Between 2005 and last year, Linda Ross Swanson began making regular trips to Backspace in Old Town. But she wasn’t going there for a cup of coffee or to see live music. Instead, she went there to listen to stories of despair, grit and redemption from Portlanders who’ve struggled with poverty and addiction before getting on the road to recovery. Swanson used the material for “Wisdom Under the Bridge: The Prophets from Skid Row.”
The book includes the stories of 12 individuals who have overcome addiction and street life to become sober and productive people. The stories are presented as oral histories and take on stream-of-consciousness-like qualities, which Swanson used to capture each prophet’s voice and narrative. Swanson, a private grief counselor who serves as an associate sister at the Holy Names Sisters Foundation, hopes that telling the stories of how these individuals overcame adversity will provide lessons to others, while also challenging readers’ perceptions of the homeless.
Jake Thomas: The stories in the book are meant to be similar to or modeled after “ethical wills” or “wisdom wills.” I was hoping you could talk a little bit about how you discovered wisdom wills and why you wanted to use this format.
Linda Ross Swanson: Well, in 2005, I got my master’s degree in applied theology at Marylhurst University. It’s an inter-faith program, and one of the exercises in one of our classes was to do a ritual from one of the major religions. I came across the Jewish tradition of an ethical will, which dates back to biblical times when Jacob gathered his 12 sons around his death bed and bequeathed his blessing and his wisdom and his instructions.
It was an oral tradition for centuries, and when writing became popular people began writing these and they were like last letters passing your wisdom onto the next generation. I didn’t like the name “ethical will” because I didn’t like the connotation. So I trademarked the name “wisdom will.”
I had thought about putting a book together using them even when I was still in school. I thought, we don’t learn from sheltered lives; we learn from adversity, so who has the most adversity? Certainly people who live on the streets or people who have lived on the streets.
I’m a recovering alcoholic for 25 years. I had two brothers who were alcoholic, both homeless. One of them lived in the Mark Hatfield for a while after he got sober. He’s only been sober about a dozen years. But both these brothers lived on and off the street most of their adult lives. So I found the downtown chapel, which is Saint André Bessette Catholic, and I started going to church there, and I met three recovering heroin addicts and they were all housed and giving back to society. They were working and volunteering. So that’s where I got those three. Then the other folks I found through Sisters of the Road Cafe, and a fellow I met through Central City Concern who works there.
J.T.: How did you go about building a rapport with the people you interviewed?
L.R.S.: It was easy. “Hi, my name is Linda. I’m a recovering alcoholic. Would you like to be interviewed for a book telling me your story?”
As soon as I say who I am and what I’m doing and I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I had brothers who lived on the streets, it levels the playing field. We know each other. People in recovery know each other. As soon as you meet each other, the boundaries disappear. That’s true for everyone in recovery pretty much, no matter what your social status is. People pretty much open their mind.
J.T.: What sort of wisdom did you find under the bridge?
L.R.S.: First of all, people can change. The people in the book are the hardest-core addicts and alcoholics you can imagine. They were in and out of jail and in and out of recovery. Everyone had given up on them, including themselves. But somehow by the grace of God they got sober. Some of them had been in treatment centers 13 times. A couple of people in there were helped by the mentor program through Central City Concern.
So it’s pretty obvious that if these people can change their lives, anybody can. No matter what. And so many of them had traumas that you wouldn’t believe. Mary’s mother and brother were murdered and she found their bodies. Every single one of them is grateful for every single day they have. Every single one of them wants to give back. Every single one of them believes in a higher power of some sort. They’ve found happiness in the most minute ways. We take so much for granted.
In one of the stories, there’s Mary Sue Rich who is spiritual director at the Mcdonald Center right behind The Downtown Chapel. It’s an assisted-living facility for poverty-level folks. She made friends with this guy from Haiti, and he was severely mentally ill, and one day he invited her into his room and he was just beaming, and he had something in his hand, and he just couldn’t wait to give it to her. So he made her pick which hand and finally she picked and there was a $20 bill in his hand, and he said, “Look, my sister gave me this for my birthday, and I want to give it to you so you can give it to other people that need help on the streets. That’s what I want to do with it.” And she said, “Oh, but your sister gave you that for your birthday. I’m sure she wants to buy something nice for you.” And he said, “Look, and he opened his closet, and said, look at all my clothes.” And he had one t-shirt and one cotton shirt, a pair of jeans, a couple of pairs of socks. And he popped open his cupboard, and said, “Look at all the food I have.” And he had three cans of soup. “I have so much,” he said. All of them want to give back. When you start to rise you really realize what’s important — it’s people, it’s relationships, it’s the moments. They can teach us so much about gratitude and the preciousness of the moment and having good health and making amends.
J.T.: Were there any stories that really stuck with you?
L.R.S.: Many of them. I dedicated the book to a man named Glasker Rankin. Everybody was anonymous expect Glasker, and that’s because he asked me not to make him anonymous. I met him through Sisters of the Road.
He was really excited about doing a wisdom will because he didn’t have much money. And he wanted to give this as a gift to his sister and his nephew. It was going to be his Christmas gift. And I took it back to him, and it ended up being on his 50th birthday. So then in December he gave her his wisdom will. Then in February, I found myself in a little church in Northeast Portland at his funeral. He had died unexpectedly. He was 50 years old, and I didn’t know he had anything wrong with him.
(Sisters of the Road Executive Director) Monica Beemer, while he was dying, put his wisdom will up on the wall in his ICU unit, so that the doctors and the nurses and the patients and visitors could read his wisdom will so that they knew he was in that bed. And at the funeral, the minister read from his wisdom will as well. I was so proud of him doing that because you know there’s a memory of him that will live on forever in the community and in his family. It’s a way of assuaging the pain of losing someone. You have something tangible, it becomes a talisman. I think you owe it to your family to leave something like that. It covers what life meant to you so far, what got you through the hard times, what you value, who you love and why, how you want to be remembered.
I dedicated the book to him because it was one of the first ones I did and he died. He had been clean and sober three years when I met him, and he wanted to be remembered as someone who was clean and sober for a reasonable amount of time before he died.
J.T.: Do you maintain contact with the people you interviewed for the book?
L.R.S.: Yeah, I still see Mary and hear from Mary, and she’s had five years of sobriety. A couple of them came to the book signing. It really enhanced their self-esteem. I gave them all as many copies as they wanted. It took from 2005 until last year to get it published, so some people I can’t find.
J.T.: You hoped that the book would change peoples’ perceptions homelessness. Did it change any perceptions you might have had?
L.R.S.: I learned what a sense of community there is with people who live on the streets. They take care of each other in ways you wouldn’t expect. They take care of each other, and they keep track of each other, and that’s amazing. We’re so frightened of what we don’t understand.
J.T.: Were there any commonalities in the stories?
L.R.S.: Yes. All of them had commonalities. A lot of dysfunctional families. The one surprising story that people talk about is Brian because he was brought up in a normal, average blue-collar hard-working family and became a hardcore heroin addict. He didn’t go to his graduation because he was trying heroin for the first time. And of course you can’t try heroin for the first time.
A lot of them had a history of alcohol and drug use. Almost all of them were abused. A lot of trauma. So there’s hardship. You continue with your addiction and your hardships just snowball. You keep losing until there’s nobody who wants a thing to do with you and you hate yourself. And you do the only thing that makes you numb out unless you have some sort of awakening experience. Almost all had epiphanies about stopping and starting. They have this a-ha moment that maybe drugs and alcohol are the problem. When you start using you stay pretty much emotionally the same age until you quit, and you can’t accelerate and grow up. If you start using at 16, you stay 16 even though you’re 40.
J.T.: You’re a certified grief counselor, did that inform your work?
L.R.S.: Yeah, it informed the book, certainly because I see writing a wisdom will as a talisman for people to help assuage the grief after losing a loved one, and it’s a way of reviewing your life and seeing that everybody has a story.