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.”
Letting go of the self altogether helps most of all.