Temporarily suspended in the here and now

From the moment I got on the chemotherapy merry-go-round, I have been thinking about what it feels like to be me right now – compared to what it usually feels like. The further into the cycles of poisoning I go, the harder it is to remember what ‘normal’ looks like. Who I am today still holds the essence of who I was before…I think. “Do I seem different to you?” I keep asking people. In trying to find a word to describe the sensation of not entirely knowing whether I am still the same old Sara, I tried a few on for size. ‘Lost’ seemed a bit melodramatic. ‘Drifting’ felt like it was lacking in purpose because I am still very clear on what and who is important to me. ‘Temporarily suspended’ was the best I could come up with. That’s two words, acknowledged. Stick with me while I describe it because it’s taking us somewhere important.

What do I mean by ‘temporarily suspended’? I am firmly rooted in the now. So firmly rooted that I have almost lost my ability to dream, to think about how things might be different. Always one to give airtime to the fanciful and the dreamy, the piece of my brain that does that has largely checked out. Born an eternal optimist, I currently don’t have the ability to move within that space nor one where everything is going to hell in a handbasket. I am in the nowhere space where things are neither good nor bad, neither exciting nor dull. I am task-orientated and looking ahead a few paces less than usual. I can still do all the things required of me at work – but it requires a different type of focus. In some ways, I am relying on sets of purposeful learned behaviors rather than doing what comes automatically. In other ways, I am operating purely out of instinct.

Yesterday, a random thought about the parallels between my experience and those of our visitors emerged. The life events and other stressors our visitors face create a similar effect for them as the merry-go-round of ritualistic dosing with powerful drugs does to me. Mental-health issues, drug-and-alcohol dependence and life trauma all thrust people into a fog. Our visitors are firmly rooted in the now. They are often only looking ahead far enough to know what is happening in the next hour or at most, the rest of the day. Despite people on the outside thinking they must be constantly miserable, often they are neither happy nor unhappy, excited nor calm, hopeful nor hopeless. There are certainly times of imminent crisis where it all feels too much, just as there are moments of simple joy from a pleasant or soulful exchange with a kind person. Broadly – they are stuck and have lost their ability to dream about what else life could look like.

I was chatting with one of our regular visitors last week about his current battle with alcohol. Over and over he kept telling me stories of how the alcohol was devastatingly affecting his health. It didn’t matter where I tried to steer the conversation, he kept coming back to the same thing. When I asked him what he could do about his health, he told me more stories of the body parts that were giving out. He was stuck. Boldly and with license, because we had been talking about me heading back for a round of chemo the next day, I said to him “So it seems we are both poisoning ourselves, except I am poisoning myself to live and it looks like you are poisoning yourself to die. What do you think about that?” He agreed. We did a deal whereby the next day, I would poison myself to live and he would have a day of abstinence. I saw him five days later and he had been abstinent since we spoke. I won’t pretend our conversation was profound enough to cause a whole life shift but a five-day break was something his body would have benefited from.

I know there is an end to my experience of being temporarily suspended. But for our visitors, what is the catalyst that allows a dream of something better to emerge. Without doubt, it is to be surrounded by people who remember how to dream and who can help create the mental images that conjure up a different type of life. Our support team does just that. This is a team of truly special people, whose ability to help people transcend from a state of being temporarily suspended to one of forward movement is something made of magic. It is rooted in experience, practice, persistence, integrity, respect and a deep sense of care.

I am still asking the question “Do I still seem the same to you?” The random thought about parallel understandings and the process of writing about finding meaning in one thing because of another felt like me. So yes, I am me – temporarily suspended or not.

139 Club

Living through our values

Lately I have been wondering what I could share that would mean something. After lots of inner musings about not wanting to share for the sake of sharing (and having a high level of discomfort with the possibility of return emails that say ‘I’m so sorry!),  I have decided to disclose a part of my story, because it has parallels with those we work with at 139 Club.

Recently I had the experience of a breast cancer diagnosis. I don’t wish to be identified by it any more than I want to be identified by the fact that I have fingernails that won’t grow or bunions on my feet from too much ballet as a child. What I am happy to own and be identified by is the magic and insight that has come from the diagnosis, and how that has allowed me to reflect on the wonderful place in which I work, with all the eclectic and colourful souls that inhabit it.

When this bump in the road arose I was reminded of how important it is for people to find their identity, whatever that looks like for them. I wish to take nothing from those people who identify themselves as cancer survivors or who commit themselves to raising awareness of whatever particular illness impacts them. It’s a big deal and it creates insight and passion in people in all sorts of wonderful ways. For me, there will be no ardent wearing of pink ribbons or specific promotion of breast cancer awareness or referring to myself as a survivor of anything.  What you will see in me is a deepening of the things I already cared about. Individual identity is one of those things.

Identity is important when times are tough, as they are for many of our visitors. I have never referred to the people we work with as “the homeless” because they are so much more than the conglomerate, homogenized mass that a label like that connotes. The people who visit with us are all unique with broad and varied backgrounds. They have some things in common and also have differences.

They are Renee, who was quite the roller skating champion in her day, and Barry, who was one of the smoothest used car salesmen around despite the fact he was never able to drive. They are Ken, who thinks he has no talent despite being able to write uplifting and moving songs, and Maree, whose paintings “just to brush out the cobwebs” are better than those many artists could produce on a good day.

On a deeper level they are Arnie, who looks aggressive and angry on the outside but on the inside craves the love, connection and comfort that was never afforded to him as a child. They are Marla, who wants so desperately to believe in herself and her worth but cannot shake the feeling that she deserves the blows to her body inflicted by her abusive partner. They are Rain, who after many years of living with no home has found a deeper comfort, believing his home lives within him and his role in life is to share his own serenity and comfort with others.

Identity is important because it is the constant that we carry with us wherever we go. We can pretend to create neat compartments for the various pieces of our lives to keep them separate, to differentiate and to create boundaries. Despite this, at our very hearts, we are whole entities, applying ourselves in totality to all of the experiences in our life. When I am at work I am as whole and undivided as I am when I am vacuuming the floor or loving someone dear to me. Individual identity is crucial to how we uphold and support the dignity of our visitors and encourage them to continue to be the experts on their own life. It is crucial to how we, as a team of people working together, conduct ourselves and live through our values.

The end of financial year is approaching. I’d like to thank everyone who has supported us over the past year, and let you know it makes my heart warm to know we will continue to receive help as we move forward. But today, instead of a fundraising appeal, I would ask you to think about your identity. Who are you? What makes you tick? What do you care about? If you would like to donate, I and the people who come here will be warmly appreciative, but maybe you would also like to come and visit us, or experience what it’s like to volunteer, or just keep reading my funny little words, or even unsubscribe if we are not part of your identity. Until next time……

139 Club

Wishing you all the happiness in the world…

I get the feeling 2017 is going to be a big year. All around me I see people going through enormous change in their lives. It seems that every conversation I have I am hearing messages of transformation and movement, some coming with excruciating pain and heartbreak but all with a sense of the change being necessary. This sense of change and movement afoot reminds me how important it is that we are a constant, stable anchor for people.

Last week I was helping our team with the afternoon closure of the centre. It’s always a tough task, waking people from their sleep, winding up the day’s Netflix viewing, encouraging people to take their last cup of tea or trip to the bathroom. It’s a process that takes about forty minutes and is one we try to do kindly but with a sense of firmness. Our visitors are reluctant to head back out onto the streets. We never feel great about it.  No surprises there.

I was doing a round of the laundry and found a young man, clad in a towel and not much else, with a load of washing in the machine and a clock ticking down until closing time. We chatted and it was his first time visiting with us in six years. He had made his way from out of town to Brisbane that day, with nowhere to stay for the night.  I suggested to him he was going to be in a conundrum, with a bag full of wet clothes and clearly nothing to wear. I offered to grab some clothes for him to put on, to put his wet clothes through the dryer and for one of our team to meet him outside after closing once they were dry.

He looked surprised that I would go out of my way for him. When I asked him what size clothes he wanted he didn’t seem to know – which isn’t uncommon. There is a certain look people get when they are about to spend a night on the streets for the first time in a while. It’s a look that tells the story of what’s gone before. It is often accompanied by a slowness and difficulty responding to fairly basic questions. I have become used to estimating people’s clothing size since working here and I selected some clothes for the young man. On his way out the door he said thank you and goodbye. I said “Maybe I will see you tomorrow?” He said he didn’t think so. The next morning when I walked in he was having breakfast. My heart warmed. I had been thinking of him and hoping he would come back and I was pleased to see him. I hope he stays long enough for us to be what we need to be for him.

Later that morning a visitor I have come to know well over the last few years asked to see me. It turned out he wanted to say goodbye. There have been many times over the years where he has disappeared for periods of time. He never said goodbye on those occasions. He told me this would be the last time we saw each other. I asked him where he was going. My question was met with a wry smile and something about “I will be wandering”.  All I could do was hug him and tell him it had been my greatest pleasure to know him and that I wished him all the happiness in the world.

One of the most confronting parts of our work here is being comfortable with not knowing. People come in and out of our organisation on their own terms. We care for them without attachment. Often we get to see them transform and watch their lives change. Many times we don’t and we wonder where they are and if they are ok. And so we continue to just be. Be the constant, the anchor, the safe space! Be the place that people can come back to when they need to. Be the people who don’t need to know, but care without hesitation.

139 Club

You can’t hide love!

Love is not a word used synonymously with working on the front line of community services. This work is a tough gig, characterised by seeing and hearing things that the ordinary person wouldn’t see or hear in their everyday life. The stories our visitors tell us could and should make your eyes sting with tears, your heart ache for the childhood they lost or drive a lump into your throat because of the traumatic experiences they have encountered.

For the most part, frontline staff and volunteers find a space where the pain doesn’t transfer – doesn’t penetrate. We talk a lot about appropriate professional boundaries. We are working with vulnerable people and we need to ensure that neither they nor we are compromised in the process of partnering with them. It’s about them – their goals and aspirations and dreams.

We skirt around the issue of love. We are careful that physical reassurance and comfort, if offered to a distressed person is done in a way that is appropriate and could not be misconstrued.  We don’t talk about love or about loving our visitors. But walk through the floors of 139 Club and you will find that the one word which captures that “get under your skin” feeling this place gives you, is love.

When a person visits with us, without sleep, clean clothes, money, friends or family or the will to keep trying, it’s not just the practical support that makes them believe they can get through another day. When one of our visitors calls in, stricken with panic and ready to flee from the troubles chasing them – it’s not just the calming demeanour of our staff and volunteers that helps them make a choice about the next right step. We can call it “care” or “empathy”!  But it’s love! Accepting, unconditional love for people whether we know them or not!

At Christmas time, on the day of our Christmas lunch, I decided to take a bold step. I wore a sign that said “Free Hugs”. I was completely open to whether people would avail themselves of the opportunity to hug me. I was frightened and uncomfortable – not of people wanting to hug me, but of people not wanting to. I, like every other person in the world, is afraid of rejection.  I did it because I thought the best Christmas present I could give to our visitors was the opportunity to feel connected and loved, a feeling many of them seldom experience. I hugged about 100 people that day, many of them more than once.

Our visitors didn’t want air hugs – the polite type where you go through the motions of hugging but your heart isn’t in it. They wanted bear hugs, hugs with meaning, hugs that said “I love you whether I know you or not.” There was nothing inappropriate about it, nothing crossing over a professional boundary. It was done in the spirit of fun, of Christmas and because I wanted to show that it’s ok to love.

Over the course of the next year people will come and go. Every time we journey with someone and see them taking steps forwards we will believe in them, feel excited, hopeful and do whatever we can to help them make their dreams a reality. There will be plenty of occasions where we see them come back to us, their efforts dashed, their purpose failing, their lives lapsing back into homelessness, addiction and offending behaviour. Sometimes that is hard for us to accept. There will be days when we find it hard to look at someone who had the world at their feet and chose to walk a different path. But it will make no difference to what we do in the end, because that is what love is all about.

We can pretend that underneath our professional personas and our appropriate boundaries and our policy ridden and carefully formulated practice frameworks that it’s all about getting the day’s work done. But really, the reason we are all here, in its simplest form, is love!

139 Club

The Fireside at Christmas

When I first came to work at 139 Club, I had never worked in community services. My background was a broad exposure to professional worlds across health, family business, not for profits and large commercial enterprise. Wanting to establish credibility, I turned to the reading material and research on the issues of homelessness. Theoretically it helped, but it left me feeling cold, without conviction. Two years on I have a fire raging in my belly, but it’s not just about homelessness. Homelessness in and of itself is not “a thing”. It’s a symptom. An end result of a range of circumstances and beliefs and experiences that happen to real people. The fire in my belly is because of them, who they are, how they got here and what they face today and in the future.

Someone new to the sector recently remarked to me that they felt they needed to “get their head around the issues in homelessness”! I gave them a piece of advice. Create your own story, your own view and your own dialogue! Come and spend time with us and allow your observational skills to give you the information you need to articulate within yourself a way to tell it, explain it and help others understand. You don’t need textbooks and research and data. You just need to care enough and be curious enough to pay attention and organise your thoughts.

As we come to the close of 2016, I reflect on what a momentous year it has been for me in finding a way to articulate what I have learned from our guests and why they find themselves in the situations they are in. It has been a year of me leaning in with our guests, observing, asking, listening, formulating and understanding. It has been a year where they have allowed me to use my ability to tell stories to help people understand their world.

Last week, the very talented music group “Topology” came to visit with us to run a songwriting workshop. No musical experience was required. No one turned up! So, up they got and down into our courtyard they walked with their instruments. There was a small group milling around. I tested the waters to see how the group felt about Topology playing a little. They were hesitant. So Topology sat a small distance away and started to jam. Five minutes passed and I gauged with our guests their comfort with moving them closer. They agreed.

The next hour was spent jamming, singing, requesting songs, smiling, laughing and connecting. The mood was light. Blessed with a better than average voice but usually crippled with fear about letting people hear it, I found myself singing with Topology loud and proud, for the first time in 15 years. We were all living in the moment, our problems forgotten, our hearts happy and hopeful. Topology cared enough and were curious enough to pay attention, be flexible and allow the experience to unfold even though it didn’t fit the original purpose of them coming here. They are coming back in the new year to bring their musical medicine back to us. We will write a song, just follow a different path to get there. We are all excited.

There is a lot to be grateful for as we head into Christmas. I am grateful for our guests and the time I have spent with them this year. I have truly embraced learning about what makes them tick. That includes those who, on the odd occasion may have cursed at me, or told me I was doing a rubbish job as CEO. I welcome it all. I am grateful for the talented, eclectic and beautiful Board, volunteers, students and staff who I work with. Spending time with them makes me incredibly happy. I admire who they are as people more than they know. On days when I don’t feel strong they give me strength. On days when I am out of ideas they come up with ways out of the woods.

I am grateful for the amazing business partners and supporter groups and individuals who have allowed me to help them understand a side to the world that is generally sanitised and swept away. I am grateful to you, our supporters, for allowing me the opportunity to write for you and share with you my own view of our work and the people we support. So many of you write to me and tell me how my stories make you feel and that helps me to know we are making a difference.

I want to leave you with some final thoughts. When people come here and meet with our guests they often say to me, “I thought I had problems, but I am just going to be grateful for what I have from now on.” I take a different view and don’t encourage people to think like this. There is a point where a person who is homeless believes they need to settle, to accept only what society feels they deserve and to be grateful to be alive despite having nothing and no one. That point may have come early in their life and predetermined a path into marginalisation, or it may have come after life knocked them down many times. The biggest lesson you can learn from us and our work is to believe you deserve the best. If your job doesn’t bring you meaning, work out what does. If your friendships or relationships don’t make you feel loved and honoured, find some that do. If you feel empty, find out how to love yourself and feel complete. Don’t settle and feel you should be grateful for things that don’t make you thrive. Believe! Strive! Our guests want that for you! We want that for everyone!

From all of us at 139 Club, we wish you a wonderful Christmas and look forward to sharing with you again in 2017.

139 Club