That which God said to the rose and
caused it to laugh in full-blown beauty
He said to my heart,
and made it a hundred times more beautiful.
~ Rumi ~
“Write it on your heart that every day
is the best day in the year.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson ~
Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.
But one night, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.
He was walking towards the stairs when a teen-aged boy approached him and pulled out a knife.
“He wanted my money, so I just gave him my wallet and said, ‘Here you go,'” Diaz says.
As the teen began to walk away, Diaz yelled, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The would-be robber looked at Diaz, “like what’s going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?'”
Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner, and if you really want to join me…hey, you’re more than welcome.”
“You know, I just felt maybe he really needed help,” Diaz explained.
Diaz and the teen-ager went into the diner and sat in a booth.
“The manager, dishwashers and waiters came by to say hi,” Diaz says. “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'”
“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz told the teen. “He said, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.'”
Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”
“Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.
Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. “He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz says.
The teen couldn’t, or didn’t want, to answer Diaz.
When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for the bill ’cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”
The teen “didn’t even think about it” and returned the wallet. “I gave him $20…I figured maybe it would help him.”
Diaz asked for something in return – the teen’s knife – and “he gave it to me.”
Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You’re the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you’d give them your watch.”
Diaz remarked: “I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”
Well said, Mr. Diaz. Be safe.
He was a nice-looking young man, married, with warm brown eyes that always looked down, as if afraid meeting someone’s gaze would let them in to a place where he didn’t want to go.
His needs were simple – to explore grief-related issues regarding the recent death of his father-in-law. But in therapy, as in most things in life, those simple things can become complex fairly quickly, whether we want them to or not.
Almost 2 months into our sessions together, J had a major disagreement with his wife, during which he revealed to her that someone had sexually abused him as a child for almost 8 years.
Though this rape by his stepbrother occurred nightly, no one in the house was aware of it. If they were, it was neither acknowledged nor stopped.
While J described his rape at the hands of his abuser, I was bereft of words. The details were horrific. The most heart-wrenching part for me was to see the little boy J in the adult J’s eyes; to see the anguish, pain, bewilderment and betrayal that cried out from those many years ago. In my presence, for the first time in his life, J shared the details of that loss of innocence. He bared his soul. The little boy’s eyes beseeched me to understand, and to not betray or judge him. The hurt in his eyes mirrored what I felt he must see in my own.
Suddenly, I felt a single tear trace its way slowly down my cheek as I listened to J’s story. With that, my soul embraced his and wept. J told me later that my single tear meant more to him than anything I could have said at that moment. It validated him as worthwhile, and it told him, without words, that I walked with him in his pain.
Inside the grown man who had to sleep with the lights on and the bedroom door open, who could barely touch his wife without remembering another kind of touch from his stepbrother, who felt safer in downtown Baltimore than inside his own home, was the little boy who wanted desperately to love and trust and be loved, but felt compelled to withhold himself to be safe.
As a wife and mother, I saw J as a little boy who was ashamed and embarrassed by what had happened to him, who felt responsible for allowing the abuse, and who still struggled with the fact that no one had protected him.
In listening to J’s story, I heard about the desecration of one person’s dignity; yet, I was also witness to the strength, resilience and courage of a little boy. J’s spirit could not be broken. His soul, the very essence of who he was, thrived. I was determined to fan the flickering flame of J’s spirit until it was a bonfire.
As a psychotherapist, I saw that the abuse and its secrecy brought with it shame, low self-esteem, sexual dysfunction, depression, guilt, and PTSD. Where to begin with a man who was stuck developmentally at about 8 years old?
After working with several behavioral modification techniques and guided imagery, I asked J if he had any neighbors or relatives who were about 8 years old. With a picture of a nephew in J’s mind, I asked him to compare the little boy to J’s abuser in size (the perpetrator had been large for his age). I quietly asked if a boy the size of his nephew could have overpowered J’s abuser. Awareness dawned in J’s eyes; it had not been a fair fight,, and there was nothing that any little boy could have done to overpower his attacker. In that moment, J began to forgive himself for not stopping the abuse.
Further into J’s therapy, I suggested that he write a letter to his mother, who had never acknowledged the abuse. J continually struggled with their relationship, and whether or not to have his mother as an influence in his daughter’s life. The relationship was adversarial at best, with only limited communication. The letter writing was for healing, rather than toward the eventual mailing of the letter.
It took several weeks, but at the end of a session, as he made to leave, J put a few handwritten pages face down on the desk. When I read it privately, I cried. J told his mother exactly what happened for all those years; how all he ever wanted was her love and protection. He explained how he realized that he wasn’t responsible for the abuse, and that he was not a bad person. Instead, he was a human being with value who deserved to be loved. J pledged that he would spend the rest of his life protecting his daughter from harm, and becoming a better man. What happened to him would never, ever happen to her.
J’s story does not end here; his recovery would be a complex process. He never mailed the letter, but eventually told his mother all about the abuse during a heated phone call. She responded by denying such a thing happened, and called him a liar. While J hoped that his revelation would finally give him a loving, compassionate mother, he was not surprised by her reaction.
The breakthrough, however, was in J.
The little boy’s voice had finally been heard, and in the release of his secret, his heart was opened to healing. J’s journey was long, with more work and more struggles as he integrated this new J into his marriage. Yet it now included hope for the future. The man could finally forgive, love, and accept the little boy.
The shadows in dark rooms no longer held a threat; J’s eyes saw them flooded with brightness.
My heart saw a little boy at last grown into a man.
Seeing with the eyes of the heart…
And then go for it!
~ Desmond Tutu ~
The world is so constructed,
that if you wish to enjoy its pleasures,
you must also endure its pains.
Whether you like it or not,
you cannot have one without the other.
~ Swami Brahmananda ~
This wall lives and breathes.
Its age shows in striking beauty, memories of the old man’s callused hands – artist’s hands – that shaped the stones with such love. No mortar for him, but only careful picking and choosing, a mosaic of gray stone laid one upon the other. Joining together stronger than alone, climbing higher.
Stop! Look at me. You may walk beside, but do not cross. I have purpose. I stand firm.
Norsemen cleaved the stone with battle axe a many, their angry cries bludgeoned into the rough surfaces. Blood soaked the stones. The breeze brings a whiff of sweat and fear from bygone centuries.
Rough edges smoothed by storms unleashing their fury, when the heavens opened to wash away the blood. Lightning strikes scar the stone with black, their fingerprints embedded deep.
Stones reverberate with echoes of a horse whinnying as it leaps across the wall, the tinkling bells of sheep as they herd past the barrier, the jagged groans of a farmer tilling the rocky fields, the whispered promises of lovers lost in a clandestine embrace, the mournful dirge of a funeral procession on its way to a final good-bye.
Sounds seared into the heart of the wall, trapped for time eternal.
The wall has survived the seasons again and again. Spring, cradling a robin’s nest and its blue eggs in a small hole eroded through the years. Summer heralds laughing children and barking dogs running along its path, weaving and bobbing and balancing through the turns. Fall brings showers of leaves, dressing the stones in a cloak of bright scarlet, shiny gold, vivid copper. Winter shoulders snow piled high and ice that sparkles like diamonds in the sun. Then it starts all over again, a new.
Time marches on, we humans come and go, but the stones – the stones stand firm while they ache with our secrets. In the stillness, the wall waits.
This wall – this wall lives and breathes.
This work is inspired by John Grant’s stunning photos at Meticulous Mick.
I am so very grateful for his allowing me to use his photos to share this story.
Meet Figo, a K-9 Officer paying his last respects to his fallen human partner, Kentucky Police Officer Jason Ellis. The 33-year old officer was killed in a suspected ambush.
In the photo, Figo lays a paw on Ellis’ casket.
After his partner’s death, Figo retired and is now living with Ellis’ family. Bardstown, KY Police Chief Rick McCubbin told the Associated Press that the dog and Ellis were “true partners.”
Never forget that you are one of a kind.
Never forget that if there weren’t any
need for you in all your uniqueness
to be on this earth,
you wouldn’t be here in the first place.
And never forget,
no matter how overwhelming
life’s challenges and problems seem to be,
that one person can make a difference in the world.
In fact, it is always because of one person
that all the changes that matter in the world
So be that one person.
~ R. Buckminster Fuller ~
The handwriting is looping, the capitalization non-existent, the ragged piece of paper torn on one edge, but with a faint flower at the top. It looks like the effort put into the note is considerable, the pressure of the words seen through the paper from the other side.
It is childlike. It is simple. It is a priceless treasure given to me upon my departure from Community Mental Health that I keep under glass on my desk.
No, it wasn’t written by a child. It was written by a 31-year old woman – a patient for 2 years. A woman-child. A woman whose emotional maturity was paralyzed in early adolescence, when she had several children as a result of sexual abuse by her father…abuse that her mother never stopped. A woman who never finished junior high and who ran away to get away from the monster at home, only to meet more of them on the streets and under the bridge where she slept. Where she did what she could to eat and to take care of her children until Child Protective Services removed them and placed them in Foster Care.
No protection for her, but at least there was for her children. And for the children with different fathers from severed relationships who came after that.
Rape. Childbirth. Physical abuse. Homelessness. Death of one of her children and institutionalization of another. Arrests and incarceration. Drugs and alcohol. Prostitution. Multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations. Emotional abuse.
Self-esteem: zero. Worthlessness: 100%. In her mind, that is. And in the mind of the bruiser of a man whose son she raised as her own, who beat her up regularly, even though she took any and all that he threw at her.
But she never left. Why?
Where could she go?
She had no job – who would hire her? She had no high school diploma, with her jail time checked honestly on every application. Applications where the handwriting would look like it looked in the note above.
But she loved the squirrels outside her window, and had names for each one of them, and when her boyfriend killed one with a BB gun when he was drunk, she carefully dug a hole and buried it while he slept off the rage and the drink.
Until the next time.
Non-compliance with therapy appointments and medications until she realized that I saw past her bravado and resistance to the little girl underneath.
She was hard to like, but her survival instinct was easy to admire.
For several months, she never missed an appointment. I looked over her shoulder while she filled out applications with an agency that was willing to hire people with an arrest record. We picked out an outfit together for her interview, her boyfriend there to have the final approval on what she wore.
She didn’t get the job.
But she finally got a driver’s license so if another opportunity presented itself, she would be ready. She started to study for her GRE but didn’t have the money to sit for the exams. A fairy godmother took care of the fee at the local office that registered people for the review classes that she got thrown out of for being disruptive.
She always had difficulty with anger management, but she was also sleep deprived, since everyone around her did whatever they could to prevent her from studying. She passed all but one part of the exam for her GRE anyway, and got a tutor for the higher math.
Her father got a cancer diagnosis, and she struggled mightily with whether to go see him to tell him that she still loved him as a daughter, or to go see him to kill him for the despicable horrors that he visited upon her as a little girl. Normal feelings for what she had been through, and I daresay far above anything her father would have felt.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, for me, a chance at another job, this one in higher education. One with a secretary to answer the phone and a computer to make appointments, with time off and supplemental help. Nothing like the limited resources of Community Mental Health that wore people out.
For someone who was exhausted with compassion fatigue, it was a relatively easy choice.
But it was so terribly hard to leave the patients in my case load. And she was one of them. Right when she seemed to be making some headway, another person who she had slowly, hesitantly learned to trust was abandoning her.
Who to save? It had to be me. Because I cannot “save” anyone but myself, and I needed to give some of the compassion that I so easily poured into others, to myself.
So everyone was transitioned to new psychotherapists whom I thought would be a ‘good fit,’ and I had enough advance notice to properly ‘terminate’ my clients.
I wish I could tell you that she passed the final portion of her GRE, left what would hopefully be her last abusive relationship and found a full-time job.
But I can’t.
I don’t know what happened to her…not even if she kept her appointments with the new therapist. Not every story has a happy ending, or at least an ending that we are a part of or even privy to.
But I do have the tiny stuffed green frog she gave me on the last day, one she got from a McDonald’s Happy Meal. And I have the “Greatest Therapist Award” next to me on my desk.
Not to remind me of my award, but to remind me of the special woman-child I was so privileged to work with for 2 years.
To remind me of what a survivor looked like…a woman so tough that she was still standing, a woman so gentle that she named each of the squirrels in her back yard.
Thank you for gifting me with a glimpse into your life and sharing things that no one else knew. For keeping a small shred of hope alive even when the voices all around you ridiculed and berated.
I wish you happiness and warmth and smiles; sunshine and rainbows and sweetness.
But most of all, I wish you love.
Pure love. Of yourself and from someone good and decent and kind.
You deserve nothing less.
The privilege was mine, lovely lady. Be well.
You are in my thoughts and in my heart…go out and shine!
“Around us, life bursts with miracles–
a glass of water, a ray of sunshine, a leaf,
a caterpillar, a flower, laughter, raindrops.
If you live in awareness,
it is easy to see miracles everywhere.
Each human being is a multiplicity of miracles.
Eyes that see thousands of colors, shapes, and forms;
ears that hear a bee flying or a thunderclap;
a brain that ponders a speck of dust as easily as the entire cosmos;
a heart that beats in rhythm with the heartbeat of all beings.
When we are tired and feel discouraged by life’s daily struggles,
we may not notice these miracles, but they are always there.”
~ Thích Nhất Hạnh ~