Sifting through some old photographs one afternoon, I encountered a girl of four or five – a man’s fedora balanced precariously atop light-brown curls, sundress skimming her chubby thighs, and a mischievous gleam of pure exuberance in her eye that said, “let’s get somethin’ goin’ here.” I wondered what ever happened to that little girl, how she might have grown up. It occurred to me she might have become a very different person had a new daddy not entered the picture all those years ago: sun in Sagittarius, Year of the Dragon; the picture had looked all right. A newborn weighing in at nearly 13 pounds surely was poised for a life of overachievement. That was the auspicious interpretation. A life of excess, the not-so-auspicious.

Being undone at so early an age had worn hard on her. The gleam in her eye extinguished, she shut down her heart against the world. Her exuberance turned in upon itself and transformed her into something she never expected she could become, despite all: a slovenly, pilfering whore. When I see snapshots from that time period, I am unable to connect even the fingers that hold the photographs to any atom of the smudgy, overweight slob they display – beer can resting between its legs, the remnants of a cigarette dangling from its lips. But it had been truly beyond her, out of her control – as though her heart had fallen into the depths of an acrid well, and rotted there. As though she had contracted a cancer of the soul.

I have experienced one recurring dream throughout my life. The scenarios vary, but the theme is constant: I discover a wonderful place to live – finally a home – one that I adore, where I feel safe and comfortable, in which I know I will thrive. I begin planning, relishing how beautiful it will be: Living there. Having a place. Belonging. And at the last moment, without fail, it is made clear to me one way or another that the place in fact is not mine, that I do not belong there, that in fact I do not belong anywhere. Just get out.

It is a feeling of lack, a gut certainty that you are not entitled, not worthy, and don’t deserve a place, a family, a home. So you learn to rely on other assets. You learn not to need. Anyone or anything. You become deeply invested in the Power of One. You convince yourself that this is freedom.

And then I think about the freedom in the eyes of that little girl – her curious, wide-open, wild heart just dying to take on the world – and realize the freedom I have accepted as truth is rather akin to the new clothes of that once-foolish emperor. All of his subjects afraid to state the obvious. It took a child to break the spell.

It is a matter of reaching that child.