Saturday, January 22, 2011

the shelter

I leave in 10 days. Perhaps more than I've been daydreaming about trekking the Sahara or following the tightly knotted medina streets of Tangier and Marrakesh, I've been thinking of Flint. Taking inventory of things I've lost and the precious things I've gained. I've left Flint before, and always without much sentiment or reluctance. When I was 18 I backpacked five months across Europe, from Britain to the eastern border of Poland. At 20, I took a year off college for volunteer work: first at a homeless shelter in Cork, Ireland, and then at an Oxfam thrift store in Banbury, England. Then, of course, at 23, Bryan and I made our epic journey across Europe and North Africa. But for the first time I'm aware that when I fly back to Michigan, it won't be for long. In the spring the letters from graduate schools will come in and I'll begin again somewhere else. New projects, new apartment, new city, new friends.

Yesterday I did my last interview for East Village Magazine with the director of Shelter of Flint. She knew who I was, about the workshop I've run for the last two years, but we hadn't met. She asked about my grad school applications and how it feels to know I'll be leaving Flint soon. I told her one of my greatest reservations about leaving is the Shelter project. I began it myself, I figured out how to do it myself, and I've developed great rapports with my students. Since Bryan's death, going to the Shelter a few nights a week has shifted from a community service project to a trade between me and the kids. I teach them how to read and write. They make me laugh and keep me from the vanity of self-pity. They remind me what fun there is when life's at it's worst and how many simple satisfactions are still to be found-- like helping an 8 year old sound out a tough word or spell the message in a Christmas card for his mom. I'll miss that deeply.

The director smiled at me and said, "You don't need to miss us. We'll still be here when you come home."

My piece from the December Broadside below.

In April, you may have driven by the block one weekend and seen the tribute: Don’t worry Bryan, you won’t be a zombie. It was painted by my friends after the funeral of my fiancĂ©. Bryan, connoisseur of tacky horror B-movies and paranormal A.M. radio call-in shows, often insisted that when he died he wanted to be cremated so he couldn’t come back as a zombie. I promised if he went first I’d make sure it happened. It was a promise made in jest, but fulfilled all the same, and far sooner than I ever  imagined.

Bryan died just weeks after the City announced the lay-offs in public safety and through my grief, a lot of other familiar things were reduced to ash. I’ve watched my hometown disappear in chunks as Flint’s arsonists strike over and over. Vehicleless in the Vehicle City, I ride my bike around town, pedaling past the ruins. Whether visiting friends in Mott Park, heading downtown or over to Carriage Town for my Good Beans fix, I pass the charred rubble and naked foundations. On my most dolorous days, I feel as if I’m living in a graveyard.

One of my routine bike routes is the five mile trek from my West Side home to Shelter of Flint, an emergency facility for women and children nestled in the East Side’s state streets. For two years I’ve run a creative writing workshop for teens at the Shelter. I’m often surprised and impressed by my students, but I was especially taken aback when Lauren suggested we write a play for Halloween.

As one of Flint’s many struggling young bohemians I support our local thespians, but with great reservation and-- I confess-- some squirming distaste. I know how to write and teach poems, stories and essays-- quiet, solitary efforts lacking what my playwright friend Megan refers to as the “Hey! Look at this!” demand of theater. My own theater career consists of a green sweatsuited turn as an elf in the Christmas play at Eisenhower Elementary and one pained Hamlet recitation in college. The people staring at you? The exaggerated gestures? The unnatural enunciations? The appeal of drama eludes me. But to my dismay, Lauren’s idea for a Halloween play incited an immediate chorus of “Yeah!” and “Can we, Miss Kelsey?” I prepared myself for a compromise.

“What would this play be about?” I asked.

“Zombies,” Lauren said emphatically.

In the basement of a homeless shelter in the rubble of Flint, my students needed their widowed, theater-dreading teacher to help craft a play about the undead. I suggested witches and werewolves but to no avail. They were already out of their seats giggling and busting “Thriller” moves.

For weeks we wrote and rehearsed. I had no idea how playwrights operate, but luckily my students threw themselves into the project and I observed the  process, occasionally inserting myself to scale back the more drastic of their ideas (I thought the Shelter staff might not approve of us throwing raw hamburger to simulate guts). Characters were developed and scenes were improved until we had a script. Roles were cast and recast as actors moved on to permanent housing. The Shelter’s little ones auditioned for parts in the zombie canaille. Artistic temperaments flared and zombies exorcised their excitement by running, shouting and shoving their way through rehearsals. I biked my five miles home every night, past the charred remains of the East Side, through Kearsley Park and the burgeoning vibrancy downtown, along Chevy-in-the-Hole and across Court. 

The play, Halloween Gone Bad, opened on a Friday night to a living room full of moms, staff and little brothers and sisters. Zombies were slathered in make-up and draped in ripped bed sheets. Ingénues wore their prettiest outfits and sparkly pink lip gloss. Cobwebs were hung and familiar sofas were draped in white sheets to transform the space into a haunted house.

It was utter chaos. Face paint found its way over clothes and walls. Zombies waiting in the wings giggled, yelled and shoved and missed their cue; the unsuspecting stars walking through the haunted house had to stop and hiss to the zombies to attack them. Lines were forgotten. But the audience laughed appreciatively when Kyndal wailed, “I’m going to be grounded for the rest of my life if my little sister gets eaten by zombies!” and no one can resist the cuteness of 7 year old zombies, on cue or not. After our final scene ended to the sounds of “Thriller,” one mom got up and taught the cast the famous dance. The furniture was dragged back into place, the stage returned to a living room, and the cast demolished a tray of orange and black Oreos before running upstairs to wash off their make-up and get into their pajamas.

Their director got back on her bike, grinning to herself as she pedaled across Flint’s alternating life and ruin in the chill October dark.


  1. Oh, Kelsey! You can't know the joy this brings me. I'm typing in tears for the fourth grade girl with curly hair and a sense of humor far beyond her years. I can't wait to read more...

  2. Thank you! I've been meaning to tell you, about a few weeks ago I had two girls from Ike in my class--fifth and fourth grade, I think. I asked if they knew you, and they grinned and spoke glowingly of you. And of course, they were easily the best readers and writers I've ever had. :)

  3. Your writing is so poignant and perfect.