First published in The Confluence: DIY-Heal-Yourself TOolkit Issue, Fall 2008 . A group of us got together to share our experiences in self-healing and perspectives on how to take well-being into our own hands and via shared community practice. Kelsey initiated the issue, Justicia contributed a yoga sequence that I illustrated, Constantine translated Non-violent communication for punks aka “kill the cop in your own head”, and then-Parys-now-Shawn wrote a terrifically moving recap of an escape from addiction… And more. Digger writes in the intro: “For most of human history, what we call health care was has handled at the village or community level: Shamans, healers and the like would use locally gathered medicinal plants and use long-standing, traditional practices….We want to honor the healers in our community that work outside the mainstream health care system: herbologists, acupuncturists, yoga teachers and practitioners, holistic doctors, health collectives, medicine men and women and the healing power of the Earth itself!”
For me, the experience of gathering around a table upstairs at CAMP discussing the issue was the process of connecting with the projects’ potential, beyond a critical activist center, but as a place to share our power to transform society as we transform ourselves. Or – as Bucky says: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
I’m re-copying it here since recently I’ve been reflecting on this instance and what it brought about for me. My return to Cherokee Street, and particularly the choice to move about two blocks from the address where the young man who attacked me lived, was motivated by a desire to understand and positively influence the conditions which produce such drastic youth violence.
Sometimes it takes a slap in the face to wake up to how light & dark like to get down.
I want to tell the story of how I learned to translate grace. One night over two years ago, a stranger climbed into my second-story southside apartment and tried violently to rape me.
It changed the way I see.
The world unravels itself to me in repeated images, in symbols, in signs strewn in trash on sidewalks—self-fulfilling prophecies. Like the foreshadowing magnetic poetry I stuck on my toaster oven in that new apartment: “I sing trip away the sad mean shadow.”
I had just moved out to the upstairs of a storefront near Globe on Cherokee Street, with no one else’s energy to confuse with my own. I was warned the spot was unsafe but I felt good there – a rainbow graced the grey sky on moving day. I could feel my heart, rot spots and seeds.
And I could feel the street. Walking a lot up and down Cherokee, connecting to the ‘search-for-fix’ and ‘ripe-for-transformation-ness’ that lives out-loud on those boarded-up blocks. I made art and friends with strangers.
I had landed in St. Louis about three years before. Living in this city with wild, alive vision of what a sustainable, revitalized, connected STL feels like yet confronting the often-stilted resistance and sluggish evolution, I became angry, angsty –inward. I wanted to open but I felt stuck. A bike wreck head injury and broken heart later, I was so sore: but getting the drift that pain –psychic or corporal — is an invitation.
After falling off a porch, I saw a chiropractor who dealt with health as interconnected systems. He gave me a key: “Where your attention goes, your energy flows.” So in the wee 3 a.m. on May 24, 2006 I went to bed after journaling:
Bored of the rut motion, the same complaints and observations.. . really want to let up on the nonsense of repitition. How to when lyrics and politics and news press play on the same emotional addictions…. “I miss you; I need you; attacks on democracy; threat of terror” YAWN. How can we illustrate how this is all one conversation? Is it? What am I so afraid of? …
We ask; life answers.
I woke up to a feeling, not a sound. I saw a stranger’s feet thru the crack of my bedroom door. Is this real? The flurry of movement, the deep command bellowed from my chest: Get the Fuck outta My House. He was gone – then he was back – and I was in the air.
There: that moment: frozen: the one that says, This is happening. I love that moment.
“I-rebuke-you-in-the-name-of-Jesus!” As an expired, automatic childhood script lifted from my memory and out my tongue, I knew in translation I was invoking unconditional love and awareness. The “I Am a-ha!” From that point, the energy of compassion and attention became my protection. I opened my mouth and didn’t stop talking til he left. My body didn’t fight back, it just staved him off – no punches, just resistance. No insults, just the truth and questions as they came to mind.
During our struggle, A few moments stand out.
At one point he grew very still and quiet. He was grabbing my wrist and I was grabbing his, fiercely. Diagrammatically we were linked: fist to fist, black to white, “caught up in One web of destiny…” I spoke this to him in jumbles, laying out ripples of oppression from slavery to Bush to him to me to two human beings who can’t get free from these ugly scars of our collective history save for our only chance to shift the pattern – Now. By choosing not to pass it on, no matter what retribution we see as needful in our respective ideologies or our family trees, we break the chain.
“This is our chance to change it. You have no power over me. You have to leave Now.”
And he did – run toward the rooftop window he came in at—but faked me out, turned back and grabbed me again. Oh, so that’s how it is?
The suspicion crept up: Crime is just bad acting. Pathetic human drama: teach, watch, repeat. So I switched my game, dragged us over to the second story window overlooking the street, climbed out so only one bent leg was holding me at the ledge, and threatened to jump. “You want to me to kill myself?” I threatened, strangely amused at how awkwardly this scene fit in my life. Again he ran like he was leaving & I climbed in to close the window – but he turned around and grabbed me back. Then I remember being pissed and talking shit, “Like I don’t already have enough issues with sex, now you want to try and complicate it further?”
Still fighting, now tired. Now barely holding him off. Now underneath him. I was spitting whispers, not allowed by his violence to scream. I could taste blood.
I AM – I spoke it out. I am your sister. I am your mom’s mom. I am your best friends’ baby cousin. I am your auntie and I am your grandma. I let loose a litany, hoping he could light upon a connection to someone still real to him.
Now barely resisting. Now just the truth: “You’re hurting me. I’m bleeding.”
And then he left.
Fast-forward thru the fiasco of riding my bike with a kitchen knife to a nearby safe-haven friend’s house — on the way encountering a cop at the stop sign who didn’t file a report despite my busted lip and ripped pajamas. Fast-forward to the bathtub that held me glad to be alive, intact. In dawn, sleep came.
But It was downhill from there. Day to day was difficult. Things felt fast, and out of order. I had to move out. I filed a police report. I felt an edge, a line between this story and me. It didn’t feel like me.
Nighttime came but sleep wouldn’t. I borrowed a pit bull and a friend’s couch, While I was laying awake, a mantra: “Perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love casts out fear.” I grew friendly with the thought that anything could happen again at any moment. I made peace with physiological fear, just noticing increased heartbeat and intense energy as it pulsed around my body through my hands. Laying those hands, one on my heart and one on my cunt, fourth and first chakras. An accidental student of the body-mind connect.
I needed to do strange things, wear my black eye out, insist on Not hiding. I pinned on a friend’s “No Point? No Problem!” button and wore the Warriors jersey with the WAR crossed off.
I was confused. I wanted to celebrate the strong voice I felt in resisting. But I felt guilty and sickened that I got away and others didn’t. Vehement when I found a hand-drawn stack of “Shoot the rapist” fliers floating around – how is retribution support? Vulnerable in hearing horrible stories people started to tell me — overwhelmed that far worse than this happens all the all the time. Now I more viscerally understood the immensity of the pain that human beings inflict on each other. It hurt.
Though my attacker had been found and jailed, I didn’t want to be around – filled with paranoia and pain.
I had a hasty “party” to give all my stuff away and say goodbye – but the gathering’s ritual felt contrived and most everyone got wasted. I left so messy, empty, feeling failure. Taunted by potential I could feel shining but stuck under toxic dust – molten, sick, separated, broken, irrelevant, So “almost. . . .”
And closer than I knew.
The journey that took me away and brought me back taught me: Love is not a straight line. You are already tHere. This is it.
Like a stroke victim clumsy learning basic tasks, I knew my healing was tied to unlearning defunct mind patterns and reconnecting to intuition. I had a feeling it might be slow work.
I stepped back to see: it had been a gradual descent into well-disguised poverty of spirit. I lost faith when I tossed dead religion out in college but never bothered to pick up parts of my heart that went out with the garbage. Usually my anger is frustration turned inward. Even in my teen years, I practiced a perfectionist’s fear of failure – a lil’ hyperventilater, outsourcing the mind-drama to battle it out in my anorexic-bulimic body.
It was time to face the ball of it all. Unsure of where to be, wanting to drop out pretty totally, craving a sort of childlike dependency– I headed for the trunk of this tree, my grandma in East Bay, CA.
Kitty is a fortress. Not so mobile but sharp as a tack, she is a catalogue of stories with a vocabulary that whisks her thru the Sunday NY-times crossword puzzle. An ex-gourmet chef, she shows her love by cuisinart-ing and soufflé-ing. Our house was a barracks of books, DVDs, and a full pantry of food and spirits. I’d stay up all night catching up on the last ten-years of life without a TV, watching VHS tapes of entire seasons of Sex in the City in one sitting. Or I’d crawl in bed with her, drawing and sewing, going movie to movie. Sometimes we each stooped deep in our own depression, sometimes we tried to nurse each other.
I adored the fog. No horizon, no other side. At the shore hiking in the grey paradise of Marin at the Headlands Institute for the Arts, above a threshold was written: “Desperation Breeds Commitment.” Ok, dig in.
I set up a makeshift studio in the garage, where I concocted intricately painted, jeweled images that I adhered to signs and allies in the Mission. “We come together like opposites attract” was a colorful, multi-headed squid monster made of MLK Jr., Bush, Bin Laden, and Paula Abdul.
The back gate to our neighborhood climbed up a clandestine dry grassy hill of a neighboring ranch. I’d walk long and sit at the fence singing call and response to the cows. Moooooooooooo. Ommmmmmm. Kinship. Kind of.
I felt adrift from STL. Care packages and cut ties – who am I apart from my community? Strongest support came from surprise acquaintances. I saw an ad for LaughterYoga on the library bulletin board, and biked to a senior center to check it out. A congenial real estate agent instructed us to put imaginary ice cubes down each others’ shirts and belly laugh for no reason but the sheer biological need. Dodging dentures as they flew out the mouth of one chuckling grey-haired lady, my smile got real. Heaven is this. No expectations.
I downloaded my new best friend in hour-long free podcasts: elsiesyogacula.com. Elsie cooed encouragement as my cheerful virtual coach, and I took to the mat in more earnest. There I excavated lots of layers — limp, lonely, ugly, afraid, faithless. I began to understand better the motions I could go thru to truly molt.
I grew objective eyes. I woke up and followed the three instructions I taped by my bed: 0. Breathe 1. Thank 2. Laugh. I volunteered planting trees, took workshops on the healing power of sound, stuck my nose in books, took myself on dates, left love notes at bus stops, videotaped myself in foreign dialects doing partner affirmations.
Slowly, suddenly, there was more space. I saw – it’s my self-hate that habitually cripples me. Wishing I were better, smarter, more; then seeing all others– friends, politicians, systems– thru the same foggy filter of accusation and comparison. The attack momentarily cleaned my mirror. For a few fleeting seconds I felt how the powerful state of unconditional love and presence transforms the situation. What happens if I ask this attitude to penetrate my everyday?
I moved back home to the Midwest with my parents to ask this question in earnest.
With the trial of my attacker approaching, I got curious how rehabilitation happens in prisons. On-line at dhamma.org, I found interviews with wardens who implemented Vipassana meditation behind bars. I researched this volunteer-powered organization committed to offering a cost-free, safe haven of evolutionary alone-time in centers worldwide. I enrolled in a course, and headed to an old farm-turned-retreat center in Pecatonica, Illinois for ten days of silent meditation. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but promised not to run away whatever I found.
Nonsectarian daily instruction guided us thru anecdotes of Buddha’s life, teachings about the cycle of craving and aversion, and techniques of observing breath and sensation in the body, with dedicated awareness and equanimity. Alongside people of all ages, races, and walks – not talking, just sitting. Fourteen hours a day of exquisite, self-administered brain surgery.
Night brought dreams like truth cocktails. I dreamed an unknown being on the other side of a gelatinous screen. As I reached my hand toward the veil, I froze as desire turned to dread. I felt the being shift to my attacker, then back to an unknown. I felt the shift energetically — how I reach affects and changes what I am reaching for. I can only control the movement: choose to reach from fear or love.
After the course, meditators report all sort of experiences: bodies break out into rashes, some head out on blissful cosmic trips. Mine was without woo-woo… a whole lot of time witnessing a deep sense of familiar anxiety and failure – practicing the trick of not wishing it to pass. One day near the end I grew painfully agitated. As I stayed with it, the brink of suffocation turned into a flood of warmth as I slipped the deepest into my safe Self I’ve ever been. The comic image came to mind of me flapping around a baby pool in full scuba gear, when truly I’ve got gills that can safely navigate me to the center of the ocean. Surrender made more sense.
I liked the center so much I stayed for another month, serving in the kitchen and as a course manager, and sitting another full ten-day session.
Time came for the trial. I testified, and I looked him in the eye. He denied.
The most important moments for me were connecting with the other sisters who’d been attacked too. The little one, 15, and I sat at the children’s table in victim services and drew together a cartoon version of Edward Hick’s Peaceable Kingdom, where the lion lays down with the lamb, entitled “Genuine Voodoo Curse Remover.”
I shared a statement in court the day of the verdict – a year exactly after the attack. Guilty: life and then some. Amidst the disconnection: judge. jury. victims. defense. barriers. pain. his mom. my mom, it felt good to speak as freely as I did the night we met. I spoke that I forgave him. I spoke how he changed my life. I said:
“I realize I am part of the society in which you found yourself jobless and hopeless, and I take that seriously. I want more for you, and I want more for me, I want more for us, and I feel a responsibility to be a part of creating that. If I learned one thing in the aftermath of your attack, I learned the only way I can make that society or make that change is to be myself, to love myself, and to heal myself… I trust… in the universal law of cause and effect. . . and I know you’ll get what’s coming to you. I also hope that you get what’s available to you, which is grace. I hope you see inside you the complexity that is inside you, and that you come to terms with that.”
I took the stand but I wished for a circle, like ancient tribes that dealt with offenses by sitting the criminal in the middle of his community, surrounded by people who spoke the full truth his life back to him, reminding of all the light and right also witnessed.
I moved back to STL almost a year ago and I still don’t live on my own. Friends get pistol-whipped and mugged. Last week off Cherokee I sat and listened to a woman tell me how she’s been raped since she was three.
Where do we put this?
I breathe. I pick up trash. I go for a walk. I stop trying to fix it. I know the power and joy of waking up is contagious.
Those parts of me, of society, which cause me most to cringe – I will gather my stillness around me, aim my energy, and attend – with whatever I have that day to give.
If I believe it won’t change, it won’t. If I soften my heart, relax into compassion — and then act: what’s possible?
A gentle trajectory, a dance in perfect time, slow, fast, open, close . . . healing flirts and wants to happen. I am learning: in each moment is my gift…. in each being is my teacher.
For social change, first self-transformation: Love is the most radical catalyst of all.
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