I promised to write this story many months ago, but I kept deleting it, paragraphs cracking under this tension. Tension between the stories I hear at work, stories that highlight the endless resilience and deep fragility of the human spirit, and the reality of my corner apartment and my fat and gently snoring cat. I am an uncomfortable academic working on the social determinants of health, the ways that your skin colour, sex, gender, income, and a host of other factors impact your health. Health as more than a lack of cancer, as beyond the ideal blood pressure. Health as not merely the absence of sickness. I sit and listen to stories about sleeping outside at night, with my bags unpacked in a nearby hotel room. I hear stories of hunger, of residential schools that robbed people of their connection to their food and their land. We have a tray of snacks in case people are hungry, and I keep plastic bags nearby to fill with bananas and yoghurt in case they haven’t eaten in days. After work my colleagues and I debate dinner choices, tired of eating out and longing for our own kitchens and favourite recipes. I hear stories about childhoods cleaved out of our often barren foster care system, and when the weight of those stories becomes to much I call my parents, good parents who had the resources available to them to give me a good home. I am building my life around other people’s stories.
I work with marginalized people, people without stable housing or income. Some are Aboriginal, some are not. Some use illicit drugs, some do not. Some have mental health concerns, some don’t. They are all different. They all choose to share their stories with me. They all take part in research projects for different reasons, and their insights into poverty, health, racism, and marginalization is a continual source of inspiration to me. The woman sleeping outside your building has a story that could change your life, if you give her a dignified space within which to tell it.
The woman sleeping outside your building has a story that could change your life, if you give her a dignified space within which to tell it.
I am starting a master’s program this September in public health. I am hoping to continue to learn about trauma, childhood development, and health. I will sit in tall glass buildings and learn about Aboriginal culture, foster care, abuse, and resilience from brilliant minds armed with multiple degrees, high-tech presentation tools, and multi-figure salaries.
The faces of all these people I have met, who made me laugh, who inspired me, who showed such breathtaking kindness, they stayed with me. At night their stories run through my head. The latest cycle of data collection repeated a few months ago, hearing more stories, offering more bananas, more cups of coffee. I had been reading a lot about how the weight of other people’s traumas can rest on you. I jogged every morning, I watched only comedies, I limited my wine drinking. Some people remember me, some came back throughout my time there to celebrate milestones or to discuss their complicated relationships. Some people didn’t, I’m just another guest in their life.
In April I had the opportunity to sit down with an Aboriginal elder, a beautiful woman with kind eyes. She reminded me, gently, that these stories are gifts. Gifts from the women who have been through so much, whose bodies and souls have been attacked, whose children have been taken, whose humanity is often ignored. Women whose strength is apparent everyday, in every door they hold open for a stranger, in every joke they crack, in every bit of themselves they share.
[…]these stories are gifts. Gifts from the women who have been through so much, whose bodies and souls have been attacked, whose children have been taken, whose humanity is often ignored. Women whose strength is apparent everyday…
I take these gifts with me wherever I go. And the tension between my middle class existence, my whiteness and my wealth has become a little less taunt. I try not to feel guilty, for although I privilege off these stolen lands and my haves are another’s have-nots, I am the bearer of these stories, I have been given these gifts and I must carry them properly.
I am an uncomfortable academic, but that sharp discomfort is becoming increasingly padded with memories of gracious smiles and thank-you-for-listenings. There are times when I fight with what it means to work with people who are labeled vulnerable but whose complex identities never fit into such neat categories. But mostly I look forward to going back to school, to find ways to share these gifts that people give me in a way that truly respects the worth of their lives. More than a thank you, more than a plastic bag of bananas, more than merely the absence of sickness.