Phases of life arrive at their own pace, sometimes slowly like the course of wisdom, or, at other times, like lightning—spontaneous veins of electricity splintering the sky, detonating booms and echoes of thunder.
Three years ago, Clare Cady, Human Services Resource Center coordinator, was living in her Volkswagen Jetta waiting for lightning to strike. She had earned her master’s degree at Washington State University, spent 31/2 years working at a wilderness program for troubled youths in Utah.
She took a three-month leave of absence to travel to New Zealand with her boyfriend. The trip depleted her savings.
While there, her job was eliminated.
She moved into an apartment, and took on two jobs, totaling 65 hours a week.
She couldn’t manage both car payment and rent.
She lived with said boyfriend in his parents’ RV.
She moved into her car.
She moved into her parents’ house.
“It was ingrained in me that you graduated from high school, you leave home, you might stay home in the summers while you finish college in four years, and you get a job, and that’s exactly what I did.
It’s the last part that was problematic. Her wilderness job was intended to serve as a pause rather than a career; but when it ended, the real pause set in. Her decision to move in with her parents skewed her paradigm.
She no longer was living life on her terms, which included awakening in a tent to be greeted by a buffalo in the Badlands, running over a rattlesnake with her bicycle in Montana. On a trip with her sister, they learned the two-step from a Nashville, watched a mini-tractor pulling contest in Mississippi, were invited to join an artists’ colony in New Mexico, and climbed a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado.
She has bicycled through the Alps, where she touched a glacier. In New Zealand she saw blue penguins and stayed at an organic farm in New Zealand, where she learned to build Earth houses.
“I think that the way I’ve lived my life and the fact that I’ve done so many things, been to so many places, that people view me as being extreme,” she says.
They might be right.
Living with her parents was unfamiliar territory for Cady, as self-belief, refutation and purpose intersected, threatening her sense of being “the author of your own life.”
But she knew that the pendulum’s greatest force is at the bottom of the swing, she says, and she knew that eventually it would lift her. Even while living in her car, she remained in the present, an aspect of life so important that she had it tattooed on her arm.
Even in the worst of times, she lived among a spirited sky, beckoning trails and attentive campfires. Although she had no house, she had a home in the outdoors.
There are different depths of homelessness, and Cady stayed near the surface. She had education, tenacity and a credit card.
“I was the luckiest homeless person on the planet,” she says. “I lived in a beautiful car with my dog, and I was a backcountry guide, so I didn’t mind camping outdoors. I told myself, ‘I have mac and cheese, and I can feed my dog, so it’ll be OK.’”
But it wasn’t OK.
One day Cady bought food to last a week or more. She took what was needed and hiked up a canyon below Boulder Mountain in Utah, but that night a downpour causing flash flooding trapping her in the canyon. When the water receded and she returned to her car, the food had spoiled.
“I sat in the dirt and cried. In that moment it felt like no matter what I did, there was always something that would come along and wreck my plans for success and survival.”
It changed one day when she was sitting on her parents’ living room couch. The telephone rang, and it was OSU offering her a job.
“I never thought being homeless would be a selling point for a job interview, but the fact that I had a relatable experience was really good for working with the students here.”
Her duties include managing the school’s food pantry, referring students to outside assistance and developing relationships with students and support agencies.
She works with students who are homeless and hungry, sacrificing basic needs to further their educations. There are more such students than one might expect.
“We receive about 1,200 applicants per term for food subsidy,” Cady says. “About 75 percent of them qualify for some form of food subsidy.”
Some arrive with backgrounds of poverty, while others face situational poverty resulting from the unexpected: the loss of a job, inability to find affordable housing as a result of sudden misfortune.
“Those students really have to grieve for how they used to be and accept the fact that, yes, they are in tough situations; and, yes, it is happening to them and, no, it’s not fair; yet they need to deal with it and move on.”
She understands that it’s not easy to ask for help, but resistance and financial crisis often lead to dropping out. Cady’s goal is to get them over the hump.
She also serves as campus advisor for the interfaith service program. Her parents are atheists, so she, of course, became an evangelical Christian, which gave her faith, friends and a form of teenage rebellion. She now refers to herself as a humanistic atheist. Her faith is in building a better world not as a condition of religion but as an act of civility and responsibility.
She is trying to find more balance in her life, a greater understanding of when to fight the wind and when to acknowledge that it blows true despite her convictions. She would like to pursue a doctorate at some point. And she would like to own a house to serve as a home base for her adventures.
“Now I’m trying to see what’s next without uprooting myself completely. I’d like to find a place to settle myself in…but the way I’ve lived my life hasn’t been conducive to that.”
In her current phase, Cady says she is learning to see merit in opposing views, accept that wisdom is not selfish and that the center of one’s life is not only measured in heights climbed or miles traveled. It is found in the lives of others, those who have sat upon the dirt like she once did and cried.
The tattoo on her arm, “Be in the present,” written backwards, is one of four directives in her life. The other three are:
“Love your life.”
“Right now is alright.”
“Be kind to yourself.”
Together they form lighting rods as well as wisdom. She also has learned that all people are vulnerable all of the time. She sold her Jetta to get rid of the payments, and replaced it with a station wagon.
Just in case.
Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki