Social media reflects who we are, and often times I can tell “who I am” at any point in time by what people ask me when we’re in person. In some cases, I can even tell WHEN they started following me online. People are onions, peeling in layers, each revealing a new part. Right now I’m the “homeless center lady”, but I’ve been other people, and I bet so have you.
I’ve been the “Lives in Los Angeles girl”. Taking pictures of crazy/funny stuff. Talking about things that I found amusing on the West Coast through the eyes of a Southerner. Writing about my job on King of the Hill.
I’ve been the “Hemp Necklace lady”. I sewed patchwork dresses and made hemp jewelry. I drew mandalas. I had an Etsy store.
I’ve been the “tomato/horticulture lady”. When I was going to NC State for horticulture, people often knew me as the plant person. I was working on some pretty cool things with heirloom tomatoes and had a little garden, access to a very big greenhouse, and plants were what I wrote about.
I’ve been the “Hawaii Girl”, taking beautiful pictures of my adventures working in a tropical botanical garden, learning a new culture, and living on an island.
I’ve been the “new dog lady”. There was a time when having a dog was very new for me, and I wrote about him pretty often. I dated someone who had 2 dogs, so there were plenty of photos and funny stories.
I’ve been the “soap-making lady”, trying out new techniques, new smells, taking pictures of freshly cut soap. I vended at farmer’s markets and festivals. I grew things that I then made into soap.
I’ve been the “chicken lady”. I got some chicken girls, hatched baby chickens, took pictures of cool, colorful eggs, and talked to people about chicken diseases, how to care for babies, and what kinds of things they like to eat (almost everything).
I’ve been the “bought a new house person”, and took everyone on a journey of buying a home, painting it, decorating it, and settling into it. I then became “Opening a new restaurant person”, and helped open a restaurant from scratch. These journeys happened back to back.
I’ve been “Angry Activist Person”, charged, political, shaking my fist and screaming from the rafters an whoever would listen. I’ve had someone who hadn’t met me in real life before open up their introduction with “Don’t start yelling at me about feminism and politics”. I laughed about it and told them that I also do other things in real life.
Now I’m “Homelessness Lady”, and while that sounds pretty scary to people when you say it out loud, it’s actually a pretty amazing place to be. I still grow tomatoes. I still have chickens. I still make soap. I still shake my fist for justice.
You can be and have been many things. You are a multi-layered person. We all are. As I told someone on Friday, “You are all of these people. Everything you need lives inside of you right now”. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, you’re not a “brand”, you are a soul.
Today I was messaging back and forth with some of our unhoused community members, trying to put together a list of who lost tents, how many, and where the the most damage happened. During one of my conversations, I learned that 4 of our folks who lost everything had no way to get to dinner and were hungry.
Dinner is served in 2 locations that I know of; the Salvation Army Center for Hope on Capital Blvd, and a church off of New Bern Ave. I realized in this moment that the best way to get them fed without them being stuck anywhere, especially now that they have no home base, was for me to just make and bring something. I didn’t have much in the fridge. I had just eaten a ham sandwich, so I asked “mayo or mustard”, and made up 4 ham sandwiches, and 4 bowls of ramen noodles, putting the hot noodles in take out containers that I had saved, and headed to meet them on Fayetteville St.
Our folks don’t like to beg. I don’t either. I don’t enjoy begging the Universe for what the center doesn’t have, but I know that I have to use my amplified voice to advocate for people who can’t. This very simple meal was well received, and everyone was definitely very hungry. It wasn’t fancy, but making that simple meal gave me joy. Why? Because it was made here, in my home, out of my fridge and cabinets with my hands, and I had it to give freely. I didn’t have to beg anyone for the makings, and they didn’t have to beg anyone for dinner. Today no one had to expend that extra energy to ask the Universe, and instead we could simply enjoy our friendship, our sandwiches, and our noodles.
You might be thinking, “But you do that every day, why did this feel different?” It feels different because it is intimate. It’s not cooking for 50, there is no serving line, and it was just a small enough meal to be quick and manageable to pack up for 4 people. I don’t bring people meals in the evening that often, and maybe one day Love Wins will be able to be the type of organization that serves a meal again in the park, but it won’t be like this.
When people serve on a large scale, it’s back to asking for donations, planning the meal, dealing with criticism (there are plenty of people who will be quick to tell you that ramen noodles are unhealthy to serve to homeless people, even though that is what I had for supper). This is a different experience, like folks dropping by unexpectedly and having whatever you scrounge up for dinner. It’s like family, and in that moment, I’ve never been happier to make a ham sandwich for anyone.
I spent Sunday having back to back panic attacks. If you’ve ever had one of those, you’re probably nodding in empathy because you know how crappy they feel. Your heart skips a beat and races; it’s hard to catch your breath. It feels like you’re going to jump out of your own skin.
The last time I had these was during November of 2010. I had just returned home from my internship in Hawaii, got off a plane, and headed straight to the funeral of my lifelong best friend, Jeremy Wynn. It was Nov. 6th. On Dec. 10, we lost our stepmother, Diane suddenly. I was enrolled full-time in school and working in a busy restaurant the rest of the time. Panic attacks suddenly became a part of my world along with great sadness and grief.
Thank goodness I had a wonderful grief counselor to help me navigate that time period. I also got a prescription for a generic depression drug that wasn’t expensive, but helped create a little distance between me and my tremendous sadness. I learned to grieve both my best friend and my step-mother, and attempted to not let the mix of the two losses compound together into a huge bowl of sadness- that’s incredibly easy to do.
This set of panic attacks is different with entirely different causes. This set is work related, and the result of the tremendous pressure to constantly be fundraising so that we can keep the center open. I’m “on” 24-7. Even socially, I’m also working. I worry every second of the day, even though that really doesn’t do any good. I wake up in the dead of night, immediately worried about payroll, rent, bills, our insurance, and our taxes. The first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning is my calendar, what meetings I have that day, and how we’re going to make payroll.
It’s taken over every corner of my life this past year. I started trying to “self-care” and manage it away by first, giving away extra responsibilities. I took a year off from Crape Myrtle Court. I took a break from bartending at The Ritz. Then I slowly gave away bartending shifts at Flex. That way I could focus more. It bought me some time and energy. Then I decided that I could no longer start my day listening to the President’s tweets on NPR, so I stopped listening to the news in my car. My next stop on the “self-care” Ferris Wheel has been to drink combinations of herbal teas every day. I got a therapist. Those things also bought me a little time on the sanity timeline. My therapist used to also run a center for people experiencing homelessness, so he gets the “non-profit blues”.
With the physical symptoms of an anxiety/panic attack onset, I called my mentor, Rev. Hugh Hollowell, as I know he has experienced the same thing in the same place. He gives me a lot of perspective, which is something that we lose at times. I often say “Objectively, it’s a great time to be human. We live longer than we ever had and many major diseases have been eradicated. Keep perspective.” Again, that can be challenging when the news looks like a reality T.V. show and social media is enough to make anyone believe that we’re on the verge of a civil war. People aren’t meant to take in that much information on a daily basis with no time to digest it.
My next step is that I’ve deleted the FB app. from my phone. I asked my therapist, “Do you often hear that Social Media is stressful, or is that just me?” He reassured me that he hears that very often and it is a legitimate stress for many people right now, up there with politics. I’ve made an appointment to get those miracle pills that helped me through 2010, and I’m trying to schedule, on a daily basis, something beautiful to do for myself, since all of my hobbies have fallen to the wayside. That’s how I know that I’m depressed too- no hobbies, and I can’t remember the last time I did something I really enjoyed. I don’t even like cooking anymore. Mostly I just network, answer email, write what I can, worry, shower and sleep (though not very well).
I’m looking at another month of no paycheck for myself, and that’s tough. I’m burning through savings. I’m probably going to have to start working a second job again, and I simply don’t know how I’m going to find the energy to do that- none of us are getting any younger, last I checked. The idea of having to do what I’m doing and deal with bartending at night- well, I guess if I’m that busy I won’t have time to worry about much because I’ll be in survival mode again, conversely, I don’t know how I’m going to keep up with it all. I was so happy to be able to get a normal amount of sleep (or at least that option)… You see where this is going. It’s just hard. Doing this work is hard in its own way, but funding this work is incredibly stressful. Payroll taxes are enough to wake me in the night in a cold sweat.
It’s been a pretty amazing weekend in non-profit life. The Crape Myrtle Festival Gala was absolutely beautiful, and everyone was dressed to the nines and having a blast. I’m not sure how much money they raised (I’m on next year’s court, but this was Court XXXVIII’s Gala), but I’m sure that they did well, and Court 38 will be able to offer grants to all of our favorite HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ non-profits during the Harvest Tea this year.
The Chicken Fry plate sale at Landmark was a big success!!! Stefani and Mell absolutely killed the plates and sides with deliciousness! The turnout was excellent, and through a combination of plate sales, donations, t-shirt and soap sales, we raised just over $900, which will really help us keep the center open a bit longer. That’s kind of where we are right now, every fundraiser really means a LOT. A little bit goes a LONG WAY at the center, and people should know that they are doing a huge amount of good when they donate.
The plate sale was so successful that I really hope that we get to do another one. I’m considering investing in some catering equipment if it would help :). I’m so excited about the new shirts that we have gotten from Linda O’Reilly (owner of Landmark and Circa 1888). I can’t wait to see what one of these nice, v-neck ladies shirts will look like in tye dye, it’s gonna be awesome.
I’m just super grateful this week that everything went well and that there is so much support for our community here in Raleigh. With all of the growing and changing, people living in poverty are having a harder time than ever before surviving and making ends meet, whatever that means to them, however, having a community changes things, maybe just one chicken fried plate at the time.
It’s been 10 days with no cocktails, libations or sports beer, so let me tell you what that’s like. The first few days, I was thirsty all of the time. I drank water constantly. It was like my body was just making up for lost time. I wondered if this was strange, but I had been assured by other that this was perfectly normal and happens to people who make last call like roll call. If you choose to go dry, expect this, and know that it will slowly go away after about 5 days.
The first two days, I had no appetite. Food just lost its appeal. I have always had a contentious relationship with food- I love to grow food, cook food, and even eat food, but I also have spent my life extremely conscientious of my weight. I’ve always had rules to govern what I eat. I diet every year (come on, how many years on Facebook have you seen me do the yearly diet)? When the bar scene came onto my scene, I created stricter rules for eating, after all, booze doesn’t have a lot of nutrients, but it has ALL of the calories. I knew that you could eat what you want, as long as you took out something else. In all of the times that I used myfitnesspal, I was true to my caloric intake- if it said I could only eat 1200 calories, then I dutifully logged my booze and ate accordingly. It takes willpower, so I know that willpower exists within me, especially when I was expertly crafting 200 calorie meals.
My appetite did come back on day 4, and I was eyeing produce really hard. My friend Blu said that when your appetite comes back when you get clean off of an addiction, your body is starving for nutrients. She encouraged me to eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible to replenish what was lost. I’m a fan of fresh food, so that part was easy, and I felt genuinely better after a few good meals.
Sleep was interesting. For the first 5 days, my sleep was absolutely crazy. I’ve never been very good at getting to sleep, I’ve had insomnia (that I now see in my own 12 year old niece), since I was in 3rd grade. Sleep issues are actually the reason I started drinking in the first place. A nice little glass of wine made it easy to drift off to sleep, and for me, going to sleep has always been difficult. My first 5 days of sobriety consisted of me sleeping for about 4 hours at a time. I would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep for 2-3 hours, then snag that last hour of sleep before work. It was rough. I was EXHAUSTED. You know you’re tired when a homeless guy walks out of the nap room at work, looks at you and says “You look tired, you should come lay down and take a nap.” Yep. That’s how I looked for days. Raggedy.
Now, sleep has seemed to level off. I may not go to sleep immediately, but I’ll lay down with a book (NOT THE CELL PHONE), and read until it gets tough to read anymore. I don’t try to force myself to be asleep by midnight even, if I stay up later, that’s okay. I still have to wake up in the morning at a similar time, so if I don’t get enough sleep, it will catch up to me normally. I’ll just get tired earlier the next day. It evens out in the long run.
Essentially your first week will be a readjustment of your drinking, eating, digestion, and sleep. Then there’s your old friend, depression. Suddenly, there will be some kind of depression. For different people it takes different forms, but one common experience that I can tell you about, is that you’ll wonder if you’ll have friends anymore. If most of your friends were people that you saw in bars, I totally get why you feel this way. It’s true. You’re going to feel like you’ll never see your friends again. If you have a highly social job (like I do), and you’re a social person, that will help tremendously. The weekend might be a bit tough, though. That’s when you might be used to going out, brunching, getting one of Sandra’s famous Bloody Mary’s, and spending Sunday in a vodka-soda fueled bar hop. If you’re a Sunday Funday person, you might find that your first two Sundays do not feel like Fundays.
I’ve found that having some one-on-one time with individual friends really helps. Have someone come over or go over to their house. Another gift is at your fingertips- your telephone. Actually use it to make an old-fashioned voice call. Talk to a friend who you don’t get to see much. It will get you through the “failure pile in a sadness bowl” that you feel in the moment. I can’t tell you how many times that these things have helped. If you’re a person who is attending AA, go to a meeting, or meet one of your new AA friends before or after the meeting for coffee. See if there is someone in your meeting that needs a ride back to their Oxford House and give them a ride. You’re helping someone, getting to know a new person, and exercising your newly found sobriety to drive somewhere. If you’re driving after dark… LOOK AT YOU DRIVING AFTER DARK! GO YOU! No Uber or Lyft for you, just a totally normal sober person driving after dark. High-five yourself, you’ve earned it.
After the first full 7 days, I found that the depression fog lifted, and it lifted big! For me, it helped that I’ve had back to back meetings scheduled for something or the other for the past 3 days, and all of those meetings demanded that I be at my best, so I had something to focus on. I am a person who needs to stay busy, which is also part of why I started drinking, it’s hard for me to shut down. Drinking forced me to sit, be in the moment (at least mostly), and it slowed down my thinking. It was forced down time. Forced down time is great sometimes, but it also has consequences in the form of hangovers. Hangovers suck. They only get worse the older you get, I’m here to tell you. When you think over your life, and realize that many of your key memories also involve a hangover… well, I’m pretty sure that someone reading this just shook their head a little. I know you know what I mean.
On day 10 I’m happy to report that I do have more energy than I did before, I’ve noticed it in everything that I’ve done in the past few days. It came on slow. First I noticed that I simply didn’t feel like shit. That was a pretty good revelation. Then I noticed that I was sharper and everything that I did was a little bit faster (a great improvement over the first 3 days, where everything I did was slower and I was kind of lost in a fog). I’ve noticed that I’ve found joy in food again, and not in a ridiculous way, but in a fun way, where I actually find myself craving something, or looking forward to making something, or even picking out a restaurant that my husband and I haven’t been to in a while. Funny story, hangovers make eating not so fun. I feel better about this, in general, because I figure I’m probably saving 800 calories a day by not drinking booze, so I’m not overly worried about eating poorly, I’m a pretty good eater. I did order a milkshake for the first time in several years at Alamo Draft House the other night, just because it was the first time that I had thought of that as an option. It was delicious.
It’s strange, but in 10 days, I can say, I don’t really miss it. I just feel so much better, and I get SO MUCH MORE DONE. I forgot that I could feel this way. I just figured, over the past 10 years, that I was aging, like everyone, and that’s why I had low energy or weird aches and pains. Some of the weird aches and pains are still here (I still limp when I get up from a seated position sometimes, and there is definitely arthritis in my left thumb), but overall, everything seems to hurt less. I’m also finding new routines and things to do. I’d been stuck in a sort of rut where I spent my late evenings in a couple of standard spots, and hadn’t really branched out past that. Now I’m finding new things to do with my time, and it’s nice because that’s the sort of thing that keeps our brains from becoming stagnant.
I’m hoping to have some new things to report next week or even in a month or two. I’ve been taking the dog on longer walks, or just more walks if I’m short on time during one part of the day. It makes me feel like I could actually do something like, I dunno… exercise or something (lol). Seriously, though. Once you do one positive thing, it gets a lot easier to do more of them.
I went to my first AA meeting today with my friend who has 3 years sobriety, and who has encouraged me to go to a meeting in the past “just to see how it is”. I have been trying to write a blog apology post for 2 days, in a fog of no sleep, crying fits, and a lack of appetite that he said was “probably a detox symptom” (it may also be depression, which is also, I’ve learned, a symptom), and hadn’t gotten it right yet. I’d sent drafts to a couple of friends who are better writers than me and had gotten feedback that ranged from “take out this paragraph”, to “you need to rewrite this whole thing”. I’m rewriting the whole thing, because I saw something that changed my life.
When we first got to the location, I witnessed a person getting into a very heated argument that was escalating. My friend got it calmed down, and we all went inside. When it was time to share stories, the very first person to talk was the guy from outside who was yelling, and he talked about anger. He spoke extensively about getting angry while drinking as well as being an angry person now that he was no longer drinking. It became the theme of the stories today. Stories of all kinds poured out of people, all related to anger. I’m not going to share their stories, but I realized that all of these folks around me were speaking almost TO ME, this is me.
I get drunk, show my ass and become a fuck up. My friends, please don’t defend me on this, because I could get a bigger show of hands instead if I said “How many of you have dragged me out of a bar because I was about to get in trouble?” I was in an argument, about to get into a fight, or actively engaged in one. How many folks have texted me in the morning to say, “Hey, that Trump supporter you were arguing with last night on FB… yeah, you should probably take that down, it’s getting crazy on there.” How many times have I woken up with an instant feeling of guilt or shame because I knew that just by the way I felt, I had done something fucked up the night before. I had blacked out. I had a couple of texts that said “Hey, you ok?” I had “mystery bruises”, which was my nickname for injuries that happen while drunk and I don’t remember. Lots and lots of times, tons over the past several years.
It’s a big lead-up, but it’s important. In every draft I was trying to write, the thing I was not addressing wasn’t the fact that I’m an alcoholic, I addressed that several times in previous drafts. It was that I’m an angry alcoholic, and while alcoholism hurts everyone around you, angry alcoholism REALLY hurts everyone around you. Where does the anger come from? I’ll be learning over the next portion of my lifetime. Right now I’ll go with “I don’t know shit”, and start there.
During the day, I keep it together and everything is fine, at night, I become a shitshow. I’ve just always been insulated by good friends who could remove me, calm me down, distract me or just get me home without causing too much damage. I didn’t have that buffer the other night, and if you need a buffer zone to have cocktails, then chances are, you don’t need cocktails.
I’m just starting, but I know that one of the 12 steps is making amends, and while you aren’t really supposed to work the steps out of order, there are amends that need to be made. I apologize to my friends and family who I’ve hurt because of alcoholism, you have been putting up with my shit for years and I don’t know how. I apologize to the total strangers that were affected including the WOC at the bar, who, for a first meeting, got the worst meeting of me ever. My angry, blackout drinking was out of control, made you feel and be unsafe, and it’s not ok. For my friend who reached out to me that night, probably for support, as that was what we had been trying to do for one another, and instead got a drunk, shitty mess, I’m sorry. I was supposed to be helping and encouraging you, and instead I was a brainstem wasted shitshow. To one of my friends of 20 years, who I was so fucked up that I don’t even remember talking to you, that’s fucked up, and I’m sorry, I cried for the first time realizing that I had talked to you and didn’t even know it. For my employees and the 70 folks who receive services at the center, I’m sorry I haven’t been the person that you needed me to be and I’ve put the center, which is already financially strapped, at risk. You folks know who you are, and I let you down. Hopefully I can put balance back into my life and your lives by staying sober and working through 12 steps each day.
I just said “Goodbye” to my mentor for the past year- I’ve been preparing for this for almost as long. I don’t really cry like “normal people”. I have a tough time with that. I reassure myself that he’s only a text or a phone call away, and if we have issues at the center that I haven’t seen before, I can at least ask for advice. Some days it feels like I’ve bitten off more than anyone can chew, others, it doesn’t.
We’re going to make it through the month. After payroll tomorrow, both of my employees will be paid (I will not), and with a check I got today, we’ll make rent, so that’s good. It’s survival mode. It takes so little to run the center; $6,500 per month, but we’re not there yet, so everything is touch and go. We have a Peer Support Program, but funny story, Blu IS THE PROGRAM, it’s peer support. She is the peer. She is literally the program. We deal in the business of investing in humans, and people no longer seem to understand that as, well anything.
The other day, someone asked me if the opening of the new Oak City Outreach center would “impact our business”? I laughed. “You mean another place to help poor people? No, build 2 more.” He said “Aren’t you afraid that you’ll go out of business.” I said “Sir, you’ve mistaken us with a store, that sells things, for a profit. We give things away for free, for no profit. If anything it means that in a year you’ll all be eating steak and getting name brand deodorant”. He laughed, and maybe, I think he got it.
A non-profit is not “a business”. It doesn’t run like a business. It runs like a house. You pay the bills. That’s how that works. You start a program and you fund it. Our programs center around people. We have a nutrition program that I can get food for, but there is an unhoused man who runs it that I can’t afford to pay, and that breaks my heart. The difference between him being housed and not could be this part-time job- a job that he can do, that’s rewarding work, and that a person with disabilities can do and maintain dignity. I wish that I could give him the title of “Kitchen Manager” and the little bit of money it would take every month to keep him housed. It’s literally $800. For $800 a month, I could give this man a job, and he could use it and his disability to move out of Pullen Park and into a rooming house. This is the big picture. This is what I want to do.
These are the hard choices. Right now we can’t even afford a director (that’s me), but we have to have one, because I do our book keeping, social media, website, fundraising and daily operations. I also work in the business, it’s a LOT like being a waitress in a very busy restaurant. People need things, and then you try to help them find what they need. It’s like being the personified version of Google for folks who need extra help to navigate it. Luckily, I worked in a bar for a year while I was working at LW and saved every penny that I could because I knew the hard road was ahead. It can be stressful, but I’m glad that I could save what I could to be able to go a month or two without a salary of any kind. How I’ll ever get anyone in the future to take my job? I’ll never know. It’s a hard sell.
People who run organizations can typically get “better jobs elsewhere”, with large, funded organizations. This is why a lot of these organizations are run by pastors and ministers, they have a job with the church, and then their mission work is the rest of it. If you aren’t any of those things, you don’t have that title or income to survive, and while I’ll be fine, I’m unsure, down the road, how this could all work. We have to build it up. It’s working. The place is AMAZING every day. We do so much, but from a “business” standpoint, it’s tough. No one wants the stress of the entire existence of a non-profit on their shoulders, and the worry of not being able to pay their own bills. I’m okay for now, I’m a lucky one. Not everyone is that lucky, and if I have to, I can always still bartend at night. I’ll be a zombie at work, but I’ve done that before.
If I had to name my crazy, it would probably have to be a proper noun, as I haven’t really found anything else that fit the bill. I’ve searched for what this thing is inside of me that fills me and spills out everywhere else, but I’ve come up short on the diagnosis. It feels like being overwhelmed by purpose and guilt all at the same time. Sometimes it moves my feet for me towards something that looks like an ocean wave made out of fire. It erupts out of me and leaves me exhausted and glowing like a tiny ember. It feels powerful and delicate. It’s exhausting, but beautiful and terrifying. I feel like this is what ministers refer to as “being called”.
I wouldn’t say I was in any way a special child; I was a deep thinker when I was very young, often agonizing over the realization that life is so short, so fleeting, and so temporary. I was never the kid singled out for any sort of leadership training or very many awards. The few awards I did receive when I was very young were mostly for writing, but as someone once told me, “If you can do anything, don’t write.” I let my voice die for a few decades, being pragmatic, applying myself to occupation in a very concrete way, but I’ve always felt this brooding sort of pull. It feels exactly like purpose, and it’s maddening when ignored.
Sometimes, I wake up in the morning nagged with guilt. Actually, most days are like this. What did I do? Should I have said that? Or even worse, “what DIDN’T I do?” It’s a side-effect of having this kind of crazy. Perpetual guilt and a leftover feeling I can only sum up as “If you’re not afraid right now, you’re probably a fool.” It’s like being a leaf in the wind… with a propeller. The world swirls and vibrates with the energy of a Van Gogh painting and I can see how each thing is interconnected. It’s beautiful and it gives me faith.
Faith, when doing this type of work (passionate justice types of work), is like a thick rubber band stretched between 2 pegs that are about ¼ in. too far apart. It’s thin and taut, twanging when brushed up against. The sound is as loud or as soft as you make it. It’s always right there on the verge of breaking, leaving you a crying mess on a floor, then just as you feel it slipping, you stand up. You scream at the top of your lungs in the world’s biggest, emptiest room. You fight for that faith with a howl that will leave you spent and exhausted. The energy around you swirls, and faith answers you. It brings the peg 1/8 of an inch back in and gives you something to hold back on to.
I’ve met other people who feel this way, so I know that I’m not alone. People are called to things; causes, concepts, God, work. People who are called to something describe all kinds of maddening experiences. No matter how folks describe it, there is a thread, a feeling inside of there that I recognize every time. It’s a duality of both power and fear. It’s a feeling of awe, like something that deserves to be trembled before, mixed with a calm that’s equally unsettling. Essentially the feeling of 2 tremendous, opposing forces at the same exact time. In each and every description, I feel the thing as I experience it, and no amount of words will ever truly do it justice. People who feel it see it in one another, and we recognize each other like old friends. It’s the burning desire to try to right an injustice.
I think that there is a reason that humans tend to use the symbol of scales to represent ideas concerning justice. Scales look like what a “calling” feels like- 2 forces, in motion, balancing, trying to find equality. I find that a lot of people talk about this feeling in reference to religion, which also makes total sense. People are called to do the work of the Lord, or called to serve a higher purpose. Ask any clergy person how they ended up going into their work, and you will get the story of a calling. I’m not a person of any specific religion, so I tend to refer to “The Universe” as this giant polar energy attempting to strike balance, but trust that I mean it in that same, exact way. I’ve just given it a name, a language, a way to discuss it with others.
Feeling “called” is as old as humanity. That’s why there are so many things written about it in every single language, in texts as old as language itself. When you feel called, you know it. It feels like something has taken over your body, and you might even find yourself telling someone else “I might be losing my mind, I’m about to *insert crazy sounding uphill battle here*”. It’s being called to action, and it feels like you’re being moved by a power beyond anything your humanity has ever known before. You may cry. You may feel angry. You will definitely feel overwhelmed. Then the ball is in your corner, and you choose whether or not to “answer the call”.
If you do answer the call, I want to prepare you to have every piece of your faith tested at any moment. I want to prepare you to have your heart broken no less than once a week. I want to prepare you to be resilient, and to see, to catch that moment when you’re about to do something that terrifies you- learn what that feels like. It’s how you know something big is about to happen. It’s a unique feeling, hard to explain, but it’s like the ground is shaking, metaphysically, like a glacier is coming up behind you. When you feel that, it means that you’re about to change the course of something forever. You’re literally about to change the fabric of the future. Folks who have felt it before are likely reading this and shaking their heads, and folks who haven’t yet are saying “Holy crap! That sounds like a crazy person!” All of us head-shakers know it sounds crazy.
When you have a calling, it defies any normal logic. Sometimes it feels like a crisis, sometimes it feels like a compulsion. When young people say they “want to change the world”, that is exactly what they mean- they’ve been called or they are waiting for their calling. Nurses and Doctors often feel called to their professions, so being called takes many forms that don’t have to be religiously related. I’m still thinking of a nice pet name for my “crazy”, but until then, I’m just going to think of it as my “calling”, and add one more piece of writing describing the impossible to a long list of better pieces that came way before mine.
*This is a blog specifically about the experiences of the young people in my family through a terrible tragedy. If you are an additional family member and feel offended about this story, please remember that it isn’t about you. You are not the focus. My sister and I and our cousins are. This is a story for us, not for you.
The summer after my 8th grade year of school, my 19 year old cousin, Marc Chappell, took a shotgun loaded with birdshot, and shot his head off in his brother’s bedroom in my aunt and uncle’s house. My sister was 12 years old.
In June, that summer, my parents announced to my sister and I that they were getting a divorce and my father moved out while we were at Bible Camp. I loved camp that summer. My house had been filled with sadness because I believe, on some level, my mother knew that dad was about to leave. I had been sick most of my 8th grade year with terrible food poisoning that I had almost died from, followed by bronchitis that lasted for literal months. I almost failed that year of school due to absenteeism. My mother had fallen in the snow a few months previously and had broken her ankle and sprained the other, leaving my parent’s already strained relationship even more difficult. Needless to say, the only people who seemed truly surprised by the divorce were literally everyone who wasn’t me or Dad.
My mother found a place that she thought she could afford, since she had not worked full-time in my entire lifetime, and my father was also looking for a place of his own. Neither of them could afford to pay the other child support, so they decided that each parent would get a child, so I was to go live with my father and my sister with my mother. I went about the business of trying to keep some normalcy. I knew that my life was about to change drastically, so I signed up for Driver’s Ed., knowing that in the future, the only way we were going to make this work is if I could run errands, get my sister and I to school and get a job. I was the only kid who showed up to my class every day in a cab. I thought it was very grown up. My cohorts, not so much. They thought it was plain weird.
My mother had a police scanner. She kept it on most of the time for company and so that she would be the first to know if anything went down in the neighborhood. I was living there while my dad looked for a place in the school district I had fallen in love with, a tiny school in Bunn, N.C. Middle school had been really rough for me. So rough, in fact, that I contemplated suicide daily, and I thought that a change would do me good, especially in light of the fact that my parents were about to go from “kinda poor” to “really really poor” economically. Wake Forest High School was full of affluent kids, most of whom were extremely cruel to their classmates. Franklin County was a poorer county overall, so I had figured that I had a better chance of making friends and fitting in, considering the circumstances. My experiences in Driver’s Ed. that summer were only proving to reinforce that I had made a really good decision to do this.
The police scanner was wailing, as usual, while I was getting ready to get in my cab and go to Driver’s Ed. My mother was listening to it intensely. She decoded all of the numbers the dispatchers were calling, and it was a shooting. The address? Woodlawn Dr., where my cousins, Sean and Derek lived. I got into the cab that morning knowing that by the time I got out of class, there would be bad news waiting for me. I told my cab driver, who was the same guy every day, what was going on. To this day, I wonder what that poor man must have been thinking. I imagine it was “This poor kid isn’t gonna have a chance in this world.” He had picked me up with my parents fighting in the yard, my mother screaming out of the door, Mom hysterically crying on the porch, and me just kind of telling him whatever giant divorce drama went down that day. Poor guy. Thank you, cab driver.
My cousins Sean and Derek are from my Uncle Gary’s second marriage to my Aunt, Su Fung. She would be the only aunt by marriage that I would know, but he had been married before and my cousin, Marc, was a product of his first marriage. I met Marc when he was 13 and I was 8 years old. Marc had lived with his mother and grew up in Guam, until she moved to Quebec with he and his younger siblings. Marc knew that he had 2 brothers living in North Carolina, and came down to stay with my grandmother and get to know his brothers. Eventually, he decided to stay and Gramba adopted him. Sean was 1 year younger and Derek 3 years younger. I was younger than all of them, so they terrorized me as only gross, older boys can. Throwing frogs at me. Making voodoo dolls out of Playdoh mixed with dog poop. You know, gross boy stuff (that’s normal, right)?
When I got home from Driver’s Ed., my Mom would tell me that Marc had shot himself, in the head, in Uncle Gary and Aunt Su’s house, supposedly over a girl. We packed into the car and she drove to Gramba’s trailer. I hadn’t seen any of my cousins in several years, even though they lived in town, because familial relations were pretty strained. My uncle was a terrible alcoholic, known for drinking off-brand Listerine when no one would get him any booze, beating the snot out of his wife and kids while blackout, and perpetually enrolling in classes in order to get the job that we all knew he couldn’t keep. It made gatherings rough. It made situations embarrassing, like the time he showed up to church shitfaced and my boyfriend and I had to carry him back to the car. His children lived in his chaos every day.
I remember exactly what I was wearing the moment that I heard about my cousin’s death- funny how people always do that. It was the 90’s, so I was wearing white denim shorts, cuffed, a red t-shirt from “The Limited”, white socks and white Keds, which was a pretty standard uniform outside of my grunge clothes. My hair was white blond and down to my waist. I wore it half up, as everyone did in those days, with my bangs carefully curled under and sprayed. I looked wholesome and normal. I looked nothing like all of the sad kids sitting in my grandmother’s living room. These kids were all dressed in combos of black and camo, Iron Maiden shirts, combat boots, clothes covered in holes. I felt as out of place as I could have possibly felt, the only thing that staked my claim in this living room was the numerous pictures of me hanging on the walls at various ages. I sat, precariously balanced on the arm of the sofa, perfectly still, quiet, trying to be as innocuous and as invisible as humanly possible. I was terrified.
These kids would later become my friends and shape part of my life. They were already in High School, and while I perceived that they were “cool older kids”, they were actually a group of the school misfits and “bad kids”. John and Dave, red-haired brothers, lived in a place where their dad was never home, they often went without electricity or running water, and the only thing to eat was ramen noodles. Leigh was a thin girl in boy’s clothing that lived with John and Dave because she was homeless. Bryan, who had long, red hair, lived with his dad (his parents being divorced), and his parents often weren’t home either. I would soon meet Scott and Jeff, who lived with their mother who was a hoarder. Trash filled every single corner of their house and if you dared to walk through it barefooted, the soles of your feet would instantly turn black. My cousin, Sean had long, curly black hair down his back and looked like you would imagine a medieval metalsmith would, (funny story, he grew up to be just that, and makes reproductions of medieval jewelry). My cousin Derek had grown up a lot, and sat quietly, looking like the “smart Asian kid” at school.
John would later tell me that the joke in the room was that I was assessing which guy was the coolest so that I could later fuck him. They also all now know, in retrospect of course, that I was younger than I looked, a virgin, and scared to death. I had blossomed that summer into what I would look like as a young woman. I was my full adult height, and would not grow an inch after that. It was as if every piece of my childhood had culminated into this moment, and by the time I would start 9th grade, I’d be almost as adult as I am today, minus two and half decades of experiences.
Leigh took pity on me and took me outside, handing me a Ginseng cigarette. “Smoke a pack of these if you ever need to have an abortion but don’t have any money.” I filed away the advice, took a puff, and ran around back of Gramba’s house to throw up. I had never smoked anything in my life until that moment, and Ginseng cigarettes aren’t kind. I came back around the corner, and honestly expected to get reamed. She never mentioned it. She told me that she hadn’t had a shower in a week and was wearing Dave’s clothes because she didn’t have any. I accepted this statement as my new level of “normal” and set all of my expectations accordingly. We loaded up in several cars and headed to Aunt Su and Uncle Gary’s house.
The first thing that I noticed was the overwhelming smell of fish. If you ever have the displeasure of smelling brains on a wall, know that they smell like fish. The EMS had taken Marc’s body, but they had left the mess in my cousin’s room for them to clean up- no, I’m absolutely not fucking with you, true story. My Uncle Mike, who wasn’t really my uncle, but a nice, weird militia guy who lived in the basement, had tried to clean it up himself, but it was a big job. We would find spattered blood spots in various places in my cousin’s bedroom for the next several years. In our teenage survival way, we would say “Oh look, I found Marky!” Humor is a dark (and common) way to deal with pain. The next thing that anybody would notice was the disarray that the house constantly was. I’ve learned that when an alcoholic is in the family, chances are pretty good that the house will be filthy, a wreck, have holes in random places, broken things everywhere and any version of upkeep will be neglected. This was also the “normal” of this group of kids.
I dodged a knife randomly stuck in the wall, a broken flower pot and a random bag of trash to see my uncle, incoherent, with his appendage, the styrofoam cup filled with generic mouthwash, and gave him an obligatory hug. We made plans to come back the next day, where a gathering of all of his friends were meeting there to have a sort of memorial, and returned home, heavy-hearted. I had started a new journal, and I wrote a poem for Marc that night, as only a 14 year old girl with a green notebook can. I cried in private places. I continued to cry in private places for the next several years.
Marc will always be 19 years old. He lives on only in the memories of us, as we are all aging, the internet was barely an insect fart, and there are very few pictures of him. There are a handful of videos that my friend, Bryan has, of them doing stupid kid shit in the yard, beating each other with PVC pipe swords covered in foam and duct-tape, and making fun of my Aunt Su’s broken English. It’s not exactly a legacy, but it’s what we’ve got. I’ve got the memories of them accidentally poking a hole in the dingy at Falls Lake and having to swim it back to shore. I have the memory of them playing D & D in the living room of my parent’s house when we were all little. I have the memory of Marc telling foul-mouthed stories on Christmas Eve when my sister and I were banished upstairs because of “Santa Clause”, but really all the grown-ups were downstairs hanging out and cutting up, but there is no future. There are no more memories.
That summer my parents divorced, my cousin committed suicide, I got my first grown up boyfriend, had premarital sex, smoked my first pot and lost my religion. I couldn’t reconcile what I had learned about God with what June, July and August of 1993 would bring me. My church literally talked about premarital sex or homosexuality every single Sunday. I knew that once I lost my virginity, I couldn’t go back. I went back once with my cousins, and the entire sermon was literally about premarital sex. There is something about loss that makes people want to have an Irish Wake and go do something that makes them feel alive. I’ve seen it my entire adult life. I’m pleased to say that I’m friends with Bryan to this day, so my choice in human beings was sound (though he might disagree lol), we were all bonded through a loss, and dealing with that loss. My life took a very different path than the one I had expected, or the one that was planned for me.
I began 9th grade sullied, older, wiser and more jaded than my peers. My sister began 7th grade, and proceeded to fail every single year of school after that. The ripples in a pond are very real. They move and shift the lives of the universe. Aside from ending his life, Marc changed the course of several other lives in the process. It’s true, I’m glad that I’ve had Bryan as one of my lifelong best friends, but there are other pieces that I wonder about, exactly how would our lives have been different? Would my sister have gone from being the bright and sunny kid she was to the dark, depressed young person she became as a teenager? Would I have become more and more religious? I like the people that we all are, but I can’t say I wouldn’t change a thing (except that we all know that changing that thing would change literally every single thing about modern reality). We can’t know, nor did my cousin probably think “I’m about to change some people’s lives forever in ways that will never be foreseen”. He was just drunk, heartbroken, and had access to a really big shotgun.
*I know of 2 existing pictures of Marc, his driver’s license, and a picture that I own from when he was about 13 years old. When I find it, I will scan and post it. It’s in a picture box in storage.
I have the biggest shoes to fill. I should be a Reverend. I should be an MSW. I should be a Doctor of Something. I’m not. The job actually doesn’t require that, it requires you to be good at math (I am), good at writing (I should write more), good at public speaking (I won an award for that, a long time ago). However, it requires you to shake things up, without being afraid. I feel like Hugh was fighting against the religious Right. That’s not actually my fight. My fight is a circular firing squad, where I can’t “left” hard enough. No matter what I do.
As a white, cis-gender person, (not even mentioning “female”), I’ve been told that I should “do my work in silence”. I can’t do that. If I do that, Love Wins no longer exists, and no one has offered me a viable alternative. Funny story, no one ever did that to Hugh, because he is male, and owns this thing called a penis, and I am female, and I’m expected to do my work in silence, which would be great, but I can’t. If I don’t tell these stories, the organization falls apart. No one funds us. No one cares. I can’t “be silent” about homelessness, and unless you’re funding me, feeding me or f@&%ing me, neither can you.
I’m tired of being told that I need to work in silence, no one asked that of Hugh, and you absolutely cannot ask that of me. I tried, and it’s a detriment to us if I “remain silent”, so I’m afraid I’ll have to say things and you’ll have to listen. I can’t “circular firing squad”, I just can’t. We lost half our funding for coming out as LGBT affirming, and more by coming out as “Black Lives Matter”. When you ask me to simply disappear, you ask my staff to do that too, and you hurt Billy, who volunteers everyday in the kitchen, and Tony, who organizes our food pantry, and Diamond, who makes our salad dressing with love, and Bianca, who is our liason, and Thomas, who patrols the grounds. When you ask me to be “silent”, you hurt the people we help.
I’ve been silent. Far more than I should have, and now, I have to be loud. If you want to try to kill my voice as a woman standing up for people in extreme poverty, feel free, but I’ll remind you that you have not volunteered, given us a dollar or a can of green beans. You’re not feeding us, funding us or f@$&ing us, so where exactly do you fit into this multi-hundred dollar non-profit? Nowwhere. If you’re lefting so hard that your left looks right, maybe you should show up and volunteer for one single day, instead of whatever you’re doing on social media. We could use the immediate, in person, help.
That’s the long and the short. If you’re not willing to help, don’t hinder. If you don’t show up at this center every day, I don’t have anything to give you. You get to complain if you do the work, if not, your keyboard warrior things mean nothing to us. Show up. Show big. If you can’t do better, just stop. You’re not helping anyone. You’re definitely not helping homeless people. Actions speak louder than words. I simply won’t stand for this anymore.