detourWhen I was working in California as a traveling music educator, I was independently contracted by school districts for two to six months at a time to teach music in their most under served elementary schools. On Monday, I’d pack my books, my percussion instruments and my portable keyboard then drive 45 miles one way on LA freeways to be standing in the classroom ready to go at 7:30 in the morning. On Tuesday I’d be traveling in the opposite direction to another school 30 miles the other way. It was rewarding work but exhausting, with a good half of the money I made going to pay for gas.

So when I was approached by the Paul Newman Foundation to be an arts and music coordinator for a two week stint in Malibu as part of a beta-test of a camp for children of addicted parents in rehab, I was thrilled. Two weeks in glorious Malibu! No commute! A cabin of my own and free reign to design and implement arts activities for these parents and their children to reconnect and rekindle their creativity!

I carefully researched and planned out fourteen different modules, each with a fine art and a performing arts component adaptable for children between the ages of 5 and 10. I bought the materials, rehearsed the music and my “patter” so that I could facilitate the classes and leave room for discussion and debrief. I brushed up on my childhood development concepts. I outlined every activity with clear steps and measurable outcomes. I drove up to the hills of Malibu the day before the kids and their parents were to arrive. I was ready.

And then they came off the bus and blew my plans to smithereens.

Most of the parents had been clean for less than six months; one had just gotten through her first ten days. The children ranged in age from 16 months to seventeen years and every one of them had developmental disabilities from fetal alcohol syndrome, or heroin addiction in utero, or brain damage from being beaten by parents or siblings. The parents, all mothers, were so amazed to be out of the inner city that they would much rather smoke their cigarettes and look out over the ocean than interact with their kids, who were mostly running around screaming or throwing rocks for fun. In response to their children, the mothers screamed, too – mostly unprintable epithets. Sometimes a mother would snatch her child by the arm and swat him alongside his head. Sometimes a mother would shake her child until he fell off his feet. Then she’d laugh.

These women were terrified of the strangest things. Tumbleweed. Spiderwebs. A single honeybee on a flower. Because the hills above Malibu are desert, we also had non-poisonous tarantulas, which I didn’t fear but understood why others might be. I just didn’t realize how MUCH they’d fear them. I learned on several occasions how to talk a hysterical woman off the table because on the opposite side of the room a tarantula was quietly sitting in a corner against the wall, next to her toddler who was also screaming now without knowing why.

At the first class, the mothers pushed the kids aside and rummaged through the arts supplies, not the least bit interested in my plans. The children sometimes pushed through and grabbed a few things for themselves, then ran off. There were scuffles, bites, lots of little arms flailing out. Once, I managed to get several moms to sit beside their kids and try to color plastic visors with permanent markers. When they’d get frustrated, they’d throw the visors aside and demand another one. The children colored on their arms.

When the allotted time ended and parents and kids ran off, I was exhausted. Also depressed, confused, rattled, embarrassed, horrified, angry and sweaty. Very sweaty.

I realized none of my fourteen activities would be even remotely possible, and I had two weeks of this ahead of me. I had to come up with a Plan B.

The next day, the mothers and the children came to my little corner of the camp to find a large white cardboard sign which read:

  • PLACE OF PEACE: In this place, we…
  • Are quiet and respectful of each other.
  • Share our things.
  • Listen before we speak.
  • Breathe deep and slow.
  • Never hit, bite or scream.
  • Don’t throw things at bees or tarantulas. This is their home.
  • Are patient with each other.
  • Take our time.
  • Sit still.

It was a huge gamble. I had no idea what they were thinking as they stood there and read the sign. I put out art supplies on the tables in no particular order, and I pushed “play” on the CD player to release the gentle piano music that I used in my car on commutes to keep from having road rage. I smiled at everyone, gestured wordlessly for them to come in, and sat in the corner with a cup of coffee and a magazine which I pretended to read.

I sweated a bit. I waited for the anger, or the swearing. Possibly a swinging arm or two.

The mothers sat down. The kids sat down. I snuck a peek. There was a brief scrabble for pens and paper, but no yelling. Actually, hardly any talking at all. And for the next 45 minutes they drew pictures, rolled up discarded drawings into balls and dropped them on the ground, drew terrible scribbles on visors and water bottles, and knotted pieces of yarn into something almost resembling lanyards.

About twenty minutes into this miracle, I quietly said how proud I was of them for coming to camp, and for being people who wanted peace. I told them they were brave and beautiful and their kids were lucky to have them.

And they said nothing at all.

But every day for the remainder of the two weeks they came in, sat down, scribbled, drew and occasionally talked quietly. Every time they showed up I reminded them of this place of peace that they were creating for themselves and I told them they were strong. They’d leave after time was up, and I’d hear them across the camp, yelling again, swearing again.

But never in the Place of Peace.

Sometimes you have to take a serious detour from your careful itinerary. Sometimes you really don’t have a clue where you’re actually going in the first place. Sometimes you have to hit the dead end before you can see the right way to go.

Right now, it feels like every road I want to travel has a giant DETOUR sign on it. The ways in which I feel most useful to others are unavailable to me right now. The plans I had all went *poof.* I am not saving the world with my Christian charity. Nobody is looking to me for inspiration or counsel. I’m not leaving a wake of thankful beneficiaries of my kindness. I am not even leaving my house. I write stuff, I play fetch with the dog in the driveway, and I am coloring rocks like an eight year old, to later scatter around the neighborhood as little messages of peace. It’s not much to speak of.

A detour is a detour; it’s unfinished, unpaved, incomplete. It was never meant to be the regular route in the first place. It’s inconvenient, puzzling, temporary.¬† You don’t know how far it goes or how long it will be there. As you move along it, you have to look for the next detour sign to tell you where you are going next. It’s not on the map. It’s out of your control.

But sometimes it’s the only way to get where you really need to be.





One thought on “Detours

  1. Karen, your plan B was ingenious, and it’s apparent that those mom’s and kids must have looked forward to a time of peace, a rare experience for each of them. Your words are an inspiration to me and others! I look forward to reading everything you write. Hugs!


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