Race, Power and the Flu

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I have been battling the flu and with it I have had time to confront my own feelings of inadequacy in terms of the appalling violence that has been occurring in the US. My tendency when sick, to my stomach or heart, is to retreat into paralysis, and besides a few Facebook posts, spend my grief in fetal position feeling isolated and alone as an expat.  Sometimes I wonder if my living overseas is not an escape, an avoidance of responsibility to the deeply flawed nation that raised me.  To my American students, mostly white, I teach intercultural competence and urge them to see the unequal power structures that plague our world.   Some take their privilege head on and want to learn more; others avoid the topic all together and disappear.  The latter is what I have been doing lately with the weight of the hate-filled violence I have been reading about.  I am effectively speechless and breathless, perhaps the cause of my hacking cough and fever.

I have known for some time that my task at hand, is to find my voice and to never shut up.  It’s an ability that I have had since I learned to speak.  But now in my mid-thirties, after having recently survived an abusive marriage where my voice was essentially silenced, I find it hard to say anything at all.  Yet I also now know the savory taste of freedom, of autonomy, of an unencumbered heart, and a mind teeming with ideas.  Why is it, then, that my words do not find their way forth? Today I have decided to push past this silence. As a one-year-old takes her first steps, I am attempting to form my first words, as awkward as they are eager.

I will begin with my heart which is in pain, no longer because of the trials I went through but because of the state of the world.  It seems that violence has become commonplace as a way to exert one’s power over another, and it is done mostly without consequence because of the failings of the justice system.  Even if justice were fulfilled after such horrific events, we would only be alleviating heartache with a band aid, not with a cure.  True healing comes when we change the system and culture that produced the murderer, and the ethos of fear and hate that provided him the ideas and the weapons of mass destruction to carry out his dirty deed.  I am referring to white supremacy, male supremacy, police brutality, homophobia and the mass shootings which have become all too familiar.  But how do we even begin to change such a massive and destructive structure under which we are just a pebble?

I believe change begins as a spark in the inner most point of our hearts.  The spark might feel like anger, pain or sorrow, but it carries a hint of hope. And if you listen to it, validate this tiny energy with your conscience, it grows stronger and pretty soon a flame evolves and you start to feel its warmth.  If you can be still long enough to notice it, you can warm yourself from its heat and encourage it to grow into self-compassion, then into believing in yourself, into believing you matter, into discovering you have power, into using your power, propelling you into action.  What is this action? It is whatever action you are lead to.  Life has a remarkable tendency to lay trials and opportunities before you at just the precise moment.  But you have to be awake to notice them and to discern the right, the just, the good action.

We are all different beings on this earth, with different pasts and different futures, and yet we are all connected as part of one wonderful whole.  What our world needs is more voices to question the status quo, voices of protest, voices of love, more than ever. We need to trust our own voice when it comes from the heart, even if we then decide it could have been said better.  Silence is the world’s biggest enemy, because most of us know that something is gravely wrong and if not righted, the future of humanity is at risk.

Yet we say nothing. Like me, in my fetal position, silently hurting.  It does nothing.  In fact, my silence is most harmful to myself, because I end up reinforcing my paralysis, believing that I can do nothing, that I have no power, until I forget I even have a voice.  This is a function of oppression, to believe one’s inferiority.  It is incredibly dangerous because it is the most insidious way that privilege or tyranny, which is the same, stabilizes the current power structures, eliminating and invalidating descent. Don’t collaborate with the culture of fear and hate, say something!  If we start to speak up, others will feel that they have permission to do as well.  When two people are talking, we have a dialog, with three, we have a conversation, when a community of people speak up, we have a social movement, and on and on.  This is how it starts, one voice at a time.

Sensing Twilight

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sunsetCharred-black silhouetted
pine trees against
the blue-grey dusk.

The sound of rhythmic velcro
as my flip flops kiss
the damp dirt road.

Cool air brushes past my arms,
and the first flickering stars emerge
from behind the dark cloak of clouds,
that still retains the moon,
prolonging her enterance
into the magnificent night sky.

The lazy barking of a dog
gives way to the
quiet whisper of waves.

With the taste of salty humidity on my lips,
I inhale the scent of stillness,
after a sudden summer rain.

Walking Poem

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rocky Maine shoreThe Sea breathes gently in my ears
as the light surf strokes the rocky sand
in an ancient song that began before the invention of time.

It was not long ago that I mastered the art of scampering
across this rugged Maine shoreline,
first carefully testing each step
then hopping from rock to rough patch of sand
to slippery seaweed covered ledge.

It was here I first learned about beauty,
that the pulse of nature that surrounds us,
is the same that sustains us from within.

Today my feet skip and spring in graceful memory
of the rhythm I have danced so many times gone by.

Today I find new meaning in this timeless,
perpetually shaping coast.

Today I understand the wisdom
in the lessons learned here.

For it is honest and wise to be cautious before stepping,
But there will come a time we must trust in the dance,
and only in letting go do we learn to leap.

Still Standing

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coss in the clearingAfter the ashes have settled,
around the burning crosses,
and the billows of gray fog have lifted,
I will be there.

Perhaps a bit torn,
tear-stained tattered,
rip-frayed shabby,
bruised,
but standing.

You will find me in the open,
where you will be able to see me clearly,
in my state of
fractured wholeness.

You might even notice
a certain lightness about me,
as I smile in sincerity,
my presence- an embrace,
my love- no longer for the taking.

I will offer it only as a gift,
a healing source,
that only a liberated soul
can bestow.

And I will call out with melodies of strength,
to those who are listening
for a way through these ashes,
towards the clearing where I stand.

Only those with ears attuned
to these vibrant longings and holy hymns,
will hear my song,
and only those that hold,
the ambivalence of justice within their souls,
will turn and follow through,
with their open hearts beating,
and their blessed voices singing.

They will join in sacred harmony,
for our Ways are many,
but together we are a Psalm.

Wildflower

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IMG_20150424_085651477I want to be a wildflower,
growing in the shadows,
of jagged mountains.

Fragile, fleeting-beauty,
simplicity in being,
rebellious in the face monstrosity.

It is a difficult deed,
to open one’s petals,
before ominous giants.

Tiny and frail,
the memory of calamity,
ripe within its roots,
submerged in rocky soil.

It’s a gradual awakening,
eternal in its stubbornness,
in search of light within shadows.

Becoming in blooming:
Alive in defiant Grace.

Abuse: My Story

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I don’t understand why victims of domestic violence blame themselves, but we do.  Even now a year after leaving, I don’t have feelings of anger or hate for my ex.  The hardest emotion to deal with these days is my own shame over having stayed for 12 years, for having enabled him to manipulate me, for having ruthlessly forgiven time and time again, his intimidations, aggressions, and infidelities.  But what hurts me the most is having believed that staying was the right thing for my children and in doing so, I exposed them to a concept of home that I would not wish on anyone.

Even early in our relationship he had angry outbursts and would call me names that he would later regret and for which he would apologize.  I was young, inexperienced in love and was still suffering the effects of having been socially excluded for much of my childhood.  Angry exchanges were also not uncommon between my father and I as an adolescent, so I figured it was part of love and that passion drove people to say things they later regretted.

Then my ex began to use my deep insecurities around belonging, to justify his opinions and manipulations, saying that I could not argue with him because I didn’t have any friends or know many people.  As a foreigner without my immediate family or friends nearby, it was difficult to hold my ground in a disagreement, especially when he used cultural difference as a justification.  Despite considering myself an intelligent and independent woman, I played his games because I so badly wanted to believe that I had the perfect family.  Getting married I now realize, gave me a status in Lima society that I did not have as a young single foreign woman.  The fact that an attractive and well-respected man had decided to spend the rest of his life with me, helped me feel worthy of love, as if I had to justify my existence.  I had previously been afraid that nobody would want me, despite being attractive and quite successful in my studies and career.  I am still struggling to understand this.

Around the time of my first pregnancy he began to develop a drinking problem which grew until he was having a couple liters of beer every evening.  His personality would change from depressed and withdrawn to insulted and aggressive, sometimes with words and other times with pushes, shoves, kicks and throwing things.  When my first daughter was born, he left me alone in the clinic, reeling in pain from an unnecessary and traumatic c-section.  The doctor told me I should not speak after the operation so as not to fill with air, which would cause me great pain, so I said nothing.  Today I can’t decide which hurt more, the physical or emotional pain of birth.  Both were devastating.

It became hard to ignore that he had serious psychological issues and I begged him to see a psychologist.  But because I had already had a few depressive episodes in my life and was now dealing with post-partum depression, he argued that it was in my head and I was the one who had the issues.  I wanted to seek help for myself and take antidepressants, which had helped me in the past.  He ridiculed me, comparing antidepressants to illegal street drugs.  Half believing him in my debilitated state, I took on his problems as my responsibility, to understand and support him as his wife, when I was the one who desperately needed understanding and support.

When I gave birth to my second daughter he reacted the same way, leaving me the next day to go out drinking with his friends and “celebrate.”  By this time I vowed not to ignore his serious problem and when I became even more depressed post-partum, I sought help for myself and was able to convince him to do the same.  He was diagnosed rather quickly as having bipolar disorder.  The diagnosis gave me new hope that there was a way to make things better.  It fueled my belief that he would change and that it was my responsibility to heal him with my love.  After all, I had taken a vow before God, in sickness and in health.  I had my own issues, who was I to throw the first stone? Despite caring for a newborn and a 4 year-old, my whole life revolved around him.  More important was how he was feeling and if he was following his treatment, which he was not.

He continued to drink despite being forbidden by his psychiatrist.  His medication would make him sleepy but it did not hinder his anger before it took effect every night.  Now that I had instructions from the doctor to “help” him follow a routine, avoid alcohol etc. he felt controlled, which made matters worse.    I am keenly aware now that I was also trapped in my own addiction, to be his savior, to the disturbing point of self-denigration.    I was so deep in my own denial, thinking that I could solve the problem of his out of control behaviors by not reacting, by enduring, by forgiving, by kicking him out for a few days, by giving him lectures etc.  Meanwhile I was suffering in silence and shame, lying to my family and friends about my marriage, and tending only to the physical side effects caused my emotional turmoil.  I kept telling myself that I was strong, that I could take it, for a better future, for my kids to grow up in a whole family and because he needed me and could not survive without me.  This continued cycle after cycle of abuse. Living in survival mode, I was prepared for almost anything, or so I thought.

One year ago this month, I came home from a work trip to find, my then six year old, daughter angry and upset.  I thought it was because I had left her for a week but later in a moment of tears she explained to me that she had seen her father with another woman, kissing on the sofa without any clothes.  She had run to her bed crying and crying, alone and afraid, she yelled that she did not want another mother.   Her daddy later told her not to speak of the event and that it was just a bad dream she had had.  Never had I imagined he would go so far.  I was left breathless as my denial came crashing down around me.  He was never going to change and this time he had deeply hurt his own daughter.  I made him leave for good, which was not easy, but he eventually did.

It has now been a year and I am still processing.  Some days are actually good and I feel hopeful, while others are a struggle.  I have only recently begun to call my marriage abusive.  Previously I avoided the term because I felt it was beneath me, that in doing so I was calling myself a victim and therefore weak.  Abuse is not supposed to happen to women like me and if it does, at the first sign I’m supposed to get myself out.   But shame and so many other ideas and feelings kept me trapped for 12 years.  In truth, no one is exempt from being manipulated and abused.  It happens, unfortunately, quite frequently and sometimes the more we believe we are invincible, the more vulnerable we actually are.

I share my story now on the other side of disaster because I know I am not the only one out there.  Other victims’ stories have inspired me and given me the strength to speak up.  I want to do the same.  If you are experiencing anything similar to what I have, no matter what gender, age, or sexuality, it’s not worth staying.  If you’re not sure what you are experiencing is abuse, inform yourself, talk to someone whose opinion you trust (not someone who will say what you want to hear) or reach out to someone who is objective like a therapist or call a hotline.  I spent the first part of my separation trying to forget the awful things I lived through.  But the truth is, the emotional pain you don’t give voice to, will erode you from within, as it did me.  I am now learning for the first time how to be whole and to love myself for who I am.  It’s a wonderful feeling and I hope that you will join me.