Recently, I participated in an event called Confabulation, an all-true storytelling series that takes place monthly in Montreal, Toronto and Victoria. All the stories are told without notes, props, or gimmicks. The theme was: The Here-and-Now — Stories of the Hyperlocal. The following story was told on May 24, 2017, in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Truthfully, when the producer texted me about this event, I had to look that up in the dictionary. Confabulation — “a noun meaning familiar talk or conversation, and it can also mean a filling in of gaps by fabrication.” For example, “Gramma’s stories were always amusing especially when she added a hint of confabulation or exaggeration to them.” So, a fantastic fabrication, or maybe a fabulous fable, or somewhere in-between…
And then I had to think, here-and-now and hyperlocal. I mulled it over for a few days, asking myself, “what story can I tell that links all these things together?”
Finally I texted back, “okay, I think I’ve got something.”
This is a story that I want to tell, but I’ve always kept it under wraps because it’s personal, and I live in a secular and often judgmental and unloving world. I tend to only talk about these things with select people, but because of the truth telling and intimate nature of this occasion, I felt it was the right space to be honest about how I found presence at the local drop-in centre for the homeless.
First off, a little backstory is in order.
My name is Krista and I’m a filmmaker.
I produced a documentary about my friendships with four homeless people here in Victoria at a drop-in centre that’s only a block away. Making this film took me down a very deep rabbit hole, and occupied ten years of my life. Since I have never been homeless, my position in this situation is one of privilege.
Some people may have seen this film — it’s called Us and Them — but what most of you won’t know is why this film really happened.
Years ago while living in Vancouver, I learned about the First Nations Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel is a 30,000-year-old orally passed down tradition designed to unite all the nations in the world. What I was shown was one of thousands upon thousands of teachings contained in the wisdom of the Medicine Wheel — balancing the individual, by taking stock of oneself physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.
Whenever I picked up the mail on the second floor of my apartment building I’d smell an unfamiliar scent. One day I followed the aroma and found a counseling school that was using traditional First Nations healing as part of its curriculum. The smell was sage burning that the students were using to smudge. They washed with the smoke, cleansing negative energy from themselves and the environment. An elder from this school took me under her wing and taught me many things about Native culture. One of the things was how to balance on the Medicine Wheel.
I started to make a film about this school, but moved to Victoria before it was complete. A year or so later, I checked back in with the students — who, by the way, all suffered with addictions before enrolling in the class — and more than a year later, not one had relapsed. I was blown away and thought to myself, “I wonder if this could also help people living on our streets?”
I turned the idea around in my head for a long time. I wanted to teach homeless people how to balance on the Medicine Wheel and make a film about the experience, but I was dragging my feet. Truthfully, the film wasn’t put into motion until I was in severe pain, nursing a broken heart. I was depressed and in torment, but somehow, I knew getting this film project moving forward would help.
I decided to seek out a local street preacher named Reverend Al Tysick who I read about in the newspaper. I remember walking down the street, preparing myself to visit the drop-in centre for the first time. In the here-and-now of that moment — as I stepped foot into that old run down dirty building, full of the most vulnerable among us — I felt presence surround me.
When I walked in, a funeral service was happening and Reverend Al was leading the ceremony. I was uncomfortable and as I turned to leave, a staff member touched my back and silently directed me to a seat. Reverend Al held an eagle feather and spoke of the person who had passed on. Others shared stories of the deceased and as I listened, tears streamed down my face. All of these people were strangers to me, and I was resonating with their pain.
Reverend Al is beloved, for good reason.
The mission statement on the wall of the drop-in centre reads: “We provide unconditional love in a non-judgmental way for all who walk in the door.” — a mission he has held true to, in every situation since we met in 2006.
After the ceremony, I told Reverend Al about my project. He said, “I can feel your power and sense your purpose.” He paused and repeated, “I can feel your power and sense your purpose,” boosting me with exactly the right words. He told me I could use the drop-in centre after hours and offered me the keys to the building — classic Reverend Al, the “dream enhancer.” Being utterly naïve to the homeless world, I politely declined. But I asked if I could use the space during opening hours to screen a film I made about the Medicine Wheel and the students in Vancouver, and he agreed.
The day came to screen my short film and Reverend Al jumped up on a chair to get the attention of the crowd.
“We are going to show a film by this woman here,” he said.
There were groans coming from the crowd — the game was on the communal big screen TV. Someone yelled, “Is it a porno?” Another guy yelled, “take your clothes off!” Everyone laughed and I had to throw something back so I gave a weak, “you first.” That was my intro to the seriously tough crowd.
The film played, and about half way through, someone yelled, “how much longer?” It was a long six minutes without any sense of presence whatsoever. At the end, people seemed relieved that it was over, and I was mortified, but one woman raised a fist in the air and yelled “right on!”
That was all I needed to keep moving forward with the project.
Needless to say, my initial attempt at using the Medicine Wheel to help people failed miserably. For the next couple of years I simply spent time at the drop-in centre before the camera came out to make Us and Them. It was during this phase that I met the participants in the film, my four homeless friends who ended up helping me.
There were countless times when I just listened to my friends talk about their lives, often very difficult stories. My role was to just be there providing an ear, to be present with them, to listen. In these situations I often felt a sense of presence surrounding us, as though it was creating a sacred space for us to be in together, to connect, to understand each other.
To this day, the presence continues to come over me in the oddest ways. For example, I talk to one of my friends from the film almost every day on the phone and this individual is a character but can be a handful at times. We are like family, but when this person projects their anger on me because of all the pain they carry inside I sometimes think to myself, “Dude, I just can’t take it anymore! I have to take a break from our friendship.” And then we plan to meet to talk, and as soon as I look at their face a warm sense of peace infused with electricity fills my body and they are instantly forgiven. I understand this human being needs support, and I know I can provide that regardless of how the pain manifests.
Using the Medicine Wheel to help people and making a film about the experience was always the intention behind Us and Them, but sometimes how those intentions actually come to fruition is kind of a … confabulation. And I just had to get used to that. But my guidepost was always that sense of presence that came to me. When I feel it, I know I’m moving in the right direction.
It’s the presence, and without that presence I would never have been able to attempt to provide the kind of unconditional love and non-judgmental attitude that my character seeks in the film. My friends provided me the space to try to achieve this, and presence gave me the strength to persevere for a decade. They reflected back to me what I was looking for that first day so long ago, with my broken and sad heart.
And in the end, our film is a tragic, yet surprisingly inspiring confabulation — a hyperlocal tale of finding presence in the here-and-now, among people whom most of us choose to ignore.