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.

1280px-merry_christmas_1

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On My Back

As I write this, I have my leg through the strap of my backpack. I am in the computer commons at college and, surrounded by my peers of all ages, I am thinking – always just a little – of my bag. If I cannot see it, I must feel it. If it is not attached to me, it must be visually nearby, close enough to grab should an alarm go off or a thief pass by. I accept that I may lose what I have, but I do not accept that I must be passive about it.

This started when I was a teenager and homeless. In my bag was everything I valued. Everything I could not lose – my ID and my writing. I was those two things. Proof I was counted and proof I was not alone, even if words were my companion. Sometimes there was a paperback or some snacks. Sometimes extra clothes or a some change I’d scraped together. Always at least one scrap of paper with phone numbers of people I might call if things got worse (I did not contemplate how they could get worse.)

When I was homeless as a young adult, this time with my love, we both carried bags. We could share the burden. Still, I did not put it down. I clipped it to myself with a carabiner in case I should drowse off (which I almost never did.) Vigilance was my byword.

Still, almost 20 years on, I am attached to my bag. I hold it like a child, arms wrapped tight around it when I take the bus to school. It is both shield and storage. I hide treats in its deep pockets and reward myself for never letting go.

If you wonder how seriously I take it, I have left shops rather than surrender my bag. At friend’s parties, with strangers I don’t know, I tuck it safe, hidden away under a bed or in a closet. Even then, I wonder if it’s been disturbed, my black mesh holder of my identity and my ideas.

“For the test,” the teacher said, “you must all leave your bags at the front of the room.”

I had planned for it. I sat near the front. I sat where I could see it, should a moment of panic hit.

I put it down and waited, chewing painted nails. Then the test was passed out and I read the first question (something about library cataloguing that will likely not interest you.)

An hour later, the test was done. The test was done and not once had I looked to make sure my bag was still there. Panicked, I glanced to make sure it was where I had left it.

It was.

I scooped it up and left the classroom.

I wondered why this place, this event, could make me forget my fears. Was it because I was so immersed in the subject, I lost myself for just a moment? It was a dangerous and heady idea. I considered, though, that it might be something more. Maybe, as I learn this trade, my internal sense of value is shifting. Maybe I’m not just things in a bag that can be taken from me. I am ideas and thoughts and other abstractions that can not be housed in a bag on my back. I am a person who stores value in my home and the people I love and the ways I contribute.

I think of Rita Mae Brown who said in “Six of One”:

“Put your money in your head, that way no one can take it from you.”

There’s some truth in that. As I disperse my value out I find I am less attached to some things, less afraid of losing them.

I still sit with my leg through my bag, but I do it knowing that sometimes, in the right times, I may forget.

 

Thanks For The Ride

I’m going to college. It’s a done deal. Come September, I will be matriculating in the grand halls of Seneca College. How do I feel?

I’m grateful.

I’m grateful to the people who have helped out on my GoFundMe to raise my bus fare to get to school. I will be able to buy almost a full year of transit passes, thanks to the generosity of my friends and family and even a few folks I’ve never met. I haven’t the words.

It was my husband who recently offered insight in to why, specifically, I was worried about making it to classes, about affording transit, above anything else. As soon as he pointed it out, I felt almost doltish. How had I not seen it?

In a previous blog, I talked about my experiences with high school. What I didn’t talk about was why I didn’t graduate after my move to the group home.

I couldn’t afford transit.

It’s so obvious in retrospect. It was the mid nineties. I was in my last year of high school. I had taken my courses. I had done the work. We were coming up on exam time. Then a spot in my group home opened up and after a year, I was on top of the waiting list. I was moved half way across the city. I managed to continue in school for a while, then I ran out of money.

It was a transitional group home, which meant no live-in matron, no on-call care and no financial assistance. We were expected to work and pay rent. If I had been more resourceful, perhaps I would have figured out a way to do it all. But I had been running on leftover steam for quite a few years and, surrounded by my boxes of possessions, feeling absolutely alone, I gave up. Missing my exams because I couldn’t afford the fare? That was like a death knell. I’d gone to five high schools, survived abuse, homelessness, my neurodivergent brain, but it was a few dollars for the subway that did me in. I sat on my boxes and sobbed. I had no fight left. I upped my hours to full time and got to the business of being an adult.

20+ years later, when the opportunity came to go to college, all those old doubts resurfaced. Every exhausting fear came creeping back. Every negative inner whisper. Every worst case scenario

So I asked for help.

And you helped.

All of you helped me save up my bus fare so, no matter what, I’ll never be trapped with no way to get to my classes.

And in exciting news, Times Change Women’s Employment Centre helped me get a bursary to assist with my tuition. I can’t thank them enough. I went in looking for back to work tips, and instead they helped me find my way to go back to school.

I told my husband, the day my bursary came through, “I planned for every contingency, EXCEPT this all working out.”

Dudes – it’s all working out. I’m going to school. I’m really doing it. And everyone who has been there for me through rough times and great times, everyone who kicked a few bucks to my transit fund, everyone who send me a cheesy Facebook boost when I was blue, everyone who let me volunteer in their spaces to learn skills, everyone who read my work and told me my ideas were valuable – you all deserve a bigger THANK YOU than I can convey.

I wish I could go back to the girl crying on the boxes and say, “It’s not over. It’s just delayed. You’re going to school. You’ll get there. And you’ll do it with the help of your friends.”

I say thank you. That girl says thank you. Thank you with all my heart.

In Christie Pits

The wading pool is emptied out
The trees have left their leaves about
You wear no coat, but breathe a cloud
In puffs that float, above the crowd
At play in Christie Pits

Last night the swings were flipped around
You try to reach them from the ground
Your sister climbs to set them back
While father mimes a heart attack
Brought on at Christie Pits

You snack on fruit and carrot sticks
On cans of pop and peanut mix
You heed the words from all the mums
To feed the birds but not the bums
Who sleep in Christie Pits

The swing is swung, the slide is slid
The climbers climbed, the rides all rid
It’s time to go, you beg to stay
A second NO! You turn and say
Goodbye to Christie Pits

by Heather Emme

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

 

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.

The Maelstrom of the Broken-hearted Teen

There is a video circulating of a school police officer (why? why is this a thing?) tearing a young woman out of her desk.

We are horrified (I hope.) Some of the old standbys have been dragged out. What happened before? What did she do to deserve it?

I can not even care.

The story comes out, in bits and pieces, the way things do on the internet. It’s like putting together a puzzle without the box. It won’t make sense until all the pieces are fitted into place.

The newest pieces, though, broke my heart.

She is in care.

As and adult, I look around at my life. I see my home, my love, my job, my stability. I imagine it all gone. If the worst thing I were to do is be on my phone at an inopportune time? That’s entirely reasonable.

My empathy runs over.

My family sent me away. They cut me out. I ended up in care. I lived in a group home with 4 other girls.

I fell completely apart. I was self destructive. I was angry. I was probably pretty fucking frustrating. Because I was vulnerable, I was re-victimized by people who saw my instability as opportunity.

I may have looked defiant or even completely normal (amazingly few folks knew when I was homeless) but I was not.

I was a maelstrom and I deserved to be.

I am glad there were no police officers in my school. I appreciate that the colour of my skin kept me safer. I know that teachers who showed compassion rather than strict adherence to structures not build for broken-hearted teens saved me a similar fate.

I worry for her. I worry because the piling on of tragedy can set a pattern in motion that is hard to pull out of. I worry because she is experiencing in public what I was fortunate enough to experience in private. I worry because we treat people’s lives like fiction. This is not fiction. It is not okay. It is her reality and that reality is more common than you know.

Dear broken-hearted teens – I am sorry. I am sorry we treat you like anything less than a human in need. I am sorry we do not have empathy, that we do not have resources, that we do not see you.

I am so, so sorry.

First Pride (Written in 2010)

I didn’t graduate from High School. I made it to my last year – heck, I made it through my last year. Then it happened. Again.

My parent’s kicked me out. You might think my parents kicked me out because I’m bisexual, but that’s pretty unlikely. A teenager, I had never had consensual sex, and my religiously obsessed mother had made it quite clear that the entire topic was taboo. Everything in my home was taboo. Speaking, thinking, learning, challenging, all taboo. My world was so small and tightly controlled, that as I grew it choked me. I had fought against it, poorly, using whatever words I could fit there in with me. And in response, they kicked me out.

Homeless is too broad a word for so many unique circumstances. Being homeless is like having a home, in that no one else’s home is ever exactly like yours. No one else’s homelessness was exactly like mine either. There were tears. Nose streaming, hollow-chested, wailing-so-I-thought-I-was-dying tears. And hunger. The kind of hunger that makes you want to steal or scream or beg until your stomach is full and your mind is empty. But mostly there was loneliness. The loneliness of being thrown away. The loneliness that changes the tone of the world until everything is grey and grey and only grey. There were other words too, like cold and scared and desolate, words that had burst from the box with me when I was sent away.

Even through homelessness, I went to my last year of high school. I had the highest marks in all three of my semestered courses. I still have the letters that say so. I save them like old currency, worthless except as memories.

Then it all fell down, which hurt more than I expected, being so close to the ground already. Into the system I went; into the group home. Away from my last chance at school and those letters were empty, robbed of their value so quickly.

In the group home there were more fights, but these ones were fair. We were all of us ripped from our boxes and we celebrated our freedom by stomping on each other and sharing our solace with hugs and wine coolers and suicide stories.

“This is my friend.” They had the same name. My housemate and her friend. They looked so different. One dark and feminine and one like a teenaged boy, with soft girl eyes. I played with her hair and she let me cut it. She let me kiss her neck. I would have wondered what it meant about me, if the rules hadn’t been obliterated. Instead I knew she felt good. I needed good. She gave it a name, our connection. The name sounded far prettier coming from her lips than those of the angry ministers I’d heard in my childhood. I decided I liked the way she said it better. I liked her. I liked the way she yelled at boys who gave us funny looks. I liked the way she punched walls when walls dared to get too close to me. Then she said another word.

Pride. She couldn’t go to Pride. She was sad. I was intrigued. So I boarded a subway and rode, not sure what to expect. The train rumbled and squeaked around the corners and newspapers littered the floor. This was normal. This was real life. I heard the stop announced and more than half the train stood with me.

That’s when I knew.

We got off together and crushed onto the escalator in colours and colours and colours.

We exited the station into sunlight and a million people. A million people. And I was not lonely or hungry or desolate or cold or scared. Still, there were tears. Small and growing, happy-thrilling tears. There was a place where I made sense. Where I was not a mistake or a sinner or a girl built backwards. I was in the music and the colours and sun that never failed. I danced until my shoes fell apart and then danced barefoot, meeting friends that I still know twenty years on.

I did not finish high school that year. But I had my graduation.