Losing People, Compass in Hand

6 10 2012

I’m holding a battered metal compass in my hand tonight. It says my writing desk faces southwest, and that the cat curls her tail northward. It doesn’t say which direction skirts despair, doesn’t guide the path toward hope. Folding it closed, I wonder what good a compass actually does.

*****

Longtime Hooked readers have heard references to my social worker days. From June 1999 to May 2005, I worked with homeless youth in Seattle’s University District. Though more years have now passed than I actually spent there, “the Ave” maintains a tight grip on my heart.

As fiercely as I loved “my kids,” I relied on a few things to carry me through. My colleagues, inspiring souls who shared the trenches as well as intense passion, gallows humor, and a devotion to harm reduction. Our standing “self-care” date at Flowers Bar on Wednesday nights.  A private ritual for grieving whenever we lost one of our kids.

The day came when these tools were no longer enough. Love wasn’t enough. Realizing that I wasn’t doing good work anymore – and that I hadn’t been doing good work for far longer than I cared to admit – I felt like I’d been mopping the ocean, only to be consumed by the undertow.

They say that you shouldn’t try to fight an undertow, so I let it steal me from the Ave. I gave in to the current until it released me in the Gulf of Alaska, returned to my original home and workplace. As I sought solace in familiar mountains, guilt and fear tugged at my raw edges. Guilt that I’d abandoned young people who’d dared to trust once more, after lifetimes of betrayal. Fear that I’d never get to know what happened next in their lives.

(If I’m honest? Fear that I wouldn’t know when yet another kid died.)

Back in 2005, I hadn’t envisioned a Facebook future. Whatever discomfort I have with social media’s ever-grasping tentacles, it’s been priceless for keeping in touch with transient loved ones. I can “like” graduations and family news. I can be a virtual cheerleader for sobriety, offer congratulations on a new job, and celebrate the day of their birth.

And I can receive messages like this one:

Hey it’s SR.
B passed away. He went missing 09-20. He was found unidentifiable on a blanket in the far corner of his mothers back yard yesterday. She said it might be months til they can identify a cause. We wern’t sure if you knew. Sorry.

*****

After all these years, my Ave death ritual remains the same. Alone in a dark room. One candle, crafted by an unknown inmate at the Monroe State Prison. One song, Leonard Cohen’s gravel promises twining through those dark places that candlelight can’t reach.

I will speak no more

I shall abide until

I am spoken for,

if it be your will.

When I try to sing through the tears, my voice crumples like discarded newspaper. Better to sit quietly and remember a young man who was just a towheaded boy when he first arrived on Seattle’s streets.

B came to the Ave as many kids do – gentle, tender-hearted, searching. A brutal introduction to street life stripped the trust from his blue eyes. He toughened up fast, forged a crusty exterior. Yet through all that followed – every sleepless night blurring into a series of sleepless days, every “Oi, oi!” hollered down the block and followed with a hug heartier than his increasingly thin frame seemed capable of, every mug shot gifted like a yearbook photo – the sweet in him still shone through.

I could never anticipate which fresh-faced youngsters would fling themselves hardest down the rabbit hole, but that’s just what B did. He ran his body like it was stolen. His years on the Ave came to a screaming halt in 2002, when prison closed steely arms around him. Despite my best intentions to be a supportive pen pal, new faces demanded immediate response to the same crises. I lost track of B.

Until 2009. A message appeared – Facebook, again. B wrote with warmth and clarity, proud to share the gifts in his life. Re-settled in his home state across the country, he had a job. A house. A wife and young daughter.

Then and now, I never know if my kids are honest about their well-being. Especially in a many-years-gone-by reunion like this. B knew I wanted to hear he was clean and healthy, and that’s what he wanted to report. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m told The Truth as someone’s living it, or “the truth” as they wish they were. There are reasons we tell the stories we do, and they all boil down to wanting to please and protect. If I hear lies, I hear them told with love.

Something changed. In 2010, B decided to return to Seattle. I worried – why dance on quicksand when you’ve already struggled free once? – and wrote overly parental lectures. This time would be different, he assured me. “I’m not the same kid I was, Tele. The plan is to be productive.”

Stories are subjective, but I couldn’t misread the color in B’s skin and fleshy cushion over his cheekbones. His hug was solid. Stable. Both of us equally out of place on the block that had once been our universe, we ducked into Pagliacci’s for refuge. I bought him two slices of pizza that he picked at. We traded stories of our new lives, doing our best to level a relationship that’d been built on a steep grade.

At the end of our visit, B walked me to the bus stop. Fishing in his pants pocket, he pulled out a battered metal compass and folded it into my hand. “Here.” When I protested, he insisted. “No, dude, I want you to have it. So you don’t get lost.”

Two weeks later, B wrote that Seattle wasn’t working out as he’d hoped. Once again, he headed across the country for his home state. Still searching.

We traded Facebook hellos here and there. Did I text him a random good wish this summer, during one of those rare moments of cell service at sea? Sounds familiar, but now I can’t be sure. Am I recalling The Truth that was, or “the truth” I wish had been?

*****

A friend and I used to co-teach “Homelessness 101,” training the University District’s new volunteers. Inevitably, someone would ask, “How many of these kids actually make it out?”

We could recite the answer in our sleep. Most of our program guests would find their way into healthier, more stable lives, but that meant something different for everyone. The routes out of street life were as varied and unique as the people taking them; there was no cookie-cutter method for “making it out.”

But tonight, darkness folds around me, broken by the shuddering breath of candlelight, and my faith is shaken. Squeezing B’s final gift, I feel the metal bite my palm. The placement of my desk, the angle of the cat’s tail, the position of north, south, east, west… All irrelevant. So many of us are lost, searching for hope, peace, purpose. A sense of self-worth, and the strength to surpass what we’ve been told about ourselves. Those directions – where do you find them?

I thought you’d found your way, B sweetie – I thought you’d made it out. If you’d held onto your compass, would that have helped?

Let your mercy spill

On all these burning hearts in hell

If it be your will

To make us well.

B’s death leaves a gaping hole in a lot of hearts, and my thoughts are with you all. As you grieve, please ask for help if you’re thinking of hurting yourself. Contact Seattle’s 24-hour Crisis Clinic line at 1-866-4CRISIS, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.784.2433. Take care of yourselves, sweeties, and each other.





Enduring Burning: Alaska Walks for Life

15 05 2012

No halibut on deck here… Consistent storms have tethered us to the dock for two weeks, waiting out weather like 45 knot winds and 22-foot seas. We take it for what it is – what else can you do? – but watching steady gray sheets pouring down the cabin windows gets old.

So I go for a walk.

Southeast Alaska’s second annual Walk for Life is scheduled to gather at Crescent Harbor at 12:30. Scoping the scene from across the street, I see three people huddled against snarling wind and icy shards of rain. Oh, man… But taking a public stand against suicide seems especially necessary on such a grim day. I yank my hood up and head over.

Others feel similar urgency. Over the next half-hour, about 50 people fill the harbor shelter: cane-bearing elders, bundled children, young couples. Organizers from the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) hand out T-shirts emblazoned with The Watchman, a symbol of courage designed by Tlingit artist Robert Hoffmann.

“I’ve never worn a T-shirt over two coats before,” muses social worker Maggie Gallin.

With everyone decked out and ready to march, SEARHC Suicide Prevention Program Manager Wilbur Brown calls for our attention. “If you’ve been around Alaska at all,” he begins, “you know there’s a lot of suicides here.”

A lot of suicides… Statewide, Alaska doubles the national average, while rates in remote Arctic villages are up to seven times higher.  From our mountains, salmon, and bears, to our chemical dependency, domestic violence, and despair, we have it all bigger, badder.

Wilbur explains that Walk for Life is a response to those staggering losses. Initiated in Kotzebue, the first walk took place in 2009. (150 people participated in nearby Ambler – almost half of the Kobuk River village’s population.) In 2011, Tessa Baldwin, a Kotzebue teenager, inspired Southeast Alaska to join. One year later, the prevention effort has been embraced statewide. “People are walking for life all over Southeast today – people are walking in Angoon, Hoonah, Kake, Klawock, everywhere. We’re walking to celebrate life and say no to suicide.”

SEARHC Suicide Prevention Program Manager Wilbur Brown.

So we walk. Led by a police escort, we march through an intersection (one of Sitka’s two stoplights) and down the main drag, winding around Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church and turning to parallel the channel. We hold up traffic. One driver leans out her window with a smile. “What is this?” Her smile washes away with the answer.

We file into the Sheetka Kwaan Naa Kahidi house, where Wilbur opens the ceremony. He hopes that through events like these, we might lessen the taboo of talking about suicide. “Alaska’s highest suicide rates are among young men. And what do we teach our young men? We teach them not to talk, not to feel, not to communicate. We want to show them there’s another way.”

One of those ways may be through cultural revitalization. For the next several hours, Naa Kahidi pulses with tradition’s heartbeat. Accompanied by a single drum, four Ravens stand at the stage edge, voices raised in a sorrow song shared by Hoonah’s Sea Pigeon clan. A group of Eagles respond, keening loss that pierces through the rafters, through time and place, through language.

Nodding with the beat, I glance at the ink on my left forearm. Part of me for 13 years, this tattoo usually demands about as much conscious consideration as a pinky toe, but in this setting, the Viktor Frankl quote seems to glow. That which seeks to give light must endure burning.

I remember burning… Sitting mute in the psychiatrist’s office, consumed by blistering loneliness, resolute. (Nine years old, I’d already aced my family’s lessons on silence.) Another lifetime trapped within that flame. Alliances with alcohol, friends whose angst mirrored my own. Skin carved like pie crust to relieve the steam within.

I remember light… Blinking against newly broken dawn as I staggered into my tribe. People who offered hope, connection, the thrill of community. We strolled bold amongst dragons, confident we’d pass through without a scorch.

It’s been seven years since I was a practicing social worker. I exchanged the path of tending lives for one of taking life, hunting fish half the year, yet still I find myself whispering the names of those we lost. The young man who committed suicide by cop. The young woman who hung herself in jail. In a hospital. In a garage. With an overdose. With a shotgun. After being kicked out of the family for being gay. After seeming to have made it, whatever “made it” meant. Those we lost, and those we might have. Those whose despair feasted like parasites, those who crooked their fingers to death and silently screamed please.

I remember the hiss of light guttering out, echoed by the mechanical slurp of a stomach pump. By then I’d learned that if I sat very quietly – as still as the dead – and wiped my expression mountain stream clean, the ER personnel would let me stay with the kid I’d brought in. Studying the steady extraction of a young woman’s stomach contents, grainy residue awash in waves of Pepsi Blue, I wondered how I’d ever dared imagine I’d sidestep burn-out.

Back in Naa Kahidi, six drummers gather around the Hashagoon drum, centered on the main floor. “We’re going to do a song to honor those who’ve passed away from suicide,” one explains. “Please remove any head coverings and stand if you’re able to do so. You’re welcome to join us to dance if you’d like.”

A circle forms around the drummers. I study the pairs of Xtra Tufs and sneakers, all moving with differing degrees of certainty and grace. Shuffle, toe, step, toe, knees flex, shuffle. As the faces of my dead and might-have-beens shimmer against the dancers’ feet, it’s easy to meditate on the losses binding us.

But a child careens through the room. Arms outstretched and a grin wide enough to swallow the sun, he runs against the stream on socked feet. He’s shirtless, a clan robe around his shoulders, clasped with five pearl buttons spanning his narrow chest. The robe is a stunning piece of regalia, a red and black link to his history, but today it’s a cape streaming behind him and he’s Superman. He runs faster – he flies – the embodiment of joy, curiosity, and light. He shoves grief aside, inflates us all with his buoyancy.

I leave Naa Kahidi wanting to believe that little boy will keep flying. That the dragons who reduced so many other heroes’ capes to charred ash will leave him be. I hope he grows up knowing how to ask for help, that the only shame is in silence. I hope he learns there’s another way.

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please talk to someone. Here in Southeast, contact SEARHC’s Helpline at 1-877-294-0074. Nationwide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.784.2433. Be well.








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