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The Terrible Thing

When something bad happens, you don't know what to say, so you say nothing. It's taken 16 months for me to talk about it, but I'm ready. Some names changed to protect identities.

CW: violent imagery, homicide

Growing up, we always had a few extra teens living at our house. Despite not having much to offer, my home was the place for strays to reinvent themselves. Upon entrance, they became family; no prerequisites, come as you are. We opened our hearts and home to any young person who needed it. We created and shared something beautiful by leading with generosity and a spirit of hospitality. Our joy was doubled when someone else experienced it with us. It is in this spirit of generosity that, for years, I dreamed of having a studio space to share with any creative who needed it.

I did just that in the summer of 2021, on a short side street, just outside the arts district in Charlotte, NC. I created my dream art studio in a little pink house. The house may have been small, but the porch was welcoming. At the top of five wide brick steps lay an oasis of thoughtfully selected plants and comfy, wicker furniture. Little trinkets and keepsakes tucked into the dirt of each pot - a shell from a beach trip, a fairy figurine gifted by a grateful student, a pebble offered as a treasure from a preschooler. On the floor, a woven rug my mother selected, a welcomed warmth atop the cool cement slab.

Each item within the house had been lovingly chosen to make the space feel welcoming. It was amply supplied with thousands of dollars in art supplies categorized and attractively displayed for easy access. The cozy kitchen was brimming with snacks and aromatic teas. On the counters sat an array of mugs to suit any personality.

After a few months, it felt like it had always been mine, the creative home I had always longed for. I invited fellow artists to use the space as needed. People came and went throughout the day and laughter filled the space. I even had a spare room set up as a guest room for visiting artist friends. The pink house became a safe haven for me and many others. We often stayed late at the studio, working into the wee hours. Sometimes, I would even spend the night rather than drive home.

When I heard my artist friend Olivia needed somewhere to go to escape hurricane Ida, I offered the space as a free place to crash until the storm passed. She accepted my offer and made the trip up from New Orleans along with her friend Gabryelle. In preparation for their stay, I added an extra comforter to the bed and set out clean towels in the bathroom. Artists sharing the space agreed to limit their studio use to provide Olivia and Gabryelle privacy during their stay. While they were visiting, our creative community rallied around them. We offered them employment, encouragement, and comfort. We had dinners together and tried our best to help them take their minds off the mess the hurricane had made of their home city.

Unimaginably, they had been in town for about a week when something terrible happened. Olivia was out for the evening, leaving Gabryelle alone in my studio. At 8:30pm, a man broke in and brutally murdered her. We were all in shock. No one could have foreseen this happening. To lose a friend in this way is horrendous, and to make matters worse, the man did not bring anything with him, no gun or weapon. He used items belonging to me to brutalize and kill her. I was utterly devastated. Was this my fault?

After returning home from the police department, I thought of entering that little house where no more joy existed. I thought of the shelves friends had just hung and the soothing lavender lotion I had placed on the bathroom sink. I thought of the bed my friend Angela had spent six hours helping me put together and the bedding I had carefully selected to match the rug I just had to have. I thought of the hundreds of skeins of yarn gifted to me by a downsizing artist, and I could not fathom ever touching them again. I could not face seeing the death of my dream, and I could not stomach bringing anything from that space back to my home.

To spare me further trauma, friends and family did what I could not. They went back inside that little pink house and cleaned up the evidence of the horrific violence that had taken place. Respecting my wishes, trusted friends sorted and threw away just about everything - perfect art supplies, that brand new bed, every mug, and every skein of yarn. I never crossed the threshold of that door again.

Unable to leave my house, all my jobs were paused. Thankfully, my creative clients offered kindness and understanding. They waited until I reached out to say I was ready to return to work. Friends and complete strangers alike sent money. I did not have to worry about working while trying to sort through this senseless tragedy. In the following weeks, I did not think about a single meal or worry about sitting alone. Every day, there was someone who sat with me and those affected to ensure that we ate whether or not we had an appetite. Countless artists from the community offered alternative studio spaces at no cost. No one provided senseless platitudes, and no one asked stupid questions; they just loved us.

A year later, I was asked if the "terrible thing," as my friends have come to call it, had changed me. Had I stopped being generous to others? Sitting at my kitchen table, I breathed deeply and reflected. I exhaled slowly, about to say yes, and looked at the door in front of me. I could not help but laugh. "No. I have a friend who needed somewhere to stay, and she's in my home right now. I'm staring at her bedroom door." Then I laughed harder and smiled as tears rolled down my cheeks, "And, my car is currently loaned to a friend in need."

Even though I felt like my generosity dropped off while I was healing, a friend recently reminded me that, in fact, I never stopped helping others. Just a few months post-terrible thing, I coordinated her escape from her long-time abuser. I organized seventeen people to move her out in less than two hours. Even when I did not know how to show up for myself, I showed up for others. Upon reflection, I realized I was on auto-pilot - doing what I knew had to be done because someone asked for my help.

And that's when it hit me. This is who I am. I am generous, supportive, and kind. Nothing can change that. I will continue to show up and now I know how much it means to have someone support you, expecting nothing in return, not even a thank you. But what did change? Now I have learned how to accept help and receive generosity.


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