Let it snow

I certainly have been very fortunate with regards to the weather.  All of November was mild, with rain instead of snow coming down.  Since the arrival of December however, it has been much colder, with wind and snow occurring most days.  Vermont winters are nothing to sneeze at (unless you have a cold), with extended periods of blustery and snowy weather commonplace.  It took no time at all for the ground to freeze, and a foot of snow to be covering everything.  We get near-daily flurries as well, which helps keep the slop on the sidewalks and roads fresh … Nature’s little efficiencies!  Currently, at noon, it is 21 F outside, with a wind chill making it feel like 6 F.  Happily, this is of less importance to me than it used to be since I am now living in a snug apartment with only a 4 or 5 minute walk to work … or anywhere else in downtown Montpelier.

The Christmas season is well upon us, but I find that I am somewhat distant from the Holiday festivities.  My financial situation allows little leeway in the area of impulsive gift buying, although I have allowed myself some small purchases as the joy of giving gifts is too hard to pass up.  My lack of finances has created a bit of a conflict for me as I am still in ‘party mode’ from the joy of having established my residence here, but the difficulties of the past few years have created within me a fresh measure of discipline and stoicism.  Actually, I am probably being too strict with myself, but it is hard to let go of the ‘survival mode’ that I needed to cultivate for so long in order to endure.  This will pass with time as I am already discovering.  It is good to feel the joys of life, and I must allow myself to embrace them fully in the same way that I fostered my previous stoicism.  The right tool for the job as Mr. Natural would say.

Montpelier itself has changed slightly since the advent of the Holiday season.  It seems to me that the mercantile aspect of Christmas manifests itself too easily in people.  The normally courteous drivers, who would stop and allow you to cross the street, now zoom right by you and it pays to be aware of puddles before they become part of your wardrobe’s fashion style.  This is somewhat sad, as the courtesy and warmth of the people here, contributes mightily to the ambiance of contentment which pervades the area.  It is more pleasant with those who are walking about, either doing their Holiday shopping or running whatever errands they find themselves doing.  The frequent greetings and pleasantries have not lessened one iota.

Life in Montpelier

Sometimes in life things move along quite slowly and at other times events seem to happen with sudden and unexpected swiftness.  I have been working at establishing myself and getting out of the homeless shelter for some time now with disappointing results.  Recently, I finally came upon a situation which would allow me to do this.  It was a difficult choice as the place that I was looking at was overpriced and two miles out of town as well as being squalid and rank, but it was the only solution that I was able to create for myself.  And then, suddenly, I came upon another situation on the thirtieth of November (my birthday – and what an entirely unexpected birthday gift life threw at me).  A friend of mine in Montpelier had a roommate who was no longer interested in living in the apartment that they shared.  As a result, he was looking for a new roommate to split the rent, which was within my budget.  And so, yesterday, the first of December, I gave him my half of the December rent, and this morning, with the help of a friend, I moved all my stuff out of the shelter and into my new bedroom in an apartment.

What a joy and a relief to finally achieve what I have been working towards for so long now.  With my part time job at ORCA Media and my new residence, I now have a life in Montpelier.

Thanksgiving Dinner

It was a warm day on Thanksgiving, which made it a good day to be out.  In fact, all of November has been comfortably warm, with no snow and few, if any, days below freezing, although the nights are cool.  Whether this is due to the ongoing climate changes or whether it has simply been a mild month is impossible to say, but many here were quite grateful for both the lack of snow and the above-freezing temperatures.

Happily, there were several choices on Thanksgiving for those of us who are residentially-challenged.  Both in Barre as well as Montpelier, there were free community Thanksgiving dinners available for the needy.  I attended the dinner provided by the Bethany United Church of Christ in Montpelier.  The Bethany Church provides a daily lunch on Tuesday to the community which I regularly attend, so I am quite familiar with the people who normally attend.  In fact, I go to all the free community lunches which various Churches provide during the week, and am long familiar with those who, like myself, prevail upon the charity of others to feed ourselves.  So, although the atmosphere was more festive than usual, it was a familiar experience being there.

I will say that I was surprised at the turnout.  There were many families and individuals who I hadn’t seen before at any of the free lunches.  The entire hall was filled with tables and the entire hall was packed with people eating at those tables. There were clearly several hundreds of people who came, enjoyed dinner, and left during the hour and a half that I was there.  This spoke to me about the economy in Central Vermont, and how the harsh economic times influence what people find they have to do.

During the Holiday Season, both on Thanksgiving and on Christmas, I usually find myself somewhat depressed.  This is common, I believe, with those of us who are distanced from family environments.  The nature of those Holidays, both in image as well as fact, centers around the family, with the passage of time which marks such Holidays in the panoply of yearly events being balanced against the ongoing continuity of the family, with elders reminding us of Holidays past, and children reminding us of the future which they will inherit.  This creates a private sense of blessing which is replicated over and over in homes across America.  When one is homeless, this blessing is something that falls outside of personal experience, which only amplifies the depression caused by those of us who are already dealing with difficult or unfortunate family situations.

Therefore, I was surprised at the large turnout at the free dinner.  It makes sense that many would have chosen to create a festive family event in their own homes rather than be out in public, but were unable to do so.  I can only attribute this to the difficult economic conditions that we are passing through.  It was with a mixed sense of sadness and gratitude that I viewed those around me having their Holiday repast.  That they were able to have a Holiday dinner was a very good thing, but that they had to do so under the auspices of charity was something which, I believe, many found added a melancholy thread of emotion to their day.  Still, there was food to be had, and one must survive as best as one can, and a full belly creates a good mood.

And I must say that Bethany Church outdid itself with the quality and amount of food available.  It was absolutely delicious from beginning to end.  There was cranberry bread, crackers with various cheeses, fresh turkey, mashed potatoes, mashed squash, stuffing, gravy, and various pies all laid out in abundance with milk, cider, juice and coffee to drink.  Everything was fresh-cooked and home-made with no trace of commercial preparation.  The place-mats at the tables were hand-done by children from the various schools and were decorated with messages.   This in particular was quite touching.

The Early Dark

I haven’t been writing lately, even though there’s much going on in the world and in my life.  Times have been hard.  Personally, my living situation has gotten precarious, and I have lost my bed at the shelter.  I am now on an ‘overflow’ mattress on the locker room floor.  I’ve been at the shelter for almost a half-year now, and they want me gone.  This is reasonable, it’s just difficult in that I am close to a permanent resolution about my housing situation.  It’s a typical ‘Murphy’s law’ type of situation .. the closer you get to a solution, the more unexpected problems crop up to get in your way.  This, more than anything else, has kept me from writing, but it is better to face a hard truth than to avoid it, so … back to it.

With Halloween’s passing this year, we also had the setting of the clocks back to standard time.  Oftentimes, at sunset, I have been going up to Hubbard Park and watching the day turn into night over Montpelier, and so I have to do this an hour earlier.  Hubbard Park is an undeveloped wooded hill which is right in Montpelier and overlooks the city.  I now do this between 4 and 5 PM rather than 5 and 6 PM.  The flow of traffic is different and not quite as heavy which takes away some of the visual splendor of the moments, but it is still a peaceful and pleasant thing to do.  And, also noticeable, is that the air temperature at sunset passes into a chillier ambiance than was present during September and October.  Soon, it will not be warm enough at sunset to continue doing, but for the moment, it provides a perspective that is elusive for many; the drama of the the cityscape laid out before one with, at the same time, the majesty of surrounding woodland.

And although such bucolic interludes are pleasant for me, I have not failed to notice the worsening of life in America as we move ever deeper into a financial morass which is not likely to have a benign resolution.  Foreclosures on housing continue to mount, with the third quarter of this year being the worst yet.  California slides further and further into a situation of no return.  And California, with its huge deficit, is just the tip of the iceberg as all the states are trapped in a similar situation due to the lessening of taxes on devalued properties and a lessening of taxes on sales of items at the retail and wholesale level.  And ironic symbols are beginning to pop up which demonstrate the folly of the philosophy behind the bailout, such as the number of bankruptcies in America is now similar to the number of divorces in America, and the growing number of families relying on food stamps to get by.

And, just for the record, let me say that a “jobless recovery” is a contradiction in terms.  Without people able to work permanent and full-time jobs, there is no mechanism to sustain any aspect of this so-called recovery.  With the U3 unemployment rate (receiving benefits while seeking a new job) over 10% now, and the U6 unemployment rate (total number of unemployed) estimated at 20 to 22% of the workforce, and with 6 applicants now available for each available job, it is clear that our beloved nation is quickly sinking into a third world country scenario.  It is a downward spiral with nothing in place to change its direction.

If the money (estimated in the trillions to the tens of trillions) which has been given to Wall Street and the banks “too big to fail” had been given directly to the taxpayers (and, after all, it is THEIR money being spent here), mortgages would have been brought current, credit card debt would have been brought current, and people would still have savings left over to fuel the banks’ need for cash.  And although this would have been completely unjust and unfair to those who had been frugal, it would have had the benefit of at least addressing the problem.  Clearly, all the steps which have been taken so far have not as yet had the slightest influence on the root cause of the problem, which is an employed citizenry with some discretionary spending at their disposal.

A Fistful of Snow

The first snow came early this year.   It may presage a long and difficult winter.  Usually, first snow occurs up in the hills, with rain in the lower lying elevations and river valleys, but not so this year.  Snow from top to bottom, with mild accumulations of only a quarter inch in the river valleys, where it sticks to the grass and the cars but not to the pavement.  Still, it’s only October 13, a bit early to be brushing the snow off your shoulders.  It has certainly thrown a monkey wrench into the dreams of busload after busload of the leaf-peepers.  They have been coming in droves for the past week or so as Columbus Day weekend is the traditional high point for the foliage season.  With the nearly two weeks of rain that we experienced since October began and now the snow, most of the foliage is on the ground.

On a completely unrelated note, I noticed that today’s Guardian is running a nice selection of stills from the sets of film director Sergio Leone’s works.  Leone, who never rose to a position of respect with American viewers, who treated his works as lower-grade entertainment known as ‘spaghetti westerns,’ is nevertheless one of the more spiritual directors to have graced our screens.

Right from his first work, “A Fistful of Dollars,” (a reworking of Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” with a few scenes, in homage, stolen shot for shot), it was clear to this discerning viewer that behind the violence and the stylization was a deeply Christian ethic at work.  Sequences such as Joe’s (The Man With No Name played by Clint Eastwood) meeting with the Innkeeper Silvanito clearly refer to the symbolic.  From the beginning of the sequence, where Eastwood is hanging from a signpost, symbolizing the crucifixion, to the climb to the balcony, where things may be seen from a higher perspective, the juxtaposition of art and faith is deeply entwined.  The entire film, right from the opening shot of a Church bell, which was most likely a reference to Bunuel, has a symbolic layer to it.  This spiritualization is at the root of Leone’s moral ambiguity, and, ultimately, contributed deeply to the long lasting popular success of his works.  If I get to a more stable place in my life, I’ll take some time and do an analysis of this film in which I’ll go into more detail.

Rainy Weather

The rainy weather is back.  It was a very rainy and cool summer for Vermont, and although it only nudged a record or two, still it was a noticeable phenomenon which was commented on by many people again and again.  It was difficult to not see some form of impact via climate instability, better and more inaccurately known as ‘Global Warming.’  The hay farmers were particularly hard-hit as hay needs several days of dry weather to harvest.  It was also rather unpleasant for those with outdoor lifestyles.  One would check the weekly forecast and see day after day after day of rain scheduled and, unfortunately, the forecasts were all too often right on the mark.

But then, finally, in the period around Labor Day, we got our ‘summer,’ as good weather lasted for periods of a full week at a time, which, due to what had come before, was very noticeable.  Alas, that seems to have passed now.  We’ve had rain for two days now, and the forecast for the next ten days shows rain occurring in eight of them.  I get my weather data from www.intellicast.com.  Intellicast also has a neat Global weather page thanks to the wonders of modern satellite technology.  So, we’re back to the summer pattern of rain, rain, rain.  And this time around, we also have to deal with the lower temperatures of Autumn.  It’s 45*F this morning (feels like 42*F), with a high temperature forecast for today of only 47*F.  From here on in, it will be a rare day that we see a day in the 60’s, although I’m sure we’ll have a few more.

This makes the homeless experience more difficult as all the park benches and other outdoor resting places are wet and unsuitable for spending periods of time.  You look at rainy (and, soon, snowy) weather differently when you are unhomed and are trying to pass the time in your day without passing all your money away [yes, I know what I almost, but not quite, said].  So it’s back to the public library.  I am fortunate in that I like to read whereas many of the other people at the shelter do not.  They often doze off in the library and must face the increasing ire of the librarians, who, though they are gentle folk and do not want to push people out into the rain, nevertheless, will not put up with snoring or sleeping patrons.

This type of weather also leads to increasing depression among the more indigent of society, which is perhaps somewhat reflected in the tone of this post.  It is difficult enough to be dispossessed in good weather, but when you feel that even the weather has turned against you, emotions run high and oftentimes tempers flare.  Thus there is always greater drama in the shelter in periods of poor weather.  This was true over the summer and is already raising its ugly head again.  It is almost (but not quite) humorous that people with so many challenges in front of them invest their energy on arguing about what is showing on the television.  During such times, it is simply best to keep to oneself and just go to bed early.

The shelter is always full these days, with the economy being so bad, and the crowding of 22 people into a two story house designed for a large single family does not help matters as there is nowhere to escape and find peace and silence.  But, at the same time, one is grateful for the roof over one’s head and the nightly meal, although I am hearing more and more complaints from some of the guests about hot dogs and mac and cheese, which, when they appear on the table twice or more weekly begins to become tedious, even if one is hungry.  This type of reaction most often comes from those who are refusing or unable to deal with their ‘situation,’ and are still looking for some event to come along and ‘rescue’ them from the trials of having to learn to make your own future.  It also seems to come more from younger people than from middle-aged or older ones, though not entirely.  At 61, I am the oldest guest in the shelter, and try to offer what encouragement and advice as I am able, but some do not want to hear anything which might cause them to think of a long struggle.  They want a quick and concrete answer to their problems, and, clearly, no such answer exists for them.

It is somewhat unfair to characterize these people poorly as there really is a great challenge in finding ANY kind of work at all.  I have already noted in a prior post that there are now 6 applicants for every available job on average in the U.S today.  Competition is high and any kind of disadvantage weighs heavily against the applicant for a position.  And, again, as previously noted, things are only going to worsen for the next several years at least. So, when you look up from the bottom at the situation in America, it is a very scary affair.  And most people, who are cruising along in their life, only confront this from the occasional news headline or sometimes in hearing about a fellow co-worker who has fallen on hard times.  Still, for more and more people, this type of awareness will be coming soon to lives all around you.

First Color

I thought I saw it yesterday, but I wasn’t really sure.  “Maybe just some dryness affected that one there or that one over there,” I told myself.  But, no, this morning it was quite clear.  It’s only in occasional spots so far, just here and there, however, it’s clear that it’s real.  I saw yellows and oranges and even a few reds.  The trees are starting to turn color.

The weather that we’ve had may make for a brilliant display this year.  Much of the summer was rainy and the recurrent wetness caused many a grumble among those of us with an ‘outdoor lifestyle’ [read: homeless].  But in the week before Labor Day, the weather turned to gloriously sunny days and cool crisp dry evenings.  This continued through the first and second weeks of September as well, although it started to cool, and we have just recently had out first bit of rain.  So it should be a vibrant foliage season this year, with the only question being as to when it will start in earnest and then peak.

Personally, it is time to start thinking about winter clothing.  A sweater, a pair of boots, a set of thermal underwear, and perhaps a second pair of jeans would be good to acquire to ward against the immanent colder weather.  And to get anything of lasting quality will be pricey.  There has been little in the ‘free boxes’ and other places of donated clothing this year, or perhaps it just gets snapped up faster.  I’m glad I have this part-time job, although saving money for rent so that I may leave the homeless shelter must remain my highest financial priority.  I fear it will be a long and cold and stormy winter due to the incessant climate instability that we have been seeing, but the weather will be what it will be.

Autumn

It was a beautiful Labor Day weekend in Montpelier.  Sunny with dry air, cool in the mornings and warm in the afternoons.  On several occasions, one could look at the sky and not see a single cloud in it.  The sort of Holiday weekend that a 9-to-5’er dreams of.  The town was very quiet, even the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market was a subdued affair.

On Sunday, I went down to the State House lawn as it is a very pleasant place to read, and I had a book that was keeping me occupied.  I had spent the morning in a coffee shop, but the day had warmed and it was too beautiful to stay inside.  There were only a few people about on the spacious lawn and it promised to be a delightful spot to while away some time.

But as I was walking in the shade under some trees, I noticed something which gave me pause.  My footsteps were making a crunching noise as I walked along.  I was walking upon dry, dead leaves that had fallen from the trees.  As I looked down, I realized that here was the first touch of Autumn.  Although the air was warm and the sky a beautiful summer cobalt, nonetheless I was treading upon the evidence of the change of the season.  The trees knew what was coming and were sharing that knowledge with any who chose to notice.  Autumn is already upon us.

Demonstrators in the Streets

Yesterday, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) of Topeka, Kansas came to Montpelier in response to recent legislation allowing same-sex marriage in Vermont.  The legislation took effect on September 1, which is why they timed their visit to that day.  They are actually picketing in several cities in Vermont, but they came to Montpelier, the state capital, yesterday morning, protesting at Montpelier High School, the State House and at City Hall.  Although the Church is led by Fred Phelps, recent picket actions have been led by Shirley Phelps-Roper.  This organization became infamous in 1998 for their picketing actions at the funeral of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, who was beaten to death because of his homosexuality.  They enraged even more people when, in 2005, they started picketing the funerals of fallen American soldiers.  They have also picketed at the funerals of Coretta Scott King, Fred Rogers and Jerry Falwell.  It should be noted that the WBC is not affiliated with any Baptist organizations or associations.

The local community in Montpelier responded with a counter-protest of about 50 to 75 people, overwhelming the 4 adults and 1 child from the WBC.  Both the protest and the counter-protest were well-behaved, with little to no profanity on either side and no violence between the groups, although the signs of the WBC, such as “God Hates Fags” certainly attempted to evoke moral or emotional violence.  In response to this, students at Montpelier High School organized an on-line donation page on Facebook, suggesting that a donation of $1 be given for each minute that the WBC picketed, donations going to GLAD (the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders).  The duration of the WBC’s picketing at the high school ended up at 27 minutes.  So far the group has raised in excess of $5,000.

The counter-protest was well attended by local gays and lesbians as well as by many Vermonters who value freedom of choice.  There was some street theater with costumed individuals; there was chanting, “Take your hate out of our state;” occasional bouts of singing, and all-in-all a rather festive response to the hate-mongering of the WBC.  The picketing action and the counter-protest started at the high school between 7:30 and 8:00 AM, timed to coincide with the arrival of the students, and then moved to the State House and City Hall, ending by 10:00 AM.  The Montpelier City Police handled the situation with restraint, keeping a presence near-by but not interfering in anything and on the whole acted quite admirably, as one might hope for and expect. Footage of the event was captured by ORCA Media, the community access public TV network where I am currently employed. The footage has been posted to Youtube.

It is likely that the picket and the counter-protest led to some lively discussion yesterday evening at the dinner tables and in the living rooms of the community.  Perhaps husbands and wives or parents and children were motivated to discuss their feelings on the subject of same-sex marriage or freedom of speech.  This is the true value of allowing such hate-mongering speech into a community; to make aware the inner feelings of individuals about such things, and to foster new understandings through discussion and reflection.  It is doubtful whether the members of the WBC, with their antithetical approach to such issues, understand the positive influence that they may have on the consciousness and liberality of the communities which they visit.


	

Living Homeless

The last day of August is upon us.  The morning temperatures are remaining in the 40s, making quite clear the promise of Autumn.  Yesterday was Sunday, the hardest day of the week for a homeless person.  This is due to the lack of services on Sunday that are available on the other days of the week.  There is no bus service, the libraries are not open and many businesses are closed.  Even if you just want to wander around and kill time by browsing through various shops, fewer are open, and this, coupled with the lack of the (warm) libraries, makes for an outdoor day.  To be sure, Sunday morning has Church services, but many homeless, having seen little Grace from God in their recent existence, tend to avoid worship and organized religion, deeming them for people who are not ‘outside.’  Outside of society, outside of being homed, usually outside of employment, and oftentimes outside of a viable relationship.  Such isolation does not make the homeless feel welcome in any community, even the community of the congregation of a Church.

Luckily, Winter is not yet upon us and the outdoor existence is not brutal.  Boring perhaps, but not brutal.  If the homeless is fortunate enough to have a little money in their pocket, they can buy a coffee and sit at one of the outdoor tables of the coffee shops and nurse the coffee for several hours, in the anecdotal way that a Scotsman nurses a beer.  It helps, because it is hard to be on your feet for hours on end, either walking or just standing in some sheltered place should it be raining.  The boredom that one feels eventually is realized to be part of the enemy.  Your mind is already filled with unhappiness due to your position in society, and it is not a good thing to have nothing to occupy your thoughts, because you tend to drift into negative, self-defeating attitudes.  So, conversation is in order, allowing you to escape the morass of your own difficulties and chat about meaningless trivialities, which are nevertheless a welcome diversion.  Often, one homeless person, who can afford the coffee, will end end up sitting with two or three others, who cannot, and socialize.  This can be sometimes unpleasant, as someone will usually want to talk about their own difficulties, and this is little better than sitting alone and thinking of your own difficulties.  But it does allow one to be in a position of helpfulness and advocation rather than in a position of self-defeatism.

If one has an especially positive attitude, one can befriend ‘normal’ members of the community.  This is a very fruitful experience, as it allows one to inch back toward a more balanced attitude.  There is nothing like personal validation as a mechanism to engender self-actualization.  This is actually the first halting step on the road to recovering one’s sense of worth after having been through such depressing experiences which the homeless must endure.  Some (many) do not get to this step and after faltering for a bit, move on to some other shelter in some other community.  There is a large mobile community of the homeless who move from shelter to shelter and state to state.  Typically unrecorded, their presence is never felt long enough in any one community to register.  I have seen many of these people in my stays at homeless shelters.  Some of them embrace this lifestyle as a way of avoiding the issues that plague them, while others are already so self-defeated that it seems the only avenue of possibility for them.  It is a sad experience, to watch this parade of the hopeless move through life, and know that there are no societal mechanisms for dealing with them, and no way for those few individuals who do care, to connect with them.  But life has always been unfair and imperfect, and it is important to not lose focus, and to realize that one must take care of oneself before one can effectively take care of others.  And, in the interim, the cold winds of Autumn have begun to blow.