When I first encountered the homeless women I wrote about in my book The Women Outside, I was struck by the way they talked. At that time, a large proportion of "shopping bag ladies" were former inmates of state mental institutions, tossed out into the "community" when a so-called reform emptied the hospitals but failed to provide adequate follow-up or care. On their own, these women couldn't negotiate the bureaucratic requirements of the welfare system and wound up on the street. Years of institutionalization plus the disorientation induced by life outdoors gave their conversation a fragmented quality that reflected the shattering of their inner vision.
Trying to describe this in an article for a small feminist journal, I remembered Lila, a woman I'd met some time before on a visit to a small rural Texas town. On the wrong side of a piece of shelving paper, she drew me a family tree: roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and acorns. A squirrel sits on a root holding an acorn, and a pig roots for more acorns beneath the branches. Each branch, she told me, was a member of the family and the smaller branches were their children. Beneath the drawing she wrote a poem celebrating the "beautiful sweet world God created"-not excluding the "storms" and "broken hearts" introduced by the devil.
Together Lila's tree and poem conveyed a marvelous wholeness of vision, setting her own family connections, past and future, into the larger natural cycle. By contrast, the images that the homeless women spilled out were jumbled shards of their real past or fantasy past, nightmare representations of unacknowledged rage or terror, bits and pieces of their daily lives, and dreams of a wished-for future that would never come.
My ideas about the family tree image developed as many ramifications as a real tree and turned into the conceptual structure of the article-my first use of an image as a method of analysis.
I thought: how does a tree work? The roots draw nourishment from the soil and the trunk sends it upward to feed the leaves and produce the fruit. So the tree represents wholeness and natural cycles. It diagrams the family's roots in the past and its continuity in the present and into the future.
But to connect this image to the homeless women, I had to go further. The tree also represents the development of a single person: the self grows to fruition by tapping into nourishment buried underground and transforming it into a rich harvest. For the homeless women, this tree was cut off at the roots. They lacked that vision of wholeness, as though the vessel of self bearing the image of their tree had been shattered, with only the shards remaining.
My article went on to draw parallels between those outcast women and women inside society that no longer seem quite so valid to me. In fact the whole piece now feels rather over the top. But it taught me how to use an image to pursue meaning, one ramification at a time (as it were). From then on I had a tool that freed my imagination.
Causes Stephanie Golden Supports
Insight Meditation Society, Barre, MA
Brooklyn for Peace
New York Insight Meditation Center
Coalition for the Homeless