“My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where these abound,
My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.
Lord, lift me up, and let me stand
By faith, on heaven’s tableland;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
~ Johnson Oatman, Jr., Higher Ground.
My recent seven weeks since last publishing an essay have been engulfed in survival mode. Woven into tirelessly working my job and seeking better fortunes is the unending marathon of searching for a place to live that would permit liberation from the loud, cramped hovel of this past year. At least I can report to you that I’ve been writing in my journal daily, either beneath layers of “white noise”- including a fan, a mechanism that produces sounds that imitate ocean waves, and my radio tuned to classical music, to try thinking above the incessant upstairs antics of Le Cirque des Eléphants, or very late at night when the boors bed themselves. But I write, and on better nights and portions of weekends I study philosophy. I’ve also continued teaching. And indeed I report to work, always putting in a thorough day of productivity and service. The nightmare of miserable and overpriced housing has yet to end. I assure you, dear readers, I am doing every honest thing in my power to remedy this. Sometimes it’s an employment interview, most other times it’s an apartment viewing- the latter now resembling candidate interviews- but I’ve yet to find success. Far too much energy and time have been lost, not just in the past year of housing hell, but many of us can look back at the covid years as having destroyed more than our creative and community lives, but also the dynamics of our cities.
I have just enough presence of mind to remember my gratitude for having gotten away for a week’s pilgrimage in spring to the Berkshires. The photographs I made during the sojourn are good reminders. It was something of a serendipitous fluke to find three people to cover my workplace shifts, and that my arrival in Stockbridge was exactly on the Feast Day of the Divine Mercy. I knew that I needed to gather up whatever energy and grace I could find, so that I could dig even harder into scouring for a place to live. Safe, Spacious, and Civilized, as my tireless networking tends to include. Because last summer’s desperation-searching ended in defeat, the scouring never stopped. I vowed not to endure a repeat of last year. But here it comes, with its scythe, as time runs out again. Numerous Maine residents are doing battle with a similar plight, thrown beneath the merciless wheels of hypergentrification. I’m no longer surprised at the tone-deafness of elected leaders; they all have what they need, thus they do not relate as they vote themselves pay raises. I’ve spoken with countless people about housing in the past 14 months, and listen to as many stories. There are the willing who are unable to help, but there are the able who are unwilling to help. The latter category is lulled by that ubiquitous wagon-circling prevalent in this culture; the most shocking instances of this I’ve had to wince through have been from, of all things, influential religious leaders who should know better. And it’s not that I ask for anyone to pay my expenses; what I request are leads and referrals. Networking. Are we parts of solutions, or are we parts of the problem? Who will dare to be tangibly caring? Who wants to really live the Golden Rule?
Trying to stretch the imaginations of the ignorant, I ask professional ministers to join me in praying- at the very least (as inspiration may follow) for the homeless and the displaced. There are many. This region’s larger parishes are in the suburbs, though they tend to use the name Portland, despite having nothing to do with what they perceive as the city’s benighted unwashed. Well aware of my own level of unabated trauma (noticeable when the racket from upstairs drives me outside the building in all weather), I am physically wrenched when I speak with and see people that have no place to call home. Not wanting to be exploitive, I chose not to take photos of the “tent cities,” along local roadways. It momentarily suffices to describe rows and clusters of plastic canopies in highway gullies, thick with mud, the occupants’ spare clothing draped over chainlink bordering a commuter “park-and-ride” lot, amidst piles and piles of detritus. It is a constant heartache to see. These souls could be any one of us. A handful of people try to be helpful, namely a friend and pastor who connects homeless veterans with transitional housing in a motel. A social worker and housing advocate I spoke with referred to people like me as rent-burdened, which means an excess of 30% of my income (for me, it’s more like 50%) goes to pay rent. I tell friends that the search for better, peaceful housing is the search for higher ground to be able to find some form of healing while continuing to work and aspiring for stability and comfort. I don’t dare predict anything.