Steps and Starfish

Steps and Starfish

I still remember one of the women that attended a county jail 12 Step program I was helping to facilitate. “Helping” is euphemistic description. But I knew God had me there. And that knowledge gave me the courage to walk through two sets of air lock doors and face the complete unknown for an hour. Her name was Jasmine, Jazz for short. The nickname suited her so perfectly. Jazz was a petite, lively, strong Hispanic young woman with a beautiful smile. She had thick, wavy auburn hair, huge brown eyes, glowing olive skin and perfect lips except for an ugly gash that marred the cupid’s bow. Everything about Jazz commanded attention. She could have been the model for a  Disney princess, doe-eyed and sassy. Or the co-worker who always had a bright, decorated office cubicle with a sparkly coffee cup in a line up of identical sad grey walls. She should have been an eternal Polaroid snapshot, a smiling young mother in a flowered dress with a bow and a tiny babe in her arms. Or a tender Madonna.

But the child Jazz was carrying was destined to start life in the system, not in a home with a cozy, carefully planned nursery. And its mother’s reality a worn-out, stained prison jumpsuit and four metal walls. Jazz was the girlfriend of a drug dealer, arrested on charges stemming from that relationship and her part in his illegal activities. I was never exactly sure and my partner and I were not to ask questions about why our group members were locked up. Every time I looked at that scar on her lip I felt frustration and anger, knowing that she was likely the pawn of a man who used her for his own purposes, and let her take the punishment for his mistakes.

Still, Jazz was no pushover and while she showed honest emotion in the group, she did not allow self-pity to dominate her outlook. Prison guards escorted the ladies from their upper tier cell blocks to the meeting downstairs, and if inmate missed the call to come down they were out of luck. One morning Jazz missed the call. We were all surprised when she showed up 10 minutes into our lesson, and the ladies were whispering their respect and high fiving little Jazz for insisting a guard escort her down to the group. Our women ran the gamut from community college students to executives who found themselves homeless due to their destructive habits, young heroin addicts and revolving door cases of abuse and repeated violent behavior. The bridge over their troubled waters into our stuffy, locked meeting room seemed miles long at the beginning, but only a few feet at the end of our time together when I realized how fragile life circumstances can be, and how easily a seemingly perfect existence can be upended.

I longed to help Jazz in some meaningful way. Despite the toll life had already exacted from her, a desire for more and innocence still softened her demeanor. I quietly prayed it always would, but I could not control what happened to her. We exchanged a few letters, and then our lives parted ways. I was never to know where she went or what happened to her baby. My own son was awaiting sentencing at the time, and concern over his situation dominated our home life and sapped my energy.

That was almost 15 years ago. Time brought changes to my life, a divorce, an empty nest and a new life in a new state. I married again and my husband and I bought a small house. We combined two households of goods representing over 60 years of life with other spouses, children and a thousand memories. We probably sold, threw away or donated enough stuff to fill multiple homes. By the time we furnished our ours, I was speeding through boxes and memorabilia with not much thought about what had any meaning. I grabbed the most important things at the beginning of our collective move. So I got a surprise five years later, while tidying up my bedroom turned art studio and going through old notebooks, an envelope with large, familiar schoolgirl handwriting fell out of a sheet protector. I read back through the letter that somehow survived and Jazz had mailed to me all those years ago. The memory of her face came to my mind instantly along with a stab of regret. Why hadn’t I tried harder? Why hadn’t I looked her up? It was the age of the internet now. I felt I had done so little for her. Then my eyes fell onto one line in the letter, “I was always so excited to see your car pull into the parking lot from my window”. I had forgotten that, and like a sweet benediction from the Lord Himself, the words Jazz wrote to me came back through the years. They touched my heart with a grace I could not seem to give myself, and the treasure of her memory once again.


An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.

“Young lady,” he asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”

“But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”

The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, “It made a difference for that one.”


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