Why Now?

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“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.”
― Muriel Rukeyse

And my truth?  Whose world would split open?  What if I voiced those truths that never make it past my windpipe before decades of conditioning and the threat of consequences, pushes them back down to my gut with that invisible fist of censure and shame.  I described my stories as heavy rocks, lodged in my throat, like a dam holding back the flood of my secrets. She looked straight up at me, inquisitive, then wrote down the word ‘rock’.  My metaphors for self-silencing – rock, fist, a steel door – all solid, impenetrable, weaponized and threatening.  The stories stick in the back of my throat.  I swallow them back down, but inevitably, they bubble their way back up, like vomit after too large a meal.

#Metoo happened, with a sudden explosion of women (and men) sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse.  While many welcomed these stories, and, in some cases, shared stories of our own; others balked at the revelations, condemning the speakers and speculating on their motivations.  Why now, is the current refrain.  It’s a ridiculous question, for it would always be ‘why now’ no matter when now happens to be.  Now is inevitable.  Now is that moment that the dam burst.  In this watershed moment, right now, I timidly rose my hand and whispered ‘Me too’.  But it ended there.  I could not go further before that rock/fist/steel door pushed it all back, insisting ‘Not now’.

I see this image of my entire family – both the living and the dead – all standing together with one finger raised to their lips, admonishing ‘shhhhhh’.  Hold your silence.

  • You’ll hurt your sister
  • We won’t believe you
  • The past is the past
  • That’s not how it happened
  • You made it up
  • You made it happen
  • You didn’t stop it
  • Why now?

Collateral damages.  My family.  My friends. My partner. My children. My abusers and their protectors.  My stories are dangerous and unwieldy. They detonate. They are no more magnificent in their horror than the stories of so many other women, but they’re mine.  The implications are mine. Telling is a dangerous act.  I’ve done it before.  Telling is also a powerful and healing act.  I’ve felt that before.  These two aspects, the dangerous and the powerful, work in tandem in the act of telling.  I felt this incredible release putting my memories into words and voicing them, however hesitantly, to another person.  Sometimes I told the right person – the person who just listened, who did not rush my story along, who was not looking for some sort of resolution, some salvation at the end of the story.  I also told the wrong person(s) – the one’s too close to the story – the ones looking for a dénouement, or the ones who turned the story into an interview, a witness statement:

  • Are you sure?
  • Did you fight? Did you say no? Did you scream?
  • Did you report it?
  • Why? Why not? Why now?
  • Why now?

Then, the rock/fist/steel door goes to work pushing that story back down to that place inside me where my secrets live. And the cycle of repress-bubble up-boil over-disclose and repress again continues.

The trauma of sexual abuse is like a mouth ulcer.  No matter how hard you try to ignore it, your tongue seeks it out, irritates it; retreats, then repeats the process.  It’s there disrupting the ordinary business of daily life. It’s Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, beating beneath the floorboards.  I am here.  I will expose you. I will not be ignored.  And that, in a nutshell, is why now.  One way or another, trauma outs itself.

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I said #Metoo, but I stopped at that.  I choose not to share the details of my stories.  I don’t believe they add anything significant to the conversation, nor would recounting them now do anything towards my own healing.  For myself, this past year has been, even before the #Metoo movement, a series of constant triggers, where the very language and postures of men like Trump and Moore, as well as the vicious attacks on their accusers, has produced an intense visceral reaction in me. I am flung back into the memories and anguish of my own abuse, as well as the pressure to keep quite. Raising my hand is enough for now.

 

Flu Bug

Day four of the flu and the floors are filthy.  Dust and dog hair blanket the stairs and the beanbag is leaking onto the carpet.  I’m not a clean freak, but I appreciate a clean floor.  It’s probably better right now not to look.  For four days I have stationed myself in my bed, sleeping, reading and obsessing at my twitter feed.  It may be better not to look at that either.  But while I’ve languished in my sneezy-coughy-self-pity bed with a jumbo toilet roll, sticky cough syrup stains and a wastebasket filled to the brim with my symptoms, the world outside has gone crazy.

Donald Trump is spewing truly insane threats (from the golf course) to North Korea and the NFL, insulting the mayor of Puerto Rico in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and emboldening white supremacists with such success that Jo Walsh (a former congressman ffs!) has decided the time is right to openly use the n-word on Twitter.

Yes, it’s probably better not to look, but how can I not look.  It’s mesmerizing in a grotesque, horrific way, like happening upon a terrible accident with blood and gore and broken bodies scattered on the road, and yet despite the repulsion, you find yourself hypnotically transfixed, trying to make sense of the dis-articulated debris that lays before you — trying to reconstruct what happened in the moments before all that metal collided.  How did we get here?

Have we ever not been here?  I keep hearing and seeing the refrain, ‘this is not who we are.  This is not what America is about’.  But what, then?  This is the deadly intersection of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, corruption, greed, jealousy and unfathomable depths of hatred, fear, and rage, all colliding together.  Hasn’t this always been at least some of what America is about?

I don’t live in America anymore.  Some folks might say, I am talking out of turn, from the safety of my flu-bed in Ireland, with my jumbo toilet roll and a kitten sleeping at my feet.  But for nearly forty years, America was all I knew.  It’s where I grew up, had babies, and tried to make sense of all the accidents that informed my reality.  Even if Jo Walsh wasn’t using racial epithets on social media in those years, you can bet your ass someone was always using them somewhere, every day and always – in bars, on the streets, at the dinner table — everywhere.  Yes, even in Ireland.

As I write this my Twitter feed is buzzing with news of yet another mass shooting; this time in Las Vegas.  So far, the reports indicate that the shooter was a white man in his sixties. . . so, I guess the media won’t call him a terrorist . . .

I have no nostalgic memories of a non-racist America.  There’s not a ‘before’ the neo-Nazis came on the scene.  They were always there.  What has changed is that now blatant scenes of bigotry, fascism, and misogyny have been downgraded to political ‘opinion’, and legitimized as ‘discourse’.  An American president speaks off the cuff of nuclear annihilation, incites racial violence, denigrates vulnerable people, and stomps about the world stage like a schoolyard bully, and the people love him.  The same people who revel in their newfound freedom to spew their hatred and act out their prejudices in this ‘new normal’ where flag, president, whiteness, and Americanism are all conflated in the single image of an angry, white millionaire with access to the big button.

Hyperbole?  Just the flu talking?  340252_10150276880562734_8388344_oGod, I hope so, but, I’m not so sure.

 

 

 

 

Just move along folks, there’s nothing to be seen here.

 

547496_10151407331792734_1766816933_nFrankie, the evil, green-eyed dust-mop.

I have absolutely no plan or structure in mind for today’s blog.  Things feel a bit chaotic lately and I’m having one of those days where I just want to see it pass by quickly, go to bed and start over in the morning.

The two-day induction for the new job begins tomorrow morning, and because I do anxious so well, I am anxious about how I will prepare in the morning, whether I might struggle to find the place, my sat-nav failing me, my car failing me, or just showing up with a bad case of stupid that steadily increases throughout the day.  I’ve literally (and I do not mean virtually, I mean ‘literally’) sought work at least three days a week for the past eight months, so this is a ‘biggie’ for me.  Hence my level of anxiety.

Then, of course, there are the dogs and how they’ll cope with having me away from them for long hours at a stretch when they usually have so much time with me.  I spent the last couple of days arranging the house and the garden for them and finding someone to come in a couple times a day to check on them, give them their dinner and bring them into the house a few hours before I get home.  I know we’ll cope, but it’s a big change for us.  Hopefully, everyone will adjust to our new routine without too much trouble.

Meanwhile, I made a decision regarding Leslie’s ashes.  I decided to scatter her at Hook Lighthouse.

hook

It’s a place I’d planned to take her when she was meant to visit last March.  It feels symbolically right to me as an image of safe passage, presence and hope.  I think Leslie would approve.  Sadly, she doesn’t really have a vote on this one.

So that’s that.  Not much else to say.  I start a new job; I have a sister in a box inside a drawer, but she’ll be moving somewhere better soon; and I spend an inordinate amount of time fretting over road trips, dogs, changes and more changes.  All and all, that comes under the category of ‘mostly normal’ for me.

Hopefully, I’ll find more compelling matters to write about in the coming weeks. 🙂

A locket, a box of ashes and a flu bug.

FOR LESLIE

How strange the things we do with our dead.  When Eoin died we had a five-day wake at the house, followed by the traditional funeral mass (in Irish), burial and reception.  It was such a fog, really, and mercifully so.  Leslie was cremated and the majority of her ashes were scattered at a place in Utah where Leslie enjoyed hiking and camping trips.  Very generously and sensitively, her husband put aside a portion of ashes for me and my mother posted the ashes, plus a small locket with a tiny urn inside that contains another smaller amount of her ashes.  I wore it all day today.  The box of her ashes rests in a drawer in the spare bedroom, for the time being.

It’s been a weird week.   I interviewed for a fundraising position a couple of weeks ago.  Late last week I was notified that I had the job.  I have a two-day training next week in Dublin, and if I’m lucky, enough fuel to make the commute.  Meanwhile, I also caught the flu last week and still feel a bit rough from that, and I have a box of my sister’s ashes in a drawer.

I feel anxious about the box of ashes — as if I need to do something about them, or as if by putting them inside the drawer in an unused room, I can avoid accepting that Leslie is gone, because if nothing else, those ashes are irrefutable proof that she died and I can’t call her on the phone anymore.  I really miss talking to her.  This drawer strategy isn’t working so well for me.  I thought, at first, I’d put her ashes aside for awhile until I came up with the perfect spot to scatter them. Then, I would come up with some meaningful time and ceremonious method for scattering her ashes, and some form of closure might ensue.  I may need to rethink that though.  Keeping her in the drawer doesn’t feel right.  Nothing feels right.  I miss her; and the box of ashes, no matter where I keep them whilst I inevitably procrastinate the scattering, just amplifies this feeling of longing and loss that has no simple cure.

Today I took the dogs to Ferrybank for a walk.  I was watching them play in the water and thinking about Leslie’s ashes and it suddenly struck me that I simply must make a decision and get on with the scattering.  Soon.  I haven’t decided exactly where yet, but somewhere close, somewhere I visit regularly enough so I’ll have a place to go when I need to feel close to her — somewhere I might have taken her to see if she were still alive.  I need to do it soon though.  She wouldn’t like being inside that drawer.  I don’t like it either.

 

Six

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.  

William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Act 4, Scene 5

 

Six years.

Eoin O’Nuanain. !Presente!

eoin and ciaran

Eoin (right) with his brother, Ciaran. In Derry, 2006

 

Six months.

Leslie Marie Jones. !Presente!

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Leslie (left) with my son, Alex. In Austin,  2008

The Thing is

“to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”

Ellen Bass, from ‘Mules of Love: Poems’ 2002

Thank you for this, Professor J.

Writing the middle aged body

no makeup

“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.”

— Helene Cixous, ‘Laugh of the Medusa’

When my sister died at the age of fifty-three — too young, too unexpected — my body marked my grief.  I visibly aged, with lines deepening upon my forehead, changes to the texture of my skin, and a ten pound weight gain that sent me into a ‘vanity panic’, the likes of which I had not experienced in years.  I want to say I’m over that now, but I’m not.  I do try to work through it; to change my way of thinking about my body as something beyond a visible surface or structure.  I try to imagine it as something more fluid that melds with, and is part of all of me — my thoughts, intellect, temperament, tastes and such forth — without specific lines of demarcation.  My body-as-me is in mourning.  The aching in my bones, the lump in my throat, the anxiety — even the clumsiness — are the physical manifestations of my grief.  All that I experience, whether it be grief, pleasure, fear or a sudden flash of brilliance, my body experiences.  Why on earth would I castigate this part of myself for something as natural and reasonable as aging and weight gain?

We (women) are judged.  We feel judged.  In turn, we judge ourselves and others. That is the message my sister shared, again and again, through countless telephone calls of self-denigration, always directing the conversation to the weight her body carried.  Always making apologies for the appearance of accumulated fat, as if the space she took up in the universe presented a repellent offence to the imagined order of the world’s landscape.  Leslie went far beyond feeling ‘dissatisfied’ with her body; she loathed it.  Adjectives Leslie used when describing her body:

Disgusting

Flabby

Huge

Enormous

In her rants (for they were rants) she chided herself for having ‘let herself go’.  She blamed her boredom, her isolation, the lack of support from the people in her life.  She talked of her hurt feelings, in particular the pain inflicted by our father’s scathing comments and judgement, and the pressures (all our lives) to conform to his (and society’s) idealized version of what a woman should look like.  She was right about all of it — the pressures, the boredom –all that was real.  She was wrong about herself though.  By medical standards Leslie carried too much weight.  That, however, did not make her ‘disgusting’, ‘enormous’ ‘ugly’ or whatever negative adjectives she used to describe her physical appearance.  Leslie’s body, in all its variations of shape and size throughout the years, was Leslie. Leslie was loved.  I loved her.  Many people loved Leslie.  And Leslie was beautiful.  Always.  I wish Leslie had lived long enough to accept herself and her beauty.  I wish she were still here to love herself fully as herself.

Leslie was wrong about herself, but she couldn’t avoid it.  Most of the women I know worry and complain about their bodies and their appearance.  The ideals and expectations of what women’s bodies represent, what they mean, how and for what purposes they are valued, detach and alienate women from their bodies and condition us to scrutinize our own and other women’s bodies in the service of an impossible and thoroughly arbitrary standard.  If, for instance, the current ideal of female beauty is a genetically blessed, slender, perfectly proportioned seventeen-year-old, possessing  the valued skin tones and facial features of the day, then even the rare few who meet that standard are already doomed to failure, regardless of their efforts to maintain it.  Bodies change, and to some degree, so do standards.  At any given time, conventionally beautiful women are like billionaires (only with less long-term security).  Sure, they exist; but not as a statistically significant representation of human bodies.  So why buy into such a ludicrously impossible standard that wrenches us away from appreciating and nurturing the bodies that we have and are?

So in the spirit of Cixous, (and no doubt to the horror of Leslie in heaven), I (im)modestly present my presently middle-aged body.  Some of its original parts are missing — a couple of tonsils, a molar, a kidney — but it seems reasonably intact.  I am blessed with strong and healthy limbs that function efficiently, if not always gracefully.  My immune system serves me well, and though as I’ve aged, I find myself less tolerant of wheat and dairy products, I have a healthy appetite and no significant digestive complaints.  There is nothing wrong with my body, yet if I stand before a full length mirror (clothed or otherwise) in less than thirty seconds my eyes will start clocking flaws.  Hereditary flaws, age flaws, bruises, bulges, bumps and my much maligned stretch marks.

new stretchmarks

And here’s the thing: It is not so much having these particularities on and of my body, but, rather, that my eyes register them and my brain interprets them as ‘flaws’.  In that instant I dupe myself into validating the fabrication of a standard to which my ‘flaws’ are measured; a standard that annuls all bodies of their particularity.  Hogwash!  If I faithfully wrote my middle-aged body, its story would have little to do with the inertia of standardized beauty, its flaws instead marking segues and ruptures in its (my) half-century’s journey in this life.

A scar on my upper lip marks my first encounter with stitches, and evokes the memory of playing ‘Batman’ with Leslie, tearing through the living room in the first house I remember living in, and splitting my lip on the coffee table.  It also reminds me of my father telling the story, again and again, of watching the emergency room doctor stitching me up, and how my eyes crossed as I tried to watch the process.  I love the scar because it is the conduit to a memory I treasure.  So too, the freckles on my shoulders — the result of a second degree sunburn acquired on a hiking trip with my father, sister and my sons.  My flesh is a travelogue of mundane scars marking clumsy accidents and a surgical one that tells of surviving cancer.  These stretch marks that I’ve vainly tried for so long to hide, reduce and wish away, merely record that  my belly had once stretched to full capacity to accommodate my first son.  Laugh lines, worry lines, loosened flesh — the body of evidence that I have lived, loved, lost, learned and experienced.  My flesh never abandoned or betrayed me.  It has faithfully transcribed my fifty-two years with an accuracy that words cannot.  Indeed without this body I could not write or speak any words at all.  I simply would not be.

So, while I wont be stripping naked and charging down the High Street to proclaim and celebrate the wonder and beauty of my body — I will give it a ‘thumbs up’ for sticking by me and being of me.  And, finally, in honour of Leslie, who left too soon to make peace with her own body, I endeavor to retrain my eyes to register stories instead of flaws in all bodies, not just my own.