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watch me fly away, give me life like a butterfly by Te55

 

There are people who come into our lives maybe for a minute or a day but leave an indelible mark, an imprint in our heart and our soul–they teach us something about people, life, and ourselves that is unexpected and a blessing.  I thought I would take this Friday to focus on a few of those people who I have met and seen beauty through in some unexpected way. 

 

 

I am sure everyone has those people in their life history.  Often we remember our mothers, our fathers, our closest friends and they are truly jewels to have in a lifetime but there are also the more anonymous relationships that we have, in passing, which may be fleeting but I feel speak to the beauty and grace that exists in the world, not just from those that are close to us but from random strangers that flutter through our memories from time to time.  I wanted to take a moment and think about those anonymous souls that have stepped on my life path.

 

There are also those people we meet, equally randomly, in whom we see such pain in that may live with us and haunt us–change who we are and deepen how we can feel for someone else.  They may tell us a story, share a sorrow, or just exude such ache that they are permanently inked into some shadowy place in our inner selves.  Those people, as much as the former have changed my experience of the world.  They have helped me to be more empathetic, to see people even when they just pass by me, and to understand sorrow to be as universally human as joy, love, and kindness.  Sometimes people provoke kindnesses in us by the experience of knowing them in some deep and inner way.  I wanted to remember those people too–those who taught me about hurt in the human condition.

 

There are also those people who teach us about hate, fear, and misunderstanding.  Their bitterness seeps out into the world because of their discontent and they can touch our lives, hurt our hearts, and jade our worldviews.  If we try we can find our way back from those moments and away from those people but they leave their mark–like water damage on a page, the water dries, but it has seeped into the ink.  They permeate our memory in some way and we may recall them randomly and without warning.  They too teach us about the world, and ourselves, and give us an opportunity for resilience and empowerment in ourselves.  It may be a painful path but it is a worthwhile trip–so that we do not remains stuck in their bitterness or sucked into their darkness.

 

1.  Mama from Laos:

Mama was a lady who ran the guesthouse where I stayed during 5 days of my solo travels to Southeast Asia following graduate school.  While I was staying at the guesthouse I got one of my patented killer sinus infections and Mama was an angel.  Bringing me tea, patching my face with vicks patches, and praying for me at the local temple.  The morning I left Mama gave me a bracelet that she said she had blessed by a monk in the temple at sunrise and she placed it on my wrist, kissed my hand, and welled with tears.  Her kindness was profound and her impact on me so great I found myself on the plane to Ko Samui later that morning surprising myself as I welled with my own tears for a woman I barely knew and barely knew me but had treated me like a daughter nonetheless. 

She taught me that even anonymouos love can be unconditional–across and despite all the boundary lines that humans create for themselves through religion, language, culture, and familiarity. 

 

2.  The Colombian Police Officer In Bogota Airport: 

When I met him this man was probably in his early 20’s and I was in my early 7’s.  We were both pretty confident and assured and we clicked right away.  My mother and I had traveled to Bogota (city of my birth) when I was 7 years old to get my newly adopted sister Maria (aka Yolanda–that was her orphanage name).  We had just arrived, rumpled and tired at the airport arrivals area and found that we were stranded–the driver meant to pick us up had not arrived.  Not that I was aware of it at the time, wondering with  impatience why my mother was so on edge, but a woman and a child from the United States in the Bogota airport in the early 1980’s was like a stationary target.   The officer was well aware of that and went far above his required position in staying with us, as our personal sentry and my personal new playmate, until we were able to get a reputable taxi to take us to our housing.  He smiled wide, played my games, and probably gave my young mother traveling with a child a blessed gift of security. 

 

He taught me that men wielding rifles can wear unguarded smiles and that even, and maybe especially, in countries with such dangerous reputations  kind hearts and good deeds can still prevail.

 

3.  The Brazilian Guide In The Pantanal:

I can no longer remember his name but I remember him clearly, first and foremost, as the man who got me to swim with gators.  Now, lets just say that at that moment I needed little provocation just a small reassurance from my barefoot, machete-toting, jungle guide that, “They are fine, I feed them fishes,” to get me to edge into the cold river, flanked by alligators on both those sides.  It was a now or never and I foolishly went with the “now”.  That is a story for another day (a story I have written but fearfully never even attempted to get published–the same goes for stories I have written about many of these momentary characters in my life). 

 The thing I remember about him even more vividly than instigating my gator encounter was what happened later that night back at camp.  This scene is set in a deep and brush-filled region of the Brazilian Pantanal Jungle (northern jungle cousin of the Amazon) and the only inhabitants of the area are anacondas, piranhas, gators, snakes, lizards, jaguars, the jungle guides, and their guests that dorm in grass-roofed huts lined with hammocks.  And I cannot forget the corrugated shack of a jungle bar stocked with beer and sugar cane liquor enough to satiate both campers and guides for a night–or until the generator dies.  That night I saw my guide, once confident and adept by day–probably one of most well-versed natural ecologists using a wealth of training handed down by fathers and grandfathers–become a stumbling, aggressive, incoherent alcoholic.  He did so for all three nights I was there and on the third night his lifelong friend and fellow guide revealed to me, without knowledge of AA, and in portuguese accented english, “He has a problem and he has for a long time but I just don’t know what to do.”

He taught me that even in the deepest jungles and amid the most raw beauty anyone can feel emotional pain and numb themselves with addictive behaviors.  He showed me that human pain is universal and even men who brave alligator infested waters and carry machetes with ease can be weak and injured inside.

 

4.  Mama from Mississippi:

I met Mama from Mississippi in the very small town of Pearlington the year following Hurricane Katrina.  My mother and I had decided to volunteer over Thanksgiving to assist in clean up and found ourselves on a very eclectic bandwagon headed by a Catholic Priest who loved to play U2 Songs on his acoustic guitar.  He was a native Mississippian and had grown up in Pearlington, Mama was his mother and so there we found ourselves, crowded on the floor of Mama’s tiny FEMA trailer.  The trailer was parked alongside her once beautiful southern home which had been drowned from the inside leaving a hollow shell dripping with mold,  littered with shattered glass, and splintered in two with pieces of lifelong memories collapsed and crushed under the weight of water. 

The entire town had imploded and on every street there were pieces of pots, strips of photographs, and remains of family treasures.  Some people had fled and never returned while others came by daily to rummage what they could out of what was once their lives and now was mud.  And there was Mama, a sort of self-appointed town delegate, checking on families and making us food from whatever she had stocking her barely livable trailer home.  She cried when she prayed, and shook in a Pentecostal sort of way, beside her Catholic priest son.  But above all she had a beautiful soul, it shone through the dimness of dark times and town ruins with a hope that seemed unbreakable. 

Mama taught me what unwavering faith could look like and she reminded me that there were people, in unexpected places, who were strong enough to hope and pray and love even when even the world and the ground beneath her feet had given way.  She reminded me that there is a love universally found in God, in humans, in ourselves, that can not be broken even by the greatest of storms.

 

5.  The Widow In My  NonFiction Writing Class:

She sat there, often fairly quiet through our ten week creative non-fiction class.  While some wrote out pain in a group therapy type method and others held back emoting with the use of journalistic style prose, she lay somewhere in the middle–writing intelligently and beautifully but often just above the surface of something bigger.  I just couldn’t figure what. 

One day she read a story she wrote about the death of her husband just weeks before beginning the writing program.  She read about how she had taken this class as a means of reviving herself, finding life after his chronic illness and years by his pained side, and losing him finally at the end of it all.  She read how she had found some kind of spark of herself again in story-writing and reading with a purpose.  She had immersed herself in technique and storytelling and found something alive that wasn’t there before. 

It was the most beautiful story I heard in that entire class and is probably the most I ever got to know her–and in that I felt like I knew her both intimately and not at all.  Now I cannot even remember her face but the exquisite craft, melancholy and bravery in her story I will never forget. 

She reminded me how therapeutic writing can be and also that the best writing is made while straddling that fine line of telling the story, feeling the pain in the pages, but not indulging the pain in leu of the craft.  She did it perfectly with artistry and bravery.  In reading her story of mourning and her capacity to tell it, unwaveringly and honestly, I would have guessed years not weeks had passed.  She reminded me that writing has a power that extends beyond the author and becomes alive–her melancholy is still alive in me.  It also reminded me of the curative powers of words–writing and reading them have a capacity to revive and heal. 

 

6.  The Man On The Train To Amsterdam:

He was from Kosovo.  I was from New Jersey.  And we were both riding the night train to Amsterdam from Germany with a man from Austria.  It is a complicated beginning I know.  It was late summer of 1999 and the War in Kosovo had just ended.  We all found ourselves on a train to Amsterdam, me on my first backpacking trip, and the both of them headed somewhere with a purpose.  The Austrian man spoke English but the man from Kosovo spoke none.  He was wrinkled and tired looking with tanned skin and dark hair.  And we began to talk–me and the man from Kosovo–with the Austrian man acting as intermediary translator. 

I heard about his wife and his children who he loved dearly, who had been crushed in the bombing in his town.  I heard about his journey to find life and work and to try to find a reason to live with his family gone.  After a few hours I nearly forgot that the Austrian man was there, it was as though we were the only two people on the train and in the railcar corridor.  I remember feeling like part therapist, part mourner, and part historian hearing a tale of history in the making. 

He showed me what pain was, what war was, what trauma was and how excruciating it can be to be the one that lived when everything you loved has died.  He was my first touch of the existential of war and loss.  He was my first session, although unofficially, as a trauma therapist.  He showed me the value of just listening to someone’s story and the importance of hearing someone else’s pain and validating it.  He showed me war and the casualties of war in lives, in hearts, in souls crushed with love lost.

 

7.  The Montville Racist:

He was a teenager around my age who lived in Montville, New Jersey.  Beyond that I remember nothing distinctive about him as a person–besides being a racist, of course.  I remember that night and what was said very distinctly but in a backwards dream sort of way.  Mostly this was due to the fact that I only figured out what transpired and what it meant after the fact–with a sort of suburban child naivety which, thanks to him, was lost that night. 

I remember going to this anonymous boy’s house one weekend night because he was a friend of a friend.  I remember getting there and them arguing in the other room.  He was saying things like, “There is no way.  I don’t want her here.  I want her out of my house.”  I remember her shouting back that he was a “pig” and “awful” but I didn’t really understand why.  I remember we didn’t have a car and he had to drive us back to our town and to my friend’s house.  She was blush red when we got there and apologizing to me profusely.  I didn’t realize until half-way through her gushing what had even happened.  He didn’t want ME there.  He didn’t want a HISPANIC there.  He didn’t want someone NOT WHITE in his house.  Then I felt nauseous, disgusted, humiliated, and vulnerable all at once.  I wanted to pass out and go home and hide.  I was disguisted at myself for not “getting it” before and for having to spend an entire ride home, unknowingly, with a bigot who hated me just because I “was”, period.  I was horrified that, that kind of bigotry existed and that I had experienced it first hand and I was angry that he had shifted me in a way that could not be taken back or taken away.  I felt unwanted for my skin and the genetics of my birth–and that was a first. 

He taught me that hate can exist–be it for fear or learned stigma–just to exist; for no rational or real reason.  He taught me that bigotry was not just in history or somewhere else but it could be anywhere.  He taught me to be prepared but never ashamed.  He taught me to know people’s potential for wrong, but to not let that hold me back for seeing all the good and right.  I would not let him taint me…but in some ways, in just existing in my memory, as a memory he did, and he has. 

 

8.  My Birthmother–Imagined and Real:

I have thought of my birthmother throughout my life in a number of ways.  When I was young I idolized her as a perfect angel from impoverished circumstances who, with saint-like capacity, gave me up for some greater good.  When I was a teenager I despised her for feelings I had about myself, for not knowing where I came from or my hispanic lineage, and for not giving me the answers to why I was the way I was from the roundness of my nose to my racing mind and hormonally excited emotionality.  As an adult I just wondered–without answers.  After two private investigators and a number of dead ends I guess I came to terms with having nothing but questions without answers.  She is who I am, but also she is not.  She may be my hair or my nose but I’m not sure she has anything to do with my obsessive literary bent.  I blame that on my (adoptive) mother talking to me like I was 30 at 2 and reading me long, linguistically winded novels at 3.  I have found my balance between nature and nurture.  But there are days like my birthday that I still look in the mirror a little too long with a little too much melancholy laying on my heart and wonder about the questions. 

She taught me to love who I am even when I don’t know where I came from–not by example but by absence. She is someone who I have the freedom to imagine however I choose.  She is someone I thank for freeing me to live the life I have, and love the family I love and know that they love me.  But despite all that she has given me, without even knowing that she has done so, she is still a stranger.  She is someone I only see when I stare in the mirror a little too long. 

 

 

Footprints in The Sand by johncooke on flickr

 

My article “Yoga: A Healing Art in A Psychotherapy Context” has just been published in the Fall 2009 Issue of  THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER MAGAZINE

Check it out if you would like!

May 2020
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