Sleeping in a tent is nothing new to me. We’ve done a fair amount of tent camping. We have a Coleman stove and a kit with camp pots and pans and little red plates and cups. We have sleeping mats and bags and pillows with new pillowcases we bought in a K-Mart in Minnesota after forgetting pillows from home and sleeping one night with our heads on balled-up sweatshirts.
I won’t say sleeping in a tent always feels homey to me. Tent camping falls in the category of ‘roughing it.’ Sometimes, when there is a full moon that I can see through a tied up flap of the tent, it feels spooky being outside, utterly exposed to everything, with no locks, no barriers between me and harm. But then I relax into it, like a creature in the wild would. Sometimes, my big dog, Swirl, puts his heavy head on my foot, and the tent becomes cozy, like a nest. In the morning, coffee perks in an old pot on our Coleman stove. So if I was asked if I like sleeping in a tent, I would probably say yes, all things considered.
But sleeping in a tent in my backyard in the middle of a big city felt different. We decided to sleep out to support the fundraising efforts of Street Angels, a local organization that does outreach three nights a week to people living on the street, bringing them a hot meal, bag lunch, hygiene supplies, tents, tarps, sleeping bags, jeans, underwear, batteries, and socks, hundreds of socks. So I love this organization and am proud to be the president of its board and a person in constant awe of the guts and determination of its staff and volunteers. So, a team of people basically made themselves homeless for 48 hours this weekend as a way to draw attention to homelessness and, hopefully, raise $48,000 for the organization’s operation. I knew I couldn’t do 48 hours wandering around in the city but I could do 12 hours in my backyard so that’s what we did.
We got in the tent around 10 after sitting on our back porch for a good while watching episodes of The Tudors. At one point, I worried the screaming of yet another heretic burned at the stake by Henry VIII would distress the neighbors, but they probably couldn’t hear over their low thumping music. Once in the tent, the dogs settled quickly on their blankets – as sled dogs are wont to do, settle fast and sleep – and my husband went almost immediately to sleep, as he is wont to do whenever prone, dear heart.
But I laid awake.
I heard the dog barking next door. The security light came on, shining yellow over the dome of the tent. I wondered if there was someone in the driveway. There was a loud noise, like a door slamming or something being dropped. I had my parka on and two pairs of leggings, the sleeping bag and another quilt, and the discomfort of sleeping in my clothes preoccupied me for long minutes. And I thought about all of the homeless people I’d seen and talked to over the years, all of whom, of course, had slept in their clothes, and not had that whole, comforting process of taking one’s clothes off and putting on pajamas and being comfortable in bed. Relaxing in bed after a long day.
With my clothes on, I felt on guard.
When I moved, from one side to the other, or to try to readjust my position on the sleeping mat, the pain in my lower back which had gotten progressively worse to the point of my being hunched over the previous two days, would make me yelp. I am 72 and I am asleep on the ground in my clothes and my back is a wreck, not always but tonight and, for sure, worse in the morning. My only choice was to lay still on my back, lay like a corpse, looking at the shine of the yellow security light, and just wait for sleep.
How could I sleep outside if I wasn’t in this tent? I thought about that. What if I was alone in a tent instead of with a man and two dogs? What would I hear outside the tent? How would a cloth tent with no locks, no barriers protect me from harm? And I remembered a woman we saw on outreach a while ago when I was so, so new. It was deep winter and she was sleeping in a sleeping bag under a freeway bridge but wouldn’t accept a tent and I surmised or someone more experienced told me that she didn’t want to be in a tent because she wanted to be able to see someone coming. The chill of that is with me as I write.
I slept and woke, slept and woke, and finally slept until it was light outside. I felt relief. The night hadn’t been horrible or dangerous, just disquieting, harmless things like yellow lights and uncomfortable clothes giving way to long thoughts about how I would fare as a homeless person. I know a lot about homelessness but I know so little about how to be homeless, about how to go to sleep and get to the next day, about how to get up and go forth in the world. How to persist and be brave. All of it.
I am humbled by my night in a tent in my backyard.