An Opening, A Turn

Humiliating experiences.
Continual verbal harassment.
Sustained discrimination.
Social exclusion.
Intentional cruelty.
Chronic, ongoing fear and anxiety.
Perception of being trapped.
Feeling powerless to stop an attack.
Repetition of the above.

These are some of the causes of trauma.

Trauma, in the emotional or psychological sense, refers to “experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless” (Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice). According to the nonprofit mental health resource HelpGuide.org,

Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.

The DSM, in its discussion of post traumatic stress syndrome, indicates that while this condition is typically thought of as resulting from one major event, an experience of violence or extreme horror, PTSD can also come about from an “accumulation of many small, individually non-life-threatening incidents.” Bullying is one scenario that is noted as a potential cause of what’s referred to as “complex PTSD” (Psychology Today).

What are some of the lasting effects of traumas of this nature – the subtle (or not subtle) forms of non-physical violence that, repeated over time, deeply wound the mind, the heart, the spirit?

Severe depression.
Sadness.
Hopelessness.
Guilt. Shame. Self blame.
Feelings of disconnection from other people.
Social withdrawal.
Shock. Denial. Disbelief.
Edginess. Agitation. Anger.
Avoidance of things, people, places, activities, etc., that remind one of the trauma.
Emotional numbness, coldness, frigidity.
Difficulty in forming close, lasting relationships.
Difficulty in accessing one’s capacity for sexual pleasure.
Abuse of drugs or alcohol.

I mean.

I read all this stuff, and it is my story. Every word of it is me.

I read it and I feel relief. This is what happened to me. I didn’t make it up.

And then I read it again and another voice inside of me says: Hush. This doesn’t mean anything. This happens to everyone. Who are you kidding? You’re not a trauma survivor. You’re an ordinary person living a relatively privileged life. Trauma is rape, war, having your house burn down. Bullying isn’t trauma. … Well, maybe for some people. But not in your case. You were just a kid in school and that’s what being a kid in school is like. Sucky. Now close that door, shut your mouth and walk away.

I have a Ph.D. in American Studies. My specialization is minority literatures. I used to teach about privilege and oppression in college classrooms. I shared classic works by brilliant artists with students who were adult, educated, intelligent, and in some cases, quite worldly. And it was always this: When a writer described experiences of oppression related to their membership in a group targeted for discrimination due to their race, ethnicity, nationality, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or anything at all, the students cried out, “They’re so angry. All they can talk about is how they’re a victim. The mean old world did this, that, and the other bad thing to me, my family, my great grandparents, my group. OK, well, bad things happen to everyone. Get over it. Nobody wants to hear that shit.” The contempt, the revulsion, was congealed in and dripping from their voices, their faces, their written responses. Nobody wants to fucking hear it. OK. Point made.

It can be awfully hard for someone who experiences privilege in a certain area of life to understand that some of the things that helped put them in the position they enjoy, occurred at the expense of other people, people they’ve never met, people who may live somewhere else in the world or who may be dead now. That it’s not simply a matter of the lucky-blessed-by-fate and the neutral. Privilege means you got yours BECAUSE something was taken away from someone else. Specifically. And in my experience, just about no one wants to have that kind of responsibility put on them. Especially folks who are privileged on one axis – but oppressed on another.

I’m a fat, lesbian recovering alcoholic whose family background is working class (and back before that, just plain poor). With plenty of serious mental health issues in all the branches of the family tree.

You think I want to say anything that’s going to make someone call me a whiner, a victim, a blamer-of-society-for-my-problems? Fuck no.

And on social media. And among my friends. I don’t want a reputation for focusing on the negative. I certainly don’t want to come across as feeling wronged, limited, or damaged by what I see others as having supposedly done to me. People don’t like people like that – at least people I know don’t.

But yet.

There are these experiences. That shaped who I am. And the way that they shaped me was in the form of trauma.

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a pioneer in the field of trauma treatment, said, “I think trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival” (On Being interview).

I don’t want to talk about my trauma as something bad that happened to me, some outside force that stunted my chances for a health and happiness. I want to talk about it as a gift my soul gave me, a core set of lessons in the curriculum of my life, something written into the plan for my earthly journey before I incarnated into this lifetime, one of the cards in the hand I dealt myself before birth – in consultation with the Divine, with my guardian angels, with the highest wisdom and guidance available to my spiritual self.

I want to talk about it as something that really happened.

I want to begin to integrate it. So that I can move on.

Dr. Van der Kolk says that trauma is different from other difficult experiences (even the very most difficult ones of all) in that trauma exceeds a person’s ability to process what’s happening, to cope with the emotions, to sustain a sense of safety and fundamental okayness. This effect is compounded when the social or family environment surrounding the traumatic incident(s) does not allow the person to feel what they feel, does not accept the reality that the person is trying to express, essentially, does not surround the person with love, comfort, compassion, care, and reassurance that they deserve to have healing.

In these situations, a person cannot then integrate the traumatic experience as just another story, even if a painful one, in their self-history. The person can’t create such a story because there is no acceptance for it, neither internally nor externally. The person cannot, then, deal with the consequences of what happened, whatever those consequences may be.

The unintegrated experience remains in the body. In the tissues. In the cells. It is a felt memory, one that a person doesn’t so much recall as relive. The words to describe the experience don’t actually exist – even if the experience itself could theoretically be told about in the most mundane of terms. “He called me this name. Over and over. Everyone else joined in. Nobody would talk to me. It lasted for ten years.”

A few years ago, everyone was talking about bullying all the time, especially in queer activist circles. A lot of attention was being given to kids, especially queer ones, who committed suicide after being bullied. The whole “It Gets Better” campaign was started by Dan Savage, and it became viral. People started to talk about bullying, to take it seriously.

I could not participate in those conversations.

I couldn’t talk about my experiences of having been bullied. I couldn’t talk about other people being bullied, because that might lead to my having to talk about me being bullied.

Being bullied. Being bullied. Being bullied. I am saying it a bunch of times right now because the phrase has such a charge for me, because it scares me so much. And for some reason all of a sudden today, I am ready to, I NEED to, face it.

I shut the door tight on that period of my life. I can talk about my struggles around self love, I can talk about almost killing myself with alcohol, I can talk about depression and economic exploitation and all this other stuff, I can go on and on, I have a lot of passion for sharing these experiences that I’ve had in the hopes that what I have learned through those challenges may be of some help to someone else somewhere. But I can’t talk about being bullied because I am still so ashamed.

When someone else comes out about their experiences being bullied, I think they are brave – and that their sharing their stories helps make the world a better place.

When I imagine myself talking about being bullied, I feel exposed. I am too embarrassed to even go there. I imagine it must seem so terribly predictable, so cliché, so obvious. I tell myself that of course I was responsible for how people treated me; I was too shy, too weird, too unskillful in my social interactions, yes, too unattractive. I deserved it. Deep down, well, maybe not so deep down, I believe that I deserved it, I brought it on myself. In retrospect I think I could have done any number of things differently and my life in school would have been different. If I had known better. If I had tried harder. If I had forced myself to not be so … strange. So fucked up. Such an ass. So goody-goody. So difficult to like.

I don’t get to talk about being bullied. Because I deserved to be bullied. That’s how I felt when the conversation came up. How I still feel. That’s why I couldn’t say anything – why I wanted to run away when people started talking about this. All this shame would well up from the pit of my stomach and I would have to swallow it down and it just made me feel like puking.

Then today. At work. I read a blog post by someone who was coming out of the closet and asking her readers what it was that they were afraid to share about themselves. And I read this post on my friend’s blog, talking about witnessing others being outcast at school. And then I was editing an essay by someone else about the culture of weight hate. And then I was re-reading this other article on our company website about trauma and weight gain. And all these texts were crossing my path talking about what the body does to try to meet our needs for emotional healing when our minds aren’t actually able to deal with our traumas.

And somehow it all came together and I just wondered what energy would be freed up if I was able to actually look this trauma right in the eye and say:

Yes.

I was severely bullied throughout elementary, middle and high school.

Whole classes called me names, loudly discussed my ugliness, threw things at me, excluded me from group projects so that I had to make up my own solo assignments in order to pass.

I hated my existence.

Going to school was a torment. Any time I achieved an honor – such as being selected for the senior show choir – my actual life got worse, as these groups were full of people who missed no opportunity to mock and degrade me.

As is so often the case, telling adults only made things worse, because they belittled my emotional responses and accused me of tattling.

I was a child. I did nothing to deserve the cruelty that surrounded me.

I was suicidally depressed.

Long after I graduated and went on to become a successful adult, I pictured myself jumping off of bridges.

I tried to eradicate myself by drinking.

Luckily, I failed at that.

And here I am. I grew up fine. I have a life that I love, a sweet job, a wonderful home in an awesome city with my beloved partner and my beloved roommate, creative passions, dreams, goals, purpose, service, positions of leadership, a spiritual path. Many friends. Abundant, nourishing community. I’m utterly surrounded by love and support today. There is just about zero bullying in my life, and what bullying does show up is not personal towards me, but simply the outflowing of someone else’s fear.

And I have this trunk in the basement of my psyche that is tightly locked. I stand on the lid so that it stays down, so that I most of the time never even notice that it is there.

But it moves.

It shakes. It vibrates. It is full, full, burstingly full of energy.

I think the energy has actually grown over time.

I think that if I don’t open it, if I don’t look at the contents and see what is in there, I think it might, one day, explode.

So this is me – stepping down off the trunk, pulling out the key that I’d forgotten was there on a chain around my neck all along, putting it in the lock and

turning

turning

turning

to face whatever comes out.

  

Day 18: Interlude of Gratitude 

I just want to take time today to say thank you to all of the people who have been so nice to me throughout this project! You’ve been so incredibly kind, and thoughtful, and supportive. I feel totally held in love as I do this project, which is so amazing to me. Thank you, and thank you for letting me know that you’ve seen this and been interested. The sweet messages and encouraging words and good vibes have really kept me going when I was second-guessing myself. 

I have to say that many apologies have crossed my mind since Day One, but I made up my mind at the outset not to give in to the urge to apologize. I felt very embarrassed foisting my bare belly on the unsuspecting public (of Facebook especially–people I may have to actually see!!) and like I needed to say I was sorry. I decided, though, that constant apologizing is one of the habits of self-judgment and self-consciousness that I wanted to practice breaking. I understand if anyone doesn’t want to look at this–and I respectfully invite them to not look. 

On the other hand, I feel like if any one person out there may have been helped by this blog, or may stumble upon it in the future and find that it says something that helps them, I’ll be pleased beyond measure. And from what people around me have said, I think that’s possible. 

Ultimately, though, it does have to be for me. Reflecting on my belly in a public venue with words and pictures–it seems a little crazy to me–but also like there’s some magick in it, some alchemy. Being out on a limb is a very spacious feeling. Anything can happen. 

What strikes me again is how powerful it is to be confronted with myself in these photos. Sometimes I really recoil, I’ll be honest. I don’t associate this face, this body, with beauty. I wonder, “what’s wrong with me?” And I put it out there anyway, because what I need to resist is the impulse to hide myself from myself, to be in a state of denial, to make my body into a frightening and demonized specter by pushing away from my consciousness something that is so integral to my being as my physical body. Just forcing myself to look shatters my long-held belief that I couldn’t bear to look. I CAN bear it, and I need to, for the sake of my happiness and peace. 

  

This is me laying down in a bunch of flowers that I just couldn’t resist. I wanted to press myself against the ground. Once I was down there in the dirt I could feel my energy being purified by the earth and the leaves. My stomach looks like a yeasty loaf of white bread, but you can see I’m smiling; in fact, I can’t stop. 

It reminds me of Whitman on more than one level:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself, 
And what I assume you shall assume, 
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. 

I loafe and invite my soul, 
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.


Being in the grass restores me. So does facing my fears. And so does the love of my friends. 

Thank you, thank you, and Blessed Be!

Day 12: Love Belly

Love belly

I talked in my post yesterday about doing scary stuff and how it’s good for me because it helps me to do other scary stuff. I do often push myself to go outside my comfort zone for that reason, so in some ways I’m used to myself doing that, if that makes sense. I sometimes don’t actually even recognize what I’m doing as scary. I have a really high (some may say unreasonably so) standard for what I SHOULD be able to do, and as long as I’m within that “should zone,” I can’t even begin to see myself as courageous.  It’s like, if I did it, it can’t have been that hard, right? 

There gets to be almost like a layer of denial between my thoughts and my feelings about what I am doing. 

Head says: That was obviously no big deal. Even YOU did it. 

Heart says: Wait a minute, hey, that was really hard! And I don’t know how I feel about it! I probably need a hug now!

Head says: Shut up, Heart. You’re wrong. It was too easy. Now go back to the drawing board and figure out something REALLY scary to do.

Heart says: Oh … Okay … … …

But I guess my post yesterday actually was scary enough to make my heart’s needs crack through that force field of repression, and all the challenging stuff I have been doing lately finally caught up with me emotionally. A little while after I posted it, I realized I just wanted to go curl up in my bed and cry. 

It wasn’t like anything bad had happened — I’ve gotten nothing but love back about this blog series. And I’m so grateful! But I think the anxiety and fear and vivid memories of past rejections and hurts that I have been stirring up from the depths of my heart by taking these pictures and sharing these words just got agitated enough so that they had to spill over into my consciousness … and then, apparently, out from my eyeballs. 

And thank God it did, too! Otherwise I might never have realized that I needed to give myself some TLC! I had a good old cry and I held myself in love and appreciation for the fears I’ve faced. And I felt so much better — all clean and shining again. 

I didn’t know what I was going to do for today’s picture until I was at my usual Wednesday night activity, that is, gospel choir practice. I noticed that without thinking about it, I was singing with my hands on my belly; that I was just lightly and tenderly holding it. And then it came to me that I needed to make that love conscious, I needed to let myself be in that self loving space for a little while. It’s certainly been rare enough for me over the course of my life — but this project is about changing that old habit of putting myself down. 

When I started this series, I was afraid to have my face in the pictures. I was like, ok, I’m forcing myself to look at my belly — looking at my face too is just more than I can handle! But as I’ve worked on accepting my belly as it is, by default I’ve also become a smidgen more comfortable with my face as it is. So here’s the full version of the photo above:

Belly with face

And because I know you want to see what awesome art is hanging behind me in the Wesley Fellowship bathroom:

Look how the light bulb makes that amazing crescent moon!

In the words of one of our choir songs:

We let the love wash over us,
We let, we let it be.   

Day 3: Dark Night of the Belly 

Now that I have done this multiple times — now that it’s moved from being a crazy idea in my head to being a crazy idea in my blog — the rush of the plunge fades a bit and I realize what icy waters I’ve jumped into …

And so thoughts about the belly follow. 

I’m so used to keeping it covered up. Not just covered, but the fabric has to hang in a certain way, or one of a few acceptable ways. Certainly no skin can show, either in the front or in the back — weirdly, I actually love being naked and am not particularly embarrassed about being totally nude in public, but having a line of belly skin shining out between the hem of my shirt and the waist of my jeans would be horrifying! 

What I am realizing is how much I keep it hidden from my own sight. I only look at it from some angles and in some moods. Not very often. When it sneaks into my field of vision and surprises me, I recoil. When someone else posts a photo of me with my belly looking compromising, I panic. I don’t like to be confronted with my belly because I don’t know what to make of it. 

And then for some reason I decided to do this 30 day project, and on day 2 I realized: Oh. Wow. This is going to make me look at my belly. And see it. 

Is it needless to say that this stirs some wicked discomfort? 

Well, I guess that’s the point, or one point anyway. Can’t hide. Gotta look at it. I can’t love it if I don’t know it. And I can’t know it if I can’t get past my own judgment and fear.

Here’s a picture of my belly at night: 



Belly at night

Belly at night



Right Brain Friday

This semester, I’m finally availing myself of my tuition benefit and taking a class at the community college where I teach.  I’m taking Drawing 101.  I’m taking this class because I want to write a graphic-novel-style memoir (what I would call “panel-form,” because you know how I feel about the term “graphic novel” being used to describe all kinds of things that aren’t fiction), and although I have a lot of ideas and even a sort of beginning of an outline, I was not feeling like my drawing skills were up to snuff.  So even though I have a million other things going on (like reapplying for my job, which ends after this year, and teaching my own five classes), I decided to plunge in and become a student again.  And man, is it messing with my brain — in the best possible way!

I am actually learning how to draw.  But taking this class is giving me so many other benefits that I would never have dreamed of.  One of the biggest is that it’s putting me back in beginner’s mind.  I really entered this class knowing nothing about actual drawing techniques; I had blundered my way through a few cartoons that came out reasonably ok after hours of frustrated sketching, erasing, and redoing.  Occasionally I would intuit my way to a particular shape or curved line that suggested what I wanted to convey, but I knew I was never going to get through a major project in this way (at least not in anything less than twenty years, by which time graphic novels and their nonfiction genre counterparts will probably be obsolete and everyone will be on to a new way of making literature that I will also not know how to do).  The point is, even though I had produced the odd successful drawing in the recent past, when I showed up on the first day of this class my ego thudded up against the truth that I know nothing about how this is done.

For the first two sessions, I felt almost paralyzed!  The anxiety I felt about doing something that I had no idea how to do, and then having to submit the results to critique by the whole class, just stopped me from getting going at all.  The first time I had to actually draw something — in this case, a sculpture of a head — I worked for a couple of hours (the studio part of the class is actually a six-hour Friday night session, from 3:15 to 9:15 pm) and then got what I called “stuck.”  It wasn’t that I didn’t have the energy to keep going, as I explained to the instructor (who had said he wanted us to gradually build up our stamina for longer and longer drawing sessions); it was that I felt that I had reached the end of my ability to make it any better.

So I took a break.  I wandered around the room, went up to my office and had a snack, then went back down to the basement, where the art department is.  I picked up my eraser and erased a bunch of stuff and started doing it over.  And when I put the new lines on the paper, they looked a little bit more like the thing I was trying to recreate.  Not exactly like it, but more like it.  And when, half an hour or so later, the instructor called it a night, I could have kept on going for at least another hour, erasing and redrawing and erasing and redrawing and erasing and … you know.

What did this feel like?  It felt like Wow!!!  I could practically feel the neurons in the right side of my brain waking up and stretching, and waving to each other across the gaps of disuse.  It felt like sparklers in the middle of a deep, warm, humid, Midwestern summer night.  Something clicked together with something else and the result was a release of energy.  I felt like going for a run; I felt like solving a problem; I felt like laughing out loud.  Yeah!!!

The recommended textbook for this class is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.  In this book, the author makes the argument that the unrelenting stripping away of all arts programs from American public schools is not just a loss for those who are interested in, or who have “natural talent” for, those subjects; nor is it simply a setback to the general humanities approach to a well-rounded education.  The lack of arts instruction, she asserts, constitutes a truly tragic deficiency for ALL students, because nothing remains in the curriculum (besides what insistent individual teachers sneak in, against the will of test-score-driven policymakers and administrators) to develop and train the right brain, which is the source of creative thinking.  And it is creative thinking, right brain thinking, that is utterly fundamental to the putting of science, technology, and mathematics to use to actually explore the world, solve stubborn problems, and innovate new designs for the future.  I can’t put it strongly enough: I am all for STEM; STEM is awesome; science and math are both fun and vitally important.  BUT IN THE REAL WORLD, SCIENCE, MATH, AND ENGINEERING ARE CREATIVE FIELDS.  

Art is not a luxury.  Art is what makes science GO.

(steps down from soapbox)

Anyway.  Today I attended a five-hour professional development session on using the web-based digital movie program wevideo in the composition classroom.  In the workshop, I recorded a poem I had written; I selected photos (some I had taken and some stock images) that expressed the essence of the poem; I combined the text and the images with sound and visual effects.  (Even though I still think of it as a draft, I’ll let you see it: here.)  As soon as the workshop was done, I raced across campus and downstairs for drawing class.  I knew that today we’d be doing something new again, something that scared me: adding imagined elements into a real scene.

Now, when I had heard what the topic would be at the end of last week’s class, it was as though every imaginative idea was erased from my brain.  My mind became as a blank whiteboard.  All week long I thought about today’s class with trepidation, like, “What the H. am I going to draw from my imagination?????”  Even though I had signed up for this class because there were so many ideas in my imagination that I wanted to learn to bring out onto the page, when actually asked to consider this possibility, I became as the proverbial deer, you know where.  By this morning I had come up with something cute-ish, something I could do if I couldn’t think of anything better, but it wasn’t anything that came close to expressing my real passion, the passion that brought me to the class in the first place.

But after the five hours of video editing (in that class, I worked feverishly through the lunch break to capture as many of my ideas as I could, and again could have kept going long after the ending time — hence my comment above about it being an unfinished draft), when I went and stood in front of the easel, I actually saw something in the cavernous empty room that I was drawing — something that came from my heart.  And when, a few hours (not enough) later, the instructor called us all in, and I pleaded for five more minutes, I had produced the first thing that I actually liked so far this semester (this is week five).  And after the critique session, after we were all kicked out of the art room, I came up to my office and kept working on the drawing, filling in just a few more details from my memory, and a few others from my imagination.

And then I turned to my computer and wrote a blog post for the first time in months.  Because if on the first day, those long-hibernating neurons felt like sparklers when they woke up, today it feels like the freaking Fourth of July in the right hemisphere of my brain.  I guess the more I use it, the more there is to use.  And I feel like a million bucks.  And I can’t describe it any better than that.

face

room

Some Thoughts Can’t Be Expressed As Statements

Remember watching The L-Word?  Maybe we were less picky about our entertainment back then.  Anyway, there was one point in the show where Bette, going through a personal crisis, took up meditation.  She wasn’t entirely unconvincing.  At the peak of this period she went on a week-long silent retreat at a gorgeous, swanky retreat center in the Pacific Northwest.  Man, it looked nice up there.  But it turned out that much silence was not what Bette really craved.  The episode ended like a dam breaking as she poured out her pent-up words into someone’s voice mail: “I want, I want, I want…”

This scene, and this line, have stayed with me.  I sometimes find myself thinking those words, in that same heart-filled voice, without really being able to finish the sentences.  Sometimes it seems as though what I want doesn’t exist yet, so how could I know what it is called?

And then there are the things too painful to name, or at least to call them by the words everyone else uses.  The real names of these things, maybe, are silent; these other words only code, because the real names, when spoken, are unbearably sad.

Sometimes all I can bring myself to do is ask questions, and let the many possible answers hang unvocalized in the air like invisible memorials.

Here are some questions that I would like to offer:

Who owns a neighborhood, who owns the streets?  Who has authority to say who belongs there and who does not?

Why is a life of so little value that people are allowed to act with lethal force toward anyone who scares them?

Why have we created a climate in which violence is so quickly reached for in every uncomfortable situation?  Is there any way we can uncreate it?

Why are alternative solutions suppressed?  Why do we stand for it?

When will our nation encourage people to take responsibility for the hurt they cause, purposely or inadvertently?  When will our nation lead by example?

Would different standards have been applied if the one who died had been a white teenager?  Can anyone ever be honest about this?

What if those deciders had observed their own reactions and sincerely asked themselves, why does a policeman “just sound more convincing” to them?

Will our collective inclination to be generous and compassionate toward one another ever overcome our collective defensiveness?

How can anyone say the gun did this?

How can anyone say race is not involved?

Does it mean I support the US criminal justice system as it now exists if I wish that some punishment had been assigned to this person who survived the fight?  Even though I know in my heart that jail causes far more damage than it heals?

What’s a better way?

What can we do?

What can I do?

Let me be explicit here that while a certain “case” (if that’s really what we want to call it) has been in the news so much that even I have heard of it, and while I am truly saddened by the end of this particular story, this “case” is an EXAMPLE of one localized outcome of the values of violence-before-compassionate-action that permeate American society, and that’s why I feel sorrow for our country as a whole.  Other outcomes are other young people’s deaths, within the borders of the US and around the world.  That’s why I have chosen not to mention any names in this post, even though I hope it’s clear what national conversation has inspired these reflections.  I don’t know the specific people involved and I would hate for any of them to feel that I used their names for personal gain or publicity.  But I do recognize patterns.  And on occasion, throughout our history, certain other murders that were widely covered by the press (to the exclusion of thousands of similar stories; why those few get chosen, I don’t know) have served as motivators for change, as instigators for discussion, as alarm clocks for consciences.

When my own words can’t be found, songs sung in other languages can be comforting.  In the ardor of the singer’s expression, I can imagine whatever grief I’m feeling coming out in the music, too.

I remember listening to this African music show called Motherland Jam on KOPN, the community radio station in Columbia.  The host began each installment with “Shosholoza,” a South African folk song.  I always loved the sounds and melody of this song, even before I knew what it was about.  In fact it’s a song about working in the mines.  It came on my MP3 player while I was writing this, and it felt like medicine to my heart.  According to Wikipedia, it was sung traditionally sung call-and-response style by all-male groups in the Ndebele language to “express the hardship [and] heartache” of that deep, dark, dirty work underground and in camps, separated from families, abused by bosses.  The word “Shosholoza … means go forward or make way for the next man … It is used as a term of encouragement and hope for the workers as a sign of solidarity.”  The article continues, “In contemporary times, its meaning is to show support for any struggle.”

The lyrics alchemize the trials endured by the miners into poetry:

Shosholoza

Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume South Africa

Shosholoza

Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume South Africa

Wen’ uyabaleka

Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume Rhodesia

Go forward

Go forward

on those mountains

train to South africa

Go forward

Go forward

You are running away

You are running away

on those mountains

train from Zimbabwe

So if I may place one thing on the altar of the memory of this one particular almost-man who was killed, and whose death, for whatever reason, allowed America to engage in a conversation, even if the conversation hasn’t yet led to any answers, I would make it this song.

Irish In Recovery

No, I’m not recovering from being Irish, as that title might imply.  I’m not even a “recovering Catholic,” as so many members of my family are – I guess I detached from the mass (so to speak) early enough that it didn’t leave any lasting trauma — just a fond memory of the smell of candles.  But seven years ago, just before St. Patrick’s Day, on a very snowy weekend in Minneapolis, I did give up alcohol for good.

The circumstances that led to this turn did not actually have anything to do with St. Patrick’s Day, though they did have to do with a certain Irish bar on Nicollet Mall and my reckless behavior there and thereafter.  And it did happen to be the beginning of spring break, which was also the week in which I had to write my preliminary exams, based on which I would or would not receive permission to proceed with my dissertation.  That was not a good choice of week for waking up in the hospital, not knowing how I got there, and not feeling (or looking) very good.  Soul searching, meeting going, and eventually essay writing, ensued.  That first SP day, four days after deciding to get sober, was a 24-hour period in which I stood outside myself, unable to touch what I was feeling.

One of the books I read at that time, called How to Quit Drinking Without AA (they had it at my local library in Northeast Minneapolis!), said this, which made a big impression on me: if it’s true what they say, about every cell in the body replacing itself over a period of seven years, then an alcoholic who stays sober will, after seven years, have a body in which not one cell has ever actually had alcohol.  Even though it’s a little cheesy, and biologically misleading, the whole image of a clean cellular slate appealed deeply to me.  Hesitant, as I always am, about any kind of lifetime commitment (somehow tattoos are exempt from this??) I remember thinking, OK, I will make seven years my goal.  At that point, if I make it that long, I can reevaluate the situation.  So seven years was always my big mountaintop in the distance.  And now, as of March 13, I’ve actually reached it, and now here I am hanging out with the view.

I’ve always had little celebrations over the various anniversaries, sometimes a private ritual, sometimes a gift to myself.  This year nothing really came to me in terms of an outward recognition, nothing seemed to appeal; I think I have just been experiencing the moment of attaining that specific goal on a more inward level.  It affects me in ways that don’t really express themselves in words.  I didn’t feel drawn to go to any meetings, because I just didn’t feel like conversing about it.  It’s more like an egg of light that I’ve been quietly honoring within myself.  But finally, one thing did occur to me as an appropriate celebration: I decided to do something to explore my relationship to St. Patrick’s Day from this new perspective.

Even though I only have one grandparent who was actually Irish, it was the grandmother after whom I was named.  She and all of her kids, my dad and my seven aunts and uncles, just seemed to embody that heritage to me.  I can’t really say why I was drawn to it, but I felt a heart connection with Irish culture, and it developed into a whole complex of things within my personal identity narrative.  Maybe I just needed something to organize that narrative, and Irishness seemed to do, but I really did love and passionately embrace and receive creative and spiritual and political inspiration and nourishment from a lot of things about Irish culture.  I didn’t go about it half-assedly; I traveled to Ireland twice in college.  As a leftist nerd into history and literature and folk music and drinking until four a.m., I pretty much found something in my interest in all things Irish for every part of my personality to do.

I don’t mean to be cliché about the connection between alcoholism and being Irish.  I’m not the only one in my family who’s encountered this particular challenge.  I know that historically there have been reasons, and those reasons have led to results.  I also know that I purposely adopted a certain stereotype as part of my persona.  I’m not outgoing by nature, and my childhood and school experiences did not equip me with any confidence or self-worth.  Maybe I thought, if I construct this “hardcore” character, a stereotypical drunk girl who’s into Irish stuff, people would mistakenly think they already knew me.  And they might talk to me.  And that would be a miracle.

The whole thing wasn’t insincere, even if it was partially constructed.  I was drawn to Ireland as a creative influence.  I identified politically with the resistance to British rule; I’ve had a long-standing scholarly interest in the meaning of “terrorism” in nationalist struggles.  And I loved going to live Irish music shows in American Irish pubs and rocking out.  I wanted to write ballads too.  And I honestly thought Guinness was the most splendid and tasty and aesthetically pleasing beverage in the world.  And I declared repeatedly that St. Patrick’s Day was my favorite holiday, because it honored all of my favorite things.  And it really was like a punch in the gut, the St. Patrick’s Day that fell four days after my first committed sober day.  I felt disoriented, realizing how deeply into the foundations of my sense of self alcoholism penetrated, or beginning to.  It wasn’t all about St. Patrick’s Day, but St. Patrick’s Day stood in for a lot of stuff.

In the years since then, I’ve mostly avoided this holiday, with that form of ignoring that is still attention.  To me, it was just so much about drinking, even sober events held the association.  But what I’ve been working on in the past year, as I’ve been revisiting the AA approach to serenity, is dropping the fight, dropping the last vestiges of the fight against things I felt uncomfortable around, like my previously-sober partner starting to drink now and then, or like St. Patrick’s Day.  This holiday, though strongly connected with drinking (for me), had also held other meanings that had been important to me.  But I had a suspicion that I needed a new connection to it; I needed to discover whether or not the holiday held any significance to me as the person that I am now, both the same as and different from the person I was seven years ago.

So I thought I’d begin with paganism; I thought maybe there was an ancient Celtic holiday around that spot on the calendar, over which the Christian conquerors had plopped their saint’s day.  And the sources I read said sure – Easter.  But that’s more often linked to the Pagan festival Oestara.  For St. Pat’s, pagans (and patriots) may wear snakes instead of shamrocks, representing those supposedly driven out by the missionary (for “snakes,” read “traditional Irish customs and beliefs”).  Upon reading which, I thought, as some women in my family might have said, oh hell!  I don’t want to adopt a protest instead of a holiday; although I agree with it, that just doesn’t sound like the kind of extra-positive healing energy I was looking for in this celebratory gesture of rebirth!  And call me sentimental, but I just don’t have much of a desire to observe holidays that commemorate colonization, exploitation, and religious oppression.  So I will probably do, as usual, nothing.  But I guess (or I hope) at least it will be a slightly more peaceful, conscious nothing.

In the end, maybe this was what I needed to “reevaluate” on my seven-year anniversary, as I’d told myself I someday would.  I don’t, after all, need to consider whether permanently quitting alcohol was the right decision for me.  It definitely was.  Even after seven years, the horror and the fear of experiencing another night like that last night is remarkably fresh and real to me.  On the other hand, I still don’t feel totally at peace with my relationship to alcohol in the culture that surrounds me.  My main reason for not drinking is still “I don’t want to die,” and somehow that seems to bring the fear and the resistance and the powerlessness right along with it.  I wish I had a more positive reason for this commitment, but when I think about calling it a spiritual pursuit for its own sake, I know I wouldn’t have chosen it if I didn’t have to, and I’m still too afraid of the substance to name abstinence from it a virtue.  And yet, the journey has been nothing if not spiritual.  It’s led to soul-searching and honesty and lessons and transformations that have been valuable to me beyond fathoming.  I am so grateful to have had this source of learning in my life; so let this, and my blessings to all who read it, be my St. Patrick’s Day tribute.

simbolismo triskellion