To the village it took to raise me:
They say it takes a village to raise a child and that was certainly the case with me. I have many families – moms, dads, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents. We may not have the same eyes or nose, but they love me for who I am. I have families who took me in for no reason other than they wanted me. I have an incredibly blessed life indeed.
Living in your car is not as bad as people make it sound when you tell them. People look at you with incredible pity and wonder how on earth you can survive it. The truth is, it could be much worse. I have not ever referred to myself as homeless – I prefer terms like gypsy, temporarily displaced, without an address. A car is a safe place to sleep. Even when it would not run I could lock the doors. I had somewhere that locked I could keep my belongings. When it did run I had the luxury of heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer. Aaaahh, and planet fitness! Open 27/4 and for $10 a month I could work out, use the restroom or take a shower whenever I needed. I still went to school, still hold down a job, still look presentable. Digs fit for a queen.
To be completely candid, living in my car has always been a choice I made – out of pride, really. Pride mixed with being broke. The situations that led me to living in my car were certainly not choices I made. They were circumstances beyond my control. But every time I have ended up in a bad situation, someone has offered me a couch, a room, a floor. There have been times that I have accepted. There have also been times where I felt I would be a burden. I did not want to impede upon anyone’s schedule, I did not want to take up room in their home, I did not want to cost them anything. And nights when it gets bitter cold or sweltering hot I always have places to go, refuges. Lighthouses. Places to wait out the storm. And the storm always passes. This is just the latest hurricane.
I remember the second time I found myself with nowhere to go. I told one of my closest friends, she truly empathized with my situation. She hurt for me. I remember her voice over the phone as she asked me to hold on, with a ridiculous amount of compassion and determination in her voice for a teenage girl. I waited and I heard her pick up the phone. Her voice changed as if she was holding back tears “My mom said you can come stay with us. You can stay as long as you need. My mom said it’s okay, you can stay with me in my room.” I tried not to cry, amazed at the instant generosity provided to me by a family who barely knew me. They knew I was a good friend of their daughters and I was a young girl who needed help. That’s all they needed to know to take me in. She let me come to her house when I needed somewhere to just think, figure things out. Even more six years later I feel completely humbled and in awe of their open hearts.
There’s the Mom and Dad I got when my friend Chelsea brought me home my freshman year of high school…and I just never left. I am like a cat that way. Once you feed me and I know where the house is, I’ll probably keep coming back. This mom is a true Molly Weasley, willing to take in whoever needs a loving accepting place. Ma taught me how to make Italian doughnuts and encouraged our love of music. They took me in again soon after my Dad died, years later but with the same open arms. They held onto the keepsakes from my Dad’s house I was able to salvage after his passing. They drove over an hour to the city I was living in to drop them off when they moved to Tennessee. Ma still checks in on my regularly and keeps up with all of the gypsies she took in over the years. Parents like this change the world, if you ask me.
There was the boy that I lost. I’ve written songs, stories and poems as odes to his impact on my life. He taught me how to love and how to accept love. Really, that is everything. There’s his Mom who has offered to open her home to me more than once. I bring her flowers when I make it back home. I’m not good with words – at least not in person – so I hope the flowers say I love her and I’m thankful for her. I think flowers can speak for you if you let them.
Soon after came the first teacher who would offer to open their home to me and take me in. At the time it was an offer I felt was too generous to accept. I’d been programmed to realize that my existence was expensive – that things like a food and a roof were not something guaranteed but rather granted. I had not learned yet to accept help without feeling as though I was in debt to the borrower. I felt incredible guilt accepting help. It is something I still struggle with. I’m learning to accept the help and even more importantly, to ask for it. Even though I didn’t accept her generosity the act of her asking made me feel loved, protected, important. I felt looked out for. I felt like I mattered.
There’s the band that took in a very lost girl and gave her music. They were a true family to me and continue to be, their fans became my family too. The community that band created is a testament to the ability of music to bring people together. It astonishes me how many lives those 6 people touched. I do not know where I would be without them, but I know I would be less. I’d have less aunts and uncles. I would dream less, love less and have seen less of the world.
My life is built upon the foundation of the love I found in that community, a debt I can never repay. I will only try to honor it by loving and inspiring others.
There’s a mom I met through that band whose values and quirks I mirror sometimes so astonishingly similarly, we would make a great case study on nature vs nurture. She continuously takes me in. 2 weeks, a month, the middle of the night after a boy broke my heart. Afternoon, evening, 3am – her door is always open. Well, I also have a key. She tells me when I am being a bonehead but also is a cheerleader to all of my successes. Even when I make decisions she does not agree with she supports me in them. She was one of the first fans of my voice and continues to be one of the biggest.
There’s the grandmother – though you better call her Nana – who I got through her. She bought me a winter jacket one particularly fierce Detroit winter. Mom brought me home for Thanksgiving to meet my extended family – aunts, uncles, cousins, my nephew. I was wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the logos of a band called Dot Dot Dot.
“Child, where is your coat?” – Nana
“I’m wearing it” – Me, pointing at my hoodie
“That is not a coat. Don’t you have a WINTER coat?” – Nana
“…n…not right now. But it’s okay, I’m fine with the hood-“ – Me
“No. We are getting you a coat. Today.” – Nana
I got a winter coat that day.
It seemed like such an extravagant gift I felt overwhelmed. I could not say much more than thank you. It is a character flaw of mine that I am not great at accepting help. I wore that coat for years. It got me through a few bitter Chicago winters. I was devastated when it was stolen at a concert. It was not just a coat. Every time I put it on I remembered that it was gift, that I was lucky to feel warm. I remembered to be thankful for having what I needed. I find practicing thankfulness to be important.
There’s the mother who came to get me when my Dad died. I walked the halls of the hospital for a long time. I was far from home, didn’t have a car; no money and I didn’t know what to do. My Dad passed after being in a coma for several days. I just paced around an empty hospital wing not far from where his room was. I had signed a lot of paperwork and had been given grief pamphlets but I was on autopilot. I just signed where the lady in scrubs asked me to sign, unable to process more than the fact I now lived with a world without my Dad in it. I had become a member of the Dead Dads Club and the whole world changed. She offered to come get me and said I could stay with her. I accepted. She didn’t make me talk about it; she just turned up the music and bought me a milkshake. She’s also the Mom who came and got me when my car broke down near her town, fresh off a flight from her honeymoon. She and her wife are two of the most in love people I have ever had the pleasure to know. But she put aside the opportunity for wedded bliss, answered my call, picked me up – and we got a milkshake. She’s there for the big things and the little things, knows when to ask and when to just be there.
That’s the best part about Moms, some how they know when you just need to drive to get ice cream with the music up loud.
There’s mother and father who had two small children to take care of, but found room for me whenever I needed it and for as long as I needed it. All I had to do was make a call, “Can I come stay with you for a while?” The answer was always yes and I’d move back into my upstairs bedroom. Zo would make me coffee in the morning (I’m a known caffeine addict), we bonded over our love of guitar and music. When he passed I felt a great loss for the world, it had lost a big heart. My heart hurt for his wife, my best friend, a mother to many, who lost her partner in crime. She amazes me with the strength and poise she exudes as she raises the boys I knew into fine young men. I believe they will change the world.
My baby brother is my universe even if he is a knucklehead. He’s the reason I wanted to be a titan, I wanted to be someone he could look up to and depend on. On more than one occasion I have done things the right way, for his sake. There’s my twin, writing music with him is one of my greatest joys.
There’s the boss who is a weird father-uncle-mad scientist-Doc Brown who let me sleep in the office far more than is normal. He’s let more than one of his gypsy, artist and vagabond employees sleep on the office couches when they needed a place to stay. He’s given me so much for which I can never repay him.
I have always had everything I absolutely needed. I do not ever forget that is a true blessing, and no matter what I feel may be missing, I am lucky.
Even when I don’t have a house it is easy to look around at the people I have encountered on this journey of life and know that I am loved beyond measure. Blood doesn’t make family and four walls don’t make a home.
There’s the friend who flew me to Chicago when I wanted to go to college there. She let me stay with her all summer until I moved into my dorm. It’s the same friend who got me a hotel so when I was living in my car during my senior year of my undergraduate studies so I could have a place to study and sleep during my last set of finals. Those few days in that hotel saved my sanity and her generosity is the reason I graduated from college. Without her my story would be so different.
I’ve been displaced more than once in this life, but I am not and have never been my circumstances. I graduated with a 3.96 GPA on a 4.0 scale with a degree in Biology. I was Summa Cum Laude, inducted into the Omicron Delta Kappa honor society and won the award for outstanding senior in Biology. I was also living in my car while working full time. The students who said my grades seemed to come so easily never saw me parked near a streetlight so I could study at night. They did not know I slept with my shoes on, too afraid to take them off. They didn’t know I could never sleep more than an hour or two without jerking awake to check my surroundings. They did not understand the weight it put on me to try to discreetly get ready for school in bathroom stalls. The fact is if you make the decision not to let your surroundings dictate your behavior, you can do anything that those with privilege can. It will take time and effort. But when you feel like you don’t have any fight left, like you can’t keep going more more day – those are crucial moments. Those are the days where you get to decide where your life goes from here. Do you let yourself become a victim of circumstance or do you fight for a better life? I chose the latter. I chased down every opportunity I got and I have sculpted a life more beautiful than I could have hoped for.
More than one professor at the ceremony at which I was presented with that award offered me their guest rooms when I was displaced. When I declined one of them, she simply left me with her cell phone number and a reminder “We are one humanity. These restrictions – school, work, whatever walls are put up, we are all one people. The room is yours if you need it.”
I beat the odds; I am not a statistic. My adversity was an asset; it drove me to strive for a better life. But none of that would have happened without all the people who gave me warm meals, places to sleep – and more incredibly – unconditional love over the years.
I am on oddity, an outlier, strange and unusual. I’m a biologist, writer, actress, musician, stand up comedian and photographer. I am blessed because I had mothers who gave me music, poetry and literature. I had uncles who taught me science and gave me a camera. I had fathers who encouraged writing and performing. I had people who loved me and taught me, they each gave me the world. I am a product of so many worlds. Being strange has lead to extraordinary things for me. You don’t end up with an alien like me without a journey like mine. Despite the bad it is a wonderful journey. There is not a day that goes by I do not take a moment to reflect on how blessed I am.