What is citizenship? It is fulfilling basic duties that keep a republic working. One of those duties is caring for those who can’t or won’t care for themselves. Caring makes the body republic stronger and binds up its wounds. If we don’t care, a republic collapses into gated communities of body and mind and there is no common ground to share. There is only division, otherness, and eventual disintegration.
Most American can’t even define basic citizenship. Flying an American flag is not citizenship. Sharing a link is not citizenship. Breaking a window of a donut shop is not citizenship. Neither is walking out of a legislative session when you aren’t in the majority and losing every vote.
Think about this: virtually every homeless person I encounter is an American citizen yet they now no longer belong to the citizenry. Where did the disenfranchisement begin? Can an act of writing as citizenship help in some way help re-enroll citizens? This of course, assumes these people want to be re-enrolled in the America the Beautiful.
To care as a citizen is to act in some way. Yes, voting to approve an expensive bond measure to fund increased services and housing for the homeless in a municipality is performing an act of citizenship. Voting no is doing nothing and a supreme act of selfish indifference. If you are consumed with selfish indifference toward the common good, you are not a citizen and you need to be called out by real citizens, some of whom might not even be official citizens of America. Who gives a shit about that phony designation? Are you working, caring, contributing or not? Or are you checked into a luxury hotel of your own thoughts and comfort and checked out of giving a damn about your fellow human beings?
I made the decision on the couch reading the preface that I would now consider my writing about the homeless as an act of citizenship, and more than just journalism or anthropology or novelization. Does that seem pretentious of far fetched? I don’t know and I don’t care. I now have a frame of reference and nostalgia will have nothing to do with it.
My goal is to engage with the issue of homelessness where it is, not in the abstract, and to try and make sense of it (and perhaps act on what I learn). I will engage without any methodology or schedule or genre or format. There is no book deal. There is no research for a film. I won’t go live with them for a year, then leave and write a memoir. I won’t begin interviewing them with a stock set of questions for some academic study. I’m not going to write a grant to fund this or that initiative. I’m not going to write a poem and submit it to the street newspaper.
It’s all pretty much random in this approach and I will engage in a different way with each encounter because that’s how its fallen out so far. The bottom line, however, is that I want to care in some way.
You can’t write about something coherently that way, can you? Well, that’s what I’m doing. This non-model model could change as my interactions mount.
Will my caring be genuine? Only I can determine that. I am always trying to determine this.
My moments with the homeless are either fleeting or seem to last forever. Some moments feel almost poetic, like a blooming daffodil in a flower pot surrounded by human filth; others feel totally pathetic, like an addled human being surrounded by human filth guarded by a dog who exhibits more dignity than the human being.
The juxtaposition of daffodil blooming in a flower pot in the middle of an encampment that looks like it was under fire from a mortar barrage is something I can’t work out in my mind. Who cultivates a daffodil while under a mortar barrage? Someone does. They also care for their dog.
Onward. Writing as an act of citizenship also requires something else. Movement. You have to get off your ass and off the internet. You must observe and listen. Then you take it from there.