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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Henry Rollins, Rape and the End of the World

Thanks to my brother-in-law’s wild life touring with the Trews, he wasn’t able to use his fifth row tickets to see Henry Rollins‘ spoken word performance at the Music Hall. My love and I were happy to step up and take one for the team, putting the tickets to good use.

I’ll start with a confession. I am NOT punk rock. Not even a little. I don’t gel with the music and I’m not edgy. I apparently didn’t get the dress code memo that black t-shirts were the required uniform.  I wore a horned Loki sweater to the event. But my love has listened to Rollins’ spoken word albums since we met over 20 years ago and Rollins’ books of poetry and performances in works like He Never Died speak to me on a weirdly personal level.

IMG_2191.JPGStill, I had never seen him live and I’d never listened to his bands. I expected I’d be going on a night that my love really enjoyed and his joy would make the night wonderful. After some waiting, Rollins took the stage. He wrapped the mic cord around his hand, took a deep breath, and spoke like a machine gun on auto-load for two hours and twenty five minutes.

Here’s the thing about me. I’m old. I mean, I’m not Pop’s Soda Shoppe old, but I remember when plaid was king and orange and brown were considered a reasonable colour scheme for a living room. While I talk about my trauma on my blog, for the most part I go through the world like a normal human being. I smile at jokes. I read books on the bus. I watch cheesy movies. I pass for normal. Unless you speak to me and I’m open about it, nothing about me screams ABUSE AND RAPE SURVIVOR. Yes I have PTSD, but generally I’m pretty good at keeping my symptoms to myself. I camouflage. I blend.

Still, as Rollins progressed through his talk, it was like he was dancing on every one of my triggers. He talked about his friend RuPaul. Weirdly, RuPaul’s autobiography was the first book I bought when considering that I might be queer. He talked about global warming and the end of the world. He talked about how music gave him proxy parents, musicians who spoke to him in ways his own parents couldn’t, when he needed to be understood. He talked about being the weird, spazzy kid whose brain worked differently than other people’s. He even talked about misogyny, homophobia and racism, problems that hit close to my heart – an organ I don’t always protect like I should.

So yeah. I cried a few times as he raced through his anecdotes. I was watching a dude at the front of the room be honest and beautiful and real and it tore me up. Here was a guy at almost all the intersections of privilege, choosing to challenge every advantage he had and to be naked in the face of scorn. I dug it.

When he talked about his discovery of punk, I found a place where our paths diverged.He was looking for music that spoke to the anger he felt, his base emotion being rage at the world around him. When I discovered music, I didn’t go that way. Rage wasn’t a colour in my palette. Anger wasn’t an emotion I had permission to feel. So instead, I reached for sorrow. I gravitated to blues and folk, to R&B and soul. In tunes about lost loves and do-wrong partners, I found my companions. Sure, their loss was of a different flavour to mine, but it still spoke of heartache and destruction. I remember the first time I heard Joplin’s Cry Baby. Hell, I knew it was a sin, but I loved the way she wept in tune. I loved the way she bellowed pain. Here was my avatar.

As I aged, I discovered Janis Ian and Ma Rainey and Odetta and Joan Armatrading and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Damn, but those women could wail. Rather than anger, I immersed myself in sorrow and I survived.

img_2192Near the end of Rollins’ set, he told a story about a young woman who waited outside one of his shows, seeking an autograph. As a storyteller, he told her story. He talked about her rape. He talked about her experience with not being believed, about how her rapist was allowed to share space with her – to smile at her – because she was not believed. By this point, I was weeping silently. It would not do to weep loudly or burn the feeling down. He talked about her suicide attempts and her cutting. He talked about her attachment to his music, how it gave her more of a voice for her anger.

That’s when, despite it all, I felt hope. She wasn’t like me, attaching meaning to the blues. She saw her reality in a genre that felt anger and expressed it. She had found a connection to a genre that demanded that anger be seen, acknowledged and felt.

She raged.

I was shaking.

Rollins ended his set and left the stage. All my nerves were activated, all my sense peaked. I knew I couldn’t push my way through a crowd, a press of bodies, to get to an exit. Still, I sing the blues. I do not rage. I sat and waited for the crowd to pass.

Then a security guard, a uniformed man standing a good foot over me, came over and tried to hurry me up. As always, words caught in my throat and ideas stammered through my head like unruly passengers. I needed to wait until the crowd cleared. After all that exploration, I couldn’t leave through a crowd. Not yet. He raised his voice, impatient with what I’m sure he saw as my impertinence, an accusation a woman doesn’t escape until she meets soil and headstone. I managed words, as the crowd waiting for the VIP Q&A started to gawk at the scene developing by them.

“If you give me a moment, I can explain. Just come over here.”

I knew he wouldn’t understand unless I explained. Still, 100 strangers didn’t need to know my life. For me, electing to tell my story only when I wanted had helped me find my voice. Being cornered into it didn’t appeal.

The guard would have none of it. He was brisk. He had a job to do. I was in the way. Still, I waited. I took breaths. I waited and eventually I left.

I thought about what Rollins had told the woman who had come to his show. He had asked her if people had been telling her, of her rape experience, that it would pass. Of course, they had. Rollins had explained to her that this was probably not the case. It would live inside her, like an energy. It wouldn’t pass. It rarely does. But it was an energy she could harness. As I walked home, I thought about this. I thought about the energy that, after all this time, still takes up space in my body. It wearies me. It has changed the lens through which I see the world. I thought about the space it occupies and the shockwaves I still feel, decades later, when a man on stage talks about abuse and rape and falling apart.

I know he’s right. It hasn’t gone away, no matter what people promised. It’s here inside me. So I do what I can. I describe it. I examine it. I am honest with it and about it. I write even if no one reads. I write because it spreads the energy out. I write because I can.

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.

Re-Schooled

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Kindergarten

I’m going back to school. That’s it. It’s happening. No matter how big a challenge the next two years are, I’m going back to school. Specifically, I’m taking a Library and Information Technician program. I’m cautiously jazzed about this. Cautious because it’s a big investment of time and money and – if I’m being honest – because no dream that a person has had for 30 years can ever be as good as what they’ve imagined. Jazzed because holy damn, I’m going to school!

 

I understand that for a lot of people, school was hard. But for me, it was my oasis. Every day, from 8:30 to 3:30, I was in my element: a place where books and art and ideas were valuable and questioning things was often encouraged.

If I’m being honest, it was also a place I was safe. It was my escape and I loved it, even when it was harsh or I had trouble with other kids or I got something less that an 80.

I remember clearly every teacher I’ve had, starting with Ms. Crouch in kindergarten all the way up to Mr. Piercey, who taught me Grade 12 English online after I returned to high school recently.

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Grade Two

To be clear, I didn’t leave school because I wanted to. The year I left, I had obtained the highest mark in all three of my courses for that semester. I still have the letters of congratulations from the principal. I was thinking about taking English in University and my grades meant that despite my poverty, I had a chance at making it. But just before exams, my abuser found out that I had “told” what had happened to me. I ran within minutes of finding out he knew, taking with me just what I could carry. His threats were a stronger motivator than any hope I had.

 

I still managed to attend most of my classes, while crashing on the couches of friends or staying up all night and catching sleep at school or on the subway. Then a spot opened up in a transitional group home. Since I had nowhere else to go, I took it, but that meant moving outside of my school district and starting again (not for the first time) in a new space with new challenges. As soon as I was out of immediate danger, I fell apart. I was bowled over by my own emotional combustion.

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Grade 8

I wonder if I could have fought it out then – but I just can’t look at back at the person I was and fault her for taking a job and focusing on surviving.

 

Since then, I’ve tried to go back to school a few times, with varying success. There was always something else that needed my focus, and that’s okay. That’s how life is. But a few years back I caught a bug that totaled my system. One day I had a seizure and, internally, I thought – oh, this is it, the end of my life. I realized that I was happy, in that moment. Happy with my love and home and the family and circle of friends I had built. I realized that I only had one regret and that was not finishing school.

So almost immediately, I started completing high school using TDSB e-Learning courses. They are fabulous, by the way, if you’re thinking about going back. I found that school was still very much in my blood. In my first course, the aforementioned English with Mr. Piercey, I received my first 100%. In all my courses, I never once dipped below a 98%. It’s something I’m proud of, as I was working and healing that whole time.

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Grade 12, the second time around.

More than that, though, I loved it. That passion to share and learn, to strive to communicate and to listen, it felt like a homecoming, even if it was a virtual one.

 

That brings us to December of last year when I was laid off from work and injured myself pretty badly all in a few short days. In the time since then, two big things have happened: I had surgery, which I’m still recovering from (but quite well, thanks!) and I applied to go to college to become a Librarian!

If you know me, you know books are my heart (well, books and my love Graeme.) You know that with my years of work with kids and work with words, I’m suited to do this gig. But even more than that, it will be the final stage in my return to school.

I’m applying for some bursaries and assistance, but even with that, it’s going to be a massive cost. We will become a one income family and that’s going to be a shock to the system, for sure. But we will make it work, no matter what. I need to see that piece of paper with my name on it. Need need.

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College!

We’ve set up a GoFundMe so folks can help if they’d like. We’re asking only insofar as you have it to give, because we realize that most of us are in a tight place right now. Give what you can, if you can and if you want to. And know that no matter what, you’ve all helped me get to this place and I am so, so grateful.

My plan is to post videos and updates as I go, so you can see what you’ve helped accomplish.

Thank you all. So much.
See you in September!

Heather

 

 

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.

 

Out

I came out
The station door
Church and Wellesley
Ninety-Four
Silent, shy
I heard a roar
It shook the floor
A million people
Maybe more

And more than that
Yes, more than that
Were colours
Like a Sunday hat
Colours like a rainbow, earthed
And planted, sewn
And watered, grown
So many bodies
Like my own

And I was home

by Heather Emme

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