I was ten years old when a chance meeting informed my path of thinking, of being in and with the world in ways that I am still discovering today.
One early spring afternoon, while riding my bike through the woods—a typical ten year old activity in 1970—a most surprising meeting took place. I was following my usual route, riding down into the gully, through the Sweetgums and Pines, to the stream where I would stop to skip small round rocks.
As I approached the stream I smelled wood burning and followed my nose, making a left, veering off my known path. A very short while later, I abruptly stopped at the sight of a man sitting around a very small campfire. I stood there, straddling my bike, staring at his back when he turned around and said, “Hello.”
I remember feeling ashamed of staring and interrupting his solitude. I felt as though I had frightened a deer. I sensed a gentleness and a bit of sorrow in his eyes.
He introduced himself as Hank. I, still holding the bars of my bike, in case a quick departure became necessary, replied, “I’m Lori.”
I then asked if he lived here, and many other questions that rose in my coming-of-age mind. I had never met anyone living in the outdoors. I was unaware of homeless people, this was not something I had been exposed to growing up in a suburban neighborhood.
Hank, as I learned over the next few months, was a war veteran, loved to tell stories and share his knowledge of living in the forest. I was fascinated and visited quite often. He was my first adult friend and he taught me all about wilderness survival and, as I would reflect later, much about people and life.
One afternoon I rode out to visit Hank to discover that he had moved on. I was heartbroken and went to sit by what had been his campfire circle, a place where we sipped dandelion tea. I closed my eyes, his voice and stories still lingered. As I looked into the circle I noticed a rock. Under it there was a piece of paper, a scrap of old newsprint, crinkled and smudged with my name written on it.
Hank had left me a note.
I am sorry to not be here to say goodbye. I have never been good with sharing such sentiments. I don’t want you to worry or be sad. I thank you for so many things – first, for not being afraid of me. You treated me as a family member and I felt my dignity returned. You listened to my stories and I felt I had something of value to give. You created safe space for me to be myself in the company of another. Who would have thought all of this could come from a chance meeting with a little girl? You may be young, but you see the world through old soul eyes. I felt seen, heard, honored and safe. For all of this I am so grateful to you. I hope you will take your gifts and grace others. For me, well – you have given me the courage to try again with my family. So I am headed home. Maybe this time my family will see me as you do.
May you always shine,
I sat there, in the company of sparrows, for a long while, shedding sad, happy and bewildered tears. I read his note many times. The words that stood out to me then and now are, dignity and create safe space. I somehow have always understood that there is a connection between these ideals.
This single experience—meeting Hank and the words he left me—transformed my inner being, and continues to transform me. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “In every event something sacred is at stake.” I hold this sentiment as truth.
Sometimes we think of transformation as being a singular moment, or perhaps something that occurs within a noticeable period of time. But I believe if the inspiration is felt deeply, carried in one’s soul, that a valued event can be a gift of a lifetime. A presence of awareness that illuminates the way we see the world and informs our core being each and every day of our lives.
Hank gave me the gift of awakening my heart. The Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “An awake heart is like a sky that pours light.”
I am not sure where Hank is or if he still physically graces this earth. What matters most is that he has always been with me. He opened my sky and In many ways continues to be my light.
My meeting with Hank transformed my way of being. His stories and the ways in which he interacted with me, have informed the way I listen to others, see them and respond to their questions and needs. These learnings are values held in my work as a retreat facilitator, human advocate, professional and personal development coach and experiential educator.
I have looked for teachers and mentors who hold similar values and to engage in work that I believe exemplify the lessons that Hank taught me.
I have always wondered how would it be to Create Safe Space within Communities, holding three roots of understanding that began to grow the day I met Hank:
1. We are born into our first learning environment. This choice is not ours and yet is the first root of our understanding. Learning Environments are the dynamic and static spaces that form and shape our experiences and perspectives.
2. Human experience is the root by which we learn to know ourselves and the root we must follow to truly know another person.
3. Creating safe space is imperative to the root of development that nourishes our physical, emotional, relational and spiritual growth. It is not good enough to know safe space through its absence in our lives, we must see it as something that needs and deserves a greater presence.
These roots of understanding inspired the launching of my Social-Profit, Create Safe Space, Inc. We are passionate about building a society engaged in creating learning environments grounded in human awareness and mutual respect. One that embodies character, pro-social skills, and mindful practices – the cornerstones for safe space.
The value of Safe Space isn’t a secret. It is a human need that has been described since ancient times and one that has been articulated by educators, social scientists, theologians and archaeologists.