Covid-19 fell upon us in March. We were forced to lock down. I received some wise advice: ‘Use this time as a gift.’ Interesting, albeit unexpected, questions emerged from these six words, entrusted for my idiosyncratic interpretation: just what is this concept called ‘time?’ An illusionary construct? A finite resource? I asked myself what I consider a ‘gift’ these days?
On the face of it, this directive seemed, to me at least, an effortless exercise. I would simply immerse myself in the normal activities in which I already invest a great deal of time – learning in its various forms; researching; reading; writing and collaborating, in short, responsibilities required by my profession, and through which I feel very fortunate. Yet, I asked myself, were these efforts adequate? Was I cheapening the opportunity to reflect? This was, after all, in my lifetime, an unprecedented pandemic.
After much rumination, I was relieved and thankful to see a partial resolution arise from the juxtaposition of ‘time’ and ‘gift.’ Settling upon an idea which emerged naturally several days later, I could apply the concept of ‘time’, a resource, and ‘gift’, a contribution, with a refined depth of authenticity. At least, this was my aim: to understand the life histories and stories of external others; in essence, to understand what made life meaningful through their eyes.
I chose to document, as much as my conscious mind would allow and my experiences enable, my moment to moment feelings, thoughts, actions and reflections. It was clear that something important was shared through each encounter. Yet, as I read over my notes, at times, my thinking embodied over-generalisations, over-simplifications and, at the other extreme, thinking that went too far: over-theorising, over-intellectualising, in order to make sense of my encounters and the meaning others attributed to their life stories.
It was also I who cut stories short of their intrinsic value – not through dialogue, but through my own in situ or retrospective thoughts about their stories. In other words, perceiving and interpreting only partially what was on offer, not the entirety of what their story really meant to them. My writing further mirrored to me another significant insight. When my mind was immersed in daily hassles – mostly of my own choosing – I lacked a degree of responsiveness. The Covid-19 lock down reduced the long commutes, the fast-paced rhythms of life.
Many of these encounters showed people’s concerns about the blurring of home and work boundaries. Others were forced to manage interesting challenges, one example - homeschooling three boys under ten as a single parent while managing expectations in a new job. As one person put it: ‘This is my eternal hell.’ Pleasantly, positive outcomes of lock down also emerged. On the good side of the great Corona divide, some lucky individuals seized the opportunity to start new projects or embark upon creative pursuits. Others utilised lock down to further enrich relationships with family members, dream up new careers or read unexplored, diverse genres. Overall, most seemed to enjoy the slower pace. The facts of life prior to, and during, Covid-19 appeared to offer some renewed perspectives on what it meant to lead a meaningful life and all the excitement that comes with the journey of conjuring up new adventures.
However, pleasant stories of the utopian kind did not reflect the experiences of all those whom I encountered. Let me introduce Mark*: a homeless, middle-aged white man living in the nooks and crannies of North Sydney’s business district. Somehow, Mark’s life story made its way to me. We began to talk.
Here is Mark’s story:
I initially walked passed Mark. Yet, moments later, I felt that I had a duty to be responsive to him – a responsibility to return and provide help in whatever form the circumstances would allow. This time, monetary help was not enough. It is a well know fact that giving money to the poor is not a sustainable solution for reducing poverty.
Mark did not look up to see that someone was approaching, seeming somewhat comforted by his empty wine bottles, holding one, it appeared he had just consumed, in his right hand. ‘Have you had anything to eat today?’ ‘I haven’t eaten since midday.’ ‘Would you like me to buy you something to eat?’ ‘Yes, just a little sandwich if that is ok?’ A modest request for a man who apparently possessed very little. ‘Sure, wait here, and I’ll bring you something. I’ll be back in 10 minutes.’ How was it that Mark was living on the streets of the lower North Shore, an affluent socio-economic area of Sydney? What circumstances led to Mark’s state of homelessness? Did he have a family? Did he once have a job? In essence, why did this happen to Mark? And was it by choice?
It was cold, and Mark didn’t appear to be warm enough to get through the night. What warmth or comfort could a concrete slab provide, particularly on the Pacific Highway? Arriving with two bags of various foods: an assortment of breads, fruits, vegetables, two large bottles of water, snack bars, chocolate and the sandwich he requested, Mark seemed to be in his own world. He was whispering something to himself. Given Mark's facial expressions, it appeared this was an important and rather complex intra-personal conversation. An external other should think twice before interrupting. Mark looked up and took hold of the grocery bags. He temporarily paused, with a contemplative stare, seemingly processing something important, perhaps a distant memory? Moments later, Mark then began to scan the contents within each bag.
It seemed that Mark may have been suspicious at the outset, but he allowed our dialogue to continue: ‘I’ve been ou' here, on the stree', for over a year.’ ‘I have a frien' in the buildin', he lets me stay around here, so yeah, I stay around here.’ ‘If I am not around here, I am up there,’ Mark was pointing toward Walker Street, a busy street perpendicular to the Pacific Highway. Mark arranged then rearranged the items in the grocery bags, but would not go as far as to select an item to eat. Perhaps Mark couldn’t choose? Would Mark’s palate reject the taste of healthy fruits and veggies? Would they be a shock to his digestive system – accustomed mostly to his routine consumption of booze and smokes? Would Mark choose the carrot sticks over the chocolate? What did Mark’s body crave? His choice, in any case!
Mark actually lost his job before the pandemic hit. I had previously learned, by reading over my notes, that it would be at precisely this point that my over-generalised thoughts might form. Suspending thoughts and persisting with the conversation, it was only retrospectively that I considered that maybe Mark didn’t want to share such personal insights with a complete stranger? Perhaps Mark wanted to be left alone? Did Mark feel uncomfortable because of the disparities of privilege? I had learned, through my work, research and through personal experience, that disparities of this sort can make those less privileged divulge personal information without wanting to. And, who was I to provide an empathetic ear, when I personally have not battled homelessness? In essence, I was critical of the degree to which Mark considered our dialogue worthwhile. Yet, here I was, asking, and here Mark was, answering.
‘Yeah, before I lived ou' here, I worked as a security officer.’ ‘There's a legal matter, it’s goin' on.’ ‘Yeah, a legal matter, it’s still on, goin' on, it wasn’t my fault though.’ A legal dispute drove Mark to live on the streets – he couldn’t afford the legal fees. Mark didn’t want to elaborate on the legalities of the matter. After some time, my sensibilities suggested that Mark appreciated the opportunity to talk. Sitting next to him, listening to his story, his endless challenges, his misfortunes. Mark looked apathetic and somewhat defeated. There was much more to Mark and his circumstances, however, to the best of my knowledge and to the extent that I understood him, Mark ended up a homeless man through no fault of his own. Who was I to say otherwise?
Staring blankly at his feet, Mark struggled to look up. As Mark listened to his very own story, it appeared his heart and mind were experiencing a disordered mixture of feelings - powerlessness, apathy and shame.
Mark’s fingertips were black, his round bloated belly uncovered, his pants ripped and his shoes frayed. ‘Life is hard on the stree', people harass me. Treat me badly, but I try and give it back, I try to defen' myself. I don’t deserve to live like this.’
Eventually, it was time for me to leave. Mark finally looked at me, his head raised a little, enough for his dull blue eyes to meet mine as we said goodbye. ‘Thank you, what you did for me is very kind.’
Mark’s story totally consumed my thoughts. Feeling compelled to make some sense of Mark, the meaning he attributed to his life, I realised I simply could not make an interim interpretation: the data, the facts, were too thin. However, I did realise that I had had to suppress my own interests for a while, to be able to answer Mark’s unspoken call for help.
A couple of days later, observing from a distance, it appeared Mark was wearing a clean shirt and what looked like new pants and sneakers. Was this Mark? Metres away, however, spotting the familiar shopping trolley that carried his life’s belongings, it was in fact Mark, with what appeared to be a slightly renegotiated sense of pride.
Mark was slowly devouring the sweet flavoured popcorn he had found in one of the two grocery bags he received a couple of days earlier. He seemed to be savouring the taste. 'How are you Mark?'. ‘I’m doin' ok, I know I shouldn’t be livin' like this, I am goin' to see what I can do abou' it.’ Whether Mark aimed to impress me or to validate my efforts in trying to help, one will never know. However, Mark looked a little different. There was a noticeable change in Mark's demeanour. He even half smiled. I haven’t seen Mark since; could our conversation have had an impact? I couldn’t assume so, but I had hoped so.
I consulted my notes again and contemplated that it was by recording the little details of my everyday interpersonal experiences and the underlying vulnerabilities – mine and theirs – held within each encounter that the advice I was given several months earlier had taken on a new meaning: ‘time’ is the ‘gift.’
And so the facts of life come back, full circle, to the concepts of ‘time’ and ‘gift.’ For the lucky ones, it seems, time is the gift – for imagining, planning, making inroads and fulfilling life goals, alone or with others. For people like Mark, to the extent that I understand life as a homeless person gained through my interactions with them, ‘time’ can result in dreadful experiences and be anxiety provoking in all its forms: ruminating thoughts - melancholic, manic or otherwise, sourcing food or shelter, staying safe, or taking any opportunity to preserve self-dignity.
What more can we do, individually, or together, around issues of homelessness - for those who find themselves on the unlucky side of the great Corona divide?
What does ‘time’ and ‘gift’ mean for you?
About the author
T.A. Kiaos Ph.D (c) is an Organisational Anthropologist specialising in critical ethnographic research methods. T.A. Kiaos' research spans several interconnected topics: the underlying systems of cultural and sub-cultural meaning, managerial ideology and normative control, with a particularly strong focus on how these interconnected phenomena affect marginal cohorts in the workplace.