July , 2013
New Avenues For Youth: Portland, OR
I showed up to Portland, Oregon primarily to do a signing at Powell's Bookstore. Colleague Elly Swartz connected me with New Avenues For Youth while I was recovering from altitude sickness in Chico, CA. When I arrived, a member of the staff was very apologetic. Many of the kids had gone out for a recreation day. Something the program works to insert into an educational and career path program.
"No worries," I said. "One is just as great as a dozen or so."
And I said that having no idea how powerful the one could be.
Liam is the name he writes by, so that's what we'll call him in this blog. He's had more hardship and struggle in 22 years than any one person should. Homelessness, addiction, abandonment, suicide attempts and a host of the horrible dose of misfortune. When I was his age, I had a life seasoned in a few of these descriptors and was mean as they come. I was pissed off at the world. I had zero time for compassion for others. I mean, what had they done to make my life easier, right? Liam though, isn't me at 22 years-old. This guy is a light.
Liam is one man living one life, and it is extraordinary one. During the time that we spent together, I'm not sure who was inspiring who. Here's why.
I entered the facility a bit scattered from traffic, hunger and sleep deprivation. We had, of course, driven from Chico, CA to Portland, OR only hours before I was supposed to be at New Avenues For Youth. We had, of course, been pulled over by a female officer near Ashland, OR, given a warning and stopped at one of the single most frightening rest rooms in America.
Let's just say it had been a long one as nights go.
And now I'm supposed to be "on" and "present" and "here" only I'm everywhere else. But then, there's Liam. He's the guy who is patient, soft spoken and full of l i g h t!
I know, I'm on the light kick in this post. Just hang in with me.
So I settled down and we started talking. Before long, it was like we'd known each other for years. Both of us had a succinct passion for words and poetry. He tells me how he is is writing a biography of his life in poetic form and restricting himself to four words per line. As a poet, I can tell you those words have to be specific and active or the whole thing will be a mauled version of Humpty Dumpty. Naturally, I'm curious as to how he sculpts such a history within extreme poetic restrictions.
He reaches into this tattered brown backpack and emerges with a Moleskin that has a:
HELLO MY NAME ISsticker with Liam printed in orange marker on the front.
He slides it on the table, and it sits between us before I confirm that I can thumb through it. I sit closer to him and remove the cloth wrap holding it closed.
Liam's word choice is specific. Precise and percussive. The kind where your heart breaks into pieces smaller and smaller per line. I delve into darkness, moments of light, torment, love, searching and a maelstrom of other tangible feelings. He carries the reader into the raw and uncut world of his childhood, teen years and evolution (it isn't finished, of course) into manhood.
I am at a loss for articulate words. I mouth mostly sounds and "how did you do this here?" and feeling the jolt to put pen to page I hadn't felt most of the book tour. His words and energy make me want to spark up the ink and rip across the blankness of my notebook.
And I told him so.
And this guy, he smiles. Gosh, was it a humble thing to see.
And we talked more and more.
We shared our stories of being homeless, thoughts on addiction and coming to the other side. We talked about the America I'd seen in high compression and the one he knew from underpass to bus stop.
We were exactly one hundred and ninety-nine percent there.
After awhile, I asked if there was anything else he wanted to chat about or do. He said, "You wanna write?"
And I lit up like Christmas on the Fourth of July. Heck yeah, I wanna write. Absolute!
So there we went. Tearing down the page like there are no speed limits. Occasionally, we'd look up at one another and grin. We were high on words and creativity and that is the ultimate juice!
Someone from the program came in and wanted to give me a tour of the facilities. So Liam and I said our good-byes but not before he showed me a poem. It had been published in New Voices For Youth. I wanted that book and his signature more than I had wanted John Updike's in my twenties. Instead he signed one of my FAT ANGIE postcards. Before he left, he handed me his writing.
"I think you'll like it," he said.
His grin infectious.
"Thank you so much," I said to him.
What I would later find out was that Liam was having the worst kinda craptastic day. Somehow in all of the noise of being on the streets and living with so little, he managed to make space for me. He wrote with me. He made me feel seen. He showed up.
I don't know who gave who more inspiration that day. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe what matters is that two people with stories of hardship came together and connected, created stories and showed up.
I thought about Liam a lot on the road to Cincinnati, Ohio and was elated to get a text from New Avenues for Youth. They'd shipped a copy of the book Liam's poem was in, and it was autographed by him.
Thanks, Liam. You changed my life.