Seeing in the Fog, by Lydia Bailey

A story on homelessness, the deep woods, and wonder

I had not noticed the fog winding its way in from the south. Looking up from my computer, I notice the buildings out my office window were close to obliterated. A warm front was replacing the frigid temps which Cleveland had known for weeks. Here at this Men’s Homeless Shelter at 2100 Lakeside Avenue, those who were below me on the sidewalks were being engulfed in another layer of anonymity. There was no need to strike a pose, to try to look secure to the cars going by; they were not seen anyway. For those of us carried along by the currents of society, people who are homeless appear to be in a back eddy, excluded from the relentless flow of activities imposed by our jobs, social responsibilities, and ambitions. Yet they are still prey to the stares of those who drive by. Now, all of Cleveland was being embraced by this warm, moist air. Now the fog was advancing over Lake Erie, breathing over the ice flows, liquid grey melding with white all the way to the horizon.

I love the fog and I was restless. I had to go out in it—to say hello to those on the street, those I’d come to know at this shelter. On the asphalt, I joined Marco, the gentle giant who works in the mailroom. He was having a cigarette and his smile pierced even the fog. We had a subject to chat about beyond the uneasy grounding of being without a home. We were kind of chuckling about this fog. Where had it come from? Those who are homeless have time to talk without much pretense about things that have little or nothing to do with our particular social roles and status.

A truck was idling nearby, the smell of diesel and cigarette smoke mixing with our conversation. Across the street, barely visible, was Clarence, quietly cursing to himself. We took it as a matter of course. Then Marco commented, “Some people you see ranting and raving, they just want respect. Being here, I’ve learned not to put myself above others…to be sensitive to others’ beliefs and needs.”

I know Marco to have this reflective bent of mind. He likes to teach me about how things really are. When he sees I’m intently listening, he continues, “It makes me feel good to show a person that not everyone’s against them. Even some of the dangerous guys I’ve seen turn around when given some attention.” Marco pauses, looks down at me then across the street. “I believe in laughter. I joke with people like Clarence—someone who others shun. It breaks the tension, to just let it out with laughter.”

Once again, I am hearing something so sensitive and insightful that I find myself having to reconsider my habitual ways of thinking. I am struck, listening to Marco. I suddenly see this person who is homeless, in such a supposedly dismal setting, as being so full of rich life. This is not the first time at the shelter I’ve been jolted out of my semi-attention and apathy, which can be habitual when I allow the light of social conventions and biases to take over. But this fog allows me to linger with Marco and, paradoxically, to see in a clearer light.

The fog hung on all afternoon. In my restlessness I imagined the woods at home, the smell of the earth, of a deep ravine by a stanchion of spruce. My heart is with this shelter on Lakeside Avenue but on this particular day something was beckoning me to…what? Fog had its sway.

I arrived home with thirty minutes of dusk remaining. Pulling on boots, I headed for the woods, even leaving my dogs at home this time. I needed to get to that one point in the woods quickly. This is the path I’ve known for thirty years; grateful for this ground of which I’m a tiny part.

I’m not sure why, but there is a point past the spruce and the ravine where I often become vigilant, aware of something in this place I can’t quite define. It’s where the trunks of the oaks widen. They hold an entire hillside together, tilling the rocks, ferns, and moss over time. I’ve been here after heavy snows and found nothing has moved; even the tiny bird’s nest remains sheltered in place beside one trunk. These trees are not indifferent to the world they inhabit, but have an enormous rootedness on which so much of the human, the vital, and the physical world depends. Tonight, I crane my head back and barely see their uppermost branches, fractal shapes held in the fog. These trees had been here for a century before I moved in and out of them at what, comparatively, is a frenetic pace.

It is so still now that it seems I’m inside a room of a giant house. I feel my longing and love for I know not what. The fog has drawn me out to this one point and now I rest.

A new sound enters—a deep steady something, like a heartbeat. But, no, that is too anthropocentric of a description. More like a faint thrumming, of which both the trees and I are a part. It is the most natural sound in the world, issuing both internally and externally, a part of the order in this moment. Then the sound flees, the instant I become aware.

I linger a little longer as night has set in. Nothing to do but go back now and get dinner. The smell of earth and fog envelop me on my way home. Those at the shelter flit into mind; the cement of their surroundings so different from these matted leaves on which I walk. At home, the radio is on, lights are all on, the TV droning in a back room, and everyone is home. Later, amidst the dishes, I open the kitchen windows, as if to let the distances in; a gesture, in retrospect, to stay in communion with these disparate worlds which are really all one. Twice today this fog allowed me to be in solidarity with the human and natural world; in “a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness,” as Thomas Merton described. It’s a quality that gives reverence to my mode of operating in the world.

Photograph by Patrick Hendry

In the year that’s followed, a year of COVID isolation when the woods became yet more of a solace for me, I’ve wondered about that sound. The fog had curiously pulled me out and into the sound. I have no explanation for it, but I am left with something bigger than myself, bigger than my culture and race, which all of us humans share with each other and the natural world. It revealed itself when I took time to linger. Life is waiting everywhere—in the woods, no less than when talking with Marco.

From my time in the woods, it is not surprising I felt an affinity when I heard Alec, another shelter resident, recently mention he likes to “get on his bicycle and go—until the people run out.” He says this in a macho-flippant way. But when I actually show interest, he studies me a little, then tentatively continues. “Yeah, I take the Lake Road.” He shyly describes the sky “in all kinds of weather” and how he outfits his bike seat for long rides, until he gets to the place where “the people run out and I’m alone.”

“And then what?” I ask.

He fumbles for an answer, “Then I can breathe!” he laughs, showing a brilliant gold cap on his front tooth.

I pry no more. But I wonder what he gets to at the end, where “the people run out.” Maybe it’s a place where he can put the little insanities to rest. Maybe it is more, where he can keep the lines of communication open between him and the good, strong “beingness” of life in the world we all inhabit. Perhaps he starts to hear a logic beyond that imposed by outside circumstance. Unlike Marco, Alec puts on a tough façade in public. He wears mirror sunglasses that hide what I’ve observed are his sensitive eyes. I sense these eyes betray a deeper story which Alec wants to protect.

On the walls of the shelter is a framed quotation that points to both the intrinsic and extrinsic view of people who are homeless:

I am not a street person.

I am not a token of my race or creed,

I am not a statistic,

I am not a divorcee.

I am not an AIDS patient.

I am not a sex object.

I am not a laborer.

I am not an “at-risk” kid.

I have a mind. I have a heart. I have a soul. I dream. I feel. I care.

I am a human being.

—From Radical Hospitality, Benedict’s Way of Love

I’ve noticed many shelter residents have requested a copy of this quotation, this rejection of the many social stereotypes placed on them by the more “functional” members of society.

Henry David Thoreau, from an entirely different setting found in Walden, suggests an identity rooted in the reality of the natural world which is different from the labels put on us. “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails,” writes Thoreau. “Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance…till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call, reality, and say, ‘This is, and no mistake.’”

Here is strength, it seems to me, coming not from some far away transcendence, but from finding our deepest selves in the natural world and with each other—when we take time to linger.

There is one more nature narrative I link vividly to the shelter. It comes from a co-worker and a tiny 4×6 inch photograph he has behind his desk:

Imagine the time of day just before dawn. Dew is heavy on the leaves and the earth is cool from the night. A slight breeze is marking the transition from night to day. In the distance a dark line of trees has the smallest indication of light glowing from behind its branches. There is a quality here that can’t be named. What we see and touch is greater than what we could create alone.

He placed the photo on his window sill more for his own viewing than anyone else’s. I asked him once what this picture meant, and he explained it’s about his favorite time of day, just before sunrise. “You’ve got the whole day stretching ahead you, another day, to give to God.” Here is a wonderfully candid glimpse into the functioning of this person. He is soft spoken and devoted to his profession as a social worker, dealing with the most nitty-gritty aspects of life. From what I’ve witnessed, there is no clear demarcation between his devotion and his pragmatic work-a-day world. His is a life being built on devotion—stemming from those most liminal hours before dawn.

There seem to be two ways of “perceiving.” We think our knowledge of what’s “out there” is most accurate when the outlines seem clearly defined by boundaries and categories and classifications—when we perceive a world that we comprehend and understand and control. But we have to get beyond those habitual cultural boundaries to perceive a reality that is much richer and more complicated than we can ever grasp, to experience the wonder and mystery of the creation.

In the end, “reverence” is the word I would use to respond to this “something” at the heart of our existence. Life is waiting everywhere for us to approach it. Both the shelter men and the woods—and even the inanimate body of rocks, as Thoreau would have it—have stretched my awareness of what I’ve come to view as “Holy.”

This essay appears in our Spring 2022 issue, “Wonder”. Purchase the issue here