minutes, they presented me with a small one called “The Backpacker’s Bible”, which was kind of perfect.

A couple of kids asked why I was walking. I considered my answer, and then said, “I’m seeking the kingdom of God.”
“How does walking help with that?” one of them asked.
“Well, I meet people and have experiences – some good, some challenging – and each interaction I have teaches me a little bit more about how to be in the kingdom. What the kingdom really means.”
Silence. Then one of them said, “So basically you’re like a modern-day Jonah.”
The guy I was sitting with and I exchanged looks, then stared back at the kid.
“What?” I said.
“I said that you’re basically like a modern-day Jonah.”
“Why Jonah in particular?” I said.
The kid just shrugged.
“I hope I’m not Jonah,” I said. “I don’t want to get swallowed by a whale. But I guess we’re all called to have the faith of Jonah, right?”
The kid nodded and ran off.

I kept heading north, passed two churches, but decided to keep walking.

A guy on a bike asked me how I was doing and if I needed any money.  I was really touched.  Honestly, he looked like he was in worse shape than I was, but I was biased. Maybe we looked the same. Anyways, I thanked him for his offer but told him I was all right. He smiled at me and pedaled off.

I finally reached the cemetery, but it was all locked up. No way in but to scale the fence, and I wasn’t feeling that adventurous.

I wandered around a mall complex and scoped out places to sleep. I saw two cop cars roll by me though I tried my best to remain unseen. I was sure they spotted me and would drive back around and question me. I steeled myself for a confrontation (can you tell I’m frightened by cops?). A minute passed, and I walked away, trying to stay close to buildings and out of sight.  I felt like Frodo fleeing the Ring-wraiths.

I finally came upon a ziggurat-shaped structure with trees and vegetation on every level and some weird building complex at the top. I climbed up onto the first level, found a tree and set up camp underneath it.  I didn’t bother with a tarp, because I thought it would make me more visible, so I just threw down my mattress pad and sleeping bag. I was pretty close to the road and was afraid that the sound of the cars driving by would keep me up, but I ended up sleeping without much trouble, and I woke up in the morning feeling fairly rested.

All’s well that ends well.

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The Circle

04/26/14

Mill Valley, CA

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A morning view of Mt. Tam from Leonard’s boat.

The walk to Mill Valley was serene and majestic.  Rolling green hills, covered with trees.  Mount Tam off in the distance – silent, tall, and welcoming.

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Maybe I should just go to Mount Tam, I thought. Forget all about Shasta. Then this will all be over.

But it won’t be over. Even when I make it to Shasta, it won’t be over.

The road was easy. The sun was shining, and I was in good spirits. I started to sing hymns (not sure if “The Lord is Good to Me” from the Johnny Appleseed Disney movie counts as a hymn, but I sang that one). “Sweet Hour of Prayer”, “I’ll Fly Away,” and some songs in Hebrew and Arabic that I learned from the spirits.

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I entered a dog park and met a woman who was kneeling down, smelling patches of fennel.  She had a great big smile on her face. I stopped and spoke to her for a bit. She was currently living in her car, and she couldn’t have been happier about it. She told me she used to live in Alaska but left when living there became too much for her. She said that the thing about life is that no matter what obstacles come your way, you can always find a way to deal with them. There’s always a way.

Sound advice to get during the calm before the storm.

The first church I arrived at was empty, so I went to a Buddhist temple down the street.  I spoke with a woman who worked there.  We had a good conversation about Buddhism and its relationship to the question of God.

“I think Jesus and Buddha had a lot in common – except for the God thing,” I said.

“Yeah, they definitely differed there, ” she said.

“Yes, but Buddha didn’t say that God doesn’t exist. He merely remained silent when he was asked about God; he neither confirmed nor denied.”

“That is true,” she said, “but since then most Buddhists see belief in God as an obstacle to enlightenment.”

I told her I could see that, depending on what image a person holds of God. If you imagine an old man with a white beard in the sky, throwing thunderbolts at you if you tell lies or masturbate, then yeah, that could be a hindrance on your quest for enlightenment. But if you hold a panentheistic view of God, seeing God in everything but also transcending everything, that seems a little closer to what Buddha said about the nature of reality.

She seemed to agree with that. Then she told me some of the history of Buddhism in the Bay Area and why she thought Ronald Reagan ruined California and the whole country.

Eventually, I got around to asking if I could do some work for the temple in exchange for being able to crash there to avoid the rain that was to come later that night.  Things got awkward immediately.  She said that the temple certainly couldn’t accommodate me and that her own house was full of guests. I could see her mentally struggling over how to help me. I started to feel bad.

“Look,” I said. “I only asked if it’s easy.  If it’s easy, great. If not, no worries.”

She told me my best bet was to camp out in the trees near the mountain.

I cleaned my clothes at a nearby laundromat and had an interesting conversation with a woman who was reading a book in which human emotions and feelings  (anger, fear, joy, jealousy, love, suffering) were all personified. We started passing the book back and forth and reading various entries to each other. The one about fear struck me – fear was depicted as a storyteller whose stories you shouldn’t always listen to.

While I was digging through my bag, I found three stones of power that I’d brought with me. That meant I had three more objects to give away. That plus a special object to give away once I reached Mt. Shasta meant a total of seven. I gave the woman in the laundromat one of these stones. She thanked me and said that she actually had a healing practice where she worked with stones, and that she would put it to good use.

I left the laundromat, looking for the next church.  On the way there, I was passed by a police car. Twice.  I didn’t think it was a coincidence and I figured that the sooner I got out of sight, the better.

Got to the church, but it was empty.  But it had a garden area in the back, which was situated right in front of the church’s reading room (which you could see into because of the glass doors) and a wooden bridge ran overhead. A perfect shelter from the storm.

As I stood in this little garden area in front of that glass door, I got the sense that even though it was only about 5 pm, I should not leave this area for any reason until morning.  Something was rising up in me, some fear(s) that needed to be faced, and it was here that I felt that I need to make my stand.

So I sat down, I prayed. I meditated. I stood for long stretches of time. I walked back and forth, hand clasped together, murmuring softly to myself. I imagined a circle of protection around me.

Don’t leave this circle tonight!

My fears intensified. Fears of being discovered. Fear that the church I was going to the next day wouldn’t offer me shelter.  I started to rehearse what I was going to say to them, then stopped myself. This wasn’t living in the moment. This was not trusting in God to provide.

This was grasping mind.

I wanted night to come quickly, so it would be morning already.  “Come night!” I prayed. “Come, night! Come, night!”

And then the lights came on.

The lamps in the garden suddenly became luminous. The lights inside the reading room switched on as well. I froze, panicking.  Someone’s hereI thought. They’re here and they’re going to see me. My impulse was to flee, but the voice in my head said, Remain inside the circle!

But what if someone comes?

Remain inside the circle!

What if someone comes and drags me out?

Well then, obviously, if that that happens, you’ll need to leave, but until it does, remain inside the circle.

I stayed in the circle. No one came to drag me away.

I put down my sleeping bag and mat and tried to sleep, but I didn’t have much luck.

Then at about 3 AM, it started to rain.

I thought the bridge running over me would protect me but I was wrong. The rain was leaking through, forming puddles around me, landing on me and my belongings. I tried to adjust my position but was relentlessly pursued by the water.

5:30 AM rolled around, and it was still dark. I got the sense it was okay to leave the circle.  Cold, hungry, and tired, I made way to a United Methodist church for Sunday service.