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The Inevitable vs. the Unthinkable

Over the past month I’ve found my mood to be a bit somber. Like most individuals I question my purpose in life from time to time. In addition on what appears to be a seven year cycle I have this nagging feeling that one day I will become homeless. The first bout of this fear occurred in 2007. Although I have always been able to make a good living for myself in 1988 I was confronted with a series of circumstance which brought me to the edge of homelessness.

I just had a new child, my wife decided to stay home and I quit my corporate job of 11 years to start my own business.  Just one year prior we had lost our first son who was stillborn. And in that instant I realized that money and material things meant nothing. I had exchanged what was truly important for the convenience money could buy. So I quit my job.

Each of these events were by my own choice, not from circumstance beyond my own control. But taking an almost 90% decrease in income with a new mouth to feed combined with expenses that still matched my six figure salary was not a well thought out choice. But here I was a result of my own choices and I needed to live with them. I vividly recall going to the grocery store and wondering which items I could afford to purchase; formula for my new daughter or food for our stomachs. To this day I am always grateful when I go to the market and can afford to purchase items that 26 years ago I would have considered luxuries, milk, cereal and bacon.

Much has transpired since 1988 including my eventual return to Corporate America where I reentered with a new point of view and enjoyed ‘success’ in building a business for several companies before being laid off in 2011 and opting to pursue what I hope is my final career as a professional photographer. I have no plans to ever retire until the day I can no longer engage my subject or press a shutter. That is part of the “Inevitable” for this Musing….

Two days ago I ventured into San Francisco to photograph a musician as she was busking on Market Street. As I wandered about waiting for her to arrive I observed so many instances of the homeless and recalled that only by the grace of god did I escape their fate.  I watched one man for 30 minutes as he performed what most of us encounter when we meet a homeless person, he was panhandling. A very distinct circle of avoidance surrounded him as many people averted his glance in hopes they would not be approached.

A man panhandling at the Market and Powell BART entrance.

The second man I observed actually approached people he felt needed directions. He carefully looked for people who were towing suitcases or looked lost. He would then ask in a very friendly manner “Do you need directions somewhere?” In almost all instances, they did ask him for directions and he gave them very detailed instructions on how to navigate their way to those destinations. As they were about to leave he would politely ask, “Can you help me out with some spare change?” In my time observing him, no one offered him any remuneration for his help.

A homeless man offers directions to tourists.

After a time I wanted to share some of my feelings with my daughter who has a career in assisting the homeless, autistic and mentally handicapped in transitioning back into society, but she wasn’t able to answer her phone. What I wanted to ask, “Sweetpea how can I actually contribute in a meaningful way to reduce the plight of the homeless?” She called me back later that day and we talked about the homeless. She conveyed to me that homelessness presents a whole new set of problems to the issues that likely propelled the person into homelessness; loss of income, drugs or alcohol problems, family issues, etc.

My feeling is if I can actually change the life of one homeless person before my passing I will feel as if I have accomplished something to help our world. Until I can formulate a concrete plan to so that I know I will continue to practice something I’ve always done; make eye contact with those who ask me for help. I seldom offer cash, but a simple and sincere “Hello” and “I’m sorry” has always been my behavior. Why? Well the indignity of being ignored is something no one should have to endure. I know how I feel when I hold a door open for someone without an acknowledgement or thanks, or speak to someone who just chooses to not answer. When I’m in a foul mood I’ve often said “Wow, you had shitty upbringing” but I try to refrain from that practice since my kids admonished me that I was being rude. (I still say it though from time to time!)

The second issue that has concerned me recently is the disregard for our elderly. I’m sure this is a result of several factors, my own aging and my mother’s recent need for care. I’ve always held two tenets for her as she needed care; that she be safe and happy. Yes it’s been tough for both my sister and me, but her care is important. Her dignity is important. Her enjoyment of life is important. All humans avoid try to prevent or try not to linger on the inevitable. We all age and no matter how much yoga, kale, organic food, triathlons, creams, makeup, health club fees or exercise we practice at some point we will all need some degree of care.

Bachan a 94 year old who is a survivor of the WWII Internment Camps for Japanese American Citizens

Our cycle of life reminds me of a classic bell curve. In the beginning as infants we are completely dependent on our caretakers for food, shelter and love. To grow into a healthy adult all of those ingredients are necessary. Then we move into the majority of our lives, adulthood. And finally we transition into the elderly where we again need those who will care for us and provide food, shelter and love.

There is a significant difference though at the end of the Bell Curve. Unlike being an infant, we have already achieved a life of independence and along with that a sense of dignity. As those independent benefits slowly erode, the loss of driving, living on one’s own, preparing meals, fixed income, etc. our reality becomes what we had always mentally and emotionally avoided. And I believe what I call The Forgotten Passage is avoided is simply because none of us want to face that naked time of dependence, no matter how short or how long.

There are plenty of programs for youth, Make a Wish, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, etc. Yet those that help the elderly are much less visible to me. So my whole purpose of this Musing is to put out the Universe that my two commitments are to help transition at least one person from homelessness and assist in bringing safety, happiness and dignity to at least three of the elderly.

To live one’s life without dignity is both unthinkable and anything but inevitable.

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Very thoughtful and inspiring musings Mark. I grapple with a lot of those insecurities of fearing that I would end up homeless, or worse, that my children will.
I met a fantastic homeless guy once, he was a performer who came to pitch a class to us at UCLA Extension. He told me something that I’ll never forget. He said, so many people decide to be sanctimoniously ungiving when they see a disheveled homeless person begging for money. The preset judgment is that they will spend the coins or dollar on drugs or alcohol. He said, who are we to judge what they will do? They may, they may not, but why would we deny them a chance to buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee?
I’ve always remembered that. It is not my place to judge. I don’t always give money to the homeless, but I never decide they are not worthy or undeserving of a token by me.
And, lastly, Mark, your deep respect for humanity shows through in your art. I’m so pleased to get to be witness to it. I wish you many, many wonderful years hence sharing your gift with us.

Good Thoughts, Mark…. May your intentions and commitments to those less fortunate be fulfilled a Thousandfold…