picking up what we put down to save ourselves

It’s quiet in Oakland this morning. Can you hear that? No bird sounds yet, no animal noises — I can’t hear the sounds of the raccoon or cat or squirrel or stellar’s jay that’s digging at my just-planted jonquil bed, but I can hear a surprising number of cars on the freeway for quarter after 4 in the morning.

(Today’s post contains language of sexual violence and psychological manipulation; be easy with you as you read, ok?)

I’ve shifted out of my usual writing space so that I can sit in front of a window with a view of the eclipse. The morning air is crisp after our stretch of surly heat, the sky is clear and the stars are bright, and when I went out to see my sweetheart off to her plane, I looked up and there was the moon, mostly in shadow with a little cusp of bright white curling out on one edge. Oh yes. The eclipse. I missed the blood part, I guess — at this early writing hour, I just get to be witness to the moon’s reemergence. I suppose that’s just right.

I’ll tell you, though, it’s hard to concentrate on writing when I could be watching the earth’s shadow shift across and away from the face of the moon.

Good morning. What sounds are waking up around you this morning?

I’ve had occasion recently to go back to my college transcripts. I’ll be headed east soon for a trip through New England that will include the campus where I was living when I broke contact with my stepfather, when I had to withdraw from school because my parents refused to pay if I was going to make choices that were at odds with my growth — this was their language, his language: as a psychopath with access to the domain of psychotherapeutic terminology, he claimed that any time we made choices for our life that weren’t in line with what he demanded of us, we were making “fear” choices. If I did not choose to allow him to have sex with me, I was making a choice that was unenlightened and small-minded. So there I was, a once-promising student, a smart kid, with no money, and no instructor or administrator or advocate willing to hear what was going on for me and help me navigate this new place of independence. I was too terrified to tell the school what my stepfather had been doing to me, as I had reason to believe that he might make good on his threats of violence against me or the people I cared for — I didn’t even go into therapy for a year or so, out of fear that he might be able to access the therapist’s files and come after me for whatever I said. I withdrew from school, had to take a failing grade in one of my courses because one of my instructors was unwilling to allow me to take an incomplete in order to finish her coursework when I was out of crisis. That quarter my transcript shows an A, a C, and an F.  I left school after the fall of my senior year. It took me two more years to finish my degree.

Any future I’d been imagining for myself was gone. Eclipsed.

Don’t you think, if you were looking at the grades of an otherwise high-achieving student who suddenly was receiving much poorer grades, you might want to check in with that student to find out what was going on? But no one did. Perhaps the administrators tasked with student well-being had messier folks to contend with; after all, to most folks, at least up to that point in my college career, I appeared to have it all together. Maybe I drank too much, but everyone I spent time with did — that was our college culture. Unless I told them, I don’t think most of the folks I was friends with then would have guessed what was going on for me at home — or in hotel rooms or bedrooms when my stepfather came to New England (alone) to visit me at school.

I am grateful for the raised awareness of sexual violence on college campuses these days — and I hope that school administrators are keeping in mind that individual response to sexual violence takes many forms, as does the violence itself. There are students on their campuses dealing with violence not from classmates but from family members or HTHs. How do we help those students while we are also targeting the use of alcohol as an anti-inhibitor and reminding folks of all genders that yes means yes and no means no? That slogan means nothing when you have been taught from early adolescence, childhood or even infancy that nothing, actually, means no.

For the first time, I’ve been mourning the loss of the trajectory I’d been on, the loss of that potential. Yes, it turns out I didn’t actually want to design user interfaces for artificial intelligence data collection systems, and I haven’t ended up using any of the combinatorial maths that I spent so much time with — and yes, I trust that my life as unfolded just as it was meant to (because that’s the way it unfolded. It’s a tautology, sure, but it’s still a philosophy that works for me.)

And yet — that smart girl got derailed, and derailed on purpose.

All over the country — all over the worldunder the still-emerging light of that bright full moon — bright, clever, curious children are being suffocated under the weight of the violence done to them. They are turning themselves inward. They are turning away from what they love, because what they love can be used against them. They are learning to distrust their creative instincts and curiosities. They are learning that there’s no room for intellectual wonder — how can you take the spaciousness necessary to give yourself over to deep curiosity and discovery when so much of your creative genius must go to keeping yourself alive and as safe as possible?

How much potential is lost — stolen — in this way? How much energy is devoted to thwarting the next violation that could be turned to other pursuits — math or engineering, social change, poetry, literature, music, dance, conservation, life?

Recently I’ve been feeling quite jealous of my friends and beloveds who didn’t have to deal with this sort of onslaught, this attack on their potential. I am jealous of those who, apparently unobstructed, got to fly free into the breadth of their lives.

This morning, the man in the just-revealed moon looks like a dragon. Maybe a phoenix. They say that as long as we are breathing, we are free to make a new choice, free to turn our lives in another direction. And today I am grateful to still be alive, to have had the opportunity to course correct my life so very many times. I still, after all these years, want to give that young woman from my past what she deserved — an opportunity to fully devote herself to her intellectual and creative wonder; the chance to prove her mettle and fully embrace her genius (as we all deserve to embrace our own inherent genius); the understanding that she can redirect her psychic energy away from fighting off the intruders or keeping watch for further invasions, that she can set down her armor and her mace and her knives and her wary eyes, and open her mind back up the way she has begun to open up her heart. He convinced her that she was not smart — after all, would a smart girl find herself suddenly standing at a bank of payphones at 21 saying to herself, Now wait a minute — what he’s been doing is incest! after nearly ten years of violence at the hands of her stepfather? Would a smart girl have gone into those rooms with him? Would a smart girl have believed all of his lies and manipulations?

Eventually, way inside, she put down smart. He had claimed the world of smart for himself, and she didn’t want anything to do with it.

It’s taken all these years to walk back through and into the darkness, into the woods, to stand over the overgrown spot where she left smart half-buried under pine needles and leaf mould. She takes it up into her hands and dusts it off, but can she trust swallowing it back into herself again? Can she trust the vulnerability that opens in her when she falls into the place that is more curious than protected?

Can she imagine living the rest of her life without that part of herself? Doesn’t she get to take back everything that he tried to steal from her?

The moon is unveiled again; there’s just a smudge of shadow at her nadir, and she’s slowly sinking into the west, dropping down toward the sea. I am grateful today for all that you have reclaimed, all the gorgeous and complicated parts of yourself that were used against you by abusers and violators. I am grateful for your wisdom and strength, your spaciousness with yourself, and I hold with you those tears for what has been lost. And, always, I’m grateful for your words.

3 responses to “picking up what we put down to save ourselves