I lost it all.
And I mean everything; the work I loved co-directing a nationally recognized animal sanctuary, my vehicle (I watched as it was driven away by the repo man), my home (it was foreclosed upon and then sold at auction), and my marriage to an amazing and extraordinary soul.
When the dust settled, what remained were some clothes, a used vehicle given as a gift, and my beloved Boston Terrier, Harmony.
A New Set Of Digs
Harmony and I were welcomed into the home of my two brothers and sister-in-law and given a respite from the cumulative stress of these tragic life events.
This new place was different from the one I had so happily lived for the previous 13 years. But different is not always a bad thing, and the souls who resided there, my family and my dog, created a new sense of safety and comfort, a veritable oasis in the desert of my being.
In this less traditional sanctuary, one that doubled as a standard two-story home, I began to ponder, reflect, and grieve the loss of so much I held dear.
What’s In The Suitcase?
Unpacking not long after arriving, I discovered something on each piece of my clothing; a large, red scarlet letter.
In my case, it was not the typical, “A” as in adulterer, but rather an, “S” for shame.
I did, of course, know the word, and the intense feelings it created. Nonetheless, I was compelled to seek the actual definition, and what I found was both chilling and disturbing: “a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.”
This hit a little too close to home for my liking as I indeed felt a deep sense of personal humiliation and disgrace.
My Recent Past
Before my collapse, I had been an integral member of the small community where my former wife, Deanna and I ran a celebrated animal sanctuary.
But after a steep fall from grace brought on by overwhelming clinical depression, a near suicide, and subsequent time in a psychiatric hospital, I felt as if life had evicted me from my loving relationship, the work I found purposeful, and the tiny hamlet that was the true definition of, “home.”
However, looking back now, I realize the eviction was self-imposed, the order served up by myself, for myself.
I was both the judge and the jury, the accuser and the criminal. And as the gavel fell, I felt the punishment was fully warranted and fit what I considered to be my crimes.
In succumbing to decades-long mental illness, and in turn becoming unable to function at my previous high level, I believed I had failed my wife, the animals, our supporters, friends, family, the community, the bank that held my mortgage, and our “we got your back” neighbors.
I was convinced I had let everyone down, and at a minimum, I should be shunned, embarrassed, and decorated with a clear warning to others to steer away from the contagion I had become.
“Don’t get too close to him; you may get some of it on you.”
“For God’s sake don’t be seen with him, you risk the possibility of being cast off to a place where the unwanted go to live out their days; safely away so they can’t hurt anyone anymore.”
In truth, these words never came from the mouths of others. Instead, they were spoken at deafening levels from the feelings of self-hatred I harbored deep inside.
In truth, shame spoke them.
Shame Is Heavy
Shame is bulky, odd shaped, and dense.
Shame is grossly colored, ugly and smelly.
Shame is the worst of all the negative emotions rolled into a singular expression of personal disgust.
No right-minded soul would pay to own it, but it nonetheless lives in the center of many a person, some for a short time, others for a lifetime.
I fell into the latter category, so firmly a part of this lot that I wasn’t surprised the scarlet letter had finally appeared.
But, one day, when I stood witness to a miracle, shame finally met its match.
One Thing Can Lead To Another
To better understand the actors in the scene of the incredible day I am about to share with you, it’s important to know there were many wonderful people who came to volunteer at the sanctuary.
Chores at the sanctuary were hard and exhausting. But, for the volunteers the intense duties came with their unique benefits; if you scooped the poop, you could have all the time you want with a whole bunch of cute, furry souls.
In the end, however, while the reward was worth the required effort, the demands of this kind of down and dirty work proved too much for many.
But, there were others, a select group of truly committed, hardy souls, who fully embraced the tasks, and worked, and worked, and worked.
Of this special group, the mother-daughter combo of Heidi (mom), Cali (older sister) and Alex (younger sister), were far and away the best.
Mom felt it important that her beloved daughters have an experience of volunteering, and since Cali and Alex both loved animals, putting in time at the sanctuary seemed like a perfect fit; an altruistic service to a population they loved and adored.
And so, they came every week.
During school, they arrived after a full day of learning, and on the weekends their efforts were sandwiched in between extracurricular activities.
In the winter it rained, and they came.
In the summer it was hot, and they came.
When there was a holiday, they came.
They showed up, and they showed up, and they showed up.
When It Ended
After the sanctuary closed, I lost track of my beautiful family.
But then, one day, I ran into Heidi.
To be honest, I saw Heidi first and tried to turn the other way and duck out of sight. But my plan was foiled, and I was discovered.
Heidi greeted me with authentic enthusiasm, and this confused me since I knew she must have seen my blaring scarlet letter.
Ignoring the obvious large, red, “S,” Heidi shared that Cali was graduating from high school, there was going to be a party, and the girls would LOVE to see me.
“Will you please come and surprise them?,” pleaded Heidi.
I was given the details, implored once more to come, and then Heidi, and I said our goodbyes.
Truthfully, I left never intending to go to the party, but I did feel strangely lighter, my scarlet letter surprisingly dimmer than before my chance encounter with Heidi.
The day of the party came, and while driving home from church, I had this intense feeling I should go to the party.
Why on earth would I do that?
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” said my inner self.
Stupid all knowing, insightful, spiritual side of me.
I drove past the house and saw an active party scene. There were cars and people and balloons. Added was an energy of cheer and delight that hung in the air like a brightly colored banner.
I parked down the street in an effort both hide from view and be able to make a quick exit should I, at last, come to my senses.
I was walking up the sidewalk, still at least 25 yards from the house, when Alex suddenly burst through the front door and then began sprinting down the sidewalk towards me.
I froze as she approached and was promptly overcome when Alex jumped into my arms and swallowed me up with an embrace that is impossible to describe accurately.
Suffice it to say ice cream wasn’t in the league of this delight.
Alex released me, only to then grab me by the hand and pull me towards the house. As she did, Alex was giddy and smiling so broadly that I was confused, thinking maybe there was a celebrity inside or at least a magician.
We walked up to the house, and dad, Greg, was the next to envelop me in a warm embrace.
Strange, yet wonderful genetics were obviously at play here.
Alex and I went inside and saw Heidi.
“I’m so glad you came!” she cried.
Now, it was into the kitchen to find the graduate, Cali.
Alex and I found our girl, and when Cali recognized who was with her sister, suddenly the party was all about me.
Cali rushed forward and yet again, embraced me in a way that evoked both grace and acceptance at the same time.
Time To Go
Cali, Alex and I chatted, shared, and reminisced.
We laughed, cried, and connected, deeply.
It was then time for me to leave, but before I did, I excused myself and went to the restroom.
Before leaving I went to the sink to wash my hands, and while doing so, looked in the mirror.
There was no scarlet letter.
It was gone.
I adjusted the light, rubbed my eyes, and once again peered at my reflection.
Still no big, red, “S.”
Where did it go?
I don’t know.
But what I do know was at that moment I was lighter, happier, and more peaceful than I had been in a very long time.
I tasted forgiveness of self on my lips, heard the buzz of acceptance in my ears, and felt the breeze of compassion suddenly rush across my skin.
There had indeed been a magician inside, in this case, a group of them; an amazing family, people who had come years before to serve animals, come back around to serve me.
These were selfless servants, messengers of peace, masters of the slight of hand.
But this was no illusion.
These were honest-to-God true magicians, the kind who really can make things disappear. In my case, they vanished a big, heavy, damming thing called shame.
This life-altering experience, one that still colors my soul, all began with an invitation to a party, and a beautiful young woman running out of the house and down the street to me.
And, with a single hug, she took away my scarlet letter, forever.
This experience, on that amazing day, taught me much.
I have come to know there are many of us who find our clothing adorned with scarlet letters of all types. The actual letters may be different, but they are fashioned from the same material; shame.
But the truth is, our letters are only visible to us. Others don’t see us as less than because of some letter that in reality doesn’t exist.
We are the ones who stitch a scarlet letter to every garment. The sturdy thread is made up of a strong condemnation of self for what we believe to be our unforgivable wrongs.
Yes, we have all made mistakes, and fallen short, but not one of us deserves to be held captive and burdened with the demon of shame.
But, even with this knowledge, we may not know how to remove these scarlet letters from not only our clothing but from our bodies underneath.
The good news is, we don’t need to know how because others already do.
Others know the power of offering up grace and acceptance, and how simple words such as, “I admire you,” “I forgive you,” “You’re important to me,” and “I love you” can wipe away a letter we believe to be there.
And when they offer us these gifts, in the form of real magic, we can then stand in front of the looking glass and realize not only is there no scarlet letter in sight, it was never there in the first place.
Shame can be erased.
Shame can be silenced.
And our scarlet letters can be taken away, forever.