By Amraah Carole White
It’s almost two years since I have come back to Vancouver. This summer, when I made it into my 79th year, I might have allowed myself to become a little less involved but at my age, I know better. I have grown a little wiser about the use of my time and I have again raised the level of what to expect from life. I took a good look at what more to do to create greater longevity of my body, a stronger mental state and capacity. I take better care of myself. This may be the best advice I can give. Take better care of yourself!
It all works as an equation: when I give the gifts of fun, kindness and generosity, I have more fun, enjoy kindness from others and receive amazing benefit every day and everywhere I may choose to go. There are more good and reliable friends in my life.
I am still homeless, living in an emergency shelter in the downtown east side of Vancouver. There is still a terrible housing crisis, a very low vacancy rate which means that at present there is no other where to go. I am choosing not to be demoralized by the circumstances that surround me; instead I am participating and daily discovering new kinds of useful contributions.
Do you remember the story of the kid digging in the barn? “With all this shit, there must be a pony in here somewhere!” Yup, it’s that one. I’m going for the pony!
The circumstances this year of my Oppenheimer ghetto neighbourhood is in no way prettier, not at all easier or sweeter; indeed, after all these months, there are more of my people dead from overdoses from even more dangerous combinations of drugs. They are more of them besieged, harassed and harried by the rules, regulations, the bylaws enforced by sometimes rather grim young people separated from their fellows only by uniforms, badges, a paycheque and where in the city they go home at night to eat and sleep. What are they thinking when they demolish a lean-to tarp flung over a shopping cart in a narrow doorway and oust a bleary, dirty and thoroughly pissed off person from their precarious station in an alley or behind the backstop in the park?
I’m told I’m getting a reputation. I have to imagine that it has something to do with the fact that my personal transportation is a power wheel chair: I’m wheeling around the ‘hood’! It might also be that I found a paper sunflower at the dollar store to decorate it. And it might also be that I have some kind of fun and friendly greeting for everybody that I encounter everywhere I go. Addicts usually focus on the pavement before them, the harm free supplies they need and their arms.
Well, it’s my belief that everybody needs some kind of lightness to relieve those very heavy burdens? Guess what, I have burdens! Anyone who daily can stand vertical under nearly 8 decades knows there are aches and pains, kinks and stiffness that intrude into the days, especially during the damp cold of winter now closer than ever. It all depends on what I wish to pay attention to: I’m choosing to give something rather than whining about anything. I choose to make jokes and provoke laughter rather than leave my people unhappy or angry. This might actually be a formula for my own liberation from the weight of the burdens that I am obliged to carry.
Probably the largest piece in all this is the least obvious, hardly noticeable to those ones who have their tents and encampments arranged around the perimeter of Oppenheimer park, whose push baskets are loaded with futon pads, bicycle parts, back packs, stashes of what-have-you for sale to be spread out on the sidewalks along Hastings and elsewhere.
This is the almost unimaginable stall and obfuscation going on in the mighty halls of the city, the province and in the federal arena, the places of power. Those of us hurting here just do not understand why it takes months and months and more to respond to our people in the depth of crisis. How many more will die?
“How many roads must a man walk down before he can rest in the sun? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
Oh, I have to guess that it is really pretty easy for those people who aspire to power and influence. They go home to a real home, a kitchen, a clean bathroom not kicked down and broken or filthy with trash and shit and piles of needle detrius. Their living rooms and bedrooms are decorator perfect and they find their food at the well stocked, clean and convenient markets. Too easy maybe! But the way it seems to work can be summed up in some kind of attitude that says something like, well, they had better choices and they could work, you know!
But somewhere in the city around and about our more pristine neighbourhoods are certain people involved, deeply involved in reaping benefit, multiple millions in cash money, made from every gram of coke or crystal meth, every needle of heroin plunged into the arms of the dwellers in tents in Oppenheimer, from those sprawled nearly comatose along the sidewalks, sleeping on pavement, or leaned against the doorways. The cold damp weather of winter even now stalks those same pavements.
The Grandmother that I am is not only me, myself but also an icon of the Elder who stands for the moral and philosophical stature of her people, who stands with her hand on her hip declaring, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself yet? Haven’t you perpetrated enough misery for the profit that you wallow in? What ails you?”
In the textbooks of our recent psychology that chronicles our society wide dysfunction, we read and can begin to understand: all victims are victimizers. Not only is this the affliction of the dirty, homeless and hopelessly addicted people hideously shuffled about in our downtown east side neighbourhoods, but it is also quite well hidden behind the stylish costumes, shirts and silk ties of our well dressed leaders who are quite smugly well housed and content with their lot. Everyone makes themselves into their first victim.
I have learned over this past year how to find for myself the beauty and serenity that does exist here in this neighbourhood. I take myself to Crab Park and during the dry time under the bright sun of summer, I lie flat on the lawn soaking in the vibrations of the Great Mother planet. She is the perennial source of our life, our core of being. Ultra violet sunlight is our first nutrient. I tool around the streets. I love to thread my way through the visiting crowds milling around on Water Street as they gawk at the funky people here and the over-glossy tourist bait to be found in many of the stores. I make my way as the calm, cooler evenings settle over us to Strathcona Park to the community gardens lush with vegetables, fruit trees, and a wide selection of cultivated herbs. My friends and I also take ourselves from time to time to the pub where a glass of our favourite local beer satisfies our thirst. Even as we are either in shelter or living in a marginal SRO apartment, we are among the privileged!
So, dear friends, it is also my privilege to write myself for you, to reveal my eye on the world around here and to give forth some kind of eloquence so that you can read and feel something within you that reminds you that we are kin. Much love and blessings.