We Survive the Night by Candlelight

Once again I have trouble believing how fast it’s gone, the holidays all the more disarming in California for the arrant summer that asserts herself into months reserved for the cold. The year draws to a close, swift like winter night. Beneath the din, the festivities heighten the loneliness for many. It’s the dissonance between the merriment in the air and their private song; the expectations of the season that descend on their Christmas, their New Year’s in a great anticlimax. It’s what I grew up with.

The less you have, the greater the pressure you feel. To spend and to have loved ones to spend the holiday with in a special way. But these burdens are a luxury for people who’ll be grateful just to quiet the growling in their stomach. This time of year is especially hard on those bedridden in poverty. In last year’s New York Times article The Invisible Child, we see a bright girl named Dasani (now 12) struggling against forces beyond her control: “parents who cannot provide, agencies that fall short, a metropolis rived by inequality and indifference. Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction…her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction. 

The Auburn Family Residence [is] a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless. Dasani [the last several years was] among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belong[ed] to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression.

Sexual predators, spoiled food, filthy communal bathrooms, vermin, and exposure to asbestos and lead were the norm for Dasani and her six siblings. They would wait in line for their prepackaged food in the cafeteria before sliding into another impossible line for access to the two microwaves that hundreds of residents share.

What breaks my heart is that the children “are bystanders in this discourse, no more to blame for their homelessness than for their existence. To be homeless it to be powerless.

Dasani was on the cusp of becoming something more, something she could feel but not yet see, if only the right things happened and the right people came along. In the absence of a stable home or a reliable parent, public institutions have an outsize influence on the destiny of children like Dasani. Whether she can transcend her circumstances rests greatly on the role, however big or small, that society opts to play in her life. School [like hers] can also provide a bridge to the wider world…Few [kids] have both the depth of Dasani’s troubles and the height of her promise. There is not much [her principal] can do about life outside school. She knows this is a child who needs a sponsor, who ‘needs’ to see The Nutcracker, who ‘needs’ her own computer. There are many such children. One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania.”

What of these kids caught between the rock of their parents’ failures and the hard place of walls adorned with graffiti and mold? The hand of angels can reach in.

Though we may not be able to rescue everyone from cold, hunger, sickness, or loneliness, we can make a profound difference in so many ways. I name the stories you are about to hear the Candlelight Series after Eleanor Roosevelt who sought “to light candles rather than curse the darkness.” We’ll catch a glimpse of the hands that have lit the way for those frozen in the dark. Of people who chose to see the suffering and meet it with love, who decided they would be the right person to come along. People like the teachers and principal Dasani so desperately needs. We pay homage to those who helped us survive the night by candlelight.

75 thoughts on “We Survive the Night by Candlelight

  1. Sure not their parents failures but a failure of the society the came to join and show they inequality of our faith … Perhaps their pointing the way will guide us to the truth about ourselves?

    • Certainly the fault of the parents, though not theirs alone. That’s a series unto itself. I couldn’t elaborate, as I had to focus on the introduction of the new series. I am not dismissing the hardships and habits the parents inherited from their parents and the ghetto. But Dasani’s father chose not to work many seasons when he could’ve provided for his family. A very difficult situation. I appreciate your closing hope.


  2. I look forward to the timely posts that focus us on the spirit of Christmas… to care about and love our fellow man. Starting with the people in our sphere of influence and then rippling outwards. May we grasp a candle and recognize that our little light collaboratively with others, can change the world for the better!

    • Break and cringe are right, Cindy. Eleanor made it a point to light candles for the downtrodden in war time. She knew loneliness from the sorrows of childhood. Thanks so much for being here.


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  4. I’m at a loss for words on this one. It has its beauty and ugliness in a manner of fact. While the stats are affected by the U.S.’s definition of poverty, it still appears a big, never-ending problem, with uneasy solutions.

    If only more love was shared in the world… properly. (Predators.)

  5. I love your idea to bring stories of candles of light to ease the pain of others. Thanks for adding to the light Diana. This topic is poignant for me this year with my financial and emotional challenges.
    I try to remember my blessings of home, food and shelter. Thanks. 🙂

  6. I worked with foster kids and yes, Christmas is a difficult time for children whose parents for whatever reason are unable to fulfill all of the expectations we put on this season. It’s so sad. Your post is a powerful reminder of the hidden children.

  7. I have to admit it was staggering to me to think that in the “land of plenty” there are so many who are left wanting. I knew that there are a lot of poor in America, but I never realized how much so. Thanks for sharing!

  8. So true so sad. Yet we can make a difference. I teach special education students most of which are poor. The saddest thing is to see the light drain from their eyes. We need to keep the light burning. Lovely writing. I look forward to reading more.

  9. “Though we may not be able to rescue everyone from cold, hunger, sickness, or loneliness, we can make a profound difference in so many ways.”

    Yes we can but not in the way you mean. This is a beautiful post which touches the heart and calls out to all of us to light the way for these children. Unfortunately we are not the problem. There are far more people wanting to adopt children than there are children available. in 2008 almost 600,000 women in the US were actively trying to adopt and most of them said they were willing to adopt older children, minorities or sibling groups, the very children in foster care that need families and are considered “hard to place.” What stops these women adopting are the obstacles placed in their way. It is far easier for an American family to adopt a child from across the world than to adopt a foster child across a state line. In 2010 Americans adopted 11,058 children from other countries but only 527 children from other states. Incentives matter.

    If the laws were different Dasini would be allowed to leave her parents and find herself some decent foster parents. Unfortunately children have been deprived of most of their basic rights and so, if they run away from home they are treated like runaway slaves in former times and illegal immigrants today, forced to live in fear, at the fringes of society.

    • Good points, Malcolm.

      I am a father of a biological son and an adopted son. We too were looking internationally for a child. We felt that there was another child out there who needed parents that could care for him/her. We paid for many courses, did home studies, went through countless background checks and generally jumped through many expensive and time-consuming hoops. In the end, because of some circumstances, we were unable to go ahead with international adoption. But on a whim, we decided to check out local agencies. We hadn’t even thought of them before.

      But alas, there with all the sibling groups, special needs children, older kids – the ones you mentioned – was the boy who eventually became our son. His mother was / is an addict and unable to care for him, or even the previous 10 children who she surrendered to Children’s Aid.

      I mention all this because we don’t always see how we can be that beacon of hope for someone so close to us. Someone in our own backyard. I am unsure of the rules in the States, but here in Canada there are lots of rules. A lot of administrative blocks, all bent on the “best” interest of the children. So while they are doing their best to match families, they also fear the mismatches. Add to that the shrinking budgets and case workloads, things get bogged down. Once upon a time it was easy to pick a child out, meet them, sign a few papers, have a few initial meet ups and boom – insta-child. Now it can take months and months or even years (took us over a year to get legal custody)

      Anyway, I pray that the children go where they are destined to be, and not chewed up and spit out before they even have a chance to spread their wings and show the world who they can really be.


      • Paul, thank you for sharing your adoption experience. Thinking about how fast searching and paperwork completion can be on the internet it’s nothing short of a tragedy that so many hurdles were put in your way. Possibly the entire adoption process could be privatized with minimum supervision. There could, for example, be mandatory requirements for visits by an independent company to ensure that everything was going well. Adoption is too important a subject to leave to the bureaucrats.

    • I actually didn’t spell out what it is I meant, MG, wanting to stick with the introduction of the series. One, bc what I meant is so open-ended and the point is we can make a difference in so many ways. Even the way the woman in the other car did when she saw – really saw – you behind the wheel and smiled sympathy – to reference an old post. Second, bc to elaborate would be to open the Pandora’s Box you did =). I don’t believe the onus falls as heavily on anyone as it does on the parents. The Times article slanted it against the city and the Mayoral administration that did indeed play a tragic hand against those mired in poverty. And I can go on about the bureaucracy that sets up tripping stones for stepping stones in so many areas of service (esp in that city) – as in education. But Dasani’s stepfather chose not to work some seasons when he had the opportunity. This failure to provide isn’t a blanket invitation for judgmt or censure bc we now get into the psyche, the grooves of thought habits and self-talk worn by decades of struggles he inherited from his own addict parents. But there’s no getting around it. D’s parents did not have to blow their welfare chk the first half of the month (a common habit among the poor, from the different accounts I’ve read), leaving themselves with nothing the rest. Reading their story, you know Dasani’s only chance of making it is to leave her family. But they love one another and have a bond strangers notice. It’s almost an impossible situation, which makes for an impossible discussion. But I wanted to at a basic level raise awareness and then simply share stories of the ways we can reach out and meet differing needs.

  10. This is brilliantly written. I’ve seen so much poverty in my travels and its like a knife in the soul. Makes one careful about spending on oneself when there is so much need to support those less fortunate. Christmas is a good time to reflect on the greatest gift of all to a sad and suffering world.

    • Thanks, Ian. I appreciate your bringing your travels into this. Too familiar, huh? We ARE limited in what we can do, but hopefully we can inspire one another to the smallest gesture of compassion this wk.


  11. Lovely piece, my friend. As Dicken’s said through Marley in a Christmas Carol (paraphrasing a little) “My business? Mankind was my business! The common welfare of others, my business.” And later through the businessmen seeking funds for the poor, “It is at this time of year, especially, that want is felt so deeply.”

  12. It is heart wrenching to read this about Dasani, a fellow innocent human being that deserves none of this. It is so difficult to see the disparity of wealth in the United states, and also in Canada where I live.
    Thank you for sharing this Diana to bring awareness. ( I did not know the statistics were that high)

  13. “It’s the dissonance between the merriment in the air and their private song; ” I do love this line very much, Diana. The circus is in town, but no one mentions or cares for those sleeping under the bleachers, as long as the clowns are funny and the elephants tip their hats. Often, those who are on the fringes of society suffer the most.

    This morning I read in horror and heartbreak about the Taliban mass murder of children in Peshawar. Hard to imagine the scene. Does it make Dasani’s story any less painful? No, but it shows that our most vulnerable sector is often the most neglected and/or abused. It’s amazing how resilient children are, and often, it only takes that one person or even those few moments of reaching out and cherishing a child, to have the child see hope. To know that there is more out there, that there are people who care.

    I look forward in reading more stories of hope here. Hope is contagious. Hope begets more hope. All we need is someone to light that first candle 🙂

    Thank you for sharing this.


    • “it only takes that one person or even those few moments of reaching out and cherishing a child, to have the child see hope. To know that there is more out there, that there are people who care.”

      Exactly. I have been drawn this year – like bee to nectar – to the gift of possibility that we can bestow one another. So much to say on this, but hopefully we will see this wk how we open up possibilities of love and empowerment when we reach out and hold up those afraid of their own vulnerability.

      I am so grateful for your time here tonight, Paul. I know you’re wrapping up a full day. Amazing feedback.


  14. Diana, this is such a beautiful ~ heartfelt post. The timing on reading this is incredible as well, as just finished a trip with Save the Children-HK to Tacloban, Philippines and while so much has been done to give children hope and dreams in this area, it also made me think how many more will never see opportunities they deserve… The small things (opportunities) that many of us can take for granted are things so many others will never see.

    The words: “Dasani was on the cusp of becoming something more” ~ ring true for so many, as they not only have dreams but also the pain of seeing the impossibility of their situation. They just wait for one speck of opportunity to succeed. I do believe people, and children in particular, who have been through trials tend to latch onto an opportunity when (if) it presents itself. Their difficult paths spur them to succeed in areas many of us could never imagine. Beautiful post.

    • I’ve read of both cases, Randall:

      1) Some will take no gesture of kindness, open door of possibility for granted the way we do everyday blessings.

      2) Others remain frozen in defeating self-talk and keep themselves imprisoned no matter how hard the gov’t, friends, strangers try to pull them out. More the older people in this category.

      I can only imagine what you saw and felt, and the ways you lit candles among those children, R. Wow. I am grateful you make it a point to keep up with the Holistic Journey on the busy trail. I’m so glad I got feature your work in this piece. =) Thx for getting on that so promptly.


  15. So important to not see ourselves as separate from the plight of others for sure. Even though we can’t save everyone, sometimes doing a little something can reverberate in ways that we don’t even know. Such a great reminder during the holidays-esp. when it can be easy to get lost in the gift giving and the money stress and the holiday family drama. (Still catching up on posts, so will definitely be back to read/comment more.) xo

  16. It was like I was reading about my country. Sometimes I think the only reason my people survive every time is that someone with a candle light comes along, at the right time, in the right place. This series is a remarkable way to end this year. I am excited to read what’s in store. You are an inspiration D. Much love.

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