Pure As the Driven Slush: Heather Corinna's Journal and Diary, Online since 1999

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Monday, July 25th, 2011

(Cross-posted at the Scarleteen blog)

I want to tell you something very personal about me. Not because I want to. I really don’t want to. But I’m going to do it anyway.

It’s one of those things where even though it’s incredibly uncomfortable for me, I feel like sharing despite my discomfort might be able to make a positive difference. And since this has to do with something where I believe others have been making a positive difference in a way I, myself, have not also been able to, it seems the least I can do. I’ve been largely silent around the Slutwalks. There are a few reasons for that, but the biggest one of all is that what inspired them simply struck me much, much to close to home. So, my silence has not been about nonsupport of the walks. In more ways than one, it’s been about my stepping out of the way of them in part based on my own limitations.

If you’re triggered by candid stories about sexual or other forms of assault, this may be triggering for you. I know it still is for me, very much so. Telling this story in this kind of detail remains incredibly difficult for me, despite many years of healing, help with therapy, help and healing found through helping others and a lot of support. It’s not a story I tell often, because even just typing it out or saying it all out loud makes my hands shake and my heart race and turns me into a bit of a mess for a bit of time after I do.

I keep hearing or reading people say things like that no one really gets told the way they were dressed makes them at fault for their assault, despite about a million evidences to the contrary, and knowing far more than one person personally who has had that experience.

Conversely (and oddly enough, sometimes from the same people who say that first thing), I keep reading people stating, despite so much great activism around this lately, that how someone dresses IS what “got them raped.” Or that they were raped because of their sexual history, their economic class, where they live, how they talk, how they do or don’t respond to men, how they identify or present their gender — anything BUT the fact that they were in some kind of proximity to someone who chose to rape them, which is exactly how, and only how, someone winds up being a victim of rape.

A few months ago, I had an apparently politically progressive blogger who would not stop talking to me on Twitter about the “rape outfit” of an 11-year-old girl whose rape case I had linked to. He, without my asking him anything about it personally, expressed he felt she would not have been assaulted had she been dressed differently. He called whatever it was she was wearing a “rape outfit.” Hearing about the fact that I had my own “rape outfit” at 12, or that, when my great-grandmother was raped and murdered in her home at the age of 76, her “rape outfit” was a housecoat, or that the “rape outfit” of young boys sexually abused by priests was often their super-salacious Sunday best; equally not hearing my firm requests to please not keep tweeting me with misogyny which I found deeply upsetting and hurtful seemed to only make him more excited to keep saying what he was. Even reminding him I was a survivor myself didn’t slow him down. Only blocking him worked. I’m quite certain he left the conversation with exactly the same beliefs as when he started it.

These things we read and hear don’t just come from one group of people: some men say them, but so do some women. Social conservatives say them a lot, but progressives say them, too. People who assault people, of course, will often voice things like this or other things to do all they can to avoid responsibility. But even people who have been victimized themselves will sometimes say things like this. Sometimes — and, I’d say, probably most of the time — that’s about internalizing the messages they got. Sometimes it’s about feeling a need to have another victim be at fault for their assault so that they can feel less like they, themselves, were at fault for their assaults, even though no victim is at fault for being victimized. More unfortunately, than I can express, rape culture is one of the most globalized kinds of culture there is.

I keep reading and hearing and seeing people who, so far as I can tell, and intentionally choosing to misrepresent or deny the core issue of what the SlutWalks are about: activism working expressly to try and counter deeply harmful and endangering attitudes expressed about rape and rape victims like those of Constable Michael Sanguinetti, who, in January of this year, speaking on crime prevention at a York University safety forum said, “You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this - however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” (This is why the word “slut” is so prominently featured in this activism, because it is this comment which directly inspired the first walk.)

I wish I had never heard a police officer say anything like that at all. I also wish that if I was going to hear that, it had been the first time I had.

In seeing so much nonsupport for the walks and people who have participated in them, I started to worry that being silent might be interpreted as being nonsupportive, which is the last message I’d want to send. I’m going to talk a little bit about the walks in this blog post and another in another few days, but I want to start by telling you what I’m about to tell you, if for no other reason than to do what I can do in support, because there are things I can’t do yet, things which others can and have.

When I was 12 years old, I was sexually abused for the second time in my life. The first had been a year before, when I was 11. Then, I was molested by an elderly man who cut our hair in the neighborhood. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t even totally sure what had happened to me, nor what to call it. It was 1981, I was 11, and all I knew was whatever it was felt horrible, scared me intensely, and was not okay. But I also got the message that telling anyone about it wasn’t okay, and seemed to feel some message that because it happened to me, it must have meant there was something not okay about me, too. The home environment I was living in enabled these kinds of messages constantly and was itself abusive in other ways, so I did not feel safe at that point saying much of anything, let alone disclosing something like this.

A year later, I was alone cleaning up the art room of the day camp where I was a junior counselor at he end of the day. Because the building was still open, someone was likely at the front deck, but that was very far away, and otherwise, the place was a ghost town. The only reason I was there so late is that I’d often stretch out those days as long as I could in order to avoid having to go home.

I’m going to tell you what I was wearing now.

What I was wearing wouldn’t matter and wouldn’t have mattered, to anyone, in a much better world then I lived in then and we still live in now. But it did matter to someone at the time, in a way that messed me up just as much as my assault itself did. In our cultural context right now, or perhaps in someone else’s view, it would seem clear that what I was wearing had nothing at all to do with my being assaulted. In fact, now, in our cultural context about what is and isn’t “slutty” dress, what I was wearing may be seen as indisputable proof that I did NOT ask for rape or deserve rape, even though nothing anyone wears or doesn’t wear proves or disproves that in actuality, which is clear when people are rubbing more than two hateful brain cells together in their thinking process.

It was summer in Chicago then. It’s hot in summer in Chicago. I was working at a camp, and I also had to bike back and forth, so I needed to be work-appropriate, even at 12, but also able to move around easily and not pass out from the heat. If it had been totally up to me, I’d probably have been wearing less than I was so I was more comfortable on the ride home.

But as it was, I had on gymshoes. I had a fairly loose white t-shirt on with the sleeves carefully rolled up, my typical uniform of the time (because big t-shirts are more cool if you roll up the sleeves, everyone knew that). I had on red chino-eqsque shorts that ended just above my knee. I was an early bloomer physically, so whatever I was wearing, there wasn’t then, as there isn’t now, any hiding that I’m a person with an hourglass shape and curves. Would that there had been: after what happened the year before and having been teased at home about my development, I often tried to hide parts of my body as I could. I probably had on some lip gloss. I had chin-length feathered hair that year, gone blonde from being out in the sun.

A group of much-older teenage boys, probably in their late teens, came into the art room started talking to me, and asked what I was doing there. I told them, then they asked how I got back and forth from the camp to home. I remember that as I said I rode my bike, I’d wished that I could take it back. I could feel a lack of safety in the air right then. I wished I had said someone picked me up. They asked if I wanted a ride. I said no, thank you. They asked a few more times, making a bit of a game of it, but a very pushy game. I said no a few more times then said I had to go get something and ran out.

I went and hid in a bathroom stall down the hall for what felt like hours but which was probably only minutes. I didn’t go to the front desk and try to ask for help. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest was probably that I had already learned in my life that being in danger was normal and that not being helped in being safe was what I could most typically expect from people. I had also learned already that sometimes telling when I was in danger only got me hurt more.

When I came out of the stall, I went to the bike rack to get my bike, planning to speed away as fast as I could and unlocked it in a hurry. But those boys drove up behind me in the van they had, physically attacked me and dragged me away from my bike and into their car. (Typical perhaps of a tween mind, I remember having a hard time later figuring out if I should be more upset I got hurt — assault or rape were not words I had at the time — or more upset that in the midst of all of this, my bike had been stolen because it was left unlocked.)

I have very hazy memories of what happened next, memories I have never fully either formed or recovered, that only show up in mushy, jagged pieces in night terrors I have had about this over the years. I will honestly say I am glad I have only hazy recall of what happened in that van, and that while parts of my body have always made clear they remember, much of my brain never has. A day later, a big, nasty bump welled up on my head, so I’ve always figured I got knocked out, and the rest of my lack of memory can be attributed to shock.

The next thing I remember was finding myself back on the curb near the bike rack, scruffed up, shirt ripped feeling incredibly sore and strangely soggy in places. I went back inside to the bathroom and was bleeding from my rectum. I think I managed to wash my face, but that was all I could manage. I was incredibly confused, disoriented and still scared to death, not knowing if anywhere was safe,if those boys had left, nothing. I went to the pay phone and called my mother, who also called the police before she came over. All I was able to voice was that I was very scared and hurt and needed someone to come to get me now.

I went back outside and sat on the curb in front of the park where a lot of people were, hoping I’d be safe there and that my mother would find me. She arrived about the same time the police did, who I didn’t know had been called. I know I was completely incoherent, and I don’t believe I was able to express anything anyone could understand. I suspect what I said was something to the effect of, “Guys. Said no, no ride. Hid. Came after me. Grabbed. Van. Scared. Hid in bathroom. Woke up on curb. Are they gone? What? Are they gone?” I know, though, however incomprehensible my words, it could not have been missed that I was in shock, nor that I had clearly been attacked in some way. Over the years, I’ve looked for rationale and reason of why I got so poorly served, but I always give up, knowing all too well how very, very many victims of sexual assault have had the same experience, and that it isn’t something with rhyme or reason part how poorly sexual assault is treated in most of the world.

While my memories of my attack are very hazy, my memories of what came next have never been. I’ve often wished they, too, were hazy.

The police and my mother talked for a while before anyone even talked to me or asked how I was at all. I sat shivering on that curb, holding my knees, watching a crowd form around us, people at the park starting to pay more attention, feeling more and more freaked out. My mother came over and asked if I was just scared, if the van was still there. I looked around. It wasn’t. I said no, I thought it was gone, I hoped it was gone, please let it be gone. For whatever reason, she said more than once “So, nothing happened? You just got scared?” and I remember not being sure how to answer that because it felt confusing, and like there was some kind of cue about a right answer hidden in there. Then two of the police stepped over, and talked with my mother again, instead of me, and I heard one of them say, half-looking at me, half-away, that I really shouldn’t be wearing shorts that short because if I did, I could expect to have trouble with boys.

I also know and remember that with those words, I suddenly got a little more clear, the clarity you get from having just felt unsafe, thinking you might be safe, and then all the more acutely recognizing you are not, and determined to say absolutely nothing to them or my mother about anything. I agreed that okay, sure, yeah, I just got scared, I was fine, please just get me home, fine. You’ll just make a note about the van, and I should call you if I see it again fine (and yeah, right). How on earth could I have felt safe saying to any of them in that space that I was bleeding from my rectum and I didn’t know why, something already incredibly vulnerable for me to share in the first place? How on earth could I say that I think what just happened to me was like what had happened the year before that I’d told no one about? So, I didn’t say anything. Not to anyone, not until a handful of years later when ever so slowly, I started telling people, scared to death every time I did.

That I didn’t say anything at the time and for a long time shouldn’t be surprising. It’s about all the same kind of things that keep most survivors from reporting or disclosing.

Here’s the part where I think it’s very, very important that anyone reading anything like this knows three vital things.

These are not opinions. These are facts. I can’t stop you from denying they are truths and facts, but you have to know that if you do, you do so from a place of bias or ignorance because we have all the evidence in the world that they are true. We have not just the story of someone like myself but mountain of stories from survivors like myself and survivors different than me, from sound studies and research and loads of “rape prevention” tips that made so many people feel like they were safer who learned the hard way that those tips didn’t do a damn thing to protect them. All they did was control them, make them feel more scared of living, more distracted by all the things they felt they needed to think about to be safe and then and they just wound up getting hurt anyway.

The only factual part of disputes to what I am about to say is that it is absolutely a fact that we still have a long, long way to go when it comes to the way most of our world and many of the people in it treat rape and those of us who have been assaulted and abused.

1) I was not assaulted because of how I was dressed. Those long red shorts and sneakers were not why I was assaulted. But. The person who was wearing a short skirt and heels when she was assaulted wasn’t assaulted because of how she was dressed, either. Even if I had been wearing something else entirely — like the housecoat my great-grandmother was, a burqua, a nun’s habit, overalls, skinny jeans or business attire; even if I was not a woman with a vulva, but a woman with a penis dressing in the clothing I felt was representative of my gender as a woman, but some of the world disagreed with me, and felt I was cross-dressing, how I was dressed would not have been why I was assaulted, nor would my assault have been prevented had I just dressed differently. That’s not because there is one way to dress that “gets you raped” and one way to dress that doesn’t. That’s because the thing that “gets someone raped” isn’t a thing, it’s a person who chooses to rape you and what you do and don’t wear is something we know does not matter and have loads of hard data that has made that clear fro a long time now. People have been raped wearing everything in the world people can wear, and the vast majority of the time people are raped, they aren’t wearing what those who blame them consider “provocative” clothing in the first place.

The idea or statement that how a victim was dressed had anything to do with their being raped does not reflect the realities of rape and rape perpetration, only the realities of victim blaming and rape culture.

2) My rape was a “real” rape. It was not a “real” rape just because my attackers were strangers to me, because there was physical violence involved, because I was so young and had not yet chosen to have any kind of sex yet outside of furtive kisses and some clueless dry-humping with a girl friend at 10, because I struggled and probably yelled no, because I was a girl, because I managed to be assaulted in ways that now, at this point in time, most people recognize as “real rape.” It was a real rape because people really did something sexual to me without my consent and against my will because they wanted to do it and either didn’t care I didn’t, or wanted to do it because I didn’t want to. That is why my rape is a “real” rape, and is also why someone who is raped by their husband at home after church has experienced a “real” rape; why someone who is out at a party in clubbing gear, drinking cocktails, who says yes to something sexual, but no to something else but whose no is ignored has experienced a “real” rape; why someone who is worn down by verbal coercion and finally gives in to sex they do not want has experienced a “real” rape; why a man who is sexually assaulted, whatever the gender of his perpetrator, has also experienced “real” rape.

Rapes are real in all the ways rape can happen, not just in the ways that some people are most comfortable acknowledging, or the ways which do not challenge people to have to consider that rape culture is not only real, but more pervasive, widespread and more a part of anyone’s life, ongoing relationships, and perhaps even personal behavior than anyone would ever like to have to acknowledge.

3) All I have said here has a whole lot to do with Slutwalks and the aim of slutwalks. All I have said here has a whole lot to do with who gets impacted by the kinds of statements and attitudes the walks aim to call out and challenge, how deeply we can be impacted and how those statements and attitudes not only do not help people protect themselves from being victimized, but how they hurt victims and can even put people in greater danger.

All I have said here is exactly about telling women that if they dress a certain way, like sluts (or hos, or harlots or loose women, or whatever word du jour of similar sentiment fits your era, culture or community) they deserve to be raped or are asking to be assaulted. All I have said here is not some kind of strange exception where the woman involved was treated that way but wasn’t dressed “like a slut,” because all I have said here is a textbook example of the fact that the idea of what “asking for it” is is completely arbitrary except for the part where so incredibly often, the mere fact of having been raped means, to someone, if not a lot of someone’s, that a victim must have been asking for it.

I want to finish today by saying one more thing I think is critically important, and another big part of why I’m sharing what I have with you here, despite it all being so difficult for me to say so visibly.

I didn’t attend any of the Slutwalks. I probably won’t. I’m nearest to Seattle, and had some personal issues with some of ours here that were part of what kept me from it, issues I really think are personal and individual enough not to be relevant or important to anyone but me, especially with the bigger picture in mind. I also have some more political issues, but that’s something I’ll talk about more in my second post about this.

What I want to mention now is the one big thing that kept me from attending any of the walks, and that is a lack of courage and resiliency. I need to acknowledge that I have lacked a level of courage and resiliency around this which some other people who have attended these walks have had, and which I cannot possibly express my great admiration and respect for. When I see photos of them, read their words, think about them — survivors like me, who probably have similar or even the same wounds, but went all the same, some even wearing what they wore when assaulted, I am overcome with awe and humility and gratitude.

I know: I have talked about being a survivor very publicly before. In many ways, I am very strong around this, especially since my most harrowing assaults are hardly fresh: they happened a long time ago, and I’ve had a lot of time to heal. But in some ways, I am not strong around this. In some ways, I am still broken in places that haven’t yet become strong or whole. In some ways, I am not brave around this in ways that others have been or can be — or heck, know they aren’t but are so amazing, they do it anyway.

I thought about attending a walk wearing something as similar as I could find to what I was wearing that day when I was 12. And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I just couldn’t open myself up to even one person, saying or writing in a place I could hear anything at all about the way I was dressed and my assault, whether the statement would be that I deserved to be raped because of what I was wearing, or that I didn’t, but some other woman did. I am just not that strong, mostly because hearing what I did, when I did, how I did wounded me just that deeply, that almost 30 years later, I can’t even put on a damn pair of shorts to wear in public without a meltdown, even though I can easily get naked in front of, well, pretty much anyone, or wear almost anything else I might want to with emotional comfort.

I need to say this twice: there are women who attended Slutwalks who DID wear exactly what they were wearing when they were assaulted; who did wear what someone told them made their rape their fault, despite it undoubtedly being scary and painful, because they recognized how powerful it could be for them and for others.

I had to stop for a few minutes after I typed that again, because the bravery and integrity of that action literally makes me breathless. There are survivors who did what I could not do, cannot do, because they know how important it is, to them, to people like me, to everyone. There are those who did what I could not do, who I firmly believe have done something that might seem small, but which is, I think, major. Something that will make it less and less likely a 12-year-old girl, wearing whatever it is she is wearing, who already has been done the grave injustice of rape, will never, ever hear anyone say that their clothing — that ANYTHING — made being raped their fault.

Any of us can have whatever options or ideas or feelings about this activism that we like. We can disagree about some of it, or the way a given person has or hasn’t executed it, but I just don’t know how it’s possible not to recognize the potential power of what so many people have been part of with these walks, nor to ignore how much participating must have required of some of the speakers and other attendees.

So, if there is anyone out there who organized or attended a walk who interpreted my silence as nonsupport, I hope you know now that it wasn’t. If there is anyone out there who feels worn down or unappreciated by the critiques or the resistance, know there is someone right here whose s/hero you are, in a way that someone who usually has no shortage of words has a hard time even articulating the depth of. If there is anyone out there who was brave in a way I couldn’t be, and who got torn down for it or spoken to in exactly the ways that I feared I would, I can’t tell you how sorry I am that after all the courage you probably had to muster up, anyone around you couldn’t manage to have just a fraction of the integrity and care and inner strength you do.

But know, too, there is someone sitting right here who believes that while you should not have ever had to take yet one more hit around this, I believe that in taking the risk you did, you’ve done something that not only will help make it less likely others have to, but you’ve humbled someone who sometimes arrogantly thought she was as brave around this as someone could be by raising the bar.

(P.S. I ask that you please tread gently in the comments on this, if you’re going to leave one, and in whatever you might say if you’re going to blog about my story at all. Like I said, this is something where I feel incredibly vulnerable. I think it’s safe to say it’s something where anyone would, so I’d hope anyone addressing any candid story from any survivor would be sensitive, cautious and thoughtful. I hate to even have to ask something like that at all, because, you know, we shouldn’t have to. But like all too many survivors, especially those who tell their stories and speak up, and as someone who has been burned before when being visible and vocal about her rapes, I know that we do have to ask, and that even then, sometimes even just asking winds up resulting in harassment. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen this time around, but feel the need to make that ask. Thank you.)

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Anyone who knows me or who knows anything about me usually knows that my pre-teen and teen years were incredibly difficult. I dealt with neglect and abuse in my family, starting from about the time I was 10. I was sexually assaulted twice before I even became a teenager. I was queer. I was suicidal and was a self-injurer. I struggled to find safe shelter sometimes. Few people seemed to notice, even though after I gave up trying to use my words, I still used my eyes to try and tell them constantly. The one adult I could count on over time to be unilaterally supportive of me had (still has) serious mental illness. I had to take more adult responsibility at the end of my teen years than anyone else I knew. Like many adolescents, I constantly heard directly or got indirect messages from adults who talked about how awful teenagers were, how awful I was, how difficult, how impossible, how loathesome. Four days after my sixteenth birthday, the first real-deal big-love-me-lover I had, who treated me with all the care, support and respect I could have asked for, very violently committed suicide, having scars of his own from a lifetime of his own sexual and emotional abuse. Four days after my sixteenth birthday, with just a few days of freedom under my belt, I looked at brain matter spread over a wall from someone I deeply cared about. And that was after things had started getting better. I’m 40 now, and in a whole lot of ways, I felt older at 16 than I feel now. Some days, I am truly gobsmacked that I survived at all, let alone with my heart and mind intact and rich.

A lot of why I survived is about having gotten support. Without it, I’m fairly sure I would not have, because the times I didn’t have it are when I was so perilously close to either taking myself out or just numbing out; to staying alive, but not really being alive.

I can identify a few different lifelines I lucked into. That love affair was a biggie, despite the way it ended. I had a couple of good friends. My father did the best he could, even with contact made limited and his own limitations from his own traumas.I had a couple wonderful teachers who never really talked to me about what I suspect they knew, but who gave me some support and tools to help me value and care for myself. Having and knowing I had creative talents and being supported in those by some of the people around me was a godsend. I had also started seeing a counselor when I was 15, Barb, who was wonderful, sensitive and kind. However, she was so supportive of me, and so vocally nonsupportive of how I was being treated at home — even though I’d only disclosed some of the picture — that my stepparent axed her and wouldn’t allow me to see her anymore. Unbenownst to him, she’d still kept seeing me pro-bono, and continued to do so for another two years.  When my boyfriend died, she slept on the ratty couch in the ratty apartment my dad and I lived in to help get me through the night. She was the first adult to help me even get started on sorting out my sexual assaults, and was completely accepting of the person that I was and wanted to become.

But there was someone else very unexpected who made an incredible difference. I wish I knew his name. If I did, I’d send him a thank you note every day of my life in an envelope full of cupcakes and stars and love and guts; all the best tears of the joy and wonderful agony I’ve found in living and all the best sweat I’ve cultivated in surviving and thriving.

Throughout most of middle school and the start of high school, I was post-traumatic much of the time, holding hard secrets inside myself and deep in abusive dynamics, quite successfully abused and controlled. Not to the satisfaction of the person putting me there mind, because can you ever be controlled enough by someone who wants to control you? But I was mostly just not there: I checked out a whole lot. I sometimes playacted at what seemed like was supposed to be normal life, pantomiming what I observed my peers doing and saying, typing snippets of my own truth between the lines on the old typewriter that hurt my hands to use and which was missing two vowels I had to write in by hand. I often went to bed early so that I could wake up earlier still and leave the house unnoticed for a safe place where I could cry without worry of opening myself up to more abuses and write without fear of discovery.  I’d then sort myself out, walk to school, and arrive with a manufactured calm that allowed me to at least be able to spend my days feeling like, and being treated like, I was living a completely different life.

Somewhere around the time I was 14 or 15, something inside of me spoke the truth of my own circumstances and the way that I felt. I was able to slowly stop internalizing the abuse and neglect, and know it wasn’t about what was wrong with me. That change in my mindset, however small and seedling, and a few other changes started to give me some strength to resist, to try and survive, rather than trying to disappear, hide or check myself out altogether. This change did not go over well in my household, at all. The sad, suicidal, lost kid turning into the rebellious, resilient kid is not a change an abuser appreciates. But for a little while, I remember feeling strong, like I perhaps could go to battle in this, go to battle for myself, and just might be able to win.

But it quickly seemed I was going to get bested, in a really terrible way. My stepparent came up with a “last resort” of many abuses-disguised-as-therapies to deal with me; to have the control he clearly wanted, and the family he wanted, which did not include me. He was apparently going to utilize his counseling connections to get me institutionalized out of state. This threat, coupled with some escalating abuse, sapped my spirit, and made it feel like my idea I could get out of there and survive was a total delusion. It’s always so hard to look back on how I felt then because in hindsight I can see that this person had very little power at all, over me, in the spheres he claimed to, save the power I and my mother gave him.  In my adult eyes, I can see him as the pathetic pretender he was, and see that it was, in fact, my power he was so reactive to. But that’s not how he looked and seemed then. Then, he looked and seemed, particularly with this new plan, like a very potent overlord with the capacity to make my whole life whatever he wanted.

In actuality, his connections were only so good and he still had to work within the system. To make an institutionalization like that happen, an outside counselor needed to recommend it. It was a given that my previous counselor would not make that recommendation. Before I’d started seeing that counselor, though, there was another counselor we’d met with, who I strongly disliked. My stepfather really liked him. I remember thinking he seemed cold, but the fact that my stepfather thought he was awesome was all I needed to know I wanted to stay the hell away from him. I can’t remember how I managed to win the battle to not see that person and see Barb instead, but somehow I swung it.

So, of course, this was the counselor they wanted to try and get that recommendation so I could be sent away, sent away for good, I was told (which was a lie, obviously, but I didn’t know that at the time). I figured I was doomed and defeated. All I saw in the few days before this appointment in the life ahead of me was no windows and no future. I saw myself losing the few good connections I had in the world, to my father, to my few friends, to my plans for my life which I’d only recently felt the desire to even have again, having stopped wanting to die. I saw myself doped up and locked up forever. I snuck out of the house in the middle of the night to say painful goodbyes. My boyfriend and my friends tried to help me come up with any possible out, but I felt so beat down that though I think there were things I could have done to make that happen, I believed in my stepparent’s claimed omnipotence, I had started to believe that I was just nuts and broken, I believed again that I was powerless.

My stepfather, my mother and I drove a long way to see this guy. As ever, I had my giant bag I panhandled with packed with my own version of survival goods (loose change, some clothes, a couple pieces of fruit and bread, my journal, a mix tape or two, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, my teddy bear, eyeliner, sleeping pills, caffeine pills and an ever-present can of Aqua Net, extra-strength) in case I got the opportunity to run. But they seemed pretty prepared for that possibility by that point, and it didn’t seem likely I’d get the chance. To boot, where we were heading was so far outside the city, I had no idea how I’d even get anywhere if I could get away.

I went in to be assessed. I held back a lot, not feeling safe to disclose, especially in a system where my stepparent had made himself seem like Napoleon. But I did disclose some of what was going on with me, some of what was going on in my house, some of how I felt, and certainly how powerless I felt. I voiced feeling my own life was being taken out of my hands, and a hard, tired acceptance of that. In spite of myself, I did share how awful it felt to live in a house where no one liked you, seemed to care about you, or recognized how much pain you were in and how badly you needed help, and how much I wanted to be with people who cared for me and where I could do all I knew I was capable of. Because I was madly in love and loved back in the same way for the first time, I of course couldn’t keep from talking about that, too. I left his office, then, and went into the waiting room, silent and scared to death.

Then he took a turn seeing the two of them. They were in there for a long time: every minute felt like an hour. Then he called me back in again. I went back in. I sat down, awaiting doom. He was quiet, contained, and his face didn’t give anything away. And then he said something like this:

“I talked to you. I talked to your mother and your stepfather. I do think there are mentally unwell people in your family. I do not think you are one of those people. I think it’s amazing you’re doing as well as you are, I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through what you have, and I’m sorry I didn’t see what was going on the first time I saw you. I think if you are unwell or in trouble, it’s not because of who you are or because something is wrong with you, but because you are living in a very unhealthy environment and there is something very wrong with that environment.  I am not going to recommend you be sent to Kentucky. I am going to recommend you live with your father, or in some other placement, because if we want you to be and feel a lot better, it seems to me we need to get you out of that house. I am going to call them back in and tell them this, too, but I wanted to tell you alone first.”

I think I still have a bruise on my thighs from my jaw falling so hard unto them in that moment 25 years ago.

I had so not seen that coming, even though my existing counselor had voiced similar sentiments (which is why I wasn’t supposed to be seeing her). I know and remember that I trusted and valued her words, and felt similarly relieved when she’d said them, but this was something different that had a much bigger impact on me. For starters, this guy had just effectively saved my life when it felt moments away from being a total loss: in some ways literally, since I no doubt would have gone back to trying to off myself in an institution, but it was bigger than that. He’d helped save and secure the possibility of my both having the life that I wanted, outside a lockdown, outside abuse, and helped me save my own sense of self, because I’d heard enough to squelch it that the lines had started to become blurry. I’d started to believe what I was told in abuse, and what I felt in neglect: that I was awful, worthless, ugly, defective, wrong and broken from birth, crazy and would always be all of those things at my very core.

In a string of words that didn’t even take a minute for him to voice, he’d done so much. When my stepfather came back in the room, I got to watch his face twist and then hang defeated when this guy voiced similar words to him, and I got a whole new wave of feeling empowered and brave. For a minute, it seemed like even my mother wasn’t convinced he had all the power anymore. Back in the car, as we drove to a friend’s house of his, I was told, from between gritted teeth, that if I could manage to get myself back to the city alone AND gather whatever of mine I could out of the house AND be gone by the time they got back AND if I accepted that I “should never ask either of them for anything again” (a deal I had to think about for all of a nanosecond, since some of my most basic needs hadn’t been met for years, so I couldn’t figure what exactly it was I would have gotten from them if I did ask) THEN I would be left to live with my father IF he would take me. Long story short, I managed to do it with the one phone call I was allotted, some expertly nimble window-scrambling, a sympathetic taxi driver and a whole lot of courage and confidence that counselor had provided me. If that had been an Olympic sport, I’d probably still hold the world record. That day ended in my father’s apartment, with my Dad on one side of me, my boyfriend on the other, a pizza, and all of us crying and laughing and hugging with relief and joy and gratitude for hours and being able to fall asleep in the company of two people who I knew loved me immensely. It wound up being one of the most happiest nights of my life.

This did not fix everything for me. Six days later, my boyfriend took too many ludes too near his idiot housemate’s loaded rifle. My father and I lived in deep poverty over the next couple years. I still had years (and do still) to work on trauma from all my abuses and assaults, to accept myself, to repair deep wounds that usually feel pretty well healed, but sometimes still feel raw and seeping.But it’s okay. I’m okay. I’m really excellent, when it all comes down to it. It’s kind of a miracle, and no small amount of it has to do with an hour of time and an ounce of compassion someone who didn’t even know me gave.

That guy supported me. He listened, and he trusted my words. He was clear, he was calm, he was centered when I couldn’t be. He gave me information I needed and dismantled misinformation that was hurting me and would continue to hurt me. He validated my feelings. He showed me I had and could find more allies. He watered my strength and courage. He gave me hope. He believed in me and helped me get back to believing in myself. He showed me that however scary disclosing is, you have to risk it sometimes because you have to risk being supported, not just being unsupported. He did something and said things that would make it a million times easier for me to really start talking to other people about what I had been through, would still later go through, what I was feeling and how I needed to be helped. And he was one of the rare and wonderful adults during that time of my life who demonstrated that someone like him, who did for me what he did, even though it may have felt smaller to him than to me, is a vital lifesaver.

The older I get, the more my memories of all of those years get blurrier, but this particular moment is deeply etched. Every time I call it back up, I wind up weeping with a revisited relief and gratitude; not just because he helped save my life, my self, my goddamn soul, but because he modeled something for me that very clearly took root and has allowed me to be able to do something a little like what he did for me for many, many young people who, however different or similar their circumstances, need that now just as bad as I did then.

* * *

Lately, there’s been some growing awareness of, and attention given to, young people who have killed themselves or been killed due to isolation, harassment and other abuse; around or related to gender, sexual orientation, sexual abuse or assault, interpersonal or interfamilial abuse or assault. There are always the omnipresent news stories about kids who shoot other kids, kids who die from overdoses or drunk driving or kill or harm other kids that way. But these stories, however important they are to tell — and they absolutely are — are about when the absolute worst has happened: when some young person simply can’t take living anymore, or decides no one else should; when young people implode or explode. This is already a limited scope, and who knows how long even this level of awareness that young people often have it very hard will last. Unless something in the world has radically changed around young people, and I’m not seeing any evidence that it has, this will likely be a moment in time that passes, as many have before.

What doesn’t often make the news, and what most folks so rarely see, are the young people who have been traumatized, challenged, squashed, mistreated, neglected, dismissed or just have been poorly served who turn it around. They don’t implode or explode, they survive, thrive, endure, inspire. Those who slog on and pull through, even if all they can manage at first is to just get from one day to the next. But I see these young people all the time at Scarleteen, in other work that I do and in other work and environments like this (which sadly remain few and far between). That’s because the young people that pull through tend to because they get some ongoing, reliable and compassionate information, help and support.  That’s because one of the biggest and most important parts of what my work is to be a person that’s there for them to get those things from.

At Scarleteen, we see the young person who comes in making sexual choices that are simply not at all right for them, that they don’t feel good about, don’t like, or where they’re taking risks they don’t need to be or don’t want to be. We see the young person who knows or suspects — and is usually deeply afraid — that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or queer, and/or that they are trans or otherwise gender nonconforming and has no one safe to talk to. We see the young person who’s had an unintended pregnancy, and in all sorts of circumstances; who may need help finding or being supported in abortion, or being supported in pregnancy and parenting, including after they’ve given birth when the folks who were so invested in them making that choice stop giving a damn because them making that “right choice” was all they cared about. We see the young person who’s been sexually assaulted or abused; we see the young person who is currently being abused, who feels trapped in abuse and does not know how to get out. We see the young person who’s only ever had abusive models of relationships and so has no idea that the abuse they’re in is not okay and is not healthy. We see the young person who wants so badly to connect to others, but who just does not know how or who has a disability that makes it even harder for them to connect than it is for abled teens. We see the religiously conservative young person who has so many questions, or has even had something terrible happen to them and isn’t their fault, but who’s gotten the clear message that they can’t bring those questions or needs to their community without being scorned.

We see the young person who grew up with so much shame around their sexuality that the mere fact of its growing existence, whatever it’s like, has them terrified and desperately trying to crush it any way they can. We see the young person whose hatred of their body is so profound they are asking how they can literally cut certain parts off or starve certain parts away. We see the young person who’s being told, endlessly, everywhere they look, how incapable they are. We see the young person so desperate to try and redo their own lousy childhood that they’re trying to get pregnant at 14 in the hopes that creating their own family will give them love they never found and still don’t have. At Scarleteen and every time I do the in-person work via CONNECT (the in-person outreach I do at youth shelters which is now part of Scarleteen) we see young people who have been rejected and cast out by the adults who were supposed to be the ones they could trust and rely upon most, the young person who is, with myself and/or other volunteers and staff, having the very first supportive and caring exchange with an adult they have had in their whole lives. We see the young person whose esteem and self-worth is so low that they simply do not care that their sexual partners are treating them like garbage, or who welcome being treated like garbage because it at least gives them some momentary sense of worth. Some of these young people are in times in their lives like I was in mine. Some of them have different challenges, and some of them are far less or far more challenged than others. Our world as a whole is highly unsupportive of young people, even in the best of circumstances. Our world as a whole is highly fearful of sexuality. Those worlds collide for me and for the people I serve every day.

But what we see in all of these kinds of scenarios and more are young people who have identified a place to be supported and helped, a place to utilize to try and make things better for themselves; a place to try and get even a little of what they need to care for themselves. If and when we interact with them directly, as we do with around 20-50 of them each day, we also see young people who are willing to take a risk and ask for help directly, often fully expecting that they will be denied, teased or shut down. And what we also see every single day are young people who often have those terrible expectations and don’t have them met: who DO get the help and support they are asking for. Who DO get the information they need and are asking for.

What is it we do for them? It’s often both as small and as potentially big as what that guy did for me. We give them information: information they ask for within the scope of what we do and what we know. We give them compassion and care.  We listen. We respond to what they say and ask for, not what we want to hear and say. We support them. We always try and tell them the truth and to do so with kindness and care. We have and demonstrate faith in them. We work hard not to judge or project our own stuff on them. We treat them with respect, accept and embrace who they uniquely are and encourage them to do the same. We connect them with other systems of support and coach them in reaching out. We help them in steps that can improve their lives over time — sometimes immediately, but more often it takes some time — but we don’t blow off that if we’re they’re at right now hurts like hell, it’s painful and uncomfortable. We sit with them in that. We give them hope. We create and hold a space where we work to make it as safe as possible to take a risk and open up, and where they can also learn how to interact with others in safe, supportive ways, even when voicing things that hurt or are scary or uncomfortable.

For millions of young people around the world for around twelve years now, we are and have been that guy. We’re not the only place to find that, but for many of teens and twentysomethings we are the only place at first, or the first place. Some have voiced that at a given time, we are, literally, the only place they feel able to talk and ask questions and the only place or people they know they can count on to be available for that, year after year.

I rarely get letters from a person we helped with taking a pill on time or working through a standard-issue breakup. Who I do get letters from, often years later, are the young people in places a lot more like I was. Usually, there’s a lovely thank you, but the very best part is that they’ll usually fill me in on how they’re doing, what they’re doing, and on how wonderful their lives are becoming, which is all the thanks I need, and what I always hope I’ll hear in time, especially when I go to bed some nights having sat with someone through something terribly painful. I can let them go, both for my sake and for theirs, but some part of me always wonders and worries and hopes and hopes and hopes. Knowing that when I hoped for the best for them that the best is what happened is an incredible gift. And I’m very certain that there are many letters we don’t get but would otherwise, because a lot like me, those now-adults remember the help they got and the impact it had on them, but for the life of them they can’t even remember the name of the person who helped them. (Which is maybe how it should be when we do it right.)

Obviously, not every young person who comes to Scarleteen is dealing with the toughest-of-the-tough-stuff. I don’t highlight our toughest interactions all the time because to do that paints an unrealistic picture of young people’s diverse lives and the work that we do, which sometimes is about work that’s much easier and less meaty than this. I do believe that a lot of what we do helps prevent the a lot of tough stuff in the first place; whether it’s teaching someone about healthy and unhealthy relationship models, helping someone avoid infection or an unwanted pregnancy, or helping people set up a healthy sexuality before they can get solidified in typical, unhealthy and unhappy patterns. But I think it’s important to also give visibility to young people’s lives and stories like mine, and to make clear that one of the biggest things we do is to help some of the most vulnerable people, for whom good support and information — often a challenge to even find — really can be the difference between life and death, or between living and barely being alive at all.

* * *

I’m directly asking for your support right now, like I do once each year. Scarleteen is very undersupported financially. We always need more financial support and I would very much appreciate having yours. I think we do a fantastic, important job, think we have for many years, and I intend to do all I can for us to keep doing that job for many more to come so we can remain a place young people know they can come back to, and don’t have to worry about passing in the night when a media or cultural tide shifts. I think Scarleteen and all that happens at Scarleteen is very worthy of being supported and sustained. To make that happen, we need more than just my own stubborn and dogged commitment and that of our volunteers: it also takes some dollars (and possibly a can or of Aqua Net, a mix tape and most certainly a teddy bear). In the last month we have been fundraising, and unfortunately, it’s been very unsuccessful this year, even though we’ve provided the same level, quality and scope of service we have for the last twelve years, and the young people who need us keep on coming in droves. From today through the 18th, a small team will be matching funds raised up to $1,000, so if you haven’t given yet this year, now would be a great time, and your gift would be deeply appreciated.

I felt a little strange that when I went to write a blog entry asking for support, this story is what came out. I wondered if it was appropriate or gauche to ask for financial support while also telling this story. But then I realized not only was it okay, it was actually ideal.

I grew up having plenty of things and people I wanted to be when I was grownup. I wanted to be the musician and artist I had all those talents for. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a lawyer, a doctor, a firefighter, an activist, a muckracker, a lion tamer. I wanted to be Emma Goldman, Patti Smith, Jane Addams, Judy Blume and the doctor who worked with my Mom I called Dr. Harry, who had webbed feet (he was really nice, but also, unlike the nurses who gossiped about it, I thought webbed feet must be the most awesome thing to have in the world, especially in the pool at the Y).

But most days, I wake up and jump energetically into my work even if the day before wiped me out, and I realize that who and what I most wanted to be, and clearly still want to be, was that guy who kind of gave me my whole life back in but one hour and a short string of words. For someone. For anyone who needs me to be and for whom I can be. I don’t even remember that guy’s name, but I know that most days, most of the time, he’s who I want to be; he’s who I try to be. He’s better than my hero: he gave me access to what I needed to be able to be my own hero, and gave me something core I needed to keep trying to do the same turn for others every day, probably for the rest of my life.

When I ask for support for Scarleteen, one of the things I’m doing is taking some of what this guy gave to me and trying to keep it going. Because so much of Scarleteen is made of my personal time and effort, I’m asking for your help and support for my own aspirations to be like that guy, and for our staff and volunteers to do the same. But I’m also asking for help and support for a kind of intention, service and sustained space that I think, in the biggest of all possible big pictures, helps and supports every single person we help and support to be that guy, if not for a whole bunch of people, for at least one or two other people and most certainly for themselves.

That’s a different end result to aim for than a reduction in unwanted pregnancy, lower rates of STIs, less abuse and more love and pleasure, better body image or people just being more informed so that their sexuality and sex life can be as good for them and any partners they have as it can be. You won’t find a grant to fund sex education that wants a logic model for way bigger pictures than those, and I don’t know that we can build something evidence-based on the grandest goals. You won’t tend to hear people presenting this much-bigger-picture as part of sex education, even though I think it’s implicit in all quality sex education, and some part of what every thoughtful sex educator is doing and aims to do. Teaching and modeling compassion, care, responsiveness and support, in everything, but especially in the stuff that’s most loaded, is no small part of any good sex education because it’s such a large part of any good sexual life and healthy sexuality and relationships.

I think — and that’s hopefully obvious — that all of those kinds of less lofty goals are crucially important, at the end of my day, what I want to have seen and done is this bigger stuff that lies underneath it all. I want to go to bed knowing it was at the heart of everything I did, that in ways great or small, I was able to teach or model something for everyone I interacted with that’s all about being that guy for yourself and that guy for others, which I believe would be world-changing and also believe is absolutely attainable and should be as supported by all of us in all of the ways that we can.

UPDATE A generous ongoing donor has just agreed to throw an extra $1,000 in the kitty for matching through the 20th!  So, now, up to $2,000 in donations will be matched for donations made from now until Saturday!

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Amongst other things, someone called me classist this week. Normally, I’d just write it off as totally stupid: I’m just not sure how you can grow up poor, stay poor, have times of homelessness, have no health insurance your whole adult life, not have part of anyone else’s income to rely on (including your parents and from an age where that’s unlawful), be unable to complete or enroll in educational programs because of poverty, have a homeless parent, work in and around shelter systems, et cetera, and be a socialist and be classist.  The claim also came from someone I know has very little right to make that claim and who made it out of malice.

Mind, we can be whatever-ist within a group where other people can be the same kind of -ist to us. For instance, living in Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago, I heard more than my fair share of racism from my neighbors towards Black people, even though both groups are deeply impacted and oppressed by racism. I grew up hearing my mother’s Irish family talk about my Italian Dad, and even myself now and then, in a profoundly racist way (which you and I know isn’t a race issue, but good luck explaining that to my mother’s parents). Both downtrodden groups/families because of poverty and immigration stuff, but that didn’t stop them from the slurs any. I have also met more than one misogynist woman in my day, to say the least. So, it’s possible, I know. It’s just one of those things where in my case, I have never felt like this one was an -ism I needed to watch out for taking part in myself, save when it comes to how I think of and treat people who live at incomes greater than mine.

But it crept under my skin all the same, most likely in part because I had some feelings earlier this week that were bad enough, though the realization about them was worse, and it fed into those feelings.

I’m in this place where the rent is basically the same my last rent was. My share is $600 here, after $400 goes for rent of the office. That’s even $300 a month less than the rent at the old place was about to be with an incoming increase. I also expect my utility bills to be substantially lower here than they were in the last place.

At the last place, I got to pay all that and go a winter with broken heat and everything else falling down on me. Even in summer, it was bitter cold at night from all the drafts due to 100-year-old windows and walls. I had to fix things on my own all the time, and things were constantly breaking. Often, in fixing or tending to things, I was not able to deduct costs from my rent. I probably don’t have to tell a lot of people here that’s hardly an uncommon experience. I, maybe like plenty of you, especially living in cities, have paid for broken or falling-apart places more than once.

In the new place, I’m paying a reasonable personal rent for something that is NOT falling down. Sure, it’s rural, so that’s part of the deal. The economy sucking is likely another part (otherwise, rent would likely be a lot higher, or the owner would be able to sell this house).  Not only is this place not falling down, it is AMAZING. It’s beautiful, it’s clean, and someone redid tons of it to the apparent specifications of James Bond.

Seriously, maybe living in old, run-down places all my life I just haven’t kept up with the times, and all newer places are exploding with gadgets like this.  But I don’t think so.

Here’s the gadget roster so far:

  • Lights, everywhere. The living room/kitchen/loft area alone has 18 different fixtures, all built in, controlled by  10 different switches, some with tiny dimmers next to the switch.
  • In-floor heating, with a thermostat you can program to go on and off at different temps at different times of day, including making a given setting for weekdays vs. weekends.
  • A stacking, front-loading washer and dryer, also with programmable timers.
  • Disability-accessible door handles.
  • Windows that open with nice, working levers, not with every ounce of energy you have in a day.
  • Drawers with back magnets so you only have to nudge them and they pull in (suffice it to say, this house is very, very well-equipped when it comes to my hand disability).
  • A dishwasher and fridge, both working, spacious and shiny.  The fridge makes ice and has a water filter, as well as drawers you can set for fruit or veg.
  • Hookups built into the walls for speakers, throughout the house.
  • Vents in both bathrooms.
  • A functioning compost bin (which sure, isn’t really a gadget, since it’s as low-tech as it gets, but I’ve never been able to have one I didn’t have to build, so).
  • A sprinkler system in case of fire.
  • A working and properly vented woodstove.
  • Outlets EVERYWHERE (that huge box of extension cords I brought will be gathering dust).
  • An in-wall vacuum cleaning system including a spot in the floor of the kitchen where you can sweep your dust pile over, move the switch with your foot, and it sucks it right up.  I am so not kidding.

I say “so far” because the property manager told us she’d come by soon and show us how to work the house.  That sounded silly to me until we started finding all of these gadgets.  There may be some we don’t even know about yet.

Anyway, when I was packing up last week, I got seized by this really intense feeling I can only describe as abject-stupid with a heaping dose of institutionalized guilt on the side.

I felt very certain I did not deserve to live here. I had moments of panic and worry that this was some kind of cosmic joke, and that I’d get here and it would be made clear I’d been punked, as expected. Even in saying this, and hearing how ridiculous it sounds, some part of me is still wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. Intellectually, I knew and know better, but my brain had little impact on my emotions.  In the midst of that feeling, I was seized with this equally foolish feeling of being a charlatan of sorts; of not only having something I shouldn’t and probably am just imagining, but having something that, despite costing no more, somehow makes me a traitor to the other people in my life and outside it who grew up the way I grew up and who live on the level of income I have and do.

Here’s one of the seriously stupid parts of this. Most places where I have lived before have been crap. In crap neighborhoods or crappy places or both. I have managed to make most places I have lived in, even the crappiest of the crappy, nice enough. I don’t tend to mind that, because I’m a creative person, so see it as a creative opportunity. But the thing is that none of that is free, either. It costs money, time and effort to do that. The pain and the brushes cost. The fabric costs. Whatever furniture you don’t dumpster dive costs.  Cleaning all the time because a place is in horrible shape costs. Spending days and days painting takes a lot of time. None of those things are free, and they all add to the “bargain” cost of a crappy place. As inane as it’s going to sound, for some reason, none of that resonated until now, which really is quite dumb, because it certainly always has had a palpable impact on my wallet which was impossible to overlook.

We came here and….well, nothing needs to be done. It’s already very clean. The pain isn’t chipping off the walls, the floors aren’t falling apart. There are light fixtures everywhere, making most of my lamps unnecessary. I probably have a good five boxes of stuff I just didn’t even need to move here: stuff I have accumulated over the years to makes places liveable that didn’t have what one needed in them to live there.

And yet, here I am, in this beautiful place that not only costs me around the same as other places, but which will probably wind up costing me less, sorting through these feelings. They’re going away fast enough, but that they take up any real estate in my mind at all really bothers me and makes me upset with myself, upset with anywhere I ever got any messaging to support these feelings. Particularly since what I’d like is to just be able to enjoy the place, my good luck and good fortune and have a chance in my life NOT to be stressed out about where I live, but to have a place of peace, solace and function to call home. I’d prefer not to have to keep telling myself that I got a two-year lease, and need to accept that after these two years, I may not be able to live this well again, that that’s okay, but that I also need to not take a second of this for granted or I’ll be a ungrateful (to whom?) asshole.

The big epiphany in all of this that has me really steamed? It seems entirely possible that I could have been living somewhere similar to this way before now, just like I am now without needing any more income than I have to make it happen. I realize that it’s been bred and manufactured into me to feel like I’m feeling, to be sure I can’t do any better, to be sure that this was simply beyond my means and my ability. Plus, I have been way too receptive to suggestions or accusations that I need to be keeping down with the Joneses, as it were, and living the way someone of my means “should” be living, which is to say, poorly. I’ve also had so many messages that so many other people had it as bad, or that someone else had it worse, and took those so seriously, this is an area of my own life I’ve not really allowed myself to sit with, accept and unpack, sorting out what from it I need to heal from and work to get past.

Mind, sometimes we just can’t do better than we think we can. Back in the mid-nineties when a few stupid choices and a really bad set of financial circumstances hit me, I was thisclose to being back on street or needing to be in shelters. A parent from the school I once ran offered me a place that was really pretty crap: no heat, cement floors, no security, the works. But not only was it kind, and what I could afford, I do think it was the best I was going to do at that time with no time to find other options, and no services available for me. I called around everywhere in a frenzy, including to social services, and was just shit out of luck. This included a phone call where a woman at social services suggested that if I got pregnant, I could get benefits I didn’t have, so that might be the time to consider that. I wish I were kidding, and also wish I were kidding when I tell you that when I asked if she had any sense of the impact statements and suggestions like that made on people on welfare, or of what kind of effed up suggestion that was to choose parenting, she was completely unconcerned.

I was also without the kind of freedom then I have now per flexibility in where I can work, which is a pretty huge freedom that makes a very big difference (though Blue reported that his commute yesterday was no big deal at all). I was locked into a low-paying internship I really, really needed to finish to get job training if I had hopes of not living that way anymore. Again, I had also made some idiotic and reactive choices that very much limited my options.

But when you grow up poor, stay poor, and absorb the messages you get poor and from other poor people who have clearly all also been institutionalized, you hear a whole lot more about your limitations than your options. Same goes double for growing up with one poor parent who was a social justice activist. (A la, “It’s fine we don’t have things we need.  Good people are the people who don’t have things. Only bad people who oppress other people have things.”) Out of necessity, there’s a solidarity that forms between everyone that in some ways can be very positive and supportive, but in other ways can assure everyone is kept down and stays down. People who try and reach a little further can be put down by others with suggestions one “thinks they’re better” than those who either are in a place of absolute stuck at the moment, or who have simply given up trying to claw and crawl out, which is a weariness I understand and have experienced. Again, if you grew up like this or around this, or within other systems of oppression, I’m saying things totally old hat to you.

Yes, there are also messages that if you just work hard enough, then you can move ahead.  But since those messages also sound a lot like “You’re only poor because you’re lazy…” or “If you just worked harder, you’d be doing better,” things we know often are simply not true, they’re not very effective messages. Plus, again, sometimes working more or harder works and does help you get a leg up. Other times, it only makes you more tired and just as poor, sometimes even more poor, depending.

I think a lot of this stuff was why my father was freaking out so much about this. Over the last month and some, since we decided to move here, it got to the point where I was having to spend an hour or two on the phone with him daily to assure him this was a good place where everything really was nice and not broken, where we’d be able to eat and be safe: he really didn’t believe it could be within my budget, either.  I had to tell him again and again how big the island was, how I could take a ferry or water taxi to the city, how we do have a downstairs neighbor, how I have my bike, a phone, how there is a grocery store and other people who live here, and so on. Considering we spent some of the poorest years of both of our lives together, including two years in a row where our ghetto apartment literally flooded with sewage from the drain outside it, that attitude and fear is unsurprising. Considering that more than once my father’s “good fortune” really WAS an illusion, I get it a bit more now.  Next time I call him, I’m going to bring all of this up: I think the two of us both have so much of this kind of baggage that we’d benefit from hashing it out together.

I’m not asking for reassurances with this, by the way.  In fact, I think it’s really important that I work on providing them for myself, rather than getting them externally. I also don’t have any grand conclusions here I can draw: mostly what I needed was to try and exorcise some of this, which I’m hoping will at least unpack some of it from my head.

It’s a beautiful day here. Given, even when it’s rainy and grey, it still looks beautiful here, but today the sun is out, the green is blinding and the air is warm.  I’m a bit behind on work because despite all the gadgets, the phone and ‘net didn’t work here for four days.  But right now, I think catching up some more can wait one more hour so that I can get outside.  My appreciation — the earnest kind, not the guilt-ridden variety — is not just about the indoor space here, but about where that space is, nestled so wonderfully into such lush woods just waiting to be explored.  I think it’s pretty obvious that this move, this space, this place all have a lot of lessons to give me that I need, around the issues I talked about today as well as others.  One of them it seems particularly well-equipped to assist is in my willingness to take care of myself and my making that a greater priority. I don’t have to pay a fee to go see the museum that is right outside, find a ride and hours or days to get to somewhere like this, or acquire something I don’t have.

I just need to put on some shoes, open the door and walk right out into exactly what I need. Which is what I’m going to go do right now.

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

I just wanted to leave something from the past today for Blue more than for anyone else.  It’s a piece from around a year ago. Honestly, the both of us were going through hell, though his in a lot of ways was far worse than mine, or perhaps more to the point, some of his hells-of-yore just barely beginning the cleaning-up stage were very hard on both of us.

Life has been really good for us since Blue moved.  For the most part, crazy-good.  As stressed out as my work can make me sometimes, on the whole, our homelife has been such a solace, so much joy, so much fun.  We need to learn to leave the house more often when it comes to our leisure time, but I think we’ll manage that one, especially now that the weather is starting to improve.  But it taking so long for him to find work was exceptionally rough on him (in case I didn’t mention it, he wound up getting a job at the teen shelter where I do some outreach: major career change, but so far, he loves it).  As well, he’s still got a lot to unpack as well as dismantle from his previous relationship and everything that went down in it, as well as the dynamics that were part and parcel of it. His having to deal with those still when it comes to doing all that needs to be done to sever those ties has been really hard for him, and it breaks my heart.

We’ve talked about it, acknowledging we both knew that in some ways, it might have been better to wait for him to move until all the ink was signed over there and he’d had some more time to heal, but that we both really didn’t want to wait, and that was okay. I’m still glad we didn’t, especially given how many years we effectively had waited already. I’m glad to be his support in this, even though some of doing that means working through his learned responses to things from his marriage that just make so sense here and have no reason to come into play here.

Blue, like me, can be pretty rough on himself sometimes, and can sometimes go without acknowledging progress he’s made, or ways things have changed positively via his efforts.  I was revisiting some of our shared writing this morning from the last year and came across this, which seemed a pretty good time capsule to remind us both of how much easier things have gotten, as well as how much we’ve both weathered and come through just fine. Blue is an emotionally intense person, (again, like me), and that given, he tends to leave a lot of intensity in his wake.  Last year around this time it seemed to keep coming from every direction: a year and change later, things have calmed down a whole lot.

There are far fewer worms in our apple now, and to boot, we’ve got each other to lean on every day, rather than having month-long lapses where we both so acutely felt the lack of the other during a time when we needed one another so badly. We are ever-mighty, and only keep becoming all the more so.

in times of storm or drought

There are truths, and then there is truth
and they are not comparable.

It will matter to you — of course it matters,
as it would to anyone — to have facts
lined up neatly, linearly;
to have fictions exposed and
shelved with the rest of the world’s imagined stories,
great and not-so.
I understand that this matters,
it has mattered to me before, too,
but right now, for myself,
it is nearly irrelevant.

There is a truth
which is wordless, boundless, nonlinear.
It is messy, often inconvenient and untimely.
It expresses itself better in
childlike images painted with blood on the walls of caves
than in any one language,
sound or pretty symbol. There is neither
any clear way to affirm nor deny it,
no formula to affix that tangibly validates.
It is a truth rooted not in fact but faith,
and one which feels all the more true
when it fails every proof applied to it.

These other truths or untruths
have little relevance or particular weight:
when I sit them on a scale with
that larger truth, they fly up and away,
landing flat on their ass
as a much smaller-child does
when the biggest kid in school
comes by and idly slides
onto the other end of a see-saw.

That larger truth lives in an effortless
space, be it silent or full of
words, tears, moans, grasping hands,
linked gaze, difficult history,
absolute acceptance, loud frailties,
unresolveable conflicts and the primal
urge to merge completely.
It makes a home where I am at the same time shaken
and yet still as stone.

I feel it when you lock your mouth
to my breast; it lives in that illogical sense
of nourishing you from glands I know
provide nothing, do not leak
or swell, and yet
when I look down at the angel
suckling me, when I feel how,
in those moments,
I soften and you impel
a strength in me. I am a mother cat
then: should I perceive anyone to even think
of doing you harm, I know I would
hiss, scratch, repel.

It lives in the fact
that if either of us are going to have
white-hot, seething anger with anyone
it should be with each other,
however much we have recovered,
and yet, even when I seek it out,
it denies me access. It has dissolved
as easy and invisibly as dew at dawn.

It lives under the soles of my feet.
My legs have always been peasant-thick,
but there is a certain force of will and ground
like the roots of grand redwoods
which could not be felled by word or deed,
no matter how poisoned, and such a tiny axe
is impotent even to seek intrusion by carving in its own petty initials.
It does not require
firm nor solid ground to walk upon, and meets resistance
with the confident quiet of giants.

I look at who comes to tangle with me,
and some part of me cannot help
but laugh: it feels a delusion, a jest
for anyone, at this time, in this space,
to seek battle with me. I feel I can pick them off
and blow them away with a huff and a puff,
as I would a piece of lint on my shoulder.
When you stand, solid-legged
with an ancient blade in your hands,
there is a certain hilarity
when facing the barrel of a Nerf-gun.

None of this is to say
I like seeing a worm in my apples,
I don’t, and it does disturb.
The grey, turning parasite
sours my stomach when my mouth
should be watering.
There are moments in which
it has felt as if my bathroom door
was broken down, my diary read,
a horse’s head placed on my pillow.

There are moments today where I feel
as vulnerable and overexposed as you:
while I often want to shout us out to the sky,
I do not relish intimacies of mine
in the sweaty palms of crooks or liars;
nor a hole for peeking into my heart
shared with an eye seeking an eye.

* * *

When first we met, I had all the seeds
of what I’d become, but some had grown mold,
many had yet to find soil or water.
Some had been purposefully stolen, for fear
of how much bigger I’d become
than those making off with my possibility
in their greedy pockets. I have since
not only germinated, pollinated, blossomed, grown,
I have overtaken every small patch
I found myself planted in. I have spread far
by wind, by water, by fur and by paw:
I have dispersed
myself and become hardy enough
to be capable of withstanding any manner of conditions,
and flourish even when it is proclaimed improbable.

This is who I bring to you, to us, to this:
to everything.
I would wish
it is who I had brought before, save that
neither of us were that expansive yet.
We are now. This is who knows
that no smaller truths even when juxtaposed
speak as clearly as that wordless one,
who knows how something rich and lush can grow
even in the most inclement of weather.

Friday, December 26th, 2008

My poor dog.  Everytime the last few days I’ve taken her out for a walk or let her out back, she’d had to effectively try to learn to ice skate or swim.  The remaining snow here — which is of course, everywhere, since no one in Seattle owns a shovel — is so hard, and she weighs so little that when she walks on it, she either slides right over, or her little feet fall in an inch or so, leaving her stuck.  Her other option is to try and swim in the huge pools of melting snow which are the other half of the landscape right now.

She also did not get our annual ritual of an early yule morning walk, something we both (well, I can only assume) have enjoyed in the past here.  Ballard is total Goyville, so pretty much everyone else is in their homes celebrating Christmas, which leaves our usually bustling neighborhood beautifully silent and empty.  But it decided to rain here much of yesterday, so all she got was a round of toy-wrestling in the living room followed by the daily ear-cleaning she despises.

I’ve been fairly lazy here the last few days, only working half-days, and spending the rest of my day in the tub, reading, cleaning the closet, writing for myself, and starting to go through some photos.

When I was at my mother’s earlier this month, we sat with a big box of some of my childhood art and schoolwork, some of which is completely hilarious, so I have a bunch of those shots to edit.  I also left home with a handful of photos, mostly from childhood, and some slides (most of what we have from my childhood is on slides, because that’s the age I am).  I say some of which because looking at things like an earnest will written at the age of 12, not long before my first suicide attempt, is not hilarious.  Suffice it to say, things like that are not going to be making it into the archives.

When I was looking at those photos, there was a whole lot of bittersweet that started happening, and then some outright meltdown, some of which has continued since.  Most of what that comes down to is that I actually had a pretty good childhood, despite a lot of tumult (some of which I didn’t really know about until later in my life), and when I see photos of myself as a kid, I’m looking at a kid I really like.  But I’m also looking at a kid whose childhood came to a crashing halt due to a confluence of events — my mother’s second marriage and the nightmare of a man she married, my pre-teen assaults, some other things.  Seeing, for instance, a photo of me at 11 the other day, seeing what a baby I was with my shirt covered in rainbows, barrettes in my hair, I realized I was looking at what some vile man in his 40’s decided was ripe for the picking and it just left me floored and furious.  I cut my hair after that primarily to try and cut him out of it.  So, while in some sense, I love seeing me and aspects of the childhood I cherished — and honestly, thank the powers that be I had, otherwise things that happened later may well have left me a vegetable — in another, I find myself feeling angry at the world-at-large for taking that kid away so fast and so suddenly, and, in some sense, robbing me of enough of her left over.

I’m not going to get too into it, because so much of it feels so private, but my visit with my mother this last time was exceptionally healing for me.  I got the chance to tell her something I have simply needed to for some time.  That was that while there are things from my late childhood and adolescence I just don’t think I can ever forgive, and certainly cannot forget — some of which she was part of or very much enabled — the older I get, the more I understand not just the greater context of her life, but the lives of so many women like her, and can see the bigger picture of what landed her and us there and fed so many of the dynamics at play.  I was able to tell her that the more I understand, the more I accept, the less I blame, and that no matter what, she’s my mother and I love and accept her.

Being able to say that was a huge deal, and also had an unexpected impact on her: it seemed to make her feel safe enough to finally ask — just outright ask — about some of what had happened to me in the last handful of years before I left home at 15.  She was able to be honest enough to say that she didn’t think she could handle hearing all of it — an honesty I really appreciate, particularly since it reminds me that that’s some of why there was so much denial about what was going on with me then.  And we were able to talk about some of it, and she was able to really listen, to hold what I was telling her, to take responsibility for some of the things I have very much needed to.  Mind, I found out some things which were in some sense a relief, and also in some sense had already known or strongly suspected, but which were also tough for me to hear: for instance, finding out that it truly was only me who was the object of my stepfather’s malice made me glad that my mother and sister were not done any real harm.  It also validated how totally alone in everything I felt then, how singled out and victimized. But at the same time… well, it wasn’t a pleasant truth.

That process also invoked her to tell me some things about her life I hadn’t known, particularly in my early childhood, when my mother, at only around 21, wound up the head of a household that included 2-year-old me, my Dad (who stayed at home with me while my mother worked), and my fathers two teenage brothers who survived the accident that killed the rest of his family.  Unbeknownst to me, my mother even had to be the one to identify the bodies — my Dad just couldn’t deal — and this image of my so-freaking-young Mom with too much already on her plate having to literally look at bloody heads in bags just gutted me. (Not to mention that both of us having to deal with bloody heads and dead bodies at a point in both of our young lives was just eerie.)

Again, not going to get into too many details here, especially since a lot of it is about someone’s life that isn’t mine.  But I think this may have been the first visit I have ever had with my mother that left me feeling even remotely like this: it was intensely liberating, very healing for the both of us.  We’ve even made tentative plans to, for the first time ever, try and take a vacation together somewhere in the next two years, something which, before this month, would have been a daunting, rather than pleasant, prospect for me.

* * *

On the home front, Mark is back in Ohio visiting family after getting waylaid in Philly on Christmas Eve.  While I usually enjoy the time to myself when he goes home for the holidays, having him leave this time was a bit sad, because it drew our all-night conversations we have been having on the couch every single night since I got back from Chicago to an end.  He was just saying the other night that he has never felt closer to me than he has in these last couple weeks, and indeed, while I didn’t think we needed a turning point in our relationship, we seem to have landed at one, and it’s so, so good.  I feel like we wound up going to this totally new place that’s really exceeded where we thought we could go, where we thought we would go, which is seriously huge since I already have thought we’ve got something really damn good.

Next week, we both have dates: Mark has one out where he is, and Blue is coming to see me for a couple of days.  In our heart of hearts, we were hoping for a magical harmonic convergence during which we could both be in those things at the very same moment, but alas, it didn’t quite work out that way.

All of this moving into a much more tangible and physical reality is all the things one’d likely expect: exciting, nervewracking, anxious, exhilarating and more with the anxious.  Obviously, it’s a bit like a moment of truth is coming, where we’re going to find out if everything that seems like it feels so right to all of us involved really is.  I keep having these small moments where I second-guess what we are are saying and feeling, how harmonious it all seems to feel so far for everyone, and then I second-guess (or is that third-guess?) my dismissal of those moments, worried it is coming from a selfish place because exactly what I want appears to be something I can have that is also in alignment with everyone else’s wants, even though we all seem to have such different sets of needs.  When I voice this to either, the both of them effectively sigh and suggest I start trusting all of us — and myself — more, which is apt advice.

Having such history with both of the people involved on my part vacillates from being a total comfort to being completely daunting.   But I just got off the phone with Mark (clearly, we both want to continue our couch-conversations, even without a shared couch), and one thing we noted that seems to make this such an unusual scenario — and which I actually think makes it an easier adjustment for all — is that the person who is my domestic partner is also the newer person in all of this.  In other words, he’s already well used to Blue being in my heart and  being a part of who I am: when he walked into my life, that existed before he and I, and he obviously has coexisted with it just fine.  I can’t figure out if I envy Mark that, for now, anyone he’ll see is likely to be very new to him, or if I wish he were in my position on his end.  I do envy him some for having the ability to just ring Blue up and talk together, and I can’t say it wouldn’t be nice to have the same opportunity, but hey, maybe I will at some point.

This is one of those times where I wish I knew a bit less than I do, particularly about sex and love and relationships.  I was sitting last night in a stack of books from the shelves which addressed open relationships, and feeling very much like it was all so 101, and of such very little use to me.  I wanted the AP versions — even though I don’t think we really need them — and they don’t seem to exist.  I sat scrolling through my head with my own history with things like this, save that I don’t really have anything like this in my history.  Anything remotely close has felt like splitting before, or sharing, and it doesn’t feel like that, perhaps because both of these people have been in my heart already: no one is taking up any new real estate here.

I’ve also gotten to the point in my life where I know I am big enough, wide enough, AM enough for this.  Oddly, I think working at the clinic has been part of that: keeping a lot of distance is so typical in anything remotely medical that my being very open to clients, really kind of letting them in has occasionally worried my co-workers.  And yet, the way the clients have been with me, the way they want to disclose so much and have me hold so much while they’re in with me stands counter to that. I’ve heard more than once that I “just can’t” be as open to them as I have when it comes to kind of holding their truths and their feelings and really being in it with them for that brief period of time and possibly deal with it…and yet, I know full well that I certainly can, and that it’s one of my gifts as a person.  It’s not one-sided, either: it doesn’t just benefit others, but it also deeply enriches and expands me, too.

* * *

And I suppose that’s my rather random set of bleats for the day.  A Scarleteen once-user, since-volunteer and someone who feels very much like family to me is moving into the neighborhood next week, and will also be housesitting for me with her kid while I’m staying downtown.  They’re coming over the evening before for some hangout and dinner, and our place is so far from toddler-proofed, it just isn’t funny.

Thankfully, this week of the year is always exceptionally slow at Scarleteen, so it’s one of the few times where I feel able — without guilt or worry — to take some time for myself and work a short shift.  So, I was able to spend some time just talking more to Mark and Blue, and can now go spend some time housecleaning (which needed to happen anyway: bless houseguests for making you have to hop to it), maybe going through some more of those photos, doing some languid yoga, writing a bit more just for myself about everything going on with me, taking another bath and setting up a new computer that needs setting up.

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

This is shaping up to be a seriously crazy week: I’ve already done two days of clinic time, and on Monday, we had new protocols, new paperwork, and one counselor out with the flu on one of the busiest days I’ve seen there so far. My first chart showed up at 8:15 and the last one I pulled was just before 5:00, with only a half hour break for a quick lunch in there. It also included a client to whom I had to break the news that she was too late for a termination, which always seriously sucks, to say the least. Yesterday, I went downtown (a MUCH better commute: I’m only a 20-minute bus ride away, tops) and did some BDI logic model training for the sex ed outreach arm of the clinic which was awesome, but that meant last night and continuing through today, I’m racing to finish a piece past a deadline for something else, and then have to do a bunch of work for extra training in Options Counseling for Friday. Tomorrow I’m probably going to want to just take my coffee in an IV since I have to counsel all day then jet over to a public health clinic at night to do some sex ed work. Then, over the weekend, I need to do some prepping for our bi-monthly all-clinic staff meeting Monday because I’m teaching a self-defense piece to staff, and I’m a bit rusty when it comes to teaching self-defense. Somewhere amidst all of that I have to try and at least do some of the usual Scarleteen work.

So, yeah: still exhausted. It’s old news, I know.

When a little bit of time shows up, I’ll write more about this is depth because I have a lot to say, but over the past couple of months, I’ve reconnected very strongly with an ex, and it’s been tremendously powerful. This is someone who I had hurt, made amends with over ten years ago after a five-year-period where we didn’t speak, then the amends and what all happened in the one-week-period of time around sent me into a massive tailspin which had legs for years of my life. We only started talking again after this recent reconnection, and we seem to finally have found a place that really works for us, and that’s just incredibly fortifying and restorative for both of us. We had a very intense and highly charged relationship — and it was one of the rare one for me where I was with someone very similar to me; I tend more often to get involved with people who are a contrast to me — and while we loved each other immensely, and knew one another very deeply, I don’t think we ever really had a real friendship in all of that. A lot of that had to do with both of us being so young for something so big, and also both being so post-traumatic in various respects, but I also think we just weren’t in the space in our lives yet to manifest what we had as a friendship. Being able to forge one now feels like the rightest thing ever, and it’s been amazing to really feel that, especially getting close to almost 20 years after we first met.

On the other hand, last week someone I went to Jr. High with managed to track me down, and the group of friends from back then have apparently all reconnected and been looking for us stragglers. While it was awesome to hear from that person, that reconnection — especially with everyone from then — isn’t something I want to pursue. That spanned a period of my life which was easily the most traumatic I have ever had, where for those years, I had to invest energy every day in outwardly projecting a person who…well, wasn’t me. I had so many horrendous things happen to me during that period of time, my home life was so awful, and having no history with those kids since I had only moved to that area once the bad got started, there wasn’t a single friend then who really had any idea of what I was really grappling with or trying to survive. Meeting up with them again, even just via email or the phone, would be so surreal for me; seeing people who felt like they knew you and feel warmly about the shell they knew, but who you knew didn’t know you at all, on top of a 24 year-lapse of any contact just strikes me as sad and strange. So, I’ve had a few bittersweet moments around that over the last couple of days: it stinks to be reminded of a childhood you were robbed of, and it’s not something I choose to reflect on often, to say the least.

Mark got home from Austin late Monday night, and last night we got to reunite in the somewhat ritual fashion we seem to have: we crack a bottle of wine, take turns sharing everything the other one missed while we were apart, start collectively cooking while blaring some music so we can dance in the kitchen at the same time, enjoy a meal, gab some more, then head upstairs to get all sweaty, juicy and melty. Paired with the fact that I could sleep until 8 this morning, it was a bonafide luxury, one I very, very much needed. I even got to wake up with some serious bedlocks from a lot of happy thrashing, which Mark would have had himself if he had any hair.

And with that, back to the grindstone go I.

Addendum: Piece finished. Man, I love writing manifestos. That was tough but supremely gratifying.  Now on to a quick bath, homework for the training Friday, and if I get really lucky, to bed.

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008
Sunday, July 29th, 2007

Merde, do I hate getting ready for long trips.

I don’t travel well. I used to, back when I had a van which could basically substitute as a mobile home, or when I camped rather than stayed in hotels or houses; back when getting someone to watch my place was a simple, “The bed’s there, feed the cats, lock the door.” Back before everyone had cell phones, when you could just drop in anytime, anywhere, and when I didn’t have to look presentable at any point, and no one cared if I wore the same ratty jeans and t-shirt every day for a week.

But lo: those times are gone. Given all the last-minute phone calls I had to make, it even got to the point where I — the person determined to be the last person on earth to get a cell phone — was very nearly wishing I had one of the damndable devices. Don’t tell anyone I said that. Especially Mr. Price.

Even just prepping the housesitter was like planning for the invasion of Normandy.

Thank christ, it’s at least looking like I don’t have to go on Fox News. Yes, I was going to go on Fox News: they’d asked a couple months ago, assured me that no, they were not trying to be scandalous or demonize sexually active teens, queer teens or myself, but still, I was wary. Even though I made very clear that if they tried, I’d go all bodhisattva on their ass and just sit very quietly and say nothing in response, I wasn’t feeling very trusting. But, seems clear they just couldn’t get their proverbial shit together in time — and since I told them I needed a day and time a few days before I left at a minimum, and they didn’t give me one, I’m in no way obligated to do it if they contact me at this point — which takes a giant weight off of my shoulders. I’ve declined television stuff before now, I’ve never really wanted to do TV, and I’m glad to have escaped it once more.

I’m feeling very nervous about going home, though. I haven’t spent this much time in my home city since I left it in ‘99. I also will be primarily staying at the mother’s place, and we haven’t spent a week in the same space together since 1985. When you run away from your home at the age I did, even when your parent is no longer living in the same space, or with the same jerk of a husband, and some things have changed, excited to go anything resembling “back there” again is not what you are. In a lot of ways, too, when I moved from Chicago there was this huge weight off of my shoulders because I was free of so many physical reminders of the worst things that had happened to me in my life: there were so many places I just couldn’t even drive by, that living in cities with all of nada when it came to traumatic history has been very nice. I’m not that elated about having to see or pass by some of those places again.

It’ll be good: I’ll see some people I have missed, spend time in some places I have missed… the ones that remain, anyway, which are sadly few and far between. My Dad even told me that you can’t find a paleta man anywhere at city parks in the summer to save your life: apparently, even a nice, chilly paleta is too ethnic for the (once almost nothing BUT ethnic) north side now.

I was really hoping to find a way to get my own shit together and try and arrange a mini-reunion between myself and the kids I used to teach (few of whom are kids now), but I just couldn’t swing it. As it is, just getting the laundry done in time and all the loose ends wraped up for the events I already have going on is proving a challenge.

And I suppose me sitting here going on and on probably isn’t helping. Well, damn: off with me.

Friday, March 2nd, 2007

This is cross-posted from the All Girl Army. I wanted to toss it here just because it’s so eerily timely, and as a reminder that it’s Women’s History Month. It was written for a younger audience, but I love talking about women like Woodhull so much — though not enough to rewrite a whole piece for a different audience — that I couldn’t resist spreading the love.

A woman is running for president. She advocates for fair labor practices, social welfare programs and women’s rights, but is also a maze of contradictions — she is anti-abortion (as are most at the time), but pro-free love; a eugenicist, but also a civil rights supporter and socialist; a suffragist and a spiritualist. She has worked as a stockbroker, a lobbyist, a businesswoman and a newspaper publisher. She is both admired and despised by many. Nominated as her running mate is an African-American man.

No one really thinks she will win. However, everyone who nominates and supports her, including she herself, feels that it is important a message be sent to the U.S. government that it is time for a woman in government and in the White House.

During her run, personal — rather than political — attacks are made on her from all sides, in all the ways women who threaten the status quo, women who dare, are typically attacked: she is painted as a witch, a bitch, a prostitute, a woman of “loose morals.” Her politics and platform are not what are critiqued: she is a woman, and so it is her person which is maligned and demonized. She is purposefully scandalized by people — primarily men, or women acting as protectors of men — with power to prevent her, and any other woman, from having any chance at all.

Sound kind of familiar? But, see, it isn’t 2007. It’s 1872.

This isn’t Hilary Clinton. It was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to try and run for President of the United States, before women had even secured the right to vote.

“I am well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset. But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect tomorrow. I am content to wait until my claim for recognition as a candidate shall receive the calm consideration of the press and the public.”

Nominated as her running mate was once-slave, abolitionist leader and incredible orator Frederick Douglass. Woodhull was nominated by the Equal Rights Party, an offshoot of Susan B. Anthony’s National American Woman Suffrage Association (but eventually shunned by Anthony for her outspokenness). By today’s standards, her political stance would be a mix of libertarian and socialist platforms: women’s right to vote, work, love and marry freely; nationalization of land; cost-based pricing to reduce excessive profits; a fairer division of earnings between labor and capital; the elimination of exorbitant interest rates; human and civil rights; freedom of speech and a free press.

Woodhull grew up poor, with very little education — over time, she educated herself — and was married at 15 to an alcoholic doctor, who exploited her background as a spiritualist, and her talents as a persuasive speaker to sell his folk medicines. She’d also worked as a cigar girl (read: prostutute) while married. Flying in the face of convention as she would for nearly all of her life, she divorced around a decade later, remarried and settled in New York, where, since joining both the Suffragist Movement and the Marxist International Workingmen’s Association, she began a salon where she’s intellectually spar with other radicals of the day. Shortly thereafter, Victoria would become the first woman to establish a brokerage firm on Wall Street, which is how she first gained the attention of Susan B. Anthony, who applauded her achievements for women’s equity in this regard.

“Rude contact with facts chased my visions and dreams quickly away, and in their stead I beheld the horrors, the corruption, the evils and hypocrisy of society, and as I stood among them, a young wife, a great wail of agony went out from my soul.”

In 1870, Victoria and her sister Tennessee established Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, a controversial journal which in its six-year run, established a very wide readership, and included brave exposes of capitalist swindles, as well as discussion of women’s rights, civil rights and labor issues.

In that same year, Victoria announced her intent to run for President of the United States, and she would be the first woman ever to do so, even though women would still not even have the right to vote for another fifty years.

“I shall not change my course because those who assume to be better than I desire it.”

In fact, in 1871, Victoria appeared before the House Judiciary Committee — and was also the first woman to ever do that, too — to deliver a speech on suffrage. Her strong argument was that women already had the right to vote, since the 14th and 15th amendments granted the right to all citizens. While this speech did not secure women the practical right to vote by Congress, they were strieed by her speech, and in addition, she caught the attention of some of the most influential feminists of the time: Anthony, Mott, and Cady Standon, all of whom — at the time — admired Woodhull, and welcomed her into the Suffrage Movement as a leader. Public speeches and performances of Woodhull’s met with full, jubilant crowds and, by many, for a little while, she was seen as potentially THE woman to secure women the right to vote and change the landscape of women’s rights substantially, because of her incredible speaking skills, her compelling arguments and her bold audacity.

But she wasn’t loved by everyone, and support for her would dwindle quicky and cruelly. Some feminist women, for instance — and many men — mocked her on the basis of her support of free love, the idea that people should be free to love whomever they may (protesting against arranged marriages, loveless marriages, marriages of convenience, as well as the gender divides between men and women in regard to marriage and love), for however long they liked, not have to exlusively be with one person for the whole of one’s life, and that the goverment should have no place in romantic, sexual or family affairs. Ironically, Harriet Beecher Stowe was one of her worst detractors, even going so far as to create a graphic novel parodying Woodhull as a vapid, immoral libertine who knew nothing about women’s rights. All the while, Beecher-Stowe’s husband, a reverend, was himself having an illicit affair.

Woodhull soon found herself evicted from her home. Her daughter was viciously harassed in school. She lost important clients. She and her newspaper had exposed two meaty scandals — one on a stockbroker who boasted about the young girls he sexually exploited, and onother on the Reverend Beecher’s affair — and were sued for libel (calling a woman a whore or an adulterer were perfectly acceptable, even when inaccurate: exposing a man for same, even when accurate, was not), which also resulted in death threats, threats of blackmail and the confiscation of all the newspaper’s property. Woodhull was painted as “Wicked Woodhull” or “Mrs. Satan,” by the public, maligned massively as a shameless Jezebel, a brainless twit, and the underminer of all things moral and good.

If you nominate a woman in the month of May,
Dare you face what Mrs. Grundy and her set will say?
How they’ll jeer and frown and slander chattering night and day;
Oh, did you dream of Mrs. Grundy in the month of May?

If you nominate a negro, in the month of May
Dare you face what Mr. Grundy and his chums will say?
How they’ll swear and drink and bluster, raging night and day;
Oh, did you dream of Mr. Grundy in the month of May?

Yes! Victoria we’ve selected for our chosen head.
With Fred Douglass on the ticket we will raise the dead.
Then around them let us rally without fear or dread
And next March, we’ll put the Grundys in their little bed. ~ the 1872 Campaign Song for Woodhull

As if all of that and more wasn’t enough to thwart her attempts for the presidency, just two days before the election, Anthony Comstock, under the Comstock Laws — laws which also, at the time, kept information on birth control from being distrubuted, and would also criminalize Margaret Sanger as well — arrested, charged and imprisioned Woodhull for sending obscenity-by-post for the Beecher expose.

What little chance Woodhull might have had — even at just completing her campaign, though it stands to mention that the Equal Rights Party was the largest third party of that election year — were gone. Ulysses S. Grant won the election, Woodhull became ill after her release from prison, went into seclusion, and in the final issue of her journal, backpedaled in support of marriage. She spent the rest of her life trying to earn some measure of societal respect, and eventually married again, becoming a Lady to the Baron she wed. While she made some humanitarian efforts over the rest of her life, it is unfortunately safe to say, they killed her feminist spirit.

Bear in mind, that in 1872, at the time of the election and her arrest, pending all of her other achievements, Woodhull was only 34 years old.

Most likely, however prepared Woodhull was for the ridicule she said she expected, like so many women before and after her, she wasn’t prepared for how extensive and how destructive it could be, to herself, to her family, to women as a class. She had stated in a speech at one time, “I am subject to tyranny!” Perhaps she didn’t realize how subject — or perhaps she did, equally likely, and took the risks she did anyway, knowing their value and import. The way things went for Victoria Woodhull is often the way things go for feminist women, for women who dare: it is a hard, but clear, reality, that the price of even our small gains is often terribly high, and quite often, even when we fail, we will be maligned, punished and ridiculed for even making the effort to try. The discomfort fighting for our equality may create may be so strong as to quite literally wear us out. To make those efforts all the same, no matter the contradictions, no matter the flaws, no matter the failures, is worthy of recognition, visibility and admiration, and Woodhull is one woman in history of so very, very many who all too often goes unseen and unsung.

Regardless, Woodhull left us several vital legacies. Regardless, Woodhull made very real strides for women other women before her had not made, and was very clearly a woman well ahead of her time. Victoria Woodhull and I have some critical things in common. Victoria Woodhull and I also have some vast differences and conflicts. All the same, Victoria Woodhull has my respect, my awe and my sincerest gratitude. Just knowing about her bold spirit emboldens me; just knowing about her endless efforts, how far and wide she reached, how much she gave to the things she held dear, and what grave risks she took inspires and energizes me.

This is the legacy of women’s history, and our history needs be seen, heard and celebrated.

My first introduction to Woodhull was at the age of 13, when I was doing a paper for my social studies class on muckracking (I think I even have that paper in some box somewhere), and as is often the case with women in history, my teacher had no idea who she was, and I had to dig deep in the library to find her myself: far, far deeper than I had to dig to find out about men who’d done even half of what she had. This is all too often the case with women’s history, even with women who have made amazing achievements. All too often we and everyone else know more about men who have done little to nothing of note than we do about the women who have shaped and challenged the world. The invisibility of our history — especially the history of women who have challenged the hegmony, rather than enabled and supported it — is part of the oppression of our class.

This month, each of our bloggers and board members will be writing an entry for Women’s History month, one for each day, to make this wide legacy of women in history, feminist historical events, strides and wins visible and tangible. We are asking each of them to pick a woman or an event led by women, to benefit women, in our global history to highlight. How they choose to do so — and what they choose to highlight — will be as individual as they are.

Should you need a few more words to motivate, I leave you with one last passage of Victoria’s: “If women would today would rise en masse and demand their emancipation, the men would be compelled to grant it. “