The Two Definitions of Wonder

 

2016 has been a tough one, no denying. Still, I keep hope, because the alternative is too depressing to bear. In the spirit of sharing hope, my gift to you is one of my favourite holiday memories. Enjoy.

daviesvalValentine Davies was serving in the coast guard in 1944. He had a shy smile, a receding hairline and an impressive nose. He also had a story that started as a question. What would the real Santa think if he entered a department store and saw how commercial his season had become?

Writers know that speculating outcomes to impossible scenarios is a great substitute for inspiration. It’s more reliable too. From Valentine’s question came a short story and then a movie, Miracle on 34th Street. It was a childhood favourite of mine; a film where a young girl was allowed to be clever, a film that confirmed my existing bias that miracles were real.

I was living in a group home in 1996 when I met a boy. He had a shy smile, a receding hairline and an impressive nose. He had captivating hazel eyes and a wonder that he applied to every pursuit. He carried hope like it weighed nothing at all. We met in a mall. My newly minted cynicism and his unqualified optimism slid comfortably together

In February, we saw the re-release of The Empire Strikes Back. He was so excited, he shook the whole row of theatre chairs. By the end of it, we were dating. By that evening, we were living together.

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-2-57-41-pmOur Eglinton walk-up apartment, shared with a roommate, was my first safe home. We painted our bedroom bright yellow and squeezed in to a single bed. I bounced my madness off his serene strength, painting goddesses on the wall next to his posters of punk bands and space cowboys. I sidled up to happiness and flirted with it, wondering if we could put our differences aside.

By June, we were homeless.

I had experience with scarcity, but for him it was all new. Still, when family offered to take him in – if he was willing to leave me behind – he refused. I convinced him to use what money we had to rent a storage room for a year.

“Take everything that matters and pack it up. That way, when it’s all done, we won’t be starting with nothing.”

With our possessions homed, though we were not, we discovered the city. Some nights we stayed up, wandering Toronto’s PATH system like priests in the Roman catacombs. Vagrancy in Toronto, like burial in those ancient city limits, was illegal, so down we went, hiding from the elements, walking until our legs ached. The tile echoed our voices back, a call and answer with each whisper.

Friends took us in for a day, a week, when they could. We carried two backpacks each, one on the front and one on the back, with clothes, food, notebooks for my poetry, whatever we might need. My experience proved less valuable than his buoyancy, as he made a game of washing our hair in the park or resting in primary-coloured climbers behind schools. He declared the sidewalk to be lava and made it from the Eaton Centre to CityTV without touching down once.

For my birthday, he took me to an outdoor movie, playing for free at Nathan Phillips Square. We stretched out on the cement, our disheveled appearance easily mistaken for grunge cool. He gave me a Blues Traveller CD.

“For when you have a place to play it.” He said it like a promise.

Untitled 2.pngFor his birthday two weeks later, I bought a box of powdered mini-donuts and put a candle in each one. I gave him a twenty-five cent vending machine toy for every year he’d been alive, with a note slipped in each enumerating the ways I loved him.

We tried to find work, but without an address or a phone, it was difficult. We tried to get welfare, but seeking help was a rat maze with no promise of cheese at the end.

If homelessness during a Toronto summer is hard, homelessness during a Toronto winter can be deadly. As November’s gloom crept in, we relied more heavily on friends with empty couches and floors, finding the edges of generosity. His college acquaintances proved our most consistent benefactors. Many nights we ended up at the Parkdale rental of Alex, a computer programmer, and Zeus, a TV tycoon in the making.

We were occupying their couch when Santa came to Toronto. Despite having lived in the city my whole life, I had never seen the parade.

eatonsannexcommons1“Let’s do it!” He cast off our circumstances with a speed I could not match.

Using precious tokens, we traveled downtown. The streets were full of children stuffed into snowsuits, parents hopping foot to foot against the cold. He found us a perch atop a fence and we cuddled close, borrowing seasonal spirit from the gathered crowd.

“Look!” He shouted with each new float, pointing out details, flaws, bits of whimsy.

We laughed at the creepy upside-down clowns, boogied to the marching bands and clutched hands in anticipation of the man himself. When Santa finally came, we cheered through chattering teeth, caught up in the shared fairy tale.

After the parade, we pooled our change for hot cocoa and walked through Queen’s Park, teasing squirrels and making up stories about statues. I kissed him a hundred times, wanting to set the moment, make it official with a stamp that said “This we get to keep.”

It took one day for our sugar plum visions to crash up against reality. Sucking on candy canes tossed out by minor celebrities and city politicians, we attended our last appointment at YouthLink. We were aging out of their counseling demographic, something I had experienced before. I cried, always finding easier access to sorrow than he did. He ground his teeth and flipped through newspapers in the waiting room. He zoned in on the Help Wanted and For Rent sections, assuring me that one of us would find work soon.

Out of ideas and seeking some extension of the previous day’s fantasy, I opened one of my notebooks to a blank page. He read over my shoulder as I wrote.

i_am_santa_clausDear Mr. Santa Claus,

My name is Heather. I’m not a kid, but I do have something I want. My boyfriend and I are homeless right now, so I’m writing to ask for a home for Christmas.

I figure, if it can work for the kid in Miracle on 34th Street, it can work for me.

Merry Christmas.

We asked the receptionist, a sympathetic woman with a cigarette-stained laugh and seasonal nail art, for an envelope and stamp.

“I hope you get what you asked for.” She patted my hand.

We walked back to Alex and Zeus’ apartment, dropping the letter in a mailbox on the way.

It was Alex, who had patiently accepted our intrusion on his orderly life, who helped me find a job. When his work was looking for data entry clerks, he made sure I was one of the first people interviewed. Though my pay was small, it was enough for us to start looking for an apartment.

Our Christmas day was spent as our summer had been, wandering the PATH system, enjoying empty shops still lit up for the holidays. The sparkle had outlasted the celebration.

On New Year’s Day, we found a place. It was a basement under a Chinese food restaurant that had roaches and mold and ground level windows that drunken passers-by peed through if they were left open. The buzzer still said Meryn Cadell, proof that I was not the first poet to live there. It was $500 a month. We took it and made it ours.

old-post-office.jpgI opened our mailbox close to Valentine’s Day to find an envelope with a white bearded man on the front. The return postal code was H0 H0 H0. Inside was a standard form letter from Santa Claus, as created by Canada Post. On the back were a few lines, hand-written in blue ink.

I hope you find a home for Christmas. Maybe there’s a service that can help? I am thinking about you and hoping for the best.

Be well,

“Santa”

I showed it to my love, who started to laugh.

“I guess we did get this place right around Christmas, didn’t we?”

But I am a writer and writers know that speculating outcomes to impossible scenarios is something like inspiration. Somewhere out there, a person had written a response and had held on to it until we popped up in the address book. That person had answered our letter, despite the fact that it had no return address.

He grinned like a kid who’d just seen a very convincing mall Santa.

I smiled, imagining a person opening our letter, reading it with compassion and picking up a blue pen.

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Pause

I want go back
To Rexdale and say
They stopped a parade for you
The noise they made for you
The way they stayed for you
Your life matters

by Heather Emme

I’m still in surgical recovery, so posts continue to be brief and scattered. This is the first time I’ve posted one of my twitter poems to #verseday. I felt this was worth repeating. To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

 

Boys on Bikes

(Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)

There is a habit we, as a culture, have of reframing experiences via the male perspective. When a she-identified human is assaulted by a he-identified human, we are trained to ask about her past and his future. What did she do to deserve it? What will it take from him is he’s convicted? We’ve seen this played out vividly in the case of convicted rapist Brock Turner. I’ve never met the fellow, but thanks to the tone employed by some media coverage, I’m now aware of the scholarships he’s lost, the times of his most successful swims and how very, very hard it will be for him to enjoy his life after he was convicted of the crime he committed. His future is the window through which we were allowed to watch this story.

We have also been given the story of the two men who interrupted the assault and held convicted rapist Brock Turner until police arrived.

Despite the fact that, again, this means I’m seeing the story from the male perspective, I want to dwell on this for a bit.

When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted. For the most part, it was just the two of us in the room. But once.

Once someone walked in.

There was a moment. It was dark, my memory tells me. It was dark and maybe she didn’t see my nightgown up around my armpits. Maybe her brain hiccuped, swallowed the whole memory. Maybe there was shock. Shock can do that, right? Shock can make you delete the things that frighten you. I remember that she backed out of the room. She backed out and he left and it was never mentioned. It was dark. It was dark. Of course she didn’t see. She didn’t feel the fear radiating off me like heat from a fire. She didn’t ask why he was in my room late at night. It was dark.

Doing nothing is, like the male perspective, often our default. Anyone whose been on a bus when someone starts loudly and verbally attacking a stranger knows what I mean. We see heads drop. Earbuds go in. Books raised higher against the call to interfere. It’s a weird instinct, but it’s one our species clearly has.

So two men on bikes stopped and halted a crime in progress. A crime that, statistics tell us, isn’t treated like a crime. We wink it away. We rarely test rape kits. We rarely press charges. We rarely see convictions. It’s barely treated like a crime at all. But they stopped despite the overwhelming casual message that what was happening wasn’t a real crime.

There was a moment. It was in church. The head pastor – a man who had, once, in a sermon on forgiveness, talked about how he could imagine no worse crime than rape – told me that I needed to forgive the youth leader who had sexually harassed me while offering me a ride home from church. It was about forgiveness. He had repented and now it was on me to let it go. He didn’t feel the shame radiating off me like heat from a fire. He didn’t ask me what I wanted. It was about forgiveness.

So, you see, we are a bystander species. Doing nothing is our default. We strive for homeostasis and our norm is to close our eyes to sexual assault. I sometimes try to suss out why. I come up with a thousand explanations and reasons. In the end, I land back at: It happens because we let it. It happens because we back out of rooms, we offer forgiveness instead of justice, we mourn for the lost future of rapists.

Two men on bikes did not back away.

I’ll hold on to that.

Gotta Go

This week I spoke at a housing insecurity panel that was part of OPIRG‘s Poverty Injustice Week. I spoke about my my experiences with housing insecurity and homelessness. In honour of that, I’m sharing this poem, unedited, despite its age. I wrote this when I was that homeless teenager, over 20 years ago.

800px-Finch-Fleischer_House_(Monterey,_CA)Gotta Go

Your shutters, like your doors
Match the chairs on your porch
And the trim on your Lincoln Town Car
Your lawn buzz cut
Because grass too long
Like hair too long

Gotta go

House grinning from ear to ear
And down its nose at me

Gotta go

Somewhere I can breathe
Cause a buck
Or two
Or three
Separates you from me

The holes in my boots
Like the ones in my sleeves
Match the ones in the ass of my jeans

And I grin ear to ear
And whisper you near

Follow me

Somewhere you can see
Cause a block
Or two
Or three

Separates you
From me
From my reality.

by (a much younger) Heather Emme

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

Save Al Purdy’s A-Frame. Please.

I am sending this letter today.

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith
Kathleen Wynne
Justin Trudeau

Dear M. Erskine-Smith, Wynne and Trudeau,
I am one of the people you represent. Admittedly, I am one of 107,084, 13.6 million and 35.16 million, respectively, but I am one. I am writing to you to remind you that in Prince Edward County there is a building that needs tending. It once belonged to one of Canada’s dearest poets, Al Purdy.

I wouldn’t write you just to tell you a poet’s home needs care. I understand there are seemingly bigger issues you are faced with every day. I am writing to tell you that Canada’s artists need care and taking care of Al Purdy’s home is taking care of us.

I grew up without much money and, if I am honest, without much poetry. I lived in neighbourhoods where we were more likely to have police visit our schools to warn us of the dangers of gangs, than authors to surprise us with the versatile beauty of words. I think we’d have done better with the latter.

Despite that, I am a poet. I am a poet with another job because most blue-collar poets don’t expect that we’ll ever exist solely off our writing. We think that because we live in Canada and our artists are split in to three categories: Those who struggle, those who struggle and find some modicum of success and those who leave us for the US.

People leave because, if you’re some combination of lucky, engaging, salacious and talented, you can become famous there. They have money and fame, but we have community. To keep artists here, that is what we need to nurture. While I would love to have artist’s retreats like Al Purdy’s A-frame all over Canada, I understand that’s not going to happen. But if we keep a few, we’re telling artists they matter. Not with a star on a sidewalk, but with a real place they can go to and create.

I’m writing this in my own tiny home in East York, a one bedroom bungalow that I am lovingly fixing up. My plan is to take my money I have been saving to add a bathtub (we have a shower, but being rained upon is not the same as soaking, I’m sure you agree) and donate it to the A-frame project. Please consider finding ways to help this project. Please give artists something to work toward. We need it and we appreciate it.

Heather Emme
Minimum-wage museum employee, childcare worker and Poet
(go to alpurdy.ca for more information)

A Small Bit of Good

I made a decision early on that when it came to my writing on this blog, I wasn’t going to ask for money. Partly, I made that decision because I suck at fulfilling obligations and as soon as someone has paid me, I feel obligated.

Don’t worry, I’m not asking for money now.

But I am telling you about somewhere a small part of your money could go that would do a huge amount of good.

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The chicks love him

First, some history: I am a gosh-mama. A gosh-mama is like a godparent for folks who don’t believe in anything (except our mutual ability to do good things.) I am gosh-mama to a wonderful kiddo who I love very much and don’t see nearly enough.

Part of the reason I don’t see him is because his wonderful parents, Nick and Deni, moved out to the sticks to start a homesteading and educational facility.

I love the city. I love being able to stumble out my door and see at least three convenience stores. Nick and Deni wanted something a little different for their brood. They wanted to discover sustainability in a world of waste. They wanted to learn to grow their own, while raising their own. They wanted to reach out to a community and pull it close and help that community’s kids learn about food and sustainability and the ways we were, are and could be as a Canadian society.

It was noble and pretty and, well, they’ve been hit by every possible piece of bad luck one could imagine, from basement flooding to spinal surgery (kid you not) to a neighbour who decided to off their livestock.

img_098111

Apparently not pigeons.

Here’s the thing about Nick and Deni, though. They are more stubborn than all the bad luck in the world. They are more loving than all the fates can chuck at them.

I am cynical as f*ck, but when I’m with these guys, I feel hope. So I’m hoping that maybe you can help.

If you can spare even $5, go to their Go Fund Me page and chip in. If you can’t, share this blog or their Go Fund Me page and hopefully we can help them restore their homestead and grow it to include a whole community of kids who will be able to learn about farming. There are way, way more details of their plan on the page. It’s pretty kick-ass, just like they are.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

I promise to go back to complaining about injustice and moping about crappy life stuff very, very soon.