Everyone has a story: We just need to listen

photo of woman in a tent
Riley Nichols/Staff

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As I arrive for my interview with TreaH Cleaves, a few minutes late, I see her struggling to carry a few boxes in from her car. I walk over and help her take a box of books inside. Sitting on top, I notice Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man.” She’s remarkably hospitable: She invites me to sit down; she offers me a Cloud Water; and after a few minutes, we begin the interview. One of her dogs, Island, sits next to her until the end, and I can hear Nicole, her other dog, in the bedroom. They’re sisters, turning 13 in June. She opens the window to let the breeze in. We spend the next 45 minutes together while she chronicles stories about her family, shows me photographs and makes jokes.

While I’m opening Voice Memos on my phone, TreaH notices my chipping nail polish. My recording of our conversation begins with her remarking, “I just love that guys can wear nail polish now, you know? I mean, it’s such an interesting (thing) because we’re kind of dove-tailing and synthesizing and changing.” With these words, we’ve begun. For the next 45 minutes, I forget she lives in a tent.

I met TreaH the previous afternoon, walking by People’s Park, while she was talking to a social worker. She tells me that he is responsible for her living at People’s Park, quickly clarifying, “In a good way! He gave me a tent!” She’s exceptionally quick witted at 73 years old —  sharper than most students I’ve met at UC Berkeley. She rattles off statistics and American history without a problem. She recounts how she campaigned for Andrew Yang during the 2020 primary, but if she had known about Marianne Williamson, she would have campaigned for her instead. She’s profoundly spiritual, telling me that she chose her name because it is an anagram of both “heart” and “Earth.” She argues that a flat Earth doesn’t make sense because of the equinoxes and references “the Universal Oneness” throughout our conversation.

She’s profoundly spiritual, telling me that she chose her name because it is an anagram of both “heart” and “Earth.”

Before I leave that afternoon, we make arrangements to meet again at 8:30 the next morning. After I arrive, she fills me in on what had happened since I had last seen her. She tells me about an incident that occurred when she went to take a shower at a friend’s apartment the previous night. “These two women come out, and (one of them) just comes up behind me and just pushes me as hard as she could out the door and starts cussing and flipping me off,” she says, like it’s nothing out of the ordinary, and it falls neatly into the pile of stories that accumulates in my notes.

TreaH speaks about her vision of creating what she calls the “Berkeley Care Farm,” to help those who need it most. According to a study TreaH gave me, “The impact of care farms on quality of life, depression and anxiety among different population groups: A systematic review” by Jenni Murray and 11 others, care farming is “the therapeutic use of agricultural and farming practices” in order to support “people with learning disabilities, mental and physical health problems, substance misuse, adult offenders, disaffected youth, socially isolated older people and the long term employed.” Her vision is to “create an interdisciplinary department at Berkeley which is, basically, the Care Farm.” It would include classes on agriculture, law, sociology, ecology and cognitive science in hopes of giving students the resources they need to contribute toward tackling the houselessness crisis.

She tells me about meeting the lyricist for the Grateful Dead: “I entered an ad to be a caregiver of someone’s ‘magical’ father in San Francisco. So I applied, they called me up, and I’m talking to the daughter, and I said, ‘Yeah, I lived in Davis, went to Grateful Dead concerts,’ and — as it turns out — that was John Perry Barlow.” He interviewed her but ultimately did not offer her the position. She tells me that she looked him up after the interview. “He was actually a conservative amidst all the liberal musicians, and he knew Dick Cheney! He knew Dick Cheney!” she exclaims, and her enthusiasm is contagious.

Several of her stories are about her family members meeting celebrities. She shows me a picture of her and her daughter Shasta standing with Reggie Jackson and gives me pages and pages of photos she had photocopied from the originals.

Photo of three people

Courtesy / TreaH Cleaves

“This is my daughter,” TreaH tells me, pointing to one of them. “After she went on the Half-Bay Boat with the lifeguards, she was the only one that caught a fish. She caught this giant halibut, and I go, ‘Shasta, how come you were the only one who caught a fish and no one else did?’ She goes, ‘Well, I just asked the Universal Oneness to provide me with a meal.’ ” TreaH laughs.

photo of woman and a girl

Courtesy / TreaH Cleaves

So many of these pictures are of the horses she owned. One in particular was taken on the day her daughter was featured on a long-running television series. “That’s Shasta’s first pony, Wichita,” she says. “At the stable, there’s a racetrack, and I see this production crew. I’m like a stage mom, so I go, ‘Shasta! I’ll buy you a new pair of chaps if you ride your pony over (there).’ So she was in the video of Greatest Sports Legends.” (She no longer has the video.)

More than anyone I’ve ever met, TreaH is aware of her place in the world — historically, socially and politically. She tells me, “You are the future, and I am the past, well, and the present.” Reflecting on her younger days, she said, “Timothy Leary, the Grateful Dead, all of that stuff was happening, and I was collaterally seeing all of that stuff, but it was just sort of like watching a movie.” At one point, she even jokes, “I’m a professional nobody. I mean, I am poor, old, female, disabled, you know, check, check, check.” I couldn’t help but laugh with her.

Sprinkled through our talk are moments of profound wisdom. Here’s my favorite: “I have been through more s— than you could imagine in a hundred lifetimes, but we’ve all been through s—. And I think that when you’re gifted a lot, a lot is expected of you, and I have true empathy and compassion because of the pain. … You can either become bitter, or you can become compassionate.”

The details of TreaH’s early life are partially illuminated through the tales of her past. She grew up in Pasadena with three brothers, living with her mom and dad, attending Sierra Madre High School before getting a full-ride scholarship to — and attending — UC Irvine. She majored in social ecology. She’s been married three times and had two daughters, Geva and Shasta, with her first and second husbands, respectively. She looks back fondly on her first husband, whom she affectionately calls “Oggs,” after a character in a W.C. Fields’ movie.

It’s almost like she has lived two lives, the story connecting them foggy, fractured and incomplete. She says she has been unhoused since 2013 and came to Berkeley in 2015. Other than that, TreaH gives me very little information on how she came to be unhoused — and that’s alright. This is not supposed to be a story of why TreaH is unhoused: It’s just TreaH’s story. Although we’re sitting in a tent in People’s Park, the stories she chooses to tell are not about houselessness. In her mind, she is not defined by her status as unhoused, and I do not seek to define her that way, either. TreaH is just another person who has led a full life; has hopes to reconnect with her family; dreams about the future of our country; holds opinions; loves her dogs; and is grateful for her experiences. She expresses sincere appreciation for the mere fact that I was there listening, professing, “I’m so grateful. I mean, I’m being grateful right now in my head. I’m so grateful you’re here listening to my story, beyond anything you could ever imagine.” To TreaH, I would like to profess: I’m so grateful I got to listen.

TreaH is just another person who has led a full life; has hopes to reconnect with her family; dreams about the future of our country; holds opinions; loves her dogs; and is grateful for her experiences.

Thanks to help from the Homeless Action Center, TreaH will soon be able to be grateful for even more: She is moving into an apartment on Shattuck Avenue later this month. “I am beside myself,” she tells me, and I cannot help but smile. And while she is grateful for this opportunity, I’m thankful that I ran into her before she moved. She has graced me with her life story; or, at least the parts she loves. I sit, like a boy, looking at her photo album as I have done before with my own grandmother.

We yearn to share our lives with people, but we don’t seem to want to hear what others have to say. While many of us tend to fixate on those at the very top of socioeconomic strata to seek inspiration, it’s useful to keep in mind that we can also glean immeasurable wisdom and advice from the most vulnerable among us. It is an essential duty of any community to give a voice to the disenfranchised. After all, everyone has a story: We just need to listen.

Contact Riley Nichols at [email protected].