I have been homeless twice, both times with small children. Both times I had nowhere to live for more than a month, and was offered a roof by friends. Because I had somewhere to go, it didn’t occur to me to think of myself as one of the ‘homeless’. I was just me, in trouble.
Watching a documentary on homelessness many years later, I realised that I had indeed been ‘homeless’. I felt a physical shock, as I have every time my life has suddenly fitted into a category. There is a violence in being named, as if suddenly your own experience transforms its nature.
It can be deeply disorientating when, in the midst of misfortune, you find your life categorised in official language. At its worst, it can be as if that category – ‘homeless single mother’, say – becomes the whole of who you are, the primary description that blots out all others. You can become an object in your own eyes. You can begin to know yourself in ways that then determine who you become, not only to others but also to yourself.
I was not homeless; I was temporarily without a home.
A name is a spell. If someone names you, it can be a collar that fits over you, and it can lead you into a different reality, one in which you might disappear. Every witch knows this.
My first experience of homelessness came suddenly. I was in bed fighting a severe bout of gastric flu when two policemen knocked on my door and informed me that I had to get out so they could change the locks. I was so stunned that I laughed. My rent was late. There were lots of reasons for this, but the main one was that I was supporting and caring for three people: my baby, my toddler and my mentally ill sister. There wasn’t enough money and the bills built up, and I couldn’t earn enough to pay them.
I had to get all my stuff out the following day. I found a pair of Chilean removalists in the phone book – brothers, I think – who observed that I had a lot of books. On hearing that I was a writer, they asked me if I had heard of Pablo Neruda. Yes. Yes, I had. I loved Pablo Neruda. I pulled out one of my books and showed them. They smiled, and quoted his poems in Spanish.
It took so long to pack everything that by the time we finished, it was too late to leave my furniture at the storage depot. My Chilean friends offered their garage. A month or so later, when I had found a house, they turned up smiling and installed me into my new life. They charged me very little for the storage, because they knew I had almost no money. It never occurred to me not to trust them.
Life – every life – is complex. My life was full of children and poetry and desire and discovery and failure and pain and moments of such astonishing plenitude that I had to stop and catch my breath. There was beauty and hardship, and they were wound inextricably together. I knew then that it was not for someone else to name my experience. It was not for another person to take away the agency of my choices and mischoices, nor to erase the dignity of my struggle. I wasn’t a ‘bad mother’, I wasn’t a ‘whore’, I wasn’t a ‘muse’, I wasn’t a ‘victim’. I wasn’t any of the names that were given to me. I was me.
It is useful to recognise one’s own situation as part of a larger reality. It is important to know the larger social and economic patterns that influence our individual situations, if there is to be any hope of understanding how to deal with them. What is dispiriting is how those broader categorisations can be used to blur the particularities of experience and to make people invisible.
I discovered that there is a great difference between adjectives and nouns. An adjective is partial and arguable; a noun claims a whole reality. It is well to be wary of names.
A name is a spell. A name can be a mask that is jammed over your face. If you are not wary, you can become whatever a careless name predicts: stupid, violent, without hope, without love. All that is possible within you can be choked by the limitations of that name. Every witch knows this.
Twice, a couple of decades ago, I was one of the estimated one in 200 people in Australia who, on any given night, are without a home. Of these, 44 per cent are female and 17 per cent are children. I was a statistic. But like everyone else, I was more than a category, more than a number. I was like every other person who exists in the corner of the world’s eye – present but unseen, a spectre in the crevices of society.
I had my own name and my own story, and I wrote it down for myself, late at night when the children were asleep. I was luckier than many. I was a witch, and I knew what names can do.