Mary Louise Van Dyke
A gigantic boulder, flecked with smaller stones, spins in front of Kulshan Hall here on Whatcom Community College’s main campus. Water trickles down its side. Known on campus as the Levitating Sphere, the ball is cradled inside of a large, rough-hewed stone.
In a crazy way, the Levitating rock represents my life. In the past three years I have shifted between different persona’s as student, mom, friend, domestic abuse survivor, and as a woman in her middle years, who is homeless.
I attended Turning Point class here at Whatcom in 2012. I needed to get a grip on the direction my life was skidding. Everything seemed out of control – and it was. I’d recently moved to Bellingham, leaving behind a shattered marriage. I couldn’t afford an apartment for myself and my son, let alone food, or anything else.
In Turning Point, I realized I had a choice. I could start taking classes, and work on taking control of my life. Or wallow in the past. I chose school and earning my associate’s degree.
That decision challenged and scared me. Still does. Attending classes, for the most part, feels natural. Homelessness is not normal, and the very word conjures unappealing images of individuals who carry their few belongings in in bags or in shopping carts. Hold cardboard signs begging for any help passersby feel compelled to give. Live in a car or in a cardboard shelter.
My experience included living in a Plymouth Neon for a couple of weeks with my son when we first became homeless. He would be helped by Northwest Youth Services, and I went through stays at Lighthouse Mission, and eventually moved to the YWCA. I didn’t do the sign thing – my artwork isn’t that good. And no shopping carts or cardboard residences.
Winter quarter 2013 was a challenging time. I was taking classes during the day, and dealing with a hamstring injury. That meant wearing a leg brace and using a cane. Late afternoons I hobbled back to the Lighthouse Mission for the other half of my reality. Sleeping mats on the floor of the mission’s chapel. Crowded conditions and mandatory chapel attendance. Early morning rising long before the sun was up.
One night, the preacher advised us to think of this time of our lives as a weird vacation, free of all of our usual life worries and responsibilities. “Yeah, we’re just living the dream,” a woman muttered.
A weird vacation? Was that what this is, I wondered, as I settled down that night on my sleeping mat. These conditions weren’t anything I would choose for a vacation. But, still, I was safe there, and not out on the streets. Right? But would I ever live a non-weird life again? Have access to something as simple as a hot cup of tea in the morning?
Slowly I realized how much feeling “usual” or “normal” meant to me. The stay at the chapel shelter ended as I started spring quarter 2013, and was accepted into a higher-level residence. Having a real bed and chest-of-drawers for my belongings was luxury. Now I had access to a microwave where I could fix English Breakfast tea in the morning and microwave meals.
All was better, all was calm. Until, I called my dad one day in April and got verbally slammed. He told me to leave school. Get a job. Even McDonald’s. The words scorched me. Because Dad was dealing with cancer at the time, I kept my mouth shut. But I teared up after saying good-bye to him. We’d had plenty of disagreements in the past. So stupid, to get upset over his opinion. But I was.
Obviously I stayed in school. And a letter telling me I had made the Dean’s list, told me I was on the right track. I moved to the red brick mansion that houses the YWCA’s housing program and kept on studying. English classes, more science and math classes, philosophy, communications classes. Sometimes friends told me they were amazed that I was attending school. “I couldn’t do it,” they would say.
I would shrug. How could I not want to attend college? I believe education improves us. Shapes us. Gives us more tools for creating the life we want. Definitely it is easier to get done soon after leaving high school. I refuse to believe there is a time limit.
I wish I could say I adored all of my studies. But algebra and I ended up in a stalemate, after a good friend of mine died unexpectedly.
Life at the Y has been a joy and a source of pressure at times. You get a dozen women sharing a kitchen and things can get heated at times. One person wants to cook a large meal, another just wants one burner for fixing mac and cheese, and someone else wants to put together a sandwich while someone else is rummaging in the refrigerator for meal ideas. Definitely there are times when I just want to be alone to cook the way I used to.
Someday. Having my associate’s degree with honors satisfies a bedrock deep desire in me to know that I could accomplish my long delayed goal of getting more education. It means that I’ve endured pressures and heat, and learned how to survive this weird vacation, albeit with a cup of tea in hand.
What happens next? Graduation is June 20 and I am excited about finally fulfilling that dream. I plan to work, and earn the money for a place of my own with a kitchen. Taking more classes in the future and seeing what else happens.
Making a major change in life is challenging, especially when one starts out lugging stones of past wounds. The old baggage isn’t easily dumped, but with acceptance – and education, I am polished up and ready to roll in new directions.