Tag Archives: grief

when the (white) mothers choose the abuser

Graffiti image of child spray painting the word MOMThis is a hard thing to write.

It’s been a painful few months. For you, too? I’ve been trying to get to the root of the heavy depression–despair, really–that I’ve been stuck in since November. Or even before November, but 11/9 is when it really took hold of all the insides of me, squeezed tight, shuttered me in with its bleak outlook: nothing is ever going to be all right again.

This, of course, is not true. So many of us have made it through impossibly painful times, and we have built up skills and tools for navigating the horrors of our world: governmental ignorance and abuse, a society that treats women and all folks of color like animals to be used and then discarded, that treats the earth like a garden to be plundered and then abandoned. My sweetheart last night reminded me of how scared we all were at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when no one really knew what was happening–and then, once we did know, the folks in power alternately pretended like nothing was happening and tried to force us to be even more terrified of sex than we were already supposed to be. But we got through it together, with rage and sex and laughter and art and community.

It does seem like life under this Rapist-in-chief (and his so-called administration) will be worse than anything most of us have had to confront in this country, and that we’ll have to build a whole new set of tools for surviving, for helping one another survive. But that’s work we can do, all while resisting and struggling for justice and change.

But knowing this wasn’t getting to the root of my despair. I’ve been isolating mostly, trying to get some writing projects done, but also just wanting to be alone in my house with the blinds closed. Maybe it will all go away. A child’s way of thinking. Maybe when I open the blinds back up, maybe when I wake up tomorrow, everything will be better.

But things kept not being better when I woke up the next morning. I sat on the couch and watched the rains come in over San Francisco bay, and every loud, low plane I heard I was afraid would turn out to be the Rapist’s first bombing raids on too-liberal San Francisco. When would the attacks begin?

This is old fear. I realized my behavior bore a strong resemblance — this despair, this fear, this isolating — to the ways I acted in the first months after I broke away from my family, when I was in my early twenties. I was honestly terrified that my stepfather would make good on his oft-repeated threats to send someone to harm or kill me and those I loved; every noise at night the old New Hampshire farmhouse where I lived with my then-boyfriend was the spy-friend of les’ climbing up the outside wall, about to break through the bedroom window with his weapons: the one attached to his body and the ones clipped to his belt.

So there’s the ache and memory of this terror, arising now because this Rapist now installed in the highest office of the land talks and acts so much like the man who terrorized my sister and I through our adolescence. The demands for loyalty, the gas lighting, the abusive teasing, the Orwellian-Newspeak changes in message or tone, the racism, the elitism, and, of course, the misogyny and sexual violence that he downplays as teasing or helpful or consensual — these were all tactics my stepfather used as well. These are the tactics of the common abuser. So many of us talked about this before the election. We talked about The Rapist’s  abusive behavior toward his opponents during the primary, his horrific language about and threats toward various communities of color, his malignant teasing of a journalist with arthrogryposis, his predatory behavior toward Clinton during the debates. We talked about the difference between “locker-room talk” and bragging about sexual assault.

Folks who supported the Rapist didn’t want to hear it. Folks often prefer to be on the side of power, the side of the abuser. Don’t we who have been through abuse — as children or as adults — know this?

So here’s the other abuser’s tool the Rapist-in-Chief wielded, one my stepfather also brandished, of course: he convinced the mothers that he’s the one in the right. That they shouldn’t listen to their daughters, their children.

That they shouldn’t listen to reality.

A week or so ago, I realized that was the link to this deep grief I was feeling — a grief so big I couldn’t even cry about it. The link had to do with that 53% of white women who voted for this man, this now our Rapist-in-Chief: these women sided with the abuser.

Just like my own mother did.

I remember sitting on the futon in the bedroom of that old New Hampshire farmhouse, just a couple of months, I think, after I first told my stepfather that I wanted to end the “sexual part of our relationship.” He’d moved quickly to get me to agree that what I was really saying was that I wanted to break contact with my whole family; it was his way of further isolating me from my mother and my sister. He threatened to harm me if I contacted them, which I didn’t do for awhile, but then I changed my mind. I thought, it has to be that my mother just doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what he’s been doing to her daughters when she is away at work, or over the phone, or at his office.

(Never mind that there was plenty of awful that she did see, that happened right in front of her– that happened to her — that wasn’t enough to push her through her fear (or whatever else it was that kept her tied to him) and get her to leave.)

So I decided to call and tell her. I was terrified. I brought the phone over to the bed, sat crosslegged at the far end, and dialed her number at work. Their secretary transferred me to her office, but she was about to go into a therapy session with a client; could she call me in an hour?

I spent the hour trying not to throw up from fear. She told my stepfather about the call, and so they spent the hour (I found out later) talking with my sister about how to contain Jen’s most recent “attack” on the family. My mother called me back. I took a deep breath and asked whether she knew what her husband had been doing to us.

She said, Yes.

This took all the air out of my body.

“What do you mean, yes?”

She gave me specific acts, which, I found out later, my stepfather had told her to specify. She said, “He told me about it.” And, “He’s sorry. He knows he crossed a line.”

I didn’t have any words. What could I say to this? Here was my mother, calmly telling me that she knew her husband had been sexually abusing her daughters. She wasn’t raging. She wasn’t telling me that she’d hit him with a paperweight when he told her, then called the police and was leaving him immediately. She just said, “I know.”

I don’t remember now how the call ended. But I remember the enormous blanket of grief that overcame me. What could be done now? Wasn’t that my last possible attack on this man who’d destroyed my childhood and family? Hadn’t it been my belief, all through my adolescence, that if I could just get up the courage to tell my mother what was happening, she would be outraged, she would take our side finally, she would make it stop?

But it wasn’t true. She chose him. She would keep on choosing him for another year or so, until my sister broke contact with them, and even after that — until we called the police and they were both arrested.

She chose him over us.

This is the sorrow that is so big it doesn’t have anywhere to fit in my body. This is  the grief that is too big for tears. This is the heavy lead blanket of despair that has covered me since the release of that fucking tape from 2005 of our-now-Rapist-in-Chief bragging about what he could do to any woman he wanted, and I heard (white) women from around the country excusing him. White men, too, of course — isn’t that to be expected? (Think about what Brock Turner’s father said about his son’s rape; the men so very often stand up for their own.) But here I was, still the abused girl, hoping my mother would step up for me, us, the country, when she heard the truth.

But she didn’t. More than half of the white women in the country, again, chose the abuser over the abused, for reasons I will never quite be able to understand, even though I can articulate some of them: Security? Defiance? Fear? Having spent many years working in domestic violence prevention, I know the dangers of calling out the abused women who stay with abusers — I know how quick we as a society are to blame women for their own abuse. And, too, as an abused child of an abused woman, I know how painful it is to have your mother turn her back on you in favor of the man who has been hurting her as well as you.

So, it’s complicated, this work.

As a white woman who voted against him, who spoke out against him, who joined with others in calling out his abhorrent behavior, what can we say to these women, some of them mothers, to get them to choose their children, and the children of others, over the Rapist?

Of course, women of color, all folks of color, have their own deep, historical (and present!) grief about white women choosing, repeatedly, to side with violent white men.

What will these women tell their own daughters, their sons, their children, about how to behave in the world? What can they say that will ever contradict they message they sent when they explicitly chose this man? It’s likely that their daughters will have to do the work for them.

My mother eventually walked away from her second husband. She eventually got out from under him, when he was sent to prison. But we have never quite reconciled that moment when I told her what he’d done to me, to us, and she said, “I know,” like it was nothing. Even if she was speaking out of her own brainwashing, her own abuse, her own terror (and I do believe now that she was) — that doesn’t undo the wounding to our relationship, the way it unhooked something inside me from what Mother was supposed to mean, from the possibility of having a mother.

What do we do when the mothers seem not to care about the abuse of the fathers? Here’s how I got through those early years of grief — well, I drank a lot then, which I’m not doing anymore. Bad tv helped, and movies that made me laugh, and then movies that made me cry hard. Long walks helped. And speaking out helped: telling the truth to people who could hear me, receive my words, who helped me to understand that I was not crazy — that yes, in spite of how my mother had reacted, what my stepfather did was not ok. Not even a little bit at all ever.

And so my work is to join with all the voices around the country, around the world, committed to speaking up over and over and over: no matter what the (white) mothers and fathers are telling you, this Rapist-in-Chief’s behavior is not ok. We are not crazy to be terrified and furious. We are right to be outraged and to work for change.

Take 10 minutes if you have the chance today and write what you want to tell the women, tell the mothers, who keep on choosing abusers over their children’s or even their own well-being. This might be a letter to your own mother, a character’s mother, or mothers in general. We need all the words of all the people now. Please keep writing and speaking, and be so easy with you–which, I don’t know about you, but has been hard work for me recently, this being easy with myself, but I keep trying, returning to center. Gentle course correction is the name of the game these days, I think. And hot tea. And chocolate. 

Thank you, always and every time, for your words.

 

 

*I think I’ve mentioned in the blog that I refuse to use this man’s name, and intend to refer to him as The Rapist or Rapist-in-chief (I preferred Rapist-elect) for the next four years

the other half of the country said No

No (SFSU Sticker graffiti)

What is there to say? What can we who didn’t want this possibly say?

I haven’t looked at the news yet this morning.  I was up until after 1am, just scrolling through Facebook and Twitter feeds, trying to find something. Solidarity. Hope. Someone announcing that there had been a mistake, that a cache of uncounted votes had been located, that disenfranchised people were going to get their constitutional rights back just in time to make a difference in this election. That this was a mistake. That he announced immediately that it was a joke, he was just kidding, god, he never actually wanted the job. I wanted someone to announce that it wasn’t really happening. That I was dreaming.

I got more and more numb as the evening went on. I didn’t want it to be true — this isn’t really happening, is it? More than half of the American people who voted weren’t actually voting for this man, were they? Weren’t actually telling him that his actions were acceptable, even admirable? Weren’t telling him that it was just fine for a man who said “I could shoot someone on Fifth avenue and still get elected” to actually hold the highest office in the land? I don’t have to list all the horrors for you. You know what they are. They’ve been in the news endlessly, repeated, mocked, memed, lampooned, shared with disgust, fear, astonishment — and still, here he is.

What can be said this morning? That people love to be on the side of the bully? I get stuck there — people love to be on the side of the bully. And he is nothing if not that, the man who stands in front of the whole world and openly mocks just about everyone who is not him. He’s even mocked his own supporters (I was about to write followers — this looks so much worse than a presidential election to me: more like half the country said yes to a cult leader.) More than half of the country said yes.

White people voted for him overwhelmingly. This wasn’t a landslide of sexism. Last night a friend said that more men had turned out to vote in this election than in any other in American history — and that they were voting for this man. But have you seen the infographic making the rounds that shows whites overwhelmingly voting red, and people of every other race voting blue? We can talk about sexism and misogyny, of course we have to talk about sexism and misogyny, but we also have to talk about racism. This was (is — goddamnit, I don’t want to have to use the present tense) a victory in our country for white nationalism.

I have felt horrified and disgusted after elections before. I called W. “Resident Bush” for all the years he was in office. I woke up after the Supreme Court made their decision similarly furious that Bush and his cronies got to gloat, got to win, got to stand in front of the American people and pretend like they earned something.

But something about this morning is different, of course.

This is a man, openly endorsed by the KKK, is going into the white house. There’s something I want to say about never underestimating power’s rage, how hard power will fight, how hard people will fight to keep their power. Can it be  that millions of American citizens love and admire the fact that this man stands up in front of them and openly mocks his opponents, threatens to harm them, encourages violence against them? Can it be that they want an America that looks and sounds more like what this man does and says?

My limbs are numb. I am too afraid to even be aware of feeling afraid. But under that, I am so fucking angry.

This is a vindication for Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen — this is a vindication for all the rapists. Let’s be clear: there have been rapists in the white house before. Probably most of the time that there’s been a white house. But can we at least state with certainty that there hasn’t ever before been a president who stood in front of the country and, when it was revealed that he had bragged about sexually assaulting women, bragged that he would and should have sexual access to any body that he wanted, said it was ok because other people (a former president) had done worse. He hid behind the stories of women who Clinton assaulted, and then he threatened to sue the women who came forward to tell their stories of his assaults. So, it’s a new thing to have an out, admitted rapist in the white house. I’ve decided to call him Rapist in Chief. How grand for us as a nation.

Of course, we’ve also never before had a president who has never held any kind of elected office. We have decided as a country that we value someone vulgar and unprepared for the office over someone who has been learning the ins and outs of the american governmental system for forty-plus years. We want someone who has filed many times for bankruptcy, we want someone who fought to keep from paying his workers even four dollars an hour, who would regularly refuse to pay people with whom he had contracts — this is the man who is going to bring jobs? Are there truly people who believe this?

What is the point of saying all of this this morning? Of rehashing what we already know?

The hope I have this morning, if I have any at all, is that the other half of the country didn’t think this guy was a good idea. The other half of the country said No.

Here’s what I thought last night: we are going to have to fight like hell for the many communities who are now under threat. Let’s not make any mistake — these are the same communities who have been under threat in this country forever: folks of color, women, immigrants. But our rapist-elect has said explicitly and openly and repeatedly that violence against these communities is acceptable. Who knows what the next four years will bring? Any of us with any measure privilege are going to have to put ourselves on the line, to stand with those who will be under assault. We have already seen violence done explicitly in this man’s name — what will happen now?

This is what we as a country have reaped – white supremacy (back) in the white house. What are we going to do about it?

I saw many posts last night in my Facebook feed encouraging folks not to grieve, but to organize. Protest. Fight back. And we will organize. We will fight back. We will spend a generation fighting back against what he and this congress is about to unleash. And we must grieve also. We must mourn.

It’s ok to take some time to sit in whatever emotions are up for you this morning. Write them, if you have it in you to do so — maybe not publicly, if you don’t want to, maybe in your notebook. Scrawl it out. Shout into a pillow. Consider how you’re going to do holiday meals with people who voted for this man, this government, if you have to — my home state went quite red, and I’m sure there are those among my kin who voted for this now rapist-elect. What will I say to them? How do we as a country so horrifically divided find a way to speak across these divides? I heard a reporter on NPR last night speaking to a Republican official; this official was wondering how the rapist-elect (he didn’t use that term) was going to reach across and help to heal the divides in this country. And the reporter said, “But does he really want to do that? Does he really want to heal anything? Isn’t this divide part of what got him elected? Isn’t this part of what he worked for, what he wants?” The government official didn’t have a good answer for that.

I haven’t looked at the news yet this morning, though I know that I have to. I know I’m going to have to see his face, hear his voice, now, for the next four fucking years, listen to him gloat about winning the country on a platform of exactly nothing. So much for his brand being ruined. So much for polls, predictions, all those pundits who told us this wasn’t going to happen.

I guess what I want to say today is that I’m outraged, and I am not surprised, and that lack of surprise is a terrible feeling. I didn’t want it to be true, that our adolescent country would go for brash bullying and farcical pretense over any kind of substance whatsoever. The white men won yesterday (and the white women stood with them, and helped).

 

This morning I am turning to Sharon Welch’s book, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, for words to help me remember how to hunker (back) down for the battle — this battle isn’t new. It has been going on for hundreds of years. Welch says that our “situation calls for an ethic of risk, an ethic that begins with the recognition that we cannot guarantee decisive changes in the near future or even in our lifetime. The ethic of risk is propelled by the equally vital recognition that to stop resisting, even when success is unimaginable, is to die.”

In the next paragraph she says, “As we, too, resist the evil of racism, seeing its connections with other forms of structural oppressions, we need to learn that failure to develop the strength to remain angry, in order to continually love and therefore to resist, is to die […] for if we cease resisting, we lost the ability to imagine a world that is any different than that of the present: we lose the ability to imagine strategies of resistance and ways of sustaining each other in the long struggle for justice.”

We cannot give up. Many, many people were galvanized last night (I can only hope). Many more will be. We will have to raise our children with the language of resistance, with the models of social justice warriors who came before.

We need your words today — and tomorrow, and for the next four years. We need your songs and your plays and your paintings and your many. many acts of artistic truth telling and resistance.Thank you for all of your words, today, tomorrow, and all the days after.

how we build our own traditions

Good morning good morning. It’s later than I wanted it to be, but also, I suppose, exactly the right time. The candles are lit, and I’ve got coffee that was magically waiting for me when I went downstairs to make it. I’m still not quite accustomed, I guess, to being with someone who rises earlier than I do.

At 6:30 am it’s still dark outside, but the tree is lit up, and the candles help make small pockets of light in this beautifully-fertile dark time. This is the time of year, right around the winter solstice, when I remember — when I work to remind myself — that all I can ever actually see is right where I am, and the very next step in front of me. For all of my planing and visioning and hoping and waiting, all that’s ever certain is exactly what is, and the possibility of the very next moment. I like the early hours because I can let the dark enfold around me while I release these words, no Klieg lights on them, no inspection, no harsh interrogation. They slip from my fingers through the soft caress of the candlelight and into the quiet morning to be exactly what they are.

Something in me is slowing down. This is a time to rest, to pause, and even to honor what got done this year. I come to the end of the year and check my bank book and call myself a failure. While everyone around me is rushing about to buy their beloveds all of the christmas presents, I’m trying to decide whether I should resurrect the girl I was at 28 and start making candles again to give as gifts. Already, the baking I do every winter season is underway — this year I have it on my list to bake 14 different kinds of treats: red velvet pinwheels, pepparkaker, cinnamon nut brittle, Russian tea cakes, extra spicy double-chocolate cookies, raspberry thumbprints, Meyer lemon shortbread, anise-almond biscotti, multicolor spritz, buckeyes, cardamom nut bars, anise pretzels, kifli, and Hungarian cream cheese cookies with apricot lekvar. We’ll see if I get to them all.

Around the baking, the annual holiday grieving is also upon me. This is meant to be a time of family and celebration and tradition and remembrance, but my most vivid christmas memories from childhood tend to be pretty awful, which impacts how I hold this time of year — or rather, how I can allow it to hold me. In my 20s, I began to recognize the winter solstice as my winter holiday of choice, even as I went home (when that was possible). The oldest winter festivals of the people I am from in eastern and northern Europe centered around the solstice — this honoring of the dark, and welcoming, too, the return of the sun. Solstice, for me, was something deeper than christianity, something deeper than commercialism, something that helped me think about how to tend and trust the needed, quiet dark within myself.

This year I grieve, too, that I have reached this earliest middle age and still I have none of my own holiday traditions or legacies. After she and her son went to pick up a tree for her house, my sweetheart and I unpacked her holiday ornaments so that the three of us could decorate the tree. She told the stories of each one — this one her son made, this one she made, this one was from her mother’s tree, these were from the collection of her beloved friend Franco, this one she and her ex bought when their son was… and so on. I stayed knelt down by the box of ornaments, unwrapping and trying to keep myself from crying until after the decorating was done. I wanted to be right here, in this moment, with them, making new memories that would form the basis for something solid in future years, not grieving what was lost. But I slipped into the grief anyway. Where were my stories? For all of my affinity for Solstice, I have celebrated Christmas every year of my life — and yet, I’ve got no collection of ornaments to bring to this tree, none of my own stories to share. Instead, I enfold myself into someone else’s stories, traditions, family customs. Mine stayed tucked away and lost. Through two marriages, I gathered no history in the form of shapes and colors that get hung on an evergreen tree every late December. How could that be?

But the truth is that I left those stories behind when I left the relationships — I couldn’t bring them forward with me, into a new life, into a new relationship — onto a new tree. If any of those ornaments had come with me from my childhood, the story would have been different — those I would have claimed. But I don’t have those. I am fortunate, I guess, that my parents do. When we go to my father’s house for the holiday next week, we will see the brass angels that my father’s mother had made when my sister and I were born, engraved with our names and the dates of our birth, and we’ll remember. We’ll remember something before. We’ll remember decorating his tree, which only happened before my mother married the man who would sweep us up into his cape and disappear us from the world for awhile. We’ll remember those oldest Christmases that were still fraught but tender and sweet all at the same time.

Slowly, year by year, my sweetheart and I are building our own collection of holiday stories in the form of ornaments, memories we can hang on the tree, those images that act as placeholders for a history we choose to claim publicly and visibly. Building connection and relationship and history can only work like that, can’t it — year by year, minute by minute, standing in the circle of light, looking out at exactly what is, seeing where our feet and hands can go next.

This morning, as I looked over the stacks of tins that hold all the cookies I’ve made so far, something else occurred to me — in this annual cookie-a-thon, I’ve developed my own holiday tradition, something I can carry with me anywhere, and that connects me to the women in my family who shared love through food (butter and sugar, especially). I make my mother’s anise and almond biscotti, my grandma Cross’ peanut brittle, my grandma Sherman’s Russian tea cakes (I can’t actually say whether she made these, but I have strong body memory of eating them at her house, so the association lives in me anyway). I think about the hands of these women in my own hands, I remember their power and grace that existed even when they failed, and I think about how they kept going. For all of her loss and all that I wish she had done differently in her life (and in my own and my sister’s), my mother never gave up, and I am grateful for that.

So today I will listen to more christmas music and weep and bake more cookies and start packing up the gifts I can afford to send: some butter and sugar and flour and history and tradition and hope, darkness and light altogether blended.

Here’s to your heart today, to the stories you carry and the ones you release, the stories you miss and keep searching for. Here’s to the ways you trust your own ability to create tradition that can ground you in connection and community — such risky, necessary, terribly beautiful work. And of course, as always, here’s to your good, good words.

what do I do if I am from them?

(Just a heads up, my loves — I’m talking about racism and torture in today’s post, and there’s some graphic language here. Take care of you, ok?)

Good morning, good morning. It’s still raining outside my windows, though not nearly as hard as it did yesterday. I stayed home yesterday, avoiding the traffic and flooding and falling branches — I’d been feeling guilty about taking care of myself that way, thinking that I’d bailed on plans to visit my sister for no good reason (outside my window in downtown Oakland, things didn’t look so bad — some heavy rain, but isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in Northern California in the winter?), but then I saw photos of a car in standing water up to its roof on Ashby Ave in Berkeley, and I heard that downtown San Francisco had lost power, and I heard about the traffic accidents and snarls all up and down I-880, and I figured, well, maybe it wasn’t a terrible thing that I stayed inside.

Funny how, even after all these years, I second-guess myself after making a decision on behalf of my own well-being when I think someone else might be upset or disappointed by my choice. I have to find evidence to bolster up that decision: just saying, Wow, it looks like it’s going to be really bad out there, I think I’d rather stay home, isn’t enough for that voice inside always telling me that I’m selfish and thoughtless. This struggle around trusting myself is a part of my trauma legacy, part of this aftermath I live in, part of this ongoing work of recovery.

(Not really funny, after all. Just sad. A little more work to do.)

I have been grieving a lot recently, as so many of us are, and thinking about the legacies of trauma and loss. Last night I watched the Australian movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, the story of a fourteen-year-old Aboriginal girl and her two sisters who are stolen from their family and tribe, driven (in a cage) 1200 miles away to a mission run by white settlers, and who subsequently run away and begin to walk the 1200 miles to get back home. If you haven’t watched the movie, I encourage you to do so. I hadn’t seen it since I was living in Maine, when my ex and I rented it and watched it in our little log cabin out in the woods, and I wept and wept and wept. Same thing happened last night as the credits rolled.

I cry partly because this is a story about sisters in trouble, sisters who have to trust each other, sisters who get separated. These are the same tears that rise in me when I watch The Color Purple or (re)read Danzy Senna’s book Caucasia. I think about all the ways my sister and I were able to save, or at least help, each other, and all the very many ways that we couldn’t help each other, how we had to suffer and survive alone, and how difficult that has made our relationship in the aftermath, and how stupid and terrible it is that we had to go through all of that horror in the first place.

But some of those tears last night were tears of grief and shame and sorrow that the people I am from could (and continue) to perpetrate crimes like this on the lives and bodies and families and lands of other peoples.

These days, in America, we are talking about the crimes that majority white police officers commit against and in communities of color. And, now, threaded into this conversation, we have a conversation about the uses of torture. About when and where torture is acceptable. About what forms of torture is acceptable.

This is the kind of cultural conversation we are capable of having in this country: is it ok to kill an unarmed 18-year-old boy for stealing some cigars from a convenience store? is it ok to kill a man for selling cigarettes on a street corner? Is it ok to waterboard someone in order to force them to reveal information they might be holding? What about throwing them against a wall? Or keeping them awake for 7 days, with their hands chained over their heads?

We are able — even expected — to be able to discuss these things calmly, rationally. What kind of dehumanization is required, what kind of profound disconnect from our empathy and human feeling, is required to not be filled with rage and sorrow upon hearing any of these news stories? How armored do we have to be to debate something like the value of torture?

With the addition of this language of “torture report,” I find listening to the news too triggering these days. I shut off the radio. I know about torture. I know about sleep deprivation. I know about brainwashing and terror — my stepfather claimed to have learned the techniques he used from the CIA.

(I just can’t understand how newscasters all over America aren’t breaking into tears every time they sit down to do their jobs. Why aren’t our newscasts filled with sobs, smeared mascara, red-rimmed eyes? How do they keep from wailing in grief and disappointment and horror?)

What’s got me caught this morning is the grief that these are the people I come from: I mean, from white people, white “culture,” white ancestry. I come from people who homesteaded in the midwest (which means they got stolen land and claimed it as their own), from people who kept other people as property, from people who have developed, over thousands of years, the ability to so profoundly  dehumanize other humans that they can treat them like animals (as though even animals were worth treating the way my people have treated other humans).

This horror is a part of my legacy, a part of what’s at my back. As white folks — especially liberal white folks — we like to distance ourselves from what has come before, and from people who actively act out in racist ways. We say, Oh, but I’m not like them! I’m not that kind of white person. I have taken comfort in that way of thinking myself. I’ve thought, Well, yes, white folks enslaved folks from Africa, but I didn’t do that. My mom and dad, they didn’t do that. It’s not our fault.

What do I want to say about this today? Mostly that I am filled with sorrow and grief at having ancestors who did these things, at coming from a people able to develop institutions that have wrought devastation across the world, like the Catholic Church, the Mormon church, the Atlantic slave trade, the Anglican church — that I come from a people who believed that the highest aim of a person’s life ought to be to distance themselves as much as possible from their human body, and yet could treat women’s and children’s bodies, the bodies of folks who looked different from them, as things without value.

I am from the people who could even conceive of, not to mention design and implement, the American Indian Boarding Schools, the Magdalene Laundries, the Salem witch trials, from men with the capacity to perform the cognitively-dissonant gymnastics necessary in order to declare “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” while also owning other human beings as slaves.

Here is where folks often like to jump up and remind a speaker that there were Africans who kept slaves, participated in and profited from the slave trade. Yes, there are folks from other cultures who have done damage to their own and other communities. I’m not talking about those folks right now. I’m talking about the folks I’m from. My people.

We talk about the the intergenerational legacy of trauma. We talk about post-traumatic slave syndrome. I come from the rapists and slave owners, from sociopaths and torturers. In order to undo racism (starting with my own), I have to reckon with that. How do I hold this truth? How do I move with it?

Victor, a participant in a conversation among men of all races captured on film for the extraordinary and powerful movie The Color of Fear by Lee Mun Wah,  at one point reminds the (white) man he’s talking to that in order to become white, folks have to shed their ethnicities — we have to walk away from that which makes us Irish or Hungarian or Italian or Norwegian or French or even English if we want to be white. We have to forget our ancestry. There is no white culture, because there is no such thing as a “white” race (as so many have said so often before me) — instead, we who choose or sublimate ourselves to whiteness have to capitulate to the demand that we not be of a particular ethnic culture. We have to forgo our people’s foods, clothes, ways of speaking, ways of caring for each other, ways of tending the land (and then, of course, feeling that terrible void in the absence of the who and what and where we are from, we steal the culture of others in an attempt to fill ourselves back up again).

And, too, we demand that those we force to submit to our control to give up their culture as well (the Africans and Indigenous peoples forced to relinquish their languages, food, religions).

Some of the work we did in unlearning racism trainings I participated in back in the day invited white folks to acknowledge and name their ethnic ancestries, and share something of that culture with the room: a song, a dance, a recipe, a story. What of ourselves and our humanities have we relinquished in order to call ourselves white?

I don’t have answers today. Today I am grateful for the rain. I am grateful for the capacity to recognize and feel grief, to mourn what has been done in my name, what terror white supremacy has wrought all over the planet. I remember change happens one person, one connection, one generation at a time. I remember that it is my job as a white-skinned person to continue to speak out, recognize and name privileges I am given, to stand back and listen and share and honor the voices in communities of color sharing their reality and sorrow and truth.

And I remember that the child of a rapist is not doomed to become a rapist. We can make different choices from those of our ancestors. We can hold what is true about the path while going about the difficult and necessary work of creating a wholly new future.

grieving what we couldn’t do

Good morning this morning. Here where I am, there are three candles flickering in their glass jars, and the rush of traffic has begun to pick up on the highway a few blocks away; sounds like the tide coming in. The birds are still sleeping, like the puppy. What are the morning sounds where you are?

I am sorry to have been so absent from this space of late. Yes, I’ve been spending as much time as possible with my sister’s new baby. And when not there, with her, being functional in some way, I’ve been– well, crying, mostly. This has been a surprise. I knew that my sister giving birth would be enormously powerful and even triggering, given our history. I didn’t know it would tear open wounds of my own that I thought had long healed.

It’s been hard for me to write during this time; the stuff I’m trying to find words for is big and complicated and layered, and has to do with, among other things, my own loss of a child 12 years ago, and my relationship with parenthood, with mothering in particular. It took me almost a week after my sister’s child was born before I sat down with a notebook to attempt to write anything at all.

Let me not convey the impression that I’m not ecstatic about this small one who’s come into my sister’s life, her husband’s life, my life… my wordlessness has a lot to do with not being able to figure out how to articulate just how amazing is his very existence. Where did he come from? How can he be? My little sister is an amazing mother. She is patient and generous, she is worried and anxious, and she is wholly in love with this new being she finds suddenly outside of her body and cradled in her arms.

I don’t want to be anything other than happy right now. I don’t want to be envious or wrapped up in my own loss. I don’t want to be plagued with thoughts that maybe I could have done this work of mothering after all. That maybe, if I hadn’t had to spend two decades trying to heal, I could have done something more with this life.

When my ex-wife got pregnant, I had been away from the man who’d brainwashed and abused me for seven years; I didn’t understand why I wasn’t all better. She was capable of being a functional adult — why wasn’t I? Why couldn’t I show up better for this part of our lives together?

When I was in my 20s, I did not believe that I could or was meant to mother. I was afraid of harming a child, of being a harm to a child just by the very fact of my presence. It didn’t matter that I enjoyed spending time with kids or that kids enjoyed spending time with me or that I had no interest in hurting a child or that I hadn’t hurt any of the children I’d spent time with. I was afraid afraid afraid. Afraid I couldn’t show up for them, the way my parents turned out not to be able to show up for their kids. Afraid I wasn’t healed enough to be nurturing or spacious with a child. Afraid I was too selfish or narcissistic (as my stepfather had told me) to be a parent. Afraid my stepfather would make good on his threats to claim and violate any children in my life. Afraid I would never write again if I had a baby because I had no boundaries and few skills or tools.

And then there was a baby, an almost-baby. But he did not live. And I have been grieving him all over again this weeks.

What’s reaching out in me are the parts of myself that might have had a chance to flourish if not for being crushed by the heavy rock of my stepfather’s violence. I have spent the last 20 years chipping away at that enormous stone, and after all these years, I’m finding little bits of things still alive — withered and broken, but alive: oh, look, maybe, for all my self-protective storytelling, I really did want to be a mother. I could have been one, and I might have been good at that work, even in the face of all the negative messages I got about women who nourished and nurtured.

I keep imagining maybe I’ve done the bulk of my healing and then, wham, I hit into a brand new vein of loss and shame and grief, and I’m thick in recovery work all over again. Maybe it will always be this way.

What I am feeling these days is joy, yes — and also regret, and sorrow. And anger. I am angry that my big accomplishment in this lifetime is survival; that I have spent my whole adult life not building a family, not building a career or retirement or security, not writing books, not putting down roots anywhere, but instead simply trying to survive and heal from what was done to me when I was a teenager. This is my big work: staying alive in the aftermath. And today I am angry that this has been my life’s work, my magnum opus. I miss what could have been. I miss it in the insides of my arms, against my neck, in the places where my own child’s breath might have been, if I had been healed or functional enough to try again after that baby died.

It is not fair, how much work we have to do to keep going. It’s not fair that we have to devote time and attention to healing that we otherwise might have turned to creative projects or family or work or community change work or something, anything, else. It’s good and important and necessary work we do every time we choose again to persist in our healing.  And, I don’t know about you, but there are days when I wish I could have spent that energy on something else.

Today I will spend the day with a woman and man (my sister and her love) who survived long enough and worked hard enough to find their way to the place of enormous risk and love that is parenthood. And I will be with this small new human, just 10 days old, who only just learning what it means to have a body, to be in this lifetime. I will keep on learning with him.

(No particular prompt today: write as you are feeling drawn to write, ok? Find your way to some words. Thank you for the space you have made for your own healing, and the way you held on to the oldest dreams in you that persist in spite of the violences you’ve had to endure. Thank you for surviving, and for learning to do more than survive.)