Making the transition from the head to the heart
“The longest and most important journey we can take is from our head to our heart.” Anonymous. (Sage 1)
Christmas is the season of journeys. It all started with that epic donkey ride Mary and Joseph took going home to Bethlehem. A very ignoble beginning. Since then, we have all gone considerably upscale with flights to Palm Springs, Hawaii, Jasper, or Vancouver. All the places we can only dream about this year. Sure, home for the holidays sounds romantic, but only if you are coming from away.
The truth of it is that, for this year, the journeying is all in our heads—or hearts, as the case may be. In any other year, the journey on the number 5 bus up 95 and 96 Street would go unnoticed and unchronicled. But, in a year of little things, it turns out to be a big deal; not just a bus ride, but according to Anonymous, (Sage 1) the biggest journey of all.
There’s nothing like a bus ride to give you time to think, reflect, collect your thoughts, and gain perspective on life. And there’s no bus ride quite like the 5 to really adjust your perspective. This bus goes directly from my work to almost our doorstep and so it is very convenient. Nonetheless, I typically try to avoid it. Sure, it’s partly a concern about public transport and the virus, but that is really only an excuse. I really try to avoid the 5.
You do not know Edmonton until you ride the 5. It is a university-level course into the socio-economic bedrock of this city for only $3.50. This will educate you on how the other side lives, and what life is really like at street level.
On the way home, the 5 passes at least a dozen homeless shelters and staffed residences for the homeless, the mentally ill, the drug and alcohol addicted, and subsidized accommodation for threadbare artists and burnt-out social workers. Along the way are complementary supports such as the courthouse, the police station, the public trustee office, a health centre, meals-on-wheels, free lunch, bottle depots, flophouses, safe injection sites, liquor stores, pawnshops, and pharmacies on every street corner.
Then there is all the supplementary commerce, evidenced by the dumpster-diver pushing a cart through the ruts down the back lane scavenging for discarded treasures, or a bicycle mechanic madly peddling to the chop shop with a stolen bike slung over his shoulder, or the sex worker on the street corner, laced up, decked out, and strung out.
You get the drift. We are not talking about a high-rent district. This is the reality of Edmonton’s inner-city. There is no sugar coating here. There is no counting on happy endings or last-minute miracles. Maybe a hamper from the food bank, but that would be an optimum outcome. “No sh**,” my buddy Scott would say (Sage 2, R.I.P. 2020). He had a proclivity for affirming bare-bones, unpretentious, down-to-earth reality.
Today, I try not to notice any of it. I am stuck in my head, trying to make some sense of this craziness which just seems to get amped up every day. Today, for example, our great-grandson is going in for surgery.
How do you make sense of that? A three-year-old boy, the cutest kid of loving parents, but born with a cancerous tumour permeating much of his abdominal cavity. Today is the day of reckoning. Exploratory surgery. It stays or it goes. He gets a new lease on life or they say their goodbyes.
My head isn’t up to the task. My well-wishing, caring, supportive colleagues sent me home with hopes and dreams, but I left them all behind when I stepped on the bus. From where I am sitting, (third row back, driver’s side), I can’t see a positive outcome. Yes, it is Christmas and I am supposed to believe in miracles. But I am struck by how non-miraculous this all looks. No last-minute interventions or deliverances promised or even hoped for.
As our son, Kevin (Sage 3), would say: “It is what it is. A truck is a truck.” In other words, don’t try to pimp your F150 into a Cadillac Escalade. That is the kind of wisdom that would go over in this neighbourhood: It is what it is. A truck is a truck. And believe me, a lot of these people look like they have met a truck head-on at some point in their lives.
Third stop: the Shaw Conference Centre, now respite lodging for the hundreds who a few weeks ago occupied Pekiwewin, the Rossdale field tent city. Currently under COVID-19 outbreak. No surprise.
Fifth stop: the Bissell Centre. Closed now, of course. Patrons who went there daily for coffee, laundry services, and free lunch now manage to scrounge coffee and lunch elsewhere.
Next stop: the bottle depot. The bus lowers the front steps and waits for the lady with matted grey hair and bags tied to the front of her walker to lurch out the doorway into the snowbank. On her way to cash in her day’s efforts, she pushes her booty through the snow.
Next stop: Boyle McCauley Health Centre. A dishevelled, ashen-skinned man with a large stained dressing on the side of his face steps off to get some nursing attention. I have often been inside the BMHC for client-related matters. What an astounding coalescence of misfortune and goodwill! The lobby is filled with street people of all sorts of ailments, and others just looking for a warm dry place to sleep on a couch or in the middle of the floor. There are condoms, masks, and free coffee on the counter. There is a safe injection site in the basement. Counselling services on the second floor are paid for through fundraising. Sample medications donated by pharmaceutical reps and second-hand loaner wheelchairs and walking assists are stored behind the counter. The criteria for service at the BMHC is that one cannot access health care anywhere else. In other words, those who need help the most get it least and last.
The next two stops pass a string of churches. Unlike the BMHC, these are silent and empty mid-week, except for the Mustard Seed which always has a line-up for its free lunches and haircuts. The Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, normally busy, is currently closed due to fire damage.
Fun fact: this section of 96 Street holds a Guinness World Record for having the highest density of churches—16—crammed into four city blocks! It’s a testament to times gone by, when this was an upscale neighbourhood, where Hallmark Christmases were the norm, when people expected to have miracles wrapped up with a fancy bow neatly placed under the tree on Christmas morning.
Now pharmacies fill in behind, our new religion. These days, miracles come inside a pill bottle.
No sh**. It is what it is. Try to make sense of any of this, my beat, on a normal workday. And this is not a normal workday. Today is barnacled with a gut full of worry and heartache.
I dig down deep for more home-grown proverbial wisdom. My daughter, Sara, and I are sitting at an outdoor patio cafe when two young bucks the next table over begin spewing sexist slurs. Sara (Sage 4), calls them on it. “Sorry,” they respond, appropriately embarrassed. “We didn’t intend anything by it.” Sara responds, “That is just the thing. It means what it means whether you intend it or not.” Period.
It means what it means. Finding meaning. This is heart territory. It is the journey that Sage 1 prescribes as the longest and the most important: seeing a deeper purpose, trusting in love or providence or some such redemptive thing. Maybe it sounds a little spongy, but not the way Sara says it, strong and clear, sticking the tail right to the donkey’s behind.
The bell rings and the fellow with the ratty red Nike’s and pants below his butt—supposedly a fashion statement—steps off, perhaps attracted to the street worker leaning against the light post. Boots up to her thighs and then borderline covering all the way up to her frozen smile.
Well, what does that mean? What does it mean that someone has to sell herself on the corner to make a subsistence wage? Or that a grey-haired lady has to push her walker and bags of bottles through the snow to supplement the free meal and lodging that she will get later that day? Or that a young boy is born with a cancerous tumor too big to operate on or that an entire busload of people stagger on and off with an endless litany of injustices, day in and day out?
What does any of this mean? Almost home. I have got to get out of my head and into the heart of all of this.
My stop is at the Norwood Gospel Chapel, noted for its very cryptic messages on the sign board, designed to create curiosity in Sunday’s sermon. But this week’s posting hits home: “Jesus’ mother Mary, engaged to Joseph, was found to be pregnant before they came together.”
OK…now that sounds real. “No sh**,” my buddy would say. We’ve got a real soap opera happening here. This certainly must have had the Bethlehem Chapter of the Women’s Auxiliary buzzing.
I wonder how the preacher will talk his way through this? No doubt sugarcoat the scandal with choirs of angels and virgin births and cattle lowing and shepherds herding. That will be a tough sell. Not that anyone in this neighbourhood would buy it. On 95 Street they know the hard facts of life. A truck is a truck. If one of the girls on the corner does unprotected favours for $20 extra, there are consequences. Everyone knows this. No sh**.
So here we go again: another illegitimate child born out behind the barn without health care or a properly sanitized manger. Who is in charge of this “no sh** show?” This is the first Christmas, for God’s sake! Get it right!
I shift from head-gear to heart-gear, from trying to make sense of it all to feeling for the meaning.
My best hunch? That love is to be found in all the wrong places. That love is a bigger story than the deprivation or illness or the seeming unfairness of it all. Love is the meaning and love gathers up all the tragedies and injustices and swaddles them in a blanket and rocks them gently. Christmas is the day God gets down and dirty, mixes it up with the cattle and sheep, and stands in the shadows as another young woman puts her life on the line to bring a child into the world.
I pull the cord to get off. The bus stops and I thank the bus driver and wish him a Merry Christmas. I head down the sidewalk and up our steps. Patricia greets me as I open our front door. She is crying, but they are tears of joy and relief. The operation was successful.
Another day, another miracle. 95 Street-style. No guarantees. No promises of forever. Just another opportunity to love, to tenderly cradle life’s graces in one’s arms. Another invitation to take that longest and most important journey from the head to the heart.