We live in a time of global tribulation where humanity is being swallowed up by economic inequalities, a politics of resentment and a zeitgeist of separatism. Add on top of this a pandemic that has taken our sense of community—the one thing that mends broken spirits—and isolated us behind masks and social distancing, we are withdrawing into ourselves while clinging to our phones. Our abilities to connect in person being curbed by the fear of infections and the risks posed by a clandestine plague, we self-medicate by binging on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We are staying connected virtually while we lose connections with friends, family and neighbors in reality.
I don’t write these things to sink you further into anguish but to offer this nugget of hope while we are stuck in the midst of a global crucible. I know from first-first hand experience that the darkest moments—the times where depression is the one reliable friend that consoles and solitude becomes our soundtrack—are the wombs from which joys are birthed. It’s like bringing a child into this world; after nine months of morning sicknesses, restricted movements, nausea induces by arbitrary aromas and the excruciating pains of delivery, all pains are forgotten when a mother holds her newborn child in her hands.
I’m not preaching to you in theory but from a place of a lived reality. Four years ago today, I was residing at a community called Harvest Farm in Wellington, Colorado where I worked full time in the kitchen as a “chef” feeding over 67 fellow broken souls. Gone was the six figure salary I was raking in in 2014, all the sudden I was making a stipend of $7.00 a week. I’ve written occasionally about my two year odyssey that led me away from a life of uber-privilege where I worked as a high priced consultant in DC and right into the embrace of homelessness and privation as I joined America’s invisible citizens. I recount this story not to dwell in past pain but to convey that present circumstances do not define us and that hardships eventually give us meaning and profound gratitude.
As much as I know this now, when I was in knee-deep in poverty, the last thing I thought about was hope and change. I was too stuck in victim mode to realize that I was actually braving a journey that would give my life depth and the very purpose that eluded me while working at Booz Allen Hamilton. Far from counting my blessings, I woke up each morning bitter and vengeful, the one thing I coveted above all was not money nor a home, I wanted to be vindicated.
There is no jail in this world that locks up souls more than homelessness; the chances of getting out of the misery wrought by indigence is harder to escape than the gravity of Jupiter. Chief among the reasons why so many end up on the streets for life are the stigmas that comes attached with destitution and the resentment that beggary stirs into the psyche of the indigent.
Many people think that the homeless chose their fate because they would rather beg than work, this is a line of thought that is equally ignorant and immoral. No one chooses to be poor. The truth is that once someone is broken by society’s indifference and the loss of self-confidence, it is exceedingly hard to get oneself up by the bootstrap—especially when those bootstraps are connected to shoes with worn out soles.
The first year of my encounter with displacement, what we call Sedet in my native language Amharic, was one of lashing out and weeping into the night while sleeping on donated mattresses. I felt like a mix of Joseph and David in the First Testament; at once begging God for deliverance only to curse his name in another breath. I went on this way for most of 2015 and half of 2016 until a random act of kindness changed my life and opened up the pathway for my redemption.
Life at Harvest Farm was a spartan existence; we slept in barracks where your next door neighbor slept in a bed a few feet away without any walls or any sense of privacy to speak of. Sixty-seven people shared two laundry rooms with four washing machines and four dryers in each. On more than one occasion, I put my clothes in the washing machine only to return and find the few possessions that I had strewn all over the floor—hurt people only find comfort by hurting others who are hurting too.
On one particular Sunday, after putting my clothes in the washing machine, I set my timer so I could come back right before the cycle finished only to end up falling asleep while reading a book. When I woke up, I immediately walked over to the laundry room expecting my clothes to be tossed about the floor. Fuming before I even confirmed the scenarios that were playing in my head, what I found next is a gift that irrevocably changed my life. Instead of finding my handed down garb scattered on the ground, I found them neatly folded and stacked in the corner.
What someone did for me that day was unshackle me from grievance; the scales of animus were shed from my eyes by a random act of a fellow broken resident—to this day I haven’t identified of the angelic culprit. That deed of compassion from someone who was just as impoverished and hopeless as I was shifted my mind and it’s for that reason that I am writing this article from the comforts of my home office instead of shuffling between shelters and missions. Shortly after that life-altering experience, my chaplain advised me to start writing, at first I pushed back but I eventually heeded his counsel.
The first day I opened up the notebook he gave me and started writing, I felt like a toddler trying to figure out quantum physics. The very thing I loved and a craft I’ve been honing since I was in elementary school escaped me like Red breaking out of Shawshank. I could not conjugate a simple sentence nor could I compose a cogent thought; depression robbed me of creativity and hopelessness shrouded inspiration in a blanket of ennui.
As much as I wanted to give up, I kept pushing forward. Bit by bit, one unintelligible sentence at a time, Serendipity returned. This is why my first book is titled Serendipity’s Trace with a blurred out picture of a woman in the background with a feather pen bleeding a teardrop of the old Ethiopian map. The cover picture represents memories of a country that I love but was forced to flee, the pains of my mom who struggled with depression and the fact that my own life was blurred by poverty and uncertainties—my pen became therapy and my sanctuary. Those poems and musings were my North Star to liberation. What started off in a notebook eventually shifted to Facebook, I started writing one observation after another about life, politics, culture and history on social media.
And that is when life fundamentally changed. One day, I wrote a missive titled “Memo to She”, an homage to the strength and bravery of women. Proving that no good deed will go unpunished, even though most loved what I wrote, there were a fringe few who called me all kinds of names and said that I was “mansplaining” because I had the nerve to write that men might have greater physical power but women have an even greater power that is nurturing love.
There was a part of me that wanted to engage in combat and spit back the vitriol that was coming my way, I finally learned through hard knocks to not take the bait each time someone throws pebbles from the sideline—I just bated my breath and refused to act in kind. That decision was rewarded mightily, on December 1st, 2016, I received a notification that Bethlehem Bekele had liked what I wrote. That like was followed up by a note of encouragement. That encouragement led to conversations via messenger and that night I took a leap on forming an authentic friendship instead of being cocooned in seclusion.
After I finished my shift in the kitchen, I headed back to the barracks and called Bethlehem from the community phone. We talked for five hours about everything. Confined as I was to Harvest Farm, I traveled the world with her that night. We have not gone a day without talking to each other since that time.
A few days after Bethlehem and I connected and after she read my copious observations, she asked me why I was writing on Facebook and counseled me to get a website. At first I resisted, I romanticized the idea of just giving away what I wrote to anyone who could find it but she noted that people are not on Facebook to read deep reflections and contemplate life, most are there to scroll through timelines and read headlines. I saw her point of view and consented. Welcome to the world of Teodrose, my first reaction is to push back and debate; a habit formed by political sparing sessions I used to frequently have with my dad in the back of his taxi cab.
After kicking around a few ideas for a domain name, we eventually settled on the Ghion Journal, a tribute to a river in Ethiopia that was renamed by some with mischievous aims to the Nile but what we Ethiopians have always called Abay Ghion. Bethlehem paid for the domain and the hosting plan and I built the website at the public library after my shift was completed. This is why we call each other the co-founder of the Ghion Journal, her advice and her tender opened up the door and I used my skills to set up the site and then transitioned my writings from Facebook to this website.
In time, Bethlehem and I realized that we were falling in love. Separated by 2,000 miles and two time zones, she saw the best in me when everyone else, including myself, saw brokenness. Her kindness and love healed a part of my heart that was damaged almost beyond repair. Between our conversations and the creative outlet that came from writing, I stopped feeling like life was over and I started to look for possibilities instead of thinking I had nothing left.
Breathing words of encouragement and #healing into people is my superpower.
— Bethlehem Bekele (@BettyBeke) November 20, 2020
There are other parts to our story that I will write in a book about one day, there are layers and levels that I can’t capture in one article. Besides, I revert back to the wisdom that Bethlehem imbued in me, the same way that people don’t go to Facebook to be contemplative, neither do people expect to read in articles what they would find in books. I might be stubborn but I learn and apply eventually.
I give you this Cliffs Notes version of my journey to convey this underlying message, present circumstances do not mean perpetual hopelessness. The darkest nights in time give way to the brightest dawns. I know that there are people who are enduring their own woes at this time, especially during these holiday times that once served as occasions to celebrate with families and count blessings with many that have all the sudden been reduced to prayers over Zoom meetings and hug emojis replacing the embraces of loved ones.
Yet where there is despair, there too resides hope. Whatever comes next, wherever this journey takes us, I know that there is a redemption song that will arrive once this sad melody ends. The way to heal during these difficult moments of strife, detachment and angst is not to turn inward and be inert but to seek out therapy by way of ingenuity. My brother once said that an idle mind leads to ruins; if we are not creative by deploying our skills outward, our brain will flow inward and become destructive.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself and be kind to others. We live in a world where the few who have monopolized wealth and resources employ agitators who try to convince us to be angry and to get confrontational with others who are hurting too. These demagogues are not helping you, they are trying to disempower you and lock you up in the Shawshank of victimization. Our greatest power, more potent than any weapon invented by man, is the love within us that is the source of life.
As for the title of this article “Dust to Diamonds”, I initially came up with that title to write about this video below that I actually produced at the same public library in Fort Collins, Colorado where I constructed this website. But as I started writing, I was moved to write about something bigger than the backstory of the video. Sometimes, when it comes to art, we don’t create as much as we channel energies that pour through us and are manifested by our hands.
Life is poetic even if it as times tragic, part of my last name, Fikre, means my love in Amharic. Bethlehem’s last name Bekele means to grow. The love that I gave up on, the last name which I repudiated when I was bitter and alone, Bethlehem restored and she turned my love which I disavowed into our love which grows. Our son’s name is Yohannes, the same name as a once Emperor of Ethiopia by the name of Atse Yohannes who betrayed my grandfather five generations removed by the name of Atse Tewodros. Where the past was pain and conflict, Bethlehem gave birth to a child name Yohannes Tewodrose who is pure joy—love covers up all transgressions even the ones from the past. Love, creativity and kindness. These three are the way we turn dust to diamonds, but of these three, the greatest of all is love and that is how my sorrow was transformed. #Dust2Diamonds Click To Tweet
After two years of dancing alone to the beat of unending grief, I was able to rise from the ashes, find a job that is a hundred times more fulfilling than the job I lost six years ago which then enabled me to purchase a ring that I gave to my wife two years ago only for us to have a son who is our greatest treasure. From tata came worq, as in from troubles arrived gold. Life, you see, is poetic if you only look past the sentences of hardship and look for the stanzas of gratefulness. This is how dust gets transformed into diamonds::
Don’t be ashamed of your failures, that will only bury you in depression and rob you of your power::
This little guy is the reason @TeodroseFikre and I continue to talk about #healing. He’s mixed with many different #Ethiopian cultures. When he gets older, we want him to be able to look at a map and know where #Ethiopia is. #HealEthiopiaTogether pic.twitter.com/Mu0WbiROZr
— Bethlehem Bekele (@BettyBeke) November 25, 2020
Post script: though I still don’t know who folded my clothes, I have a hunch it was my friend Ben, who is pictured below, he was drastically different than me, we did not share the same complexion, his political outlook was different than mine, and his life experiences were nothing like the experiences I had. But we formed a friendship despite our differences because we shared conversations instead of yelling past each other. There is a message in that for those who have been conditioned to believe that fellow strugglers are their problems.
I usually put a contribution section at the bottom of my articles so that readers can contribute to Ghion Journal and the author as they are able, that is the model Bethlehem and I chose for our publication instead of taking ad revenues. However, today, I ask you not to contribute to Ghion Journal nor to me, but to donate as you are able to Harvest Farm. Click here or on the barn below to be redirected to Harvest Farm’s website and give as you are able. Your kindness can save a soul like mine.
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