Today I wear the mark of the cross on my forehead as a reminder of where I have come from and what I will become, dust.
At the Ash Wednesday mass, I found myself looking around during a prayer spoken in Latin because I didn’t know the words. I have been Catholic for nearly twenty years. It struck me how easy it would have been at an earlier point in my life to chide myself for not reciting the prayer, as if not knowing the words made me less important, less worthy, less good. Back when I was naive about life, I was a harsh critic. It was my tendency to feel that I didn’t belong.
What does belonging even mean? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary app says it is a word constructed from Middle and Old English, formed of two words be (as an intensifier) + long (at hand with). For objects, it means to be the property of somebody. For humans, it is to possess a role within a group, community, or world. Notice how a shift of possession happens when we approach humanity as a living object, something that may vary or shape shift over time but will inevitably remain beyond ownership.
We don’t have to be perfect to belong. There is no box to squeeze into, no rules or practices that must be adhered to for a person to fit in beyond the identity of self. In the real world, there is no referee blowing the whistle on the misfit. I mean, aren’t we all misfits anyway? I, for one, attest to not knowing the words, the rules, the parameters that limit me to one collection. I am fluid and free, and prefer to float between groups and places who consider me as one of them. I am who I am, simply dust.
Today there is a blue sky against a white mountain when I look out the window to the east. Some days there is no mountain at all, only a haze of low clouds that buries the view in a wet gray funk. Other days, the mountain might have no snow at all, or a dusting that reveals the prevalence of deer trails on the mountain like veins under skin.
Sometimes we see life better in inclement weather. I can see who or what passes my house when snow prints are left on the sidewalk: human, dog, deer, raccoon. These are the adventurers, the scavengers, the prowlers, the lonely. Sometimes I wonder if snow prints even exist in pairs.
Paragliders are often seen overhead, launching off the mountain and coming to a landing just blocks from my house. Today, a lone paraglider hovered beneath a blue parachute, floating mid-sky as if it were summer, as if there was no reason to rush its flight, as if the cold didn’t exist.
I watched it tilt and descend, approaching the earth of snow and trees and men. Sometimes I wonder if the sky is its own footprint, telling us during our loneliest days that we have company.
One of my favorite benefits of writing is the tribe of strong and smart women who surround me. Some I know in person, but I have also met many amazing women online through the shared experience of trauma and the familiar pain of the breakdown endured before breaking through. We are a growing number of voices whose decision to share our truest and most agonizing stories bind us with empathy, compassion, and courage. By spilling the secrets we dared not tell in one life, we shifted the mindset from being controlled to having control. The mind is at the mercy of its most dominant influence. By stepping outside of the patriarchal boundaries of fear-induced assimilation, we have fully emerged into the authentic and wholesome beauty of our true identities.
It is an honor to connect through stories. They enrich our understanding of humanity and unlock the trap of loneliness and isolation. Stories unite us in shared vulnerability, putting trust at the forefront of every relationship. This bold and necessary action is an act of love, an act of faith, and an act of honor. A mind at peace is a mind who has access to this realm. It is a place to go when the world tears you down.
But women have not always been a consistent and reliable source of safety for me. I have felt betrayed, discarded, and invisible by the bullying actions of female relatives. The pain of feeling that I didn’t belong in the family morally endowed to love me and take care of me split me apart. Who am I was a question that plagued me for years. As a girl, I felt trapped in a role I despised, and fear of the reality of the situation was greater than my young mind could handle. As with most victims of trauma, my mind told me I was to blame. It took me forty-two years before I confronted this thought process and discovered the truth I had been hiding from. Logic is the first and most important asset to be stolen by psychological violence. When I saw the reality of my childhood from the perspective of a mother, I felt as if my mind had been violated and raped. The absolute core of my lifetime of trust was a mirage. Feeling this excruciating pain was a nightmare in real life, the death of an entire family to grieve, before healing could begin.
I admit that my situation was extreme. My memoir (I hope you will read it when it is eventually finished!) will reveal that the pattern of bullying by my mother and sisters crosses the threshold to abuse, but the daily pecking broke me down. This is the objective of bullies, to break down the power of self-possession and succumb the target to their idea of her identity. It is a robbing of self-actualization, and the emotional process of individuation that happens in adolescence is postponed until the victim confronts her truth. Ironically, at forty-two years old, I got to experience the angst and anxiety of teenagers. It was not fun! Give those teens a pep talk of their worth and love them no matter what. They are vulnerable and raw and afraid. They are a gift.
It appears that I can go on and on with this subject, but let me get to the point. Please allow yourself time to read this important blog post by my new friend, Diane Gottlieb. She is a writer and author who interviewed women, including me, about their experiences of female bullying, an insidious violence that has no form, no time frame, and little credibility to the impact of its destruction. Females typically bully in packs, and the predatory nature of ostracizing is learned through patriarchal forces that permeate our society. In my mind, bullying deserves a movement. The pain of it is everywhere, and rivals the emotional destruction brought to greater attention through the #MeToo movement. It is important to remember that everyone has the power to cause enormous pain, and that pain lives in the mind far longer than it lives in the body. Women are not always the stereotypical nurturers they are eluded to be, but are inevitably our mothers, our sisters, and the influence of our own minds and sense of identity.
I’d like to thank Diane for bringing this subject to light. Sign up for her blog. Share your story in the comments below. Read her article here: Effects of Childhood Bullying
My husband and I just had a conversation about education. Coincidentally, I just spent the past three days driving my daughter back to Spokane, WA where she attends Gonzaga University. Besides the terrible snow on the interstate which caused me to spend one extra night in a hotel, education has been on my mind lately and also a large theme in our family life.
I have a Master in Education and a B.A. in French. For the past five years, I have taken many online writing classes, and as often as possible, local memoir writing classes. Right now, I’m taking an online writing class through Hedgebrook, a women’s writing retreat on Whidbey Island, Washington. The focus of the class is writing with vulnerability which requires shaking off every inhibition or negative portrayals, especially of the self. Of course, we aren’t supposed to say unkind things about others, but writing employs different rules. As long as the narrator is the most honest person on the page about her own shortcomings, she can say whatever truth she needs to dissect. Memoir is an investigative form that requires tough introspection. It is not a genre that most would find easy.
The world of education has changed. Growing up, my mother travelled three hours to Missoula for six weeks at a time, leaving on Sunday evenings and driving home on Friday nights, to attend summer school for her Education certification. It was not easy. Childcare was pushed to the back burner, and during those weekdays while our father was working, my older sister, thirteen at the time, was in charge.
There was a week when my father couldn’t come home from work. I don’t remember the details, except that it turned into a Lord of the Flies situation. My two sisters and I were left to fend for ourselves for the week. The message I received internally was that nobody cared about me. I was eleven years old. My older sister was violent. The story I held onto from that week was that I didn’t deserve to feel safe because my parents didn’t deem me important enough to protect. My brain, seeped into the emotional context, created its own meaning, one I carried for decades before dissecting it into pieces. In those pieces, I found struggles: family struggle, financial struggle, empathy struggle, parenting inadequacy, a mother who needed an education to support the family, sibling cruelty, bad choices, childhood fear, desperation. We were a family who learned through and lived by bad examples of support. In fact, we had none.
Supporting education is an important topic for me. Mothers, especially, need access to online learning opportunities to avoid having to choose between childcare or education. In Montana, a newish program has developed for Native Americans living on the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, a very rural area. There, adults working as school support staff can attend four years of online classes through the University of Montana, the same university where my mother travelled (here in Missoula), and earn their elementary certification to teach without having to leave town. As a daughter who experienced firsthand the lack of such services, I applaud the effort and emphasis toward family-friendly and culturally sensitive education.
There is a huge link between trauma healing and education. Where the link is broken, one remains stuck in trauma, passing it onto the next generation. The link remains broken through more than missed educational opportunities, but also through ideology, denial, stoicism, superiority mindset, racism, religious prejudice. In other words, the ideologies that fear hides behind, often the beliefs a child learns in the home. Where the link to education is strong and impactful, one can emerge from trauma as an empathic being, helping others on the journey. Through writing classes, I have crossed the threshold of fearing my own sense of worthlessness to cultivating curiosity about its meaning. It no longer holds weight in reality, but in the message that it was only a truth I ascribed to during a time of fear.
Let me know what you think. I’m curious how others have transformed their lives. Has education had a strong influence you? Good or bad? Let me know.
The idea of making resolutions has a different meaning for me as I age. The implementation of life style choices are now often replaced with goals to achieve deeper meaning in the life I want for myself, requiring contemplation and self-knowledge, and better challenges the potential for the growth that I hope to realize.
Every year, my resolutions become more silent, more individualized to the person I am in the moment, in other words, they accommodate my weirdness. The notion that we are a constant identity is a falsehood, proven with the passing of time through the moods and cycles of life. Work, family, and society influence our thinking and demand our presence. We constantly absorb the fluctuations of emotion from the people around us, pulling us out of ourselves and into a larger sphere where sometimes we’d rather not be. Discomfort is unsettling, but maybe that is exactly where we need to go to discover a deeper understanding of ourselves.
I think of the word resolution as a fallacy. To resolve something means to put an end to a conflict, but the most significant and meaningful conflicts have no end. Women’s equality, violence, trauma, aging, mortality. There is a casualness associated with resolutions but they bring no cessation to the conditions that scar us.
This is why I go inward. Self-examination allows me to connect more deeply to the minutiae I can control. Small changes can alleviate pressure put on me by the world which in turn creates a positive impact to those around me. Self-talk can be compassionate instead of critical. Expectations can be softened. I can control a bit more of my time. I can allow myself to be creative. I can be vulnerable.
When I think of what brings the most meaning in my life, I illuminate my priorities. Am I bravely practicing my own values despite opposition? What sustains me? Who? Does my time reflect this? The answers shift with each passing year. Things happen. Life evolves. Central to all of it is the person inside. Whose life would I be living if I didn’t possess my own contribution as my fullest, truest self?
Life is more fun, more courageous, when we’re weird. Dare to be different. Expose vulnerabilities. These are my goals. Wherever your life finds you right now, whoever you want to be, I wish you the freedom and the courage to declare it. Happy new year!