For most of the time I lived in London, I worked in hostels with young people. All of them were without a fixed address for some reason or another when they came to us. Some were fleeing violence in their countries of origin, trying to get their status fixed as refugees and asylum-seekers. Some were just coming out of prison, or had just come from care homes (modern-day orphanages for the bigger kids). Some had been rough sleeping, or spending a few days on one couch and a week on another, carrying everything they owned in a backpack now tearing at its seams. As I’ve written before, it’s never not complicated.
At any rate, there we were, staff and young people, under one roof, which was now some sort of abode. For some of them, I know it was terrible. For others, I think it might have been the safest place they’d ever laid their heads at night. Everybody’s experience is different. And all of them were different from one another. There were young men and young women. There were people of all ethnic backgrounds, all religions. And while they all fell into one age category (16-25), let me tell you: there’s a mighty big difference between 16 and 25. About the only thing they had in common was that life had gotten really hard, really early on.
But for all the many differences among the young people living there, there were two more things they shared: the roof over their head, and their postal code. That last one meant a lot of things, but for purposes of this post, it meant that they shared something that affects us all so profoundly: weather.
There are the individual impacts. I’m pretty outspoken about the fact that I suffer from at least mild Seasonal Affective Disorder. The impact of the sun is extraordinary. From the chemical (vitamin D) to the the nutritional (photosynthesis, anyone?) to the ethereal (it’s ascent and descent, the sensation it leaves on our skin, the way its light peers through the leaves of a tree just so), life would not be as it is, life would not be at all, if not for the sun’s light. When there is less of it, we know, not just logically, but emotionally as well.
Too much of it isn’t any good either, mind – there‘s a decent two-sided argument for and against the burqua! Too much sun and we contend with skin cancer; too little and our bones become brittle from a lack of vitamin D. (But that’s another post entirely and I’m not ready to write it yet.)
There are also the communal impacts. In the hostels where I worked, ventilation was poor. Most of the houses were very old, and air did not circulate well within them. While the summer months were short in London, temperatures could climb to the 30s C (high 80s F) outside, which made for unbearable conditions inside. The days were much longer – in late June the sun doesn’t set until 10:00 – so the young people would stay up much later, savoring the long, hot nights on the rare occasions they came to pass.
But adjusting to that weather is tricky, and as is quite often the case with any young people and perhaps especially the downtrodden, their late nights were accompanied by drugs and alcohol, and things could get tense. Even without the party favors, there were days in the height of the summer when the moment I’d walk in the door, there was a sense of something unsettled about the place. Sure enough, before long things would kick off and we’d be dealing with one issue after another, sweating our way through seemingly silly, convoluted conflicts that were sometimes contrived as their only defense against the very big, complicated problems they’d have to face otherwise.
When the gods got it right, though, there was magic in the air. A brisk, sunny winter’s morning, or a warm, late summer sunset could fill everybody with virtually tangible optimism, and just as tension often coursed through the halls of those hostels, so did hope. And so a good day for two was often a good day for ten.
Before my current volunteering gig, I’d never worked with (or even known, really) people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Everything is new for me – everything is a surprise. I’ve seen that very same phenomenon with the weather within these four walls as well: A cold, grey day will find many of them sat staring into the space in front of them, little to say, hardly the hint of a smile on any of their faces. Likewise, when it’s gotten really hot and humid (lourd, they call it here – “heavy”), there’s a communal discomfort and confusion. No one wants to eat their dinner, and everyone seems to think they need to move about, even though the heat is oppressive, even though they’ve got no where to go.
A few days ago, it had been a positively stunning day. One of those days when the sky is extra blue, when the wind blows, but only just, when the temperature is quite as perfect as it ever gets. I’ve come to learn that this temperature is exactly 25 C (77 F), and happens only a few times a year anywhere in the world (except Southern California). I arrived a little in advance, so we didn’t have to sit down to dinner just yet, and everybody was milling about, smiling about everything or anything or nothing, chatting to one another, walking out to the garden or just lazing about in the chairs outside. I was chatting to M. D, who was radiant and joyful, not unlike the rest, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone in the corridor I didn’t recognize.
“Who’s that?” I asked the nurse. She looked at me confused. “It’s Mme. P.” Now it was my turn to be confused. In the 6 weeks or so I’d been coming up to that point, Mme. P had been in a wheelchair, her legs tightly crossed, her arms folded in front of her, her head tucked off to one side and her eyes tightly shut. She never spoke a word. I’m not sure what particular affliction causes it, but her tongue sticks far out of her mouth, to the tip of her chin, and she often gnaws at it with her gums. I would always say hello, but she’d barely look at me for a second before closing her eyes again. I thought I was really more of a nuissance to her than anything else.
But I was so stunned to see her standing, I just had to go over and tell her so. “Good evening! But, look at you! I’m so happy to see you walking!” She beamed at me…at then she spoke! I’d never heard her speak a word before! I’m not sure what she said, but she said a lot. I walked her over to her table and helped her to sit in her chair – a normal chair, not a wheelchair – and later she came over to our table and sat with us for a bit, holding onto my hands tightly and telling me about how sad she was that her mother had died.
For the rest of the week, Mme. P walked and talked, but by the following week she was back to her wheelchair, talking less and only about her dead mother, a subject which usually brings her to tears within a matter of seconds.
Perhaps one of the most difficult things about this disease is how it vacillates so profoundly – so M. D, who I’m tasked with feeding at dinnertime, sometimes eats his soup all by himself, but more often can’t seem to remember how a spoon is held, or how to get it into the bowl. Sometimes he drinks out of his own glass with no help from me, but other times he turns the glass several inches before it reaches his mouth, so that its contents spill into his soup, so that he’s left looking confused, disappointed, and even a little angry.
Still, just like the young people I worked with and the colleagues I worked alongside in London, just like all of us, they are moved collectively by this thing that is bigger than them, than any of us…this thing we refer to as if it’s the most insignificant of all subjects when in point of fact it just might be the most important: the weather.