Monday, July 19, 2010

Thank you Don, where ever you are.

As a young student journalist, I wanted to do a documentary about street people in Regina.  Yes, we have them, like every other city.  In the research process, I wanted to find someone who could educate me about life on the street.  After months of being turned away and turned down by various helping organizations,  I booked a meeting with a counsellor at the Regina Friendship Centre to tell him about the story that I was hoping to write, and to ask for his help.

When I arrived at the centre, a 28 year old man named Don met me.  He was about 6 feet tall, thin, with sandy brown curly, tossled hair.  His voice was soft and kind, and kind of crackled at times.  When we shook hands, his skin felt thin, and his hands felt weak.

We went to his office to talk.  I had explained my story concept, and after he sized me up as to whether I was trustworthy and genuinely interested in telling an untold story, he offered to help me.  It turns out Don was posing as the counsellor.  He was a self described "street person" who was originally from Winnipeg. I didn't believe him until he showed me a letter that was addressed to him from Social Services.

I explained that the story would take about 4 weeks to develop and he would need to be available at least once a week. I asked if he could commit to that, and he said, "I would like to. It will be the first thing in my life I have ever finished." So Don had a story to tell, and I had a story to listen to.

Don explained to me that the term "street person" refers to one that can live on any street, any where.  He said that "we" tend not to want to be part of the every day rules of society, but there are rules to live by if one is going to make it (and by that he meant be alive) living on the streets.

Over the weeks, Don took me to all the places in Regina that "street people" hung out. He showed me where he / they lived, and where they ate. He showed me who to avoid and he showed me who I could trust. During my time with Don, I felt safe.  They accepted me.  All I had to do was be sincere, and open minded to learn what they had to teach me. I had only but to listen and not judge. To be earnestly and genuinely interested in their lives.

One day in January, I was meeting Don in front of the Army & Navy department store. He was waiting for me at the bus bench across the street as planned. It was about 30 degrees below zero that day (Fahrenheit).  I looked down at Don's feet and he was wearing men's shoes, but they were not leather.  He had no socks.  I asked him where his socks were and he said they were stolen from his room overnight.  His face was banged up so I guessed the two incidences might have been connected.  I asked him to wait for me and went into the Army & Navy department store where I bought him 3 pairs of men's wool socks for $5.00.  I came out and gave them to him.  He cried, and then he put them on.

I never gave Don my home number, but I could reach him at the Queen's Hotel anytime.  Don kept his promise to me, with the exception of 10 days when I thought he had left town, and I would have to start over.  I called the Hotel every day and left messages with the bartender to call me when Don arrived.  Finally, I got the call that he had returned. I phoned him and we talked.  He explained to me that he was very sorry but that somebody was after him and he had no choice but to run. Such was the life of Don. I thanked him for coming back.  "It was least I could do," he said. "I said I would do this and I want to do this."

During our time together, Don told me all about his family, his life and his childhood. He said he didn't know where they were anymore, and he didn't blame them for not telling him where they were living.  Don told me that he started running when was 14 - got mixed up with drugs and alcohol and did whatever it took to feed his habit, including being a male prostitute at the age of 14.  Don said that his parents and family tried to bring him home, but every time they tried, he just ran further and faster.  "Eventually they gave up on me. I can't really blame them. I burned them out."

Don and I did finish the radio documentary.  And then I never saw him again.  I have often wondered what happened to him - if he found another street to live on in another city, or if he found his family, or possibly is living a normal life somewhere.

But each day when I go to work downtown, I see many of the people who I met with Don during our travels, and I think to myself - there but for the grace of God go I.  And then I remember to smile at them when I pass them on the street. And if they need a dollar for coffee, and I have one, I give it to them. If I could see Don again, I would thank him for teaching me something about humanity, humility and grace.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Circus Tents and Flying Trapeze

When I was a child, my favorite circus act was the flying trapeze.  I loved watching the person glide through the air, letting go of her swing, her arm extended, she would  find another that would take her the rest of the way across the circus tent.  It was exquisite poetry in motion. A beautiful bird in flight.  A leap of faith.  A courageous act of letting go, and having faith in what lies ahead. 

Most things that we do in life are a practice for the next big show.  At  3, we let go our children's hands to go to playschool. At 5 they go to kindergarten.  At 6 they were front and centre in their tutus and tap shoes. At 10 they went to their first school dance.  At 16 they learned to drive and we gave them the keys and a machine to hopefully navigate safely.  At 18, we watched them walk across the stage, graduating from high school.  In their 20's, they continue their journey, forging a path of who they are yet to become, learning along the way, testing the skills they learned through all their practice.

As parents, each time we waved good bye, we said a little prayer to ourselves. We watched them fall and pick themselves up. And we wiped their tears and bandaged their scraped knees and egos. 

What we don't realize that that with every step they take, we take one too.  Growth is imminent. To stop growing is to become stagnant.  When a plant becomes stagnant, it dies.  If a bird in mid flight, becomes stagnant, it can no longer fly.  Think about it. We were not meant to stand still. 

So we shouldn't.  There are signs all around us that tell us when it is time to take that leap of faith.  Job dissatisfaction.  Checking out.  Not caring about the things that used to matter.  Becoming complacent.  Sometimes we act out against others when we feel stagnant in our lives, as if we are entitled to change without taking a risk. Sometimes we just feel . . . finished with where we are or what we are doing.  For me, that feeling is one claustrophia as if being caged. 

But some measure of risk is required to let go and find a new place.  Like the circus performer who flew effortlessly through the air when I was 7, I am sure she was scared, but she was confident that she had learned well and prepared herself to take the leap.  

We need to learn what we have learned, heed the signs that tell is change is imminent, and let go to a new place, exquisitely, gracefully and fearlessly.