When I was about ten years old, I received a present from my aunt (actually a cousin twice removed, I think, but I always called her “Tati” – Auntie – and so that is who she shall remain) that I carry around with me to this day, much like my cherished teddy-bear and my newer companion, my teddy-bunny.
My auntie is a writer, which is quite a magnificent and wondrous thing to be. Every now and then, she’d send me a box full of books she’d written and I’d be delighted. I too wanted to be a writer when I grew up (as well as a cat, and a mermaid, etc.) so the books bearing her name were proof that it was possible to become a real live author.
I’d always pick up her books with the intention of reading them cover to cover but I never got very far. Being a strong reader, I could understand the books just fine but they were always about – no offense, Auntie – boring things. Acclimatization to a new reality, separation from one’s family, solitude, fear, hope, hope, hope. Loss, tragedy, pain. Growth. I don’t know if there were happy endings; I never made it that far into the stories.
I wanted to read fantasy and sci-fi. I l loved dystopias. I loved dragons and elves and fairies. I wanted to be a fantasy writer when I grew up so I read what I hoped to one day write.
I’m not a fantasy writer, to my great and enduring disappointment. When I write, what comes out is nothing but what I know, what I live and experience. Sadly, dragons and elves and fairies aren’t it. I, quite by accident, found myself to be a writer who only has stories featuring boring things too. I write about betrayal, loss, abuse, fear, despair, wisdom, learning, growing and peace, peace, peace. New beginnings, never-endings, confusing in-betweens. Hope. I don’t know if there are happy endings; I haven’t made it that far into my story yet.
I find myself wondering… Auntie, did you want to be a fiction writer too when you were little? Did your life hurt you so much you had to write boring things that aren’t boring at all after all to stay sane? Do you write to survive the torment with your soul intact? Because mine did, and I must and I do.
Dear Tati N., I’ve never finished a single one of your books (I’ll work on that) but I did finish one of your poems.
I come to this party
I am not of the tribe of the ink
My people were not scribes
My grandfather’s entire tale
Was scribbled in hieroglyphics
On his birth papers
His father’s and his name misspelled
(From this all of his children
Ended up with his middle name
So please forgive me
But this is why I am at this party
Bearing the wrong name.
One day, my auntie told me that whenever she travelled, she always brought one book with her. A precious honour indeed when one loves to read! My one book, she might be delighted to learn, is the precious book On Her Way, edited by Sandy Asher, which I received as a gift one day, nestled in a box of other “boring” books.
In the decade and then some since I was ten, I’ve read that anthology cover to cover and every time I did, mostly out of a sense of duty, I would read Un/Titled last as it was the last piece in the book. And whenever I read that poem, I’d always wonder “Auntie… Why the heck did you write such a lame poem when I know you’re such a great writer?”
Welp. Now I know. As it turns out, it’s not that the poem sucks. It’s that I didn’t get it.
I come to this party
With no poetic legacy
(But plenty of license)
No plot of land on any mound
To cradle my willfulness
My entire tale
Over the white spaces
On this page.
You see, I am homeless. And it is in my recently becoming homeless (more details at the linked page) that I finally understand what it means to be un/invited, un/titled. Here’s the thing:
I do have a title. I am greeted with the proper respect when I go to the bank or order something at a café. Just like everyone else, I am called “sir” or “ma’am” and – rarely even though it is the title that matches my (non)gender – “mix”.
I do have an invitation to be a part of this party, the iterations of social activities that will mark and shape my lifetime. I am a citizen of the country of Canada and have been since pretty much forever. More than that, I am human and it is my right to exist on this planet, to join in the festivities of my race.
And that is why it is so particular that I am also very much unwanted.
Identity is a right. Identity is the fact that I do have a title, even if no one uses the one that matches my gender. My title stays there, unalterable except if I choose to change it. I am Mx. Shaman-In-Training, human being! Identity is also the fact that I am part of society, even if society doesn’t know it. Identity is what I am, inextricably and unalterably. It is also who I am, when I am, how I am and why I am the way I am. My identity is my personal history. It’s where I’m from. It is an epic work of art that will never be summarized by the name of one country or a single demographic.
Identity is the plot of my life story. It is the invitation to learn my tale so that I may share it with the world and this open invitation to exist is one that I received at birth. I am invited.
Respect and acknowledgement, however? Those have to be bought. And as I am too poor to buy them, I am uninvited.
I know this because yesterday, a man told me he ignored, didn’t speak to and refused to make eye contact with the homeless wandering the streets of Ottawa (where I am currently sojourning) because he’d “tried” to help them for years and felt they didn’t deserve his “help” or – indeed – his acknowledgment of their existences anymore.
He said this while looking me in the eyes.
That was the moment that I realized that, to this man and his ilk, I don’t exist.
What does exist is the $80 dress I bought four years ago as an investment I intended to last me a decade. A wise move on my part since that dress is what affords me the recognition of other human beings. Not fame. Recognition. The cordial acknowledgment that I exist on equal footing to everyone else in the world by virtue of being a person.
That nod you exchange with a stranger when you walk down the street or your gazes cross on the bus? I buy that. Everyone buys that. Most people don’t notice, I think, because they don’t have to budget for it like I do when I plan how to stretch $20 to cover a week’s worth of food and housing.
In case you were wondering, yes, I have learned how to perform this impressive feat of magic (it would seem that I am writing about the supernatural after all! Yay. T.T) and I must confess that it is not easy to afford courtesy and human decency because those things are fucking expensive. They’re the most expensive things I buy, actually, mostly because I need them too badly not to do so. Lacking them will kill me much sooner than starvation will so if I have to choose between humanity and food, humanity wins four times out of five.
So, you see, it’s not out of vanity but to quite literally save my life that I lug around a heavy dress and a bulky yet gorgeous pair of 5 and a half inch ankle-boots I bought for $5 at a thrift store. Without them, it becomes much more obvious that I am too poor to be worth the eye-contact it takes to confirm that I am human.
That is how worthless (I am told that) I am.
The eyes are the window to the soul and mine, apparently, isn’t worth glancing at because I am homeless and, when you’re that poor, your soul is automatically filthy. Or so I was being very clearly told by an ignorant and casually cruel man who didn’t realize how much he had degraded me and dehumanized be by making it known that, if he knew the truth of my situation… I’d be vermin.
I am far from being Cinderella, wishing to go from rags to riches. I know well which place was reserved for me in the fairy-tale of my society. I am the mouse turned into the coachman. I am well-dressed in a costume that won’t allow me entry into the castle full of luxury and pleasure but ensures that no one will back-peddle in horror at the sight of my harmlessness. No one will try to step on me or grind my spirit into dust. That is, apparently, the best someone of my stature can aspire to reach.
Ironically, the person who made me feel like I was disgusting was, himself, badly groomed and wore old, worn clothes. He was transient in the same temporary home as I. The house were we both stood as equals was filthy. Dirt and cat shit could be found on the floors, dishes were stacked high and left unwashed, miscellaneous items were falling out of over-crammed shelves. The few windows present were cracked open as widely as they could be but still didn’t allow enough air to circulate to dispel the unpleasant odor of unwashed dwelling layered with incense, lit during someone’s prayer for a better life.
We were sharing the same horrible space. But for all that we were to live together for the brief time our paths intertwined, he’d made it clear that I was the one unworthy of being there. I did not deserve even that much of a refuge, nor the idiotic conversation to which I’d been un/invited and which led to this open letter being sent to the virtual wind. Nor did I deserve his time, respect or attention.
For a time, I stood, stone-faced and placid. I pretended I didn’t feel vulnerable. I pretended to be a mountain, weathering the blows the blows of the insignificant trying to lay low my self-worth and destroy my identity and integrity, one stone at a time. When I could bear the vitriol no longer, I fled to the bedroom where I planned to use my tried and true technique of naptime to make the torment end. And when I say “naptime”, I mean the moment when I play dead so the predator hunting me will leave me alone once they think that I can’t hear them devouring all the delicious beautiful things inside me since they can only feast on my heart when I’m aware of it.
The man followed me down the hallway and as far as the doorway of the bedroom where I had tried to flee his “
no yes offense” abuse, still speaking.
As he did so, I got the oddest impression that my attention was being solicited by someone who wanted to finish an argument with me but quickly, I disillusioned myself. Surely that could not be? I am homeless, after all. It is never me that is being addressed. I haven’t earned human decency yet.
But, it was! Miracle of miracles, he was talking to me, seeking my eyes to impress upon me the validity of his point. He spoke passionately, this man, trying to convince me it was in any way, shape or form acceptable to make another human being feel the way he’d made me feel.
When the man who was my housemate for a day finished telling me how good and noble it was for him to strip me of my humanity and leave me stewing in shame and helpless anger, I was finally left alone to go to sleep.
I lay in darkness.
And the beautiful midnight-coloured dress with the heavy and voluminous skirt that flies waist-high when I twirl like it would lift me skywards if only I could gain enough momentum by spinning faster and faster felt heavy as lead on my body. I imagined it would drag me through the mattress and floor and straight into a tomb under the filthy house where I had no choice but to remain. Funeral shrouds are usually white but I wouldn’t get a funeral. I’d be the only mourner to my death (no one would know if I vanished, no one would miss me because no one weeps for the disappeared homeless) so it was only right that my dress be a black one.
I’d bought that dress four years ago because I was happy and I could. When I twirled, it made me want to dance. It made me want to go to a party.
That night, I wanted nothing more than to rip off that dress and burn it. I wanted stand up, naked, and sprinkle myself with the ashes of the recognition I bought four years ago like the grimmest fairy dust. I don’t want a happy ending. I want a happy life. I want a happy middle. I want a happy now. I don’t write fairy-tales. I write reality and I want one that doesn’t hate me.
What am I when I am not covered in something recognizable? It is funny how we call the homeless people who don’t “look” homeless the “invisible homeless” when, actually, it is only the costume of being normal that allows me to be a “visible person”. It’s like “homeless” is a sub-species of homo sapiens. One with a very strange physiology that makes it invisible when it presents itself as is truly is and visible when it lies.
I lie a lot. I lie so much, I have difficulty telling if I’m asleep or awake sometimes.
In both cases, I’m lying.
I come to this party
To buy a vowel
To help decipher my memory
To borrow a theory
From one of the sages
Why I won’t cower
Why I won’t shut up
Why I will never ask permission
Not to shut up.
I thought of my Auntie. I remembered Un/Titled. I remembered that someone else knew what it meant to be un/invited. To be a welcome guest standing in front of those lauding your with, or skill or prettiness all the while telling you how much they hate, and scorn, and wish to see destroyed those who resemble you.
Every week, there are at least four people who talk to me about the homeless – my people – and who tell me to my face how much they despise me. They feel no need to censure themselves because they don’t recognize my demographic in my features. How would they? They have no clue what anything but a teeny tiny percentage of the homeless population looks like.
Indeed, most people think that the homeless are worthless scum who wander the streets all day pan-handling. Which is hilarious is a not-funny-at-all way because if one runs a cursory Google search, the first things one learns without even having to click a single link is that, every year, 50,000 Canadians are part of the invisible homeless : the ones who don’t have a fixed address, not that you’d ever be able to tell since they look just like normal people. Which, I’d like to point out, they are. We are. I am.
Homeless people are people. The “working homeless” is what we call the numerous people who have jobs that pay them (eventually…) but not in quantities or frequencies enough to allow them to afford the ludicrously expensive housing found in big cities, which – unsurprisingly – are also the places with the most jobs.
There are a great many people who can’t afford to live where they work but can’t afford to leave where they work either. This phenomenon occurs when elsewhere has few jobs and people are unable to pay the exorbitant prices required to commute (much less drive) from their workplace to the city where would have liked to reside. In fact, the ever-increasing price of public transportation ($3.65 per ticket and rising in Ottawa, what even!!???!!!) is one of the contributing factors to a great myriad of social ills, which I detail in another, briefer, post.
I am particularly sensitive to the price of public transportation and the unacceptable gap between life expectations (as guaranteed by the universal” human rights first world countries are so fond of claiming they hold dear) and life realizations. This is because I was pretty much born a social activist and also because I am a member of the invisible AND working homeless.
I started my bachelor’s degree at the University of Ottawa when I was 16, which is also the year I first became self-employed by proofreading essays for students. My first client was completing his PhD in engineering, a school very far from my cosy Social Sciences. When I returned his paper, he liked my work so much that he recommended my services to his supervisor and his classmates.
Five years later, I have a steady and growing client base who enjoys my proofreading and research assistant services and I created an excellent curriculum designed to teach students study skills, money-managing skills, writing skills and all the other stuff you don’t learn as a teen but need to know as a young adult entering the brutal world of postsecondary education and the decade (or more) of poverty associated with this. This online class was, I would like to mention, quite appreciated during its Beta launch during the summer of 2015 (back when I was all but bankrupt, miserable and almost deathly depressed but not homeless yet).
Do you know how I managed to start a tiny business proofreading papers I’m not allowed to write, as told by that one professor who told me that undergrads shouldn’t be “creating anything, only learning from others and presenting what they’ve learned”? Do you know how I managed to teach a 36 hour class broken down into 12 lectures on academic success despite my lack of postsecondary diploma? I used my many many skills. Employable skills. Also, I am damned smart.
I come to this party
To answer “PRESENT”
At the roll call of my own oblivion
For I am coming to this party
Through a careless crack
At the back door
An accident of literacy
Still clinging to a pencil
That I wouldn’t let go
There was no one around
From whom to borrow
A single line.
That is why I know without the shadow of a doubt that one day, I’ll be the next something remarkable. I’m going to be a writer when I grow up. And a teacher. And a researcher. And everything I dream of being and can’t afford to be right now.
It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth to know that I will one day be called a “success story” against my will because I’ll know exactly how I earned that title: I’ll have bought it.
I am the SAME person, poor or rich. I already AM a success story, just like I was last week when I slept on the ground in the park and didn’t get sick and just like I will be when I will sleep in a tent in the woods off the highway next week, when the last of my money runs out but I manage to stay fed and dry anyways.
My successes – that I am alive, that I am sane, that I am learning, that I am growing, that I am kind, that I’m only an asshole when I haven’t slept well in too long, that I am worthy – will be invisible until I have enough money to afford recognition on a regular basis. That sickens me.
I will not become successful. I refuse to be another “look at this inspiring yet inimitable person” at which the masses will gawp while never seeking to emulate. I am already successful NOW yet society, as a collective whole, is looking down at me. That’s good. It means that no one will be afraid to match my achievements with theirs because when you’re looking down at someone, you only need to fall to join them. It requires no effort to succumb to gravity, nor does it require any to succumb to poverty.
I will be no one’s inspiration because I am the warning. There is NO ONE who is safe from poverty. No matter how brilliant or pretty or nice or rich you are, you are at risk of poverty because poverty isn’t the result of a mistake you make, it’s the result of injustice and cruelty done to you. You are its victim, not its seducer.
I made no mistakes.
I am not homeless because I wasn’t good enough.
I am not homeless because I didn’t try hard enough.
I became homeless because many people are ignorant and casually cruel and I am unfortunate enough to be related to several of them.
I remain homeless because many people are ignorant and casually cruel and I am unfortunate enough to have to call these people members of my society.
That is why a great many people are homeless, actually. Not drugs. Cruelty. The lack of compassion and decency given to those who can’t afford to buy it yet need it most.
My Auntie is a writer who doesn’t write about boring things after all. My Auntie also doesn’t know that I’m homeless now and I definitely won’t be the one to tell her. I wonder what she’d think of me if she knew. I think about her a lot, which is why I write for her.
To my Auntie,
Much like you, I am PRESENT: my present, within the present, here, present. I haven’t spoken to you in a long time now. Thank you for your present. Thank you for helping me, unbeknownst to you, write this message. You comfort me across time and space because you remind me that someone I know found peace in story-telling.
I don’t talk to you anymore because I’m scared you’ll hurt me like everyone who is related to me has. Nonetheless, I’m grateful you exist because you are my guarantee that writing my truths will keep me sane and alive. You survived with your words and you gifted me proof that I can be a writer too. You are a big part of why I keep trying.
I rarely use my last name but when I do, I don’t hate it and that’s all because of you. My last name isn’t the chain tying me to a sperm donor who calls himself my father even though he gave that job up a long time ago. My last name is the one thing I share with my favourite Auntie (my only one since I’ve disowned all the others and most of the cousins too).
My last name is a silly childhood story written in two different ways that links us together. That bond is one I rarely access but it is important enough to me that I choose to keep it close to my identity, a sacred spot where few others are allowed.
To those who would not meet my eyes (if they knew),
I have nothing to hide but that does not mean that I am nothing, nor that I am content to hide myself away to allow you your delusion that all is well. Your city streets are full of the poor, of the homeless, of the needy and most of them mingle amongst you invisibly. Most of them are you, whether you realize it or not. And all of them are what you could much too easily become.
If you will not join together, overcoming your prejudice and apathy to fix it, I will. For the sake of me and mine, not for yours. I know who my people are. They are the ones who DO meet my eyes when I tell them I am/not a success story and who say “me too/neither”. They are those who don’t shy from tragedy because they know that even if they can’t heal it, their presence soothes the injury. They’re the ones who don’t have any money but who give me their time.
To those who would know meet my eyes if they knew the truth of me,
I know the truth of you and it is meeting your eyes despite you that I tell you: you are wrong. You are so wrong. Your behaviour is wrong. Your misconceptions are wrong. Your stereotypes are wrong. Your prejudice is wrong. You are wrong about me.
My value is not diminished just because you won’t meet my eyes to see who I am beyond the poverty inflicted upon me. Your humanity, however, is diminished and greatly so.
My soul is a much more beautiful home than you can imagine. I pity anyone who won’t glance into my windows because they are missing a valuable opportunity. They could have witnessed wealth and opulence in action. They could have known intimately what success looks like. It looks a lot like everyone who does meet my eyes, especially when they do know the truth of me.
This is what homelessness looks like sometimes.
It looks a lot like a success story. ❤