I judged them back then. They were the smokers. They even used marijuana (shocking!) and maybe other, scarier drugs. I didn't know. I had no contact with that world. I was a good student and busy with the literature club, the scholarship club, the musicals. I never went to the grove.
I'm sorry I didn't learn what was really going on with them until I was much older. I would have liked to acknowledge them, to thank them for being welcoming to unusual people who got mostly upturned noses in the very narrow, white, privileged main stream. I was severely depressed in those years and attempted suicide a couple of times. I didn't know that the grove was a place to shed the pain, be accepted with all my limitations, and start to heal.
The grove, in my bigger world, is the street people. Not the recently unemployed and evicted families who are struggling to get back into the mainstream -- they have their own set of problems and we've established some resources for them. I'm talking about the people who couldn't live with the hypocrisy of our society, who couldn't conform to sitting at a desk wearing a suit, or punching a clock and pushing their bodies beyond reason day after day after day. The people who, in a simpler time, would have been hunters and gatherers, making a comfortable den of natural materials, finding enough to eat and keep warm, and valuing life on this beautiful planet with simplicity, even wisdom.
Man's inhumanity to man has forced these natural, simple, not-going-to-play-that-crazy-game people into hollows under overpasses, groves of trees just off the highway. We've privatized all the land and fenced everything, so a nomadic life is difficult. We've forced the non-traditionalists to inner cities, taken away the access to fruit trees and rabbits that used to sustain them and provided only dumpsters in which to forage for food.
Rather than acknowledge their lifestyle as a healthy choice for people who struggle with stress disorders or depression, or artists and philosophers whose deep thoughts interfere with mundane work, or PTSD veterans who could use an understanding ear but find themselves shunned, we choose to label them all as street people. We decide, without any attempt to find the truth, that they are all drug addicts, all mentally ill, all dangerous criminals. We keep away. We lock our car doors when we drive by. We avoid eye contact.
I've learned that the criminals don't live this way. They steal and cheat and hurt people to acquire comfort and enjoy a lifestyle they haven't earned. Street people tend to be honest, caring, and extremely sensitive. They are the soft people -- the ones who get trod upon in our vicious, competitive "civilized" society. They live and let live. Their needs are few, and they are careful not to offend. They keep their few possessions neatly gathered and don't beg.
I have the privilege of providing a hot meal to some of Portland's street people the next two Saturdays. I'll use mostly discarded food and make it into hearty casseroles. I'll sit and eat with these warm, welcoming people and ask about their lives, their opinions, their struggles. I'll learn something. I'll get a new perspective on a social situation. I'll come away feeling accepted, appreciated, in a way that many of us only wish for.
Cooking for the street people isn't charity. Street people aren't pitiful. It's a pleasure to be aware of a mostly hidden sector of our society that should be valid but is dismissed and labelled not out of their behavior, but out of our fear.