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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I Posted a Picture

I have 18,000,000 assignments and almost as many work hours, but I will post poems. Because I can. 

Smiley Smile

Smiley Smile

I Posted a Picture

I posted a picture, and in it I smiled
All teeth
With lips pulled back
And eyes wild

An image
A creature
Of vigor and glee
Which all of you wrongly accepted as me

It was not a lie in the strictest of senses
I was
And I could be
If I played with tenses

If science and magic were no longer fighting
If I got a haircut
Or played with the lighting

If doctors were mothers and kisses could cure
Then she could be me
And I could be her.

by Heather Emme

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

NACI and the Knife

Yesterday I posted my straight up gut feelings about the situation at North Albion Collegiate Institute and in Rexdale. I realized, while writing it (over and over) that I had more than one story to tell, more than one idea fighting for precedence in my head. This is the second part of that blog, the part where I tell you about the time, in my first year of high school at NACI, that a knife was pulled on me.

The sense memories tied to this image are overwhelming for me.

The sense memories tied to this image are overwhelming for me.

I was a very awkward ninth grader. Still just under five feet tall, I was also deeply dorky. I was religious and could kindly be described as pudgy. I preferred the imagined world of LM Montgomery to the real world. If I could have escaped on the Starship Enterprise, I would have. I look back at my ninth grade picture and see someone so insecure that I wonder that she even made it through the foreboding front doors. Still, school wasn’t an option, so I went.

In the end, school was something of a haven for me, because it wasn’t my home. I learn in a way that compliments our current school’s system. Even while floundering due to personal challenges, I excelled at school. I didn’t make friends easily, but I was sociable and smart and I always found people to click with.

There were, as one would expect, people I didn’t get on with. One girl – a pretty, girl with perfect skin and teeth and a doting boyfriend, disliked me almost immediately. It wasn’t anything particularly egregious on either of our parts, we just found ourselves thrown into competing roles in shared interests like the newspaper or the steel band. She saw me as a usurper, I saw her as inflexible. We didn’t mesh (her teeth are scribbled out in my year book.)

What would be a mere annoyance in adult life was, not unexpectedly, drama in high school. One day, perhaps in an attempt to impress her, her boyfriend chased me through the school and out the back door. He was holding a knife.

It was genuinely frightening. He was twice my size and he had a razor’s edge personality that could slip from sweet to scary in a hairsbreadth. I ran like my life depended it on it. It may well have.

If one of my friends hadn’t said “He has a knife!” when he was still a good distance from me, if I hadn’t been a pretty fair runner, if he had been angrier or I had been the type to turn and confront rather than run and hide, my story might have ended like the one so recently in the news.

It didn’t. I went home. I didn’t tell anyone (parents or teachers or anyone in authority) what had happened. We avoided each other the rest of the year.

Then the next year, he and I had drama class together, and we became friends. A boy who had chased me with a knife became, while not a close companion, certainly someone I would sit beside on the bus and chat with. I found out that his father was not in his life in a way he wanted. I found out that he was often angry and he hated himself for it. I found out that he and the girl had not lasted, and that he felt like an idiot for chasing me through NACI with a knife.

I found out that he was a person.

This, I think, is the real tragedy of what has happened. There is no chance for the students lost that day (the one who lost his life and the one whose life will never be the same.) One moment that could have ended so many ways ended the worst way imaginable. Now we will never know who those young men could have been. They will be names thrown around when people want tougher laws or more busts. They may be names used to get services brought to a neighbourhood that sorely needs it. Still, they will no longer be just themselves. They are now tied together forever by a horrible second that cannot be undone.