Walking down a back alley in downtown Fresno, a group of women in wide-brimmed sun hats stop to talk to a man rummaging through a dumpster.
Homeless, they’re thinking.
But no, they soon discover. He’s not.
The 77-year-old is filling up a shopping cart with discarded recyclables, like he does most every morning, for his grandchildren. He exchanges the dirty bottles and cans for cash that he donates to Lowell Elementary School so his grandchildren can go on field trips. He works the night shift at a Valley casino and asks not to be named out of fear his boss will think badly of his unconventional acts of charity.
The sun-hatted women think he’s wonderful. Meeting this caring grandpa on June 4 is the big, beautiful surprise of Fresno Mindfulness Walk No. 46.
“It’s a reminder that everyone has a story,” says one of the women, Judith Reposo, later. “You just don’t always pay attention.”
Fresno Mindfulness Walks is about paying attention. It’s a call to bear witness to the “sights, sounds, smells and feelings” of neighborhoods in hopes the experience will empower people to make Fresno a better place.
The leader of these pilgrimages, Lori Clanton, founded Fresno Mindfulness Walks with the intention of walking across Fresno in a year with whoever would like to join her. She should reach her goal by mid-July. Clanton won’t be able to walk every Fresno street, but she’s explored neighborhoods all across the city.
She’s sometimes asked if this is a spiritual thing. Well, not exactly, but sort of.
“When I set out to do this, I thought, ‘I really want to see the other person.’ Seeing each other, to me, is the path to empathy, which is the path to healing, which is the path to reconciliation for Fresno. Really seeing other people and connecting to your community — what could be more spiritual than that?”
The walks are also a way for her to verify things for herself.
“For some reason I thought I need to see it for myself, all the details, the nooks and crannies, and step back so that instead of using my energy to blame one side or the other … that instead, I can seek to understand.”
Now a member of Fresno Unified School District’s communications team, she formerly worked as director of administration for Fresno Regional Foundation, which also inspired her.
“It made me very aware of the vast differences and life experiences of people in Fresno. … We don’t know the realities of each others’ lives.”
Clanton is considering starting the mindfulness walks back up — after a break — once she completes her year of walks next month. She wants more people to be able to experience what she’s experienced.
On June 4, the journey began in a downtown parking lot across from Warnors Theatre with a brief overview of mindfulness walking 101.
“We’re going to breathe — think about that for a minute,” Clanton says. “We’re going to walk, one foot in front of the other.”
Walks are usually around four miles long and participants are asked to remain silent, unless stopping to talk to people along the way. Stay in the present moment, Clanton urges. This is no time to be rehashing the past or planning the future.
“We are being present, right here in these neighborhoods that we share with our sisters and brothers in Fresno.” The T-shirt Clanton is wearing with the words “you are here” emblazoned on a picture of a large heart helps reinforce the message.
And so the walking begins.
Bee photographer Craig Kohlruss and I follow Clanton northwest with three other women — Kathryn Johnson and first-time walkers Reposo and Amy Roberts. We will eventually pass under Highway 180 near Highway 99 before looping back around to the Fulton Mall.
At the onset, we pass construction on the latest urban development of Granville Homes at the corner of Fulton and Stanislaus streets, set to open within a year. Popping into a leasing office later, Clanton is told there are waiting lists for Granville’s 13 downtown properties, where units range from $550 to $1,800.
Nearby is the inconspicuous Kepler Neighborhood School where children play in what looks like a renovated parking garage guarded by black iron gates. Further down Fulton, there’s a pair of Silvercrest Retirement Home tenants, Kenneth Franklin, 69, and Bruce Davis, 74, who provide a narration of what’s happening down here after answering some questions about the large, storied building they live in that looks something like a hospital.
“I didn’t even know that this was here,” Roberts says.
“I seeeeee!” Franklin says. “Stop by and visit sometime.”
“Was it converted from … ?”
“This place has been here, what, 30 years?” Franklin says, turning to his fellow tenant.
“Thirty-two years,” Davis says, sitting in his wheelchair on the corner, smoking a cigarette.
Franklin moved back to his childhood home of Fresno a year ago to help his mother.
“Fresno itself,” Franklin says, letting out a long exhale that sounds something like a sigh, “it has changed tremendously. … It looks like they are trying to get on the right track. They are waking up. They are a little behind, but they are waking up.”
He says downtown Fresno “really needs to change.”
“I’ve never seen a city of this size with a downtown area that is — how would you say — as stagnant as it is. … I don’t know why Fresno is afraid to grow in that sense. You have over a half a million people here. What’s the hold up?”
If the city needs some help enticing businesses to move in, he adds with a sly smile, “come to me.”
As we continue the walk, we pass many other sights and souls:
The beautiful pregnant black woman wearing a golden silk shirt the color of her home who comes outside to say hello. The old brick church that faces boarded-up homes. The car with a flat tire outside an apartment complex covered in chipping paint and “for rent” signs. The barking pit bull near the house with plastic children’s toys scattered across a front yard. The smashed television set and overturned coach lying on a curb.
And in the midst, a canal. The women stop, gaze across dark green water. The water is rimmed by pink flowering bushes and flying birds. On the other side, there’s a house painted in colors of the rainbow with two large white angel statues outside, and a beige apartment with a faded “home sweet home” sign and a mop leaning beside the front door.
I see Cinderella; despair. But later, I learn veteran mindfulness walker Johnson saw something else.
“I always look for mops out in front of houses, that speaks to me,” she says. “I just feel like, ‘OK, you live here and you care so much about your house.”
Passing under Highway 180, a woman with dark thick-brimmed glasses slowly pushes an empty wheelchair, staring straight ahead. When she passes, Clanton turns to watch her go. There is pain in her face.
On the other side of the highway, we see bigger homes with landscaped yards but on the sidewalk is a flattened cat, half its body decomposed and covered in flies. Nearby a black dog paces a fence, barking.
Reposo helps me describe the symbolism: We are never too far away from being road kill.
Returning to the Fulton Mall, a man in a motorized wheelchair with an American flag attached to the back wipes his brow in the sun.
The walk ends and the silence is broken. The group of women circle up to put words to the experience: Flux. Heartbreaking. Unafraid and friendly. Contrasts.
Reposo, a physical therapist in the burn center at Community Regional Medical Center downtown, reflected on seeing tents behind buildings. Sometimes, her patients tell her they live in one of these makeshift shelters.
“Seeing that for myself, what those kinds of conditions are like, is helpful,” she said. “People can tell you, but seeing that … ”
I know what she means. We all do. There is an “ah ha, yes” in all our nods of approval.
After we are done, Clanton passes out bookmarks: “One for you and one for a friend.”
Let me share my extra with each of you. On this marker is a beautiful message:
“I accept the whole San Joaquin Valley — its people, its structures, its joys, its sorrows — as my responsibility. Receive the offering of my work, thoughts, resources and relationships, that I may promote peace and humanness among all persons and within all structures.”
And at the bottom is a line for a signature.
I signed mine gratefully and hung it on the wall beside my computer.
Thank you, Lori.
Take a walk
To join in on one of the remaining five mindfulness walks before Lori Clanton finishes her year of walking, go to Fresno Mindfulness Walks Facebook page. Clanton posts the schedule for the upcoming weekly walk a few days in advance.