This is my current public Facebook photograph. I thought it looked enough still-like-me to post (although I am some pounds heavier and my hair color is lighter). The artwork in the background is about to make its way into a national exhibit and, interestingly enough, it will also, finally, be published on the cover of a popular literary journal in the fall of 2014. But today what this photograph primarily elicits in me is self-doubt, insecurity, and fear.
At the beginning of that academic year I was living with two of my three children in that house, rented from the university where I firmly believed I would get tenure easily, and have that longed for job-for-life. I used one of my many professorial perks to enroll them in that small liberal arts college, tuition free. But my son moved out by May, to reunite with the father that abandoned him for ten years. Shortly before I took this photograph with the vintage Pentax that was part of my paltry 1988 divorce settlement, I received an angry, accusatory letter from my son, with a request to leave him the hell alone. When I tried to send him an email full of frantic pleas for explanation, it bounced back with a threatening auto-message for harassers. Then my youngest daughter moved out, also angry with me because I refused to keep her enrolled in college courses she was casually flunking, or smoke pot in the house I was renting from the university, or allow her drug using boyfriend to move in with us.
I was also still embroiled in a several year, long distance so-called relationship with a man who frequently reminded me I was not his boyfriend — although our brutal intimate activities seemed otherwise. His come here/come here/go away/go away behavior was driving me quite literally to drink. I would weep for hours after seeing him. Still, it took several additional agonized months to initiate and finally keep a break-up with him later that year.
And my so-called job for life at that university was foundering after only two semesters. Therefore, my Length of Stay, instead of twenty+ years, was three. I had to Move On to another university that situated me an additional four hours away from everyone I loved for another four depressing, fearful years. Then I Moved On again with my head hanging and my spirit battered, then Moved On again during a final traditional teaching attempt before I hit a vocational as well as personal rock bottom and got myself evicted from academia, for good, in 2010.
All told, and although I was gainfully employed, I was virtually vocationally homeless for more than sixteen years, and at a job that meant the world to me. No wonder I feel such a communion with the homeless.
Yesterday I learned that someone at the homeless shelter who has helped me as much as I ever helped him was a No Show the night before. That resulted in the oft threatened 30 Days I hear about now and then, sometimes humorously, while doing Art In The Annex. However, for him it means he cannot stay at or utilize the shelter for the next month.
But according to a witness who confided in me the minute I walked in with my Art Lady bag, on Thursday he had another Talk with the program director, and was informed that he would get The Letter shortly, formalizing that his Length of Stay, 180 days, is up at the night shelter. He responded with uncharacteristic anger, grabbed the few things he could carry on his bicycle, and did not return that night.
I suspect he thought No Showing would be a strategic move. That way he would avoid getting The Letter, and perhaps return to business as usual in this particular shelter after those 30 days. But I also think he did it to exert at least some control over his life. It might be the wrong kind of control, but it felt better than standing there, feeling helpless and hopeless. And I know how that feels.
So for the second time in less than two weeks I had to pass a tumbled pile of mismatched, shabby luggage and plastic bags at the shelter doorway, probably belonging to him. While I worked on rearranging and reorganizing The Annex for the viewing of donors at an upcoming open house, I wondered how on earth he would move his things and where they could go when he has no safe place to live. I fumed about his procrastination when he knew the shelter rules, and was convinced there was no way he would reach out to me after a series of what had to be equally devastating No blows I inflicted on him earlier in the week, all for his benefit — although I am sure it did not feel that way to him. Nor would it be appropriate for me to help him with this, now.
To feel a little more in control myself this morning, I looked up scholarly online articles about setting stay limits in homeless shelters. But not because I believe he was treated unfairly. Because I wanted to know what the standards are, who established them, and why.
What I immediately tripped over was a long treatise about power and control in shelter staff/client interactions. It states that submitting to the set rules, practices, and decision making of shelter staff systematically erodes residents’ sense of autonomy, dignity, and pride. Challenging that institution only leads to what feels like and often is, punishment. Shelter residents often find it “impossible to simultaneously be a compliant dependent and achieve the self-sufficiency necessary to return to independent living”.
And I thought about me, failing to fight the institutionalized tenure system for sixteen straight years, and how often I felt stymied and gagged and forced to do abhorrent things against my will. I felt punished quite often (albeit in genteel ways) when I tried to be autonomous, and slowly watched my dignity and pride in both myself and my work erode despite desperate attempts to maintain my integrity. The only way to save myself was to leave, under extreme pressure. Like him, on Thursday.
Friday afternoon, after working on my attempt at Faith, opposite the now REALLY homeless man’s version of Hope, I opened the desk drawer where I helped him stow several enormous books on graffiti, checked out from the local library only a week ago. They were still there. I slid open the other drawers, and saw a few other valuable only to him items and stood there, wondering what he was thinking and feeling when he left them.
Then I noticed his art history textbook was missing. So were the printouts of the information on art museums I left on top of the desk, and the Sharpie I used to write upon them that I now hope he plans to use to scrawl a few cathartic tags around town. I dug in my desk drawer for another one, a scrap of card stock, and wrote Take Care, along with the days and times I plan to be at the local library working on my memoir and hoping he will let me continue to help him with his art history paper. And shoved it inside a shoe.