Modified #NaNoWriMo Day 10: A “Mighty King” and Cultural Erasure


His entire family changed their names when they came to America, he said. It’s just easier to pronounce the Americanized names. It’s something they did to fit in. So his real name, Shahram, became Shan.

I sat with that. I related. I wondered what it would have been like growing up if my own immigrant family had all changed our names to assimilate, as well. I thought back to my own complicated history with my given name, which I seriously considered changing to make myself more acceptable starting when I was in elementary school. I looked through books for names I could change myself into “someday when I was older” and entertained the idea of a new American identity. Everyone butchered my name. No one pronounced it correctly except native Spanish speakers. It’s not even that unusual, the Spanish version of Jane, but it was constantly spelled and said incorrectly.

My favorite name and a serious contender for this change of identity was Esmeralda, Emerald, the dancer in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I wrote it and held it in my mind as I considered how changing my name might change me, might change my experience of the world around me. Esmeralda. “Esmeralda! Time for dinner.” I couldn’t see my mother calling me to the table as Esmeralda and felt awkward when I thought about teachers marking me present as an Esmeralda instead of a Juana.

Eventually, around middle school or high school, when people began to tell me, “Oh, that’s pretty” after I told them my name, I began to embrace this oddity, this exotic self I was in a country not made for a Juana.

Juana. “It’s J-U-A-N-A and then you say the J like it’s an H.” I had gotten into the habit of saying this well before my twenties, when my first dance teacher and I stopped for smoothies or tea before class. My teacher, a white American-born California girl, once grabbed me by the shoulders afterwards and said, “She feels compelled to spell her name for everyone,” as if she were apologizing for a misbehaving child. I spell my name for everyone because nobody ever gets it right. It’s so easy, so plain. And yet. In Spanish, everybody and their grandmother has the name “Juana.” It’s like meeting a Jane Smith, Jane Goodman, Jane Watson, Jane, Jane, Jane. But in America, it’s an awkward, uncomfortable name that many still stumble over.

I met Shan-not-Shahram at a dance retreat, a Middle Eastern dance intensive I attended for the first time in 2007, a year after I took my first belly dance-it’s-a-misnomer class. I returned in 2009 and haven’t been back since. That’s the year I met him. I mentioned him to my white belly dance teacher over dinner after I got back home. “He’s very…Americanized,” I told her, using a word for “assimilated” that she introduced me to because I didn’t yet have a concept of what assimilation was. Shan had tattoos and gauged ears, was a little bit metal and a little bit spiritual and I felt entranced by this idea that one could be both those things in one person and not be odd. I was certainly odd. I’d been the weird one all my life, socially shunned because I was too open to everything and didn’t fit in a box.

Shan didn’t seem to mind like it seemed everyone else did.

So when he told me his whole family changed a core part of themselves to fit into mainstream U.S. culture, I thought, “How fascinating. What must that be like? To grow up with this split?”

I too, had a cultural split, though I had never changed my name. I had only distanced myself from a lot of my Mexican identity, so much so that it took until I was well into adulthood to start really unraveling my internalized sense of worthlessness, my internalized racism, that attack against myself.

I suppose I was drawn to Middle Eastern dance because I saw so many parallels between Middle Eastern culture and my own Mexican one, and it felt safer at the time to explore Middle Eastern culture than it did to embrace my own. Though Mexicans exist in huge numbers, our cultural practices aren’t always necessarily up for ownership by us, what with everyone embracing Taco Tuesday, getting drunk for Cinco de Mayo, and making Día de Los Muertos into something it’s not by taking it out of the context of its origins in Indigenous spiritual practice.

Shan understood what it was like to be an “ethnically ambiguous” person. He said to me as we sat in his living room in Los Angeles in 2010, “I’ve been mistaken for Mexican.”

“Really? How interesting.” Of course. Brown people are interchangeable and their cultural origins don’t matter to those outside the culture. Not much, anyway.

What did it mean to be brown in this country? Where did we fit in? Or did we fit in at all? Do you have the answers, Shan? Because I’m confused and I don’t know where home is.

We talked about home. He shared his desire to visit Tehran. I told him I’ve always wanted to live in Mexico for a while. And even though he was not Mexican but Middle Eastern, it felt like being at home.

This pull toward home drew me closer. I wanted what I thought he offered by way of being another brown person in the world navigating racism. I longed for that sense of home, that rootedness I imagined a person must feel when they had this identity thing figured out. I thought he would understand my life since he seemed to be almost a mirror of my own experience as an immigrant child who had only ever known a country not their own. “I got jumped once,” he told me. L.A. is a dangerous place. He’d been questioned about his ethnicity, his racial identity, and I knew he was a safe person to tell my own wounds to. He had them all, too.

I wouldn’t call it love, not really. It felt more like sprouting roots. I suppose I hoped I had found a safe place. I hoped I found someone who understood me in a way I’d rarely been understood, having dated mostly white American-born men with whom I had to hide so much of myself to get along. I hoped I’d found a place to anchor.

We had what felt like these heart-to-hearts I would only have with my best friends. We exchanged insults like children being mean to each other on the playground. He felt like a puzzle piece I didn’t know I had been looking for.

He flirted with me at dinner. Let me have one too many margaritas. And then, like a respectful person, he didn’t push for sex. I was not used to that behavior. I’d actually recently been raped by someone who plied with me alcohol and did as he pleased as I was unable to control my limbs. I did not expect that level of respect from Shan since I so rarely got it from men and growing up a Latina with humongous breasts, it seemed my body was what every man demanded of me. My body was the valuable part. The rest of me, the part that longed for home, was a complete afterthought. So I suppose that was why I felt such a pull toward him. He had the same longing. Was this a place I could call home?

I didn’t get to find out.

I ruined it by drinking too much and being an Orientalist asshole. “Tell me ‘good night’ in Persian,” I pleaded with him while he sat my drunk ass on his couch and told me “good night” in English. (I hope, dear reader, you’re as disgusted with me as I was and just as embarrassed for me as I was for myself, even then. I hope you’re also pissed off at me for not knowing a word of Persian, even though it’s been ten years since I met the man who introduced me to the difference between Arabic and Persian and hinted to me that Iranian and Persian were not interchangeable. I’m still wishing I could go back and erase my stupidity. I can’t blame that on the alcohol, unfortunately.)

Ever full of Persian hospitality, Shan wasn’t too hard on me about being drunk and racist. When I was sober, we talked about Lipstick Jihad, a memoir by an Iranian-born journalist who left Iran as a child. I read it the year I met Shan and liked it because it reminded me so much of my own life, my own longing to go home, to my real home in Mexico, and my own heartache at how corrupt my home country’s government was.

“Is it good?” he asked me as I glanced at his bookshelf.

“Yeah, it was okay.” Then I told him how shocked I was that the journalist’s Persian family told her the first time she was beaten by police in Tehran and was in tears about it, “Get over it. It happens all the time.”

It struck me that we could have such a similar wound and a similar longing though we were so different and came from different places. My ache for Mexico manifested in pronounced jealousy when he told me he had memories of Iran. I had none of Mexico. It was an empty space inside me, this place where home was supposed to be.

I noted that I would probably never go back to Mexico. Because of money and because of the cartels.

He countered with his own reasons on why Iran was off the table. “Why do you want to go there?” he mentioned his family told him when he expressed a desire to visit Tehran. “That place is fucked.” I didn’t say anything. How could I show I understood the pain of the situation? The room was heavy with silence.

I wonder now, who would I have been if I had changed my own name to Esmeralda, something equally exotic yet more popular and easier to pronounce than my actual name? Yet I know the problem is not about names but about heritage. Privilege and oppression, and everything that entails.

Who would he have been had he insisted I call him Shahram and not Shan? It means, “Mighty King,” he told me when we met. He accompanied that translation with a strong royal stance befitting of a mighty King. A mighty King in his mighty Khakis and a long-sleeve plaid shirt. A mighty King dancing with Juana la Mexicana, not Juana la Cubana, cómo la canción, at our little dirty secret of a “band camp.” (It’s not allowed to date a belly dancer if you’re a decent Middle Eastern man. It’s essentially like dating a stripper would be seen in the West, and this, dear reader, I also did not know when I first met Shan. There was so much I did not know.)

I did not know how grossly Orientalist I was and how ignorant I was of the Middle East or how much was missing from my analysis of identity. I did not know there’d be cultural barriers between me and a man who saw me as a slut he’d be ashamed to be seen with as a serious partner although he was fine with fucking me on his couch. I did not know I would feel so seen by a man and also eventually be so angry with him because he, too, seemed to discard me the minute I became a real person and not just a sexual object, just like every other man. I did not know that this would be so complicated.

I did not know that I could feel so close to the peace of home only to have him rip it away from me with a clear rejection when I told him, “I like you as more than just a friend.” I did not know the “Mighty King” would break my heart so. I did not know one person could make me feel so many messy, conflicting things all at once.

Some people say our names hold power, that they determine our personalities and our life’s paths. And sometimes I wonder what my own name contains.

I wonder, who would I be if I did not have this split inside me, this cultural rift that demands to be reconciled and yet, does not come together as a whole? Would it be easier if I had changed my name to Esmeralda? Or better yet, if I’d been born a Jane? Would I feel more rooted if I’d been a Jane Smith instead of a Juana Garcia? Would I have been so broken-hearted when this “mighty king” rejected me if I hadn’t seen a piece of the home I wanted when I looked in the mirror he held up for me?

The past is the past and I don’t seek to change it by writing about it. I only seek to understand. The more I write, the less I feel I understand.

I changed my own name about a year ago. From García to Espinoza. “Yes,” I told myself, “Espinoza. That’s a writer’s name.” I hoped to make a mark with that name, a name that stands out among the sea of Juana Garcías, but it still doesn’t feel genuine. It doesn’t feel like “me.” And in my search for home, I wonder, “What does it take to feel like me?”

If I haven’t found it in a man, or a writing career, or a dance hobby, or a meditation practice, or even in the lullabies I sang my children to sleep with, is it even there at all, the place inside me that feels like home, that feels like me?

If it isn’t there, where is it? Lost? Stolen? Buried? Forgotten? What does it take to remember a place where there’s no information? What does it take to fill up that empty space where home is supposed to be? Would it be any easier if I were a white American-born California girl to feel at peace, at home? Would it be any easier to feel rooted if I had that skin instead of my own brown skin, the skin of a dirty Mexican?

Modified NaNoWriMo Day 9: Advice for Creatives – Find a Good Mentor


Today, I decided to tell you about one of my favorite bosses, Peta Mni. He was my supervisor when I worked on Discovering Our Story TV, which was produced by a Portland non-profit, Wisdom of the Elders.

When @egabbert on Twitter asked, “Do all artists go through periods of self-loathing and if not, please tell me your secrets,” I thought of Peta and answered, in part, “get a mentor.” I’ve been involved in multiple creative pursuits in my life, most especially when I lived in Portland, and having teachers to learn from intensively has always been helpful to me.

Peta pushed me to do things I had never done before, and in a really disarming, comforting way. We met on the set of Discovering Our Story TV, for whom I believe he served as communications director. I remember his warmth and loving-kindness energy. He just had that way about him. He was encouraging and funny, pleasant to be around and direct about what he wanted, and such a joy to be around.

My role at Discovering Our Story TV was as crew. A typical shooting day looked like this:

  1. Arrive on-set and run through the production timeline. Lunch was served every shoot and it made the experience so friendly and feel close-knit, as if we were all familiars.
  2. After our short meeting and run-through, begin setting up for shooting. We’d take out everything we’d put away on the previous shoot, set up lights and sound, ready all the cameras, get our headsets on so we could communicate during the show.
  3. Check that everything was working properly as well as we could.
  4. Roll tape! It was a live show, so there was only one chance to get it right. Mistakes were made, and Peta was so loving about it that I couldn’t help but feel honored to be on the same production.
  5. Take down. Clear up the place and put everything away for the next production.

I was used to having one role, as a camera operator, when Peta asked me to step into floor directing. My reaction at the time, as a pretty shy 20-something who’d never worked in TV was to freak out a little inside. He smiled. Waved his hand. “You’ll be great,” he assured me. So I did it.

“Every mistake you could possibly make, I’ve made it,” he told me, as if he were a father saying, “Whatever happens, you’re still loved, don’t worry.” That’s the kind of person he was and how amazing he always was, in all the years I knew him.

Peta pushed me to learn audio, video, suggested ways I could play with camera work and challenge myself in my shots, and gave me opportunities to step into other areas of the shooting. I coordinated with guests on the show, made sure their mic set-ups were good. I learned a basic rule of lighting for video and how to coordinate colors so that everyone complemented each other on-camera. And under his wing, although I felt out of my element, I never felt as if I didn’t belong. He made a place for me and welcomed me with open arms to every area of the production floor. I was even lucky enough to take classes in connection with the production that I didn’t have to pay for.

When I worked in that studio, I met other people who also worked in film, and as a result, I landed a principal role in a student film as talent. It was a pretty dialogue-heavy role, I might add. After that, I landed a handful of small independent roles and a role as an extra in an episode of Leverage. And it was all because I happened to tell people, “Hey, if you want any help on your film, I’m happy to do anything you need.” Peta’s guidance made me feel comfortable asking. The environment he created for me to work in made it easy to feel safe and comfortable, and made it so that I had no reservations about saying, “What can I do to help you? I’m open.”

Sometimes we in the creative disciplines get a little neurotic in that we have some struggles with our ego. It seems we perpetually ask ourselves whether we are good enough to be doing that thing we want to be doing or working on that project everybody else seems to be working on. With Peta as a mentor, I didn’t look at myself as being in competition with others but rather as a collaborator. I looked upon the work as an exploration, a time to have fun and learn as I went, which would lead to growth. Being in the studio with Peta made that possible and it was about the attitude he had, the way he spoke to us as a collective, how joyful he always was as a person, how beautifully he phrased things. He just had a way about him that made the world feel safe. He made me feel like taking chances was adventurous instead of frightening. He made it seem as if it were natural to see myself in these positions I had never been before. “Of course you can,” he seemed to say. “Why not?”

Peta passed away some time ago and I still miss him. Every time I spoke to him, I told him, “I am so glad I know you.” And I was. I’m so glad I said it every time I had the chance because when he passed suddenly, I did not regret not speaking to him more often or not checking in with him or not calling and not saying what I wanted to say to him. It had already been done.

So I suppose I’m not just telling you that mentorship is valuable and you should absolutely take any chance you have to learn from an elder in your chosen field, I’m also telling you to take advantage of the time you have right now with the people who inspire you and make you feel comfortable in their presence like Peta made me feel. In the end, while I grieve for the fact he is no longer here, I also treasure every memory and every conversation and every time we laughed together, and when I think of him, I still feel his cradling love all around me. “Every mistake you could possibly make, I’ve made it.” Don’t worry about it, you’re fine.

That type of mentor is priceless.

Modified NaNoWriMo, Day 8: List Problems You’ve Solved and Exactly How You Solved Them



This prompt comes courtesy of Twitter.

Jobs you’ve held and problems you’ve solved at them:

I don’t think I’ve ever solved major problems at work, is the thing. It’s all small things.

The biggest problems I’ve had that stand out to me are problems I’ve had outside work. Like being raped. I continued dancing, kept performing, and threw myself into my classes to hold onto something that made me happy, brought me joy, because I didn’t want to give up on my plans for my life, was determined to not let rape destroy those plans.

I kept trying to reach for a place I wanted to be, which was excellence in dance as both a performer and a teacher. So I guess that shows you I’m persistent.

I also did a ton of energy work to get through the rape. That shows you I’m internally motivated and willing to work hard. It also says I am unconventional and willing to try new things or things that are outside the realm of ‘standard.’ I’m willing to do hard things and see them through. Rape is a hard thing to get over.

I deliberately decided to be celibate for a period of time to sort through my shit. During that time, I only self-pleasured to work through the grief I carried about orgasm and “squirting” when I was raped. Since squirting is erroneously seen as a sign that a person wants the sexual activity and is really turned on, I needed to make this distinction in my body about what my mind experienced. Emily Nagoski, PhD’s TedTalk about this was helpful, as is her book, Come As You Are. That shows you I’m willing to make temporary sacrifices for long-term results.

Celibacy helped me maintain a positive relationship to my body and my sexual self. It also helped me detach from the idea that being in a relationship even if it’s not a good one is of primary importance. This shows you I’m introspective and constantly try to be optimistic. It’s work to stay optimistic.

I read up on affirmative consent. I asked my partners to practice affirmative consent and if they didn’t consistently do that, I did not continue the sexual relationship. I also observed how men reacted to my setting boundaries and if they made me uncomfortable about having set those boundaries, I tried to make myself not feel obligated to please them. This shows you I enjoy reading and doing research and that I’m willing to make changes based on new information.

I meditated and did what’s called “body scans” where I checked in with my body to pinpoint areas of stagnant energy that I then worked on to clear. This shows you I have many talents and a wide array of knowledge due to working in different disciplines, and also because I read a lot.

I did some research on what interests me sexually. I tried different approaches to dating and figured out some of my relationship preferences. I determined that if I do not feel safe in all areas with a person, I will absolutely not want sex with them. Even one-night stands or flings that make me feel unsafe or uncomfortable being genuine will feel unsatisfying to me, regardless of how good at the act of sex the men are. This shows you I’m willing to experiment and find what works.

I also figured out that if a man does not approach me first, I will not make the first move, even if I am really interested. I am too afraid to be attacked in some way by men to approach them. This tells you men are scary to me, they terrify me, I am traumatized.

I determined that when men express interest in me but don’t behave in specific ways, I don’t believe them to be genuine. For example, if they try to get sex first, I am extremely turned off. If they do not show genuine interest in my interests and if it seems like they’re just humoring me, I interpret that as a sign they’re just trying to get laid and don’t really genuinely have the same interests as I do. If someone on the dance floor can *really* dance, I am super interested in dancing with them, and dance is a good entry point to something more for me but isn’t necessarily going to be successful at magically making me ease up around someone. I would really love to be with someone who supports me in dance ventures and in making my dancing, writing, and other creative interests viable businesses. I need to be with someone who’s not at all upset by my need to be extremely social and highly active in my community. I also appreciate when a man expressly says he is interested in a relationship with me but makes it clear that the reasons he is interested aren’t exclusively or mostly appearance-based or sex-based. I appreciate when men value my input, which means not only are they willing to ask for my opinion but they listen to it and are willing to implement it. I like specific feedback about specific ideas I have, such as “hey, x thing is a good idea, thank you for sharing that with me, I would like to implement it.” I like to be acknowledged for good ideas with explicit credit. If it’s useful for more than one person, I like to be acknowledged as a person who has good ideas or can do good things, like so – “Did you like the cake? Juana made it.” or “Check out this cool story Juana wrote,” or “This one time when Juana danced at x place, I remember x positive thing about it,” or since we’re mentioning work, “Juana came up with a way of doing things that made us x more productive, saved us x amount of money, helped x amount of people understand something with more depth.” This says I really need to be valued for things besides my looks or besides being sexy because that’s what I am most praised for and it’s not anything I consider a skill to look pretty.

I read a lot about PTSD, journaled extensively to take myself deeper into the details of why the rape was so traumatic for me and what was missing from recovery. I determined that feeling loved and valued by others was a missing piece. It was specifically feeling discarded, dismissed, and no longer valued by friends I’d grown up with since childhood that hurt a lot. That’s something I’m not comfortable discussing at length, but losing connections to people I loved was the most painful part of the whole ordeal and a major source of trauma. This shows you I am introspective and willing to put in the time over a period of several years (a whole decade) to figure some things out. I do what it takes to get what I need done.

Continually being blamed was shitty. Not remembering exactly what happened was also traumatic, as it breeds doubt that continues to linger and makes moving on from this more difficult than it would be if I remembered things better. This says we need a better environment for survivors to heal in. It shouldn’t take this long.

Most therapists were useless. Even some healing arts practitioners were not helpful. Most of the deep work that happened was my own work in meditation, journaling, journey work, reading, research, direct experience in sexual situations and dating situations. This tells you I did most of the work here. I definitely had help but I did a lot of work. I didn’t quit trying.

Some therapists were great. Not very many, but some. Those who were great were good at creating the container for healing and not trying to fix or advise too much. They push you gently. This shows you I give credit where credit is due and offer specific feedback about what works well and what doesn’t.

It is difficult, if not impossible now, for me to have relationships with men. Although I am still attracted to men and still desire a committed relationship, I do not feel safe with men in the way that is required for me to have a positive sexual experience. Men regularly catcall me, make inappropriate comments to me, cross my boundaries, threaten me, intimidate me. Some also don’t seem to understand their power over me and how they are wielding it in ways that make the trauma worse and make me feel unsafe. So I do not date because I do not have a safe way to be in relationship with men. This tells you men need to get it together and stop causing harm. (That’s my opinion.)

Rereading this, I realize I solved problems in my dance life, which is what this is supposed to be about. Work.

I had limited outfits to wear to perform and none of them were made for nightclub performances, which is what I was booking a lot at one point. I didn’t have disposable income for $300 costumes but I had connections. I traded fabric and clothes for other fabric and clothes and designed and sewed my own costume for a performance. I also knew that many dancers posted their performance videos on YouTube, so I paid for some friends to come to the show and videotape the performance where I was wearing this outfit I’d made, in an attempt to book more performances and land more gigs, which means I’d make more money and have a sustainable career. I designed my own costume, look at that, lol. I did this before with my troupe, as well, consulted with a designer to get us a unified set of troupe skirts. Someone took a video of that performance too but I have no idea where it ended up, I never got a copy. Again, I’m resourceful and do what I need to do to reach my goals and meet the needs of my group.

Before this, when I was teaching, I couldn’t get my students all together at the same time but I wanted them all to learn a new choreography. I decided to make a video for all of them and my then-boyfriend helped me with that, although I don’t think the video was ever completed, actually. But I went through the trouble of instructing for the camera without a script. Tells you I’m creative at finding solutions and can make things up on the fly without too much trouble.

I carried backup equipment in case there were problems with the audio setup because I had prior experience as a student where the audio failed and from then on, I made sure to ask what kind of audio setup there was and prepare for a failure. There were still failures sometimes so what I would sometimes do was dance to live music when my disc or iPod failed. I am good at improv. This tells you I prepare, prepare, prepare. But when all else fails, I can still get shit done because I am quick on my feet.

I have performed at dance shows with short notice when I’ve gone as an audience member but was encouraged to perform. I started carrying dance gear with me just in case, at some point. See previous point.

I have also MCed for a well-established community show, again unscripted, and have projected a cool demeanor in front of the audience even when I was nervous. I have impeccable stage presence.

Also, you haven’t danced enough if you don’t have stories about wardrobe malfunctions. I’ve had coin belts fall off or start to fall off onstage and have had to keep smiling and re-tie them. I’ve had veils be uncooperative and have had to cover it up and pretend I meant to do that. I’ve had music issues and have actually also fallen mid-song once, and have had to just move on like nothing happened. You have not danced enough if you have not had any of these things happen to you, LOL. I am easygoing and accepting of when things fail. I can smile through it. I also understand that things going wrong is part of the process and learning to deal with that is part of learning to be a good performer.

On the business end, I’ve cold-called gyms, community centers, military bases to offer dance classes there. I know from experience that the more successful teachers are EVERYWHERE. The more classes you can secure, the better your chances of making it work because you’re teaching to a large number of people. I’ve also called schools to offer classes there! I’m bold. Or, I used to be, anyway.

I’ve performed anywhere I could and have also approached businesses like coffee shops to ask to perform there. Many people said no but some people said yes and through making connections all the time, I’ve gotten gigs. I did a birthday party, a bachelorette party, community shows, private group classes, one-on-one classes, private performances. I’ve had a fun go of it. I also used to be really social and create a lot of wonderful things.

My dance life has been rich on both the professional and personal front. I miss it dearly. I miss my students and my audiences and the community I built because of dance that I have scarcely had since due to abuse and trauma.

I have a lot of career goals, but much of what stops me is not having the same opportunities I had when I was first teaching. Back then, I had secure housing, ample time, enough money to make it so I had the time to focus on dance. I had a full-time job and a lot more energy than I have now. I miss those days when I could work for 16 hours a day and feel an energized kind of tired.

What am I looking for in a job? I want a job where I can feel smart. I don’t feel like a smart person a lot of the time and I often am upset about that because it seems like people value my body and only like me for sexual things or because I’m pretty and it’s quite depressing to be valued for something I can’t really control and didn’t put any effort into. I want to be mentally challenged and pushed to grow beyond where I am now. I want to feel like my opinions matter and I am a part of a team, not just a solitary worker doing insignificant nothings. I want a workplace that meshes with my values, as it’s important to me to spend my time in a place where I feel comfortable being genuine and bringing all of me to the table. I cannot do that in workplaces that don’t align with my values and it causes a lot of stress on me, eventually means I either quit or get fired and I’m so fucking tired of not having a committed work relationship. The end?

The Wave of a Triggering Day (Trigger Warning for Sexual Assault)


I knew this would happen. I am gripped by a desire to eat sweets and rush around pretending to be busy. I want to run away, far from the memory of being in yoga class and far from the memory of lying in the back seat of a car, inebriated and helpless.

I want to be as removed from healthy eating and the stereotypical yogi lifestyle as I possibly can.

I want to run away from his face smiling at me. “Innocently” requesting a hug after class that I was uncomfortable with but accepted out of politeness.

I knew this would happen when I started reading “Know My Name,” when I decided to throw myself back into my niche as a hopeful writer, the trauma of sexual assault.

I knew I would arrive here if I opened up this door, but I walked through it anyway.

What is this? This compulsion to make myself suffer? What is this? The simmering rage I conceal because not all men rape. Yes, not all men, we know.

Not all men rape. But not all men explicitly say that it’s wrong to do so.

Not all men catcall. But not all men refuse to stay friends with those who do.

Not all men misuse their power over others. But not all men publicly stand with the victims those men leave behind them.

Not all men.

Not all men.

Not all men.

But how can you tell which men are in the “not all” section? Is there some kind of uniform? A way they wear their hair? Some kind of little detail that tells you who they’re not and how they stand up to those who are?

No.

In order to be safe, one has to assume “all men” until undisputably proven different. Assuming a man is safe company could lead to danger, up to and including death.

A death of the soul like rape is unique in that you’re breathing, you’re walking around just fine, you look fine. You may even look sexy, beautiful, pretty, gorgeous to the outside world. But inside, you feel chaotic, shaken, with a rupture in your organs that makes you desperate for relief.

This relief never comes. Not quite. You witness so many stories where the victim of this rupture is called “bitter,” “bitch,” “attention whore,” “rude.” It feels like you’re in an emergency room where everybody’s souls are ripped open, their blood spilling to the floor, flowing together to form a giant pool. When you attempt to show the wound on your face to the attendants, insist that this blood running down your forehead gets in the way of your vision, they tell you there’s nothing there. “There is no problem, so we don’t understand what you’re doing here, taking time away from our attending to real emergencies. You should be ashamed of yourself, playing the victim like that.”

Am I Worth Loving and Supporting?


I can’t sleep and I miss blogging, so even though this site is in a state of disarray, I’m back at it.

I’ve been feeling lonely for the last few months. I’ve spent some time away from the blogosphere as a result of my ex threatening to sue me for what I was writing. While I was away, I also practiced celibacy. The choice was partly due to trauma and partly due to some fear around my ex’s reaction, since he’s previously retaliated against me for moving on romantically.

It’s been over a year since I’ve been celibate. This period of reflection has taught me a lot about my ideals and the damaging messages I received around relationships.

I think of myself as an independent person. It’s hard for me to rely on others, to ask for help even when I’m really struggling. This is especially true in intimate relationships, since my dating experiences with men have not inspired much faith in them. I decided to be celibate because I was tired of being disappointed in myself and my partnership choices. I was tired of getting my hopes up when entering new relationships only to have those hopes dashed, and I was tired of being valued solely as a sexual object.

I don’t miss men exhibiting clear jealousy towards me and possessiveness with me. I definitely don’t miss navigating that. But at the same time, I wish I could have companionship that feels safe and healing.

I feel selfish for thinking so much about this when the world is in such a state of emergency. There is so much chaos and disaster all around us that it’s hard for me to not feel guilty about experiencing joy, especially in light of where I am on a personal level. I’m in the thick of my own internal chaos and external disaster. The last thing I need is a man making it worse.

I’m not quite sure why partnership is so important to me, but maybe it has to do with wanting to feel loved. My sister has always been a big influence on me in this regard. In some ways, she’s had a heavily negative impact.

She told me over the phone once, “You don’t have any business dating anyone,” because I hadn’t brought myself up to a middle-class existence all on my own. I have always felt expected to be completely self-sufficient before I allow someone else in, and I have felt unworthy, “not good enough,” unless I could meet a certain level of success and wealth.

I’ve often felt that I had nothing to offer a middle-class potential partner, being more used to existing as a poor person, and it’s also important to me that I be on equal ground with whoever might come along. This keeps me single because I want to be entirely self-sufficient so that I can be independent. It means I am uncomfortable (to put it mildly) having income disparities with my partners because I don’t want to come to a relationship out of need; I want to choose to stay because my life is better with someone. It’s even more important to me to be self-sufficient after what I went through with my ex, who had complete financial control in our household and therefore, complete control over what I did and where I (never) went. I hardly ever left the house without him and he screamed at me at the top of his lungs each time I made friends he knew about.

While I’ve been celibate this past year, I’ve also been considering my creative life and what I could do to propel myself forward as a writer, dancer, healer, actress, teacher. The answer isn’t one I’m too keen on, and that is to acquire privilege – to have the kind of income that means I can fund the projects I want to bring to life and that I have the time, energy, and means to bring them to completion. I am not thrilled about this realization because it means I need support from others to get where I want to go, and I am not having the best luck securing said support.

I’m disappointed in my inability to do everything by myself. I’m saddened that I can’t seem to create my own abundance, because it’s important to me that I do so.

This lack of abundance means I don’t even consider dating, and I confess, I’m lonely without companionship. Life is more fun with friends and (some) lovers, depending on who they are. The gap between where I am and where I want to be makes me sad because it likely means I might never find someone who would love and appreciate me for me. Dating is a colossal hassle, in my experience, and too often results in my feeling too frustrated and angry to keep at it.


I think about the contrast between my life and my sister’s. My sister had a man financially supporting her from the time she turned 18. She did not take her own advice, as far as I can tell. He had far more financial stability and she wasn’t a hugely successful person with tons of money in the bank. And yet, her relationship with him meant that even though she wasn’t a successful, degreed career woman, she had stable housing, plenty of food, support to get through a college degree, help with childcare costs (if any), and she had as a co-parent an involved person who gladly provided plenty for their child.

By contrast, I have never exclusively relied on a man to provide for me. I have worked three jobs to barely put food in my mouth, been at risk of losing housing because of PTSD’s effects on my life (too many to list here), lost job opportunities for prioritizing my healing from rape, have had to go from homeless shelter to daycare center to work with my firstborn every day as a working single mother without a home. My children’s father was a verbally, spiritually, physically, sexually abusive person to me, and as I mentioned, was also financially abusive. He left me with another layer of PTSD at the end of our relationship. You might say he left me with multiple layers of PTSD because of all the ways he abused me and the ways I saw him hurt our children.

The court system piled on by allowing him to keep primary physical custody mostly because he’s better off financially than I am, due in large part to his white and class privilege, and the fact that I was the primary caregiver while he went to trade school and I did not have the same opportunity to advance my career when I was with him. CPS and the courts continually dismiss the concerns I bring up about how their father mistreats our children; I assume they believe I am the one who is abusive, since that is the story my ex tells.

I ask myself all the time, “What’s wrong with me?” Why don’t I deserve to be loved? To be supported? To be believed about what has happened to me? I come up with, “I am not important. I don’t matter. No one cares.” No one cares to provide structural support, practical support, that would at least put me on equal ground with my ex.

I have very few sources of financial and practical support, coming from a family that’s not in good financial health and does not have much privilege. In the absence of familial privilege, some people acquire this through partnership. Not I. Relying on a man to provide this would be foolish, considering what I have been through with so many men, I have lost count.

“You have no business dating anyone,” my sister repeats in my ears. The implication being, “You don’t have your shit together. No one would want you.”

I’m sure that’s true.

Judging from the profiles I read on dating sites, no one would want me. The things I have to offer aren’t your typically valued material things. I’m a mess, a woman who comes with an angry, abusive ex and two traumatized young children. I’m a woman who comes with baggage. Who has so many challenges and barriers to independently-acquired success.

I’m a woman who mistrusts men, a woman who is difficult and becomes bored with most men quickly. I’m a woman who doesn’t want to be tied down, doesn’t like to feel caged, and so prefers her independence, her freedom. This means I prefer to be alone.

I am also a woman who is fluent in two languages, is learning another, and can understand a few more. I am college-educated (to be fair, I am a dropout). I am a former dancer and dance instructor, performer, a sharp writer, a funny social analyst. A street smart woman. A pretty woman. An adventurous woman. A caring woman. An empathic, loving, attentive mom.

I’m a woman who craves connection and safety and love, as I’m sure every human alive might.

But I’m also a woman with so little hope that she can find what she wants in a partnership that she decides she’d rather not bother. Why keep trying when every time I do, I end up more scarred than before?

Men consistently show me they’re unwilling to spend time with me, the person with the jealous ex, custody battle, rape and DV baggage, because they’d rather spend time with the girl they think resides on the surface – cute, sexy, fuckable, disposable.

Every time they do so, I understand the message loud and clear. It’s devastatingly clear.

“You don’t matter.” I’m interchangeable with the next girl, and she’s interchangeable with the next. I reject such toxic ways of relating to me and my body and men make no secret of the fact that they dislike this attitude of mine. They communicate that I am worthless without this sexual value I used to have pre-trauma. Without this “fun, sexy, bubbly” persona they think they see and refuse to look beyond, men decide that I’m too damaged, too much trouble for too little return.

Except, in my opinion, it’s the men who are damaged. Damaged because they lack the ability to self-reflect, lack emotional maturity, lack the strength to reject toxic notions of how to relate in an intimate way. It’s the men who lack the desire to heal themselves, who lack the capacity to support me and love me as my equal.

And it’s men who need to shift the way they casually discard me. It’s men who need to change how they treat me and who should interrogate what they believe intimacy really means.

I am not the only survivor who’s questioned my worth after trauma (or more accurately, after men failed to adequately support me through trauma or failed to even try). But honestly, even if I weren’t a survivor, I’d question my worth, and that’s because of the way men have treated me throughout my life. I see it even if they don’t acknowledge or recognize what they’re doing. For men, I am supposed to be a passive sex object who is easily replaceable, disposable once the taking of her body becomes “boring.”

Intellectually, I can argue that I am worth loving and supporting. But in my heart, I also understand that finding love and support from a man – the real kind, without jealousy, control, and strings – is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. A pointless exercise.

Men are socialized to be toxic in this way. In my opinion, they often seem unaware that they’re causing damage at all.

I often wonder if men would be willing to wake up to this reality that’s hidden to them, and I, a cynical person who wishes she could be optimistic, answer myself with a resounding, “No.”

Am I worthy of love and support? I think so.

Can a man provide the love and support I’m looking for? I’m highly skeptical. But I’m willing to be proven wrong.

Haters


“Everybody hates you! Your family hates you, all your friends hate you, and everybody’s sick of your fucking feminism!”

While he was screaming from behind the locked door, I was trying to keep my composure for my young children. He’d come back from the bar late and had stirred them from near-sleep. I wrote what he said to me in the police report, and when I described what he said, one of the officers told me he was “being verbally abusive” to me. It wasn’t enough that he’d been “verbally abusive” or had driven home intoxicated beyond the legal limit. He wasn’t arrested and never faced legal consequences for what he did. Sometimes I think that if he had been arrested, I might’ve had a fighting chance.

I insisted I did not want to stay in his house. The police drove me and my kids to a safe location, but beyond a place to sleep for the night, I was offered little help.

He turned my sister against me, and her Facebook message begging me to “please let the kids have Christmas with their dad,” enraged me. I blocked her.

I posted to Facebook what he said, and my friends all said, “I love you and I love your feminism and he’s a dick.”

My children and I stayed in a DV shelter over Christmas, and an advocate asked me what I wanted. What I really wanted was a career. A really good job. A chance to get my kids into permanent housing immediately so I would never have to consider going back out of financial necessity.

The shelter couldn’t offer me the safety and financial security I wanted most.

In the shelter, my children cried all night. My daughter – who never, ever had toileting accidents – held her poop so long, she missed the bathroom in the middle of the night. She woke up the entire house with her wailing. My traumatized son cried so hard every time he saw an airplane, it shattered my heavy heart. In our old house, airplanes flew above us every few minutes. He asked me, “Where is dad?” And it hurt to know I couldn’t explain to him what was really happening. My housemates were far from understanding, far from accommodating of my children’s needs. I tried to stay in my room as much as I could. On our second day there, one of the guests reacted to my crying, hurting son with, “Fucking kid.”

Feeling unwelcome, uncomfortable, and quite possibly threatened, I decided to go back to a known horror rather than stick it out in the uncertainty. This was not a place where I could heal, that much was clear. When I returned, I knew I’d made the wrong move. There didn’t seem to be a right one. No matter what I did, my children suffered. No matter what I did, I would never escape their dad’s incessant need to control me completely.

He sent me dozens of e-mails, hundreds of words telling me how awful I was, what a “garbage” writer I was, what a bitch I was, how I was a deadbeat and shit mom. His malicious spell kept hold on me for months.

But now, my world is different. I have realized, even though I don’t have legal support, that he will twist everything around so it’s my fault. He will lie. He will break agreements. He will bend words so that they mean whatever he wants them to. And he will use every ounce of his power against me.

Recently, he lied in court. He said my daughter was enrolled in kindergarten, and when I visited the school he named, they had no record of her. I worried I had come across as “crazy,” something he’s told me I am many times before. He’s convinced his family that I am “mentally ill,” and need psychological help for my “mental illness.” My “mental illness” is likely PTSD from his constant psychological, emotional, and mental battering.

I have the e-mails to prove that part, but I have yet to prove the suspicion that he’s broken into my online accounts.

I am representing myself in a custody battle. It has been and continues to be hell.

“You need an ally,” my friends have said. “Someone that people trust and believe and someone who can stick up for you.”

“Trust me, I wish I had that. I wish I had never moved out here with him.” He took me away from the communities I had in Portland. He took my car, my phone, my livelihood, my lifeblood. He took my children with his manipulation of the system.

I continue to fight a losing battle, one in which money dictates who wins. So far, because he has more practical support, he is winning.

I am hoping for my luck to change.

I have hesitated to bring this story out into the open, fearful of the consequences my speaking against him will bring me. But it is agonizing to keep my truth inside.

As a writer, it is important to me that my work be useful to others. I know I’m not the only one who has endured this. In my ideal world, I hope to be one of the last. “Your story is your gold,” my friend, Rose B. Fischer, used to say. I don’t know yet how it will help others.

This story is not finished.

Model


“I need a model for my art project. You’d be a great fit.”

I was down to pose for whatever, collaborate on anything creative, and loved working on anything to do with art.

“It’s a comic series, and I need a certain look,” he said.

He said he’d have to cup his hands over my breasts for the right shot. By the time I realized the full scope of this, I had already left myself vulnerable. I was alone with him in his makeshift studio. I thought nothing of being alone with him up to that point because I thought he was my friend.

I never reported the incident and never told anyone what had happened. Instead, I thought, “That’s what I get for trusting people.”

So much for “self-protecting choices.” That’s what I get for having big breasts. That’s what I get for being “pretty” and “sexy” and “friendly.” That’s what I get for being a girl.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been harassed, cat-called, raped. It never seems to end. When I’m out at the club, girls ask me if I came alone. “Yeah, I go everywhere alone.” They gasp. “I could never do that.”

“I don’t always do it by choice,” I want to tell them. “I don’t have a best friend here and I don’t have a boyfriend’s protection.” But I’m used to being alone. I’m comfortable that way.

I have a fleeting thought when I have these conversations with partygoers. “I wonder what they’d say if I said I’ve already been raped, why bother to pretend I’m safe anywhere?”

I think back to the night I’ve replayed in my mind a thousand times. I think back to the nights I spent wailing, sobbing into a pillow, and quietly shedding my tears. I think back to the nightmares, the flashbacks, the panic attacks, and the partners who witnessed them, and I wonder – what would I do if it happened again? Is it “if” or “when?”

Men I barely know kiss me and put their hands all over my skin, sometimes within minutes of meeting me. Men I knew well pressured me to do things I didn’t want to do all the time. When they do these things, I have to weigh the potential consequences of saying, “no.” It is so exhausting.

I don’t know how to say “no.” I never started practicing until after I was raped, after I had already been raped multiple times.

“I wish I had a boyfriend,” I sometimes think, “because I wish I had someone to protect me from those men.” But the truth is, those men are everywhere: at the bar, at restaurants, at work, at school, on the streets, in my house. They are the norm, not the exception.

Men who see me alone anywhere feel emboldened to approach me and ask for my number. They tell me to call them and friend them on Facebook as they squeeze my waist toward them or join me on my solitary walk to work. The fact I’m not accompanied by another man seems like a secret signal to pursue me as aggressively as possible.

The first time I say no, they repeat themselves like I haven’t heard them properly. By the fifth time, the sixth time, I can see them getting angry, acting offended. I momentarily worry about my safety, until I remember that it’s already happened before. “What can they do to me that would be worse?” I bring out my escape weapons: a well-honed smile and a wave goodbye, an evasive “bathroom visit.” Sometimes my “weapons” work and sometimes I look over my shoulder, still bracing for potential threat.

It’s not that I’m afraid to be alone because I can’t see myself without a man. I’m afraid to be alone because I think it’s only a matter of time before the next rape.

It’s only a matter of time before I find a new boyfriend who will be a repeat of the last, who becomes angry when I refuse his touch. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll have no choice over who touches me and where. It’s only a matter of time. It’s a numbers game, after all. The more people I’m surrounded with, the more people I meet, the more I raise my chances.

I’m uncomfortable with my odds. I’m already deep in the hole, and it doesn’t look good from here.

The house always wins, right? And the men? They are the house.

Babies


“He’s perfect,” said the nurse as she showed me my newborn son.

My stoic expression depressed me. I knew it was because I was really stuck now. I couldn’t leave my son’s father, who made me so unhappy, I became a shell of a person with him. “There’s no way I can leave him like this.” I knew my son might bind me forever to living with someone I knew didn’t love me.

It took me several months to bond with my baby. It didn’t help that the night I brought him home from the hospital, his three-year-old sister asked for “leche,” and I desperately wanted to give it to her, but I didn’t want to ignore him. His needs had to come first. She was already eating food and nursed mostly at night.

My life as a mother, in that moment, felt like an impossible task. To take charge of two delicate lives, two vulnerable people who both needed so much from me, was so overwhelming. I wished I had friends or family to talk to, but I didn’t have a working phone unless I connected to public WiFi.

I wished I hadn’t become so isolated and so unhappy and so drained. I wished I could give my babies the best of me. Instead, they got my scraps.

My baby came quickly, much more quickly than his sister, who took three days of labor and twenty minutes of pushing to leave my womb. When I held him, those first few months, all I felt was numb. I knew I didn’t want to build a life with his father. He had shown me during the pregnancy that he was not a promise keeper. I stay hurt from the broken promises and dashed hopes. Hurt is nearly all I feel when I look at my kids’ father these days.

I always wanted my baby, and I love my son. But I never wanted the kind of home their father and I created for them. Right now, my relationship with both my son and my daughter feels broken. I look forward to the day when I’ll have them in my life more regularly and for longer stretches of time. Time with them is so short, and it always hurts me to say goodbye.

I feel trapped and helpless and I don’t know why that feeling is so persistent.

Regret


Tonight, I find myself wondering what happened with me and my ex. What happened to our family?

I wasn’t a good housewife, I’ll readily admit that. I wasn’t the best mother or the most giving woman to my man. What happened between us has led us to this moment, when my daughter told me, “We got locked out of our house by the sheriff,” and my son told me, “And we slept in a hotel.” They both said it with the inflection of innocent children who don’t see anything negative here.

My daughter told me that her Gilda flamingos, her birthday present from me, were both locked inside that house and she wanted to get them back. When I said, “What if I can get you another Gilda flamingos?” she cried, “I want those!”

I have never felt like more of a failure as a mother and a person and a woman and a “hopeful business owner.”

I have lost everything. Absolutely everything. I put my kids through hell and I left them without me for over a year and they have lost their “stable home” they had with their dad. And for what?

If I had a stable home and a stable career that provided well for us, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But I don’t have those things and I’m not anywhere near able to get them within the next week. My focus should have been elsewhere, instead of being consumed by false hope that I could fulfill some stupid pipe dream of building a solid writing career when I lack the knowledge, expertise, and discipline to do it.

What now, ocean? Where will you carry me next? I hope, for my kids’ sake, that it’s not further into the gutter.

My ex made a lot of sacrifices for us. Though he didn’t have the emotional skill set that I wanted and needed from a partner, he reminded me almost daily how hard his job was. It often came across as resentment for me having things so “easy.” I wonder what might have been had I never gotten back together with him, and I wish that I hadn’t, when I’m really honest with myself.

I wish that I’d been okay with being a single mother to my daughter and co-parenting with her father. But I don’t have a time machine that can put me back into my apartment with my baby girl. I don’t have the ability to teleport back to before I moved my pregnant self to Nevada and cemented myself in my gilded cage.

What do I have the power to do in this situation? I feel trapped, still. I feel trapped in a cage of my own making, and I don’t know how to tear it down.