There is a story I read in Rosemary Sullivan’s Shadow Maker. It is a biography of the Canadian, and particularly Torontonian, poet Gwendolyn MacEwen. Towards the end of Gwendolyn’s life she approached a bank for a loan which, unfortunately, she was refused. In a fit of rage she apparently stormed back to her apartment, picked up all the books she had ever written, or ever written in–including those given awards by the Canadian government and literary societies–threw them down on the teller counter, and proclaimed that she made all of these books and that she just wanted her money.
There is, of course, a lot more behind this story such as Gwendolyn’s ultimately fatal alcoholism, the fact that she only had her sporadic university teaching salary and reading profits to live off, the job opportunities she was denied because she never matriculated out of high school, and always having to deal with the stigma of being a female writer and creator and fighting for recognition from the fifties to the late eighties, or even the argument that Canada didn’t value the arts and its poets nearly as much as it should. There is an entire book or two speculating and detailing all of these things.
I am also, obviously, not Gwendolyn MacEwen. I am not an alcoholic, I graduated from a Master’s Program, and I do not claim to have created any works coming anywhere near close to Gwendolyn’s but I have been unemployed for quite some time and, as such, I am on Ontario Works: a Provincial job search form of welfare. I’ve also mentioned that I suffer from situational depression. In retrospect I’ve probably had this for quite some time but it’s only in unemployment and the struggle to keep writing that I came to really call it what it is.
Systems are not perfect: especially bureaucracies. Bureaucracies and many of them do have some really good workers that attempt to help people to the best of their ability, are systems that function in quantitative ways. They want numbers written, blocks marked out, NIL scratched down in key squares: with “concrete evidence” or “statistical proof” of some sort before they will begin to help you. Coming from an academic background myself, I’m unfortunately no stranger to the bureaucracies of academia or even OSAP loans, but it becomes very clear when you leave those places and go into “the working world” that you are in a different place where quantifiable data is given more precedence over quality.
When I first came into Ontario Works, I was presented with a work sheet–a long letter-sized piece of paper–that I had to fill out once a month: to show how many jobs for which I actively searched. They have an initial section where they ask whether you’ve attended classes at school, or gone to a job search seminar, or gotten a job, and if so what are they and such. And then on the other side is the very long lined list of jobs you looked and applied for and, below that, is an additional comments section.
And for all that space and everything I had to fill in, that was it: just one small space for additional comments.
That is the mode of reality that I had to deal with for a very long time. And I won’t lie: it was depressing. It was made all the more frustrating by the fact that I knew this sheet didn’t even exist in the Toronto welfare system: that it had been considered an anachronism and was actually made obsolete. In the program that I had been under, had I not been so depressed and had to move back to Thornhill, I would have actually gotten paid for volunteer work while looking for a job. To go from that model to the one I found myself in was galling and it just rubbed the salt into my wounds even further.
For the work that I do, and make no mistake I do work, the jobs I can apply for with the skills and interests that I have are limited. As someone who is an extreme introvert and has social anxiety issues, along with tension headaches, stomach issues, and learning disabilities with regards to mathematics, retail jobs are not an option for me. I also know that if I work some job I don’t like, I will simply not do well in it because, frankly, I just don’t care.
And then there is the stigma of that to consider. People on welfare often feel like, if they aren’t flat-out told, that they are lazy and that they should accept any old job because, frankly, they are lazy. Thankfully, my counsellors at Ontario Works are not the people who communicate this sentiment and have, with what resources they have, actually tried to talk me through and help me with this.
But then there is that other critic.
I’m not talking about my friends who I, up until now, haven’t even told I’m on welfare, or my family that sometimes wonder what I’m actually doing about this, or all the people–anonymous or otherwise–that have their own opinions on the matter on the Internet. No. I’m talking about me. I have to catch myself and be careful to remember not to impose what I think the system’s view of me is over who I really am. Because I am often tempted to think that the system, society or what not, views me as that stereotype: a lazy, free-loading unemployed shut-in bum that has done nothing worthwhile with his life while quite a few of his friends have jobs and families and should just “suck it up” (a phrase I find utterly infuriating) and do something that I hate for the greater good.
And then to remember that I was once a student that had very high marks in my classes, the respect of many of my teachers, who was always told that I wrote well and who believed that academia would take care of someone like me from cradle to grave only to have to compare it to my current reality of living at home again, in debt, and in this living situation…
It’s that nice litmus test between anger at the world and anger at myself.
But one day, something happened. It was around the same time I was doing my best to fill out those worksheets. I realized that I could talk about the things that I was, in fact, doing that didn’t seem to apply to the criteria on the sheet. Of course, there was very little space and my handwriting got cramped and bad as per usual. So I began typing out my additional comments. In fact I made a whole section called Additional Comments.
Over time, and through a succession of workers, my Additional Comments varied but mostly got longer in description. For the past year or so, I have been telling Ontario Works about the conventions I’ve attended, the networking I’ve been doing, the writing I’ve undertaken, and the recommendations and praise that I have received. I have even told them about this very Blog: this Mythic Bios of mine.
Because, unlike the stereotype of the unemployed lazy bum, I have been writing. I have been writing almost every day. I write until it is late at night to the point of there actually being sunlight. I write until I rhyme. Sometimes I can get myself to go out and network with important people: to have them remember my name and know me. I made a whole lot of business cards for that very purpose. I made a Patreon account. I have looked over and edited other people’s works. I have made friendships and relationships during this period.
And even though I have not been paid yet, I must reiterate that I work. Some people clock out for the day. I clock out when my head feels like wool and I can’t concentrate any more. I read, research, write, edit, and attempt to maintain my own schedule. I am not useless. I have made more things than most people can dream of and one day, I hope to profit from all of these endeavours.
And perhaps it’s not that important. Even though my current worker has started calling my Additional Comments my Reports and knows that I am genuinely attempting to earn money from the places where I’m at now and I no longer have to use those worksheets–all now regulated to NIL–due to my disabilities and my therapist’s evaluation of me, perhaps the system doesn’t give a damn about my efforts beyond statistics. Maybe no one cares about anything I do if there are no crisp dollar bills next to my words.
But you see that’s the thing: I care.
Every time my worker sees my Reports, every time my parents glance at them, every time I have the excuse and the medium to write about all the achievements and contacts I’ve garnered it is a victory for me. It is me, to myself, proving that I’m earning my money, that I’m actually doing something and there is meaning in all of it.
It may mean nothing to anyone else. It may not even help me. But it means something to me. When I write these, it is just another way of saying “Look at me world. This is what I’m doing. This is what I’ve done. This is what I’ll be.”
Originally, I wasn’t even going to write about this. I had a review I promised Anthony Martignetti and I had a good Monday when Elfquest retweeted and Shared my article When I Recognized Elfquest. I wanted to talk about welfare and money after it was all over: after my loans were paid off, after no longer needing Ontario Works and beginning to function as an independent force again in my own right. But I am just tired of feeling shame and fear. I just wanted to tell all of you, more or less, what is going on and what all of this means to me. Realistically speaking, I will need help for quite some time and I know there are others out there like me, who fear waking up, who feel that sick pit of dread in their stomach whenever they have to pick up that phone, who despises dealing with bureaucracy and puts it off as long as they can, who have to fight against that feeling of futility, who wishes they had help and who–ultimately–need to read this.
One day, you will not be in this situation any more. You only needed help to get to your next destination and there is no shame in that. All of this will just become another story to tell your friends, your loved ones, and yourself: to remind you of where you were, and how far you have come.
On August 27, 1987 the mythopoeic creator Gwendolyn MacEwen, who should have been the Poet Laureate of Toronto, if not all of Canada itself, slammed her books down on a counter and said, “I did this. Now give me my money.” I’d like to think that, when she did that, she was really throwing her works against her Black Tunnel Wall: on that last work she never finished and what metaphors it might have represented.
And every month, because I can never forget, I write on my own Black Tunnel Wall, covering it with words, one Report at a time.
Also, this is my Patreon Page. If you have the funds, or the interest, and you want to see what I can really do as a writer, please support me. You can also access it on my About Page. Thank you.