Oh, Those Well Meaning Folk!

Many years ago, during the period of time I refer to as my Dark Days, I worked in a small indie coffee shop. There were a few other indie coffee shops in the surrounding area, and we were really the opposite of hip at the time, so it was fairly slow there. We had our morning rush of office workers who didn’t want to wait in the long lines at other places, a few daytime regulars, and our nighttime crowd who hung out until close.

Most of the people I saw there, I got to know by name. Because my then-fiance would stop in to check on me a few times a day, they got to know a bit about my situation at the time. For most people, their first reaction was to try and offer me help.

Without getting into much detail, I was in a relationship that was highly abusive in multiple ways. I wasn’t able to eat properly, was constantly tired, my hair had started thinning from malnutrition and stress, and I was working at least 6 days a week and sometimes up to 14 hours a day.

Most of the people I talked to throughout the day offered me some sort of help. For the most part, it was little things. One woman would offer to buy me sandwiches on my break. A gentleman was always offering me cigarettes so that I wouldn’t have to go through mine on my very limited budget. Others just let me sit and talk to them when the shop was slow.

One well-meaning woman went too far. This woman knew my mother, and my mother did not know where I was working at the time. I was not living at home, and was not exactly on speaking terms with my family. This woman, from talking to both myself and my mother, knew this. She knew that I was not mentally in a place where having long talks with my mother would help my situation, and that my mother seeing me in the state I was in would be of no help to her.

Still, she felt the need to go to my mother. She told the state I was in, where I was working, what my schedule was there, and anything else she could think to tell her. She told her bits of things, out of context, that she had overheard me talking about with other customers and friends. She told her things she thought about my situation, without know much about my situation.

Basically, this woman got my mother all worked up into a tizzy, told her exactly where she could find me, and didn’t tell me any of this. I only found out when my mother showed up at the coffee shop one day. In her mind, this is how that day would’ve gone:

My mother would walk into the coffee shop during a slow period, and see me standing behind the counter. All of our fights would be completely forgotten the second we saw each other, and I would run to her arms. We’d hug, we’d cry, I would beg her to take me away from my awful situation and we’d leave right that very second.

Magical, isn’t it?

That’s not what happened, though. Instead, my mother showed up one day while I was working. We had an awkward hello, she ordered a coffee, and sat down while I served other people. We made some forced small-talk about my siblings and dad, and then the hushed fighting started. How could I disappoint them like this? Why did I have to be so stubborn? Why couldn’t I just leave my fiance because my parents don’t like him?

That was in April. My mother and I didn’t talk again until well into the summer. Any progress we had made in our relationship, no matter how little it was at the point, was gone.

That’s the problem with being well-meaning: you have a certain idea of how things will work once you fix them for someone. You don’t take into account how the other parties will be affected, what harms you may be doing, how those you’re “helping” will perceive your “help”, or if your help is even wanted. People who are well-meaning usually come off as meaning well for themselves, not for the greater good.

Now, that’s not to say you should stop helping people all-together. Remember, I had a lot of people help me out in that time. There were times when I probably would’ve have eaten for days at a time if it weren’t for the kindness of others. There are some big differences between help and well-meaning help, though.

1) Does the person want any help right now?

Sometimes, people just want to work things out for themselves. They may not think their situation is as dire as you seem to. Or maybe they’re stubborn and determined to pull themselves out of whatever situation they’re in.

Jumping in to help a person who doesn’t want help can scream “you’re a failure and can’t do this on your own” to them, no matter your intentions. If someone is really trying to pull their life together on their own, and are proud of the progress they’ve been making (no matter how small that progress seems to you), you can’t just jump in and try to take control. If they don’t want any help right now, you can’t force any on them.

2) What kind of help do they want right now?

In my Dark Days, I would never turn down free food. At one point, I had to make a box of macaroni and cheese last me 3 days because I had no other food in the house for myself. There were times when I actually ate out of a donut shop’s dumpster to survive. If someone had come up to me and offered to buy me a burger from McDonald’s, I’d have to resist the urge to tackle them in a giant bear hug. Food was the one thing I always seemed to need.

Do you know what did me no good at all? Money. Part of my problem at the time was financial abuse in my relationship, and I had to turn over all money to my fiance so he could “track” my finances. He came with me to cash my paycheques, he gave me a small allowance, and he needed to know where every penny I spent went. If I came home with any extra money, or bought things that couldn’t be accounted for with the meager amount of money I was allotted, I was in deep horse turds.

I know that one of my friends is always in need of socks and shoes. I can’t afford to be buying him shoes every time he loses his, but I can get a 20-pack of socks for $10 at Giant Tiger and buy a dozen pairs of good thick socks at Dollarama to keep in my car for him. Giving him money to buy socks is not going to get him socks. There’s very few places to shop for clothes in the area he stays in, and most places don’t like to let homeless people in, especially when they’re a bit stinky. If he tells me he needs socks, I give him socks. If he says he needs a toque, or gloves, or a clean t-shirt, then that’s what I’ll find him. Giving him money for these things isn’t going to get them for him.

3) What kind of help are you willing to give?

I will tell you right now, if it were financially possible I would put a roof over Strength’s head in a heartbeat. I would fill his closet with clean clothes, fill his kitchen with food, and make sure he got any help or opportunity his gigantic heart desires. I would make sure he was safe, and warm, and didn’t have to ever worry about find a spot in an alleyway to sleep in in the middle of winter.

I know that’s not something I can afford to do.

Here’s the thing, though: there are things that I may be able to afford to do, but just aren’t practical or helpful to either of us. As much as I want to bring that boy home with him, let him shower and do laundry, and them wrap him in a blanket like a giant burrito to watch movies all night with AAB and the kitten crew while I cook mass amounts of food for them, that’s not going to help any in the long run. I cannot risk losing my home because he brings drugs with him, or his drug-related mood swings cause problems with the neighbours. I can’t move him in with me, because I know I cannot leave a meth addict that no one else in the house knows or trusts alone there while I am at work.

In order to take care of him like that, I would practically have to restructure my life around him. I would have to keep tabs on him, bring him to work with me when I’m at the library, find somewhere for him to go while I’m working at the store. I would have to be financially responsible for his rent, his food, and even help out gathering up basic belongings and clothing for him. That goes well beyond what I am willing and able to do right now.

What I can do, which he says he appreciates, is what I do for him now. I bring him warm clothes and old blankets in the winter. I take him out for coffee, try to feed him. I keep bags of snacks in my car for him. I’ve taken him out in my car to go out for coffee, just so he can rest his feet and get out of the cold (but there are some massive rules when he’s in the car, like he has to turn out all his pockets and bags to show me he has nothing illegal with him).

Now, if I won the lottery tomorrow, it would be a whole different story. I have a well thought-out plan to help quite a few people, with him being the first. But until that happens, I have to set my limits and only do what I am willing and able to do.

4) Why are you helping them?

There is nothing wrong with enjoying that warm, fuzzy feeling you get in your heart when you help someone. Good deeds give people good feelings. If you’re helping someone out of the goodness of your heart, then revel in that warm, fuzzy feeling. That warm, fuzzy feeling is pure goodness.

I do know some people who can’t lend someone a quarter for the phone without taking pictures of the good deed and cross-posting it on every piece of social media they have accounts on. They spend weeks hyping up a charity event, only to have that event do more for them in the public eye than it does for those it was supposed to help.

People like this are in it purely so others will look at them and start heaping on praise. Yes, they may do some good for others, but it can come at a price. They could monopolize fundraising for a certain charity, only to do a poor job of it. Their lack of commitment to a cause can drive others away from it. Or, others could associate them directly with that cause, and not volunteer because they don’t want to deal with them.

I’m stuck with this dilemma right now. There are a few events I’ve signed up for that benefit a certain cause, all for different local charities. For some of these, I will be volunteering with two gentlemen who are very vocal on social media about their activism and charity work. One, I am thrilled to be working with, and others have asked me about him. Yes, he posts a lot online, but he’s doing so just to draw attention to causes. He’s spoken on TV and in the media about things, and declined interviews for others for fear that it draws more attention to him than the message at hand.

The other gentleman…….. well, he’s very active online. More than once (or a dozen times) when I’ve mentioned to people that he will be at an event, they’ve responded with eye rolls. He grabs the spotlight, even when he’s trying to shove others into it. In the beginning people were impressed with the work he was doing. Right now, a lot of the people I’ve talked to are just sick of him. Sadly, these same people don’t want to be associated with events he is a part of, which is hurting my personal fundraising goals.

Do it for the feels, not the fame.

At the end of the day, Sunshine, you can mean well without being well-meaning. You can do a world of good, and make life around you shine as bright as you. You can bring happiness and joy to people’s lives, make a difference in the lives around you, put smiles on faces. You can be the good in the world that you want to see. Just please, make sure that good is good for all the right reasons, and in all the right ways.

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Lose Yourself While Finding Yourself

Hey there Sunshine, I’m back yet again! Sitting at work today, trying to put back together the pieces of my life recently. You know how things go with me (and with pretty much every one else out there these days): as soon as things start to fall into place, other things start crumbling down around them.

One thing that had been crumbling for me for many years was my identity. I would find an event, or an activity that I really enjoyed and that brought some sort of sense of accomplishment into my life. Then I’d try to cram my life full of a reasonable facsimile of that thing. I didn’t sit down and think, “What about this makes me happy? What about it brings me joy? What other things could bring me the same feeling?”. No, I just rushed out there and tried to cram crap into my life.

Case in point, for 10 years I helped out with one very specific fundraiser. The frat boys I hung around with did an event every fall called Homeless for the Homeless. Basically, they would make a shelter on campus out of wooden skids, cardboard boxes, tarps, and twine. Then, they would “live” in this shelter for three days. No one person stayed the entire time. They made a schedule so people could go to class, and go to work, and take the time to eat and warm up somewhere. But at night, a bunch of people would all hang out until the wee hours of the morning, and part of that group would actually sleep in the shelter. The entire time everyone involved would be collecting food, money, clothes, and blankets for the local Downtown Mission.

I spent a few year sleeping in the shelter. Every year, I would gather up bags of clothes and food to bring down to donate. There were even a few times when no frat brother was available to supervise the site, my friend and I were the ones left in charge. I helped build 6 different shelters, tore down 8 of them, and got to remind the design team each year why we needed a peaked tarp roof (the Year of the Flat Roof also happened to be the Year of the Sleet Storm and the Year the Roof Caved In in Multiple Places During the Night). It didn’t matter how cold, or wet, or sleep deprived I got. Something about this one particular fundraiser seemed to give me life.

So what do I do? I sign up for ALL the fundraisers!

I joined student groups that I didn’t give a crap about in university. I marched in protests, walked in parades, sold cupcakes for charity, baked cupcakes for charity, and even once walked around in a blizzard wearing a banana costume over my clothes. None of these things gave me the same feeling as that one fundraiser, so I figured I just needed more fundraisers.

Looking back now, I see the error of my ways. That one fundraiser had meaning to me. At one point in time, I spent sporadic nights sleeping on the street. I had to make a box of mac’n’cheese last me three days. I once had nothing to eat in my cupboard for a week but two cans of corn, a Mr. Noodle, a loaf of bread, and half a jar of peanut butter. I had a very rough idea of what it’s like to be homeless (though I did have somewhere to go back to after a day or three, it’s a very long story). I knew what it was like to go to bed hungry and not know if I would eat the next day. I had used the food bank at the mission quite a few times, bringing home zip-lock bags of rice and butter wrapped in tin foil.

Basically, this one fundraiser I did every year was super important to me, deep in the cockles of my heart. Maybe in the sub-cockles, maybe in the liver, maybe in the kidney, maybe even in the colon. But it was me giving back to somewhere that had helped me so much 15 years ago now, and helping people who were in situations similar to what I had been through. My heart wasn’t in the act of fundraising, it was in helping the homeless.

It took me many, many years to realize this, though. I poured myself into volunteering with every single organization and campaign that asked me. I can remember standing in the Student Center in my fourth year of university, selling Cinnabons for a social justice organization. I was on their board of directors and chair of their Event Planning and Fundraising Committee, but couldn’t find the need in me to throw myself into any campaign. I think I failed at every single event I tried to put on, the Cinnabon sale included.

When I was transferred to the store downtown last year, I knew that there were changes coming. I swore that I would be true to myself, and not lose what made me me. I was determined to be the girl behind the counter who wore funny hats, danced to the radio, and marathoned Vines like they were going out of style (which they kinda did, since Vine is just gone). I thought that these were the things important to me, that these were the things that made me special.

Over the summer, Strength came into my store without a shirt on and was asked to leave. He came back in a minute later wearing jeans wrapped around his neck like a scarf. My manager came out to talk to him while he stood there shirtless in my line. Here was this super buff shirtless man standing here, trying to reason with management that his jeans/scarf concoction was no different than a woman in a tube top or a man in one of those ridiculous tank tops that is basically thread with a loose band of fabric around their middle. I’m not going to lie, Sunshine, the man was majestically gorgeous, all glistening and sweaty. He argued with my manager for a bit, giggled at my reply to his questionable fashion, and then said something I wasn’t expecting.

“I’m homeless. Where the hell am I supposed to get a shirt?”

This majestic being in front of me didn’t look like my preconceived notion of what a homeless person should look like. He was goofy and sincere, muscly and in shape, and he was cute as hell! In the movies homeless people were always dirty and stinky and covered in poop. This man looked like the opposite of that, and I was seriously shocked.

After arguing for a while, Strength was asked to leave and not come back. A few months later, he stopped in on a Sunday when I was in charge. He said he didn’t want to cause any trouble or bother anyone, he just wanted to apologize for his behaviour. He shook my hand and told me that he was all kinds of messed up, but he wanted to at least be the kind of man who could walk into our store and buy something. I got him to talk to our manager later that week, and soon Strength was a regular fixture.

One day, they shut down the streets for a festival for half the day. Strength was running around cleaning up garbage, directing traffic in our tiny parking lot, acting as security for roadside stands, and even playing basketball with random people. Once the festivities had died down and the streets had reopened, I found him curled up in a ball in the back of our parking lot. Up until that point I had been very hesitant about getting to know any of the regular homeless folk in the area. But for whatever reason that day, I just walked right over and plopped down next to him. We spent my break talking about how much work he had done, and how much I appreciated him keeping our parking lot clean and accident free. In the end I gave him the last dollar I had, plus the bag of snacks I had just bought.

From that day forward, something changed. Strength and I started hanging out in the parking lot. When I started my second job, he would (and still does) randomly meet me so that I don’t have to walk back to my car alone. After he was banned again from our store (another long story), we spent a month apart and then jumped right into coffee dates and hanging out in fast food places together. I had started keeping bags with socks, snacks, and rain ponchos in my car for him. In that month apart, I would search downtown for him and pass out whatever I had in my bag to others who needed it.

I know it sounds more than a little crazy, but hanging out with him awoke something in me. Being with him, helping others in his position, it gave me the same feeling as the old Homeless for the Homeless fundraisers. Ironically, this past year was the first time in more than 20 years that fundraiser hasn’t run. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself walking through alleyways in the middle of a rainy afternoon, passing out ponchos. I never expected to be happy to see a homeless meth addict walk through the doors of my workplace. These were not things I was taught were good things.

I know that some people take issue with me doing some of the things I do, and that they especially take issue with my friendship with Strength. But the people who know him, the people I work with at both of my jobs, for the most part get it. We all worry about him, but no one there does more than me. Sounds crazy, right?

But this man somehow reminded me of the things that were important to me. When I looked at him and thought, “Well that’s not what a homeless person looks like”, I had to ask myself “then what did I look like 15 years ago?”. Most people don’t know much about that part of my life, but since meeting him I’ve been able to talk about it a lot more freely. I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin, and I’m doing the things that make me feel like me.

The strangest thing, though, is that the things that I thought made me so special before really don’t hold much meaning to me now. I didn’t bust out the tiny hats this Christmas, at all. I still dance at work, but not in the same way I used to. And I haven’t had a good old Vine marathon in ages (although a coworker and I do still quote them to each other). The things that I thought were important to me were just things others noticed about me, regardless of how I felt about them.

I guess in finding myself downtown, I lost the West End me. I had to lose myself to find myself?

I know this is all rambly, Sunshine, but there is a lot going on here. I’ve gone through some super huge changes since my last run on this blog, and it looks like I may have some huge and super hard changes coming up in the near future. This change, finding both strength and Strength, are a precurser to many things going on right now.

Well That Break Went A Little Long, Eh?

So, it’s been a while, eh Sunshine?

The last time we talked, I was all scared and freaked out in my new store. Let me tell you, that store is the best thing to happen to me in a long time.

Remember I was talking about the “parking lot people”? We have a pretty steady rotation of men who sporadically stand in the parking lot and either ask for money or ask someone to buy them booze (those ones are banned from the store). Well, on of the previously-banned asked permission to shop again from my manager and started cleaning our parking lot in return. Months later, he’s banned again (he is a very long story that you will hear lots more of), but he’s also one of my favourite people in the world at the moment. Lil ‘ole me, who was shaking in my steel-toed booties at the thought of dealing with downtown people, went out and befriended a piano playing homeless meth addict.

For real. Like, seriously.

For the sake of his anonymity, I’ll just call him Strength (anyone who’s met him know why). We’ve gone out on coffee dates, taken some long walks together, I bring him snacks and socks, and he’s come to my other job to play piano for me.

Oh ya, that reminds me: I got a second job.

Late in the summer, I had testing and an interview with our public library system. I came home afterwards, called my mother and spent an hour telling her how it was a lost cause. The job was for an on-call supply person to fill in at all of the library branches in the city. There I was with limited availability thanks to my customer service job, no car, and a reliance on a laughable public transit system.

Well, they loved me. I mean, who wouldn’t? I somehow got hired and wound up in a training group of eight with a guy I went to University with. He’s like the love child of Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Chandler Bing from F*R*I*E*N*D*S, but much more charming. Made for an interesting week of training.

So I’ve been mainly picking up shifts at the library closest to the store I work at. Sometimes on his more lucid days (meth is one hell of a drug, kids), Strength will stop by the library for a private piano concert and to walk me back to the store. Other days, while walking between the jobs, I will randomly run into him while he hunts diamonds and data mines. We try and make plans, but his memory is so far gone that he forgets to meet me at work an hour after I remind him to. I was actually surprised the one day when he remembered to meet me for breakfast so I could take him out for a drive in my car.

I did mention that I bought a car, right?

She’s a little green lemon….I mean, a 2005 Pontiac Pursuit. I haven’t even given her a proper name yet, since she pisses me off so much. Looking back now, I know I got royally screwed by the dealer I bought her from. There’s a recall on her power steering system that was never attended to, which causes me to lose power steering randomly at low speeds. There’s also an issue with the transmission filter being clogged because her transmission fluid has never been flushed and the filter has never been changed. This causes the traction control to turn itself off and the transmission to slip from time to time.

It’s quite terrifying, really.

Let’s see, it there anything I missed? Little Sketchpad McCaffrey turned out to be a boy. Things with the Amazingly Awesome Boyfriend have been falling apart faster than the Trump cabinet. I’ve been volunteering again, wandering around and talking to homeless people and bringing them sandwiches and granola bars. Annoying Roommate is still uber annoying.

I think that’s everything.

Well, hopefully in this new year I’ll be better able to make time to write again. I’ve been working on a few things here and there in notebooks, but nothing too serious. I’ll try to update here more, get some of my twirly brain commotion onto the interwebs.

Until then, stay classy Sunshine!