Caitlin Graham, Lafayette Public Defender’s Office – Crowley, LA


Three years ago, I sat at a lunch table in Birmingham, Alabama with a heart that was at once so full and so heavy.  I had spent the last two weeks loving and laughing and learning.  And for perhaps the first time in my life, I had found somewhere that felt like home.  I had found my people.  Now it was ending.  We were saying goodbye, and I was seven hours away from a city that I knew only by name, a city in which I had spent a sum total of precisely eleven hours, a city that was to be home for the next three years. Lafayette was a blank canvas, vast and terrifying and exciting, and Birmingham had filled my palette with colors rich and bright and more vibrant than I had ever seen before.  I didn’t want to leave but I was so ready to begin.


But before I jumped into work in Lafayette, I needed a moment to catch my breath.  I needed to go outside and sit quietly with the world.  Janey Hogan offered me her family’s camp for the week, and I gratefully accepted.  I scribbled down absurd directions on a scrap of paper, packed up my dog and a pile of books, and I took to the woods.  In McComb, Mississippi, on the bank of the Bogue Chitto River, I sat in the sunshine.  I drank cheap beer.  I wrote like a demon.  I wondered about the idea of home.  I missed my friends.


And I read.  One of the books I read was a novel called Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.  It’s a beautiful book and I was in love with the way the author used language, the way he loved language.  The book is a symphony, at its best when read out loud.  So for much of the 1,400 pages I did just that.  However there was one passage in particular that stopped me in my tracks.  I read it over and over and over again until I could recite it from memory.  Even now when I think about that passage I can still smell the muddy river, I can still feel its water dancing around my feet.  Gregory David Roberts wrote this:


There’s a truth deeper than experience.  It’s beyond what we see, or even what we feel.  It’s an order of truth that separates the profound from the merely clever, and the reality from the perception. We’re helpless, usually, in the face of it; and the cost of knowing it, like the cost of knowing love, is sometimes greater than any heart would willingly pay.  It doesn’t always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world.  And the only way to know that truth is to share it – from heart to heart.


It doesn’t always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world.


This work that we do is an act of love.  It is the work of love.  The excruciating and uplifting work of love.  The painful and profound work of love.  It is the devastating devotion to a critical truth that lies at the heart of it all – that we are each of us bound by a common chord of humanity, that we are each of us responsible for one another, and that the only thing that lives on is the love, the kindness, and the compassion that we gave.  This work is the conduit by which we convey our love to the world.  And it is not easy.


This work hurts.  It hurts in ways I could not have imagined.  It comes in waves, in torrents, in unmitigated chaos and trauma, in overwhelming despair and a crushing indifference that is paralyzing in its relentlessness.


Because this love, like all love, will break your heart.  It makes you vulnerable and it makes you tender.  It shatters your illusions and it changes you in ways that the best kind of love does.  It is a gift whose price is steep.  This love confronts you with the bigotry, hate, and indifference that lie in so many hearts and minds and it asks you to remain soft, it asks you to remain hopeful.  It asks you to forgive, over and over and over again.  If forces you to bear the weight of the cruelty of which we are capable and it asks you to turn ever closer to the light.  This kind of love breaks you wide open.  It breaks your heart.


But it will save you, too.  In the way that only love can.


In a system where kindness is an act of rebellion and compassion is a battle cry, love shows itself in tiny acts of grace that crack open and spread out across the sky like so many stars to light the darkness.  It is in bearing witness to the beauty of redemption and the power of forgiveness.  It is the moment of looking another human being in the eye and realizing that simple and profound truth that we are here, now, together.


It doesn’t always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world.


Going through life with your eyes and mind and heart wide open is not an easy way to travel.  But I believe it to be the only way for a life to be truly lived.  Be willing to look humanity in the eye.  Be willing to stand to power and to speak truth to it.  Make this work an act of love.  Be willing to have your heart broken, and be willing to be made whole by it.



As I sat on the bank of that river in Mississippi, I had no way of knowing what the next three years would look like, how they would unfold, or how to account for the cost of learning these priceless and devastating truths.  I knew only the fullness of my heart and the surprising familiarity of southern soil beneath my feet.  It is good to reach back there from time to time, to remember the hope and excitement from which this work of love was born, and to remind myself of all the places that have ever felt like home.


Caitlin Graham

Assistant Public Defender

Lafayette, Louisiana


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