I wake alone, in the closet of a bare room. I’ve been sleeping in the closet in case whoever is selling this empty house comes in for an inspection. This much I know somehow, at 13; that people inspect empty houses.
The mornings are lonely. I clean up the evidence of my hideaway-a bag of empty cookies, a few dirty clothes and the only blanket my boyfriend could steal for me.
I have just enough view out the bedroom window to see a police car pulling up in front of the empty house. Time slows as the obnoxious recognizable vehicle rolls to a stop. Fear washes over me as understanding dawns. It is over. “Fuck.”
Two decent male officers step out, both round, one shorter than the other, into the brilliant warmth of summer. They head over to the house next door, my boyfriend’s house. I don’t want to be caught breaking in and entering in this stranger’s house. I sneak out the back and I move to the street.
I can’t run, I’m tired of this, I’m hungry and out of the stash of 7/11 snacks that have been sustaining me. “Whatever,” I think. I walk towards the officers, and I see relief etched in their faces. They know their job is an easy one this morning. “Hello, are you Tawnya?” “That’s me” I say.” They read me my rights. I try to smile, but I immediately stop listening because I see that my boyfriend is now watching. I’m ashamed and embarrassed and I already miss him.
The finality of it all feels immense. The stress is just the tip of the iceberg of my life. Jayce, the beautiful boy watching as the handcuffs are placed tightly on my wrists, has long blond hair, is full of magic and punk rock. I hide here because being with him is all I love in this world.
Every day, he slides a window open in the empty house to be with me. I wrap myself in his arms and inhale the scent of Revlon shampoo. My attachment to him is not normal. His parents do not know I am in hiding in the house next door. But I’m unsure who called the police, they must know now. Jacks visits to my hiding spot were beginning to become shorter and This left me lonely enough to get uncomfortable with the arrangement. Id wake up early lay alone in the closet and wait until the sun was high enough for him to visit. I’m ready for a change, I can’t escape rejection, it follows me everywhere. I get in the police car willingly.
I’m checked into Juvenile Hall. The voices of the staff-flat, robotic- makes my emptiness settle like cement into a well. A well of emptiness that I haven’t been able to acknowledge the depth of.
There is nothing left of who I am here.
I am taken to shower first. I’ve never showered in front of someone before. Its surreal for me but the officer watching is unmoved. She is still and expressionless. I push the metallic button to activate the shower as instructed, and am met with a harsh forceful spray of lukewarm water. “Holy shit, pain. Misery,” I keep my thoughts to myself.
The shower is on a 30 second timer, so I have to keep pushing it to complete the task. I feel like an animal. Do they know how awful this is? They must surely not know how painful this water pressure is.
I’m reminded of home. I have to follow the rules now. I have to go home eventually and I will be met with the same shower but it will be in the form of hostile words and more shame. To hurt.
I’m finally alone in my jail cell. Relief turns to discomfort. Another empty room, in another empty house. All I want is to see another kid. If I could just make eye contact with someone, hear a story, anything would do. All I want is some human connection. But all I’ve got is silence, bright fluorescent lighting, and stagnant air.
Finally, I get to leave the cell for a meal. I have been anxiously hoping that I could engage in the community and recognize the scent of hidden magic that must just be waiting to burst through this locked down world. I am met with disappointment. Everyone’s eyes are down and talking is not allowed. There is no magic here.
Now I’m in the system of corrections for juvenile delinquency. Freedom of my choice to escape home is gone, and the freedom of connection is also gone.
Running away was my best option, but the glory in that personal breakthrough was fleeting. I will have to return to my mother and stepfather eventually, but I push that thought as far away as possible.
This was my first time running away. It was a miracle to me to have found a way into the abandoned house next door to Jayce. I slid a window open, crawled in and worked up the confidence that it would take for me to feel safe enough to stay.
When I’m released from Juvenile Hall, I’m taken home. It’s just my mother who picks me up. I’m so grateful. I’m afraid of my stepdad and he dislikes me enough to avoid being a part of this situation. This works for me. My mom is visibly angry but she is not built with an emotional vocab so all I hear about is my step dads’ anger.
I hate being home. The crying the screaming the name calling. Hostility and hopelessness run like faucets at home, we never run out. My mom is a prisoner and I resent her for it.
The following day I’m taken to court, then the Juvenile Probation Department. I sign in at a front desk with my mom. We are led to the office of Lance Crowley, my new probation officer. He’s not in yet so we sit and stare at the walls. There are pictures of kids on wilderness trips completely covering two walls. I start to feel ok. In the picture the kids look happy. I’ve never been camping and the idea of being with a probation officer on a trip just does not feel natural or comfortable. However, my attention is swallowed by the details of the 80–90 photos on the walls. I pace around the room absorbing the photos, distracting myself.
Lance finally comes in the office, sits at his desk, and we are informed of the plan of my probation. I want him to like me and trust me but a fake smile is not currency to a probation officer.
Things began to change for me, not in that first meeting, but in the numerous visits that followed. Countless home visits, office appointments and drug tests, the scary probation officer eventually got to know me.
Light recognizes light, and buried in me there was just enough left to call forth. When I was myself around him, my bubbly expanded spirit that did not belong had some space. There was recognizable appreciation and respect visible in his eyes. This was so important to me. Being seen and appreciated for the awkward bright girl that I was deep inside was like breathing clean air after escaping a fire. This was oxygen; this was space; and what followed became more of that opportunity to breathe.
I could not have known then, that this initial intersection of paths would become a life raft for me. In a confusing combination of a broken system that used all the wrong answers to the questions of juvenile delinquency, there was still humanity in Lance. As time passed I would see that humanity more and more. I too was taken on those same wilderness trips that I first had seen as photographs on his office wall.
On an all-girl trip to Death Valley. I was removed from the story of my life and the silence of the desert consumed me. I had no capacity to conceptualize what the trip would be like but I didn’t expect the colorful desolation to open me like a desert bloom. Everything was incredible and the sky was illuminated with more stars than I had ever seen at night. I was safe and I was whole, and I was surrounded in wilderness. My first lesson in the magic of the natural world was written. A connection so much bigger than myself fluidly began.
I recognized a new home in the natural world. One that is not bare of magic. A home that holds unlimited Jurassic wisdom. It holds a language that you must synch with in order to listen.
More trips followed with rock climbing and backpacking. I became more and more adept at trusting others and myself. Looking back at the pictures of me taken then on those trips, I was always smiling. These smiles were real. The new-found expansiveness of the natural world seems to be visible in my open arms and taller stature.
I reached out to Lance as an adult of 38 years requesting to do an interview. I had heard through the grapevine the he had left probation and started his own practice as a substance abuse counselor and I was interested in that career transition. I was also in a space of research in my life. I recognized how important that relationship had been to me. Looking back, I also wanted to inform him of what I realized now to be my first form of access to the natural world, which later became my consistent go-to for spiritual reprieve.
Douglas County had started a wilderness program for at risk youth in the early 80’s. It was a miracle that I was brought to that town at 8 years old, despite the fact that I fiercely hated it. It was these experiences in that program that provided monumental contextual relief for me. Lance was attracted to Douglas County because of that same program.
As the interview began I fumbled with the livestream setup and pushed the go live button and took a huge breath with a long exhale. I was terrified. That 13-year-old girl was still very much aware that this had been my probation officer.
It turns out, Lance was an at-risk teen too. His story starts in a wilderness program that he was brought to at 14. This is what really hits me. His story is mine. As the interview unfolds it’s clear I was meant to speak with him. It was the people who had intersected him in the beginning that changed his trajectory forever. Just like mine.