Saturday, February 22, 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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 moremore 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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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Song of the Cedar

The cedar stands alone: an altar
unto herself; a sentinel
amidst the asphalt, abandoned push carts and
idle cars.

Beneath her spiraling presence
and light decked boughs
(yuletide remnants)
traffic fades;
vision expands.

I touch her fibrous coat: rich
earthy tones of dark cherry, chestnut and chocolate; and
trace the cellulose strands beyond reach of human constraint.
Roots become one;
limbs entwine.

I am on the high steppe,
silence moves through me.
Above, a myriad of lights:
constellations of trust,
dance me to my centre.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Human Rights vs National Identity

The CBC recently asked if the Sochi Olympics could be the gayest yet. So wonderfully ironic considering Russia’s anti-gay laws and Mr. Putin’s derogatory comments. It is also something to be celebrated. Yet, when the Toronto mayor can still say that the Olympics are about being patriotic to your country, [that they are] not about someone's sexual preference" I get sideswiped. What I really hear him saying is that the Olympics should celebrate nationality over human rights. The sad part is that I know of people who agree with him. I cannot even begin to relate. I would much rather be a champion of human dignity, equal rights and opportunity than be identified as a Canadian (or any other nationality).

I do not feel that my sexual orientation—straight, lesbian or bi—changes who I am. I will still love chocolate chip cookies regardless of whom I wish to have sex. Funny, the same goes with nationality. I could emigrate to Russia, change citizenship and not only still like chocolate chip cookies but still want to sleep with whatever gender I desire.

When can we stop this senseless promotion of national identity over human rights? The Sochi mayor proudly states there are no gays in Sochi. Is that supposed to make me admire his city, want to live there; feel safe there?

When I see a beautifully executed ski jump; a graceful skate performance or the determination of those who have fallen to continue on, I do not marvel at that person’s nationality. I look instead at the individual’s courage, perseverance and tremendous spirit.

I do not give a hoot whether Canada wins twenty medals or none at all. What I do care about is that the athletes, spectators, officials and everyone else for that matter is treated with the respect due all human beings.

And if that means proudly flying the Rainbow flag above Canada’s … so be it.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Inner Safety: Finding Center

Last week I raised the question of whether internal safety could be a benefit when living in unsafe conditions.

I have never lived in a war-torn region nor crime-infested area but I have been employed in unsafe conditions. Back in the 90s I worked in a drop-in on a drug ravaged street in a poor part of town. The centre supported people with mental health issues but many of our members abused substances and… we had an open door policy. Some days could be dicey. But, in truth, that wasn’t what made it dangerous—it was the unsupportive management. One that didn’t listen to staff concerns; did not perceive issues until late in the game and who felt the best way to end a physical fight was to join in.

Back then I was not only ignorant of who I was beneath my wanna-be tough self but was woefully unsafe. My persona was that I could handle anything. The truth was that I did everything I could to feel needed and loved. Moreover, I had no center to guide me. No, that is untrue, our center is always there. What was really happening was that I had no idea where it was, it bobbed up and down like a buoy in a turbulent sea.

With a wobbly center my sense of safety was quite inadequate and I was more often than not lost in trying to navigate the turbulent waters in which I found myself. I trusted the wrong people, stayed silent when I should have spoken up, was intimidated by bullies, and found myself overwhelmed with an increasingly inability to cope with minor issues.

I stayed working in that neighbourhood in different jobs for seven years. When I left I told people it was because of burn out. Thinking back, however, I feel it’s more because I had found my center again. I was finally able to look inside and say, enough, time to go. I was fortunate. Many people who find themselves in dangerous or even uncomfortable situations cannot leave. They may not have the financial or physical means; they may feel protective towards their home or that they can change the circumstances; some may be in service to the specific community at risk.  These people who either choose or are forced to stay must find their center, the calm in the storm, or be crushed. And this is not to say they will not lose it from time to time but they have figured out how to realign and re-connect when things go awry.

This center I talk of is where our truth lies. It is the foundation for our morality and guides us in complicated and confusing situations.  But rather than being rigid our true center is compassionate and open-hearted when faced with life's gray areas. When one has no doubt where their center lies they can ferry storms and withstand the fear-based actions of others. Most of all, they know their center can never be hurt by another regardless of how malicious the other’s behaviour may be. I imagine Nelson Mandela had no doubt where his center lay.

When I found my center, 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 still work on it every day—not with the need for survival but for the joy it gives me and the surety of who I am.

So, how does one find their center? In as many ways as there are unique individuals but the first step is figuring out how to take healthy care of one self. My first step, besides therapy, was spending time in nature. I hiked nearly every day, sometimes obsessively, until I finally slowed down and realized I didn’t need the exercise as much as I needed the safety and stillness the forest provided. It took time and commitment. But after awhile I was able to transfer that sense of security to a place within, knowing it wasn’t so much the trees that protected me but that I was inseparable from the natural environment, a part of the intricate web of life. As such, I could find my center (and safety) wherever I was: a dark urban street or facing an angry person.

I now know where my center lies and how to reconnect when I am troubled, confused or just plain hormonal. And even though I live and work in safe environments, connecting with my centre is part of my committed practice to living well.

This is but my experience. I invite you to tell me how these words fit into yours. Does inner safety mediate the dangers of one’s environment?

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