Sunday, September 28, 2014

The achingly honest truth: What do we do when we're tired?

Yeah.  Still writing about it.  (If you don't know what "it" is, make sure to read part one...and if you're curious, part 2 and part 3).  As I start to prepare for Tuesday, and for going back to the classroom, and deciding what I will and won't say to my students...and deciding what I will and won't do to make myself feel safe...and deciding how I will and will not (or, more likely, can and cannot) mentally prepare myself for the challenge I know this will present for me, and my body, and my soul...I'm overwhelmed.  And I'm really freaking tired.

I'm going to be painfully honest here.  Painful for me, because I don't want to write this, kinda makes me look bad.  But I think honesty is important, because, I've heard, that my honesty sometimes illuminates truths for others, and that's something I can do, right?  I can write truth, even when I'm tired.

So here's the achingly honest, complicated truth: I wish I had not entered into this battle.  I wish I had been able to just chalk creepy-union-rep-dude up to just having poor social skills, and that I had never written about it, or talked about it, or emailed anyone about it.  I wish that every trace of that experience had never seen the light of day outside of that classroom. 

And here's the other part of that achingly honest, complicated truth: wishing that makes me feel like a bad person.  It makes me feel weak.  It makes me feel like a bad feminist.  It makes me feel like a fraud, and it makes me feel guilty.  How can I be this person who TEACHES about privilege and oppression and power and being an ally...and also want to sweep my own experiences under the rug and pretend they never happened, thus condoning and perpetuating the status quo?  How can I be a person who strives to be active in the world of social justice...and also actively silence myself and my experiences because of the very social constructs I want so badly to fight against?

The answer, of course, is startlingly simple: because I'm human.  Because even when -- perhaps especially when -- you are "awake" to these experiences, and can name what is wrong in them, and pick apart your reactions and identify them as being mediated by societal influences you want to fight...even then, you're still part of that sociocultural/political web of oppression.  Just because I can name these things, or write some semi-cogent thoughts about them, it doesn't mean I'm exempt.  It's easy to advocate for issues you do not personally live. 

I think, though, about how things never happen in a vacuum.  I think about how the response I received may be indicative of underlying issues throughout the organization that others are fighting (or maybe should be fighting, but are not).  I think about how I, as a teacher and not an undergraduate, may have a power and privilege and voice that would not be afforded to someone else fighting a similar concern.  I think about how I have been through a similar struggle before, and it may have given me knowledge and experience (and therefore power) that even other teachers may not have. 

Here's the final piece of that raw and throbbing truth: even though I don't want to, even though I know better, and even though I see entirely clearly what I am doing, I doubt my experience and the legitimacy of my concerns.  "Oh Autodidact," I say to myself, "you're making a big deal out of nothing.  You're just reacting this way because of things that happened in the past."   Or "you're just reacting this way because you're anxious."  Or even, I'm embarrassed to admit "you're just reacting this way because you're emotional and your hormones are out of whack."  (It's called internalized oppression, folks.  That shit's real).

And I guess that's the thing: I can academicize (is that a word?) the hell out of the thing.  I can talk theory, and rhetoric, and spew big words about these issues, and it doesn't change a bit of it.  It does not change my experience, or my reactions, or the way people respond to me.  When it comes down to it, I'm just as much of a fish in the sociocultural pond as the next person, and we're all struggling to see the water we're swimming in.  Even when you think you're seeing the water, you're not.  And even when you think you've accepted or rejected various components of the water, you haven't, really, because you're steeped in the stuff.  You're still breathing it, and marinating in it, and being subconsciously indoctrinated by it, even as you name it and reject it.  There's not a damn thing you can do about it, except continue to chip away at it and acknowledge that you're just another fish struggling to see the water we swim in.

That makes it all feel helpless, you know?  It makes me tired.  It makes me feel like it's not worth the fight.  I've been here before, in other ways.  I've lost here before.  This is perhaps both my greatest strength, and the thing that renders me immobile.

So my question, then, is this: how do we do this, even when we're tired?  How do we, any of us, continue our personal fights for justice and equality and safety as we continue to drink from the dirtied water and breathe the fumes of privilege, marginalization, and oppression?  How do we have the energy to fight, and to breathe, and to keep walking forward, knowing we walk into an air that is just as dirtied, and knowing that our streams are still polluted?  How do we have the strength to keep believing in the war when we lose battle after battle, and when we must come home and sit with those raw and painful truths? 

I'm not stupid...I know the answer is supposed to be "self-care."  It's supposed to be "supportive friends" and "breathing" or "yoga" or "smashing things like the Incredible Hulk" or whatever it is you do to make you able to re-engage.  But this...this is different, somehow.  This isn't just a "tired of people being assholes" struggle.  It's not just "sick of the jerks and their jerky-jerk ways."  This is a bone-tired sort of tired.  A world-weary sort of tired.

Other than writing...what do we do when we're tired? 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Where do we turn for truth?

I'm going to keep writing about this, guys.  I hate that I'm going to keep writing about it...and I also have to keep writing about it.  For me.  For women.  For all of us seeking to understand our experiences, I have to write this.

(For you who have no clue what I'm talking about, read part 1 and part 2 to catch up.  Or read on.  It'll peak your curiosity enough to want some context, I'm sure).  

And you know, I notice something I'm not proud of.  I worked really hard over the past several months to NOT undermine myself.  To stop apologizing.  To stop selling myself short.  I had gotten good at it.  Not great, but at the very least I noticed the tendency to be pulled in that direction, and I could sometimes stop myself.  We had a fantastic conversation about this in my class, actually.  We listened to Lily Myers' poem, "Shrinking Women," in which she says, "I asked 3 questions in Genetics class the other day, and all of them started with 'sorry.'"  I gently called out a young woman in my class who starts every comment or answer with, "I'm sure this is probably wrong," or "I don't think this is right, but..."  We had an amazing conversation about it.

But do you know what I REALLY wanted my first sentence to be?  Do you know what I wrote first?  "I'm sorry that I'm still writing about this."  It's been two whole days.  I mean seriously.  Who am I to talk about this for two whole days?


I fell back into that pattern, and I see it.  In talking to a good friend online, he said about my last blog post, "it makes me angry on your behalf."

"Thank you," I said.  "And I'm sorry." 

"Sorry for what?" he asked.  And honestly...I had to think about it.  The "sorry" just popped out automatically.  Sorry I made him feel angry on my behalf?  Yes...that's actually the answer.  And it's also ridiculous. 

I can change this pattern, and I will, but I think it's interesting and noteworthy, right?  Make me feel unsafe, make me feel unable to advocate for myself...and I fall back into those patterns of apologizing, of undermining, of not wanting to take up space.  Feeling unworthy is like sand: that shit gets everywhere, and it's impossible to get rid of it.  It just keeps coming back.  Even when you think it's gone, you find a bit in your suitcase or in your shoes.  How would the world be different -- how would women be different -- if we were able to always (or almost always) feel as though we and our bodies and our safety mattered?

I also want to make it clear that it takes serious bravery to write this stuff.  This isn't just stream-of-consciousness, make me feel better type of writing.  I am grateful, always grateful, that I am a writer and that I have this ability to think and reach answers through my words.  But this is work, and it does require a unique level of bravery.  It's not easy.  It's just not.

Tonight, I'm thinking about what I said about intuition.  I'm thinking about the ways our bodies communicate with us, and the way I try to listen to my body.  I'm not always good at it, but I try.  She tells me what I need.  She alerts me when there is danger.  She has in-born mechanisms that kick-in without me giving them the conscious okay that assist in keeping me safe.  It's pretty amazing when you think about it.

We tell ourselves and our friends all the time: listen to your body.  Trust yourself.  Figure out what it is that YOU need and do it.  You deserve to feel safe.  You deserve to take care of your body.  You deserve to do what you need to feel secure. 

And that's true, right?  Of course it is. 

 But here's what we don't think about: sometimes our bodies get mixed up.  I was going to say that they lie, but I don't believe that's true.  A young man I work with tells me that he doesn't get the answers on his homework WRONG, per se...he just sometimes gets mixed up.  And I think that's right.  I think that's what's happening here.  My body isn't wrong.  It isn't lying.  It's just a little mixed up sometimes, and it's hard to tell what will actually be the right choice. 

Earlier tonight, in the middle of choir practice, my body freaked out momentarily for no good reason other than the fact that I realized that I would be leaving at 9:00 and it would be dark and I would have to walk across the dark parking lot to my car.  For a moment, in the middle of fumbling my way through page 48 of Handel's Messiah, my body convinced me that something bad would happen - that I would be unsafe - in the parking lot of my church. 

And I'm not saying that could NEVER happen.  I'm just saying that I could be 100% certain that I would be leaving the building with 2, or 5, or 10, or 20 people who care about me and my wellbeing, and while no place is ever 100% safe...this particular scenario ranks pretty high up there.

Like I said, my body...she gets mixed up sometimes.

It gets complicated very quickly.  I know, for example, that calling Security for an escort to my car is the right choice.  But honestly, every part of my body HATES this idea.  Hates it.  Like, panics when I think about it.  My breathing gets tight tight tight, I feel my shoulders clench, and something in the pit of my stomach forms an impenetrable rock.  When I make myself think through calling them, tears sting my eyes, and I want to curl up under my covers forever.  This is truth.

How, then, do we know when to listen to our bodies?  How do we trust when it is making the right decision?  How do I know -- like really know -- what is right, and safe, and trustworthy, when my body is all mixed up and can no longer tell the difference?  What then?

I've been thinking about a workshop I went to on welcoming people with disabilities.  In it, it was said that accommodations should be present and available, at the ready, such that people do not even need to ask.  This is how we create a welcoming and inclusive community, they said.  This is how we send the message you matter, and you are welcome here.  And it makes sense, right?  If the things a person might need are available (after a need has become clear), why make a person have to ask, time and time again?  We are trained from the time we are little that if we ask for something repetitiously, we are kinda a pain in the butt.  Personally, I'm not a fan of being a pain in the butt.

This is a piece of my issue with this, I guess.  I just feel like...if my safety and security mattered, they would have a security presence in the building.  If my safety and security mattered, they would have people there, whose job it is to walk people out.  If it mattered, I wouldn't have to call them away from their desks all the way on the other side of campus.  Instead, I need to call them every damn week and have them come something could happen in the interim that would make me safe.  (Am I going to grow 10 inches, a beard, and a certain piece of genitalia in the next few weeks?  I think not).  Barring that, I need to feel like what I need in order to have my most basic safety and security needs met is an accommodation.  Something that people need to go out of their way to provide.  And I just don't like making people go out of their way. 

In my head, I keep asking myself, "what do you even want, Autodidact?  What is it that you want?"  I wonder if I'm expecting too much.  I wonder if I'm asking for too much.  I convince myself that this is just a "me" thing, and that it doesn't really matter.  Does it matter?  Does it matter if one person feels unsafe?  Two people?  Five?  When is there a critical mass of people such that change should be made?  When is it enough such that we will be heard?

I keep thinking about the words of the Director of Security in an email he sent.  "As uncomfortable as it may have been," he wrote, "please know that they are welcome here to pursue their union activity." 

What privilege that statement conveys, no?  "Uncomfortable," he says...when the words in my email were "unsafe" and "threatened."  "They are welcome here," he says...which makes me - the person employed by this institution - wonder: am I also welcome here?  He says this as if he knows that, because there is legitimate union activity that has been authorized, he knows that this person (this person without obvious credentials, I may add), would not have been a threat.  What a privilege it is to be able to believe that people are who they say they are and are who they seem, simply because they say it.  What a privilege to believe that being an authorized union representative and being a guy-who-could-hurt-a-woman must be mutually exclusive.   

But then we -- we with the confused bodies --how do we know what is right anymore?  How do we know what is safe?  We whose experiences have been denied, or downplayed, or whose direct requests for change have been shot-down, how do we know our requests are valid?  How do we remember that we are worth the struggle? How do we come to believe again in our own body's ability to tell us what is true?

And in the absence of our body's voice...where do we turn for truth?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Safety, silence, and self-care

I'll be honest: I don't want to write this.  I have been an honest-to-goodness mess today as me and my body and my brain attempt to settle from last night's incident.  Between clients and everything else that occurs in my typical workday, I was fielding emails from various people at the college about the issue.  I'm not pleased with the direction things have gone.  But that's not what I want to write about.

Instead, I want to write about the push and pull.  I want to write about why I am writing about this.  I need to write the struggle.  I need to write the struggle.  In order for me to feel whole, and worthy, and as though I matter, I need to write the struggle.

On its face, this issue does not seem complicated.  In fact, it seems pretty easy, actually.  What should happen is this: a person feels unsafe.  Said person takes action to feel safe again.  The community hears that person and responds.  The person feels safe. 

Ideally, this is how it would happen.   Every time.  We would all feel as though we matter enough to advocate for our safety.  Our environments and communities would reinforce these choices, and feelings of safety would abound.  Women say to one another, "you have the right to feel safe.  You are entitled to safety.  You deserve to feel safe and supported in your place of employment."  And we mean it, because -- of course -- we all have the right to feel safe. 

But the fact of the matter is that this pattern isn't always the way things go.  What happens instead is this: a person feels unsafe.  Said person takes action to feel safe again.  The community does not hear or respond.  The person feels unsafe.  She takes another action to feel safe again.  The community does not hear or respond.  The person feels unsafe.

Guess what happens next?  She stops taking action.  Why wouldn't she?  Aside from the basic behavioral principles at play here (i.e. if a behavior is not reinforced, it will not continue), Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right?  So why would she keep trying?

The only thing worse than feeling unsafe is feeling as though you lack the agency to make it better.  The ONLY thing worse than feeling threatened is feeling like you are unable to make a change to push you towards feeling safe again.  Every time you feel you are advocating for your own safety and it gets shot down, you learn that advocating for safety makes you feel more unsafe.  Every time you try to speak up and state your needs and change is denied, your sense of threat increases.  Each time a piece of that agency and autonomy is taken away, each time that ability to effect change and protect yourself in an environment is denied, your sense of safety is further taken from you.  Then it is not one person or a group of people that are a threat.  It is your entire environment.  When people fail to stand next to or behind you when you ask them to, they are a threat.  Maybe not as big of a threat as the initial threat, but a threat to your autonomy and your ability to advocate for your needs and effect change.  It is a threat nonetheless.

And unfortunately, once you have had this experience once, in one environment, it generalizes.  You are then forever faced with an impossible choice: when I feel unsafe, do I advocate for my safety, even though I have this intimate knowledge of the ways in which advocating for safety can make me feel even further unsafe?  If I stay quiet, maybe my silence will protect me.  If I stay quiet, I always have that option of speaking out stored in my back pocket.  If things get bad, I am still holding the potential for agency and change.  If I use that now...I'm out of tools.  When you feel unsafe, the last thing you want to be is out of tools.

If I heard a client say this, my first thought would be, "oh shit, this girl is really vulnerable to being re-victimized."  And it's true -- the rate of revictimization of women who have been sexually assaulted/victims of crimes is ridiculously high (code word for: I know it's high but don't have the energy to look up the stats right now.  Sorry).   There are lots of reasons for this.  This may be one of them.

As I was driving to work this morning, thinking about this point, I thought of this quote by Audre Lorde.  I've read it so many times, but I understood it today, perhaps for the first time: "...we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves.  We've been taught that silence would save us, but it won't."

"We are taught to respect fear more than ourselves."  This is part of that push and pull.  It is part of the struggle.  We become frightened, and then are saddled with the additional fear of being unable to make a change.  That fear is real.  All of it.  She is something that inhabits our bodies, changes our breath and our muscles, and if we're talking about trauma, changes our brains and our genetic make-up.  She is something to be respected. 

I believe we can respect ourselves in spite of the fear.  We can respect ourselves more than the fear.  And, I believe, we have to learn to respect ourselves alongside the fear.  I also believe that respecting ourselves is not as easy as it seems.  In fact, it is frequently a violent push and pull, and often, I'm not sure what it means.  Andrea Gibson says, "Safety is not always safe.  You can find one on every gun."  When your attempts at securing safety backfire, and "safe" is not something you can trust, how do you do anything but respect the fear -- more than you trust or respect yourself, even?  It is, sometimes, the only thing that is rewarded.

"We've been taught that silence would save us..."  We are taught this in so many ways, both implicit and explicit.  Silence is reinforced by lack of additional fear.  Silence is reinforced by lack of added shame.  Silence is reinforced by the recognition we receive as we pretend that all is well.  When faced with the choice of speaking and risking shame or re-traumatization, or remaining silent, we sometimes believe it is better to be silent.  And sometimes...sometimes...for the moment, it is. 

But silence won't save us forever.  Respecting the fear won't save us forever. 

So this is the precipice I find myself standing on: I cannot possibly be naive enough to believe that my environment will support my right to safety.   This was emphasized to me today.  I played my cards wrong, perhaps, in that I played my speaking up card too soon, or in the wrong manner.  Perhaps it was my silence that would have saved me.  I made the choice to respect myself more than the fear.  It wasn't rewarded.  It seldom is.

I don't know where I go from here.  Right now, self-care and respecting myself feels like it would be letting it all go, sucking it up, dealing with the fear and the discomfort, and walking myself to my car alone every Tuesday.  My head knows this is wrong.  My head knows that this is not what respecting my safety looks like.  But it feels like respect because it means that I no longer need to deal with my environment telling me "your safety doesn't matter."  It feels like safety because then I am in control.  I have made a choice, and no one is accountable for me but me.  I can be hurt, but not by people I know.  Not by people who are supposed to protect me.  Not by people who are supposed to be on my side.

My head knows that the right decision is to fight the bureaucratic bullshit, and to demand that they respond to my requests for changes to be made so that I (and other women) feel safe.  I know that this is supposed to be my action if I truly believe that I am worthy of safety.  But my heart knows that we are tired.  We've been in this fight before, my heart, and my brain and me.  And we lost.  We gave up because we had to.  Because we were so broken down, that fighting was no longer what self-care, and advocacy, and strength, and bravery looked like.  Instead, they looked like survival. 

The fight could be short.  It could not even be a fight at all.  It could be a push, a leaning into the resistance, and the wall could give way, and a sense of safety could open for me and for other women there.  Or I could meet brick roadblock after brick roadblock with no end success.  I have no way of knowing which path this would take, and the unknowing feels unsafe.

It's not supposed to be this hard.  I know that.  I realize that it's completely ridiculous that I could write 2.5 pages on this topic, and reach the end still without definitions or answers.   I'm not even completely sure this makes sense. 

The only thing I know for sure is this: our silence will not save us.  My silence?  It will not save me.  And so I write, with a whispered prayer that one day I will write myself into change, or safety, or an answer. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On listening to your instincts

I think I mentioned that I recently started teaching a course at a local college.  The course itself is going so well.  Seriously.  I overheard two students talking before class this evening saying, "I really wish this class was more than once a week.  This class is amazing.  We need more classes like this."  I almost cried, because...holy cow.  What a compliment.

My class meets from 7-9:30PM in the basement of one of the buildings in the middle of campus.  When I say "basement," it's not like it's's very nice, actually.  But there are very, very few people around, and when I am there, I feel very, very isolated.  There are 27 students in my class, and once they leave, I walk down the echo-y hallways alone, walk across the poorly lit campus to the empty faculty parking lot, and I leave.  By then, it's typically around 9:45PM, and it feels...wrong.  I didn't feel safe, and I caught myself putting my keys between my fingers, holding my breath, walking fast and demanding myself to look confident.  It did not feel okay.

I emailed a friend and professor and asked him: "so this it safe?  I feel uncomfortable, even though I know it's probably fine...but is safety a concern?"

He's awesome, so he responded that he had spoken with several other female colleagues, and that they noted that they do or would feel unsafe, even though they are reasonably sure that they would be, because it is late, and because the campus is poorly lit, and that they would likely call security, or consider calling security, or that they were pleased to know that calling security for an escort would be an option.  He presented me with several solutions: call security and arrange for an escort.  Talk with the department chair and arrange to park closer in a handicapped parking spot.  Ask for my class to be moved to another building where there would be another night class taking place.  He took my concern seriously, and responded with options he wanted me to take advantage of.

But I'm stupid and hard-headed, and I thought, "you're making a big deal out of nothing.  Every woman says she would call security...but who would, actually, right?"  And then I thought, "if you start talking to people about this, you'll raise a big stink that will cause a big issue that you'll regret.  It's not worth it.  Just suck it up, and walk to your damn car."  And then I thought, "okay.  Don't be too hard on yourself.  Let's do this: wait a week and see how you feel next Tuesday.  If you still feel the same way, THEN make a plan of action."  Seemed like a pretty solid plan to me.

So I went to class, and it was fabulous.  After class, there is consistently a line of students wanting to talk about everything from what is or is not or might be in the syllabus, to complicated questions about personal lives, questions about recommendations for further reading.  Tonight was no exception and, in fact, was a little worse than usual.  As the line wound down, one student, "Zach," was left.  As he approached, he said, "I think somebody's outside waiting for you, so I'll make this quick."  When he said "somebody," I thought he meant, like, the student who always waits for me.  I didn't think twice about it.

"Okay," I said, and began listening and answering his question.  By this time, it was 9:45.  As I'm wrapping up with Zach and about to push him out the door so I can get the heck home, the classroom door opens, and a man walks in.  A tall, well-dressed man, roughly my age (clearly not a college student) with a backpack.  He sets the backpack down on a chair and stands by it, near the door.  I assume this man is Zach's friend.  However, as Zach and I finish up, Zach looks at the man, clearly not knowing who he is, and then looks at me.  He is clearly uncomfortable about leaving me here, and seems to look at me for any sign of recognition.  My mind races, trying to figure out how I can get Zach to stay in the classroom while I figure out what this man wants.  I come up empty, and Zach leaves.  I hope he has the good sense to stay in the hallway.  I convince myself that he does.  (He doesn't).

The man stays near the door, and I stay about 8 feet away from him at the podium.  I immediately realize that I am in the basement of an empty academic building, at 9:45PM, in a classroom alone with a man I do not know, who is approximately 6 feet tall, and standing in front of the door.  My phone is on the other side of the room, and all I can think is you have no way to escape.  You have no way to escape.  You have no way to escape.  I can literally feel my brain starting to shut down. 

"Autodidact?" he says, addressing me by my first name. 

I feel jolted, and my body feels like it is vibrating with adrenaline.  "Yes?"  It comes out louder than I expected.

"Oh...good.  You're a hard woman to track down," he laughs.  "I've been sitting outside your classroom since 7:00, just hoping it was you."

The string of expletives going through my head seems to drown out everything else.  I don't even hear his name as he introduces himself, and I have to consciously tell myself to pay attention to what he's saying.  Shut-up, shut-up, shut-up and listen to the guy, I think.  You're fine.  You're fine.  You're fine.  Just figure out who the hell he is and what he wants.  He's talking, and I have no idea what he's saying.  

"...and there has been a big push on campus for adjunct faculty to start a union.  I'm from the .... union member......something you're interested in?"

He's just some guy asking you to join a union.  Or start a union.  Something about a union.  Listen about the union so you can get rid of him.  Just listen. 

"No, I don't think so, thank you."  He takes a step closer to the podium.  I walk across the room to get my bag and phone.

"...several colleges in the area...spending lots of time tracking down people like yourself...teaching in the spring....union voting process...."

"I won't be teaching in the spring, but thank you for thinking of me," I say, still moving towards the door.  He's not here to hurt you.  He's not here to hurt you.  He's not here to hurt you.  I don't think.  We walk out together.

"You know, the hardest thing about this job is that I have to wait around for hours outside of classrooms.  I've been sitting here since 7:00," he reminded me.

"That's a long time to stalk somebody outside of a classroom," I said, without laughing.

"Yeah," he kind of laughs.  "And then I have to be the big guy that walks in 9:30 at night to an empty classroom with a lone woman...or sometimes I wait in the parking lot and walk up to them then," he says.  "I scare everybody because I know their name and everything."

"Yeah," I say.  "You scared the crap out of me.  Maybe try an email next time."

"I'm sorry about that," he said.  "It's just so important to get the word out."

"Okay," I said.  He turned to go out the closest door, seeming to think that I would follow him. "I'm going to go out the other door," I told him. 

"See ya," he said, shrugging.

I saw him as I walked to my car, and let him stay 50 paces in front of me.  I had my keys between my fingers.  I got to my car, locked the doors, and promptly felt sick to my stomach.  You're fine.  You're fine.  You're fine. 

Why didn't you ever send that fucking email to security or the department chair or somebody?  You knew you didn't feel good about this.  You knew, you knew, you knew.

I'll be honest: I'm having a hard time getting the fear to leave my body.  I called my sister on the way home, and told an expletive-ridden version of the story.  She was appropriately angry, and supportive, and told me that I wasn't crazy for being scared.  My body was so sure we were going to be hurt.  I know it did what it thought it needed to do, but goodness I feel awful now: my muscles hurt, and I'm nauseous, and I'm tense and tight and feel like I need to run to expend this energy that has been released into my body with nowhere to go. 

And I'm angry.  I'm angry at myself for not listening last week when I was ready to take action.  Imagine how different I would have felt if I had security show up before/during this interaction?  If I knew security was on their way?  I would not be this ball of mess I have turned into.

I'm angry at him, because he knew that what he was doing scares women...and he can't find another way to do his job.  Dude.   There are 150 ways to get in touch with someone these days.  Walking into their classroom at 9:30 at night when they're alone, calling them by their first name, and telling them you've been tracking them down and waiting for them for 2.5 hours in the hallway can't be your best or only option.  Acknowledging that it's creepy and apologizing for it almost made you okay in my eyes for a moment.  But no -- you don't get points for that.  If you know it's scary for women for you to do this, figure out another plan.

Mostly, though, I'm just angry, and I'm angry because I'm scared and my body has all sorts of excess chemicals floating around in it that are making me much more volatileI'm angry that I have to feel this way.  I'm so tired of being scared...and having that fear validated.  "But hey," you may say, "nothing bad happened here.  You didn't have to be scared.  This should have DISPROVED your fear, not reinforced it."

But that's not the way it works.  It's just not. 

I don't want to feel like I need my undergraduate student to stay in the classroom to protect me.  I don't want to worry that I will be raped, or robbed, or followed, when I'm walking to my car after I finish having amazing conversations about privilege and power and oppression.  I don't want to have to think about the fact that I am a woman alone in a building on a college campus, and that this makes me vulnerable.  I don't want to be driving away thinking, "well if I just took a self-defense class, maybe I wouldn't feel so scared," or "I wonder if my pepper spray still works if it's, like, 3 years old" or "see, you got to your car safely, so your worry was ridiculous and dramatic."

I'm tired of men not realizing that the way they present can be threatening, even if they don't intend it to be.  I'm angry that he realized it could be perceived as threatening and he did it anyway.  I'm sure it wasn't his intention to be threatening.  But with the power and privilege he has, I guess he chose to turn his head, rather than find another way.  

But mostly, I'm just angry that I need to think about this at all.  I'm tired of this anger, and I'm tired of the fear, and I'm tired of proving myself right every time I try to give the world the benefit of the doubt. 

This is why you listen to your instincts.  Even when you think they're stupid, or wrong, or ridiculous.  This is why you make a big stink about things, and just try to suck up the fact that you feel like an ass about it.

Because if you don't, you end up with aching muscles and teary eyes, cuddled on the couch with your dog at 12AM, still trying to get the flood of adrenaline to leave your body.

Fuck this.  How do we expect women to do their best work when they have things like safety, and pepper spray, and escape routes on their minds?  How can I be the best teacher I want to be when my mind is preoccupied with worrying about union reps and walking to my car?  I will never be able to walk into my classroom again without going over an escape route in my mind...and I'm willing to bet that's not something Mr. Union Rep has ever had to do.  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Do we ever get good at this?

I've got that writer's block thing going again.  The issue isn't that I don't have anything to say, it's that I have too much to say, and I don't have enough time or energy to write it all, so my brain starts putting all this pressure on me.  "You only have an hour to write, you better make it good the first time around," she says.  Perfection, who likes to think she's my muse, perches herself on my shoulder and whispers sweet, sweet vitriol into my ear, giving me a heavy finger on the backspace key and preventing anything from being written.  Anne Lamott sometimes strikes me as a one-trick pony, but she was right about that one thing: if you're going to be a writer, you've gotta write some shitty first drafts.

I'm thinking, particularly, about the fact that I have done not even a quarter of what I was supposed to do this weekend, and how I am still completely exhausted.  I'm thinking about how this fact is making me anxious and annoyed with myself, and how I still sat down to write anyway.  I'm thinking about how, sometimes, the simplest decisions are the hardest to make, and how sometimes, we have to make decisions on issues that have no answers.  I'm thinking about the fine line between "clueless" and "cruel," and how sometimes, it's harder than one might expect to figure which side of the line a person falls on.  I'm thinking about trust and what it means and if I can do it and when.  I'm thinking about how these things are related, and how some people will not understand that struggle, and I'm thinking about what a privilege that is. 

Andrea Gibson says, "Safety is not always safe / You can find one on every gun / I am aiming to do better."  She's right.  I am trying to take aim. 

I'm thinking about our bodies and how we take care of them - or don't - and the ways they work - or don't...and particularly about my body, and the way I take care of it - or fail to - and the ways it works - or doesn't.  I'm thinking about the families we are born into and the families we make for ourselves.  I'm thinking about how I feel so much older than my 28 years and how, for a few moments earlier today, I felt so much younger.  I'm thinking about how strange and frightening that was. 

And I'm also thinking about how my neighbors have been running some motor out there for the last 30 minutes, and it's the loudest thing ever, and it's messing with my shitty first draft.  Don't they know I have some shitty writing to do?  Seriously.

I'm thinking about the truth in Naomi Shihab Nye's words: "Sometimes I live in a hurricane of words / and not one of them can save me."  I'm realizing this is truth, and that is also what I'm looking for in writing tonight.  Saving, I mean.  It's what I am hoping will happen that will either enable me to sleep restfully or finish the work that needs to be done.  I don't really believe in saviors or saving or being saved.  I also think it can't hurt to hope for that every now and then.

I'm thinking about breathing, and how that is some of what my body needs.  My body is angry at my brain, and breath is the best mediator.  I'm lucky to have her on my side.   

I'm thinking about how self-care is so very challenging.  I've written about it before -- about the word "deserve," and being "deserving" or "undeserving" of self-care.  I've written about the challenge in making it happen, and the guilt associated with it.  I've confronted it time and time again, but I can't seem to tame the beast.  Seems like every time I try to ride the animal, she bucks me off before I can even get fully on board.  "Ha!" she laughs.  Not for you!  Try again later." 

How do we support one another in this task?  How do we -- the helpers -- how do we take care of ourselves, and support one another in doing the same?  Is it possible?  Or is it simply a path we must walk on our own?

I'm thinking about how hard it is to get others to stop and listen.  I'm thinking about how it is mostly hard because I don't start talking.  I'm thinking about the trust it takes to start the conversation, and how words like worthiness and deserving and trusting are clear in my head, but their wires cross in my heart.  I'm wondering what it would be like to live this life with a little less heart.  It sounds like a good idea.  I realize that is not possible. 

I'm remembering a poem by Anthony Machado which asks: "What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?"  My garden - it needs a little weeding.  A little water.  Some TLC.  Perhaps this is where it starts.

Do we ever get good at this?  We with the too-big hearts and complicated lives and histories and sensitive ways of being in the we ever get good at this? 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Brave post # 462

Content note: Sexual assault, bullying, victim blaming.  Be gentle with you, please.

As a feminist, I follow a bunch of feminist blogs.  I've "liked" them on Facebook or frequent their pages, and several times a week, I see something about rape on college campuses.  These stories, often first person narratives, are overwhelmingly about young women who were raped on campus, whose college or university disbelieves them and refuses to handle the issue.  The issue is coming to light more, leading to things like the Know Your IX campaign and the White House's Not Alone campaign.  It's so important that this issue is being discussed.

I am teaching a college class this semester, and I just had to complete a 90 minute sexual violence webinar on rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and dating violence, as well as on Title IX and the Clery Act, my obligations and responsibilities, the college's policy on sexual violence and harassment, etc.  It is important, and necessary, and I was glad to do it.  As glad as I was, though, and as interested as I was in learning what is being taught, it was hard for me to get through.  In fact, being on a college campus again has been a challenge in more ways than I care to count. 

So here's the thing: I'm tired of seeing these articles.  I'm tired of thinking about it, and reading about it.  I'm tired of the comments, or discussion, or lack of discussion on these issues.  I love that it's being discussed, don't get me wrong, but I always get the sense (and perhaps this is my bias) that people think this is the issue that happens to other people.  This happens to other girls.  The slutty girls.  The ones that go out drinking all the time.  The ones with a history of poor decision-making.  Given that most of my friends are around my age or older, this is talked about as something that happens to college-aged folks.  And yeah, it's bad, and as feminists, we're outraged...but we're outraged in a theoretical sense, almost.  We're angry that this happens to people.  We're sad that this happens out there.  We're pissed that this issue is a problem for the young'uns today. 

We never want to think that bad things have happened to the people we know.  We never want to believe that our friends have been hurt.  But, statistically, it's true.  It has to be somebody's friend that this happened to, right?  It could have been yours.

I know this because I'm that friend.  And I know that people never imagine that I'm that friend.  The shock on their faces when I tell them can't be disguised, because, you know, this issue is one that happens to people.  It's not one that happens to friends.  Right?

I've gotten to a point now that I can tell people that I was sexually assaulted.  I can raise my hand and say "me too," or even mention it sometimes in conversation.  It's taken a long time, but I can do that.

The shame, for me, lies more in everything that happened after the assault.  It lies in the way things were handled.  It lies in the way I was made to feel and led to believe that I was unworthy of love and belonging.  Psychological jargon calls this "secondary wounding" or "secondary trauma," and it's real.  Research suggests that one of the most important things after a traumatic event is the presence of social support.  The absence of social support is devastating.

In short, Title IX says that no person shall be excluded from participation in, subject to discrimination within, or denied the benefits of an educational activity on the basis of sex.  It states that schools (schools receiving federal funding) are legally obligated to respond to and correct "hostile educational environments," or risk losing their funding.  In fact, schools are given 60 days to investigate and respond to reports of hostile educational environments.  Under the Clery Act, schools are required to inform survivors of sexual violence about their reporting options.  Schools must make accommodations to remedy the hostile environment - and the burden of the "remedy" must not be put solely on the victim/survivor.  Title IX protects the individual making the report from retaliation.  A hostile environment can occur based on an event that took place on campus or off: if it is having an ongoing impact on a student's ability to access their education, it is a hostile environment.

For me, the "hostile environment" looked like this: walking into the classroom of my cohort of 3 years on Monday morning to find that my seat of 3 years had been taken.  No one looked at me or said anything.  I had nowhere to sit, and all around me were whispers.

The "hostile environment" consisted of: being followed out of class to the bathroom, when no one was around.  Being pushed against the wall and cornered, while being told that I am "fucked up," that I'll never be successful, that I made it up, that I'm lying, that I'm being unfair.  It meant having her sneak up behind me, and put both arms around my neck, telling me she won't let me go until I forgive her.  It meant phone calls and text messages.  It meant people talking over me in class.  It meant people laughing and whispering whenever I spoke.  It meant rumors.  It meant being completely isolated.  It meant no safe place.  It meant being afraid to go to the bathroom.  It meant panic attacks before class.

The "hostile environment" was no one ever asking me my side of the story.  It was no one ever reaching out.  It meant friends turned against me, and the one who didn't was harassed until she did.  We had all seen how issues with students were handled in the past.  We had all seen what our colleagues were capable of doing.  No one was willing to stand up with me against either side. 

The "hostile environment" consisted of being told that I should kill myself.  It was having my butt grabbed in the hallway, and then hearing the laughter as she walked into the room full of my peers and said, "oops...I just (air quote) sexually assaulted her in the hallway."

This wasn't college.  This was graduate school.  I was 24.  I should have known better.  I should have known how to handle it, right?

I did.  I confronted them, and things got worse.  I told a grown up, just like they teach us to do when we're young.  But the first grown-up didn't know how to handle it, and the second grown up told me that I should know better than to "go to a bar with my boobs hanging out."  They had a "slap on the wrist" conversation with the people in question, and I was told not to talk about it.  I was never given resources or told that I had options.  I requested that I not have to work in groups on projects with the two people most closely involved, and this request was denied.  I was immediately placed in groups with them, and I had to figure out how to survive the panic and the hostility enough to get the work done. 

The "hostile environment" consisted of being told that "faculty gossip."  "You don't want word of this getting around, do you?"  It consisted of learning months later that it was discussed at faculty meeting.  That the story was misrepresented and mis-told.  That everyone knew, and no one did a damn thing. 

So I didn't talk about it.  I went to class with the same people every day.  I was ignored, I was talked about, I was made invisible.  I was scared, and always waiting for what would happen next.  Above all, I was terrified that faculty or administration would find out.  I was terrified that I would be prevented from getting my degree.  I was scared beyond reason that they would deem me broken and kick me out.  So I stayed quiet, and I dealt with it for a little over a year.  I passed my oral comprehensive exams in the middle of the worst of it.  I collected data for and wrote my 200 page dissertation.  I took enormous class loads.  I worked several jobs and went through the necessary clinical rotations.  I served on Student Government.  The more stressful things were, the better my grades became, because I dealt with it all by studying, by reading, by devoting every inch of me into being the best student I could possibly become. 

And then I went on internship and moved halfway across the country.  But I still didn't talk about it.  I couldn't talk about it.  Because it still -- even still -- feels somewhere deep inside me like I did something wrong.  An entire institution of people couldn't have been wrong, could they?  My entire cohort...they couldn't have all been wrong, right? 

I graduated two years ago, and I am just beginning to get over the fear that they could take my degree from me.  That they could somehow prove that I am not competent (even though I know that I am both highly competent AND successful).  I feel that, by telling the story, I am selling short my education.  I am indicating that maybe my education was not what it should be.  That maybe people will think less of me as a professional because of this story.  How good can an educational institution like this be?

Two years ago, shortly after I graduated, I knew I had to do something.  Through a series of events, I found out about the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA).  I called and spoke with people there and told them what I wanted.  Given that all of the above events occurred in another state, and a considerable amount of time had passed, my options were limited...but they gave me options.  At the time, what I felt most comfortable doing was writing a letter.  The attorney I spoke with informed me about Title IX, pointed me in the direction of the Office of Civil Rights' "Dear Colleague Letters" providing additional guidance on Title IX, and I wrote a letter that I sent to the president of the university, the dean of my program, members of the board of trustees, a vice-president, and a few other important people I could think of.  It was 8 pages long and had references and everything.  It took months for me to write.  I am probably prouder of this letter than I am of my dissertation.  I'm not afraid to admit that it's kick-ass.

There have, reportedly, been changes made as a result of this letter.  I don't necessarily believe it...but I try to.  I try to believe that I did what I could do.  I try to believe that I took the steps I could to ensure this will not happen to anyone there ever again.  I don't believe I made that sort of change, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

When I talk about being sexually assaulted, people are surprised.  They are saddened.  To some extent, they think they understand.  Talking about this other piece of the experience is even harder than I can explain to you.  It's harder than I can even put into words.  I fear that people won't believe me.  That they'll think I'm exaggerating, or too sensitive, or that I did something to make this happen.  After all, who is usually "right?"  One person?  Or an entire institution of people?

And yet, it's necessary.  I need to tell this story.  I need to stop thinking, "I could never have that strength" when I read articles about girls doing amazing things at their colleges.  Because I do have that strength.  It is here, living in my chest and pumping through my veins.  I, too, can be "proof" to my corner of the world that this does not only happen to the "slutty" girls, or to the girls who are abrasive or loud or beautiful or ugly or dumb or quiet or unassuming or timid or whatever other adjective you can put there to make yourself believe that this only happens to people you don't know.  It doesn't only happen at the large institutions.  It doesn't only happen to girls with prior history of trauma.  It doesn't only happen to drunk college students.  It doesn't only happen to girls under 21. 

Truth is: it happens.  To me, to women (and men) like me, and to women (and men) very different from me.  The stories you read are stories of people like me. We speak and advocate as loud as we can, but we need more voices to create change.  The ways in which I attempt to change the world are small.  Writing.  Reading.  Sharing.  Telling stories, and encouraging others to do the same.  Signing petitions.  Talking.  Teaching.  We need systemic change to happen in our educational institutions and in our world in order for change to be realized. 

How are you working towards this goal?