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.

 

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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.

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.

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.

ACE: In The Whole

I am fortunate to have a circle of friends that is full of teachers, both in the literal sense (they work in schools) and in the less-than-literal sense (they are smarter than me and know things they can teach me.) One of the benefits of being surrounded by smart humans who understand how we learn and develop throughout childhood, is that I am often abreast of changes to how we look at learning and growth.

A few months ago, my dear friend Laurie posted an NPR article about the Adverse Childhood Experience study (ACE.) Initially I skimmed it and found the whole thing intriguing. However I was working with a PTSD specialist, so I didn’t spend too long dwelling on new ideas.

When my work with my specialist went spectacularly south, I started to think on the ACE study again. I re-read the article. Finally, I took the quiz.

The quiz asks 10 questions, each relating to a childhood experience that has been demonstrably shown to increase chances of certain behaviours, illnesses and outcomes. The more of these questions to which you answer yes, the more likely you are to be suffering after-effects of your trauma. It should be noted that there are limitations to the questions. There are no questions that deal with witnessing acts of violence or war. There are no questions about peer bullying. There are no questions about peer rape. The focus is solely on family dynamic.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that my number was high. So high that half my score was the highest level they were noting. I wasn’t shocked. It was not news to me.

This graphic that accompanied it gave me pause:

ace_pyramid_wotext.127135420_std.gifThat’s a helluva pyramid.

Still, drastic graphics aside, the most useful moment of clarity  was not in the content. For once, it was in the comments.

Most people commenting fell into the lower numbers. A few, like my love, were zeros. A spattering were ones, twos, threes.

A very small number of commenters, like me, fell into the high numbers. Our stories, our tone, were different. There was a desperation, a falling down into ourselves, that seemed to mark us as just too far beyond what is well and normal. There was a lot of talk of addiction, job loss, prison time. We were the destroyed minority.

Still, I am a person with perpetual – I wouldn’t say hope – stubbornness? I haven’t been able to successfully stop trying. I don’t want to. I still believe I deserve to be happy.

But.

But I’m done comparing my successes and challenges to the ones and twos. Of course I’m not where they are. I didn’t start where they did. Maybe my executive functioning is poor, but I keep going. I make lists and set reminders and plan days in advance and often fall apart at the last minute, but I keep doing it. I keep making lists. I keep making plans. I keep trying.

But I’m not a two. I’m not a zero. I’m me. I’m the kind of person that the non-existent fates decided should get pummelled with most of the hammers.

With that in mind, I think I’m doing pretty damn good, just being 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.

I Am A Woman Who Counts Change

I wrote this poem just last week. I usually let things percolate, then write them, then edit them, then leave them in a box for a few years, then hate them and never show them to anyone. This is…not that.

Jeton coin, Nuremberg, 1553

Jeton coin, Nuremberg, 1553

I Am A Woman Who Counts Change

I am a woman who counts change
Touching coins
A step between a hundred hands
I add it up
I make the numbers match
Forty, fifty
Forty, fifty
Twenty-five
And twenty five
I roll unroll
And clink, clink, count
Value speed
And numbers clean
The way a younger, stronger me
Valued poetry

by Heather Emme

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