Sunday, September 9, 2012

Violated and Sanctified

I finally learned how old I was. 

I was seven. 

I was in the second grade. 

It was the fall before I made my first Holy Communion.  I like to say that all together.  First and Holy and Communion.  It was a big deal.  I remember the date I made that first and holy communion, May 15, 1971.  I remember it so vividly.  My communion has nothing to do with being molested, except that I was seven when these two polarizing events occurred.  Being violated and being sanctified.  I can recall so much about the one event but I couldn’t recall my age or the date or the man that came and left carrying away 42 years of me.

Some of the details that  I can recall are sketchy and vague, like a dream just out of reach, with faded edges just out of view.   Vapor.  Some details are vivid and clear.   I remember being asked if I wanted a dollar.   I remember being asked to take my shirt off.   I really wanted that dollar.  I have felt the shame of that wanting for so long after.  I was one of four children living in a railroad flat in Queens.  My mother did not work, as most did not, could not, with four children between the ages of five and nine.  Most would not, it was not what mothers did.  They remained home to care for their children.  My father’s salary just barely paid for necessities.  Oh, yes, I wanted that dollar.  No one was offering dollars in my day to day experience.  Take my shirt off for a dollar?  It seemed strange, I can remember hesitating.  No one asked me to take my shirt off in my day to day living either.  It was inconvenient more than it was bad, in my seven year old mind.  I was wearing culottes. I remember thinking this was making the request difficult and I can even recall feeling I was not able to comply quickly, correctly.  That I was not being "good".  We all needed to listen to adults.

He was an adult and I remember he looked like a Dad.  Although, I don’t know exactly what he looked like, or if I haven’t been trying faces on him most of my life to force this memory clear, to put it too rest.  He wore a hat and an overcoat, as most men still did in 1971.  I thought for the longest time that he might have been someone that was an acquaintance of my father.  I might have thought this because I would not have otherwise seen men that I didn’t know.  He seemed safe and he spoke gently the way my father’s friends, and acquaintances spoke with me, when and if they did.  I don't know who he was.

I was seven.  A tomboyish waif of a thing.  I played with the boys and the girls equally.  I might have even had my shirt off at times when it was really hot in our third floor apartment, when I was four, and five, and maybe even six, and I got to sit out on the fire escape because the heat was stifling.  It was strange to be asked to take off my shirt but it didn’t register as wrong or bad or dirty or shameful.  Not until much later. 

I know more than the event itself, and not understanding the nature of it, the years of not having it validated or acknowledged have been much more damaging.  I know that there would not have been a “good” time to validate or acknowledge it, I know I have stoically carried on and stifled and buried and contained this occurrence with an iron-clad lock-box around a soft and wanting heart.  I know I waited until this very week to clearly and quietly articulate, validate and acknowledge my own shame and fear that have been tightly wrapped around me for more than four decades.  And now, because I was finally ready to speak of it with clarity and not with blame, I learned I was seven.

I know the reality that it could have ended much worse, had the building super not come in from work shortly after I was followed into my apartment building.  Unfortunately, the building super also plays a role larger than life in my memories.  He saved me, but he also reacted in a way that was misunderstood by my seven year old self.  He appeared angry and perhaps disgusted, and these expressions were related to me.   I took them on.  Anger and disgust and me.  Shame and self-blame and me.  The seven year old mind is incapable of teasing out the expressions of adults when they are dramatic and intense and unpleasant. As a 29 year old mother, and a 34 year old mother, and a 49 year old woman and every stage between, I am not sure that his disgust and his anger was solely directed at the predator in the hallway, as I stood cornered against the stairway.  I was seven years old.  I was alone and unsupervised.  It was dusk.  I was seven years old and I was unprotected and alone and vulnerable. 

I also know I would have begged and bothered and persistently asked to be able to go to the corner store all by my big girl self.  I know it would have meant so much to me to prove my independence and my ability to be responsible.  I know I was one of four young children.  I was spirited and tenacious and eager and excited when I wasn’t quietly adrift or distracted or solemn.  I imagine I went to that store alone with great pride, skinny legged and full of life.  I can recall returning towards the apartment slower than when I set off.  Ambling and maybe contented in being big enough to travel alone on a task reserved for my older brother or sister, all of eight and nine.  

I remember how he crossed the street, jay-walking.  I remember seeing the blue door across the street.  I remember the blue of the door because it stood out. I don’t remember what he said, or how he engaged me into conversation and was able to follow me into the entry-way, that I would have needed to be buzzed beyond into the hallway and the stairs, leading up.  Or did I get to have the key?  Would I have been given the key?  I don’t need to know.  I know now, finally, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I was not wrong or bad or somehow deserving of wrong and bad. 

I have been churning and processing and studying and reviewing the data of my being to the point of derision.  Meanwhile the Universe has been shifting and adjusting and allowing the light to shine just-so for me lately. I was gifted with a safe and thrilling opportunity to try out some much needed trust building and it was a very good start, although bumpy and discordant.  It gave me the chance to decipher what needs maybe a tad more tweaking and what might work out just fine.  It allowed me to, ahem, perhaps, metaphorically speaking,  take off my shirt with freedom and abandon and no more shame.  It taught me to trust myself and open up to what may lie ahead and be glad in the offering.

My trusting of myself and another, has a look and feel that may not be easily recognized, even slightly as trust, or calm, or comfort.  Part of this process of trusting for me, is similar to the way I approach the lake near my cottage in the northern Adirondacks.  I walk carefully along the dock to the end, calmly poised.  I stare off into the blackness of the lake, the water deep at this edge, sizing it up but ready for the risk.  It will be cold and arousing.  I dive, smoothly with grace.  I am confident in my diving.  (My swimming leaves a bit to be desired.)  When I make contact, I breathe in loudly, stunned, although I knew in advance it would be alarming, still I gasp audibly.  I go under, emerge jerkily, releasing the panic and then re-emerging slowly balanced and glad in the experience.  I know as I have attempted to let go and trust, it may have initially appeared dispiriting and easily  misunderstood as not being trusting.  I am uncertain. I may have seemed defensive or combative.  I can’t change that just yet, and maybe not ever.  But for those close enough to see, I am smiling and pleased with my graceful dive, or angst ridden leaps and bounds.  There is gladness in the experience of being able to release the panic of risk-taking and fully enjoy the result and effect of the taking.

As I move forward and reclaim my seven year old self, I want to speak with clarity and be heard with calm.  I want to trust fully and live with joy and expectation.  I want my worst self to still be cared for and protected.  My worst self has grown from this place of fear and anger and disgust and shame.  I know now, these are not fertile grounds to grow in.  Shame and disgust have bred fear and anger and my 49 year old self is finally able to tease out the reality that these feelings expressed in my direction, no longer need to claim me or name and identify me.  Graceful diver, spirited, tenacious, eager, excited, occasionally quietly adrift, easily distracted, or solemn and clear. Ready.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Summer's Endings

Labor Day Weekend is that last blast of time to pack in any and all of summer left undone.   I have had a long adventure filled summer.  During the down time I went in for some deep process overkill as I attempted to review, reclaim, and resolve a few too many areas of my life.  So I decide to take myself to the beach, again, this one last time to gain some closure and solace.  I have to seriously consider this 2 1/2 hour trek by now.  Earlier in the summer it seemed a need, a pull, a place to land my larger than life stirrings and uncertainties.  It seemed to be the only place to quiet my fears.  But suddenly, and thankfully, there seems to have been a reckoning and the beach is my reward. 

I drive out early.  Leaving my house at 7:15, I pull up to the parking lot by 9:20.  I have accomplished record-breaking time, and I don’t have to fight the crowds.  It’s Labor Day weekend, clear skies, 90 degrees hot!  There will be traffic to fight for all of those that come after.   Conqueror of time and speed and the Southern State Parkway I head across the sand, victorious.  I set up my chair, drop my bag, toss the towel, pull the dress over my head and walk triumphantly to the water.  It’s cold today, but I forge ahead the way I would have at 9 or 12 or 15.  Last one in is a rotten egg!  Although I am here alone, I have a small army of others with me this summer prompting me forward.   I stay in longer than usual, diving under waves, bouncing and floating and just being. I head back to my chair, dry off and watch the crowd swell.  Gathering my camera, I head out on a long walk.  I return to soak in the sun and play in the water.  I have made it.  I have survived my summer of fear and reckoning and nearly post-divorce disorder.  (nearly, because, well, papers, signage, desks, delays, disarray, divorce attorneys….nearly)

I decide to celebrate my victory of saved time with a visit to Woodside, Queens, my birthplace, to capture it in photographs and pay homage to.  It will be easy enough to get to on my way home and I have been churning through the need for quite some time.  I have taken this pilgrimage several times throughout my adulthood.  I have not had family here since 1983, nearly 30 years, but it remains my “homeland”.   I have brought my children as though it will show them from where we have come.  I suppose it does.  Last year, my son and I stopped to eat at Donavan’s Pub.  For the “Best Burger” in NY, it wasn’t.  It probably wasn’t the best burger in Donegal, or Croatia for that matter.  But it was in the homeland and he needed to experience his family, his past, or at least mine.  We went into my church, and the church of my parents and grandparents.  St. Sebastians.  My school yard, a blacktop courtyard.  My street, Skillman Avenue, and apartment building, 53-11.  My front stoop, where I played late into the long nights of summer, Home Free All, Ring-a-Levio, and Hot Beans and Butter, shouted through the block as children ran and laughed and looked out for each other.  I remember this place, bitter-sweetly.  There is great happiness and also a haunting hurt in these streets.

On this solo visit, I take my time and many pictures, tracing the steps of my childhood.  I have been carrying my hurt from here like a soldier.  This visit is my homage to me. I intend to reclaim the part that was taken from me.  I take pictures of my doorway and the blue door across the street.  I was six or seven or eight when I was followed into the entry foyer.  I saw a man coming toward me from across the street.  Not from the blue doorway, but the blueness caught my eye.  I see this door clearer than the man, in nightmares throughout my adulthood.  They lay buried through my childhood.  The nightmares are obscure and frightening, in the cellar of this apartment, in the darkness, but not recognizable or connected to the event, until I turn 30, for a variety of reasons, I'm sure.   

I have chosen men out of fear and ensured they were not available to me so that I did not have to relive what happened in the entryway at six or seven or eight.  Instead, they helped perpetuate my sense of being somehow, less than.  I have played-out, and fought, and worked this event into my being in an effort to understand and make sense and determine some deeper meaning or flaw in me.  I have attempted to wrestle it out and all that have tried to come closer.  I come today to lay it all to rest, like a soldier, paying homage to the battlefield.  I come today to find myself and carry on. To know, finally, it meant nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Period, the end.  Calm and peace come, and fill me.

Calm and peace surround me while another part of me, my history, unfolds here.  As I walk through the streets of Woodside, from my church and my school, I approach “The Soldier Park”.  Fitting I suppose, as I am soldiering through.  As children we called it The Soldier Park because there is a statue of a soldier there.  Each Memorial Day, my father marched, or lead, or spoke to commemorate fallen soldiers.  We, four offspring, marched and saluted, and baton-twirled, well one of us got to baton twirl, our way through the streets and up the hill to the soldier, “The Doughboy”.  I mastered my march and charm and could probably put your eye out with a baton, and my own as well.  Each morning we walked through on our way to school.  Winters were spent sledding here, summers rolling down the hill.  

Today, as I walk toward the soldier I am caught by the light, and the shadows, a perfect silhouette is caught by my camera. I continue snapping photos and as I finish and turn to walk up the hill towards my apartment building, I am accosted.   Confronted, waylaid, and shouted upon.  “Do you know what that is?  Do you even know what that means?, he shouts, white-haired and red-faced, wild.  I am caught off guard, but momentarily.  I start to size him up and almost grin, but quickly remember this is not really normal behavior.  I snarl out “Yessss.” as only I can snarl.  I lock eyes, briefly but turn away, like the snot-nosed me of seven or eight or nine.  And walk off, sort of victoriously, at the very least self-assured. 
I am not the slightest riled or threatened.  No longer afraid.  I go on my journey and allow healing and calm and familiarity to soothe.  I go down my street and take it all in.  I look ahead and see the outline of the Empire State Building.  I cross the street and walk toward the apartment where my grandmother lived, her windows level with the elevated subway station.  We would giggle and yell and shake ourselves silly shouting "Earthquake!" when it came rumbling by every 20 or 30 minutes.  I find myself getting hopeful, or at least expectant, that the white-haired, red-faced, wild man is going to be in the park when I return to make my way to my car.  I am getting a little bolstered, one might say, and sure, I realize this is not really the right way to approach things.  I am going to tell him what the Doughboy represents but not until I size him up and lay him out, I imagine.  I want to tell him I don’t appreciate his confrontation and let him know his disgust is unwarranted and unnecessary.  "Huh! He’s lucky he’s not there, this time."  I think, as I go through the park. I find myself, again triumphant and grinning.   

Not only did I reclaim myself here today, but I rediscovered who I am and where I come from.  I discovered in this man, what others often see in me.  This confrontational stance, the snot-nosed posturing, the pride of Woodside, the Irish bravado and put up your dukes greetings and well wishes and wherewithal.  Slightly crazed I suppose to the untrained eye.  Survivor, warrior, determined and proud, if not a wee bit off center.  Woodside, continues to be this homeport for Irish immigrants, the fighting-est kind.  Those that need to fight to stay alive from time to time.  To fight to honor all they were forced to leave behind, or all that has been taken from them.  They are all around, in parks, and pubs, and shops and church.  They will smile the devil at you and fight you for a piece of the promise, and just as quickly fight with you to ensure you get a piece.  Grit and determination and spirited resolve, is the common thread.  Woodside is the homeland for me, my grandparents home away from home.

I start heading home, more acculturated and less the survivor of loss than ever before.  Suddenly somewhere along the Sprain Brook Parkway, as the calm fills and the processing begins, I realize this jumping ahead and assumptive posturing all felt more than slightly familiar.  It felt like firecrackers and explosions, but not the ones you enjoy from afar, the ones that are misfired and heading right at you.  I very recently acted the part of the wild-haired, red-faced man.  Reactive and defensive.  Well, I suppose in one way or another I have been acting or feeling this way throughout my life, or stifling and tamping it down, after learning it was not so normal, at least outside of Woodside.  It was somewhat funny, to find a brother in arms living out my feelings in the streets of Woodside with no apology on this journey toward reclaiming me.  But recently, it was pointed out to me and I put up my dukes and went for it like a sailor. I might try to leave this part of me behind, if I can. This part of me that makes so much noise, that wants to be heard.  I am realizing that it's difficult, maybe impossible to notice if anyone else can hear me, if my own sound drowns out the responses of others.   I, and those around me will benefit from this loss.   Benefit from the quiet.  I pull off the road, I have an apology to make and some peace to reclaim. 

The Doughboy?  Some believe it to be in reference to young American World War I soldiers, fresh faced and corn-fed ready to fight a war.  There is also reference to American soldiers during the Mexican American war, the dry dusty clay of Mexico covered the soldiers in a white powdery coating making them look like dough.  In any event the term is related to young American soldiers willing and ready to fight – in which case I’m off the hook and I can retire my dukes.

Out of My Element

I have been making long treks to the beach this summer.  Living in the far reaches of Dutchess County makes day-trip beach travel either ambitious or leaning slightly toward instability.  I choose ambitious but its open for discussion.  I have a tiny, speedy vehicle that does well on gas mileage, some riveting, bass-bumping tunes and time on my hands.  The beach is 2 ½ hours from my home, but I am in such need of it, I don’t worry about the amount of time it takes to get there.  I need to be surrounded by the elements, the earth, the wind and sky, the water, the fire of the sun.  The smallness of me out of my element. 

Earlier in the summer I went to the beach and attempted to open my arms to peace and calm.  Only I don’t open my arms to this.  I currently don’t even know how this is done any longer.  I tend to open my arms to grab and squeeze the life out of something, even if only for a second, like a bear-hug all full of aggression and passion and full-force constraint, or... maybe calming support?  That’s how I like it.  I can’t seem to find a bear that will repay the favor and squeeze the life out of me until I can’t breathe momentarily.  And, well, I don’t mean any of this in some kinky, weird, asphyxiation-type thing, it’s more that I like to live big sometimes, and sometimes I need to just be stopped, or squeezed, or held against something to know that I am still here and accounted for, that I can stop making so much noise, I am heard.   

No worries, I'll get there, if I don't scare away all the little bears first.  I'm sure there's a grizzly out there that would be more than happy to hold me down.  I’m also very physical and passionate and all wrestly and unsettled at times.  I don’t want or need hugs all the time or even daily but occasionally I do need a great big, knock the wind out bear hug.  There are stranger things to want I'm sure.  For now I have the ocean to knock me around or engulf me.

I walk down the beach struggling through the concept of me.  What does it all mean?  How can I find my way?  When can I stop worrying and just be?  I am walking, plodding really, as my heels sink into the shoreline and I work to lift my legs and move forward.  The shells and tiny pebbles, make it difficult to move with any amount of grace and elegance.  I am walking as though I am wrestling my own ankles.  Each step heavy, heels sucking into the sand and grit, and the next step requiring force to pull out of this struggle and stronghold.  Every step my ongoing fight between vulnerability and strength.  All at the same time, I continue looking for shells, or stones to admire and collect, humming a little, processing a lot.  Smiling randomly.  Sighing loudly.

Suddenly and without warning, I am at the far end of the beach which is loosely designated as a nude beach or at least widely relegated.  I continue walking while entirely avoiding direct contact with the naked bodies that seem to be multiplying and converging into a compressed mass of flesh and free will.  When the bronzed and taut and muscular nude man strides calmly next to me and says, “It’s a beautiful day for a walk, isn’t it?”  I attempt to answer, “Yes it is” but my eyes are down trodden and my voice seems to be coming out of a pot of molasses gravy, thick and glutinous, heavy with phlegm.  I continue walking and trying to make sense of how I ended up ignoring every known healthy convention of how to recognize signs of abuse and addiction.  I start to review recent run-ins with ignoring standard practice social interactions, and then I realize, a naked, bronze, taut man just walked by and smiled and spoke to me- do I really need to spend any longer processing the past 20 years of my life?  Ummm. No, I suppose I don’t….

This beach is symbolic and it’s not lost on me.  This is the beach I played at as a small child in a world I had no control over.  I have this need to be here to feel quieted and safe.  This desire to play where there are no controls or controlling omnipresent shadows looming over me. I want so badly to play and smile and jump over waves as though this is the biggest job for the day, the week, the rest of eternity….?  I suppose I have attempted to plan my summer around the notion of play, well that was the plan anyway...  Parts of it were very playful and other parts reminded me how at times, even for a small person like myself, with occasional bouts of larger than life posturing, I have very little power or control over so many circumstances.  This beach, however soothes me and brings me calm.  It reminds me that I am small and there is time. And earlier this summer it brought a taut, nude, bronze, bright and cheery hello, in addition to a few beautiful shells and clear stones and perfectly round, alabaster pebbles….