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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Holiday Garbage

It had come down to digging through garbage.  The two 20 gallon trash containers, sitting side by side behind a decorative wood slat structure were overflowing with things my mother had recently decided we no longer needed: kitchenware, food, jackets, clothes, family heirlooms, toys, books, photographs and each and every last gift wrapped holiday present. 

My family had moved to Diablo, California two years earlier.  In those two years things had not gone well.  There was a divorce that I was old enough to feel some relief about.  The relief was short lived.  Soon after my dad moved out, the fighting stopped, but other things changed, and not for the better.

When we first moved to northern California, I had extraordinary freedom.  I slept alone outside in the rolling hills near our house all summer.  My friend Chris and I rode horses up Mt. Diablo and camped for days on end.  My mom would occasionally drive up the mountain and drop off boxes of food that we ate around a campfire, adding mustard seeds we picked from the wild yellow and green stalks that grew everywhere.  With flair, Chris and I would toss handfuls of seeds into our cans of chili or spaghetti o’s.

My dad, like many dads, worked long hours.  My mom got a job as a realtor and was out most of the day and many evenings showing homes.  I learned how to cook what I thought at the time were fairly elaborate meals including omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomatoes. I got myself to school and generally took care of myself.  When I got lonely, I brought my pony, Merrylegs, into the house.  I even brought her upstairs to show her my bedroom.  This, as you might imagine, did not go over well.  To this day, it remains a mystery as to how my mom was able to clean hoof prints out of the carpet and I am still a little surprised that my pony was able to navigate our staircase.

I am not sure if the years of unrestrained freedom, or ponies in the living room eventually became too much for my mom, or if the chemicals in her brain morphed in response to some unidentified stimuli, but she began to change.  No longer was I allowed to ride my dad’s green Schwin bicycle to school.  A 10-mile ride through windy tree lined streets that I loved.  One morning, I begged and pleaded enough that she relented, after insisting that she follow me in her car the entire way.  I pounded the petals, pumping as fast as I could in a vain attempt to get away from her hovering shadow.  My sister and I now had to come straight home from school, had to sit in the back seat of her car reading TinTin comics while she showed houses to strangers.  She bolted the front door.  No more camping or sleeping outside.  No more after school adventures in the hills next to our house.  Friends were told not to stop by. 

Then, things changed again.

She arrived unannounced at my elementary school one morning claiming the principle was trying to poison us with pencil lead. We were taken out of after school sports, and no longer allowed to attend parties or school functions. She began to turn pictures around on the walls.  She told me that my sister was supposed to be born a boy but the doctors changed her gender at the hospital.  When I asked what gender I was supposed to be, she looked at me, her blue eyes cold and hard and said, “The doctors didn’t know what they were doing. I know that now.  Stop listening.”  I had no idea what she meant.  Recently, she had started saying things that made no sense to me.  At that point, her crazy phrases as I called them, were the least of my worries. 

On Saturday mornings, in addition to pancakes and cartoons, my sister and I were told to scour the house looking for tiny microphones.  Sometimes this was fun. I would pretend I was a brave girl detective solving small important domestic mysteries or uncovering international spy rings.  Other times, it was scary.  I wasn’t sure what would be more frightening: finding a tiny microphone, or never finding one.  I began to whisper when I talked and often felt as if I was being observed even though no one was around. There were new dangers we were told to be aware of and new rituals we had to follow.  For a few months, we had to eat three Tums nightly. I remember stacks of Tums on my bedroom dresser.  She would sit at the end of my bed, quietly waiting for me to finish chewing, then get up to leave, refusing my plea to close to door.

This was also the year my mom threw out most of my clothes. I ended up with two basic outfits to wear to school.  Having only two basic outfits to wear to school was, among other things, a grade school girl’s worst nightmare.  I tried desperately to mix and match like they told you to in TeenBeat, but, I lacked the necessary statement accessories.  I was loosing friends. 

My dad, just beginning to realize the depth of the delusions, tried to get us out of there.  It took a long time.  While he was fighting courts and filing paperwork, he would occasionally stop by Green Valley Elementary School to visit my sister and me.  Sometimes he would take us out for lunch, ask how we were doing.  Fine.  You get used to it.  You figure out how to get by day to day.  You work out routines, ignore the sad looks from adults and pretend not to see the sneers from your schoolmates.  You wrote in your journal, watched TV and slowly let go of the hope that your mom would suddenly snap out of it and things would return to normal.

As the holidays arrived, so did my mother’s madness.  I saw her screaming at the mailman one day, yelling at him to take back the boxes he tried to hand her.  He didn’t take them back and my mom threw them all in the trash.  For some reason, watching her methodically put each holiday wrapped box, each letter, each large seasonally decorated envelop into the garbage was the point when I realized things were bad. 

Really bad. 

When things are bad, you look for the silver lining.  Or in my case the silver and white boxes of Norwegian candy my grandmother sent every year at Christmas.  My sister and I snuck into the decorative wood slate barricade.  I gasped.  Our two garbage cans were over flowing with holiday fair.  Red and green boxes, sliver containers with snowflakes, dark chocolate and marzipan bars, two holiday wreaths with plastic lingonberries and the silver and white boxes of Norwegian candy.  I started yanking things from the cans, while simultaneously stuffing a hastily unwrapped marzipan bar in my mouth. I wasn’t sure how much time I had, and I was desperate to cram as much stuff as I could into my Charles Angles backpack. Earlier that morning I had dumped my schoolbooks behind the large oak tree in our driveway.  That way, I could fill my empty backpack and smuggle my goods into the house.  I pictured sauntering casually past my mom, waving hello Yes, school was fine, no Mr. Tincanus didn’t make us re-do our history assignment. Gonna go do homework.  Be downstairs in a bit. Bye.

I wanted time to open each box, one by one.  I wanted time to decide what to keep and what I would, under the cover of night, put back in the two metal garbage cans.  My sister, slightly smaller than me, despite our being twins, was able to perch on a wooden platform to the left of the cans, a pile of boxes of all sizes next to her.  She was taking a different approach.  While I stuffed everything I could into my backpack to be sorted out later, she took a box, shook it, looked at the label and after studying it for a moment would either place it in her ever growing pile or discard it by tossing it on the ground.  There were advent calendars and small blue boxes with white snowflakes that we know were jewelry from Farfar, our paternal grandmother who lived in Norway and who, every year, sent my sister and I delicate jewelry that I inevitably lost or broke while riding horses, or playing kick ball. My sister was more careful than I and had a pile of gold heart pendants, tiny turquoise rings, and brass bracelets with square lip gloss containers welded on the top to prove it. 

After cramming our backpacks with as much candy, small pink and green marzipan pigs, toblar bars, tins of fruit candies and boxes of unidentified gifts as we possible could, we casually sauntered into the house.  We walked past our mom, making after school noises: yeah, school was fine, got a lot of homework, be down for dinner.  Splitting up at the end of the hallway, we went into our separate rooms.  Closing the door behind me, I sighed.  I had taken measures into my own hands.  Had made and followed through with a plan.  There would be some kind of holiday after all. 

Charlie’s Angeles backpack bursting, I sat on the floor and began removing items one by one.  I took a box out, looked at it from all sides, and then carefully unwrapped the paper, mindful to not tear it.  After removing the wrapping paper, I would fold it neatly and set it aside before attending to the gift, savoring the moment, enjoying the anticipation. 

For God’s sake, Cristien, just open it.  I could hear my dad saying.  His yelling this at me as he ripped wrapping paper off one of his presents and crumpled it into a ball so he could throw it at me, was as much a family ritual as getting to open one present on Christmas eve, or eating his famous Storm eggs with Aquavit on Christmas morning.  Alone in my room, I laughed out loud.  I loved those moments. 

Because I was a child, it is through my child’s memory that I recall my dad dropping by the house in Diablo the day before Christmas Eve that year. He was always excited about Christmas.  363 days of the year he was more focused on neurons, particle receptors and office politics than anything else.  But Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, he lit up.  He would shop like a mad man a few days before Christmas.  If you were lucky enough to be invited to go with him, you were treated to a running monologue about cooking, the right kind of beer to pair with a roast and snarky commentary about the general public.  It was like being allowed to enter his inner circle.  I felt important when he told me to go get a bag of Brussels sprouts or demonstrated how to choose between cuts of meat.  He would let me eat half of the candy bar he brazenly opened while we shopped. It was the one time of year I felt close.  He loved watching us open presents.  I loved the smile on his face as he drank his cup of coffee or sipped Aquavit and watched. 

In my wintery child memory, I see him at the door that year.  It is the day before Christmas morning.  I see him and my mom fighting.  I see her taking each gift and throwing it out the door.  I see him picking the boxes back up.  I see them struggle.  I see him push the door open when she tries to close it.  They continue to argue.  I am holding both hands to my ears.  I cannot hear them.  I see him walk away.  I see her take each and every last holiday gift and toss them into the two 20 gallon trash containers, sitting side by side behind a decorative wood slat structure.  I see her walk back into the house.  Go into the bedroom.  I see her close the door.  I cannot hear anything.  I go back into my room.  I will have to wait until nighttime to find out what my dad bought me for Christmas.  I am excited.  I anticipate his excitement.  I imagine his smile and for an instant I smell coffee, roasting vegetables, smoked ham.  I hear the clink of glasses as he makes us toast one another. He allowed us to drink beer and aquavit on Christmas morning and I am remembering how the bubbles stung the back of my throat. I sit in my room and wait for sunset, hoping that he remembered how much I wanted a new pair of riding boots. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Literary suicide

She asks me, Can you perform literary suicide by writing yourself out of existence?

Then explains,
suicide is, in reality, a messy and problematic thing to do.

There is no guarantee in drinking gallons of Gallo or gin
fights that bust dental work and cause permanent joint pain,
may or may not take you to the other side
motorcycle crashes, guns, a slow moving waltz towards a semi
do not provide a money back guarantee
and after all your efforts
you may still have to explain to friends and family why
you woke up spooning a shotgun.

It takes a lot of energy to override survival instincts 
fight or flight wrestling for control
your body tossed around like a seagull in a jet air stream

it’s exhausting
this struggle to not be here

there was a moment
an intolerable moment, that lasted forever
even after it ended
she lives with that moment
hovering always
she has tried to make it disappear
has decided, she will try to disappear
belletristic self-immolation
writing a fictional world where she doesn’t exist

How will you live in a world where you don’t exist?  I ask her.

Precisely.  She replies.

If you scream who will hear it?
If you crystallize then shatter into a million pieces, who will notice? 
If you slowly disappear, limbs dissipating like clouds, no one will pay any attention. 
If you cut yourself nobody will look at you with sad eyes. 

Maybe that’s the point
no one listened when she screamed
or noticed when she disappeared inside herself like a tumor 
left alone for so long, while
being paid attention to in the worst possible ways
she stopped struggling outright
turned inward
focused on how to not be
in the moment
not be there, then

She smiles wide
at me
It will be so much better there,
action figures with realistic body proportions and flat feet
a killer sound track
they never played X when I had to pull down my panties and play ride the horsey,
here, I can crank out Exene Cervenka and Corrosion of Conformity any time

What is the soundtrack to a literary suicide
a graphic novel kamikaze?
You make the play list 
construct the dialogue
call the plays
edit, loop, cut

Exist by not existing
invisible puppeteer
no longer struggling to subdue
invasive memories
bashed into momentary non-existence by bare-knuckled fistfights with your hippocampus.

Lexiconic Seppuku
available to anyone with an imagination
a willingness to use language, a syntax placebo effect
it’s free
you don’t get arrested
wake up on a parking strip in the middle of Yakima 
no hangovers
no overdraft fees
no std’s, or cracked teeth
no awkward smiles at the person you wake up with
just you
plot lines
a parade of characters
and endless possibilities

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fact, Fiction, or The Game of Telephone?

“What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms -- in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.”
                        --The Viking Portable Nietzsche, p.46-7

I have been writing and performing poems, stories and essays about my life and experiences and the world I live in for over three decades.  I’ve written about surviving sexual abuse and domestic violence.  I’ve written about struggling with sexism and how my privilege as a white woman fighting patriarchy complicates allyship work with communities of color.  I’ve performed pieces about transphobia, class struggles, having sex in a body that did not feel safe much of the time and in a world that did not have my safety in mind.  I’ve written about my individual experiences in collective work.

I wrote and performed these pieces with a poetic and artistic license that allowed me to focus on bringing the listener into an experience, on creating an emotional journey.  I did not concern myself with whether or not a particular memory or detail was factual or “objectively true.”  When I drafted a poem about seeing a homeless man masturbating on a street corner and the inhumanity of having to be “home” inside an urban prison, I did not worry about whether or not his hair was really black as I recalled.  I did not march back to the corner to confirm there was a bank at the intersection as I wrote in my piece.  I didn’t think about such things.  I focused on sharing the feelings and experiences not on documenting exactly what happened.

As a writer, I want to be able to share my experiences and tell a good story.  For me, this involves taking bits of truth and fact and mixing them with elements that are interesting, poetic, and sometimes not entirely historically accurate.  I would like to be able to do this without a disclaimer on every piece stating that while this or that element is based on events in my life, the story is not entirely “true.”  I want to do this without labeling these essays fiction.  Maybe I want too much.  When I shared a story about my dog getting lost, I did not go back and fact check the organization that helped me find him to confirm the set up their makeshift office in front of the animal shelter. The name of the organization in the story is fake. I made it up because the story was not about their particular organization or their work.  The people in my fake organization were characters some based loosely on some of the people I met.  The part about wearing a neon safety vest was true.  The overall storyline, my experience, my feelings and thoughts were all true.

When I started writing and sharing my experiences of abuse, I chose to be vague on the particulars of who and when, and detailed on the particulars of how, what and why.  Instead of trying to document only events I could prove, I worried about the sounds of the words, the rhythm and the emotional content.  I concentrated on how to move people, let them experience what I was feeling; then and now.  This was, and still is, more important to me than naming the particular people who caused harm or creating a verifiable or chronological document of what transpired.  Like many trauma survivors, I have snippets of memories, fractured and sensory.  I wanted to share these memories as they are held in my body, not rip them out so they can be fact checked.

Now that I am writing more of what I call narratives or essays rather than poems and am writing works to be read rather than performed, I find myself hesitating at important junctures.  Because I am telling a story in a different kind of way, with a different structure, I am bumping up against the pressure to tell “a truth” that I cannot tell.  I find myself stumbling into the literary assumption that if a story is not specifically declared fiction, it must be true.  And if it is true, everything in the story must be factual.

I feel a cultural tension inside this assumption, a uniquely American pursuit of “the truth” in the air as I hold my black pilot pen over my Meed Composition journal to write a sentence.  In that very pregnant pause, my inner storyteller and the voices in my head argue wildly.  These imagined conversations used to paralyze me.  Part of me was convinced that if I wrote an essay that included anything about my experience of being sexually abused, I had to track down every detail to make sure it was factual and could be verified.  This was, and still is, overwhelming. It is also rooted in a victim blaming culture.  A culture that demands those who survive abuse, prove that something happened by providing verifiable facts that can be corroborated.  This reinforces power structures that re-victimize many survivors who struggle to navigate relationships and social structures complicated by power and privilege.  It ignores the reality that many people store memories and recall overwhelming or traumatic events in sensory, non-linear, unstructured and fractured ways.  It also ignores the fact that many survivors are unable or unwilling to be in contact with anyone who could verify events or details.

Our memories, like the whispered phrases in the game of telephone, not only fade with time, they are altered as we move through our lives, and they change each time we recall them. Memories shift as we heal and as we apply different meanings to events.  Our memories are not static.  They evolve as we do, shape-shifting to reflect the complicated intersections of present and past; of emotion and meaning; of thought and storytelling.  What matters to most of us living with and in these shape shifting realities is that our stories, our memories, are not more or less important depending on whether or not they can be measured, weighed and accurately accounted for by objective or scientific means.

I do not want the way I share experiences to be held hostage to how well I can do research or offer evidence that proves my experience is real.  I am not the least bit interested in verifying whether I was in a cabin in northern California, a dorm room at the University my father taught at, or at a neighbor’s house when I remember sitting on someone’s lap, listening to a bedtime story trying to figure out how to make large and calloused fingers stop pinching and pulling as I squirmed and made up excuse after excuse to get away.

I am struck that readers sometimes feel betrayed when they find out something in a “true” story is not objectively factual.  This sense of betrayal is rooted, in part, in a desire to find a reflection of themselves inside some aspect of the narrative, and the conviction that this reflection must based in “facts.”  If I wrote that I was in a California cabin when an adult fondled me as he read me a bedtime story, when in reality, I was in an apartment in Michigan, would it matter?  If so, why? If you connected with my narrative or the experiences I shared, would your sense of connection be any less if you discovered the location had not been verified but based on a fragmented memory and the preference for placing the narrative in California because I like the way the word fits in a sentence?  It is assumed that writers will not simply access memory, but seek to verify memories so that they are “accurate.”

I want us to hold with more curiosity, reverence and complexity, the various ways we share narratives and the varying, shape-shifting ways we all see and remember reality.  I want to witness and hold Nietzsche’s metal without demanding that we recognize it only as a coin.

There has to be more than two categories for sharing our experiences.  I do not want my stories categorized entirely as fiction simply because I want to focus on the story rather than creating a document that stands up to fact checking.  Works that are rooted in real experiences will always exist in the intersections of memory, witnessing, sharing, and storytelling. This is, I believe, how we experience most of our reality--fractured, sensory and partial, prioritized through our particular lens and shaped by our histories and who and how we are in the world.

There are many different ways to tell a story.  To have our stories be defined as either fact or fiction does not honor the complexity of our lived experiences and it shuts down imagination or relegates it to “fantasy”.  The people in my world are themselves and they are also symbols, triggers, representations of emotions, containers of experiences, bodies onto whom I project my own fears, insecurities and desires.  I want narratives to be able to hold this complexity.  I do not think focusing on “the facts” always helps us.  It distracts us from the multi-layered, shape-shifting ways we are in the world.  Focusing on whether or not something in a particular story is “true”, guides us in a very particular way and informs how we listen, read and learn.  Focusing on facts in a story is not bad or wrong, but I want more ways to read, to listen, to understand, to integrate and to experience.

I will continue to write my essays the way I do.  I will undoubtedly continue to struggle with the categories we currently have and try to breathe life into a sense of curiosity, expansion and complexity with each and every decision I make when I choose to tell a story that is true and very real but not completely based on facts.  I hope you keep reading.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sick. Of. It.

Not one of my relationships in my adult life has been unaffected by sexual abuse.  Not one. Whether they are survivors, witnesses, bystanders, or friends and family of abusers or survivors, just about everyone I know and care about deeply has been impacted in some way by sexual abuse.  That sucks.  I am tired of dealing with the triggers, flooding, unhealthy numbing and distracting behaviors that I and the people I care about have to deal with on a regular basis.  This sucks too. The collateral damage of sexual abuse is staggering.  I could inundate you with statistics about the prevalence of sick days, lost jobs, physical aliments, mental health issues, relationship struggles and other interpersonal shit survivors of all kinds and the people who love them have to navigate.  But I won’t.  This is not about statistics; this is about the rage and pain that is part of living in a world where sexual abuse is rampant.  There is so much resistance to really acknowledging how deeply entrenched sexual abuse and incest are in our society. This compounds our individual and collective pain. 

Bystanders of all kinds, please step the fuck up.  I don’t want you to call CPS or the police or any other institution or agency (unless you have to). What I want is for you to be there when it get shitty, which it will. Because this is shit is shitty.  Too many people can’t be bothered or don’t know how to be there for the long haul. It is hard being close to a survivor. I know. I am one and I love many, many, many survivors. Because, well, there are many, many, many survivors.  And we get crazy made like mad. The collateral damage of sexual abuse gets pathologized, criminalized, or otherwise diagnosed as single issues: depression, anxiety, bi-polar mood swings, chronic fatigue, hypertension, insomnia, anorexia, bulimia, addiction... Collateral damage includes all the rippling effects of surviving abuse: the emotional, mental, psychological and spiritual impacts, lost opportunities, lost jobs, somatic and health concerns, physical pain, the inability to set boundaries and the consequences of this, the impact abuse has on current relationships, time spent in bed, in bars, in hospitals, in counseling offices...time which could have been spent living, loving, inventing, creating, writing, dancing, daydreaming, organizing--the loss is staggering to individuals but also to communities, to all of us.  When I think of all the energy that people expend surviving first the abuse then surviving and navigating the collateral damages, time and energy that could have been spent doing so many, many other things, it breaks my heart.

It is hard to be close to the dark, painful shit that comes out when we come face to face with the brutal reality of sexual abuse.  It’s ugly.  The anger and rage that survivors (rightfully) have, often makes people uncomfortable. And afraid. Sometimes survivors act out of this pain and rage in ways that hurt themselves and others. This can be hard to deal with. But we must.  I am not suggesting we accept whatever behaviors a survivor does and do nothing.  We can hold them fiercely, lovingly, and compassionately accountable. This is hard too. I have been on both sides of this and it is brutally difficult to hold and be held accountable.  It must be done without shame or judgment.

I am tired of triggering my partners and them triggering me because the world does not create a safe enough place for people to say, “Shit I am in a rage because, well, there was a time that someone made me very unsafe and my body is freaking out now. So, can I take the day off work, or get a massage, or go for a huge ass hike or get a drink with friends?  (I am not advocating using alcohol or substances to deal with the effects of trauma, but let’s be real, sometimes it’s too much and you need to shut your system down and judging someone for trying to get through another day, or night, by having a few drinks, getting stoned or throwing up, while important to address when people are ready to, is not my primary concern here). What I am concerned about is the lack of concern for survivors. We don’t want to talk about sexual abuse for too long.  After a while we get frustrated with survivors who want to “keep” talking about it, or are talking about it in the “wrong ways”, or have cycles of rage and depression and want to talk about that.  We want them to move on. Stop thinking about it. Be positive.  Moving on means they have done their work and have healed.  But we rush the process by being focused on the goal rather than moving through the heartbreaking reality that it takes a long ass time to get through a day when you have been abused.  It just does. As a culture, we need to get over the time line. Get over the goal of moving on.

This is a call for anyone who has rolled their eyes when someone gets triggered. Again. It can be hard to be close to people who may act out of their pain in ways that are destructive, challenging, and exhausting. Please stop rolling your eyes and start opening your heart.  I know it’s frustrating when people act out of pain in ways that are harmful, hurtful and difficult, but so is having to live with the on-going collateral damage of sexual abuse. Let me reiterate, I am not saying passively accept any and all behaviors that people might engage in--but know that limits can be set with compassion.

Friends, family, co-workers, adults, bystanders, everyone--believe survivors.  Believe survivors even if they don’t remember everything, or hell, even if they don’t remember anything.  Abuse fucks with your body, your brain, your biochemistry and your memory.  We need to stop being defense attorneys when someone discloses--stop asking “What happened? When? Who did what?” It’s hard to hear that someone we care about has been abused and it’s natural to want to know what happened, but step up and do survivors a solid: Don’t interrogate, validate. Not sure how to validate? Communicate understanding and support.  Ask what they need and if you can do it, do it. If they don’t know, hang out with them in the not-knowing.  If they still need something and you are tired, get support for yourself, ask someone else, or lovingly and compassionately set boundaries.  Supporting survivors is not about supporting them unquestioningly and endlessly. We all need boundaries and to know when we have hit our limit.  Sometimes survivors take boundaries badly. That’s ok, sometimes people who have not been abused take boundaries badly. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set them. Don’t fragalize survivors. 

Friends and family members, please keep validating the impact the abuse has on people. Too many survivors have to deal with shitty responses when they tell people. Then, they have to deal with people not wanting to talk about it, wanting survivors to get over it.  When we address sexual abuse, we come face to face with the harsh reality that people we love and care about can, and do, horrible things. I want us to stop shutting off survivors so that we do not have to face this ugly truth.  It is understandable to not want to talk about sexual abuse and incest.  But we must. We must keep talking about.

We put too much emphasis on holding those who abuse accountable in ways that are reactive and pathologizing, and less on all the various conditions that allowed the abuse to happen.  It takes a village, right? Well, it takes a lot of not looking, not asking, not speaking up and not stepping in for someone to abuse and this is a shout out to all of us who have been around abuse and did not look, did not ask, did not speak up, did not step in.  There is not a statute of limitations on supporting survivors. If for any reason you were unable to when it happened, which is a complicated reality that many witnesses and bystanders face, you have ample opportunities to now.  Even if it was years ago, you can still step up now.  Not by calling CPS or the police, but by making a daily commitment to believe, support, defend, validate, acknowledge that sexual abuse is rampant in our communities and that while it is hard to look at that tragic reality, we must. 

We want to close our eyes. Witnesses and bystanders, as well as survivors and the badass people who love and support them, please open your eyes, ears, and mouths. Speak, write, dance, perform, about sexual abuse, talk about it even when people don’t want to.  If you are someone who has a hard time listening to these things, challenge yourself to increase your capacity to listen.  Then find ways to act.  Please do not stop having fun or doing and talking about things that bring you joy.  This is not about being heavy all the time. This is about being real. 

We need each other.  This means we need to feel safe enough to connect, to create conditions in our relationships and communities that promote healing, hope and possibility.  This means learning how to keep listening, keep talking, keep healing, keep holding space for healing, keep taking care of ourselves and the people in our worlds.  Ok, my it’s-late-and-I-am-sick-of-it-rant is over.  Thanks for listening.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Chemical Aura

You step into the elevator and bam! It hits you. A perfumed wave that punches the insides of both nostrils and does a Capoera flip-kick-jab-step up both of your nasal passages then left, right across both cheekbones through you maxillary sinus cavities.  You feel the sting, a bright burn in the back of your throat.  You breathe short shallow puffs of air in a failed attempt to filter the chemical assault, but each inhale brings a tidal wave of tingling that saturates your throat and oozes down your esophagus into your stomach and intestines.

You feel dizzy, stoned, nauseous.  You have trouble reading the elevator buttons because your eyes are watering, but you can clearly see the slice of outside air in front of you disappear as the elevator doors begin to slowly close.

Panic. You panic.

The invisible poisonous fog clings to you like a million tiny burrs digging into your skin.  You stifle a scream.  Try to calm yourself down, but it is difficult because you are still trying to not breathe too deeply.  You end up panting quietly.  The doors click shut.  She turns to face you, a cloud of strawberry shampoo, vanilla conditioner, lavender body wash, “spring” body lotion, “decadence” perfume, country fresh dryer sheets, peppermint chewing gum, and lingering dry cleaning fabric softener all competing for top olfactory billing.

“What number shall I push for you?” She asks you.

“...6, thanks.” You choke out. You try to smile and stop panting for a moment.  A throbbing headache is making a grand entrance as a wave of fog pounds up your frontal sinus cavity and is demanding to be attended to.  You may have to pee, but you are not sure because everything inside you feels flooded.  A scent overload.

You wipe tiny tears from the corner of your eyes with the back of your hand hoping the scent is not layering on top of your skin in an invisible film.  You picture tiny foam bubbles with microscopic sinister smiles floating around you, silently landing on your arms and face.

You close your eyes, listening to the elevator’s internal mechanisms whirl as it makes its assent.

Your panting is making you lightheaded so you stop.  When you inhale a full breath through your mouth, you taste the “decadence” in her Decadence perfume.  It tastes like someone sprinkled gasoline and orange juice on your tongue.

You watch her through watery eyes.  The smart black pantsuit with it’s matching blazer and crisp white blouse.  You watch her standing, one arm crossed in front of the other, tipping back and fourth from one plum pump to the other, noting that she probably has lower back pain and pinched baby toes.

You notice her “Saturday Night Special” red nail polish that eats into the nail bed making them yellow and brittle under all that shine.  A hazy chemical aura radiates around her.  A reddish shadow outlines her business casual self and occasionally reaches out with foggy fingers to touch the world around her.  You have to stop yourself from stepping away from her, from retreating to the opposite corner of the elevator. You wonder if you are leaning back unconsciously.  

She smiles at you with “Dusty Rose” lips shimmering with phthalates and red # 40 made from coal tar.  Her bright bleached teeth remind you of the chlorine you tasted when you swam in your neighbor’s pool as a kid.  Her chemical aura sways along with her as she tips back and forth from foot to foot, occasionally reaching up to touch her hair with careful, curious fingers.

You are strikingly aware of how much we live awash in chemicals, each of us so saturated with products that seep into our skin from multiple avenues, slowly dissipating and sometimes more frightening, not dissipating. The chemical compounds that make up “country fresh”, “line-dried”, “crisp and clean” “fruity” and “herbal essence” smells need to be stable over time, temperature and conditions.  If the chemical compounds are unstable, they can break down, re-form into other compounds which is not good if you want your laundry detergent to be, well, laundry detergent the entire time it sits on your shelf.

The same chemicals that make the smells stay stable, the colors last longer, the brights brighter are introduced into and then stay in our bodies.  These chemicals seep into our cells, blood and bone marrow through our hair follicles, cuticles, pores, skin—any accessible avenue will do.  Once they have taken up residence inside our bodies, they can transform, like a rogue chemistry experiment, binding together to form and re-form new and different microstructures.

We have no idea how these chemicals and the new ones formed when they enter our bodies affect us.  Scientists can say they are safe, but science does always not have a great track record.  With thousands of new compounds being created daily, we will surly discover, at some point, the impact of our caviler introduction of new chemicals into thousands of products we use daily.  Claims that despite being toxic the levels are so small as to be insignificant and so are safe, ring hollow along side rising rates of cancer, autism, and unexplained neurological and tissue diseases.

Caution and any voice of warning are continuously drown out by massive marketing machines churning out messages that tell us we can’t live without these safe and good smelling products that are not correlated with, and certainly not related causally to, growing rates of birth defects, cancers, hormone problems and nervous system disorders to name a few.

We want to believe.  We want to look healthy, shinny; we want our hair to bounce just so, our teeth to gleam, our clothes to remain sweat stain free.  And at the end of a long work day, is it too much to ask to get a mocha latte and drop off your clothes to be dry cleaned before you head home to eat a take out dinner and try to get at least 5 hours of shut eye before facing another day of cranky supervisors and exhausted co-workers?  Don’t we deserve popping nail colors for our $20 bi-monthly mani-pedi indulgence? If a new shimmering eye shadow or over-sized handbag (which it was recently discovered contain lead that can leach into people’s skin) makes you happy and helps you get through a busy and overwhelming day, why not splurge on a bottle of Decadence perfume?  By-products be damned.

“Have a nice day!” She tells you, smiling over her shoulder as she trots out of the elevator, a haze of purple, red and green trailing after her.  You see bits of her foggy chemical aura clinging to the sides of the elevator doors as they begin to close.  Unconsciously you begin your shallow panting, push number 6 on the elevator button panel and begin slowly rising towards your destination.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Lot of Violence...

There has been a lot of violence in my world and the worlds of many people I love and care about recently.  A few suicides; a gun held to the head of a friend, thankfully not fired; a mis-fire that did hurt a friend of a friend; another friend leaving an abusive relationship after it became physical. These incidents gives me pause, as these types of incidents do.  I wonder what conditions, incidents, environments, personal experiences the people who decided to cause the harm have lived through?  What were their relationships, families, work-life, daily existence like before these incidents occurred?  Do they feel loved? Valued? Supported? Do they feel connected? Do they have a sense of social and personal value?  Do they believe they matter in the scheme of things?  What systems or institutions have they been involved with and what was their experiences with them? What is their generational family history? How has that been impacted by social, political, and economic contexts that most certainly inform how individuals and communities feel valued?

When violence or harm occurs, it is human nature to try to make sense of what happened.  Across communities and cultures, there are rituals for grief and loss as well as rituals for healing.  These rituals help us move through the pain and give us something to hold onto, something to believe in when violence and trauma have shaken our faith.  These rituals, however, are not necessarily geared to answer why an act of violence happened.  The media attempts to fill this role, highlighting violence in an attempt to answer why with responses  from “experts” crammed into three minute sound bites.  And there are many, many three minute sounds bites.  The current saturation of negative and fear based media in the United States cultivates an anxiety-promoting fear-driven culture.  While the “if it bleeds, it leads” mainstay of media is nothing new, the sheer magnitude of fear-inducing information constantly streaming in and around our environments is affecting us.  When something bad happens our fear and anxiety levels rise.  If we are not mindful, anxiety and fear can drive us to ask why or how something “like this” could have happened, in the hopes of swiftly making sure it never happens again.  While this is a reasonable reaction to the fear that experiencing a traumatic event can produce, it can, and often does, lead to victim blaming and reductive attempts to “make sure this never happens again.” Until it happens. Again. Because it will.  Unless we change the conditions in which violence is more likely to occur than not occur.  Changing the conditions in which violence occurs  will take time.  Lots of time.  Changing conditions is a slow process which can feel pretty inadequate in the immediate aftermath of a violent incident.  When something violent happens, we want, understandably, to respond immediately. And we need to respond immediately with fierce urgency to keep people safe, address the impact of trauma, provide security, offer compassion, support, food, help people address basic needs and navigate any systems or institutions they may need to access because of the incident(s).  What I wonder is, how we can respond immediately while also imagining and working towards radical alternatives? Can we rush to support survivors while not rushing to answer the questions, why?  And how do we make sure this never happens again?

We respond to incidents of violence by seeking the diagnosis, the lost opportunity, the missed signal, the neural circuitry, the biological marker, the childhood incident  that can explain why such an event occurred. To explain why someone would do such a thing.  We look to “answers” to soothe anxiety and fear. And we want these answers to draw a clear line between us (those harmed)  and them (those who cause harm).  We do this because trauma shakes the foundation of our reality, tosses what we know into a cyclone of confusion.  Fear, anger, doubt, grief, swirl around incidents of trauma.  Fear reminds people that it could happen to them.  It is a jarring attestation that any of us could be next.  In the wake of a traumatic incident, we are also reminded of the possibility that we could be like the person who caused harm.  This fear, a dark secret relegated to the silent shadows of our souls, creates an anxiety which drives us to seek simple, solid answers.  Answers that clearly state the difference between us and someone “like that”.  We want a boundary that can signal safety, security.  These boundaries, however, do not keep us safe.  They do not address the root causes nor the conditions of harm.  But in a moment of crisis, they are something tangible to hold onto.

I want us to hold on to different things.  When we reduce incidents of domestic violence, suicides, or a seemingly random shooting rampage to a missed diagnosis, a gene, a hormone imbalance, addiction, we locate causes inside the person. Literally in the body. This does not reflect the complexities, the generational histories, the social, political, economic, racialized, gendered, able-bodied conditions which informed all aspects of what occurred and how individuals, communities, institutions, and systems respond.  When we operate out of fear and an urgency to fix things so that “This never happens again” we come up with solutions that while seemly rooted in social changes, do little to shift the conditions that make this violence more likely to occur.  

People argue for solutions such as making the cost of ammunition outrageously high, or lowering the bar for involuntary inpatient treatment, seeking longer jail time for people arrested for domestic violence, building more mental health facilities, training CPS workers to better identify signs of potential violence. These kinds of solutions, while sometimes necessary, are located in the idea that things will never change, that this is the way it is.  It is challenging when faced with incidents of violence and abuse that shake us at our very core, remind us of our vulnerability, trigger our own traumatic histories, and hold up the ugly reality that we cause great harm to one another, to not be motivated by fear, anger and urgency in ways that push us towards quick fixes.

It is imperative that we continue to ask questions and tease out possibilities not motivated by fear, or urgency; questions and possibilities that hold space for loving compassion and fierce accountability; questions and possibilities that seek to hold onto the humanity in all of us, including those who have caused harm; questions that seek long winded solutions, complex in their accessibility and determination to not leave people or communities behind; questions that look back to history as well as imagine radical new possibilities; questions that imagine the possibility that we can create relationships free from violence and communities where abuse does not occur.  I know this may sound “Pollyannaish” to some.  I am not suggesting we not stay grounded in the violent and de-humanizing reality of the world we live in currently and be prepared to respond to the harm that happens.  I am simply hoping that the responses we have and the solutions we offer are not located in the pedagogy of quick fixes and a “that’s just the way it is” paradigm.  

We don’t have to have a blueprint to start imagining.  This can be an in-process process. In fact, it has to be.  We can start small with neighborhood and community focused alternatives to how we respond to incidents of harm in our lives and communities and use the process of this work to keep imagining other possibilities, other ways of being, other types of systems, organizations, institutions.  We can keep our eye on the immediate need to respond, while we keep our gaze firmly on the horizon because change will take time.  We can work on our own healing so that we have the emotional capacity to respond to harm done without de-humanizing, criminalizing those that cause harm, or reducing their acts to a diagnosis. I don’t have any clear road maps or specific answers, but I do know some amazing groups of people struggling with smart and engaging questions that can help individuals and communities respond in complex and compassionate ways when violence and abuse happens.
The Capacity Project:

Monday, June 18, 2012

Peyote Peep Show

The Glow
She waltzed in the room, pausing in the doorway to twist her right knee slightly inward and fling her arms up wide on either side of her.  She leaned forward and smiled, all Marilyn Monroe.

“Hello there darlings!  I can’t wait to tell you about the glorious weekend I had.  It was ah-mazing!”   She rushed to the table, sat down, leaned back and then tilted her eyes to meet mine.  “Perfect.” She sighed, “It was just perfect.”

She had met a Shaman, a real, live, flesh and blood Native American Shaman who lead peyote ceremonies.  She enthused about spiritual awakenings and personal healing as both her suntan and self assurance shimmered under the blinking fluorescent lighting.  Her eyes sparkled as she explained how plant medicine allows you to be in communication with “The Creator.”  She said it opened up channels and chakra centers, unblocked energy pathways and described how medicine, or peyote, helped you get into proper relationship.  Anticipating one of the many questions she predicted were snapping around in my mind like grease in hot skillet, she looked directly at me, “Getting into proper relationship with other people, with yourself, even with The Creator, means getting clear on your intentions, having clean energy, clean intentions.  It’s not just about individual healing, Sarah” she said with wide and serious eyes, “but about community healing.”

She continued, enthusiastically, to describe the deep connection we all have to nature, to each other, to the divine and to things larger than ourselves and how this connection gets stripped away in our daily routines, and disappears in our lives which are so full of consumption.  “It’s a blessing that he is willing to share his culture, his wisdom and really help people.” She raved about being outside of consumer culture and getting to connect with  nature.  She told me she was developing a spiritual family that was teaching her to push past emotional blocks and how to receive love.

I pictured a group of 30-something middle class white professionals sitting cross-legged in a circle trying to look serene and spiritually serious while getting totally stoned on peyote.  A weekend ceremony facilitated by a U.S. government recognized non profit church licensed to provide peyote did not seem radically outside consumerism or capitalism to me.

How much does it cost?” I asked her, breaking my reverie.  “Isn’t it a few hundred bucks?”

“Oh yes.”  She nodded earnestly, “Of course, you have to offer something.  The money you donate is your intention, the more you offer the more you receive.”

“More what? More peyote?”  I asked.

She laughed, “Money is an exchange of energy, an expression of your intention.  The more you give, the stronger your intention.  The stronger your intention, the more you will get out of the ceremony.”

I sighed and muttered something about how fucked up it is that the rich get more of everything from ocean views, beach access, vacation time, and, it seems, spiritual enlightenment.  She didn’t notice.  As she continued her story, I watched her tan face, eyes bright and clear.  She looked healthy.  Happy.  Her glow made her look like she had discovered some secret skin cream or gone through an expensive spa treatment. She had an aura of confidence and a calmness that remarkably contrasted with the overworked and stressed faces I was used to seeing in my daily life.  It was, to be honest, a little captivating.  Who doesn’t want to have a little more inner calmness and a happy, healthy glow? I sighed again, reflecting on my own sun starved, stress lined face.  I did not glow, that’s for sure.  She finished her story. I went back to work.

A few weeks later, she invited me to “sit” at a ceremony.  She talked to a few of the organizers and they told her I would benefit from the experience.  I felt conflicted about participating in an “Authentic Native American” healing ceremony.  How does one reconcile participating in an experience that many Native Americans and their allies call cultural theft, with the possibility that participating in a such a ceremony could offer deep personal and spiritual healing?  I asked her why profits from ceremonies did not flow back into reservations and how to respond to the sentiment that selling a ceremony experience is like selling your grandmother. I was assured that because the Shaman was Native American, that he (and the profits from his ceremonies) were connected to a reservation, although no one knew which one.  I was also assured that because he was offering to share the ceremony with us, it wasn’t cultural theft. “He is offering this to us, it’s not like we’re going into Native American communities without being invited.”  Another organizer told me.  “Faith communities welcome new observers, they want to share their healing, their message, their faith.”  My friend assured me that healing ceremonies are a way to connect and build relationships between Native and non-Native peoples.  I was told over and over that I could not fully understand until I sat in ceremony.  While I don’t quite buy this (I don’t have to attend a NASCAR rally to know I won’t like it), I did, eventually, decide to “sit.”

Here’s a peyote peep...

Intentions (Or, Let’s Be Real, My Money)
You had to think of an intention.  As the Shaman’s wife, a deeply tan white woman with long black hair, gobs of chunky turquoise and silver jewelry, and thick bulging veins in her freckled hands, went around the circle, you whispered your intention in her ear.  She made any corrections and then looked at the Shaman who would either nod approval or offer his own suggestion.  After receiving his approval, she handed your intention back to you in an assertive whisper along with your cup of “medicine.”  My intention was to get high and see what all the fuss was about but I didn’t think that was appropriate to share.  I scrambled to think of a more suitable one.  When Mrs. Medicine, as I dubbed her, finally squatted in front of me, on admirably flexible hips, I said in my best dramatic whisper that I wanted to develop more spirituality in my life.  She nodded slowly, maintaining eye contact and repeated back to me, “You are realizing that you need help, that you need spiritual guidance and healing in your life.” Her smile made me want to alternately jump into her arms and slap her.  I felt 3 and 30 years old at the same time. Damn, I thought, she had my inner child screaming to be loved and cradled while my outer-adult was telling my inner child to sit down, shut up, and pay attention to me instead of her.

Mrs. Medicine handed me my cup of medicine.  I drank it, vomited, as is expected, and then got down to the business of being high.  The first time I tried peyote, it was at a beach party in Santa Cruz, California.  Everyone did their own thing.  I walked around enjoying the warm summer night air, the sound of birds singing and the ocean waves lapping rhythmically. When I needed to, I would lie down and let whatever experience was happening occur.  When I wanted to move, I would get up and move. It was a fun, powerful, and surprisingly moving experience.  This, on the other hand,  felt more like school work.  Everyone had to stay in the circle.  We were told quite specifically that we could not leave the circle and it was strongly implied that we were to keep sitting cross-legged.  No laying down or cloud gazing during this trip.  The Shaman informed us that it was necessary to keep the circle intact for energetic principles and to protect our spiritual space which was more vulnerable when earth elements opened to sky and wind elements.  It seemed like straight up supervision to both me and my inner child but I relented, put my punk rock ethos aside and, proudly, neither one of us tried to start a revolt by demanding to lie under a tree.  I watched the fire and let any last yearning for a solo trip dissolve into the ascending sparks.  My body began to melt and I settled in for the ride.

From The Mouth Of Mrs. Medicine
She crouched, brushing her long black hair away from her eyes in a practiced gesture, leaned in to listen to yet another intention, once again silently cursing her bum knee which cracked loudly each time she squatted.  She re-worked the intention while studying the face before her just like she had been taught.  Was the face open? Guarded? Fearful? Excited? Eyes darting? Gaze downward? It all mattered.  She learned to read faces and body language at a very young age, the child of two addicted and unpredictable parents.  She fine tuned the art of interweaving an intention with whatever she read in someone’s expression, just like  she had fine-tuned her attractiveness to the Shaman.  You have a gift, he told her more than once.  A gift that had been alluring to him.  It had been enough in the beginning.  Not any more.  She looked over at the Shaman, smiling serenely, keeping watch on everyone.  She recalled their argument earlier.  He was tired of her jealousy.  She was sick of his endless flirting.  Especially with the younger women.  He insisted it was just healing fatherly-love energy, but she wondered.   It seemed like his gaze landed too long and too often on places fatherly gazes should not linger.  She snapped herself back to the face in front of her.  Open. Waiting. Good, she thought.  Easy.  She murmured back the intention, “You are becoming more aware of how self protective you are and you are deepening your consciousness of the energy blocks you hold.  You need help to unblock.”  The face nodded eagerly.  She looked back over at the Shaman, he was watching her with his Eagle-Eyes.  Those eyes meant she would have to hear what she had done wrong later at home.  She tried not to think about it as she squatted in front of the next person.  Questioning face.  New to this.  Nervous.  “You are afraid of yourself, of what you will discover.  You need to let yourself be held.” She whispered, keeping eye contact, smiling slightly and nodding once authoritatively.  The face before her smiled back with obvious relief.  Bingo.  She felt, rather than saw, David the fire keeper move behind her.  Goddamn dork, she sighed. He was a good kid, but nervous all the time. Frantic, really, trying to do everything perfectly.  He worshiped the Shaman unconditionally.  They all did, but David did so with a desperation that bordered on hysterical.  She sighed again and squatted in front of the next face, bracelets jangling, knee popping, chin angled, cup held aloft, her ear open to hear yet another desperately whispered intention.

Keeping The Home Fires Burning
Counter clockwise. Then clockwise.  Stir the fire gently, then blow at the bottom. Otherwise smoke and ashes will spray all over people.  “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he berated himself as ash scattered in the wind.  He had been honored, at long last, with keeping the fire and didn’t want to mess it up.  He wanted a title, a title and a role.  He desperately wanted these things, hoping they would disintegrate the “dork,” “dumb ass,” “shitbag” titles he grew up with and finally severe his seemingly endless role as his father’s verbal and sometimes physical punching bag.  Let’s see Jimmy Wagner tend a fire, he murmured to himself.  Jimmy, a strawberry blond jock with the power to charm venom from a snake, was also meaner than a viper and had directed his rage at David throughout their high school years.  Teachers never believed that Jimmy would stoop to bullying and all but called David a liar.  David’s dad would scream at him to grow a pair and stop complaining.  He would yell at David, spittle flying from his thin bloodless lips, as he told him that he’s the one who should be complaining, having a bean stock smart ass son rather than the football playing, iron pumping son he  deserved.  “Tough break, snot nose.” he would tell David, cuffing him on the back of the head.

David loved sitting in ceremonies.  They saved him.  “Literally, saved me,” he often thought remembering how he had been looking up “suicide + methods” on the internet the same day he saw a flyer for the church on the downtown coffee shop community bulletin board.  The Shaman respected David and he grew more confident under his tutelage.  The Shaman believed in David.  He told him he could tend fire, an enormous privilege, once he sat long enough.  David worked two jobs that winter so he could sit over and over.  At the ceremonies, he wasn’t “David the dork,” he was respected and appreciated. He loved being responsible for the fire. Dashing around, crouching on his haunches, he felt a gush of pride that he could squat so deeply.  It made him feel more spiritual.  He was sure that he was connecting directly to The Divine.  In yoga class, he breathed more deeply, more slowly and more loudly than everyone else.  He even thought he was starting to look like an Indian. He had dark hair long enough to tuck behind his ear or pull back in a ponytail.  He was tan from being outside all summer sitting in ceremonies and tending fires.  David liked thinking that as he shed his boyhood identity as a dork and dumb ass, he was also transcending his born identity.  He knew he could never be Native American per se, but the Shaman had told him he carried special energy that made him unique.  He was appreciated by the Shaman and his wife, even though he thought she looked at him with annoyance sometimes.  She was just under a great deal of pressure lately, he told himself.  The two of them were running three ceremonies a weekend and as the church grew, everyone had more responsibilities.  He loved it.  He spent as much time as he could at the church and in ceremony.  When he was away for too long, he felt like his true self began to fade and his old identity as his father’s punching bag would begin to materialize.  He hated that feeling and fought to push it down.  The medicine helped.  Thank God for the church, he muttered. Thank God for medicine.  He leapt from his crouch and kept moving, counter clock wise, then clockwise, then kneel and stir the fire gently by blowing at the bottom...again, and again and again....

Guilt Is A feeling, (Not A Disease)
He looked just like Indians did in the movies, except without the headdress, the feathers and all that other stuff.  Majestic, that’s it.  He looked majestic.  And, powerful.  She needed help, she knew that much.  Her life was in chaos.  Her boyfriend loved her, but her family hated him.  Her after-school church group was no longer a refuge.  She and her boyfriend had been intimate and that was a bell she could never un-ring. Not that she wanted to, but the guilt was so strong inside her.  It felt like a beast growing in her belly. A beast that would periodically take over her, make her say and do things she would later regret.  She hated this guilt, wanted it yanked from her, pulled out by the roots.  The Shaman’s wife told her that guilt was a disease and that sitting in ceremony would help her get well.  She believed her.  It felt like a disease, or a tumor, and it made sense that there was medicine to fix it.  She reached over and clasped Mike’s hand.  He was a good boyfriend. He stood by her. When her dad called her those filthy names, Mike held her while she cried, rubbed her back and told her she was a good person.  They both had risked being kicked out of their church, but it didn’t matter as much now.  They had a whole new community.  A place to go. A circle of love and support.  She could feel it.  She looked around at all the faces and then at the Shaman.  He radiated love.  He was solid, strong.  He told her that he could remove her guilt like sucking snake poison from her soul.  He said that once this was done, she could truly be the person she was meant to be.  He would remove the darkness that blinded her.  She trusted this.  She did feel blind.  She wished the Shaman and his wife could be her parents.  She just knew that if she had them for parents she would be confident, sure of herself and that things would be ok.  Of course, you can’t pick your parents.  She smiled as she remembered her real father telling her this when they were fighting on the way to Yosemite for a family summer vacation.  Her new friend Mary, who had been sitting for a long time, told her while she couldn’t choose her biological family, she could choose her new family.  She told her this new family loved her, accepted her and would always be there for her.  Thank goodness for the Shaman, she thought, as she felt the medicine radiate in her heart and her fingers began to tingle.  Everything will be ok.  He will take care of everything.

Never Look Back
He was tired.  His knees hurt. He didn’t want to finish the closing ceremony.  He had to go around the entire circle, stopping at each participant and good God, he was happy that the church was growing, but the circle was big and he was tired.  Really fucking tired.  He and his wife had been arguing earlier that morning about how his flirting with the young women was embarrassing to her.  They hadn’t had sex in over a month.  He needed to get laid.  His wife?  Goddamn, couldn’t she just see how hard he worked for them?  It cost a lot of money to do this. Peyote, fire wood, the mortgage on the house and on the church, transportation for the volunteers, park permits.  It all added up.  He worked hard. He deserved some of the good life.  Deserved to not be nagged so much.  Deserved some peace.  He moved on to the next participant.  She had blue eyes that slapped you in the face like waves hitting sand.   He was seeing more young activists like her at the church and man, they made him work hard.  They questioned everything.  He whooshed the eagle feather up the right side of her body, chanting, singing, then whispering to her, “You are strong. Much spiritual energy.”  He used the broken English vernacular he reverted to when he wanted to cut to through their defenses, cut to the core, cut to the fucking chase, he thought. “You are special.  A leader.”  She looked up at him when he said leader, her blue eyes still guarded but more open, questioning. “That is why I chose you for Eagle Feather.  You have great power.”  He flicked the feather around her head maintaining eye contact, watching her shoulders, looking for soft spots, vulnerabilities. “This one may take more work even still,” he thought with a tired sigh. He finished with a grand flourish, circling his wrists, snapping the feather tip lightly and finally enveloping her in an energetic hug.  Sometimes they just need to be held.  You can feel their muscles twitching then slackening as they lean into him, their big, safe, Indian Father.  Even the men, most of them longed to be loved and held by a strong and compassionate father figure and he could certainly provide that.  He held onto her, waiting through her first, second and even third slight pulling away, and then he squeezed just a little more, chanting ever so softly.  She stepped back when he released her. Looked at him, then looked down. Good, he thought.  A tough and edgy woman like her would be valuable for the church.  She could bring in a new demographic.  He nodded at her, using his Eagle-Eyes and then walked away slowing.  He didn’t look back at her. Never look back, he had learned.  It kept them wanting more.

Why is it always an Eagle?
I watched his deeply lined face, wondering how old he was as he flicked the eagle feather up and down my body. The small wisps of air felt intimate and vaguely sensual.  I refrained from taking a step back while I wondered if I felt uncomfortable because he seemed so intent on making me feel special, or because his gaze seemed slightly manipulative.  He used broken English, which I though was unnecessarily dramatic.  “You have great power.” He said in a breathy whisper, lowering the feather and clasping me in a bear hug.  I let him hold me for a few seconds then tried once, twice, and a third time to pull away.  He waited a beat after this then released me.

The ceremony ended, we packed up and headed back to our guest house.  The rest of the weekend was pleasant enough.  We had a communal dinner, went swimming, discussed local development projects and explored good hiking spots.  On our final day I had my “exit interview.”

She called herself Eagle Soaring.  As we sat at a big wooden table, sipping green tea, she watched me with sharp brown eyes and peppered me with questions. “What did you learn from the ceremony?” “ What work do you need to do to continue your journey?”  She shared what the Shaman thought I needed to do including a detox cleanse, Reiki and an herbal tincture.  She asked when I was planning to sit again and if I had other friends or family who could benefit from sitting. I was told to expect that there would be people who would not understand ceremonies and was offered talking points on how to counter their ignorance and prejudice.  She clasped my hand with chubby, amethyst adorned fingers and told me I could always count on the community here to support, love and hold me.  I was encouraged to keep sitting, keep expanding my consciousness.  If one ceremony was good, another was better.  I thought of Milton Freeman’s free market principles and how expansion-capitalism modalities were never in service of the poor and working class.  Maybe I was just being stingy and transcendence-adverse because at $250 a peyote pop, “more as better” was simply out of my price-range.  I told Soaring Eagle how much I appreciated the experience and said something vague about when I planned to sit again.  I had the feeling that if I told her I was not planning to sit, she would organize another Eagle Feather or energy ritual of some kind.  And I was ready to be home.  I had no intention of sitting again.  Not only did I not have the disposable income, I was uncomfortably aware of the intensely operational energy under the ceremonial flare.  These people were running a business.  My special eagle feather ritual and exit interview with Soaring Eagle were part of the hard sell.  As the plane took off whisking me back to Seattle, I wondered why it was always an Eagle.  White people never name themselves or their retreats and rituals after a tiger, dog, elephant, red ant, or queen bee--which are all fantastic animals.  Why not a ground hog drum circle?

I got home late, tired and hungry. I ate a dinner of heated up leftovers.  After dinner, I crawled into bed and settled under my covers, loving my bedroom, my pillows, my bed.  It felt good to be home.  As I dozed off, feeling the cool pillow on my cheek, a voice whispered quietly in my head, “What if you are wrong? What if you are just being cynical?  Why cut yourself off from the love and acceptance these people are offering? You will be alone and unloved when you could be loved and accepted.”  I froze.  For a few heartbeats I couldn’t breathe or move.  I waited for the voice to pass, my body tense and guarded as a deep panic pulsed throughout my body.  I thought to myself, “What if the voice was right?” “What if I was cutting off the very thing I really needed?”  I don’t remember falling asleep.  I woke the next morning with a jolt.  As I lay back down under my comforter, feeling the morning light sprinkle across my closed eyes, I recalled the voice and shuddered.  This was powerful stuff.  The capacity to get under one’s skin, inside one’s head this way.  “This is the stuff of cults,” I thought. “The cult of wannabe Eagles lead by Mr. Shh-shh-shh-Shaman,” I giggled trying to insert some levity into the slowly pulsing panic that had begun to rise inside me.  Besides feeling caught off guard by the whispering voice in my head and unsettled by the actual doubt it inspired in me, I was anxious.  The rituals, the ceremonies, the fancy feathers and flashy flourishes were seducing.  The illusion of ancient history, the offering of a family, and a leader who would provide you with answers, all of these were very alluring. It was difficult to feel anxious, alone, uncertain and, at the same time, not want what they offered: security, certainty, family.  Doubt and insecurity continued to burrow in the deepest parts of me.  After a few minutes, though, this began to piss me off. “Get the fuck out of my head, Mr. Shamtastic!” I shouted silently.  It worked for a while, but I knew he would be back.  Voices like his, voices that have a certain resonance, a particular tone that play on the shadows of uncertainty would always return.   

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dodgeball Dilemmas and Sixth Grade Recess Crushes (Wrong Place, Wrong Time)

The spinning curve of the red rubber dodgeball eclipsed everything in my vision.  It even took over everything inside my mind’s eye.  It’s bumpy surface, like sunburnt skin, was spinning closer and closer directly towards me.  I could make out scuff marks and a shiny patch where the tiny bumps had been worn smooth by so many kicks in kickball and the not so many dodges in afternoon dodgeball games.  I saw the red rubber sphere spinning towards me at light speed, but it was all happening in slow motion.  It was inevitable.  The smash of rubber to the center of my face.  I hoped I would look tough with a broken nose or a nice purple bruise.  I could put a neat white strip of adhesive tape over it like Jaclyn Smith did in the episode where she fell off her skateboard chasing a diamond thief.  She looked tough and pretty.

Maybe if I had a cool but sexy adhesive strip, Kenny Evers would finally like me.  Or, at least choose me when we lined up at the tetherball pole to pick teams.  It was humiliating, standing there wishing you wouldn’t be picked last.  Well, you knew you wouldn’t be last.  Josh Fickner was always last.  But, to be left second to last with just Josh, that was almost as bad as not being picked at all.  That had never happened to me.  There were always at least two or three other people still standing there awkwardly when I was finally chosen.  But, still, the horror of it loomed large.

Kenny had never picked me.  He was so dreamy, in his Tough Skin bell bottom jeans.  He had wild dirty blond hair that always looked like he just woke up from a nap, which, more often that not, he just had.  He didn’t care about grades or what the teachers said.  He had a crew.  They wore sleeveless jean vests and half shirts.  When he went to school birthday parties he and his crew hung in the back silently looking over one another’s shoulders, occasionally murmuring quietly.

Looking back, Kenny was just a shy quiet kid surviving a loud alcoholic father and a Farah Fawcett look alike mom who wore staggeringly high heels and tight jeans to school events.  She looked glamorous but sad, and sometimes a little scared.  Despite the somber dusting she wore like shimmer powder, everyone watched her shamelessly whenever she was around.  One day I overheard Kenny’s dad yelling at him when we were shopping at Alpha Beta. He was yelling at Kenny’ for hurting his mother’s feelings and Kenny was looking straight ahead.  I pretended I hadn’t heard anything and offered Kenny a quick smile then looked away as my mom and I bustled past them in the frozen dinner section.

As the red rubber ball continued it’s trajectory towards me, I pondered an important 6th grade dilemma.  Would getting smacked in the face help rather than hurt my chances of being picked by Kenny to be on his dodgeball team? My chances, all but hopeless after “The Incident” could use improving.

“The Incident” happened a few weeks earlier.  My sister and I were dropped off at school way before the first period bell.  It was foggy.  Someone had forgotten to put a lone dodge ball in the storage locker and it glistened in the sunrise-red morning fog calling to me.  I knew we weren’t supposed to use the sports equipment without a teacher present but hell, we had over an hour to kill and who could blame us?  I picked up the ball and threw it straight at my sister with a satisfyingly sharp snap.  Tania caught it and smiled as we both ran to the white 4-square outline. Game on.

With the words: You say you wanna go for a spin, the party’s just begun, we’ll let you in.  You drive us wild, we’ll drive you crazy.  You keep on’, you keep shoutin’...I wanna rock and roll all nite and party every day blaring in my head, Tania and I started our game.  We were tied, 3 to 3, when I stopped to re-apply the watermelon Bonni Bell Lip Smacker that Kris, my best friend, and I both wore on strings around our necks, and that’s when I saw him.

He was just becoming visible in the slowly dissipating morning fog.  His green and white Kangaroo tennis shoes making a slight squishing sound on the dewy asphalt.  His Hotter Than Hell t-shirt was frayed at the sleeves and cut back to show off his pale, narrow shoulders.  He was the only boy in our class brave enough to wear his shirts like that to class.  He was constantly sent to the principals’ office and would inevitably return to class the following period in an over sized plain white t-shirt or blue windbreaker zipped all the way up.  Despite being punished he always kept a defiant smirk around the edges of his thin pink lips.  That smirk made most of the Green Valley Middle School sixth grade class members either want to be Kenny, or be with Kenny, even though most of us were still not exactly sure what be with entailed.

That same defiant twinkle beamed across the playground as Kenny sauntered towards us.  Desperate to look as cool as possible, which to be honest, was not very cool at all, I refused to look at him.  I bounced the ball to Taina, who struggled to keep her eyes on the game.  I could feel his gaze, like an electric pulse tugging at me to look at him.  I willed Tania to ignore him and thankfully she did.  The ball was in mid-air coming back to my left when he pounced.  He snatched it like a lizard catches flies.  SNAP! With a soft swoosh he landed, his green and white Roos facing squarely in front of me.  He jerked the ball over his head and beamed those twinkly green eyes at me. “Game over, Catholic.”

He had started that Catholic thing.  I hated him for it, even while secretly admiring the comic wit.  Having a name like Cristien Storm which everyone pronounced Christian Storm, was, as you can surely imagine, not easy in grade school.

What is that, like a Jewish Hurricane?  Catholic Thunder was another nick name.  Today these might be excellent roller derby alias’ but in 6th grade there was no such thing.  I endured the teasing and taunting and like to think I am stronger for it, but I am probably not.

“Whatcha gonna do Catholic?” Kenny sneered.

For some reason at that precise moment a chemical change or emotional charge, a storm of some kind, if you will, occurred.  I had had enough.  I wasn't the prettiest girl in my 6th grade class.  I wasn’t the smartest.  I wasn’t the best at playing baseball or writing A+ worthy essays on historical figures of note.  I wasn’t a spelling champion or algebra whizz.  I was just a normal little girl trying to navigate the maelstrom of sixth grade at Green Valley Middle school.  I had new hormones raging through me and acne that made me wish the sidewalk would open up and swallow me whole.  I didn’t have a red Goodie comb and no boy had ever asked me to walk the perimeter of the playground during lunch recess, arms crossed behind each others' waists with our hands in each others' back pocket.  I didn’t want to bully anyone, but I was tired of being collateral damage, close to but not the direct target of the worst of the bullying.  Without saying a word, I walked right up to Kenny and kicked him in the shins. Twice. He dropped the ball.

“What the fuck Catholic?” He said leaning over to rub his shin.

I turned my back on him and walked over to the white 4-square outline and my slack jaw sister.  I nodded at her, rolled my shoulders back, stood in the center of my white square outline and bounced the ball in her direction.

“Whatever Catholic.” He said as he walked away.

My sister and I finished our game.  Other kids joined us on the playground and eventually the incident got swallowed up in the chaos of a Green Valley Middle School Tuesday morning.  The teachers arrived, took the dodgeball back and blew sharply into their shiny silver whistles to make us line up.  The school bell rang, first period started and I assumed the incident was forgotten

The incident, however, while lost in the chaos of a Green Valley Middle School morning, had not been forgotten.

We had all lined up.  Boys on the right, girls on the left.  Michael Evenson and Jimmy Johnston were, of course, the team captains.  They were always captains.  Even when the teacher tried to make two other people team captains, one would choose Michael and the other would choose Jimmy to be on their teams and they would end up being the actual captains.  Jimmy would always pick Julie and Bobby for his team and Michael would choose Rachel and Justin.  There was a specific order and system that would seemingly self-correct whenever a teacher or anyone else tried to alter it. You don’t mess with the system.  There are rules.

Green Valley 6th Grade Middle School Rules:

1. Jimmy and Michael were always captains
You never threw the ball at them
They never went after the weakest player

Rachel and Julie were second in command.  Julie was always on Jimmy’s team and Rachel was on Michael’s.

Rachel and Julie were nice and didn’t bully anyone
The girl bullies, Lisa and Tammy, left Rachel and Julie alone and Rachel and Julie didn’t intervene when Lisa and Tammy slammed someone in the face with the ball or tripped someone; Rachel and Julie never saw anything
You could count on Rachel and Julie to be nice, but they would never have your back

3. The biggest bullies, Kenny and Lisa had their own pecking orders complete with their second in commands Sarah and Peter.

4. If you were not part of any identified group, you were left alone during free times and recess but basic targets when playing games or sports.

5. If you were not part of any group and were noticeably not nice, however they defined it on that particular day, to Peter, Lisa or their sub group members you were dealt with: public humiliation,and teasing.  This was different than the bullying that other classmates endured, but enough to remind one of their place in the Green Valley Middle School 6th Grade Social Hierarchy

Today, the Green Valley Middle School 6th graders were playing dodgeball.  Teams had been chosen.  Our team was in the center, three balls in action.  I had been dodging well and was feeling proud of my deft maneuvers.  A shoulder duck mere seconds ago had been executed perfectly.  The shiny red surface of the dodgeball had skimmed over my right shoulder, smacking Becky Dieters squarely in the back.  I crouched, stood, pivoted left.  That was when I saw it.  The red rubber ball spinning straight at my face.  I froze.  I am not proud of it, but that was my response none-the-less, the proverbial “deer in headlights.”  Stuck in place, I watched in horror as the red rubber ball spun closer and closer.  Impact was imminent.  My nose itched and my eyes watered in anticipation.  The smack was coming. It would be loud and it would hurt.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kenny’s eyes twinkle.  He was looking right at Rachel, who was the one who caught me off guard and lobbed that red death globe at me.  I looked past the spinning surface into her eyes.  She was smiling shyly and coyly looking down.  There was no mistaking it.  She was smiling for Kenny.  Shit, I thought.  All images of Kenny gently touching my bright white adhesive strip with his forefinger then touching my cheek dissolved.  I was left with the sickly residue of betrayal and the heartbreaking realities of Green Valley 6th Grade Middle School recess crushes.  Rachel had broken rule number 2 and gone after me to not only restore Kenny’s ego, but in the hopes of walking the playground perimeter with him later that day at lunch, her hand neatly tucked in his back pocket.  I wanted to scream I won’t do it again, I will never kick Kenny again!  Instead, I sighed.  The inevitable was approaching and there would be no sexy purple bruise or white adhesive bandage.  Only me and a red splotchy mark in the center of my face.  I willed something, anything to happen that would alter the tragic fate of this moment.  I wished I could beam myself to a different place like Captain Kirk or that the playground would open up and swallow me whole, neither of which, I knew, would happen. Shit, I sighed again.

*While Green Valley Middle School does still exist and I do have a sister named Tania, this essay and the characters in it are an amalgamation of the many sixth grade experiences that many of us survive.