Thursday, December 25, 2008

FREEDOM--Merry Christmas

Merry christmas to every one. I have not spoken to you since Thanksgiving but it was very important for me to at least wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Much is going on with my life and I will share the evolution and perspectives with you over several parts in my Christmas series.
Two years ago, I was sitting in jail on Christmas. I had no windows. I had no one except the men with whom I shared Christmas. Instead of sitting with the men at the tables to eat the Christmas dinner, I grabbed my tray and walked to my bed and cried a lonely cry. There were no windows in the men's dormitory of the Peter Pitches Detention Center of the Los Angeles County Jail system, commonly known as Wayside to the inmate population. There were only skylights and from my bunk I could look up into one. I could see a bright sunny day. The sky was blue and I saw an Air Force jet streak past my view leaving a vapor trail behind. It was a beautiful sight, a sight of freedom, and I clung on to that feeling for dear life. The vapor trail was at first sharp and crisp as was my feeling of freedom. Slowly it began its dispersing process and as it evolved in that process, so did my feeling of freedom. Finally the trail disintegrated and, of course,there was no evidence that it ever existed. In my heart there was no evidence that I had ever been free. That feeling was not only a function oflanguishing in jail, but the years of substance abuse that preceded it. No matter how my life appeared on the outside with the facade of success with titles and suits, I was shackled to dependency. Freedom in many ways was a stranger to me and my search for it was like the endless quest for the Holy Grail.
I found it all the more tragic because my legal problems started AFTER I finally succeeded in overcoming drug use. “Why now?” I kept asking myself. I had worked so hard and battled for so long in a lonely fight that finally ended in victory. I deserved to enjoy it.
Jail was followed with a court ordered stay at a facility on Skid Row. Of course I thought the judge had ordered me to a drug program. But that was not the case. And even though I did everything the program told me to do, I was told, seven months later, though I could leave, I still had to go to another program for 52 straight weeks.
Whenever I looked west from Skid row, I could only see the Great Wall of the Office Skyline. It separated the reality of my existence from what I viewed as freedom and dreams. Skid Row was the dormitory cell. The North-South Skyline dividing line of the office skyline was the row of bars in the skylight that reinforced the fact the freedom was so close but so far. And of course the other side of the skyline laid freedom.
Of course, many other physical things were in place to reinforce the idea that I was in one world and there was another one far beyond my reach. Seeing friends of mine on television, for one reason or another, was a big one. It practically drove me crazy. I felt like I could not dream about that world. That world meant freedom and I was far from it in a physical sense. Everything around me reminded me of that.
I had to survive. I had to keep going. I could not concentrate on the victory of overcoming drug use. I had concentrate on making it through each day emotionally and endure the test of time. I was on a mission and nothing was going to deny me. I had to feel freedom and it was going to be a feeling that I had never before felt because what defines freedom as a teenager or young adult is completely different from what defines it for a middle age man. What defines imprisonment however can be the same and I shed those shackles of psychological dependency and thus rid myself of that nature of imposed psychological and physical imprisonment.
Sure I had the courts limiting my options and they seemed to extend for a lifetime. But people kept telling me life would change. “Just keep going Walt. At least now you know what you must do. There will be no other surprises. Just keep going. “

I found that program. It was slow but each week I knew one thing. Each week I would get closer to the end. I started classes on November 29th of last year. It was rough. I had to pay for it. I had no money. I found the money collecting cans and bottles. I paid my initial fees. Each week I paid something. Each week I went to class. I cussed and swore at a City Attorney friend of mine, Jose Egurbide. I cussed and swore at General Jeff, of Dlanc.

Oh yes, before I catch hell from both of them, I whined a lot also. Boy did I whine. Jose let me whine for a second or two then he told me he could not take it. Jeff was not patient on the whining bit. He lit into me so fast it made my head spin. Each of them challenged me. Each of them pushed me. Each of them challenged me to break the most important moat that separated me from success and any vision of creative success. IT WAS MY MIND. I was allowing the courts and what people may think of me to define my future. It was easier to do that than think beyond it. I had lost the ability to dream. I was used to imprisoning myself anyway. I just found a more subtle way—a convenient way to stay stagnant. Why? The reason was simple. That is what I knew. It was my known quantity.
“I do not want to hear one thing out of you, Walter” declared Jose, former point man in Skid Row for the Safer Cities Initiative. “You are going to do every one of those 52 classes and you are not going to miss one week. You have your whole life ahead of you. You can do anything. You stopped doing cocaine Walter and you never went back to it. You can do anything.”
“Stop with that ole bullshit, man. You can’t let these people or the courts stop you. I am not going to sit here and let you talk yourself into defeat!, barked General Jeff. Both knew I was not going to go missing in action. Both knew I was not going back to drugs. They did not know how long I was going to hold on to the defeatist attitude. Nor did I.
I had to kick that. I had to fight back against the mental moat. Each week I went to class. Each week I made one more step of progress. Each week I took a swing at that giant redwood tree blocking my path.
I had to stay focused. I did not want to move. Everything was convenient: the courts, the transportation lines, the emotional support, my room and eventually the job.
I kept chipping away at that. I finally called one friend. A month or two later I called another friend. I was scared of rejection but I fought through it.
I had a victory in one area of life. I had a victory in another area. Of course those victories came in spurts after hard work. You know the stories of my path already. Those victories are not the point of this post. But each week I knew I would make progress. Time would elapse and I would go to class. I would get one step closer.
During the process. I slowly felt a confidence developing. I guess I was looking at the little victories that had been going on. They were across the board life categories as I had embarked in the beginning to fix my life in all areas. I wanted to clear the way so I could grow and be creative in my growth.
I think it was when I moved to my present residence. I started to focus more on what I felt inside after each completed class rather than getting closer to the end of the obligation itself. Each week I developed more confidence. Each week I noticed that more and more of what had faced me was gradually moving behind me, in addition to the other challenges and victories and confidence that came from it. Roots of confidence were building inside of me. Each week, fresh water, nourishing that confidence, showered onto me with each passing class.

I began to notice that I was not calling Jose or General Jeff to sooth my insecurities about the future. When moments of doubt would surface, I would take a deep breath and say “Walter, you have been through this a thousand times. The feeling will pass. Ride it out.” And it would pass. Perhaps it took take a while but it would pass. “Ah yes, FREEDOM.” I recognized that over a period of time I started training in the triathlon, I was building my ability to be free. It started with the obvious dependency of drugs. Yet over a period of time, even while sitting in jail, I was learning, across various platforms and categories, the respective formulas for being free.
Along the way, I was learning new skills of independence, skills that I had took for granted and neglected to nourish them. Soon they wilted like a plant in the hot sun that goes without water. I had the pleasure of observing myself like a parent who marvels at watching his child grow and learn. I was marveling at myself. And that feeling of despair, of being on a deserted island of misery, was dissipating.
Greater efficiencies in recognizing short term confidence lapses kept me on track. Increased confidence kept me striving. And each week I got closer to the end.
I knew I was building a broad foundation of confidence a pyramid where the pinnacle would be Maslow’s phase of actualization. I had to go through the process. I realized that I had the confidence that came from hard work and perseverance. Every day I knew I did everything I could to be the best I could be. I worked on every single category of necessary development. The pieces of growth were coming together. They came together within each category and soon I was integrating and blending the categories for greater efficiencies. Economics of scale in all categories increased.
My first move from a shelter was to a room on San Julian St. I would visit the roof top and look west. I viewed my physical distance from the core of skid Row to the Skyline as a measure of progress. I was closer to the buildings. I had the feeling I was almost within grabbing range. However, mentally, I was still light years away from understanding. There was a huge mental moat that separated me from freedom, a moat as formidable as the bars in the skyline that separated me from the clear blue skies that I could see from my bunk in the county jail.
I moved to my present location. And yes, I was even closer to the Skyline. I was closer to the border of Skid Row. I realized that over a period of time, it made no difference to me where the physical border was. Mentally, I was crossing the moat. I was building my own bridge across the murky waters of mental imprisonment.
On Decemer 19, 2008, I went to my last class. It was over. I reached the end. I was free. I no longer had to do anything to fulfill the court requirements. I also realized that I no longer worried about if the felony would be reduced to a misdemeanor or not. I was going to make it. I had built a foundation of various sorts that insured me a future. I knew it. I believe it. I earned it.
Early this Christmas morning, I decided to look up John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. I found a colorful picture of it and studied each building block. I read them. I never really studied them when I saw them as a young adult, in corporate training sessions, where the instructors made the pyramid a standard handout.
There it was. In front me was everything I had experienced from the moment I jumped into the pool at USC to train for the triathlon, purging my dependency on drugs, to crossing across the moat of mental and emotional freedom.----the path to self acceptance. FREEDOM. I had to develop each part of me as a team member and integrate each part of me into a team and push forward. I had to smile.
I looked it at the buildings on Christmas morning. The sky was not crisp and blue. It was cloudy. It was dreary but to me it was bright. It was cheery. Physically, I had not moved any closer to the buildings that used to be the Great Wall. However there was no more mental moat. I crossed it. I was embedded in the buildings. I was a part of them. I was on the other side. I was free. I stood there and looked at them and realized how grateful I was to have had the privilege of going through this journey, forging my mental steel in the raging fire and crucible of Skid Row.
I made a copy of the Wooden’s Pyramid of Success and it is now the background of my desktop. I stood in the window and looked at the cloudy Skyline. It was beautiful. I was out of the storm. I thought of everyone who helped me along the way, from the person in jail who kept screaming at me to keep writing, to the person on the street who screamed at the demons inside of himself. I learned from them all.

It no longer mattered whether I left immediately or stayed a while to do some work. I knew my blog was successful in that it helped me and it is a model for those to follow who are on that quest for freedom. It is not the elusive Holy Grail. It is attainable. I proved it. I knew without a doubt one very important fact.

I had graduated from the University of Skid Row.

I walked out of the door. I went to see my mother It is Christmas.

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Homeless Connect Day.(Queen of 7th Street)

“Walter, what do you feel when you see a homeless person?” I was asked by someone who suddenly found themselves homeless and spent eight months sleeping outside in the courtyard of the Midnight Mission. In so many ways the question was profoundly poignant. It was a few days before Thanksgiving and I had been reviewing the last few years, revisited the path that I took from the day I was arrested until now. It was a terrifying time for the most part. There were many challenges ahead of me and each had its unique set of emotions with a Kaleidoscope of pain, fear, anxiety, and heartache that was specific to each one. Sure, I was thankful that I was not out in the cold but I feared that I would have no place to go. I feared that when I had someplace to go that my benefits would expire before I found a job. If that would have happened, after going from shelter bed to my own room, I would have been on the streets. No one gets points for being clean and sober if you cannot pay the rent. Skid Row is like any other place. One must pay to play particularly in your own rescue. Life is not free on Skid Row. Those who believe otherwise are na├»ve. Would I win or would time run out. It was a constant worry keeping me awake at night while roaches around me in my former room danced the night away.
Occasionally I would look out of the window, in the middle of the night, and see someone standing in the light or sitting on the ground. During rainy nights I could see plastic sheets crumpled on the ground knowing that beneath them was a person tucked inside trying to keep dry. I would not allow myself to feel too much. I was not as sorry for them as I was grateful I was not out there with them. Each morning I would wake up and begin the task anew of trying to find a job, trying to maintain the faith. Trying to take one more step in the tunnel of doom where it was dark and I could not see any light.
Finally, through the grace of God, I had a job. It was in the nick of time as my General Relief had expired. I was working and over a period of time as I became more confident that my job was not a dream, I began to feel, to believe that there was distant light at the end of the dark tunnel and a bright new day was emerging. As each day came and went, I believed more and more the lessons I was taught on Skid Row—to be positive and to have faith and that I would get through it.
I noticed more and more that all that I had to face was disappearing behind me and the burden of gloom and worry was being replaced by a peace and confidence. What was lost was being regained and there were things I was gaining that I had never before felt, or it had been so long ago that the antecedent experience of feeling no longer applied. It was a new day, a new time. I found it funny that I used to wear a business suit every day and had no confidence and lived every moment with an uneasiness that left a feeling similar to that when fingernails scratched a chalkboard. Now, on Skid Row, there is this growing fascination of experiencing self love while learning new things and gaining insights that I would not have acquired if Skid Row were not in my life.
I state in my profile that this journal is the thoughts and experiences while I am in the University of Skid Row. I am proud to be a student of this fine university. There is much to learn here and so few understand the broadband of its curriculum. One thing for certain is if one has spent any time here at this University, one understands pain. Whether one lives or works here, Skid Row allows you to understand pain(of course the flip side of joy as well). Whatever pain you felt before you arrived here is nothing compared to what you experience as you review your life. It is a healing process, if of course, the process itself does not kill you. It can do that is so many ways. From one’s own experience you become adept at recognizing it in body language and so many other ways. The eyes alone are a concentration of study in and of themselves. It is said that they are the eyes to the soul. True. But one must understand the language, the syntax of the meaning. Each variation is a font with its own accent and texture of story.
I thought of all of these things over the last few months as my confidence allowed me to thaw out my emotions and examine the condition of my homeless neighbors on Skid Row. Homelessness has many meanings. It creates different feelings when you look at each person. A person is homeless. There story is not homogenous. The feelings you get from talking to one is different when you talk to another. Each has their own brand of pain. It tastes differently from another. Being homeless within the boundaries of the Skid Row district is different than when one walks down Broadway or or the streets further west. People respond to homeless people differently. In Skid Row, though there is a social hierarchy, stratification, and in some cases a caste social order, respect is given to all while experiencing the common areas of the sidewalks and streets. As you leave Skid Row, the level of respect diminishes for those who are deemed to be from Skid Row, let alone concluded to be homeless. A level of distrainment surfaces as well as an abstract distrainment, respect taken away and to regain it only comes when paying the price of having a home.
I have said that Skid Row is a reflect of our society. And through the homeless we have the eyes of society’s soul. It is not pretty. It is replete with viruses.
I thought of these things over the last few months while wondering about a woman. I saw her one day. She was on Seventh St and Broadway. Bare footed, layers dirt embedded into the souls of her feet served as cushions as she navigated her way from trash can to trash can in search of food. I watched her as she had a striking presence. People avoided her. She was invisible to them. She was not a person. She was nothing to them-- less than an animal. She smelled, I am sure but nothing compared to the stench left by the people who walked by her not accepting her into the human family.
The lady was the lens into the souls of our society and its superficiality. And this occurred while many people across the country were edging toward homelessness themselves, losing homes, as the nation sank deeper into financial chaos. Perhaps it was the fear of being like her that made people ignore her. I understand that. That is a process one goes through when they first arrive on Skid Row, not wanting to be like the homeless instead of helping them.
On Thanksgiving Day I got off the bus at 7th and Broadway. There she was, the queen of 7th street. I wondered what her story was. Where is her family? What is her pain? I wondered if anyone cared. It was clear that no one had any use for her. I went into a store and bought something to get change. I walked out and gave her a couple of dollars. I had given her dollars in the past. Yet this time, I wanted to see her eyes. I wanted to connect with her. I wanted her to know me. I wanted to see her eyes. I wanted to understand her pain and translate that into her probable story.
Instead I received a lesson I did not count on. She sensed the money and reached out and grabbed the dollars. Her focus was on the means to survival, not her benefactor. She was supposed to be mentally ill, not capable of understanding anything—deranged. She understood one thing and made it clear as her eyes beamed into me with a fierceness I have not felt from anyone in quite some time. She knew that my giving her a couple of dollars did more for my soul than it did to help her survive a day. In the scheme of things, those dollars did nothing for her. They only served to prove that society did not understand. No matter what my level of sincerity, she saw through it and found the virus that was embedded in me, allowing me to identify where it was localized in my being.
Society has no use for her. Let me tell you something. She has no use for society. She knows what it is. She knows that those that those that spit on her are one paycheck away from being thrown from their high and mighty homes into the streets where they will join her. More importantly, she understands what it is not. She sees people for what they are and experiences every day what they are not. She has no use for us. She expects nothing from our spurious society.
It is Homeless Connect day across America, where social services make themselves visible and accessible in mass to the public. I felt compelled to reach out to society and have it connect to the homeless.
What do I feel when I see a homeless person? I feel this sums it up. To borrow the words of one to convey a concept I feel this way:
“ASK NOT WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR THE HOMELESS. ASK WHAT KNOWING, HELPING , OR UNDERSTANDING THE HOMELESS CAN DO FOR YOU?