The Old Man and the Shelter

They respect him. The young ones move quickly to assist him. Bring him coffee, a snack, a plate of food. They will gift him, or rather pay him respect with a smoke or two. In their culture that is honor. Giving tobacco.

Some come to visit him, to talk Cree, to reminisce, to laugh. To those who show this Elder respect he treats well. Unless you are authority. Then, he will fight you. Literally.

Doesn’t matter the time or place. If you are police, government or shelter manager. The Old Man will push back. Amazing that he hasn’t softened after all these years. His physical condition is deteriorating visibly now. Month by month. In retrospect I feel very privileged to know him. To witness his uniqueness, his humanity. Never be another like him.

It would help to speak his native tongue. To be able to connect to his heart, language is vital. He lights up, and talks animatedly when another speaks the language of his youth, his only reality. Without the tongue, we can’t get close to knowing him, to him knowing us, without a common sense of together.

He’s been living homeless, on the street or sleeping rough in the bush for decades. Even in the winter, outside, pan handling on the streets, guarding the treasures from those who would take his sustenance. Now, using a walker, his legs failing, he has to depend on others. Is that hard for him, to have to ask for help, in this severely independent life?

Seeing him visibly weaken, month by month. Many wonder what will become of him. He has out lived many who have “chosen” this life. As his body fails, the options for freedom close in, shut down. He sees it coming at some level.

The lifetime of hand sanitizer, mouthwash, rubbing alcohol, hairspray ingested, occaissional wine, and rare hard liquor ravages his body now. He still must have it to cope, to get up in the morning, to not think, to not feel. Its much harder to consume now, when he is stuck in the shelter, sitting in plain view, just outside the managers door.

He is close to my fathers age. My father who I never got close to is also aging, and body failing. He is a “functioning” alcoholic. Acceptable to society mainly because he stays upright and provides for his family. He achieves numbness daily, inaccessible to his children or wife. I have been angry with him for years, but now I accept the reality of his pain. In my weakness, and in learning from the Old Man at the Shelter, I can better understand, feel for my father.

I reach out to the Old Man in kindness and what I perceive as friendliness or respect. Some days he works with the system, most days its a battle. It must be hard to be in jail for him. His almost yearly visits to the correctional center for assault or disorderly conduct or for some minor offence are often intentional to get out of the cold for the winter. Even when the shelter is available, its hard to stay put, to fit in. It must be hard to have sobriety forced on him in jail. The body will rebel against change.

To work with the Old Man is to have your self torn apart. What you thought was empathy is shattered. To put yourself in his shoes, to feel his feelings, to be kind in the face of his unkindness is what this work is about. To help people who desperately want your help is achievable. To shelter, to feed, to bring the neccessities of life to one who would just as soon harm you physically or verbally is where compassionate humanity is tested.

In retrospect, I consider myself very blessed to have had the opportunity to care for The Old Man. The lessons learned, are life long. His strength, resilience, sense of freedom, his laughter and his pain were transparent for all to see.

Joy and Innocence

Let’s remember the energy and joy of play.

Find a simple activity, alone or with a friend.

Something new or that you did as a child.

Engage with it, fully, completely.

Better yet, if it allows you to touch someone deeply.

Take a few deep breaths and leave your grown up self behind.

Go outside and feel the cold, the heat of the sun.

Watch the chickadees, imagine.

Imagine the wonders all around us.

Together, we discover each other.

What works, what doesn’t.

For a few moments, we forget…

we are in the moment.

Of Love and Communion.

No us and them.

Just Us.

Joyful Being.

Mind Attack: Watching My Sister Melt Down into Suicidal Ideation

My visit home to see my mom was way over due and thus compulsory. Christmas was going to be very different this year. My 86 year old father who had struggled with his health, (addiction, dementia, hydro-encephalitis, parkinson’s) had passed away on Dec.19. As I drove across the flat, dreary, prairie landscape, I slowly came to terms that he had already enjoyed his last Christmas.

I was actually looking forward to doing my duty as the only son. It is much easier for me to take on a task, to go into emergency/crisis mode and deal with the practicalities of the situation. Emotions can be put on hold, and I dont have be as present to the inherant negativities of my family of origin. Because of this and other reasons I don’t often look forward to coming to my hometown. When I moved away 7 years ago it was much overdue and I wished to just move on and leave that part of myself behind. Although I have a lot of good memories of my life in the old hometown, they generally are not positive thoughts about family.

KJ, my little sister has struggled with her mental health in one form or another for most of her life. She was born a slow learner and didnt walk and talk until she was 4 or 5 years old. She did graduate high school in a special ed program. By the time her twenties came to an end, she was diagnosed with OCD, clinical depression, anxiety, binge eating and delusional disorder. She was not able to work, and volunteering even became untenable. She was very overweight and it was effecting her physical abilities. KJ has always been in close relationship with her mental health workers.

She had initially decided to spend Christmas away from family, specifically, my mother. Their relationship fluctuates from highly co-dependent to counter dependence and love avoidance. When she heard I was coming from my home to try to assist with the arrangements arising from the loss of my father she decided to make the effort to visit with me. She came out a couple days before I arrived on Boxing Day.

The first couple of mornings, it became obvious that she was struggling. KJ was having anxiety episodes each morning, which I have learned from my experience with depression can be the worst time. In the morning, the mind can run a little too free, rambling undisciplined in the twilight. I could see instead from her mood that it was difficult for her to move into the light of the emerging day. Instead her broken spirit, her mind, the disease was dragging her back into the dark presence of the night. The very early morning hours, when it is unsure of whether it is day or it is night, and which way to move, when working ones way into full, wakeful, awareness; one’s fragile existence can be dependent on good thoughts, light, words of hope, and the host of chemicals and processes that swirl around in our physical brains and bodies.

We had planned on taking KJ back to her home after a couple days together with my mom and myself. She was already sobbing as we packed up the car. She has a lot of anxiety to do with many things. The last couple of mornings it was to do with her residence. The noisy dog, the noisy room mates, the chaos that worked its way into her brain and would not leave. She could no longer choose to think her own thoughts and the outside dark thoughts would not let her rest.

After a few minutes on the road it became obvious that this was not going to get any better. She was increasingly depressed and her words reflected that. She could not stop the negative thoughts and her anxiety was overwhelming her emotions. She was swearing, (which is very unusual for her) and cursing her life. KJ called out for someone to help her. “Why can no one fix her”, “I just want someone to help me” “I hate my life”. My mother in the back seat sat stoically, as we Raymas’ often do in crises. Trying to remain composed and dignified. Not showing our hearts because that is too risky. If we let the beast out of the cage we might just lose all control.

We were almost halfway to our destination and KJ began to talk about jumping out of the car. Through her tears, and anxiety she said “I just want to jump out in front of this car” and end it all. Stop the pain.

I knew from my recent experiences managing a homeless shelter that those in mental health crises that begin to threaten self harm, not to procrastinate. Its not worth wasting the time to overthink whether to make the call for help or not to make the call. It’s unlikely that the behaviour is going to end anytime soon. Our families recent loss of our father, Christmas stresses, KJ’s relationship with our mom, and just random mental health vagaries that occur, are enough to prompt action.

I called the Mental Health Crisis Center in Brandon. It was the holidays and so we were sent to the Emergency Room so she could be assessed by the on call Mobile Crisis Unit workers. We were lucky it was a surprisingly quiet day in the ER and were seen quickly. As soon as KJ heard the she was possibly going to the crisis unit for a few days she relaxed somewhat. She has experience in this place it provides a place of safety and compassion where all the ramblings, worries and darkness have a chance to subside. Not a healing, but a sabbatical.

After decades of wrestling with her mental health, a cure is not in our hopechest. We are happy to be able to manage her disease. In essence it is harm reduction protocols that her helpers, doctors and family can assist the most with. But…

Is there not still a place for a cure, a miracle, some hope???

We drive her to the Crisis Center in quiet. KJ is quiet and much more peaceful than an hour and a half ago. The home is in an old part of town, a classic century home. A creeky, warm, peaceful place with friendly caregivers that know Kelly and that know mental health crises. We are relieved to leave her there as she seems comforted.

As my mom and me drive away, I feel the weight of the crisis lift. The heaviness of watching and listening to my sister in pain is straining. But the mood is lighter and as we run some errands and visit my moms friends it is obvious that my mom has some peace as well. I have second thoughts that we are being selfish. That I should have been able to help KJ, to stay and suffer alongside her, or to be able to make it right.

But, for the moment, I feel so light. There is much still to be immersed in. My personal grief over losing my father. My mother’s grief and radically changed life to being a widow at 84 years old. My older sister’s mental health struggles and broken family relationships resulting from her anger. Working through my father’s estate and death arrangements that must be taken care of with my mom and sister’s.

The list goes on…

I must take care of myself. The chaos can bring the darkness to life for me.

“Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos”; Stephen Sondheim

I don’t want anyone to suffer. But, that is not for this reality. I am grateful for all opportunities to grow, transform, and to discover. I seek the light for myself, but also to be able to walk in light and hope with those around me.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The grief of imperfect Love

“Grief can destroy you –or focus you. You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end in death, and you alone. OR you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn’t allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it. But when it’s over and you’re alone, you begin to see that it wasn’t just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill. It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it. The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can’t get off your knees for a long time, you’re driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss. And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life.”
― Dean Koontz, Odd Hours

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭13:4-8‬ ‭NIV‬‬

My Dad Died…

Yesterday my father passed away.

It seems surrealunreal to even write these words.

I find myself numb. Haven’t shed a tear.

Not sure if I’m sad, mad or glad.

Trying to think of others in light of their pain,their loss. Be caring. Be the good Son. Do what’s expected.

Say kind words, help with heavy lifting. Say the prayers.

Hoping someone else will take over. Feeling empty and very tired.

Still looking at the words, wondering what they might mean.

“My Dad died”

True, Life Long Gratitude: Henri Nouwen

Nouwen writes in “Turn My Mourning into Dancing” that when we really believe that God redeems, “we can be grateful for every moment we have lived.” True hope requires that we learn to be grateful for every part of life. He says this: “When our gratitude for the past is only partial, our hope for the future can likewise never be full.”

How do you feel about yourself?

Oy, what a way to start the week. This question has been overriding all my writing this morning. Writing that will unlikely make the light of day due to its very personal nature. The weekend was pleasant as the wife and I began the Christmas visiting season with her family on Saturday. Unfortunately just prior to that we had a falling out that made the time with family somewhat unpleasant. Having a smile that does not feel authentic on your face for 6 hours can be exhausting. However, I find watching my wife being pleasant and hospitable despite her anger with me can be just as tiring.

The nature of self worth, self esteem, personal valuation can lead one down many paths in this short life. Being selfish, making selfish choices that are hurtful and degrading to the one you love the most on the planet generally comes back to one’s feelings towards the your own self. That old cliche has some truth to it nonetheless. “You can’t love others unless you love yourself.” The Bible directs the man of faith to “Love your wife as you love yourself.” To be accurate, the complete passage from Ephesians is urging the reader towards a sacrificial type of love; as when Christ sacrificed himself for all of humanity on the Cross where he died. With that as our model, so we should love our wives.

In light of these words and traditional knowledge can we say offer up any reasons why we cannot muster up enough self esteem to love our wives as they undoubtedly deserve? Is it our lack of love in childhood? The book “Running on Empty” by Jonice Webb PhD has been a compelling read. She says that “emotional neglect” can be a far more insidious trauma because it is not taken as seriously as mental, sexual, and physical abuse, and yet many therapists claim it is much harder to treat successfully.

My family of origin certainly did not express many emotions, positive or negative during my formative years. When I became a teen, I withdrew emotionally and found relationships elsewhere. Not much healthier but it was all I thought I needed. If there was a street gang back then for middle class depressed pothead living in a small prairie town, I would have been a good candidate. It was not until I was in my forties that I found out that I had deep needs to hear overt words of love and affirmation. I found real faith in a loving community that was open about showing love and unconditional acceptance. I was at a place of desperation at that moment and a fell into the arms of God willingly and fully surrendering.

A lot of healing has taken place from my faith journey, but there is more to come. Freud called it the “Id”, some call it the “Inner Child”, some just the authentic, real, unchanging soul, the “SELF”. It is the part of us that lasts, that is perfect, shares space with God, and is ultimately what each one of us is journeying back to in this life. As one comes to know the SELF, one is healed of self loathing, self condemnation, depression, anxiety, and comes to possess peace, the lasting kind.

There will be more to come on this blog about my journey. Ultimately, everything that I write here will be connected to my journey. I would really like to know your thoughts on loving one’s self, and loving others.

Please share your stories of hurt, hope and healing.