Pen Strokes

Our nakedness is suspect
It is secret
It is sold
Our physical exposure is commoditized
And airbrushed clean
And slid from left to right
Pores abolished
Scars expunged
Our nature is covered in pen strokes
Until there is no naked left
But only the art of men

Our passions, they are suspect
They are secret
They are sold
Our conceptual exposure is commoditized
And edited clean
And slid from left to right
Forthrightness abolished
Hurt expunged
Our spirit is covered in pen strokes
Until there is no passion left
But only the words of men

by Heather Emme

I’m still in surgical recovery, so poems are keeping my blog alive. To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.

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The Things That Hold Me Down

I’m not above following a trend. I love superhero movies, quinoa and yoga. Sometimes, what works for almost everyone else will also work for me.

I bought the book. You know the one. That book your friends tell you changed their life. Written by Japanese organizer Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a guide to getting your house in order.

It was on sale. What can I say?

It’s an odd and interesting book. In it, she breaks the home down into categories rather than rooms. She explores the relationship one has with items by asking what, when held, sparks joy. If an item doesn’t spark joy (or serve a need) then you discard it with thanks for what it has done.

I’m not big on the woo. I don’t think my possessions have feelings or that they care if I leave them in a drawer or out to breathe. That said, I wouldn’t have bought the book if I wasn’t feeling weighed down by my stuff.

old-books-stacked-1391968605amg

I may have a lot of these…

I fell in love with stuff the hard way. I moved a whole slew of times. Once I had to leave with just a few bags of belongings. I had little comfort from home, so I built home out of twenty-five cent, second hand novels and piles of hand sewn doll clothes. My mind flies off and the piles weigh me back to earth. I don’t like some things – I like all the things.

Or rather, I don’t know if I like all the things. It struck me earlier this year that I haven’t a solid idea of who I am. I know what I think, but I don’t know what I like. I posit that this comes from living my childhood in survival mode. When presented with options, I generally chose the one that was safest, that was least likely to create problems. I wore what would draw the least attention to me. I read what the pastor approved. I collected the items that little girls should collect, if they want their mothers to look at them fondly. Many of my interests were determined by proximity, availability and expectation. I had no style of my own. I didn’t have a favourite colour, favourite flower or a favourite animal that hadn’t been picked for me by someone else (or that I’d chosen because everyone else had one, so I felt the need to have one too.)

1024px-Pingviner_i_Antarktis_Penguins_in_Antarctica,_1910-1912_(7635391900)

Sorry guys.

It was the realization that I didn’t actually like penguins that shook me the most. I had dozens of them – stuffed, ceramic and plastic. I chose penguins because I’d done a project on them in the third grade and at least I knew something about them. No one should realize, in their late thirties, that they are lying to themselves about liking water fowl. I was determined to figure out which animal I actually liked the best. I spent a long time sorting through them before I realized that I really like pigeons. They can fly. They live in the city. They’re scrappy. They glisten purple in the sun and look like pompoms when they pull their heads in to sleep. I like pigeons.

It was a big deal.

Next I figured out my favourite colour. Grey. (I know. Not actually a colour, but I like it the best.)

I’m still working on my favourite flower. I’ll keep you posted.

13183-a-norwegian-woman-in-peasant-costume-pv

This outfit I kinda like.

The point of all this is that without a solid sense of what I liked, I just got a bit of everything. My closet looked like a rummage sale – the cast-offs of dozens of different folks crammed together in one space. My books were a veritable library of topics and styles, not because my tastes are that diverse, but because I had no idea what my tastes were.

Sorting the first category, clothes, was a frustrating and boring task. I held each item and asked if it brought me joy (a troubling question for a depressive.) In the end, I was surprised to learn that skirts, stripes and scarves bring me joy. I had no idea. I was upset to realize that I had never asked myself what I liked to wear. I had never given myself permission to discern what made me happy.

Next onto books. I used the GoodReads app to track my reactions to the books I’d read. Again, I was surprised. The books I liked best were action/adventure books. Sure I had loved Jules Verne, John Wyndham and HG Wells growing up, along with LM Montgomery and Judy Blume, but I had assumed it was because I like the classics. What I really liked was the rush, the thrill of pirates and devils and monsters and scoundrels and orphans.

Soon I had a dozen garbage bags of clothes and hundreds of books stacked in my living room, ready to go. I was overwhelmed.

I know I am not the only adult to realize that survival made my decisions for me. My personality was determined by necessity. Still, in that necessity, something was lost. My whole life, I’ve been struggling against my own personality, wearing it like an ill-fitting suit. I used to wonder who I would be, if I hadn’t experienced so much frustrating brutality and misunderstanding. Perhaps, by discarding everything but the items that bring me something – even if I cannot call it joy – I will find out.

 

ACE: In The Whole

I am fortunate to have a circle of friends that is full of teachers, both in the literal sense (they work in schools) and in the less-than-literal sense (they are smarter than me and know things they can teach me.) One of the benefits of being surrounded by smart humans who understand how we learn and develop throughout childhood, is that I am often abreast of changes to how we look at learning and growth.

A few months ago, my dear friend Laurie posted an NPR article about the Adverse Childhood Experience study (ACE.) Initially I skimmed it and found the whole thing intriguing. However I was working with a PTSD specialist, so I didn’t spend too long dwelling on new ideas.

When my work with my specialist went spectacularly south, I started to think on the ACE study again. I re-read the article. Finally, I took the quiz.

The quiz asks 10 questions, each relating to a childhood experience that has been demonstrably shown to increase chances of certain behaviours, illnesses and outcomes. The more of these questions to which you answer yes, the more likely you are to be suffering after-effects of your trauma. It should be noted that there are limitations to the questions. There are no questions that deal with witnessing acts of violence or war. There are no questions about peer bullying. There are no questions about peer rape. The focus is solely on family dynamic.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that my number was high. So high that half my score was the highest level they were noting. I wasn’t shocked. It was not news to me.

This graphic that accompanied it gave me pause:

ace_pyramid_wotext.127135420_std.gifThat’s a helluva pyramid.

Still, drastic graphics aside, the most useful moment of clarity  was not in the content. For once, it was in the comments.

Most people commenting fell into the lower numbers. A few, like my love, were zeros. A spattering were ones, twos, threes.

A very small number of commenters, like me, fell into the high numbers. Our stories, our tone, were different. There was a desperation, a falling down into ourselves, that seemed to mark us as just too far beyond what is well and normal. There was a lot of talk of addiction, job loss, prison time. We were the destroyed minority.

Still, I am a person with perpetual – I wouldn’t say hope – stubbornness? I haven’t been able to successfully stop trying. I don’t want to. I still believe I deserve to be happy.

But.

But I’m done comparing my successes and challenges to the ones and twos. Of course I’m not where they are. I didn’t start where they did. Maybe my executive functioning is poor, but I keep going. I make lists and set reminders and plan days in advance and often fall apart at the last minute, but I keep doing it. I keep making lists. I keep making plans. I keep trying.

But I’m not a two. I’m not a zero. I’m me. I’m the kind of person that the non-existent fates decided should get pummelled with most of the hammers.

With that in mind, I think I’m doing pretty damn good, just being here.

In Answer To Your Question

*trigger warning for sexual assault and general unpleasantness*

There is an article in the Toronto Star newspaper about a radio host. It alleges that he has assaulted or harassed quite a few women. Since there hasn’t been a trial or even a full vetting of all the information, I can’t say whether this is true. However, one of the questions asked, even by fair-minded people, is why these women haven’t gone to the police with their allegations.

There is a good chance that they have chosen not to because, at some time in their lives, they’ve met someone like me. In getting to know me, they may have heard about my experiences (I am not alone, but these are mine) with reporting sexual assault to the police.

I went to the police when I was still a teenager. Since I was an avid diarist, I even know the exact day I went to the police station to make my report. It was January 19th, 1995.

Before making the report, I took a three hour bath. I remember refilling with hot water more than once, but there are things that cannot be cleaned away. Even though I was living in Malton at the time, I was required to return to Rexdale to make my report. To make the report, I needed to go to the police station closest to where the crime occurred. I needed to get on a bus and return to a place I had literally fled in fear.

To make matters almost comically worse, the person I was making the report about got on the same bus as me. He didn’t see me. I hid behind other people and almost passed out. It was like having the whole electric system in my body go haywire. It was like I had been shocked. The fear and panic, it consumed me.

At 23 Division in Rexdale, I got off the bus. I wrote in my diary that I was glad he didn’t see me. “It freaked me out,” teenaged me wrote, in shaky script.

Back on his home turf, fresh from seeing him, I was escorted by a large and intimidating male officer back to a small room, where I was sat across from an officer I will call J. J was 23 Division’s youth crimes officer. In my diary, I noted that he was very tall. I wrote down what he wore. I did not make note of the fact that an officer who deals with young offenders may be the worst person to talk to a teenaged victim, as they see young people as innately suspect. I did not note that putting a young victim alone in a closed off room with a strange and intimidating man, one who possesses a great deal of societal power, would not lend itself to feelings of safety or understanding. I did not have that perspective at the time.

On his wall was a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s If. I read it over while I waited for him to speak. I wondered if he chose it because the police station was on Kipling Avenue. And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son! I did not suppose the message was for me.

Officer J unceremoniously dropped a tape recorder on the desk between us and asked me to tell him, in as much detail as possible, what had happened.

I opened my mouth and could not speak. I was afraid to cry and be dismissed. I was afraid I would scream. I was a little afraid that the man who did it to me had seen me on the bus and would come to my home that night and kill me dead.

For whatever reason, there were no words, except a whispered, “Can I write it out?”

J was not pleased with my request. He sighed and brought me paper.

I detailed it as best I could. It took more than an hour. The whole time I was writing, every threat my assailant had made echoed, telling me to stop. I felt trapped and wanted to undo it all. I wanted to tear up the paper and run. I wanted to melt into the chair, into nothing.

“What will you do?” I managed, after I was done writing.

“It’s up to you. You’ll have to press charges.”

Press charges? What did that mean? Did it mean that I, a high school student living in one room, would have to hire a lawyer? Did it mean I would have to see him? Face him? Did it mean he would be served papers or arrested? Would he be in jail or free to come after me? I was incapable of asking these questions, and Officer J offered no guidance or information.

“I…I can’t do that.”

He looked at me like I’d wasted his time. Perhaps I had. My high school guidance counsellor had set up the meeting for me. I had been too afraid to call. Too afraid to initiate. Now I was too afraid to actively pursue it.

“Listen. Just go home. Try to be a good girl. Call me if you change your mind.”

And it was done.

I went home that night to my room. I noted in my diary that it was freezing and that the woman who owned the building was singing hymns all night. She turned off the heat to save money and sang hymns to save my soul.

That night I had a nightmare that I was sitting on my bed with a friend when a man in a uniform came in and shot them 8 times. Their body landed on me, trapping me to the bed while they twitched and eventually died on top of me.

No charges were ever pressed.

Now ask me again why women don’t go to the police.

About Face

This will not be yet another blog about Renée Zellweger’s face. Mainly because it’s ALL been said and done. It really, really has. I mean, look at this:

And I used quotes. There are 4,710,000 results for this shit.

And I used quotes. There are 4,710,000 results for this shit.

I’m actually going to micro-focus on one phrase that keeps popping up, no matter where one reads about this – That phrase is, “It’s like she’s not even the same person.”

As a short, round human, this phrase set off a high speed train of thought. This is the track it took:

  • As a human who is female and North American and a performer, Ms. Z. is defined by her looks.
  • BUT, no matter what is going on, she’s still the same human, because one is not defined by one’s eyes. One is defined by one’s experience, genetics, mental capacities, circumstance and whatever the magical sky folks are defining as a soul these days. When these things cease to be, then the person can be said to be gone.
  • Yet we are often broken down into our elements. For instance, folks will say that a person is fat. Fat is a part of a person, but that one part is used to define a whole being. Still, if my fat were removed or reduced, I would still be me, therefor I cannot “be” fat, since fat is impermanent.
  • Put another way, when I die, my fat will still be around, yet I will not be. So I cannot be fat, since fat cannot be me.
  • Ms. Z cannot be her eyes, since her eyes will outlast her. The essence of what makes her distinct is in the mind, not in the flesh over her ocular balls.
  • Therefor changes to the outer self cannot make one a new or different person. That’s just silly.

Conclusion? We are a silly species. And I’ve gone cross-eyed.

I feel like a whole new woman.

My Religion Was My Prison

In my Missionettes uniform. The boys were called Crusaders.

In my Missionettes uniform. The boys were called Crusaders.

The title, I know, is a bit dramatic. In reality, my home was the prison, and religion was the warden, but that just doesn’t fit in a header.

I was raised Fundamentalist Pentecostal. For some folks, those two terms are at cross purposes, as the traditional Fundamentalists actually opposed the Pentecostals, but in my circles it was used to mean more Pentecostal than the Pentecostals. More hard core. More committed. More evangelical. More filled with the spirit. Others sometimes use the term Charismatic.

For the uninitiated, here is what defines a Pentecostal:

  • An emphasis on the Pentecost. The Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit (he gets capital letters because, like Casper the Friendly Ghost, that’s his name) descended on the Apostles (they get capital letters because…uh…they do.)
  • A belief in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as granted when you are filled (after praying and dedicating your life to Jesus.) Some of these include prophesy, glossolalia or speaking in tongues, healing and leading.
  • Lots and lots of rules.

For some anecdotal idea of what this meant for me, you can read my blogs about Feminism in response to religiosity, the apocalypse and even more on the apocalypse.

Or you could skip all that and watch the video I pull out whenever people really want to know what it was like:

Or you could watch this video of my former pastor.

Not to say that there weren’t merits to the church. Music. Boy, was the music fantastic. And there was the community. There were always people around to help you and judge you and sometimes hit you…wait. That doesn’t sound like a merit. Uh…music. Let’s stick with the music.

But Heather, you may say, how does any of this sound like prison? Or maybe you’re not saying that. Maybe this is just a segue from the set-up to my point. Maybe.

Since my teenaged years, when I moved away from the abuse and drama that was my Pentecostal home, I’ve looked for people to relate to. It’s a natural compulsion, I think. It’s why those tell-all books sell so well. I tried to find voices that I could relate to in all kinds of stories. Ones to give me catharsis (I can cry for them even when I cannot cry for me.) I did not find it among the Mommy Dearests or the Glass Castles. The first place I found it was in a cinema, watching In The Name Of The Father. It was 1994 and a boy I didn’t overly like had come to a movie with me. He thought it was a date, I didn’t.

The movie told the story of Gerry Conlon, a man convicted of a crime, a London bombing, that he didn’t commit. Part way through the movie, I started to cry. The boy made a clumsy, sexualized attempt to comfort me. He thought I was overwhelmed, I suppose, by Daniel Day Lewis’ performance. I wasn’t. It was the story. A man, in prison, but totally innocent.

It was my metaphor. When people write about abuse, it is almost always tinged by shame. The idea that they might have been asking for it seethes below the surface of the anger or sadness. The self-flagellation is a natural continuance of the abuse suffered. When they stop, we begin.

But in stories of those imprisoned for crimes they did not commit (or even for those they did) there is an undercurrent of rebellion. I believe that rebellion, coupled with the pain of their mistreatment, is what connected me to these stories.

In my home, I was a prisoner, psychologically and sometimes physically. I needed to ask for a glass to drink water, if my mother was in that mood. I could not take food if I was hungry. I could not turn on the television or pick up the phone or leave a conversation unless I was given permission. This occurred not just when I was a child, but when I was a teenager as well. As a child, the punishment was swift and physical. It was absolute and I never figured out the tricks my sisters did to avoid it (one cried immediately, one not at all.) Besides, I was never right. My mother once told me that as an infant I had pushed her away. I had not loved her properly. But then, my mother believed in striking infants for crying, so I don’t wonder that I did.

My childhood church. I'm second from the left.

My childhood church. I’m second from the left.

As I grew up, the church and our Pentecostal home were my whole reality. Even school was taught to be a potential haunt for demons trying to draw me away from God. I was wary of everything.

I was always watched. God was my guard. When mother or one of the church women who reported all infractions to each other were not watching, he always was. I suffered from constant guilt and fear. Unlike other children, I felt no safer breaking the rules in private than I did in public. All of my errors were honest. I remember being punished more for my enthusiasm and curiosity that for my sins.

I’ve recently started watching Rectify, a Sundance program about a man released from death row because of DNA evidence. Again I am struck by the similarities. When he enters the “real” world, he doesn’t know how to behave. I didn’t either. He is stunned by everyday things. He is missing decades of shared experiences, because his was so singular. After I was unceremoniously ejected, I found I had few tools to function in “normal” society. My normal was obedience and fear and a closed community that both policed and nurtured its own. I had never had sex, tried drugs, gone a day without praying or learned to make my own decisions.

One thing that struck me about Rectify was how easily the main character allows himself to be led. He has no direction because direction was never his to own. He is used to following orders. I don’t follow orders, but the next step, the self-initiation, still proves hard for me. I don’t know how to start. I sometimes wonder at who I really am. I am not solid. I am what’s left after I extricated gods and monsters from my being.

Like the prisoners I read about and watch, I am still trapped. I am still watched. I am still waiting for the walls to return.

Dear Robin

Photo by Eva Rinaldi, used under Creative Commons.

Photo by Eva Rinaldi, used under Creative Commons.

I suppose I’m late to this. All the opinions have been opined. All the commentaries are done. We’ve moved past you, on to Joan, and whoever is next and next and next. There’s always another tragedy waiting to happen.

But I’m still stuck on you, because you scare me. You scare me because you were/are/always will be 63. 63 is a ways off for me – and because it is a ways off, I can hold it as a beacon. A beacon that glows with the possibility that time will mend me.

You see, I have clinical depression. I’ve had it since childhood. I have it right now, though I am well enough to write so it is in the ebb of ebb and flow.

Still, when it is bad I whisper to myself that better times are always coming. As I am older, it gets easier. It will keep getting easier. I will be more happy and more well because time heals all…

I remember a joke I read as a kid: Time wounds all heels.

And god, I feel like a heel.

I mean, I’ve never met you. I don’t know you. But like my friends on wheels who followed Christopher Reeve and my ASD friends who fangirl/boy out for Temple Grandin, I felt connected to you. You were someone like me, out in the world, making good. Your sorrow was a base, but what you built from it was brilliant and silly and clever. (Also, I watched that scene in Good Will Hunting where you told Will it wasn’t his fault over and over because hey, if I could only hear it from a film, it was better than hearing it nowhere.)

I felt like this when Spalding Gray died. I feel like this whenever one of us exits. Like a small piece of the hope/lie is eked away. Like it’s been chiseled from my structure. I fall apart a little.

So yeah, I miss you. I miss the survival I saw in you. I miss that little bit of hope.

I’m sorry depression had more stamina than you. I’m sorry that you had to go.