December 31, 2015 Gratitude

As I sit here on my couch, watching the sunset, I'm filled with gratitude for the countless experiences, opportunities, connections and memories that the last two years are filled with. They've all truly been gifted to me.

Since starting this project, my life has shifted, dramatically. I might be sitting on the same comfortable spot on my couch now, but every thing else is different.

In sharing the personal stories of others, I've become more compassionate, stronger, kinder and more determined. It only took one gentle action to create change. I'm learning to listen, to care and to have more empathy, in all deeds. I look to make informed decisions, and to accept the responsibility that being 'aware' carries.

I don't want to be just another person passing by in life. I'm inspired by the community, strong and heart-centered, that has grown around TSP2014. I've made friends, some for as long as the conversation lasted, and some others for life, and I am blessed with all of this. I give thanks. For all the comments, the likes, the messages and shares that whirl around - I'm amazed, humbled and feel more connected than ever. This community that we are, right here.

Really, that's what it's all about, right? Connections. The intimate, the professional, the familial. The chosen family and our connections with them, those that we carry in our hearts. We feel loved, cared for, understood, encouraged and supported in our community.

Two years ago tomorrow, I felt more disconnected than I had ever felt. I opened the door, and walked outside, determined to find something. My way? Who knows. There's no destination. I'm on the right path though. I know this in my heart.

I wish you love, support, happiness, health and connection in 2016. I wish you a wonderful Happy New Year! Let's start a movement. Speak your dreams out loud. What will your ripple be? #notastranger #BIGthings2016

December 30, 2015 - Oliver

December 30, 2015 - Oliver

Since starting this project at the beginning of 2014, I’ ve met hundreds of people. It seems like I started this a lifetime ago, some days. Out of the hundreds of strangers I've approached, Oliver was definitely a unique experience. On November 06th, I was presenting a talk at Interesting Vancouver 2015, an event that highlights interesting people doing interesting things here in Vancouver. Rather than just talk about The Stranger Project, I decided to demonstrate, as best I could, what my meeting a stranger looked like. I asked for a volunteer from the audience. Oliver didn’t miss a beat, his hand going straight up in the air with great intention. I couldn't ignore him!

I’ve chatted with strangers before on camera for news stories. I did a few interviews for the KGP Films documentary, ‘Not A Stranger’ as well. However, I’ve never attempted to delve into someone’s personal story in front of an audience of 350 people before.

Oliver was extremely charming and so willing to share his story. We got into a nice conversation, however, as I was also emceeing the event, I had to keep to a time limit. The intent was to show that the conversations I have with strangers have no secret formula. There's nothing unorthodox, and nothing that would be a barrier for others wanting to engage and connect within our community. We were still able to have a connected conversation, on stage with hundreds listening in.

I met with Oliver again, two weeks later, for coffee. I wanted a chance to get into a more relaxed conversation and just chat, without the microphone. And without a seven minute time limit! I was amazed to learn that Oliver had come to the Interesting Vancouver event by himself. I think it shows a certain amount of bravery to attend events alone. I do admit to enjoying going to the movies by myself. I was astounded to discover that Oliver lives and works in Coquitlam, and had no hesitation to meet with me. Oliver even suggested we meet at a coffee shop that was much closer to my house than his. A truly generous soul!

Born in Toronto, Ontario, Oliver’s family moved to Maple Ridge when he was not quite a year old. “I have one sister, she’s almost four years older than I am. We got along as kids, I guess. She used me as her play thing. She used to dress me up as a girl when I was little,” he said, smiling shyly. “My parents thought it was funny. She kinda was a bully. We’d be out for a walk and there’s a lot of dyes in Maple Ridge, and she’d push me off the dyke and laugh. We’re best friends, now,” he said, with an beaming smile.

Oliver remembers his father giving him some concerned, fatherly advice. It was when he was going from elementary school, into high school. “He told me to speak up for myself. I think he thought it might be tough for me, but I survived okay,” he said. Art was his favourite subject in school. “I’ve always liked comics, since an early age. My father had an extensive comic collection.” From an early age, Oliver would spend time drawing and creating his own comics.

“My Dad was an actor and I decided to go into acting, when I was in high-school,” he said. We spoke a little bit about his father’s career. His father was a successful film actor, appearing in both ‘Legends of the Fall,’ and ‘The Watchmen.’ He has since become an English teacher. “I did the acting thing for a couple years, but I decided to go from acting to the arts. When I went to university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he told me.

“I didn’t have a gap year or anything. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a break, but I went right to university.” Oliver went to Simon Fraser University (SFU), in Metro Vancouver. Oliver took graphic design, and got his Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts.

“With my father being successful, I acknowledge that I was very fortunate to have my education paid for. I knew that I was lucky, and never took it for granted,” he said. “My Dad and I also talked about the ‘school of life’ and the importance of that. I took five years to get my degree, and whether or not I found work in that field, what I had learned throughout the experience was important.” It is clear that Oliver has a high regard and deep fondness for his family.

Immediately upon graduating, Oliver took the first job he could, working in a grocery store. “Sure I had a degree, but there wasn’t much design work to be found, and I had to work,” he said. “I started doing some volunteer work for the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. At that time it was really the only way to get involved.” From his volunteer work, he went on to became their Gallery Representative.

With his passion for comics still strong, Oliver devotes some of his time as board President of Cloudscape Comics. They're a collective dedicated to ‘developing meaningful community amongst all people who like, love, read, draw, write, edit, letter, ink, and create comics.’ When not working with comics, Oliver spends his time working in the arts, programming shows and exhibits for a civic space.

It’s been about six weeks since I had coffee with Oliver. I’ve had this story (plus one other) in my head ever since. I don’t take notes during these conversations; I don’t want the writing be a distraction during our chat. I did, in this case, make some bullet-point notes about four days after speaking with Oliver - I wouldn’t want to get to a place where I don’t remember any of our chat.

What I’ve learned is not to leave it so long between chat and writing. More importantly, I learned yet again, it doesn’t matter where I am, or what I’m doing, there are interesting, kind, creative, caring, friendly, thoughtful and outgoing people, all around.

As another year draws to a close, I’m reflective both personally and with regards to TSP2014. It’s often difficult to now separate myself from this project. It’s a part of me. I’ve grown because of this. I’ve grown through this. I have no intention of stopping either. #notastranger #BIGthings2016

Vancouver Short Film Festival

It's official! The Canadian Premiere of KGP Films documentary 'Not A Stranger' will be at the Vancity Theatre on Seymour St., Vancouver, on January 30th, 2016! 8:30pm - tickets on sale NOW! ‪#‎notastranger‬

"Not a Stranger is the story of one man’s pursuit of real world human connection for 365 days, while asking the question can talking to strangers actually make you happy? Through interviews and honest conversations we are catapulted into the lives of complete strangers through the courage of one, and the results are life changing."

NOTE: Be sure to select 'Sat Jan 30th' and then the category 'Pursuit of Identity' for VSFF ticket purchases! http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2475712

December 07, 2015 - Alex (an update)

December 07, 2015 Alex (an update)

I always feel fortunate running into Alex as I go about my day. I've written about our conversations a few times now. Alex is one of the funniest, most gregarious and outgoing #notastranger's that I've met. He loves telling jokes.

Tonight as I was walking home from the grocery store, I saw Alex walking towards me. He was carrying a fast-food pop container in one hand. It was dark and at first Alex didn't recognize me. He peered a little closer, and said "Oh hey!" I still politely reminded him of our conversations, and my name. He told him he knew all that, and I don't doubt him.

I've always appreciated the honesty that strangers present when sharing their stories with me. Alex is no different. He has told me about being an alcoholic, all the while holding down a job in camera repairs for 20-odd years. He lost his job when digital technology shrank the industry of real cameras. In turn, he lost his apartment of almost twenty years. His life turned around.

Alex has been happy and for the most part, content, living on the street. He would spend his days binning. He had a regular route. Regular folk that left their empties specifically for him. He built friendships with those he saw regularly, the same way he has with me. With his humour, good nature and sincerity.

I guess it's been quite a few months since I last saw Alex. "Oh, I'm doing okay. Well no, I'm not really. Things are slipping, and it's going downward," he said, gesturing with one hand, lowering it toward the sidewalk. "I was better when I lived on the street. I was healthier, happier and felt better too. I slept at night," he said.

Alex got into a 'temporary' housing shelter. It's essentially a halfway house for people looking to turn their lives around. It was supposed to be a transition for Alex from the street, to this temporary accommodation, then to a permanent housing solution for Alex. That was eighteen months ago. "The place I'm still in, isn't good for me. I rest, but I don't sleep. There's so much noise there, and drugs, and alcohol and fights. It's a nightmare. I don't want to risk moving to another shelter and being surrounded by a bunch of kids on top of all these things. I was better on the street," he said, slowly shaking his head. His aim is to hold on where he is, in the hopes that things will happen sooner, now that he has waited so long.

"It's really been worse for me staying there. I'm not out binning anymore, so I'm not getting that exercise. Even if I did, The way things are now on East Hastings, I don't have anywhere to go to sell the things I've always found in binning. The say they've cleaned it up. They moved everyone into a fenced, vacant lot between two buildings, and there's no room for everyone. It's like being in a jail," he told me.

Whenever I share stories about people I've chatted with, who are homeless, people send good wishes to that person. The kindness, compassion and care from those reading these stories, always touches me. Yet, I'm also keenly aware that for most people, the bar is set at having a 'home.' It doesn't seem that living on the street would be an option, let alone one that someone would choose, willingly.

I asked Alex if, looking back, he would still prefer to live on the street. "Most of the time, yeah, I would. I only went here because I was told it would be a few weeks before I'd get a room to myself," he said. We chatted about society's determination that people have to live in houses to be happy. "I'm not a guy that wants to have to fit in. I'm not a conformer. I want to make people laugh. That's all I want. I like to see people smiling!"

Of course I asked if I could take picture of Alex and post an update. He seemed a bit hesitant, and I told him he could say no. He asked if I would buy him a beer. I don't usually have cash on me, and I almost never give money on the street. I told him I wouldn't be buying him any beer, but I would buy him something to eat if he wanted. "Nah," he said. "I'm okay. Would you like this pop?" My phone was full (note to self. Again.), so I couldn't take a photo of us. I asked Alex if I could use one of the photos I had of him from a previous chance encounter with him. He was fine with that. "What happened to the two peanuts walking down the street?" asked Alex, always with a joke at the ready. "One was a-salted!"

We said our goodbyes. As I walked towards home, I thought about how my perspectives have shifted, since starting TSP2014. While living on-the-street homelessness is not a situation that I'd thrive in, nor even want to experience, who am I to judge? Why wish for someone a home, if that's not what they desire.

Do we have to think less of a person because they live their life differently than us? I was homeless myself, about twenty years ago, at the height of my alcoholic drinking days. However, I never had to sleep on the street. I couch-surfed for months.

While that was a low for me personally, I recognize that my experience is mine. Being 'homeless' might be a choice someone makes. I have no right to judge others for their choices in these situations. By reaching out and connecting with people, without any judgment, we can all make a difference. In doing this, I've also changed my perspective, and my life. #notastranger