Meditation on a Bag Lady

I’m at my neighborhood coffee shop, where I like to write when I need to get out of the house. I’m working on a manuscript about Tibetan Buddhism – a complicated story about attachment, false ideals, manipulation, and religious politics. It’s a book nobody is waiting for, so I often feel a bit futile as I fiddle with words and try to organize characters and events into plot and narrative. I envy people who spend their time on more concrete things, like growing potatoes or curing the sick. When I feel completely useless, it sometimes helps to move to the coffee shop. I can imagine that other people around me think I’m dong something very important as they watch me type.

I have gotten to know all the regulars at the coffee shop. The first to arrive is the middle- aged Yemenite guy who always orders a sandwich and coffee and then sits for hours at the coffee shop to chat, to anyone willing to listen, about the importance of the Yemenite community in the creation of the State of Israel. He told me he is early retirement and has no other daily responsibilities than preparing his daughter’s school lunch and shopping for groceries. Then, there is the guy from Um El-Fahm, who spends his morning at the coffee shop checking out every woman who walks by and complaining to the Yemenite guy that he is bored. There is a building contractor who uses the coffee shop as his office and who shouts into his phone at clerks who are not processing his permits fast enough. Twice a week, a group of four retired ladies meet at the coffee shop to brag and complain about children and grandchildren and to advice each other in their struggles with doctors and health-insurance companies. I think we’re all looking for order and routine to justify the passing of our time. And, of course, our presence at the coffee shop sustains Bar, who runs the place together with her husband.

But in past few days the order has been disturbed. We have been joined by a new regular: an eccentric bag lady who sits down at a table every morning, taking up three or four chairs with her collection of dirty plastic bags. For about half an hour, she examines and rearranges the contents of her bags, ignoring the flies buzzing out of the bags, and then she gets up again and moves on. Over her right shoe, she has tied a plastic bag, which collects fluid that leaks from an infected wound in her foot. With each step, she leaves a wet imprint on the sidewalk.

Her visits disrupt the regular order of our day. Everything we do and say seems frivolous after the sight of that pus-filled bag around her foot. We all fall silent, and the guy from Um El-Fahm stares at the sidewalk instead of checking out women.

We’ve talked about what to do. The Yemenite guy suggested that we collect money so she can get her proper shoes and medical care, but the lady doesn’t seem to lack money. She arrives with freshly bought groceries, which she eats straight out of the packet: sliced cheese, smoked salmon, vacuum-packed ravioli. Bar, who is losing business because of the bag lady’s presence, is desperate. She has called social services, but when they showed up to offer assistance and medical care, the bag lady got angry and screamed at them to leave her alone.

Of course we can’t help someone who refuses to be helped, but we can’t ignore her either. Since I saw her this morning, I haven’t been able to think of anything but her footprints on the sidewalk and the flies buzzing out of her plastic bags. And that’s why I am writing this now: to somehow get myself back into the subject of Tibetan Buddhism.

Here is the connection:  In Tibetan Buddhism, advanced practitioners are traditionally encouraged to meditate in the presence of a decaying corpse. As the practitioners overcome their revulsion at death and decay, they are supposed to realize that nothing is permanent and that decay is inherent in everything. Our attempts at order and permanence are just futile clinging to an illusion. In essence, we are all like the bag lady. She just has given up the pretense of maintaining order.