Wednesday, January 9, 2019
My employer in Mississippi prodded me in June to leave my job as a journalist in my hometown after police in a nearby city arrested and jailed me for a crime I did not commit. After I resurfaced in Washington, D.C., with few contacts, giving thanks and gratitude still feels much easier than I anticipated. Recent events have reminded me I have more reasons to give thanks than I may ever realize.
My past and present experiences convince me to feel thankful for the lessons learned and promise of redemption, a theme that has resonated for much of my life. My experience in jail and leaving my journalism job caused me to reflect on previous times, forcing me to sharpen my tenacity and will to find something better, to find reason to live. My mother's death and other setbacks in life come to mind.
I fought this year for my reputation as it stood trial in a Hattiesburg, Miss., courtroom. I applied reporting skills of research, data analysis, public-records requests, critical thinking and belief in myself to defend myself. The public defender representing me in court, who did not know who he represented until the day before my trial was scheduled, said he wished he could hire me after witnessing my work.
The judge acquitted me of the charge (DUI first offense), but I still didn't have a paycheck. Still, I'm thankful for those setbacks since I would not have discovered what I now call my daily life. I'm thankful to tutor kids who struggle for a chance at success in a world of unequal opportunity. I'm thankful for the chance to acknowledge that much worse has happened to people who also committed no crime.
In my work as a journalist, I have written about poverty and spent time with people living in it. My current situation has immersed me deeper into the poverty experience. I stood in line a few months ago inside a Department of Human Services office, and applied for and received an EBT card, or food stamps. I debated whether to apply for it but decided to proceed, in part because of my initial thoughts of shame I've associated with food stamps. No one should go hungry in this country or any other if resources are available.
I stood in the long line surrounded by people trying to do the best they could with extremely limited resources. I was one of them. Standing among the poorest in our society, I felt thankful for the experience, the chance to go through the process so common to people living in poverty.
I give thanks for friends who reached out to me to make sure I remembered my ability to recover from much worse. I remain indebted to a credit line of friends I probably don't deserve but who still support me, helping me keep perspective.
I give thanks for the chance during my struggle to strengthen connections, including with my father, a man with whom I've had an estranged relationship for many years. Despite our past, he bailed me out of jail. Like a country song, my dad pawned a gun to get his son out of jail. For one of the first times I recall, I felt like he believed in me. He and a few remarkable friends watched in the courtroom as I defended myself in a system not known for easily handing out "not guilty" verdicts.
I find simple pleasures in my new city, activities like riding my bicycle along historic areas and thinking about the ideals of this country, while also reflecting on my personal and professional values. I have felt at times like I had lost everything.
Fortunately, a mentor told me the only way I'd lose everything is if I believed I had and reminded me of my professional accomplishments. He also shared how he recovered after losing his career when I decided to make a personal ethical decision. I'm thankful for his support and wisdom.
This year has reminded me that wealth comes in many forms beyond numbers in a bank account and expensive purchases. I've learned so much during this season of loss, learned to let go of hurt, anger and bitterness. I've tried to live in the present moment while working toward my next chapter.
I give thanks for reaching a point where it feels good to be me again. I am also grateful for life's not-always-gentle reminders. It reminded me of people facing hunger, people arrested, jailed, jobless and not sure where to turn. It has reminded me of those who can't see a future with them in it. I've learned people who go without today can be you and me in a different time and place.
I've remembered life offers a finite amount of time to make our mark in this world, that we can learn from so many experiences and people if we're open to the lessons.
After experiencing previously foreign struggles, I've also remembered how much I love writing, storytelling and producing meaningful journalism. Losing my byline this year hurt more than I want to admit. I have already started reaching out for opportunities to return full-time to journalism or other fields where I can make a positive impact and welcome suggestions, recommendations and opportunities.
I look forward to learning what the future has in store for me and certainly give thanks if it involves making a meaningful difference.
Robbie S. Ward has a master's in public policy and administration from Mississippi State University.