You Mean I Haven’t Been Kicked Out Yet?

These blog posts are so funny. It always turns out the same way, you know, like I start off writing one thing:

I have an idea what I’m going to do, how I’m going to do it.

Then suddenly the whole thing takes a U-turn and then a left turn, and finishes off with a backflip

And for some reason, instead of forcing it back on track and instead of going back to my outline, I just kind of hop on and take the ride. It’s almost like, like, I was just standing there, and ended up on a roller coaster without knowing it. I thought I was sitting in a weird booth with a bar in front of my lap. And suddenly, away it goes, and I’m just along for the ride until it’s over.

Last week, for example, I was planning on writing about settling in and my first impressions of E1V.

And suddenly I was talking about what my experience was during the lockdown.

I was talking about how even if you think of yourself as someone with an independent mind, the very fact that you have just been doing things a certain way for a certain amount of time will somehow control your thoughts and you don’t even notice it until later when you try and do something different.

And you get this chill inside when you try to change something so simple, so harmless. You’re like, I can’t do that. That’s wrong. I’ll get in trouble. So suddenly, last week, I’m talking about alcohol, which I don’t want to do that because, you know, I worry that everyone will be reading that and going:

“Okay, this guy’s just rationalizing away his alcohol problem. “

But I don’t have an alcohol problem. If anything I have a smoking problem, and that is really a depression problem. But you know, somebody who did have an alcohol problem, would probably write something very similar to what I wrote. Rationalizing a backslide.

So I’m just, I’m not even sure what’s gonna happen. I’m trying to connect back up with what I was doing before we went down last week’s road. About how we were just like spaced-out zombies the first couple of weeks at E1V, getting used to change. It was kind of surprising. We, me and my co-villagers, were like flowers that were all curled up and it took a couple weeks, some people even longer, for the leaves to relax and the petals to open up and face the sun, you know? And some parts of us are still curled up and not ready at all.

So.

Thinking about how I didn’t remember much of it, that was what I was talking about, about how spaced out we were, and how I didn’t remember much of the early days here.

And the reason I didn’t remember any of it is because a lot of stuff inside of me was going on. And I probably just, you know, I was faced inward. Even though I was walking around in the physical world, the spiritual eyes were most definitely facing inward.

So now, finally, I would like to get back to those early first impressions. And I’m kind of worried that I’m harping on the same thing over and over, because, you know, I keep talking about how your consciousness changes, keep talking about how, you know, your, your mind knows something that your heart’s not ready for and it takes a while for your heart to catch up. And and what was intended to be a simple description ends up a stream of consciousness because I’m like, respecting the inside of my mind and heart and writing about that instead of specific details about Everyone Village.

So I hope you don’t mind that, the messiness. You know, I want to get out and I want to, as I’ve said this before, too, I want to start writing more cheerful posts. I want to just write something fun, you know?

So maybe, in this case, what comes pouring out of me is the same as what I have in an outline, and that would be really good because that would make me feel like, I have a little control over what I write because it’s hard to believe there are eight posts already. It seems like this blog has only just started.

More like 8 runaway horses. It’s unsettling to think that you don’t really even have control of what you write. Like there’s this huge weight inside you, and at some point, you just have to reach in and take that weight and pull it out. Just so you can continue and after you’re done with that, maybe you could write something. Maybe that’s just what writing actually is. I don’t know.

Anyway, chronologically, yes I understand that concept, that there is a world outside my own mental twists, we’re still at the point where I just moved in, and it is immediately clear there are a lot of new options, which reminds me of something I read a long time ago, a description of a psychological theory by a psychologist and I don’t remember what the theory was even called, and this theory was referred to in another book and I never even read anything by the actual psychologist who wrote it.

(So whenever I talk about I pretend I’m an expert on the topic, because that is what they taught me to do in college and it mostly works. Here we go on another tangent.)

The idea this guy, Kurt Lewin, put forward (at least I remember his name) was that you perceive situations in completely different ways depending on what you need. It’s like a landscape or a person can be completely different based on just some tiny little change, or some large change in your outlook.

I’ve just found that to be true in an unsettling way. Simple but profound because we live under the illusion for the most part that we are perceiving the world objectively, or at least more objectively than all those other idiots.

Example: Let’s say you’re going out for a walk with your family and you’re enjoying nature. You really love trees. So you’re just noticing all the trees and you are soaking all the trees in. And there may be a bunch of rocks, they’re big boulders, and you don’t even notice them because you don’t care about rocks. You care about trees. Because you’re going for a nature walk. So you couldn’t even tell someone what size, color, or the placement of the rocks were.

But a few weeks down the road, your country may be at war. And now you couldn’t care less about trees. Now you just need places to hide from gunfire, and rocks can do that, so now all you see are rocks. That’s the basic idea.

Example #2: I noticed this a long time ago in a very different setting, long before I was homeless, and I just want to confirm this guy’s theory.

(I also want to talk a little about my life before I was homeless to remind the reader that I, like most homeless people, wasn’t always this way, and sometimes we talk wistfully about those times, calling them “my old life,’ or ‘back in real life,’ and we remember those time well because sometimes they keep us going.)

It’s almost like magic, seeing a place you think you know well in a completely new way.

A place can be an entirely different place, based on where you are inside yourself. And my example is that I used to work at this restaurant, right? I was a busboy at this restaurant. And it was a really fancy restaurant, up on a hill, had a beautiful view of the entire San Francisco Bay Area. But at work you didn’t see any of that; all you saw was one more glass to refill, tablecloths to replace, napkins to fold into little fans and slap down. It was just a series of tasks, and everything looked really ratty to me, the ketchup stain on your black vest, the big pile of dishes hidden in the bus station, there was just mess to clean up or hide. This was one of the first places that had fresh-squeezed orange juice, which meant nothing to you when you are making sure there are no pieces of dried orange pulp on the glass you are going to fill. A four-dollar (Man, Grammarly sure likes hyphens.) glass of orange juice in 1983, and to you, running around, it was just orange liquid not to spill.

That’s what it was, to me. And then there was a raffle among employees and one of the prizes was getting to eat there one night for free, which I won, and wasn’t that excited about. I get to go to work and eat. Yay.

My girlfriend and I dressed up and went, and when we sat down and it was just a completely different place.

I can’t even explain it. I didn’t have to do anything. And suddenly everything looked classy when you weren’t seeing behind the curtain. For the first time, I actually looked at the silverware, which was real silver by the way. It shined and the light reflected off it and it clinked delicately on the plate, you could hear little musical clinks from other tables. You could hear the answering clink of glasses, and the light was low and I heard the background music for the first time, sensed the excitement of the diners, and appreciate the quiet professionalism of the waiter, the guy who was normally screaming at us back in the kitchen.

Long before reading Kurt Lewin, I had viscerally experienced his theory, and the place I worked had been magically transformed. It felt like I was in a place that was literally different, such is the power of context. The food was great, service amazing, and we could relax and concentrate on the view and each other.

Later when I read about Kurt Lewin’s theory, it all came back. I am now wondering if you the reader have experienced this phenomenon in such a disorienting way?

Maybe it is this kind of experience that keeps reminding me of the inescapably individual way we perceive the world no matter how objective it feels, and that’s why I keep coming back to the changes inside me, and why this little stream needs to run its course.

Here’s hoping these feelings are universal enough to share.

It has to follow that if perceptions are personal, then problem-solving is very internal and idiosyncratic as well. It is more than unlearning habits., but problem-solving on a primitive and nearly unconscious level.

Here is a list of some of the attitudes of mine that I had to change:

  1. Embracing the Primitive

As much as I like E1V, and as happy as I am here, it must be said that in the beginning it was extremely primitive. We had our shelters, portapotties, and at first that seemed like it was going to be it. By the time I moved in we had a warehouse that became the common room. Thank the Lord for the common room. Imagine just sitting in your shelter to get out of the snow, and occasionally, for entertainment, taking a trip to the outhouse.

Having a common, heated place to gather made a lot of difference in the early days, when there was just three of us, and the fourth, a grizzled old dog who was a champ. In those early days we had some great talks about the future of the place, the excitement of building a community from scratch and being there from the start. Some common meals and shared moments until late into the night.

I had to have separate conversations with the other two guys because, and this isn’t a homeless thing, it’s a human thing, they already weren’t talking to each other. As the place has grown I now have people who don’t talk to me and a few who I avoid if possible.

We have turned into rocks on a walk in nature by tree lovers.

Whatever. It is actually a pretty practical way keep a community going, and it is the ones who can’t ignore the ones they don’t like who don’t last here. Sorry, tangent.

Back to the primitive conditions. The shelter where I was staying before was inside a building, with shore power, so guaranteed heat and cooling and everything else that is normal. Indoor toilets the same temperature as the rest of the building. Drinking fountains. Showers. Laundry services. Just normal stuff.

You don’t realize how much you take for granted when you suddenly don’t have it or have to figure out how to get it yourself.

It was all workable, it was just that now I had to problem solve and keep track of a lot of things that used to be taken care of for me, and it was an ongoing process. Whoa, now I have a key and if I lock myself out, it is my own fault. I have to be sure to fill up a water bottle before going to bed. I suddenly need a flashlight. When did I need one before?

Get up in middle of night for trip to portapotty. See the combination lock on the gate. I needed a flashlight all the time, and now had to keep track of it too.

How about food. Always counted on at least one big healthy meal with plenty of fruit and vegetables, and now, have to plan for all that, and check to see what sort of cooking stuff we have in common area.

It was a sudden mindfulness practice.

Before, I just kept everything in my pack or my pockets so it was already there when I needed it. Now, with a place of my own, I was unconsciously putting things down all the time and then forgetting to put them in my pockets when I went out.

You should have heard me cursing myself. “How are you going to get yourself up and off the streets if you can’t even remember where you put your pen or charger?!?!”

There was actually a bathroom with a big sink in the common area, but you couldn’t guarantee early in that there would be paper towels or toilet paper. Sometimes we would run out and they would be replaced, but you had to think ahead and get your own supply for the times when new supplies hadn’t been picked up.

This all wasn’t bad by the way, it was good. It was like full immersion into a mindfulness seminar. What do I need now? What will I need later?

One of the guys who was already there slipped me a big box of Pampers unscented wipes for sensitive skin telling me that they were the key to everything and that I would see. Yeah, you could give yourself a washcloth bath in the sink, or go to a public pool to use a shower. Wipes were always there and much more at hand.

That second option, by bus, can be a three hour excursion. And when I first moved there, being used to a shower every night, I was asking myself if I could be a person who doesn’t take a shower every day.

3 hours? Turns out I can be that person.

Isn’t that what I signed up for? Assuming the benefits of community building would more than make up for any inconvenience?

  1. Relearning Social Skills

I have read many times, and think I even mentioned it once in an earlier post (My memory sucks by the way, so now having so much stuff to remember is quite the challenge too.) that the skills you need to survive the streets are not the same skills you need to get yourself off the streets.

When you are in a large shelter, and you are trying to keep your head down and stay below the radar, and, as described last post, things are constantly changing because of the Covid Monster, and you are constantly in the presence of other people, during the day, during meals, and even at night in a big dorm, you have to develop some fairly anti-social social skills just to get along.

There is already a tendency to puff yourself up a bit, to seem more formidable than you are when you are on the streets just to be left alone. And that continues when you share space with a couple hundred people. It is inevitable.

So, from 200 to 3 is quite the change.

Here is how it used to go down. Fake aggressiveness on a minor level was the order of the day. Don’t mess with me. Don’t make me do it. Why I oughtta. This would express itself by people constantly making minor incursions into other people’s space.

Maybe instead of using the trash can someone puts their garbage on your chair, or puts their belongings on top of yours, or just stands there, with their butt in your face, as if you aren’t there. Minor incursions, symbolic more than anything else. Pretty much never leading to violence or that. An admittedly sad struggle for dominance, and now completely unnecessary when we are peers building a community.

This used to drive me crazy though. I played along just not to get run over. The more you acquiesce, the worse it gets. Someone telling you they want your chair or order you not to talk. You find yourself standing up for yourself over idiocies.

I would think, how dumb these games are. Even if you win, you’re still on the bottom of society. OK, so now you’re the king of the losers. Yay you.

Some people had nothing better to do than stare at anyone they didn’t like, all day, looking for something to be mad about. Remember when your parents told you that you should just ignore people you don’t like?

Somewhere along the line this lesson got unlearned is all I’m saying.

In comparison ignoring people you don’t like is the height of refinement compared to this sh*t.

But I learned to put that behind me. And now I tell anyone when they first get here that that stuff is no longer necessary, although it will take some time to unlearn it.

  1. Staff Wants to Talk to You

In large shelter, with so many people to keep track of, staff very often spends their time putting out fires, addressing bits of unacceptable behavior or resolving drama from a high drama population. Consequently, hearing that the staff wanted to talk to you was never good. It meant someone was mad at you, had accused you of something, or you weren’t keeping up your end of something you said you would do. Or drug or alcohol test.

Even if you didn’t consciously think about this state of affairs, it was always there, lurking in the background, and even though I will be writing less about this than the other ones, it may well be the biggest change of all, hence the title of the post.

The first few times staff at E1V told me they wanted to see me in the office, I froze completely. Here it comes. I knew it was too good to be true.

Reality is here finally.

I will be asked to leave.

Only that never happened. Being asked to the office was a surreal experience. It was always things like: Do you want to attend the WorkForce meeting with a U of O professor? Would you be willing to help edit the employee manual? We feel a person with your skills is a good fit for this place.

I mean WTdoubleFF?

Took me forever to get used to that one. My skills? A decade of laying low had me convinced that I didn’t have any skills that anyone normal could use. I almost asked what those skills were just so I would know.

Again, I hope this doesn’t come off as critical because it isn’t. The simple fact is that things have to be clear and somewhat strict when you have hundreds of people to deal with and so your emphasis will be on avoiding the negative rather than anything else.

In fact, when I said good bye to one of the head honchos, he was encouraging and nice, and ended the conversation with what was, at that time and that place, pretty high praise:

“You were never any trouble.”

So the primitive aspect wasn’t a big deal. A little bit of it persists to this day but it will all be dealt with in due course, and meanwhile, I have a lot of meetings to go to in the office, which is right next to an indoor bathroom.

So I am good.

5 thoughts on “You Mean I Haven’t Been Kicked Out Yet?

  1. “I almost asked what those skills were just so I would know.”

    It’s a funny line, but also so relatable.

    Great post, so much to think about. I’m looking forward to reading your book when you write it.

  2. Once a writing teacher told me, “There are two kinds of writers. One cannot put the first word on paper until the whole piece is thought through and outlined. The other doesn’t know what’s in the piece until all the words are written–it’s a voyage of discovery.” She then explained that we of the second group might decide to edit the resulting stream of consciousness piece, but maybe not. Maybe our instincts were exactly right, to let one idea inspire the next. You seem to be type 2 like me, Mr. In-Between. Your ideas have a wonderfully organic connection, easy to follow sentence by sentence but also easy to hold onto the unfinished point until it gets finished later. You reminded me of an idea from graduate school, about the social construction of reality. Good to keep in mind that we make up rules and acquire the habit of following them because doing so makes life easier. When it stops making life easier, we need to let them go. Thanks for sharing your perspective–and shedding light on how change in perspective happens.

  3. I’m becoming a fan of Mr In-Between. These blogs offer a lot of insight and a reminder of the vast, untapped talent of the unsheltered.
    Really understood the gardening references. As a former “mad gardener” I want to remind Mr IB that plants don’t spring from one soil to another. It takes time for them to get over the shock, let their roots find their new parameters and establish themselves. All plants grow in their own ways, too. Some don’t make it, sadly. Ask any gardener…
    As always, thank you for your insight. Good job!

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