Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Talent For Me

It might just be the most romantic and intimate thing ever said to me. It’s a statement of depth and wisdom that speaks to the complexities of relationship, the requirements for making one work, and that hints at the challenges of time. And, as a writer with a special appreciation for a well turned phrase, I knew immediately that I’d never express it any better than she had.

The subject was us, the relationship between my woman and I. And the speaker was that woman, Marzena, whom I call Ponczka. She said to me one day, as we were wondering at how fresh, alive and rich our relationship felt, after several years together, “You have a talent for me.”

Her words had the immediate ring of truth – that we both have a talent for each other. Because it isn’t that we’re successful because of any mastery over abstract skills or character traits, like honesty, selflessness or a capacity for love. It’s rather that we ‘fit’. There is a compatibility between us that is so strong that we succeed with one another when we are most ourselves. I’ve said something to her that relates to her beautiful summing up, but is much less elegant, that while I know she isn’t perfect, she’s perfect for me. So much is about how we match and compliment each other.

But talent is more than fitting. To be an instrument for generating life, a talent has to be developed. And we’ve both recognized that our talent for one another has been developed through our previous relationships, through our disappointments, through all our absorbing of the realities of life.

We’ve learned, for example, to let small grievances go, as well as the judgement and irritation of unmet expectations. We’ve learned that giving is its own reward, to be appreciated for our own willingness to give, rather than held hostage for appreciation and thanks that may not always come, at least not in the quantity and manner we expect. We’ve learned to accept one another for who we are – and that the difficult things we present to one another are all part of a package. And one of the most potent aspects of our talent – and one we have lots of occasion to laugh about – is that we know what to take seriously in one another’s complaints, demands and declarations, and what to ignore. Well, perhaps not ignore, but...not take so seriously. And it’s not always a matter of the what, often it’s merely about the when or the how of something said or done. After all, part of the blessing of an intimate relationship is the freedom to occasionally mis-speak or mis-behave, even to mis-feel. It’s a freedom of being taken for more than you present at the moment, the grace of being taken for the broader self you are, known and unknown.

I increasingly recognize that because of Ponczka’s talent for me I am able to grow and stretch beyond what I already am, beyond what I already know of myself. Her talent for me is an expression of love and acceptance. It creates a safe, home space, a kind of sanctuary. And the more solid it is, the more I can safely explore, the more I can look outward, trusting that foundation I move from. It’s why I can be such a child with her, and she with me. It’s not taking for granted, but close to that. The difference is in seeing, knowing and acknowledging what’s there, rather than, well...taking for granted.

A talent for me. Yes, recognizing small distinctions, being sensitive to time, having patience to know, to wait, to listen, and a giving quality that is a constant reward to itself. No, I’ll never express it any better than that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Nothing to Show

Today I learned of the death of the first of my clients I ever housed through the Streets to Homes program. He was in his mid-twenties and died of an overdose. Adrian (I’ve changed all names here, for the usual reasons) was a kid engaged in an intense battle with his addictions. It was an all-consuming battle, but I can’t truly describe it as a battle ‘against’ his addictions. At times, it was clearly his sobriety that was the enemy. At other times, it seemed it was he himself he was determined to undo. Though the battle seemed to be on-going, and the focus of most of his waking moments, the battle lines were never very clearly drawn. I imagine that his was a battle like many that occur in wars, once romance and patriotism and the veneer of order are peeled away – a confusing horror of weapons wielded in anger but without aim, of blind violence against whatever person or object is near, of rape and vengeance seized upon with an unreigned appetite whenever the opportunity presents itself.
When Adrian was on the street, before he was housed and making some tentative steps toward recovery, while he was still sleeping in parking garages and on top of grates in the downtown core, he was the youngest in a crowd of homeless men who were all locked in debilitating struggles with alcohol and drugs and who formed a loose yet cohesive community. There was Ted, a man in his mid-forties who had himself once been a social worker. Ted also had a claim as the “youngest” of the crowd, in the sense that he had the least direct experience of the streets, having only become homeless a few months before. He was the centre of the group, the one around whom the others congregated, partly because of his age, because of his education, and possibly because his having once been a worker himself testified to the arbitrariness of the catastrophe that had put each of them on the street. But it also had a lot to do with his calm and easy spirit, and his way of pulling the guys into moving the same way, instead of against each another. There was Bernie, in his thirties, who proudly and ardently refused all help from workers, but who loved to welcome and talk with us all the same. There was Donnie, living half the time with the grate crowd and the rest of his time with a mentally and emotionally fragile girlfriend he shared a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with. In all, there were about ten regulars and hangers-on, about half of them Caucasian and the other half Native, sharing their booze and sleeping space on the grate, caring for one or two dogs, supporting one another through their arrests, visits to emergency rooms and stays in detox when the lifestyle became too intense to bear.
At any given time, two or three of them were strongly motivated to work at getting housing, but perhaps the most serious of their challenges was staying focused and sober long enough to move forward. And one of the most impressive and moving aspects of this community was how, to a man, they alternately supported and pressured Adrian, the youngest, and Ted, the newest of their number, to make the necessary changes to escape the street. This concern was masked in bravado at times, and in the claim that these two were less strong, fit or ready for the harshness of the streets, while they themselves could stand it awhile longer. They had already survived it for years, after all. But beneath the show of deference and concern, one could usually glimpse the fear, that maybe they’d withstood the streets for too long to ever break free. Adrian could be saved because he was still so young, and because his father still came looking for him, sitting with hims in coffee shops and going along on appointments at the OW office, visiting him in Detox and going with him to see the ruined and smelly rooms his benefits might afford, even offering him inducements to try getting clean one more time. Ted might be saved because he’d once had a substantial success in the world, and not in the too-distant past. And he had a wife who hadn't given up and wanted to be with him. And he had a dog, and what a friend a blessing and dog is when you live on the street. Maybe he could make it again.
And in fact, two years further on, Ted has made leaps. He’s been housed for over a year now. He’s reconnected with family. He’s even looking into university, to work at completing a degree. He tried making the occasional visit to the grate, “for old times”, and to reconnect with those who’d kept him alive and going when he didn’t always feel he could himself. But every time he did so, he wound up on a binge, wasted, blacked out, maybe arrested. So he finally stopped going back there. He’s learned to keep his eyes directed forward.
But Adrian didn’t make it. The last I heard of him before today was from Donnie, now housed himself, no longer with the girlfriend, working part-time, but still on the street with the guys from time to time. He told me that Adrian still came around too much, still used indiscriminately, both alcohol and whatever else was put in front of him. And now he’s gone.
Adrian isn’t the only one of my clients to die an untimely death, directly related to street life. There’ve been a few. But learning of his death today really struck me. It brought to mind the early mornings when I’d find him along the sidewalk, cold and shaking violently from early withdrawal, panning for a few dollars so he could make a trip to the beer store when it opened, to start his day right. He’d acknowledge the pain, but would then laugh it off. He’d tell me he knew what he was doing, and that he’d kick all of this. He knew how to. He’d done if before and would do it again, from will power and from the smarts he knew he had. He just wasn’t ready yet. Why pretend he was. The day would come. We’d all see.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Mayoralty

The votes are in. Ford will be the next mayor of Toronto. I'm not happy with the result, but - as is always the case in free and fair elections - the people's choice has prevailed.

As was the case when the electorate of my homeland elected George Bush - not once, but twice! - it's a bit jarring to me that my fellow citizens could make such an obviously bad choice. But, as then, I'm forced to recognize that intelligent and well-meaning people can disagree. Not everyone who voted for Ford, or for Bush, is an idiot or a person of no moral character. Good people have made their choice - totally contradictory to my own - based on their own assessment of what will make a good leader, a wise approach to government, and ultimately, a better city to live in.

But I still have my criticisms. And my criticism is aimed more at the electorate than at the elected.

We, the electorate, continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated, by grossly distorted misrepresentations of what candidates have done and what they have intended. We tolerate superficial and uncritical reportage by the media, and the often arbitrary determination by that same media as to which candidates deserve our attention.

And, we allow ourselves to be manipulated via our fears more often than our dreams. We don't hold politicians and candidates to the standards that we expect of ourselves and those we interact with, when it comes to honest dealing and communication, to compromise, to a willingness to give credit where credit is due, and to evaluating and criticizing honestly and with integrity.

If we had a better informed and more responsible electorate, we'd have a higher quality candidate. But we don't credit what a truly difficult job it is to work in government, to negotiate and debate issues among those holding widely differing opinions, interests and values. We create our politicians, by rewarding them and penalizing them as we do,with our votes and our indifference.

This week, I found myself buying into a slogan of a particular campaign. I voted for Pantalone, though it was very clear he wouldn't win, based substantially on his call on voters to act not merely to keep a feared candidate from winning, but to support values and platforms we actually support and believe in.

Now that the campaign is done, and there exists the real possibility of city government turning in directions I cannot support, I have to challenge myself on how to be an involved and contributing citizen in opposition. How does one support the broader aims of well-functioning government and respect for majority rule, while still holding to principles that point to different programs and policies?

It's at least as difficult and important a job being a responsible citizen as it is being a responsible elected official.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Land of the No-Look Pass

One of the very few things I dislike about my adopted city is that people are so turned inward, and will hardly interact with a stranger in public places. I’ve come to accept that to most of the practitioners of the “No-Look Pass”, this is perfectly normal, healthy, respectful and intelligent behaviour. They really THINK that.

Me – I view it as pretty sad that people walk right by other people and don’t acknowledge the encounter with another intelligent, sentient, human being. Even if, in fact, they haven’t encountered another intelligent, sentient, human being. The potential at least exists.

I guess it's a matter of what I grew up accustomed to. In most of the many cities and towns I’ve lived in, the way has been to acknowledge others in some way. No, not everyone does so, and those who do, don’t acknowledge every single human being they glimpse or pass. That would be impossibly inefficient. It would keep you from living. So people in very crowded places – take New York City – develop shortcuts.

New Yorkers are incredibly interactive in public. They check each other out. They glance, peek, stare, pan, scan, look you up and down, sometimes with a sneer or a nod or a wink or a glare, or a dare. New Yorkers see you, and you know you’ve been seen. There’s a bit of a verbal thing going on too. New Yorkers will blurt, snap, bark, yap and curse at you all day long. It often feels unfriendly. Mostly it isn’t. There’s just not a lot of time for niceties, and people have to be thick skinned, and so, its short and sweet. Snap, crackle and pop. But you always feel acknowledged in New York.

It’s not the warmest kind of acknowledgement, true. Doesn’t necessarily make you feel welcome. But why do you need to be welcomed? You’re here, ain’t cha? Fuckin’ center of the whole goddamn universe! What else do you want?

You want somebody to make you feel good? Welcome you to your stay among really nice, smart, well educated, progressive people, who are all into sharing and generosity and giving up their seat on Metro? You need to go to Seattle. You can hardly walk past anyone in Seattle without them wishing you a good day and smiling at you. If this is new behaviour for you, it may cause you to frantically go through your mental roll-o-dex, trying to figure out why you’re drawing a total blank on this person who obviously knows you from way back, and there’s no way you shouldn’t know their name. But no, it’s not that at all. Seattlites, who are hardly ever from Seattle, by the way, feel like this is how you should treat everyone. They are unfailingly polite. Lots of smiles and nods, please and thanks.

And in Raleigh, North Carolina, they go beyond polite, and are downright friendly to strangers. You stand in a line, or ride up in an elevator with somebody, you’re liable to have a dinner invitation or to have joined a bowling league by the time you negotiate the trip.

It’s not like I’m a social dynamo, myself. I’m on the quiet, keep-it-to-myself side. But I can nod and smile and say “Hey” alright, and I like to do so. Living here, it’s mostly been squashed out of me. Because, yes, I’m shaped by my social environment. It’s harder to give a generous smile to strangers here. There’s the whole cultural expectation you’re up against, the lack of response, the deafening silence in those elevators, the stiffening of bodies, the intake of breath. People don’t take the openness and friendliness so well here. They probably handle it better when they’re in New York or Seattle – some may even get into the spirit of the place, and open up themselves.

But In Toronto, for the greater part, it seems that people are trying to avoid noticing each other. Hardly anybody nods, says hello, smiles or anything else. Casual greetings hardly ever happen, and are ignored when received. Even people who see one another all the time, at the same bus stop, or in line at the grocery, are extremely slow to breach the barrier of not having ever been introduced. And it’s not that people exchange that shy glance that says, “Hi. I see you over there, and I know we’ve seen each other, but hey, we don’t have to push it and actually speak yet.... Maybe next time.” No, here in Toronto, it’s more often a reaction that says: “I refuse to have it even appear that my eyes react normally to a large body entering my field of vision.” People walk right by one another on Toronto streets without so much of a flicker of awareness. It’s Magic Johnson’s No Look Pass” perfected. And it’s equally deceptive and as potentially devastating.

It isn’t that Torontonians are genuinely cold. We just seem to require an excuse to reach beyond ourselves and connect. When there’s a reason, a duty, it’s reassuring how often people come through. Like today, when I dropped my eyeglasses in the street, and two separate individuals called my attention to it. Or last week, when a concerned person started up a conversation about a homeless man who’d spoken to both of us. Not always, though. I was once witness to part of a sequence in which a man had a bladder failure and accidently urinated on a streetcar seat. He fled the crowded streetcar, shortly after which another passenger took the seat. When another seat opened up, the passenger who had just sat down on a urine-soaked seat, simply got up and took a second seat. He, like the original urinator, mentioned nothing about the hazard and stood by while a third person sat in this same seat. There are several other cities – some already mentioned – in which I can’t imagine this happening in near total silence among passengers, who were mostly content to act as though totally unaware of what was transpiring.

There’s a deep timidity in this city that keeps us more disconnected than we might be. In some ways, I expect that the broad sweep of ethnicities and cultures gives us allowance to exaggerate out differences and therefore keep apart. Or perhaps it does reflect a lingering aspect of a British-colonial culture that’s often cited for its reserve. Whatever the cause of it, I wish it would go away.

Since moving to Toronto, I’ve visited both Montreal and Paris, cities I’d been warned were marked by rudeness. But my experience didn’t support that at all. In both cities, I found people to be approachable and helpful, and there seemed to be no great barrier between people. But that could be more a reflection of the experience of travelling beyond ones known world. I’ve had a number of first time visitors to Toronto remark on how friendly and helpful its people are. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective.

In any case, I resolve from time to time, that I’ll get back into the habit of greeting, smiling and nodding to people, regardless of whether I meet with reciprocity. I usually manage for a while, but then slip back into ways that have become too natural to me. I’m reminded though, of an experience I had that made a strong impression on me.

When I started working with a Housing Program two years ago, my original assignment was to walk the streets, engaging and enrolling the homeless to our services. A number of times, homeless individuals approached me and initiated a conversation merely because I held their gaze and smiled at them. Imagine what it must be like to spend hours every day on the sidewalks and in the malls and parks, and to have hundreds of people walk by and look right through you, as though they didn’t see you, as though you didn’t even exist.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Look into my Bloggy Mind

So long without blogging. And not from a lack of things to blog about. In fact, the opposite. My thoughts have been taken up by so many, varied topics lately, that I’ve not been able to focus:

There’s the change in the seasons and how it works on me, shifting my moods, my energies, getting me in the emotional mode of beginning a new cycle. Fall has always been my favorite time of year, and I know it has something to do with the cooling, the slowing down and re-grouping.

There's been so much going on: our sailing adventure; the outdoor Art shows; the Film Festival, and seeing a screening in the Bell Lightbox; Word on the Street, and the invitation I always extend myself, to be unreasonable about buying books; all the ups and downs of street outreach, working with homeless youth, finding new apartments, the threatened evictions, arrests, new relationships and break-ups, the disorientations of addictions and psychoses, even two babies on the way. Then there was a final and unexpected camping trip to Cape October.

I’ve read some things about my hometown, Detroit, lately. It has been a severely damaged city for so long. The population has declined by a couple of million over the last three or four decades, leaving large pockets of the city a virtual wasteland. And this sprawling zone of urban failure is now becoming a kind of incubator for experiments in all sorts of urban enterprises. It’s actually made me consider, for the first time in decades, that I might want to live in my hometown again, and be a part of its new beginning.

The mayoral election, and the midterm elections of Obama’s first term, have me considering both the crucial importance of politics, and the mind-numbing, soul-curdling, grotesque turn-off it so often is. Is it the case that we’ve become so dependent on being manipulated and pandered to, that for a leader to present him or herself as a reasonable and open-minded person, willing to acknowledge an opponent’s intelligence and essential humanity, let alone respect and consider an opposing point of view, would instantly disqualify them from leading us?

Speaking of which, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Obama’s “Dreams From My Father”, and what a brilliant, insightful book it is! He manages in these pages to dissect and analyse so many of the questions of identity, loyalty, belonging, race and being that I and so many others of my generation - Black-American Boomers - have wrestled with all of our lives. It reminds me of the power of his “Race” speech in the spring of ’08, which made me a 100% confirmed supporter.

And yes, it’s bringing me closer to writing the blog I’ve had in mind for some time, to be titled, “Why I’m not the First Black American President”.

I’ve been considering questions of belief, conviction and will – how they shape us, and how we then determine to shape others. It seems that we (I include myself in this) carve out areas in which we can feel an absolute certitude about our opinions, positions and values. We mostly try and keep our discussions inside this terrain, where we’re very comfortable. But when someone draws us out, into territory where we’re unsure, we get uptight and uncomfortble. The mental prisons we’ve occupied and fortified become exposed as more vulnerable than we’d supposed. Our chains begin to rattle. Hmmm?

Which brings me to my final thought, the mental tidbit I’ve been turning over and over. It’s that notion that everything we do boils down to love or fear. I increasingly think that’s a good summary of how humans operate. We’re either operating to get more of something we want, or to get away from something we don’t want. We decide a course of action either to bring about a good, or to avoid an evil. We try to create beauty or destroy ugliness. Etcetera, etcetera. But while the wanting and not wanting, the good and the evil, the beauty and ugliness is often purely subjective, the underlying orientation isn’t so much. That basic orientation can define an approach to life. Love or Fear. Create or Destroy. Explore or Protect. Believe that there’s always enough, or that there’s never enough. That things work out, or that they never do.

I know this is an over-simplification. We all do both, see things both ways. Life itself demands a sort of balance here, I think. And yet, we mostly lean to one side or the other. And for me, it’s pretty clear what side I want to be on. So that, increasingly, when facing a difficult decision, or choosing a course of action, I’ll ask myself, “Are you acting out of Love, or out of Fear?” It has surprised me how simple it usually is to determine which.