I have a hard time peeling myself away from the book I am reading to focus on this column. The book is called From the Ashes, and it is written by Jesse Thistle, presently an assistant professor of Metis Studies at York University in Toronto. The path that led him to where he is today though… OK, I will not spoil it for you. I am three quarters done and have shaken my head and winced more times than I could count since I started reading it. I had heard him sharing his story on the radio a couple of years ago while driving with my eldest to Harper Mountain. I wished then he’d write about it. He did.
(Initially published as a column in the AM News on January 24, 2015)
I saw her talking to someone in a parked car as I was walking towards mine. Then she wobbled her way towards my car. I was already in when I noticed she was standing by the passenger’s window. I rolled it down.
At first I could not understand what she was saying. She had no teeth and her words were coming out mangled. She must’ve been 65 or so, maybe older.
‘Can you drive me to the Crossroads please? I will give you ten dollars.’
I bought a few seconds of thinking with a somewhat troubled smile, but realized soon enough that I could not say no. I just couldn’t. And I did not want to take her money either.
I said I will. She smiled and climbed in. Slipping on ice made her movements rather awkward. She had an almost empty bottle in one hand and was clutching an old purse with the other. She smelled of booze; that answered the question about the empty bottle. She poured the rest out.
The side of the road was icy and the car slipped a few times. I felt the woman’s gaze on me as I was trying a few maneuvers.
‘We can do it, me and you. Try again. Put it in reverse.’ Her voice was encouraging and the words were coming out less fragmented.
We got unstuck and drove away.
‘You’re a good driver,’ she said full of admiration. Right. If only. I laughed and said thank you. I felt a bit uneasy as we all do when something unusual happens, but I knew this was more than driving someone a few blocks through the downtown.
I turned right and drove into the heart of the downtown. The sun made the ice glitter and it looked pretty. I thought of how many people in this very city will not see that or hate it altogether for that is what you do when it’s cold and all that means warmth has been peeled off of your existence.
‘My name is Joanne. What is yours?’
I said my name and she repeated it slowly.
‘Are you named after your mother?’
I said no, my parents just liked the name. For a couple of seconds my mind flew towards one of the many times I asked my mom why she named me Daniela. She would always smile, her own thoughts carrying her to the time when I was born. There was always another story of my early childhood tucked in with the answer. Slices of life that help us understand.
I asked Joanne where was she from. Nova Scotia, she said. ‘I have nine sisters, but I don’t talk to them on the phone.’ I thought of her as a little girl, playing with her sisters and dreaming of growing up and… The contrast with today’s wrinkled face smelling of booze was sad.
What is life? How does it turn its ugly face and ghoul eyes at some of us… Life becomes a beached whale, abandoned on a beach that holds too much garbage, it just does and we often have no answers. It stinks.
Life can flip from gracious to ungracious in a few moments, and the witnesses to the ungracious disappear like scared birds. Ungracious scares us.
Joanne asked if I know where Crossroads is. I do, I answered. It’s the building that used to be an inn and now it is managed by ASK Wellness who made it into a shelter for the homeless. Fragmented life putters around the building at any given time. It’s a place of hope and despair at once.
Joanne repeated my name one more time, quietly, as if to memorize it.
‘Are you mad at me?’ she asked out of the blue. No, I said. Why would I? I hoped no one would be. Then again, being human makes us prone to emotions of all kinds and a person on the edge of life wearing all the paraphernalia of failure often serves like a mirror we’re never ready to stare in.
‘I like your name, it’s beautiful,’ she said as we parked in front of the building. Someone was sleeping on the sidewalk, lost in an old bright green sleeping bag.
Joanne opened the door, stumbled out with the empty bottle in one hand and the purse in the other. She bowed with a big smile and said thank you, leaving me with my thoughts. Sad and bittersweet, grateful that I was given an opportunity to remember that life is not a high note but a repertoire of many, some so low they growl at you, others so high they hurt your thoughts.
Balance and grace. How do we? How do we mask the failure, how do we fall and how do we get up? It matters to have someone to love you, it matters to be truthful to yourself and know that you can do more than humanely possible; you need a hand to help you up sometimes, hugs to remind of warmth and you need to be loved.
What happened to Joanne? Her journey from Nova Scotia to here and to today, what happened along the way?
Compassion starts with looking into someone’s eyes without judgment. It’s the hardest thing. We all carry stories, we carry our own mountains and valleys we crossed since we can remember, we carry guilt and heartache and all the hope one can muster when hope is a flotilla of broken vessels, most submerged… Can you still do it?
Is there an end to hope? I guess hope is like a torch. Some people carry it with them for as long as they can, and then they attempt to pass it on. It’s up to those who are still standing and have strength to take it and carry it forward. To use it to light a fire that will help warm those who are cold, and cook food if they need it.
It’s a together thing. The hope, making the journeys smother for those who have it rough. No one can do it alone. When we can, as much as we can. Never turn your eyes away when another pair of eyes is trying to find yours. You are the lucky one. You are giving hope and are, in turn, given the gift of humbleness.
Like Joanne said… ‘We can do it. Me and you…’