Run your fingers through my soul. For once, just once, feel exactly what I feel, believe what I believe, perceive as I perceive, look, experience, examine, and for once; just once, understand. UnknownHe is a small man. Clean shaven. Baby-faced. Dark hair pressed against his head. Greasy. His eyes tiny beads of dark peering out, constantly searching the world around him, on guard, looking out. His hands are never still. They pick at the dark fabric of his pants. Wearing thin already thin clothing. He wears a dark blue ski jacket. Dirty ring around the collar.
He is homeless. And he is dying. Cancer has a grip on his lungs. "I can't fight it any more," he said when we stood chatting on the second floor of the shelter where I work. "It's stronger than I am."
He doesn't care any longer about the cancer. He does care about Irene*. His girlfriend. His lady love.
He had caught my sleeve as I walked across the Day Area of the shelter. "Can I talk to you in private? It's really important," he'd said. His dark eyes peering intensely into mine. Unwavering. Unyielding.
"Sure," I'd replied. "Give me a minute to finish off what I'm doing and I'll come and find you."
"Why don't I just follow you?" His lips pressed into a smile. "So you don't forget."
I thought of promising I wouldn't forget but I knew he wouldn't believe me. His is a world of disappointment. A world of giving up on people believing in you. A place where you forget to believe in yourself. Or that you had anything to believe in. His is a world of the forgotten.
Homeless. Addicted. Mentally disabled. Physically challenged. We never forget the names we use to label a place we don't understand. It is a place we can't forget because we don't really know it exists until we've been there.
I smiled back. "I can finish this later. Let's chat now."
He looked around. Furtively. Nervously.
"Can we go somewhere private? Quieter?"
Finding a quiet place in a shelter is tough.
It was a Sunday. We couldn't go up to my office on the sixth floor, not unless I had another staff with me. He didn't want another staff member listening he said. "It's important. I need to talk to you."
I took him into the Hygiene section. It was closed for lunch hour.
Now. I must explain. I am not a counsellor. I am the PR director. Dealing with client issues is not my bailliwick. But, clients see me walking around the building, talking to media, to other staff, to other clients. I carry a 'red' access card which means, I'm with admin. I can get into areas other staff can't. They assume it means, I'm important. A mucky, muck, as one of the clients called me one day. Or, a big shot, as another said.
Often, desperate for an ear, for someone to listen to their story, they'll approach me in the belief I can do something about whatever it is that is causing them angst around the shelter.
Often, all I can do is listen deeply to their words. Affirm their feelings and let them know, "Sawbonna."
Sawbonna is a South African phrase that means, "I see you." or even deeper, "My soul sees you."
My beautiful friend, Margot Van Sluytman created The Sawbonna Project to commemorate her father who was shot dead by a burglar when she was sixteen. She met her father's murderer thirty years later and found healing, peace, and a passion for restorative justice.
Margot writes in her book, Sawbonna: A Journey of Hope,
My soul sees your soul.
And our shared dancing,
Stretches to the very core
Of all that is possible.
All that is.
My soul sees your soul.
Margot van Sluytman
That day, standing in the midst of silent washers and dryers, weak sunlight seeping across the floor, I listened to a man tell me of his love, his passion, his fears for the woman he desperately wants to save.
Sawbonna. My soul sees your soul.
"I know she's a drunk," he said. "But I'm really working with her to help her change her behaviour. I'm so scared that after I'm gone, she'll get barred from here." He gripped my sleeve again. "What will happen to her if she can't come here?"
He is dying. Six months, maybe a year. If he's lucky.
I wonder about lady luck. I wonder what luck's got to do with prolonging life on the edges of existence. In that forgotten place where lives are lost every day to a street that doesn't care if you're willing, ready or not, to go.
There wasn't much I could do for this man except listen. Deeply.
I made a couple of suggestions. Asked if he'd talked to a counsellor or one of the floor staff.
"Yeah," he said. "But I still can't get anyone to listen to me. To help her. They keep barring her because she brings alcohol into the building and doesn't do what she's supposed to. I know she doesn't follow the rules but really, she's gotten better. And other people do even worse things than she does and they don't get barred. It's not fair."
The age old equalizer. The child's tormented plea for justice. It's not fair.
Nope. It's not. I want to tell him fairness doesn't have anything to do with life in a homeless shelter. But this is not my story to tell. It's his.
I listen more. Deeply.
I see his soul.
He is frightened. Scared. Fearful. He will die and never have made a difference. He will pass through this place on to where ever he is going and never have left a mark. There will be no footprints left behind. No impression imprinted on the fabric of life.
He wants to make a difference. He wants to make his life mean something. And helping his lady love gives his life meaning.
I promise to talk to the Supervisor and a counsellor on her behalf.
"Somebody's got to watch out for her," he pauses. "You won't forget?"
"I won't forget."
In a homeless shelter, there are people who pass through and are forgotten once they're gone. They arrive. Silently take a seat, a meal, a bed, a place to rest until the time arrives when they move on. To where ever they're going. Where ever they're meant to be next on their journey.
Sometimes, someone arrives and doesn't pass through. They sit and wait and hope life will be different. Change will appear upon the horizon pulling them into another space, another time, another life. They pass away the hours waiting and hoping for it to be different. For life to wake them up from this nightmare where they will find themselves again on the other side of the street. Sometimes, all they can do is wait. And all we can do is wait beside them.
And then, someone arrives. Like this man. He's been a shelter client off and on for over ten years. Homelessness, poverty, despair gripped his soul long ago, took a hold of his hopes of passing through and deposited him on the side of the one's who never get off the street with their lives intact.
And still, he wants to make a difference. He wants his life to have meaning. For someone. Somehow.
I see you.
My soul sees you.
In a shelter, sometimes all I can do is see a person through the telling of their story. To hear their words and honour them with my listening deeply to their heart's calling out for attention.
I cannot change this man's journey. I cannot change this woman's life.
I can make a difference by seeing the beauty of his spirit beneath the ragged clothes, the nervous tick, the dirty fingernails. I can make a difference by letting him know.
I see you.
My soul sees you.
May each encounter along your journey today be filled with the opportunity for Sawbonna to enter your heart. May you find the space to see another, soul to soul as you witness your spirit's rising in the dance of life.