For most of my life, I numbed, ran away, and avoided, always hiding on the margins, too afraid to confront my demons and too ashamed to reach out for the help I so desperately needed. But through all that time, I was a seeker—longing to find a way back into a place where I didn’t loathe the feel of my own skin, a place where I could simply disappear because I was normal. I know it’s ironic that I wanted to fit in, yet disappear at the same time, but I knew that unlike the soul-destroying self exile that had governed my life for so long, this form of disappearance came hinged with a warm enveloping feeling of acceptance and communion.
My story has been one of fighting my way back from the margins of society—one in which I never had a clear picture or understanding of what I was doing, what I was moving towards, or more accurately, what was moving through me. One of the champions of the marginalized was Thomas Merton, the American Catholic writer and Trappist monk. I’ve always admired his poetic voice and his strong social conscience that appeared to walk the tightrope of contradiction.
There’s a passage from Merton’s The Asian Journal that I find particularly illuminating in what I’ve come to believe as the purpose of everything I’ve battled through in my life. "I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech and beyond concept."
What I’ve had to accept is that I can’t expect “social acceptance” as a precondition to my recovery, be it from the sexual abuse in my past, my battles with depression and suicide, or my continuing struggles with addiction. Somewhere along the way the bruises I tried to conceal by pushing everyone away, became battle scars I am proud of. In rescuing myself, I began to build bridges to others who trust in my path, and it was in this wordless dialogue, that others began to see hope in my story.
This transition has in no way been graceful, or in any sense self-aware or scripted. Much of the time I’ve spent trying to figure out what I should be like, and sound like. I’ve felt like an actor trying to find a way into his part—trying on this voice or that voice, experimenting with different mannerisms. It wasn’t until I threw away everything I thought a survivor should be, and embraced everything I naturally am, blemishes, missteps and all, that I finally found the voice of hope inside that I wanted to display to the world.
Subtly has never been my strong suit, and I wear the mantle of being a slow learner proudly. For me, substantive change has only come on the heals of repeated roadblocks and a lot of vain attempts trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. In biblical terms, I’m waiting for the lighting bolt or burning bush to signal something demands change.
One such burning bush arrived in my life a little over a year-and-half ago, and like most biblical parables, mine appeared in the beauty of nature through the eyes of an innocent child. I had recently begun an extended medical leave from my job as a teacher in order to deal with some recurring issues related to post traumatic stress. Not only was I unable to function in my normal duties in the classroom but also my complete inability to maintain any form of attention span meant that reading and watching television were frustratingly impossible. My only solace was an Adirondack chair on our front porch that offered a sheltered view of the comings and goings in front of our house. Anyone who has lived in a big city is well aware of the frenetic hum and busyness of urban living. But for the first time, I was now so disconnected from my plugged-in, super-charged life that I became a casual observer, an interloper.
We live in a quaint little pocket of Toronto just north of the eastern beach. It’s a community known for its postage-sized front gardens—a natural oasis amidst the tarmac and concrete. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I sat transfixed to the intricate tableau unfolding in front of me. My cool mornings and warm afternoons were spent sitting on the porch watching the world continue on without me, neighbours heading off to work, dog walkers pounding the pavement, and parents walking their children to and from school.
One sunny morning a father and his young daughter walked by on their way to the elementary school down the street. As is typically the case when parents are in a hurry to hustle their children to school, those little minds are in a world of their own, and are easily distracted by everything and anything along the way. The impatient father decided to try to speed things up, so he walked on ahead. It was at that point, that the little girl stopped on the sidewalk in front of our house, and she reached into a makeshift concrete birdbath that we had at the edge of our garden. Living in an area literally overrun with cats, there was not a hope in hell that any bird in its right mind would venture down to what would more than likely be certain death in our birdbath. As a result, the birdbath became a de facto repository for decorative stones we picked up at the beach and various fallen twigs and leaves that I was forever picking out.
As I heard the father’s increasingly frustrated pleas for his daughter to hurry up, the little girl reached into the concrete birdbath and took out one of the more colourful stones. By that point, her father had walked back to grab her, and then, he saw me sitting quietly on our porch. I knew exactly what was going through his mind, as he was embarrassed because his daughter had climbed in amongst our flowers. He immediately scolded her, and told her “she should stay out of people’s gardens." The little girl turned to her father and said: “Mommy lets me do this every day. It’s my wishing bowl. Every day I take a stone out and make a wish.” The father looked like he just wanted to crawl into a hole and die. I’m sure he felt like crap for ripping into the little girl, who didn’t understand why her father didn’t grasp the magic in what she was doing.
After they had walked away, I felt as though I had been jolted awake—It was my burning bush moment. The words uttered by that little girl kept echoing in my head, and the more I thought about it, the more I believed they were the most beautiful words I’d ever heard.
You have to realize that I’d spent the past few weeks feeling completely lost, purposeless, and alone, but in the simple actions of that little girl, I began to realize the simplicity and power of hope and faith in our world. All I needed to do was to figure out a way of silencing all the noise around and inside of me, and begin to focus on the beauty of a moment, the belief in the wonderful.
I decided to latch onto this idea, so I got up from my chair and I searched around the basement for some old wood to use to make a sign, but all I could find was an abandoned wooden cheeseboard, cracked and warped sitting dusty on a shelf. I grabbed the board and a Sharpie marker and fashioned a little sign to place beside our concrete birdbath. In my squiggly penmanship, the sign read:
Take a stone out to make a wish….
Place a stone in to let go of a problem.
As I look back on this, my only motivation for going through all this effort was to see the expression on the little girl’s face the next time she walked by our garden. What I didn’t expect was the reaction our wishing bowl would have on our entire community. The reaction was immediate; as people were rushing by on their way to work, school, or the store, they would stop and read the little sign, and then they would smile, reach down, and take a stone out of the bowl or place one in. Within a week, people were carting stones from God knows where to place into the bowl to “let go of a problem”. Our little wishing bowl that had started its life as only a few decorative stones was now overflowing with pebbles and rocks from the community.
To this day, if you sit on our front porch or catch a furtive glance through the living room window, you are bound to see people stopping at the now famous wishing bowl. I have to say the most surprising thing for me has been the reaction of the groups of teenagers who parade past our house every day on the way to and from the high school down the street. Teenagers seem to unabashedly love the wishing bowl, and it doesn’t appear to matter that they are doing it in front of their friends. We have one elderly man who stops by every morning and takes a rock out and carries it with him for the day. On his way home, he drops another rock off to our wishing bowl. I’ve had countless parents stop and tell me that their kids love the wishing bowl, and how it reminds the hurried adults to slow down for a bit and appreciate the world through the wonder of a child’s eyes.
I believe that there are angels who come into our world to teach us the lessons we are too blind to take notice of. That little girl was one such angel. She opened up a part of me that had been closed for far too long. She reminded me that underneath all of the noise and trappings of our adult life, lies the one thing that so many of us spend our lives desperately seeking out--the glimmer of hope. As I sit down to write this, I began thinking about the difference between the words wish and hope. Most of us use these words interchangeably, but there is indeed a subtle difference. A “hope” refers to a person’s desires, and it is attached to strong emotion with the expectation that something is doable with a little effort. For instance, I “hope I get the promotion at work,” whereas a “wish” is often associated with magic, sorcery, or a strong yearning. You wish when you blow out birthday candles, or when you hold your breath and silently dream of good fortune. When you think about it, wishes are boundless, and they are magic in that they are not steeped in, nor weighted down by typical adult pessimism.
As I become more comfortable sitting with that voice inside that whispers to my soul, I’m learning that serenity can be found in the midst of adversity by “wishing” more and “hoping” less. If this means going against the grain and continuing to reside in what Thomas Merton lovingly referred to as the “margin of society”, I choose to live a life steeped in magic and optimism, and if that borders on blind naivety at times, then so be it. Our little wishing bowl is not just a neighbourhood novelty; it’s become a metaphor for a more joyous way of life.
I’m not going to lie to you; there are definitely times when I feel that my new way of life is counter to everything that the mainstream world operates on. There are times I feel frustrated, lonely, and utterly despondent, but it’s in these moments that I remind myself that I found my voice and my passion on the margins of society. Once again, I can seek solace in the words of Thomas Merton: "Do not depend on the hope of results. …You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."
And it is here, in this space of endlessly falling but never hitting ground, where I need the most faith in my direction. When I quiet myself long enough to hear that whispering in my soul, I’m resolute. I intuitively accept that despite wherever we are now in our lives, in the face of what might appear to be insurmountable pain and struggle, deep down we are all worthy of love, and are without a doubt, superior to circumstance.