In Others' Words…

Narrators

storytellers

“We are all stories, in the end.”

Steven Moffat

I was talking to a friend last week and our conversation went deep. She was telling me some things about her past, and when she got to a certain part of her story her voice changed. It tightened. She stopped making eye contact. Her shoulders hunched. She got physically smaller.

I looked at her, this funny, smart, strong woman who I’ve grown to love and respect, folding in on herself.  Another origami girl.  I got pissed

I held my hand up and said, “Wait. Stop.”  I leaned in and asked quietly, “Who is telling your story right now?”

She looked at me, confused.

I believe babies are born whole, good, and loved. So that’s our story when we come into the world- Whole. Good. Loved.  That’s our baseline.  The most basic of plot points.

Then our stories get entrusted to the adults in our lives. They tell our stories until we are old enough to do it ourselves.  That is an enormous amount of power to have over someone else’s life, and adults have a sacred duty to wield that power with integrity and discretion.

When your story is entrusted to someone worthy of that responsibility, it’s told like a great biography. These are the facts. Your praises are sung. You are reminded of your wholeness, your goodness, your belovedness. It’s your truth.  And even when there’s a HARD truth, even if it’s something you’ve struggled with, failed at, need to work on, it’s told with compassion and without judgment.

Those people, those trustworthy people, tell your story until you can tell it for yourself and then they hand it back to you. If you are going through a hard time, if you have forgotten who you are -that you are whole and loved and good they might gently tell you your story to remind you, but they know it is not theirs to keep in the end.

The trouble is, not everyone who gets that privilege is worthy of it. Sometimes, our stories end up in the wrong hands.  There’s even a term for it in fiction- an unreliable narrator.  That’s appropriate, actually, because in the hands of an unreliable narrator our stories become works of fiction. And just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it isn’t hugely persuasive. Heck, I sat in the theater at the beginning of Jurassic Park and thought, “Maybe they CAN make dinosaurs out of mosquitos trapped in amber…”

Anyway, this friend and I talked some more.  She asked, “How can you tell when someone else is telling your story?”

It’s a great question.

In our workshops we spend time with the participants helping them to untangle the narratives of their lives, so I’ve been in a position the hear many women tell me their stories- and this is what I’ve come to believe:  Any time you feel shame- you know that hot, sick feeling in the pit of your stomach?  Anytime you feel that flush of shame, someone else is telling your story. Even if the words are coming out of your own mouth. Your story has been hijacked.

Because here’s the thing, you can admit wrongdoing and not feel shame.  You can have made terrible mistakes and not feel shame.  Shame and guilt are very different animals. Guilt is your conscience- a giant arrow pointing to something you’ve done that says, “Hey!  You know that was wrong.  Make it right.”  Guilt serves a purpose within reason. Shame does not.  It is singularly destructive.

You know how from time to time you’ll hear a story about some crazy fish that is normally only found in the Amazon but somehow it shows up in a river in Michigan? When that happens, the fish in question is referred to as an ‘invasive species.” It decimates the local marine life.  It is destructive, because the fish who are supposed to live there have no natural defense against it.

Shame is foreign.  It’s an affront to your goodness, your wholeness, your inherent belovedness.  It is always introduced by someone outside of you.  It is never indigenous.

That’s actually great news, because if shame doesn’t happen organically, if it is not inherently part of who we are, it can be removed.  Eradicated.

The first step is identifying those chapters awash in shame.  The second is identifying the narrator- who is telling that part of your story? Round up the usual suspects.  Then, question their stories.  Stack those stories up against these three things, the bones of the story you were born with:  Whole.  Good.  Loved.  If the stories contradict those facts?  Rewrite them.  YOU are the author of your life.  YOU are.

Until you do those things, you can’t reclaim your story.  And if you don’t own your story, it will own you.  Guaranteed.

“Keaton always said,

“I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.”

Well I believe in God,

and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.”

Verbal – The Usual Suspects

Yes and No

“Burnout is not reserved for the rich or the famous or the profoundly successful.  It’s happening to so many of us, people across all kinds of careers and lifestyles.

***

If you’re tired, you’re tired, no matter what.  If the life you’ve crafted for yourself is too heavy, it’s too heavy, no matter if the people on either side of you are carrying more or less.  You don’t have to have a public life or a particularly busy life in order to be terribly, dangerously depleted.

***

You just have to buy into the idea that your feelings and body and spirit aren’t worth listening to, and believe the myth that busyness or achievement or both will take away the pain.”

Shauna Niequist

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I’ve always had a great work ethic. I am a hard worker, like my mother before me. I might not be the smartest or the most talented, but I will outwork you. Count on  it.  I will push myself to exhaustion and beyond and take sinful pride in it.  I’ll demur offers of help and I’ll tell myself that “if not for me” this thing- whatEVER it is- will not get done.

I know so many women who fit into that same mold.

They DO everything. They HANDLE everything. They don’t need any help- Nope.

“I’ve got this!”

I have had so many conversations with women in which they detail their travails at work or in their volunteering. How tired they are, how much they have on their plates- how the whole place would, quite simply, fall apart without them. I say this without an ounce of judgment because I have been as guilty of it as anyone.

It probably comes off to a lot of people as self-confidence or martyrdom, but the older I get the less I buy into that.

It’s all hustle, and hustle is the farthest thing from self-worth. Hustle is, “If I don’t make myself the linchpin of this whole operation, there won’t be room for me at the table.” Hustle is, “If I’m not indispensable, then I don’t have worth.”

The need to be necessary is back-breaking and soul-depleting. And it’s a vicious circle. People stroke your ego and tell you how X, Y, and Z would quite simply not happen were it not for your efforts.

That, sweet friends, is not the hallmark of a successful endeavor OR a healthy dynamic.

So why do we do it if it isn’t good for us and it isn’t good for whatever the project is?

I think it’s because we’ve conflated being busy with being worthy.

When I was at Wild Goose, I heard Rene Auguste say, “If your self-worth is determined by what you produce, you are enslaved- whether you are rich or poor.”

I KNOW.

When she said it, I had that little frisson you get when you hear something that is a fundamental truth.

I’ve always been one of the first to shoot my hand in the air when volunteers are needed, whether I have the time and energy for the commitment or not.  I’ve always taken on more than anyone could reasonably be expected to handle.  And I was prideful about it- I thought it was a sign of unselfishness.  That it made me a giver.  Now I’m not so sure.

You see, my every yes is also a no. That’s what priorities ARE. They represent of a hierarchy of what we value. My yes to a should commitment is a no to a want/peace/love/rest/joy commitment. We have finite hours in finite days on this beautiful blue planet of ours. We cannot do everything, and the more ‘shoulds’ we entertain, the less joy we will feel.

If I say YES to taking on another THING, another obligation that doesn’t feed anything other than my delusion that the world will tilt off its axis if I’m not there to balance it all, then I am saying NO to conversations with my kids, walks with my dog.  I’m saying NO to sunsets with my Favorite.  I’m saying NO to fresh air and sleep, to cooking and reading and painting.

And the things we say YES to will suffer too, because they’ll be done with a weary and resentful heart.

My need to HANG ON with a Vulcan death grip to every little thing to make sure it gets done is nothing short of bananas, and it’s unhealthy for me and for the people I love.

My friend Rachel writes beautifully about this topic all the time on her blog and in her book Hands Free Life.

My friend Kate, a glorious, funny, smart, talented writer wrote about this very thing on her blog I Hold Your Heart just this morning.  There’s something in the air, I guess.

Rachel opened the door with her honesty about her realization that in her hurry to get things done she was missing out on her own life.  I read Shauna’s brilliant book, Present over Perfect and found myself highlighting and dog-earing pages as my eyes stung with tears.  The reflexologist asked me if control *might* be an issue for me.  Now Kate’s post about putting her well being not just back on her priority list, but unabashedly at the TOP of it.  Sometimes the Universe conspires to help us get out of our own way.

I was talking just last night about how my default setting is to not take care of myself until something is emergent.  I don’t cop to tired, I power through until I’m exhausted.  I don’t get colds, I get pneumonia.  I say I don’t have the time or money to take care of myself, but that is simply untrue.  It’s just not a priority.  And I act like that’s unselfish.

It’s not.

I am a single mom and sole supporter of two kids.  What I can’t afford is to NOT take care of myself.

What is even HAPPENING, y’all?

I’ll tell you what’s happening- we’re burning out left and right, and chalking it up to efficiency or love.  You GUYS.  That is just not how you love your people, by wearing yourself out voluntarily.

“You can’t just sit there and put everyone’s life ahead of yours and think that counts as love.”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I saw a meme on Facebook the other day that stopped me in my tracks.  It said something to the effect of, “What you do is SO LOUD I cannot hear what you say.”

Because that’s the other piece of this, friends.  The other piece of this is that our kids are watching.  Our GIRLS are watching.  We are teaching them how to move through the world by what we do, so we can tell them they have inherent worth but we are not modeling that for them.  Is this constant striving, proving, hustling what we want for them?  Do we want to see them, a couple of decades down the line, depleted and stretched too thin because that’s what we taught them?

I know a woman who says this thing all the time, “I have enough, I do enough, I am enough.”

I don’t think I ever think I am doing enough.  And I worry about the few things I’m not doing.  I mean, if I don’t do them will they get done?  Will they get done properly?

The truth is, they might not.  And life will go on, either way.  So maybe it’s time to stop, and let go.  Not of everything, obviously.  There are life things that are non-negotiable, but so much of my busyness is voluntary.

Maybe it’s time to focus on saying YES to the things I say I value most dearly even if it means saying NO to the quick-fix validation of busyness and accomplishment.  Don’t do it because I said you should.  My sister has a friend who says, “Don’t should all over yourself.”  Do it because life is short and precious, and there are people right in front of you to love, and they will not always be there.  There will never be another sunrise like the one tomorrow morning, the shells on the beach today will not necessarily be there tomorrow.  Nothing is guaranteed.

Finite hours, friends.  Finite days.

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Pressure points

I’ve been in a lot of pain for a very long time.

I have a lower back issue that’s worsened over the past few years.  Several members of my family have had similar issues and had to treat them surgically, so my assumption was that I had genetic predisposition to it.  I figured that combined with stress and a couple of years in special ed (which can be pretty grueling physically) led me to where I am now.

Anyway, I am in pain all day, every day- and it’s been getting worse.

For Mother’s Day, my Favorite gave me a gift certificate for a massage every month for a year.  I know.  Best.  Anyway, I’ve been using them, and after a not-great experience the first month I’ve found a therapist who is fabulous and it’s been helping- not with my lower back, but the rest of my back which has been in knots as a result of compensating for the main issue.  Solidarity.

On one visit, she mentioned to me that I carried a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders (which I knew) and also, she said, “Oddly, you carry a lot in your feet.”

Huh, I thought.

The last visit with her, after my six-hour return drive from Maine, I was in so much pain it was hard to lay in any one position for long enough to let her work.  She suggested that perhaps I try reflexology- she thought it might help.  Dr. Andrew Weil says, “Reflexology (or foot reflexology) is a therapy based on the principle that there are small and specific areas of innervation in the hands and feet that correspond to specific muscle groups or organs of the body.”

I am tired of being in pain, and am willing to try anything that might forestall surgery.

I had an appointment today.  I had no idea what to expect- I knew the focus would be on my hands and feet, but beyond that I knew nothing.  The therapist said, “Your hands are where you hold your recent pain, your feet is where older pain is stored.”

In retrospect, there really ought to have been ominous music in place of the eerie lute music that is apparently mandatory in spas.

She began working on my right hand.  It was a little uncomfortable at first, and then she put pressure on a point on my hand below my thumb.  I am not kidding you, I gasped.  She continued to work, and I could not believe how painful it was.  I mean, excruciating.

I feel it’s important to note here that I have a really high tolerance for pain.  I am not a complainer, it has to be BAD before I do anything about it.  My daughter was almost eleven pounds and I gave birth to her with no pain meds- if I say it hurts, it hurts.

The therapist said in an offhand way, “I notice you aren’t breathing.”  I said yes, that’s a thing I do.  Not breathe.  She said, “When you’re in pain?” I said, “Yeah, and also, y’know, in general.”  She suggested I try breathing.

Helpful.

It actually was.  It still hurt like hell, but it is actually more manageable if you’re allowing your body to function properly. Then she said, “Is control an issue for you?”

Me: “…………………………” (cue helpless laughter)

I acknowledged that it might be.  She said, “Do you know anything about chakras?”  I said, “I know they’re a THING, but I don’t know anything about them, really.”  She gave me a little overview, recommended a book I could read if I wanted to learn more, and then she said, “The lower back is the second chakra.  The second chakra is about sex, control and money.”

Well, SHIT.

That’s when I got really scared about my feet.

I was right to be scared.  It. Hurt. Like. Hell.  I mean, excruciating- but it felt like it was doing something, you know?  Pain with a purpose. She asked at one point if I wanted her to use less pressure- she could, she said, “but that pain is where you need the work.”

Tell me something I don’t know, sister.

I said, “No.  Keep going.”

About halfway through she said, “You know, just because several of your family members had this same pain doesn’t mean you have to, or that surgery is inevitable.  You can choose to heal differently.”

By the time she was done I was drenched in sweat.  She gave me some post-treatment recommendations, told me I might cry tonight (it was dark in the room so I didn’t clue her into the fact I MIGHT already be crying) and sent me on my way.

I finished Bessel van der Kolk’s book, “The Body Keeps the Score” a while back.  In it, he notes:

“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past;

it is also the imprint left by that experience on

mind, brain, and body.

This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.

The body remembers.

I have focused on healing my soul and my brain and my heart- but I have largely neglected my body.  This is extremely common among survivors of sexual trauma.  We leave easily managed things untreated until they become big and emergent.  We overeat or starve.  We abuse substances.  We over-exercise or not at all.  We are prone to insomnia.

We develop a really high tolerance for pain.

We don’t breathe.

That disconnect from our bodies serves a purpose.  It’s a coping mechanism we employ when we are IN IT.  When we are being abused it’s helpful to be able to float away.  To view our bodies as “other.”  After all, who wants to spend time at a crime scene?

I think it might be the right time to start focusing on my body.  To begin thinking of it not only as the scene of the crime but also as my home.  As the dwelling gifted to me by God in which to live in this world. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that there are unhealed wounds encoded deep in my very bones and muscles. To finally allow for the possibility that pain does not have to be my baseline.   It might be time to learn to breathe, and to lean into the pain.

The pain that John Green so brilliantly points out, “demands to be felt.”

I just got off the phone with my Favorite.  I told him that my back feels better than it has in two years.  That I can sit down and stand up without wincing.  I don’t know if that will remain.  I said to my sister when I called her afterward, “Maybe it’s like that thing where someone offers to stomp on your foot to make you forget about your headache.”

Maybe, just maybe, instead of putting pressure on myself to charge through the pain, I can put the pressure on those points connected to my original wounds and sit through that pain.  Feel it, acknowledge it- maybe cry a little.  And then heal.

Differently.

Pieces

“We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift. We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves.”

Jay-Z

It’s hard for me to remember a time before I had “man issues.”

The first male constant in your life is generally your father, and then grandfathers… So things can go sideways fast.

Those relationships are so powerful.  They are your first experience of what a man is, and what he should be.

And then there’s our heavenly Father.

Our Father who art in heaven became very much conflated with my father who was in Western Ma.  And then Virginia.  And then Texas.  And then Arizona.  A Father farther and farther away, geographically and emotionally.  A distant, detached, cold figure.

God was no longer Good.

I’ve been asked why I use the male pronoun and term father when it comes to God.  It’s a fair question.  I am a proud feminist. I don’t do it mindlessly or by rote.  I’ve not bought into the patriarchy.  It’s a wound I need healed, I suppose.  I need a father who loves me unconditionally.  I need that particular relationship.

In truth, I don’t believe God is male or female.  I believe God is so much bigger than that.

I was twenty-one when I had my beautiful boy.   I was single and terrified.  I felt selfish for even having him, so certain was I that I would mess it up.  That I would break him, somehow.  How does someone so shattered mother a whole child?  How does she keep him intact and safe?  That God had entrusted me with this fragile, precious little human was further proof He either wasn’t paying attention or lacked good judgment.

Having children was an act of bravery for someone like me.  Someone who saw danger around every corner.  Someone who knew up close what evil looks like, and knew first hand the relentless pain of unhealed parent wounds.  Someone who was guessing at what a healthy childhood might look like.  I parented very fearfully, especially with my first-born.  I trusted no one, not even myself.  I was so afraid to do it wrong, and so of course, I did.

It’s probably no accident I was a single mom.  I said it wasn’t what I wanted, but I wonder about that.  I wonder if that didn’t seem like the safest option.

My son was seven when I got married.  I had my daughter a year later.  Getting married was the second bravest thing I’ve ever done.  It was a spectacular leap of faith to entrust my heart to a man.  Men were inherently dangerous.  I knew that in my bones.  They either actively hurt you, or left.  Or both.  But, I fell in love.  Well, we did.  My boy and I fell in love.  That’s the thing- falling instead of walking.  Closing your eyes and leaping, instead of keeping them wide open.

When my marriage imploded, when I learned what I learned, something in me died.  I’m embarrassed to admit it, but upon learning the truth my first thought was, “Of course.  Of course you did.  You were always going to do this.”  I was angrier at myself than I was at him. “You are such an idiot,” I told myself.  I fell for it.  I actually believed in the idea of a good man.  And one who loved me.  How stupid am I?  How many men need to betray me, hurt me, give up on me before I get it?  What’s the emotional learning curve here?

How many times does the central man in my life need to choose something, someone, somewhere other than me before I get it through my thick head?

It’s a little surprising, or perhaps it’s not, that it was during this time I began going back to church.  I should note that I had little agency in this.  My best friend kidnapped me and dragged my skinny ass there.  I was drinking too much.  I was starving myself.  On a good night, I’d sleep about two hours- from 3:00 – 5:00.  I’d get up every morning, make the kids a hot breakfast, put on my mask of makeup, put on a cute costume and go volunteer at the school.

Smile and wave.

And I was pieces.  So completely undone.

I was doing what so many of us do- trying to fix an inside thing with outside things.  It has never worked once in the history of ever, but that didn’t stop me.  I’m no quitter.

I’d not regularly attended church since early childhood with the exception of a brief stint in college- where I was trying it on for size.  I grew up in the Catholic Church and much of what occurred in mass was over my head.  And then I got mad.  I broke up with God.  And growing up in Massachusetts during the church sex scandal only reinforced all my anger and doubts.

This new church, though?  They seemed to talk an awful lot about love.  And they were super into Jesus, who I’d really been assiduously ignoring for decades.  I was pissed at God, but could never quite manage to be pissed at Jesus. (and I KNOW, spare me the theology- I’ll split the hairs I want when I’m breaking up with deities.)  I could shut my heart to God, but when people talked of Jesus I could almost hear the rusted hinges on that door give way.  And Jesus is persistent.  As Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The year I got divorced, on Fathers’ Day, I lost my shit at church.  Watching all the families sitting together while I sat alone was not great.  There was some really beautiful talk about how we don’t all get the fathers we deserve, but at the end of the day, we are already loved perfectly.  We can relax into that father relationship if we do not have another safe one.  Then the worship leader sang a song that did me in.  I fled to the bathroom, obviously.

It started to change the way I thought about fathers and God.  I began to see the gift in the hand I’d been dealt.  Maybe if your father is present and engaged and not great, that’s worse than GONE.  In the absence of presence, I had the freedom to find fathering in other places- because father is as much a verb as mother.  I forget that, sometimes.  Maybe I found the fathering I needed, in the end.

Maybe given the hand I’d been dealt, God decided to shuffle the deck.

I’ve been fathered really well, actually.  I had characters in books, movies and tv that I pretended were my dad.  I’ve had uncles who loved me, friends’ dads who taught me things, delighted in my antics, SAW me.  For a long time, I had a really wonderful father-in-law who I adored and who was unerringly good to me.  I’ve lost a few of these men, recently- which has caused me to reflect on the gifts that they were in my life.  And my relationship with God is good.  We’re good, He and I.

Some people get an intact dad- everything in one person.  Mine has been a piecemeal father.  Maybe the lesson to take away from that is that no one person can be everything you need.  It’s a lot of pressure, and people are imperfect.  I got the very best bits from a bunch of places.  On most days, I can see that for the blessing that it is.

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Puzzling

“Memories demand attention

because memories have teeth.”

Viola Davis

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About a month ago I was talking with my cousin Mary and she asked me a question about something that happened a very long time ago, when I was about twelve.  We talked about it briefly, matter-of-factly, and then the conversation was over and we moved on to other things.

I kept coming back to it, though, and I wasn’t sure why.  The thought of it was following me around.  The memory kept nipping at my heels for a couple of weeks until all of a sudden things became very clear, as though I’d put on glasses and could suddenly see.

The truth is doggedly persistent.

Mary had unknowingingly handed me a piece of my story that I’d not even known was missing until it was returned to me.

Kids are naturally imaginative and creative.  All human beings are, but children are less married to the concrete. Their thinking is more fluid, more simple- primitive, even- they know less, so they are less encumbered by facts. So, like primitive people, when there are gaps in their knowledge, or there is something they don’t understand, they fill it in with story.

Ancient civilizations did not understand weather or natural phenomena, so what did they do? They used story to make sense of it. Created gods and goddesses, rituals and rules. Now, did the volcano remain dormant because they made their annual virgin sacrifice? Of course not. Does any of that matter to the unfortunate girl tossed into the lava? Of course not.  She lived and died out of a story someone else created for her.  What Brene Brown calls a confabulation, or a lie told honestly.

That poor girl wasn’t any less dead because her sacrifice was predicated on a lie.

My childhood abuse was traumatic, yes.  But the real trauma, the lasting harm, came from people’s reactions to me telling my story.

I’d been told that if I said anything people would be upset and angry and think I was lying.  In my child’s mind, that threat was borne out.  The people in my life, by the way they reacted to my telling, unwittingly made my grandfather a truth-teller.  And because I was a child trying to make sense of something painful and complicated, I created a simple story out of a complex and confusing situation.  I decided if he was right about that, he was right about everything.

So, all of those seeds of shame took root. All of those lies he told me about myself, whether directly or by the way he treated me and used my body, became TRUE.  I unquestioningly accepted them.  You see, we humans don’t use facts to shore up our stories, we use story to shore up the facts of our lives.  We use story to make sense of the incomprehensible.  We use story to combat the dissonance of trauma.

I was bad. I was dirty. I was used up. My vaIue lay in being a sexual creature and nothing more.  What I wanted didn’t matter.  My no was unenforceable.  I wasn’t worth protecting. I was a liar. I was forsaken by God.

It did not matter that absolutely none of that was true. I accepted it all as fact and lived accordingly. Those lies became the Gospel according to which I lived my life.

I’d cried out to God to make my abuse stop. I’d prayed for justice. For my father to believe me and protect me. I believed those prayers and pleas fell on deaf ears. I used to joke that I broke up with God when I was nine years old. I never stopped believing in God, but the story I told myself was that He either didn’t care about what happened to me, or worse- that it was part of God’s plan for me. Either way, I had no use for a god that small. I lost my faith in Him. I stopped talking to Him. And so I lived accordingly. I lived like someone forsaken and unloved.

You move through the world very differently when you believe that about yourself, whether it’s true or not.

When Mary’s revelation finally settled with me, I didn’t quite know what to do with it. Where before there may have been information missing, I’d found a way to make the picture whole.  Now, though, I had this extra puzzle piece and I couldn’t put the story back together the way it had been before.  Nothing fit.  I had to throw away the story pieces I’d created to fill in those gaps of understanding- and that is hard to do, especially when the story you’d created was more palatable than the truth.

Because the thing is, story builds on story.  The stories we get told and sold in childhood become the foundation of our lives, for better or for worse.  The stories we create to make sense of things become real for us.  You can’t replace a puzzle piece and have it not affect the entire picture- especially not when it’s a core story you lived out of- because we make decisions based on those stories.  They wield enormous power in our lives.  They color the way we view the world and our place in it.

This new information, while it brings some clarity, is not comfortable. It’s confusing, and sad, and challenges other assumptions I’d made about my life.  The stories I’d created gave some people a pass on things that are inexcusable.  The story I’d told myself had made it easier to forgive.  So now I have to integrate this new truth and make peace with it.  Now I have to work on forgiveness again- which I suppose is fine.  I believe forgiveness is a practice- like yoga, and love, and sobriety.  Maybe the work is never truly done, anyway.

So I’m taking the pieces apart.  Examining them.  Holding them up to the light and trying to determine what can be salvaged and what needs to go.  When I’m done, I’ll have a new- and likely still incomplete- puzzle, and will have a new story as a part of my life.  And I will see the world a little differently, I suppose.

*****************************************************************************

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Hinges

The small woman

Builds cages for everyone

She

Knows.

While the sage,

Who has to duck her head

When the moon is low,

Keeps dropping keys all night long

For the

Beautiful

Rowdy

Prisoners

Hafiz

I spent the last four days in the mountains of North Carolina.  Speaking, yes.  I was at Wild Goose to tell my story.  That’s not the most important thing I did there, though. Actually, it doesn’t crack the top ten.

goosetalk2

I was in those mountains to float in a river and hang out with God.  I was there to sit in on talks of race and gender, justice and forgiveness- and listen.  I was there to spend important time with my Favorite, and quietly walk through sun-dappled woods with him. I was there to stop what I was doing every time someone wanted to tell me their story, and I was there to bear witness.  I was there to hug a friend I’d only ever known on-line and on the phone, and I was there to push her littles on swings and delight in their nonsense.  I was there to dance sober under the stars.

And, as it turns out, I was in those mountains to grieve.

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There’s no internet connection at Goose- just human connection.  Real, honest-to-God human connection.  That meant that my focus was on the people in front of me and not the great big world out there.  I was largely unaware of what was going on.  I didn’t hear the details of what transpired in Dallas until I was at the airport coming home.  I heard snippets, of course.  I could have gone to town and logged on.  I could have gone down the rabbit hole of anger and despair.  I could have stepped away from quiet and important conversations to dive into social media and expressed my frustration in CAPS.  I’ve done it before, and I’ll likely do it again, sadly.

I didn’t.

They’re both important.  Sometimes it’s a time to shout, but we need to listen, too. Sometimes it’s a time to make bold statements, but we need to ask serious, hard questions and we need to listen to the answers even when they are painful or uncomfortable.  Especially when they are painful or uncomfortable.

And we need to lament.  We need to express our grief.  I think too often we want to skip that part and go straight to anger.  Anger is safer, somehow.  We need to mourn.  We are hurting.  We are ALL hurting so, so much.  Because racism and violence damage both the perpetrator and the victim. We are all wounded. The evils of racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and xenophobia are malignant.  They are a cancer in our world, and we are all sick and suffering.  The difference is that those of us with privilege get to choose what role we’ll play in the equation. We have a choice to oppress, or not.  To exclude, or not.  To discriminate, or not.  To harm, or not.

When you’re gay, you’re gay.  When you’re transgendered, you’re transgendered.  When you’re a woman, you’re a woman.  When you’re a refugee, you’re a refugee.

When you’re black, you’re black.

And I am not defending what happened in Dallas.  It’s indefensible.  Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I owe a lot of my healing to law enforcement and my personal experience with them.  I’ve no interest in painting with a broad brush.  I believe most police officers are good and decent and care deeply about serving the communities in which they work.  Those women and men who risk their lives to protect and defend the public are harmed and endangered by the ones who do not.  And the “blue wall” of universal support for all officers all of the time- even when their actions are unlawful and racist- compromises the safety of police officers and the public alike.

Violence begets violence begets violence begets violence.

My session was Friday morning.  Rachael Anne Clinton, the phenomenal woman with whom I was fortunate enough to be paired, alluded to the fact that something bad had happened the previous evening.  I knew I needed to focus on my job in that moment, and that I needed to be present for the people in front of me, both to tell my story and to hear theirs.

I made the deliberate choice not to know about it just yet because I knew it would shatter my concentration and  because I have that luxury.

That night, after a long day of listening and dancing, praying and singing, hugging and reflecting, Favorite and I went back to our tent to sleep.  We were in bed, and the most amazing music began to swell around us.  I couldn’t make out the words, but I had a lump in my throat and my eyes began to tear up in the dark.

Favorite whispered to me, “I feel like we’re missing out on something.”  We got up, threw on sneakers, and stumbled to the Cafe tent.

It was a scheduled event called “OPENINGS. A RITUAL of RESISTANCE and HOPE”

The band is called The Many, the song, with lyrics by Lenora Rand, is called Lovely Needy People.

Oh you prisoners in your cells 
All you in private hells 
Kyrie eleison 

All you hungry and ignored 
Who thirst for something more 
Kyrie eleison 

You know how when you hear perfect harmony you can feel it vibrate in your very bones? That’s what it felt like- and even though the harmonies WERE stunning, I don’t think that’s why.  You could see it on each person’s face.  The ache.  The pain.  The grief.

The song we were hearing was a lament.

You who feel lost but are afraid of being found 
You who are in chains but are afraid to live unbound 
Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison. 

I remember when the incident with the young girl at the pool party occurred last summer, and Jen Hatmaker was posting about it.  She said, “I wish we knew how to lament better.” I wrote about it at the time, that YES.  We need to learn to come together in grief.  We need ritual.  We need each other.

For all us lovely needy people 
Living in this world that’s spinning 
Round and round and round 
Round and round and round 

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy 
Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison 

It was part sermon, part performance art.  The theme, Openings, was expressed through doors.  There was a turquoise restroom door to symbolize HB2, the law of the land in North Carolina.  There were two other doors as well. The pastor speaking talked about how we ALL slam doors on those we consider other.

From time to time someone would slam one of the doors against the main tent pole. You could see people jump each time it happened.  That’s good.  A slammed door should shock us all.

A young man read part of Warsan Shire’s stunning poem Home. 

As the powerful words spilled out I looked from face to face.  Some were tear streaked, some were angry, some eyes open, some shut.  We all grieved differently, but we were together in it the way I truly believe we are intended to be.  We were connected in sorrow.  When I looked into those strangers’ faces I saw my pain reflected back at me, and I felt less alone.

People took turns pinning photos of people whose lives were taken simply because of who they are.  Simply for being who God intended them to be.

open2

open4

open6

open7

We are all in this.  We are all harmed by this violence.  I don’t understand why that’s so hard for us all to understand.

If you are not free, then NEITHER AM I.  My freedom hinges on yours.

Oh you children ripped and torn 
Battered, bruised and worn 
Kyrie eleison 

All who look hate in the face 
Locked in hate’s embrace 
Kyrie eleison 

A woman spoke of the need for those of us with keys to unlock the doors, and then to go one step further.  To take off the hinges, because we are not supposed to have doors in the first place.  Mother Teresa was right.  We have no peace because we have forgotten one fundamental truth- we belong to each other.

You who’ve given up and can’t see anywhere but down 
You who’ve lost all hope and think it’s nowhere to be found 
Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison 

Then they took that turquoise restroom door, and they turned it into a table and served the Eucharist from it.

open3

There is mercy enough, there is grace enough 
There is love enough for all of us

There is enough.  There is no such thing as other.  Those two lies- that false sense of scarcity and that refusal to believe that we are all the same, every single one of us a beloved child of God- are at the root of all of this pain.

If you are in possession of the key of privilege, unlock the door and then drop it for the next Beautiful, Rowdy Prisoner- because if he or she is not free, then NEITHER ARE YOU.  Then take the door off the hinges, and feed someone from it.

Kyrie eleison.

****************************************************

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Like a prayer

“The soul must learn to abandon, at least in prayer, the restlessness of purposeful activity. It must learn to waste time for the sake of God, and to be prepared for the sacred game with saying and thought and gestures, without always asking, ‘Why?’ and ‘Wherefore?’”

Romano Guardini

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I have been thinking a lot about prayer, lately.

For a long time, I didn’t pray.  I broke up with God when I was nine, and like all bitter exes I would rant at Him from time to time- but we weren’t really on speaking terms.  I still believed in God, but I didn’t see the point in praying just to have those prayers ignored.

That has changed over the past five years.  During my divorce, when I was so broken down and depressed- quite literally on the floor with grief- there was nowhere to look but up.  So I began praying.  Desperate prayers.  Pleading prayers, begging God to fix what was broken, or better yet to make it so it had never happened.  Sometimes it was nothing more than, “Why  Why?  Why?”  or “Help.”

Even though those prayers were not answered in the way I wanted, for the first time in my adult life I didn’t feel like my words went out into the void and just disappeared. I didn’t feel ignored or forsaken. I felt as though someone was listening- so I kept talking. My prayer changed from a list of what I thought I wanted and needed to a conversation.

I am, for the first time in my adult life, making daily prayer a priority.

I begin every morning with prayer.  I have a little ritual.  I thank God for the many blessings in my life.  I say the serenity prayer.  I close with a line I got from my brilliant friend Rachel Macy Stafford’s blog post The Bully Too Close to Home – “Only love today.”  My prayer every day is to try and come to every person, every situation, and lead with love.  My hope is that every evening when I pray it will also serve as a summation.  “Only love today.”

I’ve been struggling with a resentment lately, and I was advised to pray for the person in question.  The first night I could not do it.  I am seldom at a loss for words, but I was completely stumped.  I felt mutinous.  I searched for words of love and compassion and none came.  I ended up inserting the name into the serenity prayer in lieu of “me.”

I know.  Not great.  It was the best I could do, though.  It was gotten a little easier, I suppose.  Not much.  But I feel a little less angry every time I do it.

Now, I know doing this will have no effect on the choices this person makes.  The situation will still be hard.

Here is what I am learning about prayer, though,  I will be less hard.  My heart will be less hard.

For me, growing in faith now means I no longer believe my prayers change outcomes. What prayer does change is my heart, it changes my focus, my energy- even my intentions.  Prayer changes ME.

Some prayers feel like love songs to me.  Sometimes when I am praying I feel that soaring joy and peace that I’ve come to know when I am in communion with God.  Sometimes prayers are a desperate cry in the night, like the ones during the demise of my marriage. When I was still drinking I prayed constantly- by my prayers were more like negotiations.  “God, if you will please help me get a handle on my drinking, I will x, y & z…”

Those prayers were answered, though it didn’t feel that way at the time.  We tend to say our prayers weren’t answered when we get anything other than a resounding ‘yes.’  The answer was a loving, “NO.”

My prayers on this resentment are neither.  They are not coming from a place of joy or desperation.  I’m just tired.  I’m just so, so tired of carrying around this particular heavy thing and giving it so much power.  I want to lay it down and I don’t quite know how to do it on my own. (By the way, that admitting I can’t figure something out by myself is new. We’re all very excited about it.)

Anyway, these prayers are halting.  Grudging even.  But a tiny bit less so, every day.  Each prayer, an unclenching.  An exhale.

When I was young and attending church and CCD, prayers were rote.  There was no emphasis on having a real relationship with God.  I said the words I’d memorized, and I said them quickly.  I didn’t think about what they meant.

It’s a practice, prayer.  Like yoga, like sobriety.  It’s not a one and done.  It’s sometimes more listening than talking.  It’s quiet and unhurried.  It’s not a wish or a list of demandsIt’s learning I frequently pray for the wrong things.  I am more often grateful, in hindsight, for the no answers than the yesses.

I do say the Serenity Prayer, but mindfully.  I do say the Our Father at the close of meetings.  Mostly, though, I take Anne Lamott’s view of prayer- that there are only three kinds, in the end:  Help, thanks, and wow.  Guidance, gratitude, and wonder.  I find that if I stick to those three things, and accept WHATEVER the answer is, when I lay my head down at night I am in a better position to say, “Only love today.”

Day 365

“Slowly, with many lost days, I come back to life.”

Suzanne Collins – Mockingjay

I woke up this morning with a clear head and an unashamed heart.  My first act, before I even opened my eyes, was to say,

“thankYouthankYouthankYouthankYouthankYouthankYouthankYou.”

I say that a lot lately.

A year ago today, I walked into a church with absolutely no hope of getting sober.  None. I honestly wasn’t going there to get sober. I was going there because every single person in my life was upset with me.  They all wanted me to try.  I knew I’d been trying all day, every day, all of the days to get a handle on my drinking.  Trying to control it was my full-time job.  I was failing spectacularly, but it was certainly not for lack of effort.  I figured at least if I went to a meeting it would finally LOOK like I was trying from the outside.

I had been trying for so long.  I had no more try left in me.  I was so unbelievably tired.

“… sometimes you count the days, sometimes you weigh them.”

Elizabeth Gilbert – eat pray love

A year ago today, I texted a friend.  I said, “I’m going to my first meeting.”  She replied, “What kind of meeting?”  I said, “AA.  I’m terrified.”  She said, “Don’t u dare be afraid.  That’s the one place I’m not afraid.  Those are our people.”

I told her I was scared I wouldn’t be able to do it.  She said, “Just promise yourself to go and sit.  That’s all u have to do.”

A year ago today, I decided I could probably sit in a room for an hour.  Maybe.

A year ago today, I walked in just minutes before the meeting started, staring down at my phone, willing no one to talk to me.  My head and heart were both pounding, my hands were shaking.

A year ago today, a woman swooped down on me and introduced herself. She invited me to sit next to her.  She was chairing the meeting, as it turns out.  So much for fading into the woodwork.

A year ago today, I hated her guts.

A year ago today, I sat around some tables while people introduced themselves.

A year ago today, I said out loud for the first time, My name is Laura and I’m an alcoholic.  Then I burst into tears.

I don’t remember a lot about that meeting.  Like my first time at hot yoga, my sole intention was to stay in the room and not throw up.  I remember everyone seemed really happy.  When you are in despair hope and joy are unbearable.  It seemed fake.  I was not buying what they were selling.

A year ago today, that same woman insisted I give her my number.  The next morning she set me an emoji-laden text and asked me when I was going to my next meeting.  Because I am a people pleaser- something else I am working on- I didn’t want to disappoint her. I Googled and found another meeting so the swooper would be happy.

If I had the opportunity to tweak the Beatitudes, I would add,

“Blessed are the swoopers”

A year go tomorrow, I went to my first women’s meeting and found my tribe.  I don’t remember who it was and I don’t remember what she said, but someone shared with such raw vulnerability and I remember having the thought- “OH.  We’re telling the TRUTH here.”  It was like breathing pure oxygen after holding my breath for my entire life.

My tribe, who I now cannot imagine my life without, is full of brave, brilliant, outrageous, wildly funny, strong, tender, generous women.  I see mercy, grace, and forgiveness in action every single day.  It’s faith with its work boots on.  It is what church is supposed to be.

You know what we say when someone comes back to the rooms after they  ‘go out’ and fall off the wagon?  Every time?  Even if it’s over and over again?  The same two words.  “Welcome back.”

Welcome back.”

If the price of admission to this club of gloriously kind rascals is not drinking, it’s a price I’ll enthusiastically pay all day, every day, all the days, for the rest of my life.

I tell you what, I cannot believe I made it a year.  That’s both remarkable and unremarkable simultaneously.  It’s remarkable in the sense that I did not for one second believe I could do it.  It is unremarkable in that these 365 days do not do one single thing to guarantee me tomorrow.

I thought sobriety was something you achieve, but it isn’t.  That sort of sucks, but I have learned to accept it as a thing I cannot change.  That’s kind of a thing, as it turns out.

It’s a practice, like yoga.  You never have it in the bag.  You never win.  You never cross the finish line.

You get up every day and do the work.  You tell the truth.  You ask for help, and you help when asked.  It is as simple and hard as drinking was easy and complicated.  I remember thinking in the beginning, “I cannot believe I have to do this every day.”  Now I cannot believe I GET to do it every day.  I go to a meeting 6 days a week.  I look forward to them.  I laugh more than I cry.

I swoop.

I’ve had a number of people say that sobriety seems to have come easily to me, maybe because once I stopped I stayed stopped.  So far.

Hear me when I say this- I’ve earned every day of my sobriety.  I fought for every minute of it and I guard it like a junkyard dog.  It’s far and away the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.  I’ve learned to put my sobriety first before every other person, place, or thing in my life- because I know in my bones if I’m not sober I’ll lose everything else anyway.

I wake up most mornings awash in gratitude for the opportunity to live differently and to mend what I broke.  I catch glimpses of myself in mirrors or see myself in photos and I think I finally look like me.  I look happy, I think.

happy

Who, I ask you, is luckier than me?

If you are struggling with addiction and need help, you can find local AA and NA easily.  

As my wise, lovely friend advised,

“Just go and sit.”

That really is all you have to do on Day One.  Just go and sit.  And listen.

Love you so.

Breathing rooms

orlando

 

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Rogers and Hammerstein – South Pacific

When Hitler first started passing laws they were largely aimed at excluding Jewish citizens from going certain places, attending certain events.  He made their circles of safety smaller and smaller until they no longer existed.  How much easier is it to control a population when they feel they have no safe haven, when they are all clustered in one specific place?  A lot, I imagine.  And it certainly makes it easier to annihilate them, doesn’t it?

Hatred is so freaking efficient.

I grew up in the eighties.  I like to think that isn’t ALL that long ago, but in some ways it seems another era altogether.  You could never have had shows with openly gay characters who were just, y’know, PEOPLE- not cartoons or ugly stereotypes (thank you, Shonda Rhimes.)  People were terrified of AIDS and that gave them a perfect excuse to villify a group of people who were already marginalized in our society and around the world.  It was a time when many of our rock stars were androgynous or flamboyant but we never considered the idea that they might be gay- in fact, we threw the word “gay” around as an epithet with alarming regularity- me included.

That was until I auditioned for my local community theater.  Before that, I didn’t know any gay people.  I mean, I DID- because, of course I did– but I didn’t know it.  When I got a part in the chorus of a production of South Pacific I was thrilled, but a little intimidated. These people were TALENTED, and I was… enthusiastic.  I could dance, that was about it.

Anyway, it was my first exposure to people who were open about their sexuality and felt free to be whoever they were. I was surrounded by these phenomenally talented, brilliant, funny as hell people – which was a gift of such magnitude.  The thing about prejudice is that it’s much harder to pull off close up.  I hadn’t thought I held any of those attitudes and biases until they were challenged.  It was just so much a part of our culture- that mindless cruelty.  “That’s so GAY!”  I either heard that or SAID that probably almost every day of my high school years- right up until I joined that cast.

There were people that I’d known in high school who I’d not known were gay until I got to know them in that context.  I remember being taken aback at how open one young man was- he’d not behaved that way in school when I knew him.  Of course, if he’d behaved that way in my high school, he probably would have been beaten on a daily basis.

Think about that.

Think about consciously reigning in the person you know you were born to be every day just to keep yourself reasonably safe.  Think about putting on that mask and moving through the world being careful- not because you’re doing a thing wrong, but because you are surrounded by people who believe what you ARE is wrong.  Can you imagine how exhausting that would be?  That constant vigilance?  That holding your breath all day, every day, all of the days?

I think back then community theater was a refuge for people who grew up in a time when keeping your sexuality deeply buried was the norm.  It gave them breathing room to explore who they were, a safe place to figure out their stuff- the way the rest of can do in, y’know, public.   I don’t mean to imply that it’s easy now- it’s not.  But back then the notion of gay marriage or the fact that my kids’ high schools had Gay-Straight Alliance as an afterschool activity was not even a dream, it was a fantasy.

It was a place where young men and women, many of whom had no safe haven- not even their families of origin- could exhale.

I’m guessing gay nightclubs are the same thing.  In fact, I know they are.  My friend Jaime wrote beautifully about what having gay nightclubs to go to meant to her.

“These places and so many more showed me that I had people. Beautiful, creative, brave, HOT people. I’m not a club goer much anymore but those are still my places. What happened in Orlando is a violation of a precious, life saving resource for queer people.”

I think that’s so important to understand.  Exhale places are not a luxury.  Gay nightclubs aren’t just a place to go to have fun, to dance.  They’re a respite.  We all need places where we feel seen and heard and SAFE.  Where we can be ourselves, and love who we love OUT LOUD.

There’s a lot being made of the fact that this is an act of foreign terrorism.  I suspect that doesn’t make much of a difference to the people who loved the men and women who were slaughtered there, just as the fact that nice young white man was a domestic terrorist made a difference to the families and friends of the people massacred in a church in South Carolina last year.  The lost are still lost- the body count still is what it is. There is no WHY that makes sense, so why should the WHO?  Hate with a different tag-line is still hate.

Terror attacks are most effective when they take something or somewhere we previously took for granted as safe and make them ground zero.  A domestic flight, a church, an elementary school.  A nightclub.

When those places become battlefields it makes it hard for us to breathe.

On opening night of South Pacific, the musical director talked to us before show time. He spoke of how much the show meant to him, with its message of acceptance and tolerance.  It was a Love Wins speech, even though we didn’t know to call it that back then.  I am embarrassed to admit that until he made that speech, I’d not thought of the way LGBTQ people are treated as a civil rights issue.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Him having that safe place to be who God made him to be made the world better.  Made ME better.  We all suffer when our brothers and sisters have to hold their breath.  We are all worse off when one of us cannot exhale.

Go out into the world today and be who you are, and make sure there is safe space for everyone else to breathe, too.

In Requiem

Edward Sotomayor Jr. was 34

Stanley Almodovar III was 23

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo was 20

Juan Ramon Guerrero was 22

Eric Ivan Ortiz Rivera was 36

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz was 22

Luis S. Vielma was 22

Kimberly Morris was 37

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice was 30

Darryl Roman Burt II was 29

Deonka Deidra Drayton was 32

Alejandro Barrios Martinez was 21

Anthony Luis Laureano Disla was 25

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez was 35

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez was 50

Amanda Alvear was 25

Martin Benitez Torres was 33

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon was 37

Mercedez Marisol Flores was 26

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado was 35

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez was 25

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez was 31

Oscar A Aracena-Montero was 26

Enrique L. Rios, Jr. was 25

Javier Jorge-Reyes was 40

Miguel Angel Honorato was 30

Joey Rayon Paniagua was 32

Jason Benjamin Josaphat was 19

Cory James Connell was 21

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez was 37

Luis Daniel Conde was 39

Shane Evan Tomlinson was 33

Juan Chavez Martinez was 25

Jerald Arthur Wright was 31

Leroy Valentin Fernandez was 25

Tevin Eugene Crosby was 25

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega was 24

Jean C. Nives Rodriguez was 27

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala was 33

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool was 49

Yilmary Rodriguez Sulivan was 24

Christopher Andrew Leinonen was 32

Angel Luis Candelario-Padro was 28

Frank Hernandez was 27

Paul Terrell Henry was 41

Antonio Davon Brown was 29

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz was 24

Akyra Monet Murray was 18

Say their names out loud today, like a prayer.

Sentences

“You keep using that word.

I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The Princess Bride

justice

There was an article in The New York Times recently about Virginia Woolf.  Her half-brothers sexually abused her, and part of the article dealt with the use of the word survivor to describe people who’ve been victims of sexual abuse or sexual assault.  It said of the term survivor,

“what once felt radical has blossomed into a rhetoric of almost mandatory heroism.”

I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

I’m a writer, so I’m fascinated by the words we use and the way we say things.  I choose my words and my phrasing very carefully. That means I also have strong (ahem) opinions on the words and phrasing of other people.

Mary and I went back and forth about what to name our organization.  We finally settled on Say It, Survivor (which was Mary’s brilliant suggestion) because it embodied empowerment, reclaiming our stories, and the acronym -SIS- made me inordinately happy.

And also because we DID.  We did survive.

I didn’t use the word survivor to describe myself until a little over a year ago, long after it became the popular turn of phrase.  The reason?  The jury was still out.  I wasn’t entirely sure I would survive my abuse, even though it was over three decades ago.

sur·vi·vor
sərˈvīvər/
noun
a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.

We use the word survivor because not everybody does.  Not everybody survives.

In the past couple of days, there has been a lot of talk about rape culture, survivors, consent and privilege.  In the wake of the Brock Turner verdict there is outrage, and understandably so.  Then, of course, in response to that outrage, in reply to those demands for change, there has been pushback.

I had a guy on Twitter last night respond to a tweet I sent regarding Ann Voskamp’s beautiful post about raising boys.  I pointed out that we are not APART from rape culture, we are a PART OF IT.  All of us, to varying degrees.  The gentleman came back with, “define rape culture please. Sounds like a leftist feminist phrase.”

Bless.

After I stopped laughing, and after I typed and deleted several seriously snarky tweets, I simply responded with the definition- that it is the ways in which society blames victims of sexual assault and normalizes sexual violence.

Because that’s what it means.  Words and expressions have meanings, and there are a few that have been trotted out a fair bit the past couple of days that have me fired up.  The thing that so unsettles me is that they are being used, for the most part, by really well-intentioned people.

I have an issue with the term consensual sex.  Why, you ask?  Because by stipulating sex is consensual you imply there is another kind.  There isn’t.  Sex and rape are not the same thing.  Not even close.

It’s like saying applying for a loan to buy a house is a ‘consensual’ mortgage to distinguish it from guys storming into the local bank and waving uzis under the teller’s nose demanding she empty the safe into a bag.  Except for consent they’re exactly the same thing, right?  They both involve large quantities of cash leaving the bank into someone else’s possession, right?  Same/same.  Except, NO.  They AREN’T.

Why don’t bank robbers just walk in the front door, faces exposed, unarmed and apply for a loan?  Why does anyone ever get shot in a robbery anymore- tellers are trained to hand over the money.  They could just SAY they had a gun or a bomb, in all likelihood the bank employees would comply.  Why the stealing and the hiding and the terrorizing?

Because the TAKING is the POINT.  The TERROR is the POINT.

Sex is a union between two people, both of whom consent and benefit.

We are missing the point with the way we’re talking about consent.  Consent is not even an option in rape, because the lack of consent?  In most cases, it’s the POINT.  The lack of consent is the point of rape.

It’s not as though, “Gee, but for the fact that she didn’t (COULDN’T) give consent they’d have been having some lovely sex.  Behind a dumpster.  In public.”  That ignores the fact that the primary motivation for rapists is violence, control and domination.  Consent is not only not a factor, it’s a deal breaker.

And another thing.

I read an article yesterday that was mostly quite good.  It covered the verdict and the reaction to it.  In what was undoubtedly an attempt to draw attention to the ghastly inadequacy of the half year sentence, it basically said ‘he got six months and she got a life sentence.’

Now, I’m a writer.  I understand the WHY.  It’s a nifty little turn of phrase, playing off the verdict, intended to underscore both the severity of the impact on her and the joke of a sentence he received.

I also read two articles that said in no uncertain terms that her life was “ruined.”  I think I may have actually gasped when I read that.

Please, for the love of all that is holy, stop.  Do not say those things.

When you are in the aftermath of sexual assault, when you are newly traumatized, it feels relentless and never-ending. You can’t conceive of a time when you will move through a day not startling at loud noises or waking up in a panic.  It’s inconceivable you might fall in love again one day.  That you might not view your body as a crime scene.  That you won’t relive your trauma, in real time, over and over on a loop.

Declaring that this young woman, this incredible, resilient young woman, has been handed a life sentence is akin to saying:

“The way you feel right now? It’s forever. This pain? Forever. This shame? Forever. This fear? Forever. This anger? Forever. You are damaged goods. Forever. Sleepless nights? Forever. These triggers? Forever. Flashbacks? Forever.”

When you are still in the direct aftermath you cannot conceive of ever healing or moving past what has been done to you, and well-intentioned but HARMFUL statements like I’ve been reading all day feed into that notion.

Saying her life is ruined gives her rapist the final say over her life.  He does not get that, and NEITHER DO WE.  When we tell her this is a life sentence- WE are attaching shame to her experience and that means WE ARE RAPE CULTURE.

To that brave young woman, I would like to say this:

This is not your life.  This is your life right now.  And it is so hard.  I know.  It’ll be hard for a while- but you are a survivor.  We already know this about you.

You can heal after rape. You can reclaim your story. You can have a good life and be loved. You CAN. It does NOT have to be a life sentence.  Your rapist does not get to decide that for you, and neither do we.

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