Today I showed Karen* how to cook kale. Nothing fancy. She’d seen me whip up a pan of it to throw into a bowl of leftover minestrone soup for lunch. She watched me eat my strange mash-up and said, “Katie, you think if I ate healthy stuff like you that I might feel better and be more calm?”
It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Karen. After dropping out of her rehab program, she found herself back on the streets, cold, with nowhere to go. Having lost her husband to cancer this summer, she struggles to confront the agonies of grief, on top of mental illness, without turning to her crack or heroin habits for escape.
Karen’s full story is not mine to tell, and I won’t attempt it. But since it’s my door she shows up at when she’s hit bottom (because it is also the door of the street ministry where I live and work — with only one other staff person this month, while the rest are in Nicaragua), lately her life has intersected with mine in deep, complex, ways. So complex that in this, my third attempt to write about it, I still don’t really know what to say.
But I can start here, with a bowl of kale, and what it meant to me today. When Karen asked me to show her how to fix it, the request was partly a gesture of peace. In her misery, terror and desperation lately, she hasn’t always been kind to me, you know? Which is natural, and even helpful, in a way. Observing my own responses to the slights and blowups is some of the best meditative practice I can think of. Not easy. Very helpful. Especially learning when to check my own neurotic impulses to ‘offer wise advice,’ realizing instead that I’m just not the one she can hear it from at that moment. Someone else might be, but I’m not, and that’s okay. A practice like that allows me to (a) examine and (b) alleviate the pressure I put on myself to “help” or “perform” in particularly visible ways. Without that pressure, I am free to notice the “spaciousness” of the situation, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche would say. Which means more calm and more intelligence — unforced, fluid.
And, as today reminded me, I’m not the only one who benefits from this fluid intelligence. I’m beginning to get wise to a major role I can play here at the Faithful Fools (again, a street ministry): what I’ve dubbed a “stabilizer.” Someone who can absorb some of the trauma, tension, and stress without adding too much of their own into the mix. Remain sensitive but unruffled. Just be there. Listen. I suppose that some people might be loud, active stabilizers (not sure if, in practice, this is an oxymoron), but my style is definitely quiet. Unassuming. Just doing my own thing, participating earnestly without getting drawn into all the tangles. I do it for myself, certainly, as a well-being measure. And it might just be catching on, too. Slowly.
That’s another dimension of the cooking demo request: Karen sees something in me that she likes and wants for herself. I’m content, she says. I take care of myself. I feed myself good, healthy, scrumptious food. And while her interest is sweet and even flattering in a way, the best part is that it shows she values herself. She wants to take care of herself, to really learn how to do it. (Which is a long way from some of the extreme, ominous, grasping things she’s said in the last week.)
At the same time, I’m not trumpeting a triumph here. Frankly, a third reason Karen asked me to show her how to make kale is that she’s still so strung out that she needs to keep herself occupied, moving, at all times. Diversionary cooking may be healthy, but it’s still diversionary. Until she can learn to consistently turn to life-affirming supports during the hard times, Karen may stay stuck in her cycle of addiction, disillusioned over and over again. Plus, on my end of things, I’m still open to (at times, haunted by) the possibility that all this “stabilizer” talk is just so much self-justification, with no lasting beneficial effects. A false sense of progress. Perhaps.
But for now, a few things I can say.
No one at the Fools has given up on Karen or canceled her friendship, and no one will.
I am now able to face these crises with a greater sense of bounty, borne of the work of 2009 and meant to be shared.
And kale, as always, is delicious.
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*not her real name.