November 29, 2015 - Patrick

November 29, 2015 - Patrick

Buckle up. Last week, I had three people from my childhood, that don’t know each other, reconnect with me. I haven’t seen or spoken to any of them for almost forty years. I enjoyed the connection, and sharing memories filed away for decades. It seems like so many lifetimes have passed since then. 

It’s exciting to hear from someone that has remained on the peripheral of one's lifetime highlights. Then when a second person connects, and it’s freaky and what a coincidence! The third person just took my breath away. What oh what, am I to learn, or see, or ponder here? This is my process. My navel gazing. 

I recently chatted with a friend about how I was feeling with regard to not writing as consistently as I had been. I wasn't going out and meeting strangers. I even have two other stories that I’m holding onto, from encounters with strangers. They weren't random encounters though. I will write them; I’ve just been lazy and resistant. And navel gazing about why my past was coming into my present so boldly. I may have gotten a glimpse of the answer, last night.

Before going to bed, I wanted to take the garbage out. There was a man checking out the recycling bins at the back of my apartment building in the wee hours of this morning. It was 12:30am. He was pushing a blue shopping buggy, half filled with empty glass bottles, all seemingly tidy and organized in some manner known only to him. It was minus 3C (26F). I noticed that he had numerous layers of clothing on, and that his outer coat was shiny with wear. 

I said hello, to which he replied “It’s a cold one tonight, isn’t it?” We spoke about staying warm. “I just keep moving,” he said, gesturing to his buggy. I asked if he ever considered going into the cold shelters that open during nights like these. “No. I spent many years inside, and going in those places is like that all over again. I just keep moving. When you’ve seen active duty, you don’t want to stop, or you might sleep. I try not to do that. The dreams, the PTSD, the others trying to steal your stuff. The rats. No, I keep on moving.” 

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a cigarette package, lighting a smoke that was bent out of shape, and torn. I asked where he had done his active duty. “I was in Kuwait, then Iraq. And then another round in Iraq, after the invasion” he said, emotionless. There was a silence. I asked “Is your name Patrick?” wondering if it might be odd to him if I had gotten it right.

“Yes, it is,” he answered, smiling. When I asked if he remembered chatting with me, he pointed to a spot not ten feet away from where we were standing. I had met Patrick last year. Day 01 of The Stranger Project 2014. He was the first stranger that I had approached. New Year’s day 2014, I went out for walk, intending to meet a stranger and see if I could get someone to speak with me. I had gone out the back door of my building, to dispose of my garbage, and Patrick was in the alley. The rest, as they say, is history.

I was surprised and delighted that he remembered our conversation. I knew there could be no real way to convey just what has come from that very first conversation. Once again, that seems so long ago. I was surprised and saddened to see that the last, almost two years, have taken a toll on Patrick, physically. He had a black backpack that sat in the child-seat of his buggy. He opened it, pulling out a can of beer. 

Another chance encounter with my past. I realized that this was a unique measurement, or gage for me to look at just how far, through this project, I've come. Creating space for conversation to flow, to not judge, to open my heart and listen. It doesn't matter what judgements or labels, we as a society put on everyone and everything. Every single person has a story, and until we’ve heard it, we know nothing. 

Our conversation jumped around a fair bit. Patrick was animated and loud at points, and quietly reflective at others. Nonetheless, his thoughts and conversation were all well ordered, in their small bundles.

“When I was a kid, sure I was abused by my father," he told me. "I left home when I was fifteen. It was a choice. I would rather be on the streets than live with him. I mean, we were all alcoholics, yeah.” Patrick and I hadn't spoken about much when we first met, back on day one, although at the time I thought I’d heard his life story. 

Patrick left home and lived on the street. He was born in Canada, but had grown up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the US (United States of America). When he was 19, on a cold day in February, which Patrick described as 'unbearable,' he stepped into a US Navy recruitment centre, and enlisted. “I thought it had to be better than what I was doing.”

After four years, and three tours of duty in active service, Patrick left the Navy. “Give your life to the Navy, to serve and protect, and when you’re done, you get nothing. Nothing. No one cared that I had PTSD. I drank because it was the only thing that could numb the pain. Even then, it doesn’t numb it really. It makes the days bearable. It’s how I function,” he said.

He returned to life on the streets. “They told me ‘You just have to start again. Find a job, get a place, start again.’ I couldn’t just start again. I was fucked up. There was nothing for me, no help, nothing,” said Patrick. His crimes led to repeated jail time, spending the better part of nineteen years in prison, after his military service. I had learned from Patrick when we first met, that he was deported back to Canada not long after his last release. He had married between his release and being deported, and his wife chose to stay in the States.

“I came here with nothing, and not knowing anyone. I can’t go into a shelter. They tell you what time to be in by, what time lights go out. They wake you up, those that can sleep, and tell you have to leave. It’s like another prison. I know it’s not prison, but with my past, that’s exactly what it feels like. I choose not to put myself in there,” he said, without any hint of self-pity. "They won't let you bring in your belongings, either."

There’s a couple of places that Patrick goes to, during the day where he knows he can rest for an hour or so. “I never really sleep. I’ve always got to keep one eye open. When I hear footsteps, and they get closer, it’s gonna be 'Excuse me? Are you awake? You can’t sleep here.' No one wants to say hello, or acknowledge me or cares, even. I’m just that dirty binner in the garbage. The trash that goes through other peoples trash. I don’t have any life or any story that might be of interest to those people. I am beneath them, in their eyes. I just keep on moving,” says Patrick.

There’s a spot near downtown Vancouver commonly known as 'Cash Alley.' On weekday mornings, a predominately male crowd gathers, at a certain intersection. Local building sites and contractors drive by, offering cash jobs to those looking. “I could stand around there, and hope that someone will give me a job. Or I could keep moving all day, and make money binning and collecting empties. More than I'd make, if I stand around doing nothing, waiting to see if someone will give me work. Instead, I do my own thing,” he tells me. 

"I used to go directly to construction sites and get work, sometimes. I’d ask if they’d be okay if I brought a six pack (of beer) with me. I told them I’d be able to work, harder than most already on the job site. The six pack doesn’t make me drunk, it keeps me level. After all these years, it’s how I am, My body needs it or I get sick, and then I can't do anything. I don’t get drunk at work. I function. Of course they wouldn’t hire me. They hire some kid who’ll do a shitty job, with attitude, rather than hire me. I’m just a dirty drunk to them. If they knew what I’ve done, what I’ve been through, they’d hire me. I’ll work harder than any young punk kid that knows nothing about life. And I'm not interested in any crime or stealing or anything like that anymore. That's done. I keep moving. Make my own way,” he said. 

As we stood in the parking lot of my apartment building, a neighbour, new to the building, drove in and parked. The same neighbour came back to his vehicle three times, removing all of his belongings. I wondered if he thought Patrick and I were waiting to break into a car. I realized that this is what Patrick feels from others, almost constantly. 

Throughout the conversation, Patrick laughed a few times, and got angry a few times too. He cried as well. Each emotion was real, and raw and unabashed. I gave him silence and eye contact. That’s sometimes all I have. That’s sometimes all it takes.

“I’m so tired of it all. I don’t have much left,” he said, wiping away tears as they rolled down his cheek. “My wife has gotten a six year sentence for tax evasion. She said she felt it was free room and board, and so why not. Not like they’d let her into Canada. And they won’t let me back into the US. I’ve got nothing left for me. Why should I sleep? Why rest or look after myself? For what? For who?” 

Patrick told me that he’s tried to commit suicide four times. “Each time, I wake up.” The hospitals and medical centres, he tells me, will only give him two aspirin and then tell him to leave. “I’m a drunk. I'm a homelss useless binner. They don’t care. I’ve done the paperwork, I’ve been told to come back. 'We’ll house you,' they say. But nothing. Three-and-a-half years I’ve been doing this on the streets, waiting. For what? I’m a vet, sure, but not a Canadian vet, so they won’t help me. And America? They don't care at all. I’m Canadian to them. So I just keep moving. But not for much longer.”

I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t have an answer. I said I was happy he was around, and that he had made a huge contribution to one of the biggest turning points in my life. I talked about all the people who read these stories, the emails I get, the comments people leave. I told Patrick all about how so many people read these stories, and for some, their perspectives shift. I told him that people do care. 

I asked if I could have a hug. I squeezed Patrick as tight as I could, holding him as fully and as close to me as possible. I heard him say quietly, “It’s been so long. So very long.” He patted my back. He let go first. 

“I have two choices here,” he said, wiping his eyes again. “I can keep moving, and doing the same old thing, day after day. But I’m tired. I can’t do that much longer. It’s time. You take care partner,” he said, smiling softly and holding his fist up to mine. We fist pumped. 

“It’s been wonderful to see you again Patrick,” I told him. I made sure that he knew I wanted to see him again. I told him I care. He smiled. “I think I’m going to go and get absolutely inebriated,” he said, a big grin on his face. As he pushed his buggy away, I asked him what his second choice was. “I’ll see you one day. When it’s your time. In heaven.” Keep moving. ‪#‎notastranger‬

November 16, 2015 - My People Experience

November 16, 2015
It's been a tough few days. Sadness, confusion, reaction, disbelief. I know I'm not alone in this reality. I'm fortunate to have a longterm, core group of friends. They're my family; the five of us have known one another for some thirty-plus years. Two of these dear friends live in Paris. One was out of town last week, for work. My other friend was not. He was detained in the restaurant he was having dinner at, and then evacuated by police, and hid in a stairwell. He did get home safely, but of course, this was all far too close. 

The stories of bravery, selflessness and courage are the ones I read. They remind me to focus on the good, because there's far more good in the world, than their is evil. As Mr Roger's mother said "Look for the helpers..." White light for love and peace.

Since starting The Stranger Project - est. 2014, I've always been intentional about what posts I share here. I'm not into advertising, or recommending groups or other pages I like, enjoy or support. This is where you come to hear about other peoples stories, through my eyes. 

The bounty of experiences over the past 23 months has been stunning and unimaginable. The relationships, friends, connection, letters, comments, emails that I receive are all so moving. I've been rather contemplative the last few months.Generally, that's how things go for me. Whenever there's something for me to work through, I generally keep it all to myself. 

Even in the gap of my writing stories, there has been constant connection via TSP2014, for me. Connection with a phenomenal community of people that are interested in others, and along for the ride. There are so many people that I've gotten to know through this project. 

We never know just how much a kind word, or a thought can change someone's day or perspective, or experience. I am blessed with this project, and where it's brought me, all with a deep passion to connect.

Today, I think we could all use a little sliver of light. I mentioned some time ago, that I had received an email from a young man by the name of McKenzie. He's a grade ten student, and wanted to do a project for school, based around a concept similar to TSP2014. Turns out that his mother is a big supporter of my project. I know this because, as soon as he told me her name, I recalled seeing it in comments and likes and support on these stories.

McKenzie and I had a great Skype chat, and he told me about his motivation to do this as a project for school. McKenzie has committed to meeting strangers every day, for the month of November. We exchanged ideas about connection, and about approaching people randomly. We talked about peer pressure. McKenzie told me his friend's are supportive about his exploration in connecting with strangers. "That's why they're my friends." That was delightful to hear!

I can't tell you what a gift, an honour and a privilege it is for me to be a part of something that has such positive impact. To know that I've moved even one person, is incredible. To shift someone's perspective about others; a homeless person, or a drug addict, or a wealthy executive. Letting go of stereotypes and stigmas. To have folk recognize that we are all, at the very base of everything, first and foremost, people.

To inspire a young man to venture outside of his comfort zone, and connect with people... I'll never forget the smile that lit his entire face near the end of our Skype chat. Such a gift. 

I'm happy to share that McKenzie is knocking it out of the ballpark! He's even allowed his project to organically develop, and morph into it's own entity. Please do take a look at his project, give it a like and follow along - My People Experience. This young man is a change maker. He's one of my heroes. ‪#‎notastranger‬

November 08, 2015 - Matt

November 08, 2015 - Matt

It’s been sometime since I went out and met a stranger, specifically to connect with for TSP2014. For various reasons; life, work, depression, speaking engagements, television, the internet. But the truth is easier. Less that I have to remember if I just tell the truth. 

The thing is, do I always tell myself the truth? The answer is no. But it gets harder as I get older to ignore it. It’s no longer as easy to push things aside and pretend I’m not feeling any particular way that I am, in the moment. Or reacting to something based on what’s going on in my head, not my heart. 

Reacting. I guess the blessing is I can no longer lie to myself the way I once did, with ease. When my apartment is getting a bit untidy, or dishes need doing. If my laundry pile is no longer confined to the laundry hamper. If I'm not eating, or sleeping well. These are signs that something is going on, or more so, not going on, in my world. 

Some days, it’s more work than others. That’s my challenge, right now. 

Accepting and remembering that the growth and change I’ve experienced in the last two years has come about, mostly because I've put in the work. Some days, I still just want an easy way out. I share all of this not to gain sympathy; it’s my experience, that I’m sharing.

I’m in the best place I’ve been, in years. I have to be aware of my 'lazy' self. Find the balance between me time, down time, and wasting time. 

I was filming with a local news crew last week (should be out this week…), and I spotted Matt sitting nearby. We were in Yaletown overlooking the marina, and just as we got started, the ‘Vancouver Mist,’ as I call it, started to moisten everything. We weren’t under any cover, and nor was Matt. I’d hoped he’d stick around and perhaps chat with me, but figured he’d leave before we were ready to move from where we were. 

I was happy that the 'misting' didn’t seem to bother Matt. With the camera crew out of sight, I approached him and asked if he’d chat. There was no time between my question and Matt’s answer. “Yeah, sure!” I then explained that I’d also want to take his photograph and that there was a news crew following me, and they’d like to film some of our conversation. “I’d love to be on the news,” he said, smiling. I sat next to Matt, on the concrete stairs, not caring that it was raining.

Because of the time constraints of the news crew, I let Matt know that while often conversations could go for twenty or thirty minutes, this would be a brief chat. Once, I chatted with a stranger who is now a good friend, for 90 minutes. Matt was no less enthusiastic. 

“I was born in Calgary. We moved to Mission, before I was even a year old,” he said. Matt has one younger sister. “She’s about three and a half years younger than me. I remember her being born. As the older brother, I’ve always felt that I had to make good decisions. I figured she’d probably look to me as an influence, so I had to think about things that I did.” 

We talked a little about his school days. “It was okay. I liked it more when I got to high school. Physics was my favourite subject. I did well.” 

Matt now calls Burnaby home. “I moved down to the city. I like to come down here and sit by the water, and see people. Mission was a good place to grow up, but I like the city,” he told me. “I live in Burnaby, but I come down to Yaletown, and it feels nice just to sit here. The water, the view. It’s nice to watch.”

After working in retail jobs, Matt, who’s 28, is now considering going back to school. “I want to get into addictions counselling, and mental health. There’s a course at BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology). I’m hoping to get in soon,” Matt said.

The typically damp mist, had, by this time turned into actual rain, and both of us were getting wet. Had it not been for the news crew, I would have suggested we grab a coffee, somewhere indoors to continue our chat. I took Matt’s photo, and made sure he knew where to find TSP2014 on Facebook. We shook hands and Matt quickly hurried away, no doubt to get out of the rain.

Even in this abridged encounter, meeting Matt, a complete stranger, still had the familiar sense of connection that I’ve experienced throughout the last two years of listening to the stories people share with me. I felt a little bit taller, a little bit lighter and happy to have once again, connected with someone I didn’t know. I walked away fro our conversation feeling like I had being chatting with a friend. 

When I got home, a few hours later, Matt had already sent me a couple of messages, telling me he had enjoyed our chat!
#notastranger

November 08, 2015 - Matt

November 08, 2015 - Matt

It’s been sometime since I went out and met a stranger, specifically to connect with for TSP2014. For various reasons; life, work, depression, speaking engagements, television, the internet. But the truth is easier. Less that I have to remember if I just tell the truth. 

The thing is, do I always tell myself the truth? The answer is no. But it gets harder as I get older to ignore it. It’s no longer as easy to push things aside and pretend I’m not feeling any particular way that I am, in the moment. Or reacting to something based on what’s going on in my head, not my heart. 

Reacting. I guess the blessing is I can no longer lie to myself the way I once did, with ease. When my apartment is getting a bit untidy, or dishes need doing. If my laundry pile is no longer confined to the laundry hamper. If I'm not eating, or sleeping well. These are signs that something is going on, or more so, not going on, in my world. 

Some days, it’s more work than others. That’s my challenge, right now. 

Accepting and remembering that the growth and change I’ve experienced in the last two years has come about, mostly because I've put in the work. Some days, I still just want an easy way out. I share all of this not to gain sympathy; it’s my experience, that I’m sharing.

I’m in the best place I’ve been, in years. I have to be aware of my 'lazy' self. Find the balance between me time, down time, and wasting time. 

I was filming with a local news crew last week (should be out this week…), and I spotted Matt sitting nearby. We were in Yaletown overlooking the marina, and just as we got started, the ‘Vancouver Mist,’ as I call it, started to moisten everything. We weren’t under any cover, and nor was Matt. I’d hoped he’d stick around and perhaps chat with me, but figured he’d leave before we were ready to move from where we were. 

I was happy that the 'misting' didn’t seem to bother Matt. With the camera crew out of sight, I approached him and asked if he’d chat. There was no time between my question and Matt’s answer. “Yeah, sure!” I then explained that I’d also want to take his photograph and that there was a news crew following me, and they’d like to film some of our conversation. “I’d love to be on the news,” he said, smiling. I sat next to Matt, on the concrete stairs, not caring that it was raining.

Because of the time constraints of the news crew, I let Matt know that while often conversations could go for twenty or thirty minutes, this would be a brief chat. Once, I chatted with a stranger who is now a good friend, for 90 minutes. Matt was no less enthusiastic. 

“I was born in Calgary. We moved to Mission, before I was even a year old,” he said. Matt has one younger sister. “She’s about three and a half years younger than me. I remember her being born. As the older brother, I’ve always felt that I had to make good decisions. I figured she’d probably look to me as an influence, so I had to think about things that I did.” 

We talked a little about his school days. “It was okay. I liked it more when I got to high school. Physics was my favourite subject. I did well.” 

Matt now calls Burnaby home. “I moved down to the city. I like to come down here and sit by the water, and see people. Mission was a good place to grow up, but I like the city,” he told me. “I live in Burnaby, but I come down to Yaletown, and it feels nice just to sit here. The water, the view. It’s nice to watch.”

After working in retail jobs, Matt, who’s 28, is now considering going back to school. “I want to get into addictions counselling, and mental health. There’s a course at BCIT (British Columbia Institute of Technology). I’m hoping to get in soon,” Matt said.

The typically damp mist, had, by this time turned into actual rain, and both of us were getting wet. Had it not been for the news crew, I would have suggested we grab a coffee, somewhere indoors to continue our chat. I took Matt’s photo, and made sure he knew where to find TSP2014 on Facebook. We shook hands and Matt quickly hurried away, no doubt to get out of the rain.

Even in this abridged encounter, meeting Matt, a complete stranger, still had the familiar sense of connection that I’ve experienced throughout the last two years of listening to the stories people share with me. I felt a little bit taller, a little bit lighter and happy to have once again, connected with someone I didn’t know. I walked away fro our conversation feeling like I had being chatting with a friend. 

When I got home, a few hours later, Matt had already sent me a couple of messages, telling me he had enjoyed our chat!
#notastranger

November 06, 2015 - after Interesting Vancouver

I was privileged to participate in last night's Interesting Vancouver event at SFU Woodwards. It was such a wonderful community of people of who came to share, engage and listen to each other. 

Storytellers and guests alike, all so willingly connected, and engaged in the experience of sharing. With all that incredible energy in the room, from all corners, and everyone being so very present, I grew three inches, at least! 

I am aware more and more each day, of my need to get back to doing what got me to this point right here, right now. Asking strangers to connect, listen, and share. I am so inspired by the willing hearts that presented themselves so open, willing and vulnerable. 

I took this photo from the stage just after our intermission, and I asked the participants to take selfies of themselves with someone they didn't know. Everyone dove right in, and the sound of excited conversation was intoxicating!

I am filled with so much love for the memories created last night, that will, without doubt, last my lifetime. Enriched, humbled and definitely inspired. 

Thank you to every single person involved. Yes, that means you! ‪#‎notastranger‬ ‪#‎IV15‬