by AYS Founder James Brown
1. Finding Joe’s Grave
When Joe Buck Shugart died in the spring of 1989, we’d only recently engaged in our first experiences of what anybody would call a conversation, although he’d been my stepfather for 17 years at that point, since I was 7. Until then, my relationship with him had been extraordinarily uncomfortable and almost entirely silent. My childhood was broken into segments punctuated by the crunch of his tires rolling into and out of our bluechip gravel driveway. When he was home, I was on guard.
Those first (and last) brief but intensely awkward exchanges happened while I was a young sailor on leave from the US Navy for Christmas. As groundbreaking as it was to converse with him at all, the subject matter never ventured far past small talk. More important communication went through my mother, as it always had. It was through her that he’d recently asked that I wear my uniform to a couple of holiday family functions. And, not wanting to make a show of my service, it was through my mother that I turned him down.
When he died suddenly four months later, on my 24th birthday, I mourned only for my mother, not for him. I was not sad that he was gone. And, because my mother wanted me to, I wore my dress blues to his funeral.
Now it is February 2016. I have come back to Maryland after 10 years in DC followed by 15 years in LA teaching yoga. I am 51 years old now. I am homeless. My descent to this point started about two and a half years ago.
When it started, I didn’t even know that I met the legal definition of homelessness, which is to have no fixed address. I was still making an income and, although I couldn’t afford the costs that come with signing a lease, I could afford to stay in airbnb places where I could pay for a few days at a time. That lasted a few months but, homelessness is kind of like a full time job and tending to its needs started to make it impossible for me to do my real job, which is to run my online yoga school. Then things got really bad. Then I became straight-up homeless and penniless, and I knew it. I didn’t need anybody to tell me whether or not I met the criteria to be called homeless. I knew that I was.
The first night that I didn’t know where I would be sleeping was this past February. Sitting in my car in a dark Walmart parking lot, I called a VA hotline for homeless veterans. (Walmart allows people to spend the night in their vehicles in their parking lots). It was so odd and difficult to say, for the very first time, “I’m homeless,” to a stranger on the phone that first night. I started crying as soon as I said it.
Little did I know then that I would be homeless for over three months, that things would get much worse, and that I would become very used to identifying myself as homeless and broke.
On one of the days at the worst time, when there didn’t seem to be anywhere to go that felt safe; I felt the need to do something I hadn’t done in almost 30 years and had never done voluntarily- go to my step-father’s grave.
I was on my way from an appointment with the VA to apply for a housing voucher. The route to my next stop, the gym on the naval base where I worked out, took showers, and stored things in the locker, took me past St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, where Joe is buried. I needed to go see him, although I wasn’t yet sure why. So I got off the highway and pulled into the church parking lot, got out, and stepped into the cemetery.
The cemetery grounds are scattered with about 1000 headstones laid out in rows and with no sign of any kind of map or directory to help visitors find graves. So I mentally divided it up into sections and started in on the first square division I had created in my head. After about five minutes of this, I started to get frustrated. I was afraid I had already missed his headstone. I was concerned that I wasn’t being very focused and might be skipping over it. I didn’t even know how big the thing was. So I stopped and said to myself, “You were here. You buried him. Go to that spot now. You know where it is.” And, well, I was right. I walked right over to it. It was one of the first moments in months where I felt like I knew where to go.
When I got there, I got down on my knees and started crying. I said, “Thank you” over and over to the ground that covered a dead man with whom I’d barely engaged in life. “Thank you for giving me a home,” I repeated. Even though he had been an abusive and repressive stepfather, I thanked him because he provided a stable home and plenty of food to eat- two things that, at that moment, kneeling on his grave, I was not able to acquire for myself. It had been a long time since I felt grounded the way I did in that moment.
2. Looking for Home
The question I’ve asked myself over and over throughout this ordeal of homelessness has been: What is it that I am missing when I don’t have a home? Being homeless, knowing its experience, and wanting to get out of it, I sought to define home. What do I need? What do I not need?
The single most valuable lesson I have learned from my study of yoga is that my path to happiness starts by grounding and anchoring to something perceived as solid and steadfast. With that connection, movement through the chaos of life is easily mastered. I knew that I was in serious trouble when I no longer had that connection. I knew I lost it but didn’t know when or where. I thought that if I could pinpoint the thing that made me lose ground, I could get it back.
Was it the day that I found out that every single material possession of mine had been auctioned off from a storage facility because I couldn’t pay the bill and they couldn’t reach me? It might have been. Was it the day that I was told that I could not return to living in the house I grew up in? A strong maybe to that one. Or maybe it was the day that I drove my car 15 miles on fumes to get three bags of canned goods that were advertised as free on Craigslist. Whenever it happened, it needed to get fixed. I had to find something solid.
Last December, the way I see my career as a teacher, and the way I view the world in general changed a lot, so I put all my things in storage in LA (Little did I know that I would never see them again.) and drove to Maryland where I grew up. If only someone I knew had had a wooden storage barn for me to use instead, I’d still have all of those prized possessions that meant so much to me and broke my heart so much to lose. I’m such a victim of bad luck. I had only been back to visit family a handful of times and all the visits were quick. This time, though, I was coming back for good and my eyes were wide open, looking for an answer to my question: “Where is home? Where is ground?”
I had been all over the world a few times by then. This time coming back to the place I grew up, I paid careful attention to how this place and these people are different from anywhere else.
I was surprised to find that the landscape of home was important to me, and highly effective as a source of stability. I found that my familiarity with the geography and my family provided a kind of anchor I hadn’t experienced in decades.
This place and these people are different to me because this is where the original versions of so many concepts came to be embedded in my brain. As I drove around these country roads, I realized that these are the roads where I learned what a road is. I drove past the very farmland that taught me what a farm is. I learned what trees are and what a beautiful day is here.
Similarly, I was chatting with one of my older sisters around that time and I realized that I had been hearing her voice since I was just a few hours old. I started to recognize home in the voices of my family. These are the voices that I heard when I learned what voices are.
These things- the land, the people, the sky- they are baked into who I am. This is home. And, although there have been many experiences of road and farm and trees and days since then, these things I experienced here cannot be replaced. They will always be my first. They are the originals.
While I have found stability in this land and these people here where I grew up, they can’t be a universal requirement for all people at all times. We don’t all have the same concept of home. Not everybody does well when they go back to where things started. Even for me, what I found familiar enough to make me feel stable ten years ago, when I travelled all over the world non-stop, has changed. Back then all I needed was my body, my yoga mat, and a space to practice in. Home was solid but portable. I wish I could proclaim that that still works for me, but it doesn’t. At least not right now.
But, it is not just geographic home or the voices of my family that have led me to safe ground. It is the familiarity with those things that is working to heal me. Familiarity is a kind of stability in its sameness. We are drawn to that which is familiar. It is the experience of the familiar that is the thing. That recognition of something you know well from before … that is the starting point for happy movement.
3. Starting Over
Now it is September. I have been in a place of my own, a glorious log cabin in the woods, funded by the VA, since June. It has taken me almost this long to get back to the level of productivity I was at before this started. And I have started writing again. Finally, I recognize my self. I am home. This is my ground.
My life has been pared down to a new level of simplicity. I make enough money to keep myself and my dogs from going hungry. I practice asana again. I spend most of the day online with my students. I have no active relationships outside of the ones with my family. I am slowly re-acquiring the possessions I need to cook and do business. I am looking forward to expanding my wardrobe beyond the shorts and t-shirts I brought from LA eight months ago when I thought I would be going back to get my stuff out of storage. But, I am home. I found ground.
Home is that which has enduring familiarity. Home is where the heart is, but the location of the home and the needs of the heart can change through life. You can’t go home until you know where it is. But I am home now. I feel ground.