Actually, she told me once that she didn’t like the term “homeless.” She said she prefered to call herself and others in similar situations”people who live outside.” She had a really interesting way of looking at the world, a kind of wise and realistic optimism, despite the heavy circumstances surrounding her.
I met her one afternoon when she came into the ashram for a yoga class. I watched her expertly move through the asana sequence, effortlessly transitioning into advanced variations without instruction. This was a person who had a practice.
After class, I asked her where she lived, and she told me matter of factly “on the street.” She smiled as she gathered her shoes and mat, thanked me for the class and started heading for the door. I called after her and invited her to our meditations, which were free and open to all every morning at 6am sharp. I was surprised when she showed up the next morning. And every morning after that for a month.
She would listen intently to the dharma talk, and ask really insightful questions about how to apply the spiritual practice to everyday life. Even the swami, who seemed irritated at first, eventually warmed up to her. She would stay after the meditation and help me clean. She would tell me about the things that have happened to her in her life and the lessons she learned. Once she thanked me for listening. When I replied “that’s what friends are for,” she looked at me with curiosity: “I’ve never had a friend before.”
She never asked for money or shelter, and we never gave it to her. I admit it was a bit shameful, and I recall feeling frustrated that I couldn’t act on behalf of the organization I was working for. How could I offer something that wasn’t mine to give? Still, we could’ve offered her a hot shower. We could’ve offered her a futon to sleep on, just one night off of the street. But we didn’t. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why.
We did occasionally give her soup leftover from community meetings. One evening we gave her a large jar, and she smiled happily as she put it in her bag. The next morning, as we were cleaning yoga mats, I asked her if she had it for breakfast. She replied that as she was walking to her car she came across a man so hungry he could not move. So she opened the jar of soup and fed it to him.
She was always doing things like that, reminding me of ways to be useful. She’d often talk about wanting to teach yoga and meditation to the public, free of charge and out in the open. It is useful to everyone, not only those who can dish out 14 dollars for a class. To her, God was everywhere and everyone. And although we were interacting in the context of an ashram, heavily steeped in Hinduism, she reminded me the most of the stories I heard of Christ. She acknowledged that this life is dictated by karma, but still spent her time aligning herself with those society cast aside.
After showing up every day for a month, she disappeared. This is not uncommon. The day before she left, she broke her usual calm demeanor and looked at me with fear in her eyes, just for a moment. “If I die like an animal on the street, will this whole life have been for nothing? All I’ve wanted to do is serve. I’m afraid I’ve failed.” I hugged her. When we separated, she looked back to her old self. “Don’t worry about me, little sister,” she said with a smile “God is always with us.”
Grace: The love of God operating through a human being.