WFYI Essay: “HOME” by Carla Salle, spoken-word artist

I have moved 48 times in my life. That is more times than years I have been alive.

I have been homeless 5 times in my life.That is five times more than anyone should ever bear.

I have lived home free once. For those of you who don’t know what that is; we’ll get to that later.

Webster defines home as:

  1. The place (such as a house or apartment) where a person lives
  2. A family living together in one building, house, etc.
  3. A place where something normally or naturally lives or is located

If home is a location then I must’ve died 6 times so far because I existed nowhere.

If home is a family living together in one building then all the times I was separated from my mother as a child or all the years I lived alone as an adult must’ve meant I didn’t exist for much of my lifetime.

If home is a place where one lives that must mean I have 48 identities wrapped up into just one word.

Words are powerful aren’t they? Like, when I say homeless … Do I look like the ideal of that word in your mind? What do you see? It doesn’t look pretty does it? Your image might be unclean, unkempt, begging, annoying, smelly, a nuisance or a myriad of other adjectives that don’t add up to being human.

But, what happens when I say an individual who doesn’t have a place to live right now…? It kinda changes things, doesn’t it?

The first time I was homeless was when I was 11 years old. My mother just left an abusive relationship and we moved from shelter to shelter and ate from dumpsters in between. We found that Dunkin Donuts bagged all their day old donuts separately from their other trash so that became a regular meal. We lived in Florida at the time so showering was easy. You just had to walk to a lawn that was being watered. The only trick was to make sure chemicals weren’t being added through the sprinkler system.

Most of the time we got kicked out of shelters because my stepdad somehow found us and it posed a threat to the other families. Once we got kicked out because I cried. Not just a little cry, but a for the first time in 6 years type of cry because I wasn’t going to let my abuser see me cry type of cry that wasn’t done until it was done type of cry that was considered unstable and a nuisance.

Before that, my mother worked three jobs and rode her bike to every one of them. You just can’t do that when you have nowhere for your child to be while you’re doing it.

There were nights like the first one on the streets when someone stole our shoes while we were sleeping that I swear my mother looked at me with resentment for showing the social worker my bruises.

Then, there were others, like Charlie. He was a sweet old man who taught us things like how to use your shoes as pillows so they won’t get stolen and the places to stay away from because they snatch children for the market round there and you’ll lose more than your shoes if you’re not careful.

Eventually we found an address back to where our roots began in Indiana.

Then, when I was sixteen I found my dad. It’s funny how as a kid you think that your father, however absent he may be, will be the hero of your life story. When I found him he was home free. He chose to live on the streets comfortably. It is where he felt most safe.

When he was a kid, home was with his mother, but the state didn’t see it that way. Every foster home they put him in was a chance for him to escape and find her.

When he came back into our lives he was more concerned with my mother than me. They got back together and moved my grandmother in and consequently, me out on the streets.

And you can’t rent a car or sign a lease at 17 so having a job wasn’t as much of a safety net as you might think. So here I was sleeping at the drive-in, living in my car, taking $5 showers at the nearest truck stop and life was hard.

Now mind you the weather was turning cold and I wasn’t quite yet eighteen years old. And I still didn’t have a roof over my head. That was, at least, until this man asked me to marry him. Now I asked God to turn a deaf ear as I said I do because I was marrying a man that I barely knew. And this man turned out to be as crazy as the man my momma married before. For that man beat me senseless and kept me under a locked door.

And just when I thought I couldn’t get out of this mess that man went to jail overnight and I fled. And for the first time in my life found myself home-free. As it turned out having an address wasn’t worth the price it cost me. The streets are sometimes safer and more comfortable than staring at a ceiling at night. Sometimes the elements are less abrasive to your health than your family.

But no matter how angry I was at my dad, during that time, I felt more connected to him than ever before. Suddenly and abruptly, I understood him.

I felt more at home disconnected from all that was supposed to support me than I did anywhere in the world. I found on the streets that home is not an address, but a state of mind. It is a connection to who you are. It is knowing what you will deal with and what you are willing to give up to walk away from places you thought were home in order to keep your sanity.

Home is the place you see inside your mind when you meditate.

When I was a little girl before I ever questioned what home was, when my stepdad used to hurt me, I would drift off in my mind to safety.

There was a big tree in the middle of a green field full of purple flowers and dandelions where a tiny white dog would pull on my lacy white dress and we would run and play until we couldn’t breathe anymore. We would seek refuge under that tree as the sun would begin to set and peek through its branches. It was there that I knew I was with God. It was under that tree where I would fall to peaceful slumber every night and through every fight and every physical pain, every element my body has weathered. Through 5 losses of existence, one stint being home free, and 48 identity crises.

Home has always been just like old man Charlie said – What you make it.

When my son asks me what home was like when I little I will tell him of the adventures of a little girl playing in a field with her little white dog until the sun set through her favorite tree.

= = = =

Each year Spirit & Place partners with WFYI on a series of essays on the annual theme. Listen to them here.

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