Category Archives: writing

Creative Writing- Finding Religion

I wrote this 4 years ago, and I’m considering writing a few stories with the same characters. I intended it to be loosely based on my sister and myself, although a few friends have commented that it is pretty much autobiography with the names changed. This isn’t a comment on religion, but just a story about kids being confused about the particulars of their religions and (a little bit) race.

FINDING RELIGION

Sarrah ran her hand over her head. She played her fingers over snarls and stubborn curls that stood up even though she had tried her best to make a good ponytail. She absentmindedly smoothed them down, which caused the shorter hairs that grew all over her head to stand up in a vague red halo.

“Which religion are you?” she asked her friend Elizabeth. They were sitting on one of the low blue benches outside of the cafeteria. Only the fifth and sixth graders were allowed to use the cafeteria because it was so small. Being able to eat inside the room with fans and gleaming linoleum instead of outside on benches and gravel felt like a badge of honor to most of the older students, and if the deigned to talk to younger students they mentioned the cafeteria as much as they could. Sarrah, who was in 3rd grade, wasn’t jealous. She liked the benches, liked being out in the sunlight and liked eating in the classroom when it rained. After eating, she took advantage on the benches by sprawling across them most of the time, taking up the space of three 3rd graders, laying stomach down with her knees bent and her feet lazily kicking in the air. Elizabeth wouldn’t sit with her when she did that, though, so this time Sarrah sat on the corner of the bench and wondered how little of the seat she could take up. A foot? How long was a foot? Six inches?

Sarrah twisted her head around to see if she could see her sister J’naea past the line of people that always ran across the inside of the doors. J’naea was tall and had skin the color of grocery store caramels and wild dense curly hair that was a mixture of brown and blond and red. She wore blue Chucks mostly every day. Sarrah didn’t see her.

“Religion?” Elizabeth was Chinese, from China but not, as she anxiously explained to Sarrah often, “Fresh off the Boat.” FOBs were backward, talked funny, said mean things in Chinese and made fun of you when you asked them to talk slower. “I speak Mandarin and my language and English,” Elizabeth had told Sarrah. “They say I don’t speak Chinese, but I do. They’re mean. Don’t talk to them.”

So Sarrah had planned to ask every Chinese person she met if they had come into America on a boat. Most students in her school were Asian, but most of them had been in her school for years. They weren’t fresh off a boat or a plane or however people got into different countries. Sarrah had no real opportunity to judge whether people were FOBs or not.

“I guess I follow the Buddha?” Elizabeth said, her voice, as always, scratchy and deep for a little girl. She fixed her light brown eyes on Sarrah. Sitting down they were the same height, even though for some strange reason Elizabeth was taller when they stood up. Elizabeth shrugged. Sarrah watched with envy as Elizabeth’s shiny black, stick straight hair moved prettily around her shoulders. Elizabeth’s hair went to her butt. Sarrah’s hair always grew to her shoulders and then stopped.

“Buddha?” Sarrah frowned in confusion. She was used to people saying “Catholic” or “Baptist” or “Presbyterian” While she didn’t really know what any of those things meant, she knew even less what it meant to be Buddhist. Was the Buddha the people the crazy Hari Krishnas worshipped? No, that was Krishna. Duh. And Krishna was…the God of Indian people as well as the crazy bald people in orange robes that walked around Berkeley? “Is Buddha the fat girl statue in the Chinese food restaurants?”

“Buddha is not a girl!” Elizabeth’s eyes were big and flat. Her nose, thin but round, flared. “Is your God a girl?”

“Probably not,” Sarrah admitted agreeably, used to Elizabeth’s easily dismissed anger. “He was a man once. But I don’t think he was ever a girl.”

“What are you? Baptist?” Elizabeth grabbed her foot and pulled it to her forehead. Elizabeth wanted to be a ballet dance and someone had told her ballet dancers needed to be able to touch their feet to their forehead. Elizabeth did this all the time, sometimes during class. Somehow she still had lots of friends, unlike Sarrah, who only had two or three at school besides Elizabeth. Some kids thought Sarrah was nice, but too weird. They smiled at her uncomfortably and talked to her sometimes, but not too many people wanted to be her friend.

“I don’t think so,” Sarrah answered.

“I think black people are Baptist.”

“My dad’s not anything,” Elizabeth said uncomfortably. She wasn’t sure if not having a religion was bad. But her dad didn’t go anywhere on Sunday, or any other day, except to work at the gas station. “And my mom is white.”

“I know you’re mom is white, stupid, I see her before, all the time.” This time Elizabeth didn’t seem even temporarily angry, just amused. “What is she then? You go to church with her?”

“We go to the Salvation Army.”

“Then you’re a Salvation Army…” Elizabeth paused, her small, chubby mouth distorted in a grimace. “…person?”

“But mom says that’s not our religion, that’s why I can’t be a junior soldier,” Sarrah cut in. “She says that there’s no church for us that’s close enough to get to on the bus, in the morning. Especially since J’naea gets all angry in the morning and whines all the time and has to spend 50 thousand minutes doing her hair.”

“What does she do to it? It looks like a red bush.” Elizabeth and Sarrah spent a moment contemplating J’naea. What did she do for half an hour to get her hair big and curly and her lips red? Why did it take her another hour to pick out clothes that were just, when you got past the designs (like plaid or neon or sparkly) jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and Chuck Taylors? Elizabeth’s older sister Sue braided her hair in two pigtails every morning and sometimes used colored hair ties at the ends, taking her all of 3 minutes. She wore school t-shirts to school everyday. Her pants were all dark denim and varied in nothing but length. But Sue was a 4th grader. Maybe something happened in 5th grade?

“It looks better than my hair,” Sarrah sighed, again trying to smooth down her frizzy pony tail.

“Yeah,” Elizabeth agreed. “You should put it straight.”

“I don’t know how. And Dad says my hair is beautiful and I shouldn’t want to harm it just to look like everyone else.” Sarrah could repeat her father’s speech about pride in black hair word for word, but since it was long and had no pauses she decided not to. He talked a lot about her being both races, and not struggling to be one or the other. “You don’t have to struggle to be black or white,” he’d say. He didn’t say anything about struggling to be Asian.

“Just brush it more,” Elizabeth advised. “My hair gets tangled and I brush it. Just brush it.”

“Hmm.” Sarrah was about to try to change the subject when J’naea walked by and said hello by grabbing Sarrah’s head with one hand and shaking it back and forth. Sarrah saw she was wearing the hoops the principal had told her were too large to wear at school. They were 14 carrot gold and went down to J’naea’s shoulder. Sarrah wanted them but knew she probably would be too self concious to ever wear them.

“J’naea,” Sarrah asked, letting her head be shaken, “What religion are we?”

“Episcopalian,” J’naea said, scrunching her face. It was her ‘What wrong with you Sarrah?’ face. Sometimes ‘What’s wrong with you’ meant ‘Are you okay.’ Sometimes it meant ‘Are you stupid?’ And sometimes it meant, “Are you crazy?” Sarrah judged that this time it was ‘Are you stupid?’

“What’s that?” Elizabeth asked before Sarrah could.

“It’s like Catholic, with priests with white collars,” J’naea explained loftily, “Except they can be women too. And there’s drinking wine and eating cookies in the middle. The wine is blood and the cookies are God’s body. And you have to say ‘Peace be with you’ in the middle of church. Don’t you remember?”

“You eat your god’s body?” Elizabeth let her mouth drop open, showing braces over bright white teeth. “You eat it? You drink blood?”

“It’s cookies and wine, it’s just also God’s blood and body.” J’naea said with a sigh that was meant to express how dumb Elizabeth was. “We show we care about him being killed with a cross so its okay to ask him for things.”

“We give Buddha oranges and burn good smelling incense and stuff like that,” Elizabeth said, again scrunching up her face and wrinkling her nose. She didn’t know much about her religion, because her parents didn’t make do anything towards it, but she doubted it was as strange as Sarrah’s.

“I don’t eat God’s blood, I mean drink God’s blood, or eat his body,” Sarrah was quick to say. “Never.”

“You have. You were baptized and you did,” J’naea said. “And if you say you haven’t, I’ll tell mom you don’t like God ’cause you think his blood and body are gross.”

Elizabeth and J’naea looked at Sarrah curiously, wondering which option she’d take. Recess was almost over. Some kids were drifted into clumps, mostly divided by sex, gossiping or playing trading card games. Some were getting in their last fix of kick ball or four square. The tether-ball pole was empty since a month ago, when someone had hit themselves in the face with the ball when they served.

“Fine,” Sarrah said, unsure of what she meant. Episcopalian was an important sounding religion. It was a long word and hard to say. It was almost as exotic as the Buddha-religion. “Fine, I’m a– what’s the word? How do you say it, I mean?”

“Episcopalian,” J’naea said. She lost interest in the conversation, her eyes going to a group of sixth grade girls pretending to ignore sixth grade boys. “There’s Sophie. Bye, babies!”

Elizabeth’s nose stayed wrinkled. “Episcopalian?”

“Yeah, that,” Sarrah shrugged and looked at Elizabeth as J’naea wandered away.

The bell rang a few minutes later and Sarrah and Elizabeth walked into class, careful not to be the first or last ones in the door.

Tragedy in my family history

Many families have crazy family legends that may or may not be true. My family has its share of those, but the craziest (and saddest) story in my family is 100% verifiable.

When I was a teen the oldest living member of my grandmother’s family on my mom’s side (which I refer to as the white side) was my Aunt Dean. She was in her 80s. She was actually my great, great aunt, my grandmother’s mother’s sister. She was funny, absent minded, long winded, occasionally silly, and very sweet.

I didn’t know much about her past until I was a teen. I knew she’d gotten married in her late 30s, and divorced in her early 40s. I knew she’s learned to drive in her mid 40s, which I thought was weird but didn’t think about. Sometimes people referred to others thinking Aunt Dean would never be able to live by herself, and said “look at how long she’s been living alone with no problem.” I thought this referred to her being absent minded. I also knew she’d had some medical problem that had made it impossible for her to have children, but when I learned the real reason I was shocked.

Aunt Dean had a large number of brothers and sisters, and I wondered why my Grandmother’s mother had been the only one to have children. I asked about it when I was 15, and what my mother told me had my mind reeling. Their father had been killed in a straight razor fight in Indiana. Their mother was alive and willing to care for them, but all the children were removed from their home and sent to orphanages. All except my Grandmother’s mother who went to live and work for a doctor (she was 12.) In the orphanage, the other children were given an IQ test with the same questions for every child (including the 2 year old) and only one, Angus, passed. All the others were deemed “feeble minded” and sterilized. To add insult to injury, Angus was sterilized too, because he had a deformed arm. I find that pretty horrifying on its own, that institutions in the U.S. once deemed it okay to sterilize a child because of a deformed forearm, but what makes it worse is that Angus’s arm was not a genetic malformation but had been broken at birth by incorrectly applied forceps. It had healed badly because no one had detected it. None of the officials at the orphanage bothered to find this out. The family opinion on this is that because they were poor white trash from Kentucky, the orphanage was looking for any excuse to sterilize them. Before Hitler went crazy, his ideas on Eugenics were actually pretty popular in the US. My great-grandmother only escaped sterilization because the doctor she worked for was categorically against Eugenics.

As an adult, I sought to verify this information. I found census records of the children living in the orphanage. Even a greater shock to me was finding records for my Aunt Dean in the Indiana State Home for the Feeble Minded as a young adult. She had been slapped with a label and lived under it for some time. Apparently when she married her situation was still the same; her husband told her that she was not capable of certain things and she went along with it. (I understand why she got divorced.) So when she was single, she set about living in a house on her own, learning to drive, working. To tell the truth, Aunt Dean was a horrible driver, but that’s not the same as being mentally unable to do it.

This situation impacted my family in many subtle ways. Growing up I thought my grandmother was kinda racist. She railed against the way young black people talked to the point that I’d just nod my head and say sure. But I learned that her mother, my Grandma Anne, rigidly insisted her children “speak correctly.” She believed that if her family had not sounded like “Kentucky coal miners” they would not have been taken to the orphanage. It was a strong certainty in her head that language was the way to keep others from pigeonholing you, stereotyping you, and abusing you because of that.

I’ve found more information about Grandma Anne’s family, and a large part of it sounds like the Hatfields and McCoys. As I mentioned, Grandma Anne’s father was killed in a knife fight. I found out that on Grandma Anne’s mother’s side, her Grandfather and Uncle had died at a Christmas Eve party where, according to the newspaper, both sides of the argument had been heavily armed. Some 7 people had been injured and I believe 5 of them died. Most of the people at the party had one of two last names, and the closing of the article warned that the violence may not have been over “because both sides are dangerous people.” (The article is pretty amusing, in a horrifying way. The caption, almost as large as the headline, states “both sides were white.” I guess so readers would know to care?)

I find this family history interesting but also incredibly sad. It seems clear to me that the children in a family possibly connected to criminal activity were deemed a problem because of their antecedents and so were sterilized.

My Aunt Dean is connected to some pretty funny stories. (Her name, Dean Virgil, led to her getting a draft notice in WWII. She was excused when she showed up for the physical.) She was a pretty funny and amazing person so I don’t want to define her by what happened to her as a child, as if it were the only thing in her life that matters. But she, and her siblings, are the reason why when I hear someone jokingly say we should sterilize all the ____ people (stupid, ugly, racist, mean) I find it hard to laugh.

My “before and after”

This is totally cheating because my “before” is from 4 years ago. I have been doing absolutely nothing but I have lost weight, and I do look happier. I only even made this because I was looking at some old pictures and was like “Wow, I used to look a lot different!” So I sat down and thought about it, and yeah, I have been treating myself better and I’m not all sad and moony all the time. In 2010 I had just started riding my bike everywhere but it hadn’t had any effects yet. I haven’t lost much actual weight. about 20 pounds, but I’m two or three sizes smaller. I was about 275, slowly but surely approaching 300 pounds, which is a number I’d rather not see.

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My efforts not to be a slob

I make jokes, sometimes, about being a slob. I have to admit that some of this is my natural temperament, and some of it is depression. I’ve been trying to get away from walking outside in sweatpants and big t-shirts, because I don’t think that will help me find a job or feel good about myself. Frankly, lately I have been going up and down between highs and lows, and I’m trying to learn how to deal with that from day to day and still live my life. One thing I’ve realized is that I often feel lonely and need someone to talk to, but I’ve found many ways over the years to build impenetrable fences around myself. I’m trying to change this.

So…step 1…stop looking like a slob all the time. I bought some new clothes and the boyfriend took silly pictures of me in them. I was kind of amazed because I look way thinner in them. I wasn’t really expecting a skin tight dress to make me look thinner.

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Why…

Why am I still so sad, when I am trying so hard?

Why am I still so unsure of myself?

Why do I still hate myself?

Why do I look at every opportunity and immediately think I can’t do it?

Why are my emotions looked down upon so much?

Why are all jobs in fast paced environments which basically mean little structure and guidance?

Why do all work places search for people who can handle a horrible work environment? Why don’t those places endeavor to fix the work environment instead?

Why am I deficient?

Why do I think so much?

Why can’t I stop the voice in my head?

Why am I stuck here, without any dreams or hopes or prospects? When I stopped hoping, that was when it became the worst…

Why am I so lonely? What is it about it me?

Why do I isolate myself from my friends and loved ones?

Why do I alienate people?

Why do they keep going and I can’t?

Why is it like this?

Emotional Sensitivity

There’s being aware of your emotions, and then there’s not being able to escape from your emotions. My feelings are sometimes physically painful, and I often feel like I just want them to stop so I can move on. Occasionally I don’t even know what they are caused by. I can think about it objectively when I am not upset, but when I am upset it overwhelms me. I know friends who don’t express these emotions, but turn them inward and either harm themselves, or go into a deep depression, or both. If you have a similar problem, you might constantly hear others say you get upset about nothing, or you get offended by everything, or you get all worked up and sad over things that are not that important.

The problem with these statements is that they assume that you are deliberately going overboard. Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, is a disorder that you might get diagnosed with if you have this issue. A Borderline diagnoses comes with a lot of stigma, even from medical care professionals, and especially from people who have experience with friends or family members with it but don’t understand a lot about it. I read a comment the other day suggesting that “People with Borderline Personality disorder know that they’re going overboard and being reactionary, and they’re doing it on purpose to hurt others. With treatment, they can stop.”

I agree with the last statement, but not the rest. I will be honest and say that I have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in the past, but my diagnoses has now been amended to Bipolar II, ADD, and OCD. Truthfully, Borderline Personality Disorder is basically a description of behaviors that may come from a combination of other disorders, and I do fit some of the symptoms. But I am glad I have escaped from the diagnosis, because under the umbrella of the Borderline diagnosis, I experienced doctors telling me things like “This is why I hate treating Borderlines. They can’t be helped” or “This is why I hate treating cutters.” When I was emotional, my feelings would be dismissed as manipulation or as trying to get attention, or I was told I enjoyed being miserable. I felt very confused, and hurt, because my emotions were very real and pressing and I felt like I was being told they weren’t valid or important. My self-esteem suffered, and I started to believe that anytime anyone hurt me, even situations where someone was actually doing something horrible to me, I was just supposed to be quiet and take it.

Continue reading Emotional Sensitivity

Guest Post: Survival Story: Overcoming a Lifetime of Sexual Assult

This is a piece by a good friend of mine. This may be triggering, but it is a good and powerful read. Find more of her writing at her blog.
            Last year

Last year I was so depressed I would wake up, go to work and go to bed immediately upon returning home. Last year I was so depressed people would talk about future dates

“When is your birthday?”

“November” *but it doesn’t matter because I’ll be dead*

Last year I was so depressed I hoped if I starved myself, lay in bed enough, didn’t make an effort enough, I could die. I researched. I collected pills. I read the online forums. I tied knots.

I barely survived.

The first time I was rapped I was 3. The last time I was raped I was 23. The “accountability” process failed and my community couldn’t support or hold me. Some men did not know what to do with a crazy survivor and cut me out of their organizing spaces.  Not enough people had my back or held me when I sobbed through the night.

It happened to me and it could happen to you. The questions are, are we willing to stop this repeating story and never let it happen again? Or are we going to be silent and complacent as more survivors’ die and more rapists live well.

            Childhood

One of the first things I remember is my father’s hand gliding up my back under my shirt and grasping my neck. He would do this to pretend I was a puppet because I was too shy to entertain his guests in any other way. I was too shy and I felt sick. I was a little girl sitting on the edge of a rough-made desk, kicking my legs off the side and he smelled of midnight summer BBQ. His hands were on my back and I was three. I was three. I was three and ready wary of life.

I think it happened first around the puppet time. We lived in a Cabin in Alaska. I was three and my mother shipped off to work in the Bering Sea. I was three and it was summer. I was learning to run and it was summer. I was picking blueberries and learning to swim and playing Robin Hood and 40(?) area woods and avoiding bears. I was three and I was already broken.

 Adolescence

I hurt myself. I have had sex with the wrong people, people who hurt me. I don’t really remember how I survived. I only know that I am still here

When I was about 16 the United States started talking about cutting as if it was a new thing. Friends started talking about their attempts. People talked about suicide as it if is a rare feeling, as if you ever get over the feeling, as if once you walk that edge you ever really always want to live.

I have no idea what if feels like to truly want to live all the time. I have been playing with death for as long as I can remember. I have been hurting myself for as ling as I can remember. This is what childhood sexual assault can do to a person, it is a lifetime of trying to convince yourself you are not worthless. Of trying to convinve yourself another day is worth the pain.

But like anyone that survives, that doesn’t take the temptation into death, I learned to hide, I learned to be a straight A student. I learned to be mean and make biting comments that made me the really funny quite one.  The smart one they came to for homework help but didn’t really like wasn’t really fun to be around. The one no one could figure out and was probably a serial killer. “It is always the quite ones.” They joked, and side eyed me. And walked away quickly, leaving me to my books.

Adulthood

When I was in college I was part of survivor circles and I participated in their accountability processes. I attended trainings. I volunteered for local safe houses and community support groups. I admitted we had a problem, I never admitted that I personally shared in the struggle with the people I supported.

The first time I made my rape public was deranging occupy. Suffice it to say, I was stalked, raped, stalked, threatened and threated by my perpetrator until I was forced to leave Seattle and the state. He made it known to me and my community that he wanted to kill my partner and me. He was willing to go through with these threats.

He pulled knives on two of my friends, threatened his entire support community and committed a crime, which would get him locked up again for close to a year. When I have told my story to health care professionals the only nurse that understood was an outpatient mental health nurse in East Oakland. I just had to say, facing serious prison time, friend of the family, and part of the same community and she nodded,

“It is complicated, we all share community with people who fuck up.”

After I found relative safely in Oakland I continued to engager myself. I plotted my death. I went to the psych ward. 51/50. I went to their groups. I didn’t speak for several years, for several years of my life. All the women I love have gone through a rape experience. I supported them when I would not support myself. I couldn’t admit to myself that that there was a problem or care about myself in any meaningful way.

The struggle never ends, and once you are raped the effects are with you for a lifetime. The night after I wrote this I felt a sense of closure and healing. I just moved back to Seattle after two years away and my rapist’s sister pulled me aside at a community education discussion to let me know her brother had been spotted a local La Raza café near where I stay.

I was suddenly backed to the day after, scared, angry and needing to run away. Lucky people in his community still take my needs seriously.  They are looking after me in a way I never thought possible. But still he pushes his limits, still he wants me dead. It has been four years and still I live in fear of him, it has been 23 years and still I live in fear of my dad.

Life Before Death

I still believe change.  I believe we can stop rape and everything that goes along with it.  But I no longer know the path. I no longer feel hope pulsing inside. I no longer trust my closest comrades not to betray me at worst times in the most dangerous ways.

I believe in a world where little girls are not afraid to go home and little boys are not afraid to walk of their houses without worried about a cop having a bad day and shooting them.  Today I want to live in world I can organize without dealing with sexist men and rapists in my affinity groups.

The question is am I a silly dreamer or are we going to working together for a revolution that shifts the dynamics of the world enough that my story would become just another part of a shameful colonial history?

How strong do we need to be to seek redemption? I believe in global but not always personal change. I do not care what a pedophiles life story is. I don’t care if they had a hard time in middle school. They made a choice and that needs to be made clear. They worst thing for me about the current trend toward “community accountably” is the language about “holding the perpetrater” or being even softer “the person to caused harm.” During my very public process some actually asked me to stop using the term prep because it caused them stigma. Really? I thought it was the choice he made to rape someone that caused him stigma, not my language.

That being said I do thing sometimes it is good to take history of abuse, war trauma etc. into account when dealing with people who rape. But I will personally refuse to be in a serous conversation about rape with someone who forgets even for a second that you always, always have the choice not to rape someone and a rapist has always decided to take violent action and violate a person. No defense, no excuses. If you are truly seeking redemption, you have to admit your wrongs without any sugar coating or “I didn’t hear her” or “but she wanted it before” or anything other such pitiful excuse.

This is a call to arms. Rapists, are you willing to seek redemption? Survivors are our willing to speak out? Community, are you willing to listen and truly act? If so, lets build together toward the world of all our dreams.