Tracking Wonder Quest 2016- Day two. Prompt by Jonathan Fields.
You wake up to discover a knock at your door. A wealthy uncle you barely knew has passed and left you a fortune. It’s more than enough to live out your days in glorious splendor, but there is a condition. To be eligible to collect, you must commit your full-time working energies to the pursuit of an answer to a single question of your choosing for the next 12 months.
You are welcome to continue that pursuit after the year ends, for years or decades if it warrants, but you must remain fully focused on seeking the answer until the last minute of the 365th day. A minute shorter, the entire inheritance goes to your annoying and equally long lost cousin, Philly.
What is your question?
Since 1987, after almost being murdered by a crack addicted mentally ill young man who randomly jumped me in a parking lot, slashed my throat and left me for dead, I’ve been obsessed about violence, more specifically obsessed about helping those who suffer at the hands of it. So at twenty nine, after this attack, I had a vision, a dream, something I wanted to do that would help those the way I so desperately needed. In 1987, very little was known about PTSD, and at the time the only support groups I could find were for rape survivors at the local Women’s Health Center in Houston, Texas. There was other help out there: a Victim Assistance program connected to the courts that helped maneuver victims through the judicial system and the Victim’s Compensation Fund sponsored by the state of Texas that helped survivors get money to pay for counseling, lost property, and lost wages. What was missing, however, was a place where people could go and get support from others who had lived through this same nightmare.
This dream of mine which I told my therapist in complete earnest had two parts: I wanted to write a book that would help other survivors heal from random violence and I wanted to open a center, a safe place for survivors to go. The model I had in mind was based on the twelve step AA clubs sprinkled through out the city, places I hung out where others like me could share our stories in safe spaces with support from other people who had the same problem. It was a good and valid dream. My counselor agreed. But, God in her/his wisdom had other plans for me.
One night in early December in 1988, I walked into a meeting in a bad mood. I was deep in PTSD, newly sober, scared, and broke. I’d been to this meeting quite a few times before. There was a man next to me who took one look at me and could see I was in bad shape.
“What’s wrong? he asked.
I looked at him and just spilled: “I was attacked a year ago March and almost killed, I’m working at a job I hate that doesn’t pay enough money, my student loans are coming due, my car is falling apart, I can’t find a full time college teaching job in English, and I have no idea how I’m going to survive financially. Right now, my life sucks.”
He nodded, leaned over with his arms crossed and said in a low voice, “Call Tomball College. There’s a position open out there right now.”
I shook my head, “No there isn’t. I just got off the phone with North Harris County College District’s personnel office yesterday and they told me there were no available positions in English anywhere in the entire district. It’s the middle of the school year. No one’s hiring.”
He was adamant. “I’m telling you, call Tomball College. There is an opening. Call them tomorrow.”
I listened; I called; I got the job. At the interview, I found out the position had been listed as a developmental writing/English position, so when I called the personnel office it didn’t come up as an English position. Such is the magic of walking into a spiritual fellowship and being willing to open one’s mouth and being willing to listen. I went back to that meeting many times looking for him. I wanted to shake his hand, give him a hug, tell him I’d listened, that I landed the job, and that I was deeply grateful. I never saw him again. I consider him one of my twelve step angels.
So off I went and for the next twenty two years, I taught literature and all forms of writing to freshman and sophomores, the dream of that center faded into the distance. But, I kept my drive and did what I could to help other survivors. I lived in that question every day and when the opportunity came up I acted on it. Here’s how: in all my classes, I was open about who I was and what I’d been through. I was a fearless writer, a fearless professor, someone who was not afraid to show the students who she was: I was not afraid to tell them what had happened to me, I was not afraid to show them I didn’t know all the answers, and as the years went by I found myself not afraid to tell them in my office that I was a recovering alcoholic. After all, a professor at the School of Public Health where I worked that shitty job was the person responsible for helping me see the light around my own alcoholism. He was not afraid to keep his sobriety secret either and because of him, I’d been continuously sober since Sept 30th, 1988.
Each semester in the first week I would introduce myself to the students, tell them I was a writer and a poet, tell them the few places I’d published poems (they always asked), and that I was working on a memoir about healing physically, psychologically, and spiritually from that attack in 1987. They were hungry for details about the attack, so I got the story down to a quick ten minute talk during the first week and told them they’d have to wait for more until I finished the book, but I covered all the bases: who, what, where, when, how, and most importantly did he get caught? And I would cover them all finishing with yes, he got caught, indeed, he did.
In my creative writing classes, I taught writing practice as it had been taught to me by my long time teacher Natalie Goldberg. I would write at my desk along with the students. Many times I’d share parts of what I was working on aloud, always going last so I didn’t intimidate them. Every Tuesday and Thursday we wrote together for the first ten to fifteen minutes. The cw students learned to trust me. I read my rough crappy writing to them too and was willing to show them I was a human being with problems too. I’d read aloud and laughingly tell them I didn’t live under the desk. As the years went by, multitudes of students (many from the creative writing classes) showed up in my office willing to divulge their biggest problems and secrets: I heard stories of rape, I heard stories of sexual abuse, I heard stories of random acts of violence, I heard stories of drug and alcohol abuse that ended in violence.
I heard so much that by the end of my career if a student came in and acted afraid, but needed to spill, I’d tell him/her that there was not much left that could shock me. And with each student, I’d listen deeply, then I’d give them handouts I thought might help: pamphlets on PTSD, on rape, on domestic violence, on suicide crisis hotlines, on self harm, and of course alcohol and drug abuse, anything I could get my hands on from the counselor’s office. Then (if they chose), I’d personally walk them to the counselor’s office, supporting them while they screwed up the courage to set up an appointment to get professional help, deeper help than I could give. Many years into it, it dawned me: my goal had manifested itself in my life in the form of that small office.
At twenty nine when I took that job, I took it with mixed fillings because I was on a mission that I’m still on, a question I have lived in every day since that awful night in March: How do I help alleviate the pain of those who have suffered at the hands of violence? That’s the question.
Now the hard part. Would I take the money? It’s tricky business, money with conditions, but I also view money as a spiritual force, a tool that can be used to create great damage in the world, or used to create great change. Money has come and gone in my life, but, spirituality speaking, it has usually shown up at the right time, and usually I’ve gotten just what I needed at the exact time I needed it, many times coming from directions i would never have imagined. I view it as part of the spiritual dance. I have never forgotten my twelve step angel.
So, would I take that money from that imaginary long lost uncle? You bet your ass I would. And here is what I would do. I would contact the executor of my uncle’s estate and because these attorneys do this also, I’d ask at end of the year that a trust fund for a foundation be created for one mission: to create centers to alleviate the pain from those who suffer at the hands of violence. Then I would spend that whole year doing what I wanted to do before I took that teaching job: write, research, and scour the earth for the wisest people I could find to help. Perhaps then, I could achieve the goal that deeply wounded twenty nine year old woman cooked up in her head when she was in the darkest place in her life, determined to heal, determined to help others, and determined to dream big.
More About Jonathan Fields:
Jonathan Fields is a New York City dad, husband and lawyer turned award-winning author, media producer, and entrepreneur. His last book, Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel For Brilliance (Portfolio 2011) was named the top personal development book in 2011 by 800-CEO-READ.
Jonathan’s current focus, Good Life Project, is a global movement that inspires, educates, connects, and supports mission-driven individuals in the quest to live better, more engaged, connected, and aligned lives.