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100 Days of Homeless: An Essay About Finding Ground

by AYS Founder James BrownMy cabin

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.

My Stepfather's GraveWhen 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.  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.

Home in Backyard 1976

Home in Backyard 1976

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

Sitting in our new front doorway

With Diane and Bobby sitting in our new front doorway on our first morning at home.

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.

Home. June 2016. James Brown Yoga

Home. June 2016.

17 Responses to 100 Days of Homeless: An Essay About Finding Ground

  1. Shannon December 21, 2016 at 3:08 am #

    Dearest darling james
    I always look you up now and then to see where yoga has been taking you or you it. Seems like things have changed dramatically. You’ve always had a gift for language and your essay is very moving. What’s more moving is the heart you put into your essay and the complete openness of truth. You inspired me from day 1 training me as a yoga teacher in Australia and your still inspiring me. I’m thinking of you now with love in my heart and the faith in knowing you will always be ok as long as you keep being you.
    Much love
    Shannon feddersen x

  2. Brian Chambers September 15, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

    Jimmy, you have a lot of people that care. It doesn’t surprise me. I’m one of them. Anyone can accomplish anything in life however a newly minted OLD friend is tough to come by. I would love to hear from you “old school”. Rotary phone in that cabin?

  3. Glen Robinson September 15, 2016 at 11:04 am #

    James,
    I’m not on FB, so my sister called and told me about this essay. I called Gary and he sent me the link. What a moving essay. You write very poetically. I really like the part of how you found home where you grew up. I am in Denver now, but seriously thinking about going back to Tahoe. It is so familiar and at times I feel lonely and lost here. Your story was not sad to me. I feel bad that you went through those things, but I think you really grew up a lot through them. Keep in touch. More than at Easter!! All my best to you, love, Glen.

  4. Meagan September 13, 2016 at 11:00 am #

    I’ve never met you but found you through. Alexandria Crow, whom I’ve never met either but her teachings resonate with me as I’m at a crossroads with my teaching (and my body hurts). Anyway, I just wanted to say this share was so freaking inspiring and incredible and I wish that I had met you in LA. I’m floundering for a teacher, and a path at the moment.

    • James Brown September 13, 2016 at 11:21 am #

      Thank you so much, Meagan. I will be back in LA next year and, until then, have some really good courses online, where you can live chat with me while you are working in the course. I would love to teach you! Thank you so much for your words of support. It means the world to me.

  5. Rosa Wilson September 12, 2016 at 7:07 pm #

    Hi James:

    Thank you for sharing your experience and thank you for your service. I’m a daughter of a Vietnam Vet (also a yogi and proud parent to a Pomeranian). I want to help you and your puppies (I’m sure others do as well).

    Please post an address so we can send you and your puppies much needed supplies.

    Winter is coming and you guys need to be warm.

    Lots of love from NYC.

    Much much shanti,
    Munchie & Rosa

    • James Brown September 12, 2016 at 7:56 pm #

      Rosa, I am so deeply touched by this. I have emailed you. Thank you so much. You are an angel.

  6. Diane Theders September 11, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    Dear Jimmy (that’s how I remember you),
    Reading your story really inspired me. I knew you when you were a child as one of my students and the son of a friend. S sorry you went through so much heartache but what an amazing journey and oh the places you’ve seen! In any case, your writing inspired me and we’re glad you’ve come home. Oh, and this will make you laugh. For a millionth of a second, I thought one of your dogs was named after me!!! Take care of yourself.
    Your former teacher,
    Mrs. Diane Theders

    • James Brown September 12, 2016 at 9:20 am #

      Thank you so much, Mrs. Theders! You were one of my favorite teachers ever. Do you remember that my Mom convinced you to let me use a calculator in class but nobody else could? I don’t know how she swung that but you should know that I am REALLY GOOD at math now, so it worked!

      It means a lot to me that you read my piece and I can’t express the gratitude I feel for your your support. I am doing great now and so happy to be back home. This is a beautiful place.

  7. Mer Otis September 10, 2016 at 11:58 am #

    I love you, James. Pure and simple.

  8. Karen Halverson September 10, 2016 at 10:47 am #

    Dear James, I, too, greatly appreciate that you have shared ‘where you have been’ and ‘where you are’. You have touched, changed, transformed many lives through your Yoga business. I am one of them. My retirement dream to become certified to teach Yoga is true because of you. And I am extremely grateful that God brought You into my life to be my Yoga Teacher Trainer. I am teaching Seniors Chair Yoga as well as some beginning/intermediate classes (that’s as far as I’ll go!). And I will not teach unless I can be true to who I am in my Yoga practice and the true traditions of Yoga. Aging is a process and you are at the start of it. We look for peace, stability, appreciation, love, friendship even more as we age and I hope and pray for you that you find these. Best wishes to you.

  9. Charity Tinsley September 10, 2016 at 9:32 am #

    James! I am so distressed then sad then moved then joyfully filled by your story and how you wrote it and the fact you would share it.

    I miss you and am glad to find you discovering peace and stability now.

    Everything happens for a reason.

  10. chris byrne September 10, 2016 at 9:30 am #

    I cried I smiled
    i feel you

    Love
    Chris Diane Tennyson , Now In Denver Co

  11. Lakshmi Angela Norwood September 10, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    Transformative for both reader and writer. Your courage and determination are inspiring. I feel honesty, humility and integrity in your words — those things have clearly stuck and we who take the time to see them are honored by your willingness to share.

    I have to ask…Diane and Bobby? What inspired these incredible dog names?!

    Please keep digging and writing.

    • James Brown September 10, 2016 at 9:44 am #

      Thank you so much for your comment. There is no way I can express how it feels to be supported by you and other readers in this way. Thank you also for asking me about my dogs’ names. I have been waiting for somebody to ask! Diane came first. She is 11. IN the years before that, a few friends of mine and I were obsessed with the Whitney Houston / Diane Sawyer interview. We were especially drawn to the moment when she says, in response to Diane’s query about the amount of money she spent on crack with “I wanna see receipts, Diane”. I don’t know a lot about crack but I do know that crack dealers do NOT give receipts. So, for a few years we would say to each other what Whitney said whenever we were in doubt about something one of the others of us had said. Then we pared it down to just saying “Diane!” Then a couple years later, I was broken up with my boyfriend but I thought it was time to get back together, so I texted him that one word: “Diane”. And it worked. Then I got a dog and named her Diane.

      About six years later, I was given a male dog who matched Diane in appearance. His name was Dreezy when I got him. I tried calling him Dr. Eazy for a few days, in honor of Dr. Dre and Eazy E, but it just sounded silly. Not a good dog name. So, to match Diane, I renamed him Bobby Brown. But you have to say Bobby like Whitney did if you want to really say his name properly. (Bobbeh!!!) Thank you for asking!

  12. Kara Redman September 9, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

    James. I will read this several more times. What a raw and beautifully written piece on your life’s experience. You are inspiring and real and authentic and I applaud you for being fearless enough to live on the full spectrum of life.

  13. Kim Arthur September 9, 2016 at 2:28 pm #

    Beautifully written and so exceptionally true about ‘home’. Congratulations on what you have achieved as you journey through life

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