No accidental tourist working with traumatized women, I stand in the shadowy anonymity a burnt out bulb at the bottom of a dingy staircase offers. Perhaps a protective skill honed in childhood, gloominess has fine tuned my ability to hear the hushed voices of women gathering a few flights above. A courageous gathering no doubt. Women willing to bear witness to the stories of others, if not give voice to their own. As they wait for precisely the prearranged time to start down the steps, their feet move in the timeless unconscious rhythm of the fellowship of women. I join the sway and silently repeat to myself: To believe is a choice, an act of hope.
I smell the women before their descent begins: beads of sweat bursting with the familiar tang of unworthiness, as if none had escaped the ancient spell of shame cast when the human soul is touched by darkness and light withers. I know this smell from childhood. It cannot be un-smelled.
A fallen woman in the process of achieving full warriorhood membership−or is it womanhood−I know something of women and of darkness. Darkness is not sacred, its promise of invisibility and safety an illusion. The reality is the mantel of darkness can be shed. We have a special compartment in our heart for compassion. The cradle of hope, compassion is a triumphant light emotion. Even in a dimly-lit hall filled with fear and doubt, hope was activated by our very presence. A choice made.
The women in motion at the top of the stairs may not yet be aware but it is in the presence and stories of each other that we’ll find alchemy akin to magic. Collectively, we’ll stumble upon the in-betweens. Places of glorious grace, the elegantly languid moments of recognition where a teller is truly heard and seen. It is in the in-between where compassion and brightening eyes embrace human vulnerability and a soothing balm for reweaving tattered threads of trust can be found.
Remnants of my own tattered threads flutter if fear is a playmate for any length of time. Like the women at the top of the staircase, I too clutch a dog eared, stained passport sanctifying each painful twist and turn of a rocky journey for such a young soul. As if there could ever be an age ripe enough to endure or act of misbehaviour so dire that soul shaking should be warranted.
As I too wait the assigned time, I remind myself of Brene Brown’s (2010) words, “Behind every successful woman is herself and along the way there also are those wholehearted souls who, through their generosity, strength of spirit, and authenticity, make the journey more rewarding than the destination.” There is no way of avoiding the initial moments of being in the presence of wholehearted souls we chose. Bringing painful echoes forward is almost unbearable. I forgive myself the wrenching tug of fear to turn away from these wholehearted souls, but my shaky soul and humanness remembers shame. Shame thrives in the secret keeping that withers forgiveness; it serves no one. Finding a voice and being the narrator of one`s own story is not a luxury but a journey towards self-worthiness and human wholeness.
In vulnerable moments, shame is skeletal, hollow and bare. I have no early memories of a heart that didn’t knock with anxiety and fear. The death of my father when I was two years old introduced me to one kind of loss. When my mother locked her heart inside a bottle, she introduced me to another. An incomprehensible loss for a child`s young heart. The life lessons of distinct and discrete levels of loss had begun.
I adored my six-month-old baby sister; my own personal dolly who pooped the strangest colors of sticky, gummy poo. Diaper cloth and dull pins did little to restrain the stink of what she’d created. Transporting soggy cloth with unrecognizable streaks and globs of stickiness to the diaper pail, I can’t say what I tried harder to protect, my hands or the pristine polished shine of my mother’s laminate floors. A good secret keeper, my sister had yet to find her voice outside of a coo or cry. She could not tell me why she left; nor when, or if, she would return. Outside rare visits, she spent three precious years of her life in the stable home of our paternal grandparents. She was returned to me a changeling. Replaced by a toddler with pull-ups pants and a mop of golden ringlets, she had found a voice that cried for her Grandmamma–a lot.
The fear of loss a constant, the complexities of who might return to the family and who was never to be spoken of again were lost on me. Whether my mother’s choice to lock her heart away was measured or swift, I cannot say. Life’s energies can be crushing to sensitive souls. Though no words were spoken, even at a very young age, I intuitively understood her need not to feel. Her fragility needed protecting.
With a child’s love and resolve, I guarded her bottled heart by cushioning her from daily life; better fragile than broken pieces and lost. From mysterious magical thinking and rituals to the mundane chores of cooking, cleaning and shopping, I cared for her and family responsibilities. Scarcity hardened the burden and heightened fear and vulnerability; yet, magic happened too. Draped across the foot of my bed, the unattainable dress from a store window appeared on the night of a school dance. A gift of cascading miniature white pleats framed by a glorious velveteen collar that even Peter Pan’s Wendy would treasure. Transformed for a night in a school gymnasium, the wash of music and strobe lights could not compete with my focus on the passage of time and rising anxiety that someone might be missing when I returned home.
Our household and its inhabitants were sometimes quiet, mostly distant, but raucous explosive chaos simmered. Coupled by living in an era when women’s value and worth depended on the appreciation of a man, childhood joys were not nurtured but miniature adults fostered.
One of my duties was hairdresser. Tending my mother’s beehive was our morning ritual I treasured. She’d arrive at our melamine kitchen table head swaddled in disintegrating paper: a toilet paper crown fit for a mummy pharaoh. Aqua-net soaked toilet paper crinkles my nose. Tenderly, wrap after wrap, I’d free her coif from its encasement. Dodging between billowy streams of her first cigarette of the day, I’d coax escaping bleached strays to rejoin the hive with bobby-pins moist with spit from my mouth. No such thing as too close, I’d lean in between aqua-net and smoke swirls to feel her heart beat with love for me, even if the rhythm was muffled by the bottle where her lonely heart resided.
Had she been aware of the life-changing predatory cat and mouse game that was my destiny, surely the holiday she’d taken would not have been such a pleasure. Such family inheritances are not treasured but soul shaking. My legacy was delivered at the hands of a babysitter’s adolescent son; a determined boy. Lithe and cagey, he prowled their house like a cat.
Transformed, too grimy to comprehend, I knew an opponent when I smelled one. A dull grey mouse now, I was lackluster. Marked, I had become a gift for hungry hunters. Mice grow up fast in hunting grounds where the most common and mundane hunt. I learned another loss lesson. I did what I knew how to do, I locked my heart inside a bottle. No god mother from the pages of a book would break the enchantment at midnight, nor could the return of my sun-bleached mother.
We never spoke of what had been lost, but she saw I was marked, as I suspect her childhood legacy had been too. I found sanctuary between the pages of books; kingdoms and landscapes of another kind of chaos and danger were easier to navigate than the immobilizing haunting sadness and the narcissistic brooding of others.
Outside the bindings of my treasured paper worlds, I wrestled with fear, breathless. There was no escape. I capitulated to my anxiety in adolescence. I stopped turning away from the face of anxiety. I drew a portrait of her; red, fiery hair, Medusa with enough arms to squeeze the life from a skeletal hollow frame. I befriended the metallic taste she painted on the back of my tongue, the squeeze of her arms stealing my breath as her own, while digging my toes into the earth to ground myself as the world tilted. An act of hope, I simply decided not to abandon a worthy part of myself. I refused to banish another scrap of myself. A skilled warrior, I followed Medusa’s lead. I became a warrior too; a warrior with a heart that had no desire to be locked in a bottle.
Becoming a nurse, educator, and therapist was a natural evolution for a warrior with a helper’s heart. Academia and clinical practice suited me; a seeker, a learner of life, a lover of books. I stumbled into the power of storytelling. To a narrative therapist the power of words cushioned in and between words is hallowed, as will be our work tonight.
As is my tradition, I prepare for this night’s work by evoking grace. By the power of Grace, I seek forgiveness from those people in this life who I have intentionally or unintentionally harmed. By the power of Grace, I seek to forgive those people in this live who have intentionally or unintentionally harmed me. Tangles and knots of unseen family connections attaching me to them and them to me are smoothed with dribbles of forgiveness; I have come to see the wisdom of small offerings. By nature compassionate, I long to absolve acts yet know this compulsion to rescue and fix has not served me or others in the past. I inch along sometimes shedding shame and sadness along the path. I like to envision a Keeper of My Path sweeping up behind me….the thought of leaving darkness strewn for others to stumble upon makes me shiver. I BELIEVE. Sweep, Keeper, sweep.
Stairs navigated, the women settle into chairs as if someone in authority pre-assigned them. Downcast eyes. The burden of their mantels makes them seem small, like naughty children waiting to be chastised, but they are not a gathering of women to be fooled with. There is a defiant ‘show me’ in the air. They bring no self pity, indulgence, or false self-esteem. The truth, we have arrived to where the real power lies – to our own stories. To speak. To be heard. To see, and be seen. In the coming bless-me moments we will be assured hearts do not belong in bottles and tattered threads can be rewoven to trust. What we do not care to face today, we’ll meet on the battlefield at the time and place of our choosing. We are courageous. We persevere. How could this not be so when we seek a more authentic life that can only make our souls more visible?
A voice mumbles, “I have nothing to offer.” I breathe into the spaciousness and find myself flooded with love for the lackluster mouse I once knew. I answer the mumble silently; I BELIEVE you will find a unique helper, a Keeper of your Path. You will inch along when you can’t sprint. Shed what you will, as and when you can. Find that no offering of forgiveness for self or others is too small not to create an infinite spaciousness for self love and worthiness and blooming voices. I shrug, shedding the tatters of my mantel and choose to BELIEVE the in-betweens will unfold. And with this act of hope, we begin.