Thursday, 25 September 2008

Real and Surreal

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to go on a tour of many of the homeless and emergency shelters, and detox-centers in Edmonton's inner city. As I've mentioned before, I work in a jail and the mentally ill people I work with there utilize the services of these places quite frequently when they are out in the community. It was good to see these places for myself, to know where they are and get to know a bit how they operate so I'm in a better position to understand my inmate clients' reality. The person leading the tour made a telling comment at one point in the afternoon: "being homeless is a full time job."

I found out that while there are quite a few places to get food in our city, there are hardly any places to sleep if you don't have a home of your own. (In the winter, this can be a big problem here, since it gets down to -30C regularly at night.) You have to get in line early to be sure to get a mat on the floor for the night, in a room of 65-70 or more other people on their mats for the night. Then get in line again for breakfast a few blocks away before it's all gone, and put your name on the list to use the washer or dryer or telephone, which may sometimes actually work. Cart around your few belongings and try to stay out of the way of the aggressive drug dealers or gang members who might 'roll' you for fun, or for your meds or workboots, or just because they can. Pick some bottles to get some cash, maybe apply at a temporary labor agency but be turned down because you don't have any work boots, and no place for them to call you to tell you had the job, even if you did have work boots. Go back to the public health clinic to pick up your psych meds. All of this before lining up early for dinner again, and wolfing it down so you can get in line for a sleeping mat. All day long, the realities of where you are going to sleep and eat are staring you in the face, along with the realities of how to ensure personal safety and how to make some kind of legit money.

I contrast this with the surreal nature of what I've been hearing and seeing in the media, more so lately. Large investment banks whose avaricious practices have caught up with them, now want taxpayers to fund their greed (and apparently their wish has been granted, thanks to another round of fear mongering). Citizens' money worked for and saved over decades is sucked into the abyss of failing banks. Rather than talking about things that matter, our politicians try to out-insult each other so they can become our new 'leaders.' The effects of melamine-tainted food products on Chinese babies are kept under wraps so the Olympics can go off without a hitch. Amateur and professional sporting events are 'fixed' so you can't even be sure that when your team wins, they actually won. Everything is artificial or contrived, if not a boldfaced lie. Do we live in a democratic society anymore, or is it mostly fascist now?

Maybe this is what an existential crisis feels like? When I sit and listen to the news I mostly just gape and shake my head, wondering what really exists, and what is just 'impression management' and 'spin.' Maybe the movie, The Matrix, wasn't so fictional after all? Who can even tell? What does a person hang on to while the house of cards falls?

I imagine that the homeless people I saw yesterday would tell me bluntly that my 'existential crisis' is a luxury they can't afford. They would deride me for ever having thought the house of cards was real in the first place, and shake me out of my foggy delusions. Then, they would get back down to the business of dealing in the everyday realities of finding shelter, food and a measure of safety in their community. In some ways, the mentally ill people I work with are less deluded and more practical than society at large. I'm thankful for the opportunity to learn from them, and thankful for the reality check. It's time to buckle down and get to work.

Reading through the Tao Te Ching today, I notice this chapter, which seems fitting given the news of the 'bailout' in the US announced this morning:

Chapter 53

If I have a little knowledge
Walking on the great Tao
I fear only to deviate from it
The great Tao is broad and plain
But people like the side paths

The courts are corrupt
The fields are barren
The warehouses are empty

Officials wear fineries
Carry sharp swords
Fill up on drinks and food
Acquire excessive wealth
This is called robbery
It is not the Tao!


Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Theresa, thank you for this wonderful and eye opening post. So interesting what you say at the end about the homeless deluding us for ever believing the house of cards was real to begin with. They have been kicked down enough, had enough struggle, to understand some of the basics of reality that we are shielded from because of our affluence. I might dare to say that in some ways our affluence makes us ignorant.

A lot of us here in the States tried to keep this massive theft from the taxpayers from happening, but you know who rules here. I am now heavily leaning to our world quickly closing and becoming more fascist.

I heard something on the news the other day about how there is going to be an active military base sited in the US for use in crisis situations and "conflict resolutions". For awhile at least, there was a rule called "posse comitatus" that disallowed the military from taking part in "law enforcement" activities. So much for that, now we're going to have to fear our own military breaking down our doors. I seriously get scared sometimes. I try to be hopeful and find comfort in the little things, but it gets difficult and truly frightening at times, it really does.

Theresa said...

Jennifer, yes, I'm sure our affluence has kept us ignorant to many things. Lately I've found myself listening intently to what the inmates say about where they get their water and food when they're 'outside' and how they get by in their winter campsites.

It does get frightening sometimes. Daharja at is predicting that Bush will use this 'crisis' to put off the election altogether. I can understand a little better now why some Americans hold so tightly to the 'right to bear arms' when I hear about stuff like that, and about the active military base you mention.

What makes it so surreal at times is the complete oblivion of so many people. People driving their SUVs through the drive-thru at Tim Horton's, picking up their don't-pay-until-Spring new 52 inch flat screen tv with surround sound. It's like living in a dreamworld sometimes.

Maggie said...

Dream world, fantasy world, plastic world, god dollar world it is really frightening.
I sometimes cannot believe how we are so removed from reality, how brain washed society is.
What kind of society allows some people to be homeless when most of it's leaders live in luxury.
What will happen to the planet, it is not looking good.

Simply Authentic said...

Theresa, I'm so glad you could go on this tour. It truly is such an eye opening experience and allows everyone to better understand what being homeless is really like.

You described their daily life so well. As hard as it may seem, a little hope can go a long way...

Theresa said...

Maggie - I wonder the same thing. The homeless people actually give me hope though, because they are so good at just doing what has to be done. More and more of us are waking up to the fact that we have to do the same thing, and we're just getting out there and doing it!

SA - yes, I think the homeless people do a whole lot with very little, and we would do well to follow their example of turning a little hope into sustained persistence in the face of daily obstacles. If they can do that, surely we can step up and do what needs doing for our planet!