After the deadly shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, families of the victims were quick to offer forgiveness for the man arrested for the crimes.
Nadine Collier, who lost her mother, Ethel Lance, was one of several people who addressed the alleged gunman during his bond hearing. "You took something very precious away from me," she said. "I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul."
Their ability to forgive was notable, but they're not alone. In a new book, Denver author and former journalist Megan Feldman Bettencourt writes about many people who found forgiveness even after horrific crimes. "Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World" comes out today. She spoke with Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel.
Read an excerpt:
Reprinted from TRIUMPH OF THE HEART: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World by Megan Feldman Bettencourt. Published by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Megan Feldman Bettencourt.
On the morning of January 22, 1995, Azim Khamisa was standing in the kitchen of his La Jolla, California, townhouse in his nightshirt when his phone rang. He’d returned from a business trip to Mexico the night before and was enjoying a relaxing Sunday morning, sipping tea and looking out the window at the fountain in his courtyard as he answered the phone. The words sounded jumbled and incomprehensible: “Your son . . . shot . . . dead . . .”
He was sure it was a mistake. He hurried the detective off the phone and dialed twenty-year-old Tariq’s number, but there was no answer. He then called Tariq’s fiancé, Jennifer, and when she picked up the phone, she was crying so hard that she could barely speak. As he listened to her choking out the words to confirm the news, the truth suddenly registered throughout his body. Azim’s knees buckled. He fell backward, hitting his head on the refrigerator, and as the phone crashed to the floor, he was enveloped by a shattering, all-encompassing pain that he would forever describe as “a nuclear bomb detonating” in his heart.
Soon after, a close friend arrived to comfort him and they sat in a daze together at his dining room table. The artwork around them—a painting of an elephant called the Lone Tusker that reminded Azim of his native Kenya; another of a skier gliding down a snow-covered mountain that evoked memories of teaching Tariq to ski—suddenly seemed like artifacts from a past life. A detective came over and told him that witnesses reported four teens running from the car where Tariq, felled by a single bullet that tore through his heart and lungs, drowned in his own blood after a botched robbery. The police were still searching for the teenagers. After the investigator left, Azim’s friend shook his head. “I hope they find those bastards and fry them,” he said. He was thinking of his own son, who was twelve, and how he would feel if anyone harmed him.
Azim was slow to respond, but what he said was startling.
“I don’t feel that way,” he said. “There were victims at both ends of that gun.”
The words rolled out of his mouth and when he heard them, the mean- ing rang true. He felt they came from God.
The next morning, Ples Felix sat in his car outside a modest apartment building in the middle-class San Diego neighborhood of North Park, fifteen miles southeast of La Jolla. Minutes earlier, he’d called the police to report that his fourteen-year-old grandson, Tony Hicks, had run away and was holed up here, inside the apartment where the boy’s friend Hakeem lived with his mother. Before watching the officers disappear through the front door, Ples warned them that there were probably gang members inside. He didn’t know that the officers were pursuing his grandson for something exponentially more serious than merely running away.
Tony had recently stopped doing his homework and started ditching school. Ples, whom Tony called “Daddy,” had tried to talk sense into his grandson, but over the weekend he’d returned home to find the teenager gone. A brief note read, “Daddy, I love you. But I’ve run away.” By Monday, Ples had been able to track him to this apartment complex.
Now, as he sat across the street, Ples prayed things would go smoothly. Like many people from South Central Los Angeles, he’d grown up amid unsettling violence and hardship, and at age sixteen, he had fathered a child—his daughter, Loeta. When Loeta was sixteen, she gave birth to Tony, who spent his first eight years living in gang-ridden chaos, which included witnessing his favorite cousin being gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Loeta thought Tony would stand a better chance under the wing of his grandfather, so she shipped him off to the comparatively gentle environs of San Diego. With Ples’s guidance and structure, Tony went from well behind grade-level to earning Bs in school—until adolescence, when the rigid household rules began to grate and the approval of Tony’s homies took precedence over grades and family.
Ples’s prayers were interrupted when the San Diego PD reappeared. As an officer led Tony in cuffs to a police cruiser, Ples took one last look and drove to work.
That afternoon, he was sitting at his desk in downtown San Diego, where he worked as a city planner, when a homicide detective called. Tony wasn’t merely being held as a runaway; he was a prime suspect in a murder investigation. A tipster had led police to Tony and his friends, who apparently had dubbed themselves “The Black Mob.” The facts would soon fall into place: After fleeing his home on Saturday, Tony spent the day with Hakeem and the gang’s ringleader, Antoine “Q-Tip” Pittman, playing video games and smoking weed. Later that evening, they called in an order to a nearby pizzeria, with the intent to rob the deliveryman.
Tony, who’d been bestowed the nickname “Bone” by the group, slipped a stolen nine-millimeter semiautomatic handgun into his waistband and walked with Q-Tip and two other teen gang members to a Louisiana Street apartment complex, where the pizza was being delivered. When they ar- rived, Tariq Khamisa—a college student who’d recently taken a part-time job at DiMille’s Italian Restaurant to earn spending money—was leaving the building, still carrying the pizza. As the group demanded that Tariq hand over the pizza, Tony drew his gun. Tariq refused, and clambered into his white eighties-model Volkswagen.
“Bust him, Bone!” Q-Tip shouted, as Tariq attempted to pull away. Tony aimed and squeezed. The car rolled to a stop. The boys ran. As the blood drained from Tariq’s body, a father and grandfather were unknow- ingly being drawn into a future that they never could have imagined.
Azim and Ples, both in their late forties at the time, were unlikely ever to cross paths. Azim was the son of educated Persian merchants who settled in Kenya and practiced Sufi Islam, while Ples was born to a blue-collar
Yet their lives show striking similarities: as a young man, Azim fled feared persecution in Kenya at the hands of the Idi Amin regime in neigh- boring Uganda, eventually settling in the United States; Ples left South Central LA by joining the United States Army and served two tours in Vietnam before foregoing a military career to attend college and pursue a civilian profession. Both men turned their backs on violence. On separate continents, they both learned to meditate—Azim from a Sufi friend in Africa, Ples from a monk in Vietnam—each making it a lifelong daily practice.
These similarities would enable both men to respond in extraordinary ways after Ples’s only grandson murdered Azim’s only son.
The day Azim and his family buried Tariq in Vancouver, where both sets of Tariq’s grandparents lived, it was cold and rainy. Azim chanted prayers in a mosque with hundreds of worshippers. In accordance with tradition, he climbed down into the grave, muddy from the rain, to receive his son’s body. A group of men lowered Tariq down, and Azim, rain pouring over his head, held his son for the last time, saying goodbye again and again.
In the weeks that followed, Azim contemplated suicide. Just months before, he’d been going from one international business trip to the next and working hundred-hour weeks; now he could barely rise from bed. Things like showering and eating lunch felt like enormous tasks. He couldn’t sleep, so he’d begun meditating for four hours a day instead of his usual one. On a chilly day three months after Tariq’s death, Azim drove to a cabin near California’s Mammoth Mountain. He hoped a few days away might help break the grief that seemed to be drowning him.
When he arrived he built a fire, and as he gazed into the flames memories began to surface: Tariq collecting stones at the beach; Tariq laughing at some clever joke, his joy contagious and in contrast with his father’s se- rious mien; Tariq asking for help balancing his checkbook. Azim had always loved numbers, acing accounting and preparing to run his father’s Peugeot dealership in his twenties. But Tariq had little interest in business; his real loves were music and art. Their differences caused friction, but the last time they saw each other, over breakfast at a popular San Diego spot called The Hob Nob, less than two weeks before the murder, they amiably traded stories about their divergent interests. Tariq said his recent trip to Kenya to visit family had strengthened his resolve to become a National Geographic photographer, and that he and his fiancé, Jennifer—both art majors at San Diego State—were considering moving to New York.
Mostly, in the quiet of the cabin, Azim felt sadness, but anger, too— anger that he wasn’t somehow able to protect Tariq; anger that his son had been killed over something as trivial as a pizza; anger, most pointedly, at his adopted country. How absurd that he’d left the chaos and violence of Africa only to see his son slain on the streets of America! While Azim had set the intention to forgive months earlier, merely setting that goal couldn’t replace the natural process of grieving. The intention to forgive, he was learning, was only the beginning. Amid his feelings of anger and devastation, Azim considered how, before Tariq died, news of shootings seemed faraway and inconsequential, but now he applied his business mind to sociology, obsessively studying the dire statistics of America’s street wars. His son and the boy who killed him were victims of something dark and sinister, a cycle of violence for which he felt every American—including himself—was responsible.
Maybe this was what that Sufi teacher had meant. Weeks before Azim undertook his mountain retreat, a family friend and spiritual guide had told him that a soul was earthbound for forty days before departing to a new level of consciousness. But the journey, he said, could be hindered by the unreconciled feelings of loved ones who remain behind.
“I recommend you break the paralysis of grief and find a good deed to do in Tariq’s name,” the teacher told him. “Compassionate acts undertaken in the name of the departed are spiritual currency, which will transfer to Tariq’s soul and help speed his journey.”
That was it. Azim wouldn’t just study violence, he would return to San Diego, consult the best minds he knew, and devise a plan to change the status quo. Somehow, he also knew that if he didn’t reach out to the killer’s family and forgive them—maybe even invite them to join his crusade—he’d forever be a victim of his anguish. When, at the end of the weekend on Mammoth Mountain, he drove back toward the California coast, it was with a renewed sense of purpose.
While attorneys argued over whether Tony would be tried as an adult (a new state law subjected fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds to full adult felony charges), Ples prayed for a way to help Tariq’s family. Then, one day he received a call from Tony’s attorney, who said that Azim wanted to meet him. The invitation came at a particularly emotionally wrenching time. Many North Park residents wanted Tony to receive the maximum penalty, and some, upon learning that the accused killer’s grandfather was managing a local redevelopment effort, demanded the city fire him from the project. The mayor refused, but the verbal attacks, coupled with a probable life sentence for Tony, had taken a toll.
Ples wore a suit and tie on the day he met Azim at Tony’s attorney’s office. Azim arrived with prosecutor Peter Deddeh, who made the initial introduction. Ples had anticipated this moment for months. As he shook Azim’s hand he said, “If there’s anything I can do to be a support to you and your family, please call on me.” He added that Azim had been in his daily prayers and meditations.
Ples’s mention of meditation struck Azim as fortuitous, and he immediately felt close to this man. “We both lost a child,” he told Ples. Then he explained that he was launching the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, founded with the goal of preventing children from committing senseless violent crimes. He even invited Ples to attend upcoming meetings about the organization. Ples felt a weight start to lift.
A week later, Azim held one of the foundation’s first meetings at his townhouse. His parents had come in from Vancouver for the occasion. Also there were his ex-wife, Almas, and their daughter, Tariq’s sister, Tasreen.
Ples imagined the grief he would walk into at that meeting, and prepared with more meditation than usual.
When he was invited to speak to the group en masse, Ples glanced at some notes he’d made, then folded and returned them to his pocket. Look- ing around, he saw people of all ages—Azim’s friends, colleagues, neigh- bors. He began by expressing his condolences for the loss of Tariq. He was unspeakably sorry that his grandson had been involved, he said, and thanked Azim for reaching out to him and inviting him to this meeting. As those gathered in the living room listened in silence, Ples said he was determined to help prevent the type of violence that claimed Tariq’s life and landed Tony in jail. He was committed, he told them, to “support anything that promotes the precious value of our future: our children.”
Unlike most victims’ families, who track a case’s every twist in pursuit of justice, Azim told the prosecuting attorney that he preferred to leave the legal maneuvering to the state and focus on violence prevention. Today, the Tariq Khamisa Foundation teaches the virtues of nonviolence to middle- schoolers in San Diego and young people nationwide. TKF raises $1.5 mil- lion annually for educational, mentoring, and community service programs that target at-risk youth. The centerpiece of the program features Azim and his surprise ally, Ples, sharing their story at school assemblies. Educators who have opened their doors to the duo say gang activity and discipline problems have dipped as a result. TKF has reached nearly one million kids in San Diego County through live presentations, plus another eight million through Azim and Ples’s visits to schools in Canada, Europe, and Australia, and broadcasts on Channel One News (broadcast in schools throughout the United States).
After launching TKF, Azim partnered with an Ohio-based nonprofit called the National Youth Advocate Program to create Constant and Never Ending Improvement, or CANEI, a program that teaches nonviolence and personal responsibility to young offenders and their families. As of this writing, it operates in seven cities. The concept of forgiveness is key to both programs, and in addition to lecturing on the topic in cities around the world, Azim leads two-day workshops for individuals, therapists, and community groups entitled “Forgiveness: The Crown Jewel of Personal Free- dom.”
While Azim was laying the foundations for those programs, Tony’s case plodded forward. In May 1995, a judge ruled that Tony, then fifteen, would be tried as an adult. Tony’s attorney notified Ples and asked if he would talk to his grandson. While in custody, Tony was still posturing as a street tough (during interrogations he’d referred to Tariq as a “stupid pizza man” who should have just handed over the food), which wouldn’t serve him well in court. He faced twenty-five years to life if, in advance of a trial, he pled guilty to first-degree murder, or forty-five years to life if he chose the trial route.
At juvenile hall, Tony sat sullenly, silent in a blue jumpsuit while his attorney laid out his options. The lawyer then left grandson and grandfather alone, and Tony’s hard exterior softened as Ples began to talk to him. He reminded the teenager of the pain Azim and his family endured as they faced this unforeseen world that no longer included their beloved son. He reminded Tony that in spite of this pain, Azim had managed to forgive him. He emphasized that just as Azim’s life would never be the same since Tariq died, so Tony’s life was also forever changed, and Azim felt sad about that.
As Tony listened in silence, Ples handed him an orange.
The boy soon began to cry—maybe because this reminded him of his grandfather’s ritual of talking while they shared some fruit, or perhaps because the gravity of his predicament had finally hit him. As if he were suddenly five again, he jumped into Ples’s lap. “Daddy, I’m so sorry for what I did,” he sobbed. “I never wanted to hurt anybody, I was just angry, stupid.” He grew quiet after a moment and returned to his seat. He took the orange, peeled it, and gave half to his grandfather. Then, his body trembling, he seemed to momentarily shrug off his childlike personality and calmly spoke like a man twice his age: “I have to take responsibility for what I did.” Tony, the first juvenile to be prosecuted as an adult in California, took
The Sufi poet Rumi is one of Azim’s favorite writers, and in those first years after Tariq’s death, one line often thundered through his mind: “The cure for the pain is the pain.” Even as he spent his days meditating and building the foundation’s programs with his daughter, Tasreen, who became TKF’s executive director, he operated under a shroud of profound sadness. It permeated every waking moment, and most sleeping ones. How could he feel joy when Tariq was dead? It was impossible. And yet, one evening while out with friends, nearly four years after the murder, someone told a joke and he found himself laughing—for the first time since Tariq’s death.
In the spring of 2000, five years after the crime, Azim traveled to California State Prison near Sacramento for his first one-on-one encounter with Tony. He had spent countless hours meditating in preparation, but as he made his way through the prison’s maze of dim hallways and high walls topped with barbed wire, his heart pounded. He wondered how he would react to meeting his son’s killer, and thought about how cold and inhuman the prison felt. When he reached the visiting area, Ples was there to greet him, with Tony by his side. Azim shook the young man’s hand and looked into his eyes. The three of them made small talk about prison life and shared some candy, then Ples left them alone.
Tony was fidgety at first but grew more composed as they began to talk. He struck Azim as much more polite and well-spoken than he had expected. Tony told him that he was sorry for shooting Tariq and for causing Azim and his family so much pain. He said he had a lot of problems in his life, but that was no excuse for what he did. He said he should have listened to his grandfather, and he was sorry he didn’t. Could Azim ever forgive him? Azim replied that he forgave him with his whole heart. Then he told Tony that he wanted to hear about Tariq’s last moments. Tony said he didn’t recall Tariq saying anything. He described the scene and Q-Tip’s order to shoot. And then he said something strange. He said that as he squeezed the trigger, he saw a bright white light that came from the sky and illuminated only him and Tariq. He described it like a massive spotlight. Combined with the coroner’s description of the unlikely “perfect path” the single bullet took through Tariq’s vitals, this luminous vision reinforced Azim’s conviction that his son’s death was destiny and should serve a larger purpose.
Azim told Tony that he looked forward to his release from prison, expressed his hope that he would join Ples and him at the foundation, and hugged him goodbye.Within a few months, Azim and Tony began writing to each other. Azim keeps their letters in a thick folder in his home office, where the walls are covered with framed photos (Tasreen’s wedding, Tariq on the African savannah) and award certificates, including the California Peace Prize and the National Crime Victims Special Community Service Award, presented to him by President Bill Clinton.
Azim’s letters are typed on his computer; Tony’s are written in looping cursive. Their correspondence touches on books, health, and family, with Azim commending Tony for completing his GED and starting college courses, and Tony wishing Azim a happy Father’s Day and congratulating him on becoming a grandfather. In one letter, Tony thanks Azim for keep- ing him informed about “the great work that you and my grandfather have turned this around to be.” In another, he describes Azim’s forgiveness as “a shock” that goes “against what I believed to be the natural order of things.”
In 2002, Tony got in trouble again and pled guilty to battery on a prison guard and weapons possession—a lapse that added ten years to his sentence and got him transferred to Salinas Valley State Prison, a level-four maximum-security facility.
Azim was saddened by the news of Tony’s backsliding, but he contin- ued to correspond with him, and even lobby for his freedom. In 2005, he wrote to then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to request that Tony’s sen- tence be commuted. “With Tony outside the prison walls and helping the foundation,” Azim wrote, “the world will be safer than it is now.” He also proposed that fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds convicted of violent crimes in adult court be eligible for an earned gubernatorial commutation after ten years, arguing that lengthy prison terms for juveniles only increase their odds of continuing a life of crime if and when they’re released. The governor’s office responded with a form letter that acknowledged the plea without making any commitment to take action.
Azim remains unshakeable in his commitment to forgiveness as a way to heal and serve others. His foundation hires AmeriCorps volunteers to mentor high-risk middle school students in order to reduce misbehavior, since kids with attendance and discipline problems are more likely to be expelled for acting out in violence. A yearlong study of San Diego middle school students involved in TKF programs found that their number of disciplinary actions was cut by more than half.
While TKF’s staffers embrace Azim’s message of forgiveness and dis- cuss it as part of their mentoring curriculum, they admit that living it can be challenging—simple but not easy, as Ples often says. TKF’s mentorship supervisor, a thirty-three-year-old named Mayra Nunez, lost her older brother in a drive-by shooting when she was twelve. The shooter was never apprehended. When a guidance counselor took Nunez to see Azim speak a decade ago, she couldn’t understand his message. “This man’s nuts,” she said to herself. Yet she was curious, and she chatted with Azim afterward and wound up speaking at his Violence Impact Forums. “It took me ten years of working at TKF, but I can honestly say I forgive that person,” she says. “Part of that was being tired of living with hatred, anger, and [a desire for] revenge.” She echoes what Azim says—forgiveness doesn’t condone an act; it isn’t for the offender, but is “a gift you give yourself.”
Even Almas, Tariq’s mother, has found solace in participating in these school assemblies, though it took six years before she was willing to do it. At first, she couldn’t understand the way Azim was dealing with the loss of Tariq, mostly because it was so different than the way she was dealing with it. He was handling the worst event of their lives so publicly, and for her, it was so private. While Azim was in the process of launching TKF, Almas walked outside one morning to get her mail and a neighbor asked when Tariq was coming to visit. She could barely utter the words, “My son is dead.” Yet by 2005, she began participating in TKF’s events and talking about Tariq. “It was painful to talk about losing my son,” she told me over the phone. “But the reaction I got was healing. Students would come up and hug me, write letters, and say, ‘I promise I will never hold a gun or join a gang.’ That meant a lot to me.”
Contribution is integral to both TKF, where students participate in projects such as serving the homeless, and to CANEI, the program for juvenile offenders that Azim created with the National Youth Advocate Pro- gram. CANEI is based on restorative justice, an approach that strives to heal victims, rehabilitate offenders, and repair crime’s damage to communities. Participants are required to apologize to and ask forgiveness of their victims, then to repay their debt in some way, often through service. Rehabilitating prisoners—a task which the U.S. prison system fails to do in more than 80 percent of cases—is one of Azim’s greatest passions, one he often spoke about during our conversations in San Diego while I was profiling him for a magazine.
Instead of staying in a hotel while I interviewed Azim and attended his presentations at local schools, I opted to stay with my aunt, a restaurateur with a beautiful home in La Jolla, overlooking the ocean. I was thrilled to escape my lonely apartment with its stacks of bills and reminders of my breakup, including a pair of earrings, some photos, and a pile of notes and cards that I was considering throwing away.
I first met Azim on a mild April evening, at the restaurant at the La Jolla Sheraton, where he’s a regular. I walked into the dining room, set with glassware and crisp white tablecloths, and spotted Azim at a small table in the corner. Wearing a suit and tie, he rose to shake my hand. A warm smile crinkled the corners of his eyes, which were clear brown under thick arched brows. We made small talk and ordered wine and entrées.
Soon, he was sipping red wine and telling me about his son, the mur- der, and the work that he did now. He was the first person I’d met who re- ferred to himself as lucky after having befallen such a painful misfortune. “I met a man the other day who said it took him twenty years to acknowledge that his son had died, to come out of denial,” he said. “I’m lucky that I made the choice that I did.” The choice to forgive and start TKF came not from his intellect or rational mind, he told me, but from his soul. “I went to good schools, but my degrees were useless when Tariq died,” he said. “The intellect can only solve so many things. But there are no problems that the soul cannot solve.”
One moment, Azim was speaking passionately about the U.S. justice system’s soaring recidivism rates (“Our system is lock ’em up and throw away the key, but you can’t, because most criminals are paroled after an average of three years and eight months, and eighty-five percent re- offend!”), and the next, he was describing his work as a spiritual mission. “I wasn’t trained in this work, I was an investment banker,” he told me, speak- ing slowly and deliberately as he finished his last bite of fish. “But this is more meaningful to me. Investment banking was all about making money. This is about saving children’s lives. What could be more important or fulfilling? That was a gift from my son. I like to say I had a soulular shift. I’m not the same person as when my son was alive. I led from the intellect then. I had a spiritual side, but I never brought it into my work. Now I do all the time, and I think that’s why it has gone so well.”
I asked if he thought people had to be religious in order to lead “from the soul,” as he put it. “Not necessarily,” he said. “It’s about connecting with your spirit, with your heart.” He often speaks to groups of parents who have lost children, and after one recent presentation, a man came up to talk to him. Like Azim, this man was a Sufi Muslim and a Rumi fan. “I was really moved by your talk,” the man told him. “It reminded me of a Rumi quote:
Azim nodded as he recalled the moment. “It’s true. And that’s what this work is about. What life would I have if I was just angry and resentful? I wanted my life back. And I knew that the decision I made after Tariq’s death would determine the quality of the rest of my life. Unless I forgave, I would remain a victim—and there’s no quality of life being a victim. I have a very full life now, Megan. I kind of like this life better. Not that I don’t want my son back—I’d give my eyetooth for that. But I wouldn’t be doing this had he not died. So is this a tragedy or is it mysteriously meaningful? It’s a bit of both.”
The next morning, I sat in the back row of the Correia Middle School auditorium and watched as hundreds of students took their seats. The musty-smelling room filled with the sounds of feet shuffling and kids whis- pering, but the noises ceased when Azim stepped onto the stage. He began with a video about Tariq’s murder. “Tariq is already dead and gone forever, and Tony is in prison for a very long time, so we’re not here just to share their story,” he told the children. “We’re here for you. Because every one of you is a very important person, and it would break my heart if any of you ended up dead like my son, or in prison like Tony.”
While the students remained still and quiet, I sat behind them and wept, wiping away my tears with the back of my sleeve. There was such pregnant possibility in the silence that had settled over these children. It seemed to me that this rare, awed focus was an acknowledgement that something they heard next might just have the power to reach out into the future and dismantle whatever crimes or mishaps or booby traps they might be unknowingly building right now, here on the precarious brink of adulthood.
“How many of you have lost a brother or sister as a result of violence?” Azim asked. Nearly a quarter of the few hundred students raised their hands. “And how many of you would want revenge if a brother or sister was killed?” Almost every hand shot up.
He said he understood. But then he countered, “Let me ask you this: Would revenge bring Tariq back?” Silence. A few heads shaking no.
Several students wanted to know what happened to Q-Tip, the eighteen-year-old who ordered Tony to pull the trigger. Azim told them he was serving two life sentences (in the weeks before Tariq’s murder, Q-Tip had gunned down a homeless man outside a liquor store).
And Tariq’s fiancé, the children wanted to know, how is she? Sadly, Jennifer never recovered from Tariq’s death, Azim explained, and she be- gan abusing heroin. She overdosed and died at twenty-seven. “See,” he said, “that’s the ripple effect of violence.... And do you think Tony’s homeboys visit him in prison?”
“That’s right. I visit him, his grandfather visits him, his mother visits him.” Azim paused and gazed out at the sea of young faces. “I look forward to the day Tony can join us. Maybe he’ll be speaking to your children.”
On my final day in La Jolla, Azim insisted on giving me a meditation lesson. “I could talk about it all day,” he said, “but in order to understand you have to do it.” I’d learned to meditate once in a yoga class and wanted to maintain a regular practice, but I never seemed to be able to stick to a routine for more than a few days. I arrived at his townhouse at lunchtime with a couple of sandwiches, and after we ate, he showed me into the living room. I sat down in an upholstered chair and scanned the family photo- graphs atop the bookshelves. Many showed Tariq smiling at the camera with his round dark eyes and dimples, his whole life stretched out ahead of him.
I closed my eyes and did my best to follow his instructions: “The pur- pose of meditation is to be in your body or in your consciousness but not in your mind. What we want is to switch off the mind.” Earlier, he had ex- plained that while it’s impossible to actually stop thinking, you can notice the thoughts and let them pass, instead of following each one down a tun- nel into a thicket of frenzied thinking. Right. I’d tried that before, only to succeed for a fraction of a second—if at all. I generally lived from one to-do list item to the next, barely relishing the satisfaction of scratching one out before leaping in my mind to the next task, the next project, the next thing to be figured out or assessed or planned.
“Breath is very important,” Azim continued. “It’s like the reins on a horse. Breath is the reins of the mind.”
As I slowed and lengthened my breaths, I began to feel heavier and more relaxed, as if my body were filled with mud. Even my eyes felt calm, softening and sinking into the sockets like snails retreating into their shells. As I listened to Azim’s voice, I became aware of smaller, less prominent sounds: birds chirping in the trees outside, a truck rumbling past, water trickling through the fountain in the courtyard. Azim’s voice sounded far away now, as if he were speaking through a long tube from a block away. He told me to visualize a fountain of light emanating from my third eye, the radiance cascading out around me like a halo-turned-cocoon. Somehow I felt euphoric and deeply peaceful at the same time. Sold. I could do this every day. In fact, maybe I will. And then the meditation, all unicorns and rainbows and butterflies, took a different turn. I had mentioned my breakup to him over dinner, when he asked me if there was anyone whom I had yet to forgive. Now, to my horror, he brought it up.
I breathed more deeply, willing my inner peanut gallery to shut up. And there was Mike, with his moss-colored eyes and square jaw and that ridiculous T-shirt he refused to throw away, the faded blue one that was too short and rode up to show his doughy gut.
“Set the intention that you want to release and forgive him,” Azim said. “To wish him well in his life. To set him free and to also set you free.” Suddenly, I felt this raw sadness sitting in the pit of my stomach, and along with it, a bone-deep weariness spreading throughout my entire body,
“Bless him and send him a prayer of gratitude for the time you had together and the lessons you learned.”
I didn’t wish him well. He’d allowed me to believe that at least one part of my life was going well, and then pulled the rug out from under my feet. Nope. In the same way I’d desperately longed for a Cabbage Patch Kid doll when I was seven, or a goldfish named Gil when I was ten, I deeply and ardently wanted to take that imaginary ray of angelic light shooting from the center of my forehead, transform it into an iron fire poker, and wield it like a maniac, ripping that heinous old blue T-shirt to shreds.
Alrighty, then. My attempt at forgiveness, or what a friend recently referred to as “Zenny peace,” was off to a grand start.
In spite of my failure at forgiveness, that trip to San Diego was like a refreshing glass of lemonade after a long hike in dry heat. As much as Azim’s ability to forgive—and the topic of forgiveness itself—vexed me, it also inspired me. Even after hearing his entire story and watching him in action, I couldn’t imagine how he did what he did, and I doubted I could do the same if it ever came to that. And yet, just witnessing it touched me deeply and opened the door to a world of burning questions. When I returned to Denver, it was with an expanded view of what is possible in this world.
I felt renewed and grateful to be alive, aglow from the ocean air, the visit with my aunt, and the inspiring time I spent with Azim, Ples, and TKF. I was happy to be back in my neighborhood, a bustling area near downtown Denver. It was almost as if I was seeing it all for the first time: the restaurants with outdoor patios filled with young professionals, the tapas bars and brewpubs I could walk to, the vast flagship REI store housed in a nineteenth-century brick train station. I love to wander through that store, watching people try out climbing shoes on the floor-to-ceiling faux rock wall, and admiring the rows of skis and snowboards, jackets and hiking boots, tents and kayaks. Next door to that is my favorite burger joint, My Brother’s Bar, the oldest bar in Denver and the favored watering hole of Jack Kerouac and his ragtag army of beat poets immortalized in On the Road.
Nearby is the whimsical Little Man Ice Cream, housed in a giant metal milk jug that’s nearly as tall as the surrounding buildings, which has always reminded me of my favorite children’s book, James and The Giant Peach, or the nursery rhyme “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” And down the hill is my favorite part of the neighborhood and the reason I lived there: the convergence of the Platte River and Cherry Creek. They meet in a T, with the creek spilling into the river in a series of rapids often dotted with kayakers. Miles of bike paths and running trails extend from this T and its surrounding grassy parkland; I would take a break from work every day to walk or run along the river, admiring the mallard families that swam on the surface, the red-tailed hawks that soared above and perched in the huge catalpa tree that dropped its white flowers over the rapids, and the
That blissful exuberance upon my return from San Diego lasted about three days. After that, the colors faded once more and my irritability and self-pity, like a pair of dark glasses, slid back into my life. Two close friends were recently engaged, and while we were planning engagement celebrations and bachelorette parties, I landed a magazine story about women in their thirties who were spending thousands of dollars to flash-freeze their eggs in an effort to outsmart the biological clock. It turned out that one of the most famous clinics that utilized this new egg-freezing technology was located in Denver, and women were coming from around the United States and even the world for the procedure.
With each interview, my anxiety grew. A restaurant owner from Telluride named Jennifer told me how, at her thirty-fourth birthday in 2009, she was unmarried, childless, and spending long hours battling to keep her restaurant business afloat amid the recession. “I had a baby shower to go to every other weekend, and I felt like the only person in my world who wasn’t married,” she said. “I was really, really tired of worrying about my biological clock.” Soon after, she traveled from Telluride to the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine, and after enduring hormone injections and har- vesting procedures—not to mention spending some $10,000—within six weeks, she had nineteen eggs cradled in a cryogenic tank, suspended in time.
One patient, a Denverite named Renee who works in financial report- ing, was my age. Recently divorced, the thirty-three-year-old had elected to freeze her eggs to eliminate “the pressure of having to find somebody and immediately have a baby.” When clinic physicians tested her hormone levels, they found they were similar to those of a woman in her mid-forties. They also discovered that she had a lower-than-normal resting follicle count (number of eggs) for someone her age. Neither problem had been detected during her annual gynecologic exams, as those visits don’t typically include such tests. Six months and $20,000 later, Renée had twenty-one eggs frozen in storage.
I toyed with the idea of asking my parents for a loan to freeze my eggs, but it seemed rash. Did I even care that much about being a mother? I always assumed I would be, but it wasn’t as all-encompassing a dream as being a writer was. A friend who’d recently had her first child said, “I wouldn’t think about it unless you find yourself tempted to kidnap babies on the street.” Sage advice. I decided to put the cryogenics on hold, realiz- ing it was more the loneliness that bothered me, and the nagging feeling that I was far behind the universally acceptable level of achievement that I should have reached by my age.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I sometimes allowed myself to fall into what a friend calls “Facelurk mode.” Intending to briefly log on to Facebook, I’d instead get sucked into pouring over friends’ pages and comparing my- self to them, with woeful results. Those that triggered the most self-loathing were wildly different from one another, but they all provoked my insecurities like poison ivy starts a rash. There was Diane, who earned a PhD and ran a consulting business while raising three children (in truth, that sounded exhausting, but who needs truth when you’re collecting convincing evidence to prove your hunch that you are an utter loser?), and Damian, who used to park the Volkswagen bus in which he lived outside the house I rented with three college roommates in order to use our bathroom and kitchen, and was now a contributing photographer for National Geographic. He seemed to be on a new adventure every week, scaling rock faces in the Himalayas, building a tree house for his son, and documenting life on the Pine Ridge Reservation in excruciatingly beautiful images that made me weep. Eventually, disgusted with my succumbing to envy instead of feeling happiness for the people I loved, I would shut off the computer.
One night, I awoke feeling nauseous. I’d dreamed that Paris Hilton had written a bestselling book and that I, broke and needing a gig, any gig, had agreed to be her publicist, trotting along behind her at book signings and juggling her purses and makeup bags. During the book tour, she re- fused to spend money on my lodging, and so I was forced—of course—to stay with a different ex-boyfriend in each city. All of them were happily married and most had children. In the dream, one ex and his wife tried to set me up with a man three times my age. Another ex served me breakfast while feeding his tot in a high chair, asking with pity in his eyes how my writing and love lives were going.
It was around this time that I flew into a rage over a pedicab. I was walking back from the gym one night when I started across a bridge that goes over the Platte River. Alongside the road is a raised sidewalk. I looked up to see a pedicab rolling toward me, the young man pedaling with a laughing couple in tow. It is illegal for people to ride bikes on the sidewalk, not that most people follow the law, but this was a different sort of side- walk: If you stepped off to one side, you were in traffic, and if you stepped off to the other, you were in the river more than thirty feet below. When I spotted them barreling toward me in the murky darkness, I started and said, “Whoa—what are we going to do here?” Continuing to pedal hard, he glanced up and said, rudely, “You’re gonna move unless you want to get hit.” Shocked, I glanced at the oncoming traffic roaring past me to my right.
The pedicab was about fifteen feet away. The oncoming cars wouldn’t stop, as the light at the next intersection was green. Just as the pedicab came within a bicycle wheel’s width of me, I spotted a small break in traffic and leapt off the curb into the street. After they passed and I jumped safely back onto the sidewalk, I turned and yelled at his back, “Fuck you, you fucking asshole!” I was shaking. My face felt hot, my heart was hammering, and in my ears I heard a sound like a rushing river—much louder than the small rapids beneath me. I fired off some more expletives and briefly con- sidered trying to chase the pedicab down so I could identify it to police. For a moment, the yelling was gratifying. But then I immediately felt foolish.
As I neared my apartment, I thought about Azim. I remembered watching him talk at the restaurant, his face flushed with passion, his hands drawing forceful shapes in the air to emphasize his points. I seriously doubted he ever shouted obscenities at people. Not only that, he had one thousand times the right to be miserable as I did, and yet he was not. He was huge, and suddenly I felt so small. When had I become this way? I used to travel frequently and lived abroad, but I hadn’t left the country in three years. Instead of doggedly searching for stories that I thought could create positive change and waking up in the middle of the night with new ideas like I used to, I spent my evenings ruminating about money and complaining to my mother over the phone.
Entering my building under the twinkling stars, I felt about the size of a grain of sand. Sure, I’d been subsisting on Kraft between measly freelance checks and had recently walked away from yet another failed relationship, but what right did that unoriginal collection of mediocre complaints give me to rail at God like Job?
I was ashamed. But I also felt that growing sense of curiosity and inspiration. Azim and Ples had taken the most horrific experience of their lives and fashioned it into a battle cry for a better world. They took the thing that made them want to die, and used forgiveness to make it their reason to live. They seemed to have reached a sort of pinnacle of humanity. What exactly was this mystical and mysterious thing called forgiveness, anyway? And, was there scientific proof that it actually helped people?
I decided to find out.