Here we go

This is another post in observance of Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month.

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At the bus stop with a group of parents waiting for the big yellow bus to return, the topic of a classmate comes up. One of the parents learns of the puppy-love friendship between Girl from the East and the son of his best friend. We talk briefly about the boy, how he’s sweet and quirky. A future Conan O’Brien type, we say.

The bus squeals to a stop. The doors hiss open. Girl jumps out and races toward us.

Other parent, to Girl from the East: So, I hear you are friends with Little Conan.

Girl: Yeah, he’s really funny.

Other: Oh, he’s funny all right. That kid cracks me up.

Girl (through explosive giggles): I know. He always wants to touch and hug.

The other parent and I trade mouth agape, wide-eyed looks, turn to Girl and ask again: WHAT?

Girl: He’s always wanting to touch and hug.

Oh.

That kind of funny.

Here we go.

Time for the first of many, many, many talks.

_____

I laughed when that happened, but inside I knew that it is time to sit her down and have a talk about the right and wrong types of touching and hugging. It’s never too early. I need to show her that I am comfortable talking about these things. The hope is that she’ll feel comfortable enough to come to me with questions and concerns in this area. Make it clear to your kids and make a promise that you will keep that if they ever come to you with a report of something happening in the wrong touching/hugging category that you will act on it. You will not dismiss it in any way or call it a misunderstanding, an exaggeration, or an illusion. Good people will understand a parent’s concern. Better a few moments of embarassment than a lifetime of pain. We all know when something goes over the line. Kids know. We know.

Thank you.

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The one thing

April is Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month. This post is a coming out of sorts for me, so if you’re reading this know I am squirming a little, no, I’m squirming a lot, on the inside. I wrote this as a part of The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse, a monthly online event. Can we prevent child abuse? I don’t know. The one thing I do know is no one should suffer in silence. Talk. Tell. Report. Help. A life depends on it.

——–

A first-grader's interpretation of me

The other day a friend sent me a link to Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s 2006 “This I Believe” essay on NPR. Gilmore writes of his struggle to overcome addiction and find peace. One line snagged that loose thread I always have trailing behind me:

“I basically managed to break my own heart.”

Until I read that line, I don’t think I ever acknowledged that I had done this to myself.

How do you break your own heart? Let me count the ways: Maybe you skip school on field day, where you qualified for three events, including relay; or you burn all your artwork and poetry in the fireplace and not submit it to the school’s creative publication; or fail to show up for your college graduation ceremony; or break up with the first guy who says he loves you; or walk away from honest, kind people and chase after projects and enigmas. You do it out of habit, believing you are diverting attention away from yourself. Really what you are doing is serving yourself before others in the most unloving way possible.

As Gilmore says: “It came as a great shock to discover that my real spiritual problem was not a product of the world’s condition, but of my own self-centeredness.”

Over and over I lost friendships and love interests because I couldn’t get past myself and this unnameable thing inside me. The worst part is I failed to see this. I’m still struggling.

The one thing I know now that I didn’t know then is that this stuff came from somewhere outside myself.  For the longest time I thought it hatched from a dark, unreachable pocket within me, almost like a partly formed twin. It must be so because all I ever heard was: We don’t know where she gets this stuff. Not from us, I’ll tell you that much.

Healing teaches that at some point you need to take responsibility for its long-term residency, no matter the terms of occupancy. You are the landlord. Issue an eviction notice.

Long before this knowledge, these inklings of wisdom, someone knew all about this unnameable thing. She watched. She kept quiet. She wept inside. One day many years later, she sat me down and told me everything (because she was tired of watching me do it all over again to myself) and said she was sorry she watched in silence. She was scared of consequences. She wanted to make up for all those years. So she loved me with all her heart. She put me above herself, the greatest gift anyone can give. I hold that love in a little box inside my heart, all that is left of her.

I am a woman of 47 years, a wife,  a mother, a survivor. I paid my way through college. I made a respectable if not modest place in the world for myself. I am old enough to know better but inside I’m still that skinny, hollow-eyed girl with the bull’s-eye on her back, the one who wasn’t pretty enough, smart enough, or anything enough to capture the attention of anyone with good intentions.

Tina Fey, in “A Mother’s Prayer for her Child,” implores: “May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty …”

Obviously, there is a connection between the unprotected, the damaged, and the predators, who will find that loose thread and pull you in.  It’s so easy to spot the damaged ones, the unprotected ones,  especially girls.  Maybe the kindly grocer didn’t see the mark on my back, but the wicked doctor did. Who would believe anything bad about a doctor  – back then?

I dreamed that when I grew up I would magically transform into a golden, blue-eyed goddess, an iridescent rain forest butterfly. I’d rise above.

You should be a writer, they said, you have such a wild imagination.

What was the truth? Where was the line between fact and face-saving fiction? Who knew anymore.

Year after year, sitting in one hard plastic chair after another, in one institutional counseling office after another, a middle-aged woman with red half-moon glasses or a balding man with the beginnings of a paunch and an IBM pocket protector, would lean in closer as if to count my blackheads, asking again and again:  “What is bothering you? Why are you fighting the world?” They’d ask, but I had no idea what to say. Were there words for such things? If so, did you say them out loud? I wasn’t fighting. I was hiding. I wanted to be let alone, ignored.  But this not knowing, this dark thing within, churned until it shaped a cold stone. It’s taken decades to chip away. It left a deep impression, one that cannot be smoothed away.  Sometimes I cannot resist the urge to run my fingers over its rough terrain.

Others taught me how to break my heart. Long after they were gone, I continued swinging the bat. At some point, I set down the bat and accepted the offer of healing balm. Books saved me. Writing saved me. Words in books opened a world of possibilities. If I couldn’t transform on the outside, I could decorate my insides any way I wanted. I could hatch a forest of butterflies within.

Every day, I continue to do so. Three years ago, I answered a call for help issued by the troubled local public school system. They needed volunteers for their literacy tutoring program. It hasn’t been easy. The conditions, the children, the system is a mess. The teachers are stretched to their breaking points. In spite of the obstacles, I keep at it.

Today,  I feel I have found my calling: I want to teach children how to read. Reading is power. Reading is hope. I don’t know what I’ll do, where I’ll end up, but I do know that reaching out to children in need feels right, the right-est anything has ever felt.

Week after week, building a bridge of trust, forging a bond, no matter how tenuous, you realize how vulnerable children are, how much power adults wield, how carefully you must tread. It’s dizzying how much trust children place in adults when they have no way of knowing what intentions lie within.

In his essay, Gilmore says:

“I finally discovered the beautiful, paradoxical truth that genuine concern for the welfare of others is the gateway to the only real satisfaction for myself. I cannot claim to consistently live up to this ideal, but it is with genuine gratitude that I can say I have come to believe the words of the Indian philosopher-poet Shantideva:

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery in the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.”

Reading helps.
Writing helps.
Letting go of the self altogether helps most of all.

 

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Shades of April

April is Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month.

Did you know? Here we are midway through April already and I’ve been so busy with school and tutoring work and getting my Girl from the West ready for graduation and beyond that I’ve barely posted, nary had time to shed sunlight and sprinkle water on the seedlings nestled in my drafts folder.

Yet, in spite of the blossoms and beauty unfolding around me, it’s been a month of anguish. Since last fall I’ve written a series of posts that I don’t know what to do with: put in the book I started? post here? post somewhere else? save for my next therapy session?  All month I’ve read the poignant posts written by other survivors and supporters. I’ve thought about their words and stories, examined my resultant feelings, attempted to piece together the puzzle.

All this material, while important, is raw and a triggering mechanism. I’ve not yet reached that place where I can read or write about any kind of abuse situation without reliving it on some level and then shutting down. Not only do I put myself in a vulnerable spot, but I worry that I place my children in precarious places, too, when I am not fully present. It’s important to be present with your children.

Growing up in a household of present-but-absent parents, I know what it’s like to be figuratively bleeding out on the floor, with no one paying attention. Maybe you get handed a bandage, maybe you’re told it’s god’s punishment for something you did, or maybe you stop trying to get noticed, keep quiet, go find a bandage and tend to your own wound. I know what it’s like to gather the courage to speak to someone in charge, only to have that person wave you off as “overly imaginative.” I wondered: why don’t adults listen?

While I’m still learning how to ask, I am acutely aware of the walking wounded around me. I haven’t always had the courage to speak up about my life, but I’m not shy about calling the police or reporting to authorities when I see abusive behavior unfolding around me.

I did it when I saw a young man assaulting his girlfriend in my college apartment complex. I did it when the downstairs neighbors in that same building fought so loudly the walls shook. Earlier this school year I spoke up about some things that disturbed me with certain children at the school where I tutor. I’m not always thanked. My former neighbors retaliated. The teachers and administrators bristled at my remarks, suggesting I lacked the proper training, suggesting I was making judgments about their skills.

But I know what I know and I will continue overstep my bounds if I feel something is not right.  It if means I lose a job opportunity or a reference, so be it. I’d rather sleep at night knowing I did the right thing. I’d rather walk away red-faced, having misjudged a situation, than turn my back on a child who is wishing at least one grown up would pay attention and say something.

Meanwhile, during this month there are heartfelt posts blooming all over the Internet, little gardens of hope and healing hidden between all the bombast and trivia dominating the online world.

Writer Alexandra, also known as The Empress, writes  “A letter to those of you who grew up in dysfunctional homes.”

Thank you, Alexandra, for writing this letter. You are clearly farther along the road than I am. That is OK. It’s all a journey made one footstep forward and three back at a time. If you are beating yourself up over things that were done to you but not your fault (even if someone did a great job of convincing you it was your fault) this letter sets things straight.

Another blogger, From Tracie, dedicates her site to open and honest writing and advocacy. She also hosts monthly blog carnivals that focus on awareness, healing, and survivor stories.

There are many shades of April, but every day should be one of awareness and prevention. 

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Back end

Object is much smaller than it appears

I found this unhatched robin’s egg on the lawn, abandoned for whatever reason. Being the person I am, I couldn’t walk away. I cupped my hand and carefully lifted the egg from the grass, nesting it on my palm for the short walk inside.  I set it in a small ceramic pinch bowl and considered it for a few minutes. Did the egg plummet from a nearby nest?  Is it a stolen egg dropped by a panicky, clumsy predator? Worst of all, did it pop out of the old girl while she was worm hunting?

The answers aren’t important. These past few weeks have been havoc on my patience and will. My husband answers my complaints of every day veering madly off course and what about all my plans and goals with ‘this is the stuff of life.’

Buck up, sister. I’m glad I have his voice of reason even if it sometimes makes me want to strangle until an egg pops out.

Sometimes it’s just too many lost eggs, too many scatter-brained middle-age mother moments, too many predators peering in the blinds, too many embarrassing moments when you’re worm hunting and something unexpected pops out of your back end.

 

Deal or no deal?

Someone I met recently shared some potentially deal-breaking information with me. The kind of information that makes you think you jumped in too fast. It was personal, but necessary, information. This made me realize how much I judge, shape an opinion, decide the worthiness of someone,  and how much of it is based on appearances.

In this case: my opinion was very high because this man is always very well-dressed,  mild-mannered, eloquent, and impossibly polite by today’s standards. It’s as if he just stepped down from a Victorian-era hansom with top hat and walking stick in hand. I mean this in the most complimentary way. He always appears to be the epitome of the true gentle man.

Then, because we are considering working on a project together, we began talking via e-mail. There came a turning point, when he had to bare a small part of his soul, something only those who need to know know,  in order for me to gauge whether I could take on the project.  I didn’t see it coming. I’ll admit I had to take a deep breath and process.  I was thankful this happened virtually rather than face-to-face because my expression may have betrayed my feelings.

The man he is today is the result of a painful process involving grievous mistakes and inescapable consequences. There’s probably a lot more that I don’t know — but might if I sign on to this one. So, what now? Walk away? Proceed with caution but draw clear boundaries? Forge ahead without prejudice?

Would I have been less shocked if he was a slovenly, ill-mannered sort of person? Why did appearances play so heavily in this matter? How well do we know anyone in our lives?

This got me thinking about my life and how I seem to others. If you don’t know my back story, you could come up with any number of conclusions about me. I’ve heard them all. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. I could go to the same store dressed two different  ways and receive very different treatment. If I go in a skirt, makeup applied and hair styled, I get attention. If I go in paint-splattered pants, bare-faced, hair twisted in a clip, I’m ignored. I’m treated one way when I’m with my children at the park, quite another when I’m at a concert venue in high heels. Is this fair? Is this right? I don’t know but it’s the way of things.

Recently I gave up trying to be friends with someone. I thought we clicked, that we would be fast friends. At first I think we were, then something changed. I don’t know what I did; I can only assume I committed a deal breaker. Slowly it occurred to me that she was dumping me.

She started saying things like: I thought you hated (insert name of my favorite band/food/wine/restaurant.) so I didn’t ask/invite you.  She started recalling details about me that were not my story: that I had carpal tunnel syndrome, that I was a homebody who never liked to go out, that I contradicted myself.

It hit me then: She didn’t know me at all and really didn’t want to. She just reached a hand into the junk drawer of her brain and pulled out scraps to form her idea of me. She had already made up her mind.

Deal breaker.