When I open my eyes, I can see the green shimmer of the Northern Lights dancing above me; for a moment I consider pulling out my cell phone to snap a photo, but decide instead to simply enjoy the show before hunkering down once more in an attempt to sleep.
My pillow has gone askew again and my neck hurts; one of the mittens on my hands has gone missing, and I think my right hip is now on top of the flashlight I have tucked inside my sleeping bag to ensure I can find it during the night. It is my fifth adventure at Hope in the Dark, and like every other year it is both the most uncomfortable and humbling experience I have ever had.
In 2012, I attended the first Hope in the Dark event hosted by the Centre of Hope, the daytime drop-in facility for the homeless and at-risk-of-homeless in our community. My decision to participate that year was one made due to some new connections I had found through the team at the Centre of Hope, who welcomed a fledgling writer into their midst to learn about what they do. What I discovered was not only an incredible team of professionals caring for some of the most vulnerable in our community, but also an entire culture that until then I had only known from the very margins. Through conversations with local homeless individuals I came to understand the many reasons for homelessness: mental illness, physical disability, substance addiction, domestic violence, child abuse and more. I heard the kind of stories that opened not only my mind but my heart, and made me realize the line between those who were homeless and all the rest of us was a thin one indeed.
The opportunity to take part in Hope in the Dark was a chance to learn, for just one night, what it was like to sleep rough in our community. And the experience was so compelling that I have done it every year since, with the exception of last year when the event was cancelled by another event that, for a brief moment in time, perhaps helped us all understand what it might feel like to be homeless.
In May, 2016, we fled our community with only what we could fit in our cars, forced out of our homes by a fire so ferocious it threatened our entire city. There was a period in which I suspect all of us wondered if we would have our homes to return to; and for that split second of time, that fraction of a moment, I think we saw a slight glimmer of homelessness. For most of us it was brief and replaced by gratitude that our homes had survived; for some the worst came to life and their homes were snatched from them by a fire so animate it earned it’s own nickname. Suddenly all of us, no matter the outcome of our personal experience, were reminded of the power of home.
On May 27 last year, I was preparing for my return home, stocking my car with supplies and steeling myself for whatever lay ahead. This year on May 27 I drove home to Fort McMurray from a trip to Calgary to see my daughter graduate from high school, anxious to be here in time to sleep rough in a park. Yesterday morning I loaded my car with my suitcase loaded with dresses and blazers, a separate bag loaded with shoes and all the bags and bags of shopping I had done in Calgary; yesterday evening I loaded it instead with two small bags carrying only what I needed: a sleeping bag, a tarp, some warm socks, some mittens, a flashlight. The contrast was stark indeed. When you are homeless you travel light, with only what you can both carry and protect.
This year at Hope in the Dark I was missing the sidekick I have had for the past few years, though. For the past three years my daughter has attended the event with me, often doing her homework late into the night inside a cardboard box lit only by her flashlight. This year she was in Calgary studying for her diploma exams as her life moves into the next phase: university.
Last night the team from the Centre of Hope extended an invitation to me to speak at the event, and it was truly an honour to do so. And when I did, I spoke of the remarkable work they do in our community, and of how grateful I am for how they welcomed me so many years ago and taught me about homelessness in our community.
And I spoke of my pride in my daughter, fresh from celebrating her recent graduation. I spoke of how I am proud of how she has done throughout her academic career, but also how proud I am of her compassion and her keen in interest in social issues. She moves into the next part of her life journey knowing that she has a responsibility to make a difference in this world, and I spoke of how I believed her participation in events like Hope in the Dark fostered this understanding in her.
I spoke of how I would miss her last night, and so I did, missing seeing her cardboard box beside me as it has been for several years, knowing that inside the box lay a small human creature who cared for others and who understood that as a human who had been the beneficiary of much privilege she now had a duty to pay forward to others what she has received through her life.
When I awoke in the middle of the night and saw the dancing Northern Lights, shimmering far above me and yet seeming so close I thought I could touch them, I thought of all I have learned since 2012.
I thought about how in 2012 we held a memorial moment for the 32 lives of homeless individuals lost on the streets of Fort McMurray since 2005; I thought about how now in 2017 that number has sadly climbed to 83.
I thought about how I began my adventure at Hope in the Dark in 2012 sleeping on a cold metal bench in an inadequate sleeping bag and how in 2017 I had found a far more ideal formula of a tarp, bedroll and far warmer sleeping bag, learning more every year about how to survive a night sleeping rough.
I thought about how in the last year the concept of home has taken on new meaning and poignancy for me because at one point in time I thought my home might have been lost to a fire that I could not control or change.
And I thought about the other homeless individuals sleeping rough last night, but who would not have the option to leave that park in the morning and drive home to crawl into their warm beds in their real homes, something I knew I would do and this morning did.
I thought about my daughter and how proud I am of her in every way.
And I thought about the nature of compassion and understanding, a gift every single one of us can give freely and that costs us exactly nothing, but enriches us and others in a way we might not even understand and yet is of more value than gold.
After few moments of watching the green lights dance above me, I adjust my pillow and find my other mitten. I move the flashlight from under my hip and pull the sleeping bag over my head, slipping into the darkness of sleep for a few more moments.
And as I drift off I think of how sometimes hope is all we have, the kind of hope I have clung to since May 3, 2016 when I hoped the best for my home and my community. But what I have learned over the last year is that hope isn’t always enough; most times hope needs to be accompanied by hard work and belief in your ability to make a difference to really be fulfilled.
So it is at the Centre of Hope, where they invest that hard work and belief in their patrons, and where they allow people like me to share in their stories and witness them breathe life into hope. In that humble building on Franklin Avenue, they dispense not only hope but dignity and courage; and I am so very proud to say I have been able to see the difference it has made and maybe over the years, just maybe, add a bit of my own hope to theirs.
And in my final moments before sleep overtakes me I think about my home and am filled with the same deep gratitude I have always felt for it, but renewed powerfully in 2016 and every year at Hope in the Dark. Once again I feel the hope to be found in the dark, the kind that shines as bright as the Northern Lights but can on occasion be just as subtle and elusive; and I fall into sleep, seeing green dancing lights behind my closed lids and holding hope – that elusive, subtle and burning-brighter-than-a-wildfire hope – tight in my heart.