Smelling the Roses

I remember watching a recording of Joan Baez, performing at the BBC in 1965, she starts singing Ain’t it Grand‘, trilling “Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody good cry, and always remember the longer you live, the sooner you’re going to die..” When she finishes, she stares right at the camera and says ‘there’s a lot of truth in that too, isn’t there?” Of course she is right, in her quintessential ‘of the time’ 1965 folk-head vernacular. The Truth, when it is observed is immediately identifiable. There are certain sentiments that writers can put into words and form, plucking them out of the ether and committing them to the cage of the page.

Recently the words of Dickens in his examination of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities have been ringing through my days and dreams: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..” There’s a lot of truth in that. Within the worst there are moments that when looked back upon, shine like diamonds amongst the slag heap of the years as they pile up.

Life has been a series of worst swirled in with the best for me, these ‘best’ worst of times. The ‘worst’ of times being beaten to within an inch of my life, raped every night, kept without access to bank accounts, kept hungry, kept without medical care when I desperately needed it, were also the best of times. I had my precious babies, my tiny children, my perfect yin and yang, my beautifuls, my heart and the outward expression of my soul: my Boy and Girl.

I still remember tiny sweaty little paws in my own, plastering overheated foreheads with gel cooling pads, to take the sting out of the Tokyo summer, walking down to the park together. Kicking leaves. Dancing in cherry blossom raining down. Huddled sometimes together in Starbucks, when I had saved up a little cash, stealing it from my husband’s pocket while he was passed out drunk. We would walk through a pretty part of town, and sit in the courtyard when the weather was bearable, or inside when it was too hot, or the typhoons raged. I would treat them to hot chocolate when it was cooler, or frappuccino when it was burning hot, and they would sit there examining the flyers for movies I would never be able to take them to see.

It is so easy, when embroiled in these ‘worst of times’ to wallow in the fear and the horror, the sadness and the impossibility of it all, and trust me, I wallowed at times. At times I stood there and wished myself gone. I didn’t want to die, I wanted things to be different. I didn’t want to disappear or desert anyone, I simply wanted my life to be safer, I wanted to be free from daily torture. I wanted to be free.

These moments lost in the translation of the moment, now get to be rediscovered. Oh to have just a moment watching my two small children color pictures, sit doing their homeschool work, or cuddled up in front of the television watching Shrek and giggling with me at various cartoon escapades. At the time it was all so much mundanity, moments of happiness flashed in the pan, the pain of what I thought was fools gold, and now looking back was solid 24 karat precious metal. Yes, it is hard to wake up and smell the roses, to see the treasure for what it is, when in the middle of a war.

This carried on when I finally ran and left. On the face of it, there is not much to celebrate about being homeless, not even when existing amongst those you love. Yes it is dirty, yes we got moved on from here to there and back again, time after time again. Yes, we had no money, little food, and not always anywhere safe to park up, let alone with the luxury of electrical plug ins, or a safe place to pitch my tent. Yes, the rain comes down hard, and the snow threatens destruction and death.

There were times I felt as if I was going to die from exposure, from the sheer ferociousness of the cold, but when you are that cold, and that tired, in the end, you pull the coverings you have over you, hold those you love close by, like a cavewoman on a mission, and sleep takes you whether you want it to or not. As unconsciousness takes over there might be a small thought wondering if it is possible you are going to die from the cold, but it doesn’t matter, it is simply impossible to stay awake. I am not about to pretend it was romantic traveller on the road, gypsy-lifestyle, but it was not all bad either.

Some days when I wake up and realize I have to deal with the world as the rest of people live in it and inhabit it, when I look at my calendar and realize how many appointments I have and how many people want to talk to me, or meet, or visit my house to make sure my supposedly untrustworthy ex-unhoused ass is not ruining the apartment, and that I am fully aware of my precarious position. I suppose it is a way of asserting their dominance, making sure I know my place, and keeping me scared and nervous. It works.

They come to my apartment, into the room I use as my bedroom, because we only have a one bed apartment, and sit there, next to my bed with no thought, no concern, no sensitivity for the fact that it is my damn bedroom, telling me that I have to worry about paying the rent from August (I know this), that I need to earn more money (I know this), and keeping me scared and feeling absolutely disrespected and put under pressure. This is the pressure crucible. This is my living in fear of being tossed into the streets with my Boy. This is the mire I am drowning in, feeling as if there is no support for me at all, just a lot of judgement and tutting, and scowling faces. There is no acknowledgement that I have fought and struggled and survived and done so sober and caring for my child in the worst and the best of times.

That said, I love my apartment. This year is pure spun gold. I love my clean and dry and safe bed. I love my window seat and my little collection of houseplants and cacti. I love the fact my child has his own room finally. I love my kitchen and my privacy. I tolerate the impositions because of the bliss of living here, on my good block of a tough ‘hood, in my apartment with the light that streams in as soon as it rises over the hills of the bay. I tolerate it all because despite the difficulties, and my constant fear that soon enough I won’t be able to afford this place and will be out on my ear, that for now, life is good. For now the bliss of living in my beloved city on the bay, outweighs the fear and the quicksand of horror at the thought of being back outside.

Everyone deserves a space to live inside. Everyone. There are over 40,000 empty houses and apartments in San Francisco alone, that have been bought and kept empty, by those that have too much, so that those who have so little sleep outside while those houses sit empty. Where is the fairness? Where is the decency? Where is life? Where is the gold? I wake up every day and smell the roses. I look at the little flower on my fat little cactus in the owl pot, sitting pretty amongst the thorns, and wonder at the splash of lovely amongst the bad, the milk in my tea, the balm on the wounds, the joy in the moment. The truth in the present being both the best and the worst of times.

I will admit that there are days when I desperately miss the campgrounds and the road the freedom of living a life where I answered to nobody, to nobody at all, except the needs for fuel and food, camping and shade, electric and water. Sometimes I shut my eyes and remember feeling so glad, almost blessed with my morning walk to the shower in my favorite coastal campground, along a winding trail, where bunnies and chipmunks, crow and racoon bounded along beside me, making me feel like Snow White in the forest, as it embraced my freedom, my impermanence, my ‘just for today’ bliss. I can go back there, to that moment in time where I was smelling the pine trees, the moss and the rainfall, and in a blink can see my loved ones as I trotted back from a shower in an outside block, back to their loving arms. It was the best of times. It was the worst of eras.

I long to wake up and have nothing to do. No pressure. No internet. No phone. No one trying to talk to me. No one asking me to jump through circus hoops. No one wanting anything from me at all, no one claiming they need my input, or claiming to want my opinion (trust me they don’t REALLY want to know what I think. Heck even I don’t want to know what I think sometimes…), nothing and no one so much as shaking my tree or quivering my spiders web, is a distant memory.

On the road, driving from town to town, state to state, never paying for more than a couple of days camping here and there, no phone signal, no net, no nothing just the steady rhythm of the hours and the days, was both a horror and a bliss. How much do I wish that all I had to worry about was $30 for camping with a shower and electric. It felt sustainable, as if I could do it forever. It might not have been possible in the end, but while it lasted I felt as if it was a life style I could keep up with, that the ravenous demands for money in exchange for housing and heat, electric and water, food and sundries could be managed in tiny, cheap portions of days and minutes.

We could pay for the day, and move on. We could leave if we had no money that particular day, and find somewhere that didn’t require money to park up and pitch a tent or sleep in the vehicle of the moment. It was both stressful and it was freedom, and sometimes, somedays I long for that feeling of nothing to do and nowhere to be, and not knowing where the day would take us, and not caring too much about it either.

If I could capture the spirit of those days, if I could bottle that essence of those moments of freedom, and let people sniff the sweetness of being let loose, perhaps I could pay the rent on this little apartment in the city of my dreams.

I am not denying the horror of those days, and the uncomfortable, dangerous, sometimes harrassed by cops, the housed who hate the unhoused with a passion, dirty and exhausting nature of some of those days. It is just that there was a lot of good, a lot of pleasure, a lot of perfect moments dangling a line in a lake, or moving a stick in the campfire, like in most extreme situations, it existed in a perfect dichotomy of good and evil, happy and sad, impossible and desirable. In a way it helped me recognize the good in tough times. I look out for it every single day of my life.

I watch carefully for those moments that in the future, that may not be as benign as this day, will keep the fire burning in my belly and the love flooding my synapses, those memories that never let me forget how love is fleeting, how life ebbs and flows and comes and goes. I catalogue them. I write them. I photograph them. I bequeath them like treasure to the Boy, so that one day, when I am dead and gone he can remember walking with me along the Embarcadero, holding my arm and smiling at the impossible happiness of it all. Because that happiness that lays in being together, being safe, being warm, being comfortable, in just being is the marrow and the juice of life.

These are the best of times. They certainly are not the worst. I fear that will be fleeting and come and go like the snow as it melts into springtime on the hills that now only exist in my memory of a different life and time when the pleasures and the pains were more defined, more extreme, more cinematic….and perhaps, in the end of it all….more real than I could ever bear.


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