The time has finally come to wrap up this story arc of being un-homed and re-homed. I knew it would come but didn’t really know when until very recently. That was when something profound happened to me and I knew I had to let go of some things and clean up some others. The combination of factors isn’t important, just that I knew it was time.

I do think there are other things to be written, said, imagined, etc., so I will work more on my personal blog at I suppose there will be more that can be talked about there that isn’t really news worthy. Although, it’s very likely that Civil Beat may have something they’d like from me at some point later.

With that I immediately want to thank the Civil Beat family, especially editor John Temple, who not only took a chance on an unknown entity, but also continued to believe in me through my ups and downs while sharing. Though it’s likely I’ll still write something for them from time to time, there is an inescapable poignancy to this wrap up. I thank them from the depths of my heart, and hope they know how important they have been to me in working through this all.

But for now, generally speaking it’s simply that there’s only so much to discuss about my grocery shopping habits, my fear of losing my keys, or any of several re-homed issues I face daily. Also, that there is little use in dredging up more from the un-homed phase in some effort to make more sense than has already been attempted. The story has been compelling, but I believe it has been told (and let’s hope doesn’t need telling again). And because ultimately this has been a bigger story than about my homed status: It’s been a story about failure and loss, about finally making space in my life for loss, and about finding my way through towards healing; it’s about forward momentum.

I feel I want to bring many thoughts together in closing this out. Namely how I feel that my life has been shaped by these experiences, of which homelessness was just one. But some of the thoughts are still elusive, just off the tip of my tongue, or somewhere in the back of my mind. Others are clearer and more fully gestated. Primary among the more complete ones is that I know far more about failure than I do about success. And I think I finally have begun to understand that aspect of my life to date. But, and not ironically in the least, the whole story arc is actually one of success. And so hand in hand these two conditions have inexplicably moved me forward.

I’m not really certain what failure means when you get right down to it. The word “failure” is one of those culturally contextual words that can strike fear in the heart. It’s like the word “cancer”: just uttering the word makes one worried that you’ve cursed yourself to be plagued by it. So it seems the perception of it is far more troubling, and potentially paralyzing, than any reality behind it. I figure it means that something didn’t go well. Is there fault attached? Perhaps there can be, but perhaps not on some occasions. So how I relate to failure looks to be the bigger factor in the grand scheme of things.

First off, I can see how easily failure can become an identity, and it is a tough one to escape when it comes along. The prevailing view of productivity and success that defines the modern American ideal is one that we’ve observed and been enforced on us since childhood. If we’re not living up to that ideal there must be something seriously wrong and deficient about us. Failure in business, personal, or life issues; any one category is enough to be a major setback. But what if you’ve bumped into all three at once? And when a circumstance like homelessness gets added on top of everything else, suddenly there’s a whole other layer of stereotype to combat.

I’ve written a lot about the identity of homelessness in this whole series. And the worst aspect I can see is how embedded that identity can become. When it is embedded then the danger becomes that we forget that we have choices we can make, such as choosing to sit still and wait or to move forward even if we’re not sure what direction to take. We can make choices to believe in the perceptions surrounding our “failure” or ask deeper questions about who we are, who we want to become, and so on. If we lose sight of these choices then the belief becomes that the identity is permanent. This can be true with any identity involving physical illness, being unlovable, worthless, etc.

Many times as I struggled I couldn’t escape one question that would arise: “Why in the mix of stories being written did mine have to be on the down side? I mean, I’m basically a good person! Right…?” This was the grand paradox for me, the ever-present conundrum: how could I simultaneously be the person that might help or inspire someone and yet be the poster child for what not to do? The story playing out in my life didn’t necessarily match the image I had of who I imagined I wanted to become. This created confusion and that confusion made me second guess myself, or at times ignore myself completely and what my instincts said I needed to do.

One thing that I tried to return to over and over while being un-homed was a simple idea: I am homeless by circumstance and not by identity. Sometimes it was a help to hear, and sometimes I had to pretend that I believed it. Along the way I had to grapple with what was missing in my mind: acceptance of what was happening. At the very least, during this past year of writing, I finally had some realization that the external contexts of my life were just symptomatic to what was within me to work on. On the inside was this struggle for identity, this struggle for acceptance, and trying to come to terms with loss. So more important than the place I was, or wasn’t, living at, was where I was in my personal life. For that was the beginning point in the agonizing process of cleanup.

The sense of loss is much clearer to define than failure. Things come and go outside of your control: important people appear with gifts of their presence only to disappear just as suddenly; our possessions may be lost or taken away by circumstance and feel like a layer of identity has been stripped away like peeling skin; or our ideas are challenged to the very core of our being, making us uncomfortable with some truth we didn’t yet know but that we now find ourselves face-to-face. It’s something no one can escape given a long enough timeline. And of course it’s one of those facts of life that we engage in a futile struggle to avoid.

Just what was my loss? I can’t speak to the detail of circumstances here. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do. But I can say that I became lost living within a world of my own making, a room even, and that room was small. It was built out of walls of denial, powered by the electricity of shame, and locked away by an inability to stand up for myself. All this in spite of having talents in the arts, medicine, business, meditation, mechanics, etc… You have to understand that this inner place is never affected by ability. But it is affected by a lack of, or an inability, to love oneself, or to love another, or to be loved in return. It’s a place totally closed down from the world. And it was in this place that I waited for someone to save me. And when no one appeared, not even myself, that was the source of my loss, my heartbreak.

When I look back at where my life has gone thus far, and it has taken many interesting twists and unknown roads, I see things that I am proud of, and things I feel ashamed to admit. Regrettably, until learning to pull up pride and confidence more, I, like so many of us, moved towards the shame. And it’s painful to admit that I ever gave the shame far too much power, but I see that it was a learned habit. It’s one that forms from out of the flow of stresses in life without having a grasp on the context of those stresses. It starts at a very young age and shapes our way of moving through our experiences with profound or sometimes crippling effect.

This is where I feel I’ve bumped into something truly important: regardless of reinforcement, or a lack thereof, this learned habit was based on perceptions of my life and not necessarily reality. But this notion has come slowly. And it came primarily through opening up to the reality of all the emotions and ideas I had welling up from within me: feelings of pain and loss, pride and vanity, confidence and terror. If I had been suffering loss through a deep sense of being ill at ease based on a perception, how was I really processing these pressures? And if I didn’t relish people treating me through their own perceptions of who I am, how was I feeling after treating myself through perceptions and not some kind of reality check?

When I gave shame and hurtful moments more power to my memories then I remained crippled and locked away in that room. Those became the pattern makers in my life. Staying locked reinforces the sense of loss, because even loving moments are fleeting glimpses of something outside that room. But it takes trust in our instincts to look beyond those walls, to begin to learn to handle loss in healthy ways. It took me a long time to look to my instincts with trust and belief.

To this day those instincts don’t always line up with outside views of things. And when confronted by that misalignment it sometimes takes all the strength I have to not flip out, to not move right back into a habit that I already know and feel isn’t worth it. Some days it feels like resisting a tidal wave and it’s exhausting. Other days it’s just a slow burn in the chest, like charcoal embers still putting off heat. But I know now that allowing the confusion to reign over my mind is just as exhausting, just as burning. The confusion never allows me to rest, whereas the tidal wave eventually subsides, and the embers do go out.

I know perceptions are inescapable, and do help shape our views and understandings. However, I saw that my balance of perception and my roots in reality haven’t always been in line with each other. I have a feeling that perceptions should start to be healthy reinforcements for your life and that acceptance of the gaps that may exist between the ideas of ourselves and the realities around us isn’t so paralyzing. The uncomfortable reaction to that gap is often not much more than a learned habit. But as such, now that I see this aspect more clearly, I start to see that I can choose to change. I finally saw that I was my own savior from a small world. I can’t claim any profound understanding of why this has been the path, or why things played out this way. I haven’t got the foggiest idea other than it just is what I had to work with. But out of this acceptance I have been left with a sense of calm regardless of whether things are going well or not.

And so this has been my story of failure, and the loss- at times a profound loss- that came with it. And it has been how I found within the grief and pain in that loss that I could eventually come to terms with the circumstances. What followed was like a sunrise, but from deepest within me. And it came with a voice that asked: “Are you ready to live again?” I think if you listen closely to yourself, you’ll hear that voice too, and it will patiently ask the same question, every day, every minute. That voice comes from your own heart, from the deepest sense of care you had long before any learned habits tried to displace it. Fortunately, living from within the heart cares not for the time that it takes to heal. The heart only cares that healing does take place. And that has been the secret to my success.

May you be well and always find your own success.

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About the Author

  • Joe Bright
    Joe Bright is a graduate of Iolani School and went on to study art at The Cooper Union School of Art in New York City, and later Chinese medicine at The American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco. Joe currently runs a small acupuncture clinic, Kama’aina Acupuncture in Kapahulu as the first dedicated low-cost “community acupuncture” clinic in Honolulu. Joe has a varied background that has included working as a bicycle mechanic, freelance artist, teaching calligraphy and Tai Chi, a nanny, and even a CEO of a small entrepreneurial company. He continues to create art, even having work recently appear at the Honolulu Academy of Arts as well the Bishop Museum. He also continues with entrepreneurial projects when possible and serves on the Board of Directors for a local Buddhist meditation organization, Vipassana Hawai’i.