I once taught a lovely young girl who was in foster care. After several years with the same family, she was told she was being transferred to a new placement. It involved moving to a different town and changing schools.
This is the story I wrote to help her with this huge transition.
Fire and Knives
“How do I stop myself from having any pain?” asked Marnie.
“Pain?” said the Old One. “What sort of pain?”
“Any sort,” replied Marnie, kicking at the dusty ground. “Pain like… being burned and cut – just pain.”
The Old One shrugged. “That’s easy; you stay away from fire and knives and things that can hurt you.”
Marnie scowled. That was not the right reply. “Suppose the pain comes after me, though, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get away from it. Then what do I do?”
“Ahh!” said the Old One, slowly. “That sort of pain.”
The Old One wandered over to his rocking chair and sat down gently.
“Come and sit with me, Marnie,” he said.
“Don’t want to sit,” scowled Marnie.
“Fine,” smiled the Old One. “Just you stay standing, then.”
“Don’t want to stand either,” Marnie grumbled. “Just answer the question, why don’t you?”
“Well it’s an interesting question, you see, Marnie, and one that deserves a good answer.”
“SO GIVE ME THE ANSWER, THEN!” screamed Marnie, kicking furiously at the side of the house.
“Well, let me see. I’m thinking this sort of pain wouldn’t be from flames and knives at all. I’m wondering if this would be more like the sort of pain you get when you have to say goodbye to people and places you’ve known a long time, and you’ve got used to them and fond of them and it feels bad inside in every way. Would that be the sort of pain we’re talking about?”
Marnie had stopped kicking at the house and was scuffing the ground quietly. “Maybe.”
The Old One nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, that’s a tricky sort of pain to avoid,” he agreed.
Marnie blinked hard several times and swallowed. “So how would I avoid pain like that?”
“How would you avoid it? Ah, that’s easy,” smiled the Old One. “You’d start by saying to yourself, ‘I must be as nasty and grumpy as I can to the grown ups around here, then they’ll be glad when I go and they won’t miss me, so they won’t be upset.’ Then you’d think on and say, ‘I’ll be extra quarrelsome to my friends, and ignore the little kids around here, so that they don’t cry or make any fuss and they’ll be glad to see the back of me and then they won’t be upset, either.’”
Marnie was staring, open mouthed, at the Old One, but he smiled gently and kept talking softly.
“Then, of course, there would be your own pain. You’d push it down deep, well out of the way and tell yourself how glad you were to be moving. With any luck, if you kept it buried for long enough, it might not hurt any more after a while. Simple, isn’t it, Marnie?”
Marnie was still staring. “Is that the right way to do it? Is that what you’d do?”
“What I’d do? Good gracious, no! Why would I even think of doing anything that stupid?”
“But you said…” spluttered Marnie.
“I said,” interrupted the Old One, “that’s what you’d do!”
Marnie went rather pink and started kicking again. “So what’s wrong with that, anyway?”
“Well, Marnie, there’s a whole load wrong with it. Let’s take the way you treat the adults. They know it’s not your fault you’re leaving. They’ve loved you for a long time and watched you growing up. They’ve felt proud of the good ideas and help they’ve given you and they’d be proud to see you moving on as such a fine young person. They’d like to have good memories of you. But you’re taking all that from them. You’re making them feel sad and disappointed. You’re making them feel hurt and neglected. That gives them lots of pain.”
Marnie slowly turned and wandered across to sit next to the Old One. He carried on, as if he hadn’t noticed, although, of course, he had.
“Now what about those little kids? Remember the bigger kids who played with you, when you were small? Remember how kind they were to you, when they helped you make toys or played games with you?”
“What are those memories like? Good or bad?”
“Oh, good!” exclaimed Marnie, starting to smile at the thought of them. “There was this one big kid, called Asher, who always played ball with me. It made me feel really important and grown up.”
“That’s right,” smiled the Old One. “I remember Asher playing with you when you were a real little tot. Then one day Asher just started ignoring you, didn’t he? Just treated you like you didn’t exist.”
“He did NOT!” exclaimed Marnie, angrily. “Asher would never have done that. He was really kind and friendly!”
“Oh yes, my mistake,” agreed the Old One, mildly. “I must have been confusing him with someone else I knew.”
Marnie looked at him carefully. She opened her mouth to ask a question, but then changed her mind.
“Go on,” she said.
“Where was I? Oh yes – your friends. They’ve been there for you when you’ve been grumpy and miserable and bossy and mischievous and they’ve kept you company and given you such a great bucket-load of happy memories to take with you on your journey. Do they deserve to have their memories of you spoilt? Do you deserve to have your memories ruined too?”
“Probably,” whispered Marnie, miserably.
“Can’t see much purpose in that,” shrugged the Old One. “And finally there is your pain. You got any painful memories at the moment?”
Marnie scowled. “None of your business!”
“Ah,” he smiled. “Keeping them buried, are you? I’m guessing some of them go way back – back to when you were just a very little person. And have they faded away?”
“Stop it! Stop it! STOP IT!” shouted Marnie, trying to block out his voice.
The Old One waited for a moment, until Marnie was still. “I know it hurts,” he said gently. “When pain goes deep, it hurts all the more. You don’t start to feel better until you let it out.”
Then the Old One stood up and walked to the garden fence. He looked across at the mountains in the distance. They looked beautiful with the sun setting on them.
“Ah, Marnie,” he sighed. “Just look at that view! Drink it in and remember it! Those mountains are worn into beautiful shapes, like carvings. Wouldn’t they be dull and dreary if they were just smooth and round?”
Marnie looked at the mountains and shrugged. “I suppose.”
“They’ve been attacked by fierce winds and sandstorms, lightning and torrents of rain, over the years, to get that way. They’ve suffered too. It’s the pain in our lives that makes us wise and strong and beautiful.”
He turned to face Marnie. “There is another way – a better way. Accept the pain, and the tears if they come, because they gradually wash the pain away. Smile through the tears at those you are leaving behind. Leave them the greatest gift you have – memories of the wonderful person you are. They will give you wonderful memories back. You’ll have no need to feel guilt or shame or bitterness. Just know that life is an amazing journey, and take the best from every part of it.”
Marnie hugged him and the tears flowed and the pain that had been digging inside like a knife, or like burning, began to melt away.