The Fifth Annual Compassion Commemoration—Stories of a Murder/Suicide, an Umbrella, and a Passionate “F-You!”

Photo by Kari Peterson

Friday, June 3rd, I commemorated seven years of bringing awareness to compassion by remaining present at 3rd and C for 24 hours straight. It is the fifth year doing so and it serves to reflect on the journey since 2009 and what has happened since the previous year.

I arrived a few minutes after midnight. The Thursday night crowds, mostly college students, were still meandering downtown. The restaurant across the street remained open until 3 am, so people continued to gather for a late-night meal or drink. I brought a bag of food for the day, a large towel on which to sit, a smaller towel to dampen and cool my body throughout the day (knowing it would be 100+ degrees,) water, and the notebook.

A young man with shoulder-length curly hair, a beard, and a t-shirt with the “Om” sign on it came up and asked, “May I sit with you on the bench?” I gestured “yes” with my hand. He asked me how I was doing and I replied “peaceful” as usual. I asked him the same and he said, “Good. I’m waiting for my beloved to get off work.”

After some small talk, I explained to him about the anniversary, inviting him to write his concept of compassion in the notebook. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolding it to reveal a reflection which he just wrote while waiting for his beloved.

“Would you like to read this while I’m writing?

It was a page on his unofficial spiritual teacher, a man whom he talked with occasionally. He had come to find out that, although they came from different circumstances, they shared similar viewpoints on life. The reflection also honored his gratitude toward his beloved and other current circumstances he was experiencing, covering the themes of empathy and compassion.

I found it apropos that this young gentleman was the first person I encountered on this anniversary. Being able to read his reflection started the day off pleasantly.

Another young man also sat down, someone who started visiting the corner a few weeks ago. A while later the young lady working at the restaurant came by as well. I offered the notebook for her entry and she obliged.

Imagine four people discussing compassion at a downtown street corner at 1 am. It’s possible because it happened. All it takes is the space and willingness for it to be.

After a while the couple left. The young man offered to bring water later and I agreed. He then left. The restaurant closed, leaving only the cleanup crew until about 4 am. For the next few hours, I listened to a couple argue in the park across the street. Nothing in particular—as if it were how they naturally related to one another.

Then twilight arrived. With it—Beauty. Deep purple brightening into violet. Then indigo. Finally blue. A few mocking birds, whose song and fluttering wings moved throughout the trees, added to the birth of the day.

Other signs emerged—city sweepers, commuters heading toward the train station, students heading to class, the Earth heating up, joggers, people walking their dogs.

I asked a friend to bring by a canopy, undecided as to whether it would be too cumbersome for the day. I wanted to take a look at it before deciding. She showed it to me. I decided to go without it, opting instead for the golf umbrella she offered. We chatted a little, she took a few photos, and went on with her day.

I ordered breakfast to go from another restaurant nearby. Returning to the corner, I was greeted with a warm smile by someone who wanted to meet and talk—a thirty-something man, curious, relaxed, with both arms stretched out on the bench as if making himself at home. Previously, I posted online that I would be there. He wrote to me letting me know he would be interested in a conversation. We spoke about compassion in the current US political situation, kindness, our stories of resilience, and religion/spirituality.

The young man from earlier in the morning stopped by with a gallon of fresh iodine water. He joined the conversation and once again, an impromptu, in-depth group discussion took place.

They left and the mid-morning sun continued to heat the already parched earth. I could feel the day getting warmer already. Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.

A woman approached the bench, similar to a cat walking toward a stranger, unsure if it’s safe to sit down. She sat at the other end of the bench, making eye contact occasionally in between her nervous, fluttering blinks. After some initial small talk, she shared how she was still grieving a murder/suicide of a close relative.

I listened. That’s all I could do having never gone through the suffering of a murder/suicide. I will keep the details of her story confidential as to honor the sacredness of her experience.

Once she finished, she said “thank you” for the bench. She got up and as the left, I took her hands in mine, looked her in the eyes and said, “You are well. You are well.”

Soon after, I covered myself with the umbrella to avoid the direct sunlight. Ah, the reactions—
“That’s a big umbrella.”
“A new addition for you at the corner?”
“That’s a big umbrella.”
“I don’t think it will be raining in this heat.”
“That’s a big umbrella.”

A lady I know who works at UC Davis came by soon after a faculty meeting, still unnerved by some of the energy she experienced during the meeting. She shared how she invited everyone during the meeting to take a deep breath, more for her own sanity than anything. She voiced her frustrations with the people at the meeting and her own attempt to stay grounded.

I needed to use the restroom and asked her to watch my belongings for a couple minutes. She agreed. I offered her the umbrella as cover and she held it. When I returned she looked quite picturesque, peaceful—gently holding the umbrella upright with a steady hand, quietly watching the noontime downtown activity.

I sat down again. She got back onto her bike and said, “Thank you for listening and some quiet time.” I gave her a quick nod as she rode off.

Later that afternoon, a regular sat to rest—an older man, silvery-white hair, stout, red-faced because of the heat and in the middle of exercising. He usually stops for a quick conversation. After a bit of small talk, he shared that his mother had just passed away and how family was in town for the funeral. I offered my condolences, he said thank you, and then left.

Then one of the downtown business owners joined me in conversation, someone I usually speak with in his establishment rather than at the corner. We talked about his business, politics, the future of the US, the science of human behavior, and compassion. Knowing one another for a few years, it was the longest conversation we had, something I noticed as it continued.

I pointed it out to him, feeling grateful for the opportunity to get to know him more deeply. He said that he was glad to have sat down and how he always gets something worthwhile from our conversations. He needed to get back to work, so he left.

I stayed awake and limber by doing yoga stretches throughout the day. During a standing forward fold, I caught a pair of tennis shoes approaching out the corner of my eye. As I stood up, I caught a middle finger in my face.

“F*ck you! People like you make me sick.”
“You disgust me.”

This squirrelly young man, whom I’d never seen before, then threw the umbrella across the grass.

He quickly walked away. I laughed, thinking: “Random!”

A young lady who witnessed the event said, “That wasn’t nice.” She retrieved the umbrella and gave it to me. I replied, “Thank you.”

I became aware of my response of laughter rather than reacting otherwise, which made me laugh even more. I felt compassion for him, imagining what kind of suffering he must be experiencing in order to share it with someone he doesn’t know. It may well be a constant companion in his life.

I mentioned this to someone I know. He said he saw the same young man harassing someone else nearby who appeared to be homeless. I guess I appeared so too, sitting on a bench with two canvas bags, a gallon of water, and an umbrella.

As the sun set, my friend returned for the umbrella. I told her about the day, the story of the man who got in my face, and that her umbrella was tossed across the grass. She thought it to be disturbing.

As we chatted, two other friends came by, who also know my friend who was sitting with me. I told them the same story and they had the same reaction.

Being toward the end of the day, I found myself growing more focused during our conversation, more so out of necessity. With the exchange of so many different energies, the heat, sitting most of the day, swollen legs, and being hungry again, I recognized the state of my body and mind.

Within the awareness of this state, I also thought of what it takes to bring about hatred in the world. I voiced a thought to those sitting with me:

“Somewhere someone is in the heat for the entire day spreading hate. I’m motivated to do the same in the name of love.”

Later, the young man returned for the water jug. As he sat, another acquaintance walked across the street and joined us. We spoke about the warm weather, finals week, ego, quieting the mind chatter, and our spiritual paths.

At midnight I walked home, passing through the downtown Friday night college scene that gradually faded into the more serene surroundings of quiet neighborhoods. I reflected on all that happened, feeling gratitude for everything, for the opportunity to be alive and experience the extremes of hate and love, death and life, sorrow and joy, and the space that holds it all together.

I got home, changed into my night clothes, and slept for 12 hours.

And so seven years of compassion have passed. I know from the constant stories of suffering that there is so much of it dormant in the hearts and minds of humanity, erupting in anger, frustration, abuse, oppression, uprisings, and in war.

I know that, given a safe space to share, people will appreciate when you listen to them. I know it helps alleviate any burden one has, which brings him/her one step closer to inner peace.

I know that compassion is really the greatest antidote for suffering. Love conquers hate by inviting it into its arms. That we all can make a difference in one another’s lives—which, in the end, allows the world to be a more peaceful place for all.

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