Thursday nights I teach a chair yoga class at one of SKY’s partner organizations called Nativity House, the big homeless shelter and resource center on Yakima Avenue near downtown Tacoma. Just before 7 I’m usually hurrying into the huge, well-lit building, filing past the people smoking outside, and making my way through the crowd indoors toward the small chapel where we hold the class.
The amount and variety of people that move around and through Nativity House can sometimes be staggering. Talking with them, you meet people from all over the world who speak all kinds of languages and can tell all sorts of stories. The shelter, for better or for worse, is likely one of the most diverse places, culturally and ethnically and linguistically speaking, in all the city of Tacoma. This giant confluence of human beings and human experiences I encounter there has become, then, a kind of distinct marker of the place in my mind. The voices, smoke, smiles, and fluorescent lighting all rise up before me when I think of the place. So you might guess how eerie it all felt walking in several months ago to find the building nearly empty and the air quiet, so quiet I could hear the lights whining above the great open room of the shelter.
One woman has come to nearly all of the Thursday night practices at the shelter since they began last year, and when I made it through the odd silence upstairs to the chapel she was waiting there outside the door like she usually does. Many weeks it has just been her that comes to the class. I’m not sure how long this woman (who we can call Carol) has lived at Nativity House or what much of her personal history entails, but I spend enough time with her to know that she understands the rhythms, the comings and goings, of the lives of the people that pass through the place. She knows how things work there and why they happen, and so Carol is who I ask questions of when I have them.
This time, though, I paused before I asked her why the shelter was so empty. I had a feeling, without knowing what her answer would be, that her response would highlight the gulf between her and me, that it would make clear my ignorance of the lives of the people there. I didn’t want that to happen—for whatever reasons, I enjoy feeling at ease, accepted or at least normal amongst the people at Nativity House. I’d rather the chance for anyone to pity anyone else not arise, I guess. So when I did ask, and when her answer was as obvious as I expected—she said, “It’s the first of the month. People have money”—that gap, the glaring gap between the way I live and the way she does, was very apparent to both of us. To put it simply, it didn’t feel good.
I wasn’t sure when I started writing why I felt I wanted to share this moment I had with Carol or what it has to do with the work of the studio, but I’ve looked at it again now. I think what was important to me months ago was that I felt like I hadn’t known how she and the other people at Nativity House lived, that their daily experiences didn’t usually resonate with my own. What has become important to me in the time since then, in the many weeks that Carol has continued to join me and others for chair yoga and conversation, is that both of us, knowingly or not, haven’t allowed the vast differences between our lives have much to do with the time and space we keep sharing. It seems fitting that we often sit facing the same direction when the class consists of just the two of us—neither of us is giving or directing some one thing to the other. We’re simply there together, practicing yoga and talking, sharing time and space, which is how I often feel at the SKY studio space too.
Like Carol and I at Nativity House, the people who come to practice at SKY aren’t the studio’s “customers,” or a certain teacher’s “students,” or “clientele” or any other kind of one-directional relationship. Really, we’re all partners, we’re all facing the same direction, and there are gaps between us too. The ideas behind the SKY Partners in Healing program is to bring that levelness, that space- and time-sharing, to the forefront and to celebrate it. The people who sustain the studio with $50 a month, who practice their yoga with SKY, do the same work Carol does at Nativity House. At the studio, they get to know the same rhythms and comings and goings that she does there, and they share in the closeness and in the gaps between us. That kind of honest, whole, human interaction is what has drawn me to both SKY and the people here and to Nativity House, our partner organization, and those that move through it too.