This is less of a manual than it is a memoir.
I was in British Columbia for a social work conference, that was mostly research based. I was with academics spouting off facts about homelessness across Canada, and the interventions that were needed to help victims of violence. I felt out of place. I am not what I would label an academic, I was built for field work, I have a way with words and a big heart. Put me in a research setting and I will just bring it back to the people, I have difficulties relating to Macro studies. I thought to myself, don’t give me statistics about homelessness, let’s go talk to some people who have experienced living on the streets. There were people around the corner from my hotel sleeping and living in the bushes.
You could see blankets and clothes neatly piled inside the shrubbery. They took great care to make it look like home because it was all they had. Instead I was hearing percentages and words upon words about them without them even having a voice. I have nothing against research. The people who fund social work programs want to hear about that stuff, because they find more value in it than the words of a person with lived experience. They want us to prove that giving a homeless man a coat will keep him warm. They want us to prove that giving someone a shower can help them get a job. So thank you, social work researchers, for somehow helping us quantify this information. I don’t know that I will ever fully understand it.
The whole time as we ate the fancy cheese, and discussed the important issues, I was thinking…when am I going to hear something that matters. I came here to this beautiful province with its deep cultural roots in aboriginal culture, and influences of immigrant families and the deep dark swirling ocean that I kept staring into hoping for some kind of answer. I begged the universe as I fed some harbour seals.
I walked the waterfront countless times.
It was my first vacation, my first time on a plane, and I did it alone. I came from a hardworking family that vacationed by camping in nature, not visiting different parts of the world or country. I was so excited but so scared. I pushed myself to the limits. But I felt like it just wasn’t enough to just go.
After about the third day of presentations, I waited for the bus back to my hotel. When it pulled up, I asked the bus driver to let me know when my stop was coming out. “I am from Ontario.” I said as if in apology. “I don’t know the bus routes.” As I walked through the bus a woman says “You are from Ontario? What are you doing in B.C.?” I sat down near her and told her about the conference.
The woman was Irish, bright eyes with short curly hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, with stands of it flying out, untamable. , she was small, but animated as she spoke. She wore light blue. She smiled so widely that I instantly felt safe and conversational. “Oh that is interesting, what do you do?”
“I work in Domestic Violence. I am a student still but I will be graduating soon.”
“Wow, that is great that you can do something you love, while helping people, and make a career out of it” She seemed deep in thought for a few minutes, as if there was something she needed to tell me. We spoke for a few minutes about the weather, but I knew if I waited she would talk.
She began to tell me about her life. She grew up in Ireland where she said inequality was steeped in the culture at the time. Before she left that the welfare cheques would only be addressed to the men, and that pubs had a right to cash those cheques, as a result families would go hungry. The men would spend their nights drinking. Where she worked in a factory it was mostly men as well. They would make fun of her and laugh when she used tools like hammers. She said she did it because she had a passion for it, like I had a passion for my work.
“I love helping people” I told her. “It follows me around everywhere, in everything I do. You can’t turn it off. And it is hard sometimes but I like to think that social workers have an infinite hope that keeps us going.”
“That’s what I would have trouble with. When people get into that negative space and can’t get out of it. I know because I have been that person., and you probably have too.” She said.
I tell her “the key is persistence, for people in such a negative space and all you can do is slowly chip away at it until you see the smallest of changes.”
She says “I know something about persistence”. She had decided to go back to University. She faced so many obstacles with this choice, the first of which was that she had been in high school in the 1960’s in Ireland, and they kept no records, written or otherwise. She had to fight and prove herself to be admitted, and she won that battle. Her next barrier was that she had sustained serious injuries, could hardly walk anymore, and had to re-teach herself to read, write, and speak. She told me how hard and depressing it was. Some days she wanted to badly to give up.
“There was no professor who was so discouraging.” She said he was mean and never believed she would succeed.
He asked her how she thought she could complete university when she couldn’t even write properly. She responded “The same way you would eat a whale, one bite at a time”
“There came a day when I lay in bed, and I just couldn’t move. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
She had tears in her eyes as she spoke.”I told myself, if you don’t move, you are going to die. I had a choice to make, move or die.”
“Just move your big toe, I told myself….but that was too hard, so I said…just move it an inch. If you can move your big toe just an inch…” and she did, “After that I just kept moving and didn’t stop.”
I could see clearly the emotional intelligence in the way she had overcome her barriers. “wow that is amazing that you were able to do that. You took a problem that was so big you couldn’t face it, and made it a small as wiggling your big toe. you made it small enough that you could manage it.”
Her face changed, her eyes lit up “You’re right. I did that. I have never thought about it that way before. I took a big problem and made it small.”
“Not many people can do that. it takes a great amount of skill and self-awareness” I said.
The bus came to a stop, I had hardly noticed her pull the cable as she rose to exit the bus. She moved quickly, but in the doorway, she stopped and turned back to me, she took my hand.
“You know…I am so glad you are going to be working in Domestic violence. I wanted to tell you that the injuries I mentioned, my head injuries and the reason I couldn’t walk….was the result of domestic violence.” She released my hand and said a few final words “People need your help much more than you think…”
And she was gone. I never got her name. But she taught me more than I will ever be able to tell her. She helped me to understand my role as a counsellor and how all the strength lays in the people we help, all the goodness and resiliency is in her, as she struggled to build her life after experiencing such a life changing event as violence is. It’s not in us. As social workers all we can do is show them that strength. All we can do is facilitate the movement of that big toe, that bite of the whale.
So I sat for hours in my hotel room crying, processing, hurting for her but also celebrating with her, for how far she had come and the path she had chosen.
I spent the rest of my trip doing adventurous, terrifying things like sea kayaking and whale watching.
I watched that beautiful Orca spring up from the water, and dashed under our boat is if to say “I see you there, you tiny humans. I will show you my might.”
Scary and wild, hauntingly beautiful, much like the ocean itself. You float on a tiny kayak and think, this huge ocean could just swallow me whole, fold me into its depths.
It released me to live another day.
Life can swallow us up, but if move with the waves and take things one step at a time we can survive that deep swirling dark mass. If it’s too big to handle, break it down into something smaller that you know you can manage.
For some people all they can manage is just moving an inch, and that’s ok. We just have to keep moving forward. One day we will look back on that moment that we made the choice to try, and see how far we have come.
Thank you for reading this story, I promise you every word is true, even though sometimes looking back on it I think she may have been a ghost, but the reality is that these moments happen in our lives, such surreal moments. Her face will never leave my memory.