Saturday, 6 September 2014

The kindness of strangers, the power of community

It's not an understatement to say that Lawrence, Kansas made the rest of my life possible.  I sometimes tell people in passing that the way my life is right now is far better than anything I ever imagined I could achieve when I was growing up.  There's nothing here for me but memories... but those memories are incredibly powerful.  This is where my life transformed.  This was where I was at my lowest point, my most injured and most powerless, and it is also where everything changed.  

Yesterday I pulled into the Amtrak station at just past midnight (September 4th).  I had found a cheap deal on a hotel in the area and thought that a little walk through Lawrence and saving $30 were both good things.

When stepping off the train near downtown Lawrence, the first thing I realized is that I'm in the midwestern United States.  That's the place where people say "it's not the heat, it's the humidity" and they aren't overstating it and they aren't kidding.  Combine humidity with exhaustion and a 50lb backpack, and then throw in a dose of a 38 minute uphill walk to the hotel.  I looked as if someone had thrown a glass of water over my body by the time I got there, and not a drop of rain had fallen - the hotel clerk looked at me like I was a mental patient when I checked in wild-eyed, exhausted and drenched in sweat.  I showered and immediately went to sleep.

The rest of that day, September 4th, was a total waste of a day.  Exhausted from Burning Man, exhausted from the 2-day marathon drive, exhausted from tooling around Kansas City trying to get to Lawrence, I went out just long enough to realize that this particular hotel was close to a single bakery (that only had donuts) and a few chain restaurants, and was otherwise in a suburban wasteland with no interesting things.  I went back to the hotel and tried to figure out my next move in Lawrence - couch surfing? Craigslist ads?  Give up on being inventive and just go for more hotel time?  The phone in the hotel room wasn't working, wifi was spotty, and mostly I just sat around feeling tired and tried to get some sleep (and mostly failed).  I felt overwhelmed.  I asked myself, in my head and on paper, what the hell I was doing here.

Lawrence is an overhwelming place for me.  When my feet touched the bricks that make up the sidewalks, I remembered making a rubbing at 18 years old in the thick of one of the most desperate and frightening times of my life.  The Free State Brewing Company brings me right back to the feeling in my gut of being powerless, broke, stranded away from home, physically sick and totally barren for other options.  Those feelings, 15 years old now, are like stale poison.  The intense potency has been lost with time, but my body remembers the risks and dangers.  While I was exhausted, especially, most of my feelings about travelling around within Lawrence were bad ones.  I wondered more than once why I was here.

I fortunately gave myself until the next day to actually answer that question.

September 5th I woke up at 8:00 and after struggling with the idea that I needed to be awake, dragged myself out of bed and got down to business.  I was warned I would pack too many clothes (I did), so I bundled up a bunch and sent them to storage with family in Vancouver.  After that my backpack felt impossibly light and well balanced compared to the day prior.  I made several more phone calls and finally arranged a meeting with someone who would give me a short-term rental very close to downtown Lawrence and managed to pass that milestone less than 10 minutes before I checked out.  I walked out of the hotel without knowing exactly where I was going to sleep that night, but feeling at least like I had made some solid arrangements.

Walking around Lawrence, I started touching those frightening memories more deliberately.  I went into the Free State Brewery, where J frequently snuck in and got college boys to buy her underage self enough beer to get hammered.  I had lunch and a pint, and some of the ghosts of this place were chased away.

There were a lot of moments like that.  The grocery store where J shoplifted most of her groceries had been torn down and replaced by a large brick pharmacy and a liquor store.  The Hippie Shack, dilapidated and sketchy as it was, has been renovated and rebuilt and now looks like a beautiful and quaint place where real people live.  The basement suite with the absent window and bare concrete floor has almost certainly been rebuilt into a beautiful part of a beautiful house.  There is no trace of the addict hippies who turned Asahi beer cans into bongs and sniffed cocaine off of the coffee table in the living room, or the drug dealer turned pusher who lived in the upstairs suite and profited from the inhabitants.  There's no trace of the sickly, nervous 18 year old who, 2 hours after he turned 19 in that basement suite, had a sudden profound realization that changed the rest of his life.  I've kept that fire going this whole time... 15 years later.

Now, I'm just feeling fortunate.  I'm in the basement suite of a co-op in Lawrence, connected because I dropped by a co-op I lived in briefly in 1999 and was welcomed by warm and lovely people.  I met someone who offered to help me out, who connected me with someone else who offered to help me out, who connected me with the person who does placements in this co-op.  I have a safe place to stay with a roof over my head and wifi until I decide to leave town.  I think I'm going to give myself until the 14th before I move on to the next thing.

That time of my life was scary.  Lawrence wasn't scary.  Lawrence, then as now, is filled with people who say hello to strangers and offer them a drink and good company.  The wall of fear that was in this city waiting for me has begun to recede, now that I've touched it.  The bricks are feeling less hostile.  The memories of being sick, lost and without options are reassuringly only memories.

This is where my last big adventure ended.  It is deeply appropriate that it is at the beginning of this big adventure.

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