What we remember from childhood we remember forever—permanent ghosts, stamped, inked, imprinted, eternally seen.
Childhood is the fiery furnace in which we are melted down to essentials and that essential shaped for good.
–Katherine Anne Porter
The childhood shows the man
as morning shows the day.
–John Milton, Paradise Regained
From childhood’s hour I have not been.
As others were, I have not seen.
–Edgar Allan Poe
Last night, I was part of The Red Team of The Legacy Initiative, where I had the opportunity to pass out supplies (such as food) to those affected by homelessness, and to do wellness checks on the population. I’d like to talk about my experience.
It’s easy in our ignorant world to take for granted the seeds that are planted in childhood, and the importance of experience in childhood’s hour. I mention this because I saw a homeless boy, who I had once given a blanket to, wrapped up in a blanket (perhaps the blanket we’d given him). When we first saw him, he was detached and tired, and didn’t want the crackers we were giving out, which was heartbreaking to see, much less the fact that he was a homeless child in front of the Salt Lake shelter. I was also afraid to engage with the child, because I know that it’s easy to feel threatened when you’re homeless, especially if you’re a kid. The vulnerability, indeed, was apparent, and I wasn’t about to make it worse with my ignorance.
But Tracy and Darren were there, and Tracy had an oversized Raiders jacket, which he gave to the kid. This was a tender moment to witness, and I was happy at how quickly the kid lit up. This was when I told myself that I needed to engage, now or never. So, I knelt down beside the kid, and asked him if he wanted crackers. He nodded his head and smiled, and I gave him the crackers. Still beside the kid, I told him gently to stay strong. I deliberated on saying this, because I knew that words were precious at this point, and were not to be wasted. But I settled on this cliché because it felt like the best thing I could say. I didn’t have the nerve to engage with the kid anymore, because I understood the situation, and wanted to respect the space between us. But perhaps in the future, I will be able to engage further, get the kid to talk (hypothetically), even if it’s just hearing from the child himself that he is doing okay.
Indeed, this silence, this quiet kid, is symbolic of something deeper: It is symbolic of all the stories the kid has to tell, of all the kid has seen. I imagine he has seen a lot, and all of it must be strange and foreign to him. I am sure he intuitively feels as though something is different, as children know intuitively there is a difference between living in a shelter/on the streets and living in a home, which increases feelings of alienation.
My honest feelings on this beautiful interaction are the following: It breaks my heart every time to see this, to see homeless children. I want to say that such a thing should not be tolerated in such a prosperous country as our own. But that said, this is the kid’s hour: And I think that The Red Team and I were doing a good job at least of providing some hope to the situation. This kid already has an essence as described in the Platonic tradition, he already has a purpose, a teleology as described in the Aristotelean tradition, and hopefully in some way or another we have inspired him in some way, to understand that people care. His core is formed with experiences like this, whether negative experiences or positive experiences, and we have a moral duty to ensure that we alleviate as much suffering and discomfort as possible. What breaks my heart is being aware that this kid has seen things he shouldn’t have seen, and he remembers them: They imprint on his mind, become his eternal ghosts. But we mustn’t speak too soon, either. Maybe there is a way. Gentleness is indeed a way. I am more touched by the kid than he was probably touched by our gestures. I in fact feel useless in the face of such adversity!
Dramatic flourishes aside: I think that childhood’s hour is too precious to waste. The kid isn’t aware he’s a child, in an alienating environment, but I can see it as an adult, and I know how important these days are for forming his character, his final essence. I know it’s important for who this child becomes when he grows up. He doesn’t need to be trapped in the endless cycle of homelessness: That, I believe can and will change. I have to believe, or I’d go insane.
Tracy in fact asked me if I was okay after this experience. I told him I wasn’t okay. I told him why I wasn’t okay: It just isn’t right. I was thinking I wasn’t okay because there’s something about the homeless kids that speaks to me in a way I can never quite explain. In a way I can never quite understand. But kids are resilient, perhaps because they are in childhood’s glorious hour, and I saw that with this quiet kid, which made me happy.
We talked some more. Tracy caught me a week or two before at a bad moment for me, and I told him that when I think in a delusional way, and have a delusional mindset, it is overwhelming but necessary when I embody homelessness. I told him that day that I was trying to say that day that I embody homelessness; the more I hang around the homeless, the more I feel as though I am homeless myself. Of course this isn’t actually the case, as I am not homeless, but delusions aren’t supposed to make sense. I nonetheless think this is an important point, important because it shows how impacting this work is, and how it leaves an affect and impact on us all. When you think you’re homeless just because you’re hanging out at shelters and passing out granola bars … it’s kind of overwhelming. I don’t think I could have made it as a homeless kid, in all honesty, I don’t think I would have had the strength and tenacity. Perhaps why I told the kid to stay strong: What else can you say in such circumstances?
But that is why, as cheesy as it may sound, that I pray that angels wrap their wings around this kid, keep him safe and warm, and that he is given opportunities to feel loved. Childhood’s hour cannot be wasted.
I think, though, that seeing this, having this interaction and other interactions, taught me something important. We usually see “oppression” as an abstract concept: We see oppression as a mere idea. But oppression is a real thing, or so I want to challenge you to see it that way. Indeed, I say this because I have a visceral reaction to oppression and power structures. Before the patrol, we talked a lot about how so much of what we do is politics/political: The power is more important than the people, looking good is more important than doing the right thing. I myself have been oppressed in various ways, which is why I am so attuned to the oppression in this environment. To be clear, I am not afraid of serving the homeless, they are usually kind or very kind: I am, rather, afraid of the power structures, specifically those that cause homelessness. This is a real thing, and that was what Foucault was trying to get at: Even with his philosophical approach to power structures, he was right to point them out as existing and having a real affect, and this is how I see things. Oppression is not just something that we think about and abstract: It is a literal force, which pushes and suppresses others, and in this case, places people in heavy poverty, abuse, fear, mental illness, and loneliness. What a way to let a child grow up!
Ahem: Dramatic flourishes aside: We can’t take these things for granted. We can’t take for granted that people in the city are out at theatres and restaurants, while just a couple blocks away there is dire poverty. What does this say about our society? What does this say about our world? The world that is just right around the corner? What does this say to us, and why are we missing the point?
But I believe in the kid. I believe he is strong and has a great future ahead of him. It isn’t all black and white. To have such a tender interaction is a gift, and I won’t be forgetting it. It’s too important to me. I say this because I am aware that what we do has a cumulative effect, meaning we always add to the system through our interactions, and once it’s done (our action/interaction), we can’t take it away: And I choose to believe that this work, however brief and slight it may be, is the beginning of something, and will strengthen the essence and character of this individual child and the others that we serve. They all once had childhoods, and there’s no telling how many of them came from rough upbringings, how many of them came from difficult backgrounds that led to homelessness, addiction, mental illness, trauma, etc. That’s why my heart goes out to this kid in childhood’s beautiful and glorious hour: Because I see a gentleness in him, I see a beauty, I see hope, and I want him to get a fresh start in life, as everyone deserves, so he can chase his dreams and be a blessing to all he encounters. He was a blessing to me during the interaction, and I won’t be forgetting. I can’t forget.
To quote John Milton, the childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day: And it is still the kid’s morning in his hour of childhood, and I believe he will grow up to be a strong individual, provided that others care for him in this important stage of life. Why believe that there is no hope? Life and the struggle for our purpose and essence and teleology is a real fight and a real battle, one worth fighting: And it’s cliché, but I believe. I believe in this kid, and what he represents. He will take people places, perhaps back to the goodness of childhood’s hour.
As he has done for me.