One more story of finding center.
Several years ago I was employed in a drop-in centre for street entrenched sex trade workers. I gave reflexology and energy work sessions to those wanting to rest their feet, grab a meal and seek a bit of sanctuary. Sanctuary, however, was only guaranteed from the male sector; women predators were not so obvious, at least initially.
One night I was sitting on the couch with Mary watching Buffy slay another vampire. I had just finished attending to her feet and we were both in that contented space of completion: me, for a job well done and Mary, in a state of relaxation. There were about twenty women present. Some were sleeping; others made up their faces, watched TV or just stared off in to space, preparing the best they could for another night’s work. Two women flirted and playfully poked each other on the sofa opposite. Just moments before their play had turned to irritation when some crack, a small rock, went missing. Celia, the older of the two, took charge and methodically started examining each crevice and cranny the couch offered; her tone sharp in demanding its whereabouts. Sarah, the one who lost it, slowly followed her lead, murmuring with both fear and desperation: I just had it here, it can’t be far. Others, perhaps sympathetic, perhaps hoping to find it first, offered help. Buffy’s assailant screamed in the background while pillows were inspected, blankets shaken and the floor swept … I found it! Cheers, hugs; kisses. With the relationship back on solid ground the incident was immediately forgotten. Life in the drop-in continued.
The drop-in itself was fairly large. Located in a church basement, the space in which we rested was annexed off a generous hallway that led to the kitchen and washrooms. Several couches and comfy stuffed chairs marked the perimeter of our room with the TV kitty-corner to the hall entrance; a makeup and first aid stand in another nook. A woman entered from the hall. She couldn’t have been more than five foot but despite her height and slim build she overpowered the room. We felt rather than witnessed her entry: a black hole in space, our attention gravitated her way as she walked towards Sarah, her long overcoat flaring behind.
I want my money.
The room fell silent. Celia stood, a tentative barrier between Sarah and this apparent foe. She doesn’t have it. She hasn’t been out yet, give her a break, she needs time.
Her time is up.
Behind Celia, Sarah curled herself into a ball. A small voice could be heard, pleading; begging … Just a few more hours, please… please? The woman stood motionless, impassive to the words, continuing to stare through Sarah as if she wasn’t there. I made a move to stand and tell them to stop; to take it outside. This interaction had no place inside our safety net. Mary stopped me. Don’t she said, it’s safer in here. I didn’t understand but ceded to her authority.
Time stretched on. No one moved. Finally the woman gave an imperceptible nod: tomorrow morning, ten, turned and left. The room held still for a moment, a half second it seemed, and then it was over. Conversation started, tentative play with Sarah and Celia resumed while the victorious Buffy flexed her arms and stretched her legs.
I looked at Mary for explanation. A woman of few words she said, she would have been hurt if they had been outside … best done here.
I left about an hour later, leaving by the Gore Street exit. Some men had gathered like high school dropouts waiting for the girls to leave class. I told them to move on, this wasn’t the place. No one paid attention. An energy seemed to buzz through the group but otherwise there was silence. I opened the door behind me and called for backup. Men were not allowed at the door, they were supposed to, and usually did, honour the sanctuary. I held my station while waiting for assistance: watching and cautious, just like Buffy.
Suddenly, a man was the ground. Others kicked him in the head, the arms; the chest, punishing him for some unseen infraction. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t yell, and it was over before the initial shock left. The man got up and stumbled off; the others dispersed. The door opened behind me; help had arrived.
I left the Downtown Eastside about a month later. I had worked there for seven years in various positions but the violence had never got to me as much as it did that night. Perhaps it was the gratuitous nature of the incident with the men or the casual acceptance of danger from the women but I knew it had finally gone beyond my limits of endurance. As I wrote on February 8, I knew I could not stay in the community in which I worked— I was not strong enough. I needed to recoup my strength, solidify self trust and further develop the tools needed to re-center again and again, each time life threw me off balance. I left, but it was only through therapy and a lot of personal work that I was able to so before burnout not only incapacitated my abilities but integrity as well. I had been forging a slow but sure appreciation for life and for who I was within it. But all I knew at that moment was that I deserved more.
The women and men who stayed behind and continued to live life on the edge also deserved more— more respect, more safety; more joy. But just because a person deserves something doesn't mean it will necessarily happen. Regardless of our situation, to get more out of life, to thrive rather than survive, we first have to go within. The only difference between me and those that never got out was that I had the means and enough emotional support to do just that: to find my center or, at least the first rudimentary signs of it, and begin slaying my own demons, one vampire at a time.
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