Photo provided by K. Dawn Goodwin
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K. Dawn Goodwin continued, “When my husband — a man who’d never once been alone with all three kids at the same time – decided to punish me by testifying that I was a derelict mother, I lost custody of my babies. I was relegated to the shameful role of visitor, and the doors swung open on the darkest years of my life.
But I did emerge, and with many lessons learned.
The first was, how blindly I’d been trusting humans and human-made institutions. I realized that it didn’t matter how good your heart, how noble your deeds, how honest your words. The judicial system – like so many other institutions – simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t even care that it doesn’t work. It daily grinds up the innocent and spits them into the same pile as the guilty without so much as a moment’s hesitation. Justice isn’t about truth; it’s about who tells the worst lie.
I began to look with new eyes upon people accused of crimes, those incarcerated and stripped of rights and freedoms and custody. What were their stories? Were they like mine? If injustice could happen to me, your average suburban white girl, it could happen to anyone. Indeed, the more I looked, the more I asked, the more I realized it was happening all around me.
During this time, most of my friends receded, disappeared, or revealed themselves with cold behavior and callous comments. At my children’s claustrophobically small school, there was an unspoken consensus about my guilt, as if my scarlet letter was obvious to everyone but me. When I got over the shock and pain of that, it dawned on me that a large gaggle of girlfriends is really not much more than an illusion; that fun feeling of togetherness is based on a very tenuous set of superficial rules. This understanding helped me let go of my lifelong need to care what others thought of me. I began to cleave more closely to myself, to my own path, my own heart. I honed a keener sense for when people are being true-hearted, as opposed to just blowing smoke up your ass.
Ironically, the wreckage of my life gave birth to a renewed sense of self respect. Because instead of letting my spirit get snuffed out like so many women do, or cowering inside the prison of groupthink, I had stepped forward and asked for more: more love, more help, more time, more freedom. A better life. And instead of waiting for someone to save me, I had saved myself. This act of uncharacteristic courage made me wonder about Who I Really Was and what other great things I might be capable of. Yes, my husband and the powers that be had soundly smacked me down, but something told me they wouldn’t have the last word.
As I managed through those years only seeing my children half the time, without rights or the ability to shape their destiny in any way, reduced to following the cruel orders of other women, of my ex-husband, of his mother, I felt truly bereft and broken, as if I’d been thrown into a raging river and was careening toward my doom. No matter how much money I spent or what lawyer I called or how many letters I wrote or evidence I dug up – no dry land appeared. Those times were scary and terrible. Scary and terrible doesn’t quite do it justice. It made me want to give up. But each time I survived another one of those moments, the light inside me seemed to shine with greater tenacity. I had always had within me a kind of irresistible inner knowing. Before I detoxed from Christianity I used to call it God. I have other names for it now. Call it whatever you want to, the point is when you’re about to drown, that still, small voice gets pretty loud.
I stubbornly believe that adversity arrives to teach us about ourselves, if we’d like to learn. But as my life broke apart before me, I often felt like I was fighting against a deadly current. Could I let go and trust that this river was here to carry me, and not to kill me? Often I did both simultaneously. Sometimes I alternated. But I always sensed that no matter which perspective I chose, it was just that: a choice. I was going to end up at the same place regardless. The only thing that changed was my experience: one way was pain, the other peace.
I practiced meditation and visualization to help turn down the volume on all the worst-case-scenarios churned out by my computer-like brain. Sometimes I just sat and breathed in light. Other times I shook my fist at the universe and demanded reinforcements and restitution for this, my broken life. But in that practice of quiet connection, a deeper vibration began to resonate – a detached sort of certainty that I would have my children back, somehow, some way. A way would reveal itself. The tides would turn. This knowing lived alongside my ragged emotions but did not intersect them. It didn’t stop the pain of not seeing my children, of losing battle after battle, but it helped me let go of the pain more easily. I didn’t have to understand the resolution to know it was coming. I didn’t have to stage a resistance every morning. I could feel the way forward with my heart, instead of hammering it to death inside my head. Whenever I had my babies with me, I would fill them with my love, and whenever I didn’t, I would trust. And when I couldn’t do either very well, I would write like I’d never written before.
During this period, after five years of my babies being constantly underfoot and in my arms, it was horrifying and heart crushing how quiet my house was. The phone calls to my babies, who were 1, 3 and 5 at the time, nearly broke me. I was so worried. I was so powerless. It was so unfair. At the same time, I had no choice but to deal. You can only cry so much. You can only call your mom so many times a day. So I began to write – not about the divorce, but silly stories from my childhood. Stories about trying to be a Christian girl when none of the Bible’s messages – or the world’s messages for that matter – made any sense. The stories I penned were simple and funny on the surface, but something deeper was going on underneath. I was turning over old stones. I was seeking truth. I was finding my voice. I was answering my calling. It didn’t look like much at the time, but it didn’t have to. The most remarkable things never start out looking very remarkable.”
Her advice, “If I could offer any advice to women going through divorce, I would encourage them to take back their power, in whatever form that takes.
If you’ve been living for a long time in a world where you don’t matter, where you exist only to take care of everyone but yourself, standing up and demanding to be treated as well as men may send shockwaves. Your world may get turned on its ear for a while. You may lose friends. Sometimes there is a moment of overcompensation when the ship is righting itself. But when you have enough courage to put yourself first for a change, to find out who you are and what you have to say? Miracles can happen. And, the ripple effect? You can’t even imagine.
Everyone always told me, when one door closes, another opens. But they usually forgot to mention the long, dark corridor that exists between the two. Your past just locked you out and your bright shiny future has no guarantees of ever opening up. It’s like Dead Man Walking, only every day there is a stay of execution so you can walk it all over again tomorrow. But this lonely stretch of unknown was the space where I learned to pursue my bliss; where I had enough solitude to let my talents come out of hiding – and where I was desperate enough to rely on them. I followed my imagination doggedly, even when it seemed like it was leading me in the wrong direction. I just wanted to find out if there was a method to its madness. I wanted to find out if I really had something inside me worth sharing.
I can’t tell you how to handle what you’re facing, but I can tell you what I learned: that there is value in tragedy and loss. It destroys, but it also clears away the bullshit, and quick. And then it will pass, and leave you with gifts, like earth that becomes richer after a fire. Someday you can use those wounds to heal others. And that pain you’re suffering will become your most beautiful song.”
Dawn closed with detail about her books, “My current memoir, Until He Comes (Simon & Schuster 2011) shares my personal, hilarious and raunchy girlhood failures as I tried to navigate the murky waters of fundamentalism, sex, and the search for Any Available Savior. My upcoming memoir, Country Wrong, is about the fallout: being pregnant, barefoot and naïve – with three kids, no money, no help and no future. It’s the story of the brutal punishment I received from the kangaroo courts of the deep south – and from other mothers – as I fled the sinking ship of my marriage and tried to course-correct. It’s about curling up with a sweet country song and waking up in the middle of the American nightmare.”