When fear shatters our view

As I am gazing out of the picture window on this brisk and starry night, I am thinking about fear. Fear that is so biting that it keeps some hidden behind their closed windows. Ny is hiding behind those windows in another city tonight, being sheltered in a relative’s home far from his normal life, out of fear. He hasn’t slept a peaceful night’s sleep in a month and I know that it may be many more before his fear subsides and he can again sleep the rest of the weary yet safe.

shattered window
I have known him for several years. He was a good kid, made the same mistakes that so many of these young men do, fall for the deception that is a gang’s lifestyle. Desperation for a sense of belonging, something to fill the void left from broken homes and shattered dreams of a family life far removed from his reality.

He was always willing to do what others would not, just to get noticed, to get recognized and feel accomplished. This did not happen at the dinner table at home nor at the student desks in school. But being bold and sometimes reckless are attributes rewarded in the wasteland of a crime ridden and desperate city. He would get caught and spend time away from the streets. Each time he returned, we tried to help him start anew. Each time he told us he had changed and would not follow the path of destruction that he followed before.

But each time the grip of the lifestyle would reach back for him. Almost like a drug addict in desperate need for the next fix, knowing that they shouldn’t, but needing that relief. He was addicted to the lifestyle of a street gangster. Ny was no more, replaced by a low level thug doing what he had to do to get attention and gratification. Seeking those rewards often comes with a cost. He was now discovering that cost.

For every gang identity there are other gangs whose identity is based on conflict. They declare ownership of their streets and seek to defend their own abnormal and often twisted sense of respect. With conflict comes blood. On our streets today, fists no longer suffice to end the battle. These are now gunfighters and the sound of gunfire echoes through our streets daily. They feel power when they are the ones holding the gun. They are also coming to know fear when they are on the wrong end of the gunfight. Ny is learning that lesson.

Last week three people jumped him as he walked to his school bus after school. They attempted to beat him, to hurt him and in the same way that animals in the wilderness show their superiority by vanquishing their enemies until their enemy will pose a threat no longer. Adults interfered. Their attack was thwarted. But there he felt the first real twinges of fear.

When I saw him next it was with his grandmother by his side in a hospital not twenty-four hours after the first beating. The shades in his hospital room were drawn tight and even then he looked suspiciously between the window and the door. The bandages wrapped around his head hid the stitches where the bullet grazed his temple. Another inch, the doctor had told him, and he would have expired. Ny understood what that meant. That meant fear.

He looked up at me with the same fear. I knew that he would not tell me who had done this to him. He knew, he was walking toward them when they did it in broad daylight. But if he told me, if I went out and attempted to serve justice, the real justice that is done in the sterile environment of a courtroom, the street would seek its vengeance upon him. It will be worse he said. I knew that is what he would say. Snitches get stitches isn’t a catchy play on words in his world, it is a code.

His grandmother cries. She cannot help him and has other babies in her home. She too is afraid, for his life, for her life, for the lives of the others trusted to her care. She is the foundation of this small family. She also knows that for the sake of the rest, she must let this one go. He will go to another city. She packs a bag and the relative meets us the next day at the hospital.

Like a person in the witness protection program, every noise as he walks from the open doors of the hospital to the waiting car startles him a little. His eyes are weary, sleeplessness and helplessness twist together to cloak him in a dark fabric of despair. I tell him to look out for himself and to call if he needs anything. I tell him to get some sleep in the car ride, knowing that he will not. Knowing that it may take months or even years for him to sleep without waiting for the crack in the silence that comes with violence.

The car pulled away and I went home to ponder another victim to those streets where I grew up. How had I survived yet so many of them cannot find a way out of the decay? I had hope and with hope comes the courage to fight for that escape. Without it they simply exist, waiting to be swallowed up by the demons that consume them and their community. Ny doesn’t have to wait any longer. The demons have won. He will sleep in their grasp now, simply waiting for the darkness to come.

I look at the sky one last time and say a quiet wish for him. I pray that he will find renewal and peace. He is out there tonight, under these same stars but he will not take the time to see them. They hold nothing for him now, his only concern is for what lies below. I still hold a fleeting hope that he will not become a statistic. I must believe that or the journey would not be worth the fight for me. Once again, I go inside, kiss my wife and draw the blinds. Tomorrow is yet another day to seek renewal and a better view from inside my sometimes shattered windows.

A child cloaked in anger

You can see the anger in his face. His brow is furrowed and arched in a way that makes his eyes narrow and seem very frightening. When he opens his mouth to scream, words don’t escape from his open lips, but they emit a sort of guttural groaning sound. It is loud, and it disturbs me. I want to help him to calm down, but he will not listen to me. The walls are up, and it will take a lot to bring them back down again.

I look into his eyes again and see the hatred and anger. I have seen this expression before, but rarely could those looks cut through me and expose me to the core. I open my mouth to speak and, like him, words simply do not come out. I close my mouth and contemplate what I can do next to reach him.

He is seven, and he should not feel this way. The pictures that he draws are frightening, and the stories that he tells can scare anyone. They are afraid of him. I am afraid FOR him. Something happened to create the monster before me. He wasn’t born believing these things. He wasn’t born with the need to see how people react in terror to the things that he says or the actions that he takes. This game that he plays, his desire to find your core fear and to expose it just does not seem normal.

I pause for that thought. Again, someone said to me that he is not normal. It begs the question; please tell me what “normal” looks like? As a society, help me to figure this one out! Is it normal to watch televisions shows that depict the worst parts of the human condition? But those are the highest rated shows. Is it normal to feel such a strong sense of religious belief that you are willing to strap on an explosive garment and blow yourself up along with hundreds of strangers to demonstrate that commitment? It happens each and every day around the globe.

I have decided that each person in the world has their own normal. It is their history and their sense of who they are. It is their character and their DNA. There is no one normal and we need to stop trying to force others to fit into our own definition of normal.

Then there are those who experience a normal that conflicts with our sense of right and wrong, of safety and fear. There are these entities like the child that hides under the table before me. His experience was so very different; he can’t talk about what created his normal. He is not yet willing to open the curtains and show us the room that he has lived his life within. It hurts him. He sees the others and he wants them to play with him, he wants them to accept him so that he can feel accepted. He doesn’t know how to pretend that whatever he has seen, heard or even worse felt, did not exist.

And so the words just do not come. His frustration just explodes from his body, every movement, and every sound is a display of his feeling that he cannot control his world. He wants to control it; I know he does. He wants to be calm as the others. I know that too. It is the bridge that I must find to connect him with the person that he wishes to be. This is what escapes me. I don’t know how to help him. I sit and simply look at him. Like a paramedic sitting with his bag of bandages and medicine next to the patient yet not being able to show us where they are bleeding. We want to bandage them and find a way to make them smile. We need to do that but I cannot even begin to try to help your wounds heal if you do not meet me on the journey to show me where you are hurt and where I can put the bandage.

His father comes and forces him out from under the table. The boy is still angry then frightened. He fears whatever punishment may come after the calls from the school. The calls that took his father from his work and yet again brought him to us here. I hate these calls for the parent’s sake. The call where the person from the school tried to dress up the issue with a pretty bow and wrapping paper, but each parent knows what the call means. Something is not right with your child and we don’t know how to manage it.

After a ten-minute struggle, I watch the boy go limp in his father’s arms, surrendered to whatever will happen now. His will to fight is gone, he knows that he will not win and that he cannot control whatever happens now. He gives up. His father asks him if he is ready to go home. He looks up and simply nods his head.

Then it happens. It happens so quickly that I cannot find a way to relate what happens next with what I have seen for the past two hours. This child reaches up to hold his father’s hand. His father reaches down and gently takes his son’s hand, and they walk out together. No more struggle. No more tears.

I watch as they walk the sidewalk outside and I am struck by how much this poor tortured soul, for this one minute, gets to feel the way he wants to feel. He is a child who is loved by his parent. Watching out the window just now erases the painful words and jolts of pain when the kicks and fists came. There was the child I was trying to reach. He found what he wanted. He wanted to be loved. I don’t know what happened when they left. I haven’t seen him since.
For right now, I am hopeful that this child will find some peace. That the view outside of my window at this very moment will replay itself a few more times for his sake. That somehow if he is loved a little more and if he is allowed to be the child that he wants to be, that he can grow up and be “normal.”

When the tears no longer come…

What happens when the tears just cannot come any longer?

Sometimes I hold her at night and stare out of the window, hoping that they will come. Hoping that somehow the silence will be broken by my own whisper, my own quickened breath as I can feel the tension finally give way and the sting begins in my eyes.  I want them to come, I need them to come. I need to feel something, I want to feel human again.

I cannot see what I see and lose myself. I cannot sit there in the corner and watch this drama unfold upon these innocent creatures and not feel anymore.  Why can’t I cry? Please God remind me that it still works, that my heart hasn’t finally broken.

He was four years old. The blood was still visible on the back of his pants when they brought him to me.  I knew the older boy he had been with and I knew, deep down inside my tortured and fleeting soul, what had happened. I couldn’t ask for a minute. I watched this boy, his mother couldn’t stop crying. I asked what had happened.  I was right and I hate when I am right.

room with no windows

Normally I try to find the window, to look out and remind myself that there is more to it than this.  I try to remind myself that there is good in the world and that I can smile at someone, that there will be no strangers today but then when I meet this little one, he will share the most intimate details of his violation and we will not be strangers.

In fact he will forever be part of me now. I will carry his pain forever. I always do.

Today there is no window in the cold hospital room. Only a curtain meant to hide the victim’s shame. It does nothing to help anyone escape the pain.  From now on he will look suspiciously at everyone as if they all know what happened to him.

I almost fall back when he describes what happened. The boy who did it. The memory comes back to me like a painful bolt.  It was just four years ago when he sat before me and shared his pain. His mother had been addicted to drugs and had always been high. He and his brother were in the back of the car and watched as their mother ran down two of their classmates on the street. They heard the innocent children cry and scream and then stop suddenly as the car came to rest upon both of their small now lifeless bodies.  They watched as their mother jumped from the car and ran away. They never saw her again after that day. She still sits in jail.

I had to try to put his pieces back together.  I had to listen then and comfort him.  Try to explain why we had to handcuff his mother and why she went away.  He cried then but then, after a while his tears just stopped.  His face lost its emotion. Became cold and almost robotic.  I lost track of him for a while and today, today I must find him again.

The cries of the boy as the nurse looks at him rush me back to the here and now. I have to leave, I can’t breathe.  I run for now. I will find the other but not tonight. Tonight I need to lie in her arms and cry.

They never come. I fall asleep and they never came. She held me tightly before I slept and I know she would make them go away but they didn’t come. Is it possible to run out of tears? Is it possible that the last straw finally snapped and the now fragile frame of my once whole emotional self finally gave way?

I pray not. There will be others and I still need to care. I still need the tears to come just as a release. Maybe tomorrow they will come. Maybe tomorrow will be different.


Sunrise and renewal

Today’s thought revolves around our connection and reflection outside and inside of that window. Today I saw the sunrise on an amazing morning.  I saw a little mist that clung lazily to the fields next to me as I drove thinking about yesterday’s sadness. But does the sunrise mean the same thing to everyone? To me the sunrise represents opportunity. In reality we get a new chance to start over every single day. Today it was new. The sun still rose. There was still sunshine. When I looked out that window I also noticed my own reflection. I’m still here.

sunrise out the window     How many people do we know that look at life as a long-term struggle? They tell you about their bad week or their bad month or worse yet, their bad year?  So when they wake up every single day they just look out at the world and give up before the day even starts? I don’t understand the mentality that they have to wait for some magic sign that the suffering is over. When do they know that the bad day/month/year is over?

When a child is learning to walk, we celebrate each clumsy little step. They are afraid at first, but with each step you can watch them become more confident, more self-assured.  Then they fall. They are scared at first, almost afraid to try again.  But keep watching them and do you know what you may begin to see? They begin laughing when they fall. As parents we may make jokes about “falling down and going boom” and they learn from us to laugh it off and get back up again.  We never ever tell them to stop.

Yet as adults we tell ourselves to stop and give up all the time. We tell ourselves that we have no hope.  We stop celebrating the little steps and laughing when we fall.  We will all fall and we will all have bad days, weeks or even years. We can sit back and cry or we can get back up and celebrate the next good anything.  Having a bad month? Celebrate when you have one good day.  Having a bad day? Celebrate when you have a good hour or even a good minute!  Take joy in the quick little victory.  Break the chain of defeat and celebrate renewal. That’s the glory of time, it keeps going and with each second comes a new opportunity to change and to start over.

That sunrise was tough because yes, the poor teen I knew did not wake up this morning and will never see another sunrise.  His parents woke up for the first of many days to ignore the sunrise and feel sorrow and emptiness.  I woke up to believe that today was another chance to make a difference. To help someone. To support my kids and my family and my world.

I woke up believing that my reflection in the window meant that I am here to live another day and to live it well.  I hope you have a great sunrise!


Stormy thoughts from the window..

So the view today is pretty gloomy if not completely surreal.  Today’s thought revolves around the survival of the human spirit and why some can while others fall away in despair.  It is a tale of an eighteen year old boy with the world at his fingertips who let his spirit fall away to the ravages of mental illness and a woman so driven to fight cultural and social norms to survive that she clung desperately to the sense of hope and never lost her drive to survive.

Like most writers (and aspiring writers) I take some time to teach writing on the college level.  In my case it is at a community college and the students are often a great mix of different types of people with enormrainy windowously different life experiences and goals.  Like many composition classes, we begin with an essay that allows me to get a grip on who the student is.  It’s an essay about change and what happened in the pupil’s life that made them different than they originally were.

No matter how many times I admonish my class that they cannot use teenage drama as the inspiration for change, I normally see at least three or four about the trauma of being dumped by a longtime boyfriend or the cheating best friend who revealed their treachery on prom night much to the lasting despair of the heroine of the story.  Then there are occasionally others.  After reading several pieces of this childish and sometimes painfully boring first effort, I picked up a paper from a student who had recently emigrated from the Sudan. That in and of itself is an interesting journey.

This student shared her history as a child in the under developed nation and being made to feel subservient and inferior in every possible way. She was physically and mentally abused by the males in her family and village because that is what they knew of women’s rights.  That they had none.  With little access to the outside world, this young lady believed that a better world had to exist.  She fixated upon finding a way to escape.  She became pregnant at a young age and that only served to feed her desire to leave for the sake of her child.

Cut to the story of the ways she had to work and cheat and steal her way across the continent, the ocean and in the end find her way with nothing in her pocket but hope.  Her story read like a Hollywood script. Survival, desire and determination of a young woman hell bent on protecting her child and finding a life for them.    It was truly inspiring (and a shame for the others because she set the bar far too high for most of her classmates to even come close!)

Then I look down the street for Ben.  This morning he took a lethal dose of a medication that he ordered online in an effort to end his tragic existence.  He was successful and his parents found him lying peacefully in his bed, resting eternally and finally at peace. Look at his life and you see the polar opposite of my student from Sudan.  He was born into a successful and professional middle class family who acted upon his every wish and desire.  No one could figure out why he suffered so much from anxiety and depression but his attitude in school, fear of being in public and sullen behavior caused his parents to seek therapy. He was often medicated and counselled. He switched schools routinely to find a school that would fit his needs and not require an hour long battle daily for him to be cajoled and coaxed into attempting to go into the school itself.

It seemed that he had overcome that fear, he had been attending the school and even discussing life after graduation. Thoughts he had never shared before.  Yet there they were, seeing what his parents could only call hope.  Inside, however, he had plotted another course to solve the troubles in his head.  One that would cause his family eternal pain and end his own.  Most kids who kill themselves believe that they are a burden to their family, whether that is a real or imagined concern, to them it is a simple reality. How can someone love me when I despise myself?  The storm rages so strongly inside that the outside just appears to be the center of the hurricane.  Calm yet ominous. Never knowing when the calm will fade away and be replaced by the rage and horror of the storm.

This morning the eye passed and he was swept away, another victim of the disease of depression.  It leaves the question of how we teach this young person to have the will and desire to survive and want for something better. How do we transfer her strength into his feeble body?  Can we take a lesson from Dr. Frankenstein and try to capture the lighting in a bottle that would relieve his pain and replace it with her hope and desire? I don’t think so either but one can always believe right?

So today my thought involves looking into those dark windows. Some filled with fear and trepidation but the occupant in the room keeps the shades open and keeps staring at what could be.  The other keeps them closed and peeks out, afraid of what is there and not wanting to see it or be seen.  Both experience fear but one is driven to hope and the other to despair.  Two different windows in the same world.  What do you see?