I don’t know what compelled me to leave the beaten path on the way to my meeting, but almost before I knew it, I was wandering along a rough, ungroomed trail by the river close to downtown. People tend to avoid this trail for fear of encountering the homeless people who normally frequent it.
As soon as I stepped off the pavement, the tight feeling in my chest reminded me why I haven’t taken that trail in over twenty years.
It was almost certainly the trail that my rapist used to get to the window of my basement apartment.
That apartment building was along the river, just up the path from where I entered, and a person could easily sneak in from behind without arousing any suspicion from the street or sidewalk in front of the building. Nobody noticed him slip into my window and take my innocence away.
That path is not a place where good things happen. It’s not a place where respectable people wander. It’s a place where homeless people find shelter from bad weather under concrete overhangs and fallen trees. It’s a place where substance abusers hide from the prying eyes of the police.
Why then was I on the path and why didn’t I turn back? I’m not sure. Something compelled me. Perhaps it was a search for redemption, or a curiosity about what my response would be now, more than twenty years later.
As I got deeper into the path and further from the safety of the street, my throat began to close around my breath. What if I encountered someone who looked like my rapist, in this place where few people would here me scream? What if I stumbled across a crime in process?
At one point I passed a concrete overhang where flattened cardboard boxes and tattered blankets told the story of its inhabitants. “Did my rapist live here?” I wondered.
In some places the path was so muddy from recent flooding that it was nearly impassable. A flip-flop wearing young woman in front of me (the only other person on the trail) slipped and got her foot stuck in the mud. In my sturdier runners and from my place of somewhat more solid ground, I reached out my hand and pulled her out of the mud.
Almost to my destination, I emerged from the path back onto the street. There in front of me was a health centre that was once the hospital where my first daughter was born fifteen years ago. It was only a block from the apartment where I’d been raped nine years before that.
As I walked to my board meeting, I was suddenly overcome by the layers of personal stories that this one city block held for me. First a rape in my early womanhood, then the happy birth that made me a mother, and now, in that same block, a meeting of the board I sit on for the feminist organization that is working to empower marginalized women.
All of these stories coming together in one place. Stories of hurt, happiness, and redemption. Stories of violence, transformation, and fulfilment. Women’s stories, all of them. My stories. The layers of me – from hurt young woman, to excited young mom, to maturing adult ready to use those stories to help other women.
In the end, it was the moment that I stopped to pull the young woman out of the mud that stood out most for me. That was the lesson that I was meant to learn from my wander along the riverbank.
Though I was once the victim of crime, now I was the one who pulled other women out of the mud. The strength of my more sturdy position and appropriate footwear meant that I could reach over and offer others a lifeline.
And that’s what leadership is about – reaching a place on the path where our somewhat more sturdy footing gives us opportunity to offer support and balance to those on less solid ground and less prepared for the situation at hand. We’re still on the path with them, avoiding the muddy patches ourselves, wondering where the path will lead us, worried about the dangers along the way, and yet our life experience and wisdom gives us something to offer other sojourners along the way.
It is both as simple and challenging as that.
Here’s a video I took along the trail.
Note: It seems appropriate that this experience occurred yesterday, just before I leave for my week at ALIA, a place where I will be challenged and encouraged in my leadership journey. This image, of pulling the woman out of the mud, will sit with me as I contemplate where the journey is about to take me.