Things I have kept from myself

I often don’t understand how other people see me or why they are seeing me that way. I don’t mean that about negative things. It is more sort of general. And it’s mostly about things I am doing that I have kept from myself.

I understand now that I care very much about my students, but I didn’t used to know that. Or I didn’t know what made them able to perceive that I cared. I remember one talk I had with a therapist. “How do you show people you care?” “Well, you look happy to see them.” That wasn’t the only way she mentioned, but it’s the easiest one to observe.

I didn’t know about many of my feelings. I didn’t know I felt happy to see them or that my happiness was showing in my face.

Because I am happy to see my students when I run across them playing football outside or loitering outside the shops. Yesterday, I went buying vegetables. From across the street came a loud chorus of “Good evening, madams…” I wasn’t wearing my glasses. I don’t really have any idea of who they were. But I’m sure they were my students. Other days, the boys will come to the edge of the field and bow and say “Good afternoon, madam.”

Now, they are supposed to greet us, but there is no real requirement that they need to yell from across the street or stop playing with their friends some distance away from the road and come closer. They do this because they want me to see them. They know that I like seeing them. They know I will be happy to see them, and they like that feeling of having someone being happy to see them.

They feel wanted.

These days, I can feel that sense of happiness in seeing them. I couldn’t before, and so all of that kind of thing was a bit of a puzzle. How did they know they were wanted? What was I doing? And because I could not feel what was in my heart, I looked only at what I did. And maybe if I needed to, I would make up reasons for what I was doing that seemed in line with not feeling too much.

But I did feel. I just didn’t tell myself.

Yesterday, I looked down from my bedroom window and saw Madame Kay standing in the street with her friends. I put my shoes on and went down afterward. They were in the shop on the ground floor, looking at earrings. I went and sat in a stool behind her. She didn’t realize I was there. A minute later, one of her friends told her I had come, and so she turned. She stretched out her hand to me the way she does, took mine in hers, looked happy to see me.

I was thinking today Madame Kay makes me feel wanted. I went down from my house to see her because I felt confident I would be wanted when I got there. And I felt that way because she does these small, small things: she looks happy to see me. And maybe it isn’t every time I happen to wander across the field of her vision—she is not hypervigilant the way I am—but it’s often enough that I understand it as a kind of general truth.

There are a few implications to this: when you are raised by people who don’t care about others, you don’t grow up with any general sense of being wanted in the world or by those most important in your life. Whether you are wanted or not is a constant, open question. You don’t feel secure about it. You wonder. And some part of me is like that too.

But, more importantly, I did not want to be here in this world or to be a part of it. So I did not want to see that I was wanted in the world or to feel happy that I was wanted. I did not want to see that I want others either. It is both too dreadful to be involved in the world and too precarious. Better to stay uninvolved and to maintain a kind of distance from it all. And yet I wasn’t maintaining a distance. I was involved.

I kept that from myself—my involvement in the world—but also the feeling of being wanted.

I am wanted. I am wanted here in this community. I am wanted in my classroom by the students. I am wanted at the school by the teachers. When I write in this blog, my readers want me to be here. Not everyone is going to like everyone else, and not everyone is going to like me. But, generally, overall, I am wanted in my little corner of the world by those around me. I couldn’t see that. I couldn’t see in your comments that all of you want me in the world.

I could perceive it. I have been neither blind nor stupid. But I denied it.

And it means my vision of the world is distorted. My vision of myself is distorted. I cannot tell you how much I will have to rearrange the thoughts in my head based on removing this one little brick of denial, but if you have to do this yourself from time to time, then maybe you know what I mean.

I think I had better get started.

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He didn’t steal everything

My little town here in Country X is beautiful, especially at this time of year, when the trees have all leafed out, the grass is growing, and the flowers have begun to bloom. But there is trash everywhere—mostly plastic. Soda bottles, 2-minute noodle packages, chewing gum wrappers. It isn’t entirely that everyone is careless. The dogs get into everything. The ravens systematically remove every piece of plastic from the trash bins. But it’s ugly. It was uglier in winter, when nothing much was growing, and the trash showed up bright against the dirt and the dry grass. Now, the grass covers some of it. You can’t see every Jumpy Juice straw lying on the road side.

The trash reminds me of all of the rest of life. It reminds me of my life. So many beautiful things in it, so many beautiful people. So much ugliness.

It’s tempting sometimes to see only one or the other—to see only the beauty and deny the ugliness, or to see only ugliness and forget about the beauty. But they are both there. They are both a part of the picture. If you ignore the beauty, you miss out. If you deny the ugliness, you can’t find any solution for it. You are better off seeing both.

I am better off seeing my father for who he is—evil, sadistic, predatory—and my class one teacher for the generous, warm-hearted person she was and probably still is. It’s better to see the full picture.

But the fact of what the full picture is—that it is both beautiful and terrible—makes me understand else something a little better also.

When I was growing up, my father seemed all-powerful. Most adults do to little children and then, aside from that, he ignored all the rules of society, as if he really were all-powerful. Some of that remains with me and it is the reason I remain so frightened of life. But the beauty that remains suggests a limit to his power.

He couldn’t steal everything. My father stole my innocence, he stole my childhood, he stole me from the people I loved. He could not steal the kindness out of everyone’s hearts. He could not steal the kindness out of my heart. And I think it’s this understanding that is making me feel a little safer now.

There’s another piece to this: when I was small, it seemed the whole world was like him. I saw so many evil people. So many predatory people used me and harmed me. But they were there in my life because of my father. He arranged it all.

And they didn’t just naturally occur. They clustered. They clustered around the town where I grew up in partly because that is how it works: word gets out that this is a good place for certain kinds of illegal activity. This is a good place to traffic children. This is a good place for the production of illegal sexual material. Law enforcement looked the other way or, because it was a small town, they weren’t prepared for organized criminal activity. There were military bases providing a constant stream of new customers. And it was on the route north from Mexico. All convenient.

But it wasn’t my choice to live in the midst of all that. My parents chose that. And my father brought me into the midst of it.

When I understand my father’s place at the center of the evil, all I need to do in order to feel safe is to understand the limits of his power. And I’m doing that now. I understand it.

There is ugliness here too. Not just the trash, but in people’s hearts. Not everyone is like Madame Kay—all kindness and warmth, and even she loses her temper sometimes. Maybe no one is as evil as my father, but there is one teacher here I can only describe as a jackass. Corporal punishment is widespread here and common in the school. But he beats the children so much they are afraid to make any small mistake in front of him. He beats them for their spelling mistakes. He beats them for their mistakes in grammar. But none of them are writing in their mother tongues at school. They are all language learners. They are going to make mistakes. And the rest of us know that if they become too afraid, they will not be able to learn. He is enjoying his power too much to care about this. And although he is young, he doesn’t listen to anyone who might want to correct him—he defies even the principal.

I’m sure he’s not the only jackass in town.

But there is a limit to their power also, just as there is a limit to my father’s power. They can’t steal everything either. No one really can.

Being here: on touch

It is Sunday. I woke up this morning to darkness and birds chirping. I thought it must be almost five. The sun rises at around ten to five these days. But I lay in bed for a while enjoying the blankets. When I got up, it was only 4 am.

I’m not sleeping very well these days. I stay up a bit late—feeling restless and not wanting to sleep—and then I get up at four on school days to start my chores and my cooking. I think my head is too full. I am anxious from the pressure to get it sorted. So I don’t sleep.

All of it centers on feeling some sense of safety. I feel safe enough to know I am speaking. I feel safe enough to know I exist in this world. I feel safe enough to be here.

But that also means I feel safe enough to be afraid.

Around my dad, I could not give anything away. I could not be afraid. I could not be sad. I could not be horrified. I could not even be angry. Emotions were all ways of hurting me. The more my dad knew of how I felt, the better he knew how to hurt me. I can be afraid now. No one will use that to hurt me. So I feel afraid. Afraid and safe at the same time.

It is like coming home to your own house and telling someone about something frightening that just happened and saying, “I was so afraid.” The fear again courses through you as you remember, and yet you feel safe. You are safe. You are in your own home with someone you love, just remembering. I feel like that.

***

Yesterday, I spent most of the day with Madame Kay. First, I read with my class sevens—on Saturdays, the students read independently, During first period, I planned my lessons for next week. Then I taught one of two class sixes. Afterwards I went to the holy site and helped the students weed the flower beds around it along with Madame Kay. Following lunch, Madame Kay and one friend of hers and I met to walk around the holy site together.

Yesterday, as she does sometimes, Madame Kay took me around after we left the holy site—we went on her errands and to meet some of her friends. So we looked at fabrics and clothes and vegetables. Then had tea at my across-the-street neighbors’ house. Madame Kay and her friend drank something they called wine. I tasted it. It wasn’t wine. It was something closer to port.

I like doing this with her, although mostly her friends don’t speak English or if they do are very shy to speak it. So the conversation is always in one of the three languages commonly spoken here that I don’t understand. Madame Kay mostly speaks the National Language. When I asked her, she tells me it is the language she thinks in, although it is not her mother tongue. But my across-the-street neighbor spoke with us in the language of the eastern part of the country, which is where we are. There is also a third language spoken here in the villages around our small city.

I know some of the words of the National Language now—things that are not very useful, but are said a lot. “Like that,” “for that reason,” “It is…,” “good,” “all,” “understood,” and two ways of saying “okay.” So I am starting to recognize it now when I hear it, but I don’t catch anything significant unless people mix in English words, which they sometimes do. The Eastern language I understand even less, except now I’m starting to hear borrowed words from Hindi mixed in. “Completely” is one of them. I think there are others. The local language is an absolute mystery to me.

When I go on these outings, I understand what is happening only from what I can see. It is a little like being deaf around hearing people. Sometimes, I ask what everyone is saying, and Madame Kay translates in a very condensed way. But mostly I just watch and listen.

It is also a lot like being Ghost. On these errands, I switch to some extent, and I become Ghost–someone who not only does not understand but cannot speak. No one notices this. It does not matter, but I think it means I experience it in a different way.

I’ve mentioned before that Madame Kay is a very warm person and she is very affectionate in a physical way, more than anyone else I’ve seen here. But same-sex friendships are generally different here than in the West in that way. Two teenage boys—probably 14-year-olds—came into the staff room yesterday, asking for something. They stood there with their fingers interlaced, holding hands. That’s not uncommon. It’s just that Madame Kay is sort of more so.

Yesterday, at my neighbor’s house, Madame Kay put her arm over my knee. She was sitting on the floor eating and I was sitting on the chair next to her. Between bites, she stretched her arm over my leg. She didn’t do this the whole time. It was maybe for five minutes. Then she changed positions. Because I feel safe, I know now that she was doing this. Previously, I knew these things, but then also I didn’t. I kept my presence in the world from myself, so that I would not feel so frightened at being here. Now I’m telling myself.

Someone touched me. I must actually be here.

So that is what woke me up before four a.m. this morning. Today, the morning after, I feel frightened of being here.

But that is only one thing. There are other implications of what I am allowing myself to know. One of them has to do with trying to understand how people think and the world I live in now. I often feel I was raised by lizards—I was raised to be a reptile, to not have emotions except of the most primitive and survival-oriented variety, and to not be pro-social in any way. If I am here, then I am also in a different world. I am no longer living among lizards. I live with mammals now. They are different. They have feelings. They care about each other. And it’s all extremely mysterious to me.

I don’t actually know why Madame Kay touches people. I don’t know why she touches me. In contrast, I understand the world I grew up in. Touch there was an expression of power and of ownership. To that extent, it was social, but it was anti-social. Not pro-social. People touched me because they could, because they felt they owned me. And so, they felt they had a right to touch me and to use me in whatever way they felt like—in the same why they might use a coffeemaker. My mother touched me because she wanted affection, because she was lonely, because she wanted to feel like a “good mother,” because she wanted to vent her rage. She touched me for her own reasons. My father was the same, only more so, and his touch was always a reminder that he owned me, that I was not my own and my life was not my own.

Here, I touch only my students and Madame Kay and one other friend. I don’t know anyone else well enough to be comfortable touching them. I touch the students in a deliberate way. I want them to know I love them, so I touch them when they are feeling upset or when they have been very naughty. In the second case, I want them to know that maybe I am angry at them or maybe I am feeling very hurt by what they have done, but I love them. I am correcting them out of love.

So that is different. It is a very intentional expression of care. Madame Kay’s touch is not intentional. It is unconscious, natural automatic. And I don’t understand it.

When I touch Madame Kay or Madame T—my two friends here—I don’t understand why I am doing that either. I don’t understand the part of myself that wants to be touched and to be close to other people. It is like some part of myself I don’t recognize. It is there. I know it is there. But I don’t understand it and I don’t recognize it. So I can’t use myself to understand my world. I don’t understand myself either.

But I know that Madame Kay doesn’t want anything. She is not trying to tell me she owns me. She is not trying to exploit me for her own purposes. She touches people because it feels good to her to be close to them. She touches me because it feels good to be close to me. The good feeling doesn’t come from the pain she is causing or the power over others she is reminding herself she has. And I can’t understand that. I don’t understand a world in which touch can simply feel good without anyone being hurt by it.

But I’m trying.

Redemption

How do I make this bearable?

I think after you experience something tragic and terrible and traumatic that question becomes the most urgent, even if it is in an unconscious way.

For some of us, maybe that means seeing how things worked out for the best in the end after all. (Even if they didn’t work out for the best, there are often ways to convince ourselves that they have.) For some of us, maybe that means seeing how the tragedy added to our personalities or strengthened our characters, which is a little bit of the same thing. For some of us, maybe it means at least seeing what of our part in the trauma we can be proud of. Maybe we were brave. Maybe we fought hard. Maybe we were strong.

I can’t really do any of that. It didn’t work out for the best. I am the same person I would have been, just with a whole host of problems to deal with I wouldn’t otherwise have. I wasn’t brave and anyway I don’t care if I was or not. All I ever wanted growing up was just to be safe enough to be weak.

But I do look back at my life, trying to find some kind of redemption for it. How do I make it bearable that all of this happened? I am asking myself.

And I think it is Natalya who made it bearable. It is Lala and Lucey who can redeem it. I keep returning to these important figures in my past because they have that kind of power for me. They can make it bearable.

My childhood, for the most part, was an ugly, ugly time—full of rage, cruelty, and violence. Natalya was beautiful. Lala and Lucey were beautiful. What makes my life bearable are the little cracks of wonder that spread throughout the horror of it all, the repeated intrusion of compassion, kindness, and love. Like weeds in the pavement, they would not go away. They kept returning.

When I was seven, there was an evergreen tree in the schoolyard that had died. I didn’t know it had died—evergreens shed their needles only after the damage has already been done. So it didn’t look dead yet. I just looked sick.

But I thought maybe this tree was lonely. Or maybe it was cold. So all winter long, I played under its branches. On chilly days, I huddled against, wrapping it up in my favourite red sweater. Finally, in the springtime I realized there was nothing more to be done. Someone came one day—the tree trimmers maybe—and took the whole tree away.

Even I could not be destroyed.

My father made me strangle a kitten. I saw my best friend beaten to death.

I went on trying to keep trees warm, taking injured honey bees home, rescuing fallen baby birds. Whatever the ugliness I was forced to see, whatever the evil I was forced to do, I could not be made into someone who was ugly. I could not be reshaped into someone evil.

I persisted. I am still here. I am not only still alive, but still the person I always was. I don’t really know what that means in the larger sense, but it allows me in some way to come to terms with my life. It takes the edge off the horror and redeems it just enough that I can bear it.

Flight

As a child, I didn’t speak for a long time. I could speak, but I didn’t. And I wasn’t mute all the time. Only in some situations—most situations—and only with some people. I spoke, I think, to my sister, and sometimes to my kindergarten teacher. I eventually spoke to Lala and Lucey. But I didn’t speak to my parents. I didn’t speak to my classmates. I didn’t speak to other adults I did not know well. This went on for four or five years, until I was in class one. Then I began to speak again.

I never knew the real reason for this. Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder and it’s true that in those years I was wildly anxious. But it’s not as if, in class one, my anxiety magically disappeared. I think I just liked my teacher a lot and, at least at school, I began to feel a little bit safe.

Last night, falling asleep, I suddenly realized the reason for my mutism. As a small child, I didn’t want to be a person.

People harm one another—gravely. That was my experience with other human beings. They are cruel and violent and either thoughtless or cunning in their violence. I didn’t want to be one of them. And people speak. Other animals do not speak. They move their ears and wrinkle their foreheads and they whine or bark or meow. But they do not have the power of speech. Fortunately, in a way, I did not start barking and whining. But I stopped speaking. I stopped speaking to remove myself from the human race.

I know this does not make much sense, but two-year-olds do not always make much sense, and I was two when I stopped speaking. They think a bit magically. If I can imagine it this way, I can make it that way.

Ghost is there, in part, for the same reason. If I could not be an animal, then maybe I could be dead—a dead person here, walking. Someone here, but not here. A ghost.

I was in flight from the human race.

Switching in

A child died in the night here. The child was in our class three.

Actually, I suppose two children died, but only one of them attended our school. The house caught fire. No one escaped. The mother and her two children perished.

For that reason, the periods after lunch were shortened to allow for an extra-long prayer session to be held after classes. I haven’t attended one of these. They aren’t required for teachers on normal days—days when our students don’t die—and so I haven’t gone. This was all new for me.

Here, prayer sounds like singing. It is a chant, but there’s also a melody. And the children sing the prayers from prayer books. The first part I knew from assembly: there is one prayer they sing right at the start every day. But the second part I didn’t know.

I can’t pray here. I don’t know the words and I can’t read the script they are written in. So I spent the time meditating. Except for the last part, when the words were simple and I knew them.

That part I sang along with them. The prayer we sang asked for freedom from suffering for all sentient creatures.

As an ex-2×2, prayer is difficult for me, especially prayer in a group. Alone, I can manage although I don’t know why this is. But in a group I often feel full-force the fear of breaking that taboo. I felt it today some, but I also felt the beauty of the prayer itself and of the sincerity of the singers.

But at some point in the midst of it, I realized I was using my own voice and that, in a sense, I was speaking.

Evidently, I get through the day by keeping that little bit of information from myself. I tell myself, it seems, that I am not speaking. Someone else, who is not me, is speaking instead.

Ghost doesn’t speak, but it isn’t Ghost who decides not to speak. Ghost is just the one who knows we can’t speak. Someone else decides about this—the red self that began to surface a few weeks ago. That was the perspective I was seeing things from. Evidently, I have spoken for the last 35 years or so because I kept the knowledge of our speaking from her. And today she knew: she was speaking. I was speaking. Even though I felt afraid, I was speaking.

I might have sat there for a long time, trying to take that in. But then the prayer ended. We left the hall where we had gathered and went out into the sunlight. Madame Kay and I headed towards her car. I felt speechless again, struggling with this awareness of my own speech. And in the car, the same song began…”the touch of your hand says that you’ll never leave me…” Normal life descended, and I had to find a way to catch up.

The red self

The new person I felt I had become a week or so ago has turned out to be a part. (There’s a post about this. You can read it if you missed it. I know it would be more convenient for you if I linked to it, but life here is extremely low-tech. You’ll have to manage.)

I don’t know that this part really has a name. When I think of her, I think of the colour red. As a little girl, I had a favourite red sweater. Then also, at various points in my growing up, the other children used to call me Roja, because my hair was red in those days. So I suppose that’s why. But she is also the one who likes red.

Ghost prefers blue or gray. And Katie leans toward purple, sometimes pink. Vivianne likes black. Lana wears brown. She has no favourite colour.

I know this red self is part is me. She is perhaps more “me” than any other part. But it’s difficult to think of her that way. It’s difficult to think of myself as myself. Dangerous. She feels like a dangerous person to be.

So I’m struggling with that these days. It’s difficult. I feel aware of the part at times, then there is a sense of shock about feeling the part. The sense of shock is almost overwhelming. It’s just difficult.