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Skin colour is part of what makes us beautiful as human beings, and also part of what makes us ugly.

Why is this the moment of truth? Why is the fallout from the most recent accusations against Harvey Weinstein finally what is getting us to talk about our culture of accepting inappropriate sexual behavior from people who are in power against people who are not in power?

What are your thoughts about it? I’d love to know your opinion for why the public reaction to this rape scandal is different than the ones before.

As a woman who has been raped, as a woman who has suffered repeated sexual harassment by people of power in the workplace (this was long ago; it is no implication against my current employer), I am particularly sensitive to this topic. It puts my whole body on edge every time I hear a public accusation of sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment. I understand too much about the unspoken details. I’ve paid attention when it’s in the news – I can’t help it – I remember the cases.

Till now the common undertone that I’ve sensed is that of not believing the victim. As in, “That person is probably exaggerating,” or “That person is probably trying to get attention,” or “The person they accused is famous so maybe they want a settlement.” Me included! I am complicit! It seems like the main social response in the past was *not* instantly that they are telling the truth and that we need to stop everything and listen and believe it. That tends to come along a little later.

It’s different this time. We are believing, and it feels so good – as another victim – it feels so good to know that a victim is being listened to, and believed. We need to be believed or else we’re never going to start telling these stories.

But I keep asking myself why. I mean, what is it this time? I don’t understand what’s different. Why didn’t this happen during the recent accusations surrounding Bill Cosby? The similarities: they’re both famous people, they’re both of Hollywood, they both have a decades-long history of accusations of sexual assault, unfortunately in both of their cases the number of victims is high. So why has a case against Henry Weinstein resulted in an outpouring of “Me Too” stories and social pressure for the accused to take the charges seriously. Suddenly I’m hearing reports of sexual assault by a different famous person every day. Kevin Spacey. Dustin Hoffman. Others can feel the change, too, and have realized that now they can give voice to their trauma.

With the case against Cosby, discourse didn’t happen. We just all …groaned, because it was such an ugly horrible story.

So I’ve been thinking about that for a couple weeks. I’ve been trying, but couldn’t figure out what the trigger was. This morning the news coming out of Washington, D.C. was about people coming forward to talk about sexual harassment in the workplace among politicians. And again this morning I asked myself what is different now. If we’re talking politics, why not when Clarence Thomas was accused publicly? When Anita Hill had to fight so hard to get people to believe her? It was an ugly, high-profile story, but it didn’t change the national conversation. And Thomas was implicitly forgiven for his heinous crimes when he was confirmed to the US Supreme Court, where he continues today. I’m comparing the facts: it’s politics, it’s a man in power abusing a woman with less power in the workplace. If it’s as similar as it seems, then why are people in Washington, D.C. being listened to now but not then? What is going on?

I can’t take credit for the uncomfortable conclusion I came to because I arrived here after talking with someone else and comparing notes. If I continue to compare the general circumstances of today’s accusations against the general circumstances of historic accusations, I might not ever find an answer. But instead, if I ask what those past accusations have in common with each other, I find a potential answer.

What do the cases against Bill Cosby and Clarence Thomas have in common with each other that is not the case with Weinstein? Race.

If it’s true that our public reactions are based on faulty racial assumptions, the implication is brutal. It’s as ugly as the crimes themselves. It means we heard those other stories and at some deep subconscious place concluded to ourselves: well, that’s what they do. And I don’t want to believe this is what happened. I do not want to admit I’m part of this system, that I’m a collaborator in it. By collaborator, I’m not saying I’m out there actively promoting racism. Rather, I’ve been raised in a world where the norm is to make assumptions about people based on skin colour.

I loathe racism. Anyone who knows me personally figures it out pretty damned quickly. I refuse to accept outward signs of prejudice against any group for their lifestyle choice, their differing physical or mental abilities, the colour of their skin, their faith or lack of faith, you name it. But what I’m talking about here is stuff that I’m doing to contribute to the system of intolerance simply because it’s so ingrained in me that I don’t even notice it. It’s not my fault. It’s not your fault. We are a product of our world. And I hhhaaaatttttee knowing that I am probably unintentionally adding insult to injury.

In the beautiful song Stereotypes by Black Violin, Kev Marcus says when people ride with him in an elevator: “Maybe they’re not afraid, but they’re on notice.”

I tried to test my theory by recalling media storms over public figures accused of sexual assault, in order to prove myself wrong. Let’s see, there was Michael Jackson. Who was that guy who assaulted his fiancée? Oh yeah, Ray Rice. There was Mike Tyson. All of them black. I was scaring myself. But then I recalled President Clinton, Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, all white men.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be the case – and it would be hard to prove – that what’s different now is race-based, but I want to resist performing too many contortions in order to argue in favor of another explanation. I want to be open to this one. Maybe what’s different this time *is* the obvious thing.

I believe in life’s subtleties. I do not intend to state that racial prejudice is the sole reason for my country’s slow awakening to the rampant scourge of sexual assault among us. I just want to make sure this one isn’t left out of the discussion.

We are talking about this crime everywhere today because 1) Weinstein was already so famous for rape that it wasn’t a shocker when the latest case was made against him, and thus we were primed to believe the victim. 2) Because of the tireless efforts of activists all over the globe who have been laser-focused on de-criminalizing victims. The people who are making it ok to be a man and admit to being a victim of sexual assault. The people who are saying there is no shame in being an unmarried woman who is raped. 3) Because social consciousness (at least in the country where I live) is getting better at admitting fault even when it’s uncomfortable. 4) Because the perpetrators right now are white.

This was the hand-written message at the bottom of a Christmas letter from my Great-Aunt. It brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.

This was the hand-written message at the bottom of a Christmas letter from my Great-Aunt. Look how she first wrote “her,” then used white-out and wrote “them” instead. It brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.

Being transgender does not mean what I thought it meant. It doesn’t mean today what it meant when my kid first taught me. In fact, the definition is probably changing right now as I write this, incorporating more ideas, sharpening the concept. I’m going to share with you my rough understanding of it, from my perspective as a parent.

The media coverage I’ve seen on the challenges transgender people face did not prepare me for the challenges their parents face. That process has been an ordeal. It’s a swim through an emotional stew, dipping into and out of the murky grey sea of sex and gender, pride and shame, loss and reward. I have to face all of the hard and icky feelings to get at the good stuff that comes with it.

Thank the gods I became a parent. The best, best, best thing I ever did to help my own education as a human being was to have a child. I’m sure I would have learned more if I had more children, but this only child has helped me grow much closer to the person I always wanted to be.

Tara is the one who is teaching me what it means to be transgender, and how to treat a transgender person. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever learned in life. I was raised by a religious mother and a conservative father in tiny, rural communities. This type of upbringing around the world tends not to be supportive of alternate definitions of love, family, sex, and gender. And while my people are good people, I did not have the opportunity to learn about these topics. I am deeply ashamed to admit that when I was 18, as Tara is now, I was outspoken about how homosexuality didn’t make sense in nature, and so shouldn’t be taken seriously. I had never even heard of transgender people then, and I’m certain I would not have been accepting of them.

The most common questions I get when I say that my child is transgender, are “Female to male, or male to female?” and “Has your child had an operation yet?”

Just like them, I yearn to place people into simple categories, binary if possible, and assign distinct characteristics to them, so I can know where I stand and then move on to the next category. Categorizing people was probably really handy 3 million years ago on the African savanna when humans were only recently upright and spent most of the day surviving. But in the 21st century it gets in the way. It got in the way when Tara finally told me they are transgender.

Strangely, rather than the day when we talked about what it means to be lesbian, it was the day Tara talked to me about being transgender that finally forced me to consider that this was not a phase. Instead of exploring the idea of homosexuality for a couple of years, then drifting back to heterosexuality as I expected, Tara just kept going farther from the norm. Not that I was actively insisting that my kid was heterosexual, I just hadn’t given it any serious thought. I had decided everything would ‘work out’ in the end to something that would make sense to me, and in the meantime it wasn’t important enough to dwell upon.

About two years before our talk about being transgender, middle-schooler Tara had asked, in tears, in an apprehensive voice, “What if I’m a lesbian, Mom? What does that mean about me?” This question didn’t scare me because the categories were easy: females and love. Those are two words I am used to defining. I told Tara to stay away from a label like “lesbian,” and just stick with the facts. “You like girls, that’s all it means about you. And liking girls doesn’t change who you are.” The girl-crush thing persisted, and I wondered whether it was my fault for making my kid that way, because I can never seem to find the right man for myself.

But see what I was doing there? I was judging Tara, doing exactly what I had done as a teenager: dismissing the preposterous idea, assuming it was a phase, assuming it was not important, assuming it was something I could have caused, waiting for Tara to turn out ‘normal.’ What kind of subconscious unsupportive messages was I sending to my own child? I am appalled at my own behavior.

The day of The Talk, I sat on Tara’s bed while they explained that a dictionary definition of “transgender” is a person whose gender identity does not correspond to that person’s biological sex assigned at birth. It can mean a person born a boy feels like a girl, or vice versa, but does not necessarily mean that.

Gender is a person’s individual awareness or identity or role that they fill. Sex is a person’s physical anatomy. Tara was born with female anatomy, but explained they did not feel female. And the startling part: they do not feel male either. Tara asked me on that day to stop using the pronouns “she” and “her,” and to use “they” and “their” instead. They do not even feel as though their gender is fixed, but that it moves from day to day.

“Think of a spectrum in the shape of a triangle,” Tara told me with wisdom, clarity, and calm that belied their 16 years of life. “On one point is a concentration of female qualities, one is male, and one is no gender. As you go toward the middle of the triangle, you move away from one gender and take up parts of the others. I am somewhere in the middle, and on some days I feel more female, some days more male, and some days I don’t feel either. I cannot predict how I’m going to feel, but usually I can tell when I wake up in the morning.”

I asked how this is different from what everyone feels. Doesn’t every person feel a little female some days, a little male some days? Tara was certain that it is not the same thing, but had a hard time clearly explaining the difference. For a time we settled on this concept of change, of “fluid gender,” and later we used “gender neutral.” I asked if they thought their gender would always be in a state of flux, or if the changes are a part of trying to figure out who they are. Tara said they didn’t know yet. There was a period where Tara got completely fed up with both male and female, and began identifying as “agendered,” meaning neither male nor female. Even within the very tolerant community that Tara has built around themself, there was pushback. People simply hate vagueness.

Tara’s current preference is “non-binary gender,” to emphasize the fact that gender is not either-or. But I still struggle to grasp the real meaning of Tara’s identity. They say that it is hurtful to be thought of as female or male. “Each time a person calls me ‘she’ isn’t that bad, but what happens is that after a series of people thinking of me as a girl, all day long, it becomes very painful. So uncomfortable that it hurts.” I asked, “How is it different from when, for example, people make incorrect assumptions of me because they see me as female,” I asked. “They think I am not smart enough or strong enough to handle something. How is what you feel different from that kind of pain?” Tara answered that they can’t really explain the difference, except that when it happens, they feel two distinct reactions. One is that the person wrongly assumes they are female, and two is that the person wrongly assumes they aren’t smart enough or strong enough. “They aren’t the same reaction, they aren’t the same kind of hurt.”

It was over two years ago, The Talk, and the trauma of it lingers. I won’t kid you: I was stunned. I was so confused that I couldn’t even begin to respond to Tara. My questions along the lines of “Aren’t you simply giving a high-falutin’ name to what everybody feels?” were based not in love, but in denial. I was trying to flush out the proof that it was not real. I was mostly in shock, but at least able to recognize that this was a pivotal moment in my child’s life. The only thing I could do was to help Tara get it out and to feel safe talking to me. I said,  “Tell me more about that,” when I wasn’t sure I could handle hearing much more. The more Tara talked, the more I felt part of my world breaking apart and falling out from under my feet. Out of loss.

I don’t know if I can explain it, but my love, respect, and appreciation for Tara never wavered. In fact, I was a bit in awe of the kid for having the presence of mind to initiate this conversation with me, and to stick with it while I was so obviously gobsmacked. But I was flooded with a profound sense of loss. It felt like I lost my child that day. I lost my daughter. The one I had constructed in my mind because…well, how was I supposed to know I had to keep my mind open to something else? I just assigned “girl category,” and filled in all the rest.

For the next few days I was in a deep depression and I experienced a very real grieving process. I felt sorry for myself. I cried and cried. It was so hard to explain it to friends, “I have to give up who I thought my child was, and give up the future dreams, like marriage and children. There will be no giggling over boyfriends, not ever. Well, of course Tara can still get married and raise children, but every bit of it will be different than what I had imagined.  Not that it’s bad…it’s just…confusing. And unexpected.” My friends, bless their hearts, gave me hugs and didn’t quite understand what I believed I was giving up.

My own child was not who I thought. Sixteen years of a relationship based on misconceptions. It really, really hurt to face that.

“I can be physically attracted to just about anyone,” Tara corrects me today. “I could easily have a boyfriend one day and children. It’s just another vagueness of my future I am not sure of. My non-traditional identification stems from gender and sex, and also how I choose to appear and how I define my romantic relationships.” Just for context, Tara’s been in a relationship with another transgender person for three years, so the boyfriend comment is more to make a point. “Brynnen are you Tara’s boyfriend?” I asked, “Yes,” they answered without hesitation. And it was a relief to laugh.

Two years later, we are the same tight team we have always been, and – get this! – I am actually not assigning Tara into a gender category in my mind so much anymore. I didn’t realize it was possible, but with time, I am able to give up “female.” I am getting much better at using the difficult pronouns, which for a somewhat OCD grammar-freak, is extremely difficult when I’m constantly using a plural pronoun to describe an individual person. I am doing better at using “them/they” at work and with relatives and acquaintances. Without exasperation or anxiety, I can respond to their confused questions, calmly explaining that I am only talking about one person, and Tara prefers that I use those pronouns.

I am not over it. I hate it that I am not. Who knew I would so stubbornly cling to my traditional upbringing when I have made it a point most of my life to be as open-minded and tolerant as I can possibly be?

But I am not sorry for myself anymore, which allows me to give more of the emotional validation that my kid needs from me. I’m on board, and I actually get irritated when I fill out forms and have to check a box to identify myself as male or female. These days, I often check male, to be difficult, because I’m finally starting to understand how frustrating it could be to live in a binary world. And I’m done thinking of it as a phase. This person who has been right next to me all these years, is actually way more genuine and brave than the one I gave up.

I don’t, apparently, do relationships like others. Or like I’m supposed to. The feedback I agonize over comes mainly from my family. My mother may be gone, but her voice is still clear in my head, “Sissy, a woman’s role is to support her husband.” Or, any number of other countless admonishments I received from her for my entire life. My father says he doesn’t want to meet my current love because it’s too painful for him to open up to another man, and then have that person leave my life, and thus his. He doesn’t have the emotional constitution to deal with “another future ex-boyfriend or future ex-husband” as he puts it. My Grandma Trulove, bless her heart, I love her to death, said once, “Now what’s his name again? There are so many I can’t keep track.”

Ugh. It makes me feel wretched.

Why do I feel wretched? Because my society (and many societies around the world) teaches that a woman needs to pick one partner and stick to that person. Forever. Period. Deal with it! If you have loved more than one man, you are a bad woman. What governing power usually directs societal pressure? Religion.

I began life pretty dumb about relationships, and I have spent decades learning how to put healthy people into my life. Maybe *you* found an excellent, caring, respectful person to fall in love with, the very first time you tried. But I did not. Maybe you had some reliable relationship skills when you were 19, and knew just how to respect your partner and make that person feel valued and cherished. I did not have these skills. I had to learn by trial and error. I blew it. I got damaged and I caused damage. Often.

I was swimming out at sea in religion the whole time I was growing up, and that was getting in the way of my learning. Religious rules are often about absolutes: “Do this because it’s right,” but those rules don’t accommodate my questions. I had no foundation to stand on from which to launch my life; just criticism and reminders from those around me that I was probably sinning in some way. I don’t recall solid modeling of good relationship behavior, or helpful tricks and tools. Mom reminded me that (very soon) I needed find a cute guy, get married, start popping out babies, and stay married to that person for the rest of our lives no matter what. Because that is what good Christians do. There is all that accountability in Heaven. There is St. Peter to reckon with at the gates, there are all my ancestors who will certainly judge me and every decision I ever made on Earth, and there will be the community of other judgmental Christians while I live. Talk about pressure!

Skipping all the details, at about age 30 I came to terms with being an atheist. I really have tried (trust me) to believe. It would simply make everything easier. I have tried since my youth group leader, Hoby, assigned me to the debate to team to argue the truth of God’s existence. I tried when my father decided to live his life true to his faith, and that faith turned out to be startlingly conservative. I tried when my mother had me at church four times a week trying to beat religion into me. I tried when my Grandfather, Capn. John, actually took my hands and bawled his eyes out, begging me to give my life to my Father. Sorry everyone. I can’t do it. I can’t lie.

Ok. So, atheism established, it changes my perspective on things. WHY on Earth would anyone want to stay in a bad relationship if there is no such thing as Heaven? If when I die, I’m dead?

If I was a stupid 19 year old, and dated a jerk, why would I stay with that person? If I was a stupid 22 year old, and married a selfish spoiled arrogant man, why would I stay with that person? If I unexpectedly got myself in waaay too deep at age 25 and discovered the next man I had married was using methamphetamines, why would I stay with that person? If I am 37 and have a daughter, watching me, trying to figure out how to grow up, why wouldn’t I try to teach her empowerment?

I believe that my life ends the day I stop breathing, and thus what I do with my brief life becomes desperately, excruciatingly important. What society or religion thinks of me becomes pathetically unimportant. I must do this right, even if that means to stop what I started, and to try again. An atheist can be motivated by time, rather than by guilt, which is a much more positive form of energy. And if she is naïve, and lacks skills, then she is obviously going to make poor choices. And I did. And I learned. I am 42 now and I don’t know it all, but I am learning every day, and always getting better.

Maybe my Arno is my future ex-husband. It could happen. I am no longer naïve. But no matter how things end up between us, he is the best man I’ve ever loved. My skills to put healthy people in my life have improved with time. I do relationships my way, and that doesn’t look like the way everyone else does it. In the whole scheme of things, what I am responsible for boils down to me and my short life, which, when all is said and done, is done.

{On an unrelated topic, the photo at the top was taken by my daughter, of random people at Mt. Tabor, in Portland. I like the shot.}

Last night I dreamed of Mom for the third time since she died.

The first time. I dreamt that she was sick but not quite gone. I had a chance to talk to her at the end, while she was lucid, that I didn’t have in real life. By the time I arrived at her place last December, it was too late. She could no longer communicate complicated thoughts, and was down to only a few of the most important words to convey needs. In my dream, she was able to share with me her thoughts about her own death.

I want to know what she thought of it. Of course it doesn’t matter, and maybe if I knew it would be bad, but I still want to know. But there are clues, and they are good. Mom told me about a year before her death, the thing that everyone could agree is ideal to hear. “I am satisfied. I could die happily now,” she said, back when no one (except maybe her?) suspected anything.

Instinctively, I knew she was being literal. In my discomfort, I had laughed. “Ha ha, Mom what the heck are you talking about?”

“I just mean…I realize I have had a good life. I have my dream home. My kids have all grown up into wonderful people. My husband provides everything I need, so I am never hungry and I have beautiful clothes and jewelry, and things for the kitchen and new furniture if I want it. I have reached the goal. So now I can die.”

I spent Thanksgiving with her, and on Friday after, she had me drive her to her friends’ houses so she could say goodbye. She did not say that to me, or to any of them, but I realize now she was making her preparations. She told her friends (and I listened quietly) how she was getting very sick, but that she looked forward with joy to being in Heaven soon. Mom expressed pure conviction that she was going to be accepted with genuine welcome by God and Jesus. I was relieved to see that, because she had spent a significant part of her life doubting Their love for her and doubting her worthiness. She seemed eager to go.

The second dream was the most therapeutic. Mom had already died, but she had come back to help me pack up her belongings from the house. She looked like her real self in my dream, and I didn’t touch her, but we both knew she was only an apparition. I re-lived the traumatic day of when cousin Debbie and I packed up her bedroom, only this time it was not traumatic, just very sad. I asked her the questions that had been burning.

“Mom, why did you save these antique baby clothes? Eight different, empty, antique fake leather coin purses? The empty Eau de Toilette bottle? A block of wood and a carving tool? The embroidered pillow case folded and wrapped and kept in the bottom of a trunk?”

“Is this old magazine important? Why did you keep this newspaper clipping? Where in the WORLD did you put your gold jewelry? We have been looking everywhere!”

And she told stories that were triggered as we worked. She told about being a little girl, about her dreams, her plans for the things she had kept. She told me why she hid them in old travel trunks, buried in the dust of her mountain cabin closet. We smiled and looked at each other and felt a desperate sadness, but still a peace.

I woke up, not remembering a single word she had said in the dream, but still feeling the peace that comes from having 100 questions answered satisfactorily.

My dream last night was …less… than the other two. Mom and I didn’t interact. I knew she was there, like the apparition of her in the second dream. She stood still, beautiful, with her long brown hair falling down her back.

Mom stood off to the side of the activity of my dream, which was in a house, with a family that I wasn’t a part of, but had been welcomed to join. They paid no attention to her at all, and she didn’t do anything but stand to the side. I had my dream without her really. I participated in the dream actions and had the dream conversations, but kept looking over at Mom, who merely stood there, watching. I knew she was Mom, and that she was gone. My level of sadness in the dream was about at the level I manage to keep it in real life these days: as long as I don’t allow myself to think about her, it is a dull ache in my chest and at the back of my mind.

It’s easy to tell that it’s my psyche working through things despite my efforts to resist. I refuse to allow myself to think about her during my waking hours because I would break into pieces and I don’t know how long it would take to get put back together again. So, I guess my heart tries to work it out in the night, when my willpower is not as strong.

my new camera

Continued contemplation, along with a recent conversation, reminds me of all the good I have collected from my past relationships. (dark thoughts about men of my past) Though my history shows many stops and starts with people I attached myself to, I was always genuine in my attachments. Cheesy as the expression may be, I liked learning the phrase “serial monogamy,” because that is how I operate. I haven’t been able to stay with one partner for many years, but I went into each one thinking that I would. My intent was pure commitment. Usually, the end of each relationship came as much as a shock to me as to the other person, though often it was I who had the guts to walk away.

Jess was my first love, and made it a great place to begin. We connected at a core level, with common interests and perspectives. I found out right away what a joy it can be to share life with someone who appreciates the world like I do. We are still friends, and 25 years later we still manage to reach the same opinions with the same thought processes, and we still love the outdoors in the same way for the same reasons. Talking with him is always validating. Aaron was a dreamer, and also validated my love of dreaming about my future, imagining the possibilities. He loved me for it, and taught me very early on to continue to express this precious part of my character. Lynn reminded me that there is so much to love about things that are not dreams, things that are real: the earth itself, simple pleasures like fishing, and children.

My first husband, Mark, brought a lot of music into my life. He played guitar and taught me new things to listen for. He introduced me to classic musicians and new musicians, and made concert-going a regular part of our lives. I even learned to love Bob Dylan! He went out of his way to spend quality time with his friends, and taught me that is how to be a friend. He took me camping and exploring, and we eagerly discovered Colorado and Nevada together. Mark and I shared politics and Northern Exposure. We worked together and did some growing up together. We took some chances and made great discoveries because of it. He sang Till There Was You to me, when I was sick.

Bill taught me so much about family. About loving all of them no matter how they drive you crazy (he had 9 brothers and sisters!). About making an effort to stay in touch, and reaching out all the time because that is what you do for family. Dennis, my second husband and father of my child, proved to me that a man can change his stars. There is never “too late.” A difficult beginning does not predict the outcome, and the love of a child can be the motivation to re-invent an approach to life. Through him I was introduced to the world of addiction, and of recovery. Of setbacks that don’t erase hope. He is, of course, still constantly in my life, and continues to represent a person who decided to become better, and did, and continues to do so. He doesn’t always know the right thing to do, but always wants to do the right thing. He never ceases to hope.

Jeff knew what he wanted and was able to show me that you can love someone and not be destined to be with that person. He taught me about respect. We had intelligent conversations and really engaged with things we didn’t agree on. We learned about each other and forgave differences and fell in love by accident. Jeff called me nearly in tears one morning, on the 11th of September while he watched smoke coming from the Pentagon from his office window, and will always be linked to that day in my mind. Kevin introduced me to surfing, and the inside story of Big Oil. He showed me that rich people are still people. Kirby loved his family, and wanted so much to share his family with me; wanted me to love them like he did. Through his family I learned a new way to conceive of family love and support. Miguel was filled with passion. Everything he felt was huge. He showed me that a man can express himself; can be overcome with emotion, and still be a man.

My third husband Vic taught me that achievement is an attitude, and that anyone can have it. Where we go in life is a matter of where we see ourselves. Though I have always thought of myself as a woman who could accomplish big things, Vic illuminated for me that I was thinking too small. His vision of me was a woman who belonged in a greater category of human beings, and then pushed me to believe it, too. I was attending school at a community college and he said, “If you want to go to school, why not Harvard? Why not MIT?” And so I applied! Vic also helped me develop an exercise regimen, and a love for running when I thought I hated running.

Mark helped me become introspective again. He showed me a better way to forgive, and to be tolerant. I credit Mark with setting me on the right path to be able to respect Dennis again, which was necessary because we were co-parenting. He also reminded me to forgive my father. Mark constantly strives to be a better man, to do the right thing. He will selflessly dedicate himself to a fellow human being in need, even without an idea of where to begin. He reminded me of the delights of surprises and tradition, and shared memory.  Mark brought laughter back into my life when my fierce challenges had hardened me. Laughter is a true gift.

So, I love them all. Yes, I have occasional fits of angry words couched in emotional wounds and surrounded by virtual fists swinging, but I am not sorry for what we experienced together, not sorry that the love has painful sharp edges. Though each relationship hit me with its own unique sucker-punch, I am stronger and wiser now. My phoenix rises more beautiful each time. I am a better woman today for having known them. So thank you, all of you men, thank you.

My arms outstretched to catch the spray

On a plane over the Pacific Ocean, I have an unfortunate juxtaposition of two opposite emotions when I think of Arno. I am more confident and trusting in this man than ever before; more than seems reasonable or rational. I am nearly certain of a future with him, I am on the edge of ready to commit completely. If he asked me today, I would marry him. That is how self-assured and healthy I feel. I am coming back to life again, becoming the woman I knew was buried somewhere deep, deep inside. A woman who is now filled with joy, peace, faith, and eager anticipation, and hopefulness, and expectations of being finally able to enjoy the goodness and beauty of having a regular life without constant damage control. And I am scared to death.

On a given day my emotions wander all over the place, of course. I’ve been mostly on a happiness track ever since I met him. Well, actually, ever since the pain of leaving my last relationship with Mark began to fade, I was happier. My reality includes many ups and downs, and within the happy path that has gradually traveled upward (and out of the muck of my dark history) – in the way that awesome corporate earnings might climb up a chart – there are times when I have been merely pleased and times when I’ve been euphoric, and it averages into a happy medium. (forgive the pun) Today, though my emotions overall remain happy, the track plunged.

This morning I was looking for a notebook to take onto the plane with me, since for some unexplainable reason I always want to write when I am airborne. I came across a spiral-bound notebook that I recognized as one of my old journals. I flipped to the back in case there were some empty pages and I could add my Hawaii trip entries. The journal was filled to the very last line of the very last page, and in discerning this, my eyes grabbed at some of the words.

I was talking about Mark. I couldn’t discern the date because I only marked the month and day, not the year. So… not sure about what part of my Mark experience it was. We were still living in Fitchburg, possibly new in the relationship, because I was talking about trying to ignore my fear and trying to allow myself to feel love again. That’s similar to my current thoughts with Arno, so I stopped paging through, and read it.

At one point I had written that I had “a history of living with ill men, and becoming an ill woman,” and though my past self didn’t recognize this: my journal entries about Mark were a continuation of that sickness. I didn’t see it then, and my intent was to point out how Mark was different from my terrible past men.

I wrote about his selfishness, his lying to me, and his own self-deception. “Of course I can’t be mad at him,” I wrote, “because he doesn’t do it on purpose. He doesn’t even realize he’s lying. When I point it out, he doesn’t know what I’m talking about.” How can a person be so blind to the fact that she is embracing a poisonous environment?

I wrote how he didn’t take responsibility for his own positive emotions. Rather than express his pleasure first person, he asked questions so that I was forced to carry the weight of expression. “What are you doing to me?” he asked over and over in his moments of pleasure. He wouldn’t even wear his own emotions, but made me express it for both of us. I felt like I could have been a blow-up doll and he would have been equally pleased and equally present.

I kept reading in the journal, and saw right there, in black and white, how I had clearly analyzed what was wrong with our communication, but would then go on to say how he was a good man deep inside, so the only obstacle to our improved communication was my ability to perceive his intended messages differently. I made him into some kind of hero. I talked about how he ignored me, disrespected me, and I wrote that since he is such a great person, then it is my job to “re-frame” his words and behavior into something that makes more sense for a good person. “He just doesn’t realize how hurtful it is, so it really isn’t his fault,” I wrote. “I know with patience I can understand the true meaning behind the mindless, empty comments.” Or, “I know he means well, and he’s very thoughtful and caring, so I must remind myself of that more often so my feelings don’t get hurt.”

Oh my god! What in the world makes a woman as sick as that? I have always been intelligent in every single aspect of life EXCEPT for relationship dynamics, and there I am a complete idiot. Why?

I wasted six years of my life being mentally sick with him. I got so unwell I spent the last two years of our relationship going to therapists who never helped a damn thing. I took medications that made me even more miserable, but at least they stopped the panic attacks and the voices and laughter I heard that were terrifying and frequent. My last therapist even tried to tell me to get out of my relationship, but I didn’t realize it till much later. In one of our last sessions, she was saying, very gently, “Some people, when they are feeling the way you are, might consider a change. Sometimes the options they consider might include different personal relationships, perhaps a change in setting. Please don’t think I am encouraging it, I only want to suggest what other people might have in their minds.” I had no idea what she was talking about. And I didn’t ask. I just let her words slide incomprehensibly past my mind.

Alright, alright. My intent here is not to simply to portray what a bad relationship I was in. No really. My point is that I didn’t know that I was in one even when it was making me crazy. In the past I had not seen for years how ill and abusive Tara’s father was. And how self-absorbed and sick Vic was, and Kevin, and Miguel, and all the awful men I always end up with. What is frightening to me today is that I could NOT SEE what was going on. I wanted to be in love and wanted to be loved so badly that I willingly allowed myself to be blind. I saw the abuse, recognized the betrayal, and then spun it somehow into a story about my own shortcomings in not being able to forgive enough, not being sufficiently understanding, or not accommodating the obvious signs of a wounded man who needs to be loved for who he is – because, wasn’t I asking to be loved for who I was? I told myself that I was the stronger person, and therefore I needed to be the one to accommodate his weaknesses, not vice versa.

Ugh.

At one point recently, I broke down and cried when I was with Arno, and told him of my secret terror. I want to love and to trust, but I am very aware that I cannot protect myself. At least I never have. The only means of protection I know is not to fall in love. Or, if I can’t help myself, at least to hold part of my heart back and not give all of myself. Loving Arno is frightening to me because I do not know if I am seeing things clearly. Since I could never tell before, how can I know if I can tell now? Am I currently blind? Do I love him because I am lonely? The fact that I opened up enough to allow myself to express those thoughts shows how deeply I care for him. If I didn’t care so much, I wouldn’t be so scared. Thus it also tells me that I am sufficiently emotionally involved to again be at that dreadful place where I cannot see what is happening in my own life.

Am I there? How is it possible to know?

But remember I said ‘a juxtaposition.’ There are emotions from opposite sides of the spectrum pulling at me: isn’t that how it always is? Fear, yes, but also hope. No, even better than hope: certainty. Assuredness. Confidence and deep unconditional trust in Arno. I am not making excuses for anything about him. I don’t need to. He’s got his own self-assuredness, patience, practicality, and joy to carry him along, so he doesn’t need to suck it out of me. He has no need to bluster and sputter about things I say that could be twisted into a far-fetched insult. He does not remind me of how I should be grateful for what he gives me. He does not tell me how I could be better, or how my behavior is superior and distasteful. Or childish and immature. He does not spend any time at all bragging about himself (unless I remember to ask), but seems intent on convincing me that I am a wonderful person. Arno lives a full, satisfying life, and has chosen to make himself available to me. He loves me unconditionally. And he already told me that if things don’t work out between us, he won’t be sorry we met, because he is already happy with the positive impact I’ve had on his life. “You have already shown me that I can live my life in a better way. You have proved that there are other people like me in the world. You physically express what I have in my mind; you ACT what I am feeling! I can’t envision my life without you in it,” he said to me.

Fear, yes. But happiness as well. And each new day as I learn more and more about him, and find that his words are in perfect resonance with the way he lives, I can trust him more. There are no incongruities, there are no shameful character traits to learn to tolerate, there is no embarrassing bravado, there are no heartbreaking nights of trying to defend myself from misinterpretations. Every new morning I wake up with a peaceful heart, and the fear evaporates a little more. One day it will be gone completely. With Arno I believe I can become whole again.

My friend, Mohamed

I’m going to have some anxiety mixed with my joy till I clear it up with my Egyptian friend, Mohamed, who has insisted I don’t know all sides. I heard the news of Mubarak acquiescing the reins of the presidency with joy and with a marked dose of astonishment. I also worried that I was the butt of a joke, and had to check it for myself, since all day Thursday at work, as rumors from Egypt flew to us here in the U.S., we had been launching the joke back and forth across the cubicle sea.

“I heard Mubarak has stepped down.”

“Really?”

“Oh, looks like he hasn’t. Nevermind.”

And it continued like that. We’re mostly early risers where I work, and by 6am (the earliest we’re allowed to begin) that place is hopping. Friday Chris came in early and headed for his cube in his bicycle gear. He said, “Hey, I guess Mubarak has stepped down!” “Really?” I asked. “No,” he laughed.

But a couple hours later I heard the announcement. About 8:50am, I knew it was for real.

Earlier in the week, I had finally heard from Mohamed, a young man from Upper Egypt who recently received his degrees in tourism and business management. The week before I had jetted off an email in the thick of things, then remembered that he probably had no Internet. D’oh! So Wednesday he got back to me and assured me that he was safe. Our communication is poor, since I speak about thirty-five words of Egyptian Arabic and he can probably triple that for English words. We are pathetic, but determined! Ha ha.

Mohamed’s message was brief, but it chimes in with Middle Eastern media voices I keep hearing whose theme is that Americans just don’t have a clue. My message to Mohamed was simple enough. I told him that I send my love and I hope he is safe. His response to me was that of the 80 million people in Egypt, there are many sides to the situation, and not to think I know what’s going on. He said the Egyptian media only gave one story in the beginning. With our emaciated language skills, I can’t tell what he thinks of the protests, or the Mubarak regime, or what.

Then he expressed his doubt and fear about being a citizen. He didn’t say “doubt” and “fear.” On Wednesday, prior to news of the departure of Mubarak, he wrote to me: “Now all things may be back like last in street and in government. What the result! Problem in economy for example ( tourism ) after that no tourists.”

And this is going to be the looming story for Egypt through the remainder of 2011 and beyond. His words touch my heart with their poignancy, and they still hold true. What the hell are the common people going to do now? So many people were struggling anyway, and now the entire system has been ravaged. It’s not like Mohamed can go back to work on the tour ship Monday. It’s not like his Uncle can set up his shop at the dock and sell anything this week. In Mubarak’s speech Thursday he called to the young people in Tahrir Square to “go back to your jobs.” That made me furious and I don’t even live on the same side of the planet. Talk about not having a clue. The victory here is undeniable and I hope it will carry some Egyptians through the painful coming year.

I don’t think Mohamed (or his countrymen and women) understands the American perspective. He has so many fears and stereotypes about Americans that battle in his brain. he’s always telling me how unusual I am for befriending him. But that isn’t true! Americans are no more haters than Egyptians are. On a one-to-one basis, outside the bark of Fox television, we are just like people anywhere. We can love you no matter what your native language is.

I want the people of Egypt (all of them!) to know that we, over here in the United States, have been concerned much less about the type of government that reigns in the end, if it was placed there by the popular voice of the people. Argue all you want, but think about it, and it’s true. We have not been tuned in to the news out of our concern for the quality of the regime overhaul.

Americans value voices freely raised!

THAT is why we are so excited. That is why we have been tuning in every day for the past 20 days. The silly commentators keep bringing up the implications in world markets, in Israeli relations, and whether President Obama is saving or losing face with his reaction. But we don’t really care. We want to hear the shouting, see the banners raised, hear thousands of people holding their country’s flag and chanting their pride and patriotism. We particularly loved hearing an authority organization – the army – supporting the people!

Mohamed is afraid that I’ll make a judgment based on inadequate facts, but all I needed to know was that Egyptians were speaking up, which the media certainly provided. And I wanted to see a result that incorporated their voices. The particular demands are not so important for me to understand. Some Egyptians expressed that Mubarak was not so bad that he needed to be ousted.  So ok, it’s not my country; I won’t judge the Mubarak regime because I don’t know enough.

But that does not dim my enthusiasm for an Egyptian revolution. I was invested in getting proof that their voices were heard. Come on, admit that’s what you wanted too. I wanted to see the people express a common demand and have it met, and I wanted so badly for it not to end with bloodshed and mass imprisonment. Sadly, over three hundred people did die, and their deaths are not forgotten. I hope the death toll holds steady as governing negotiations ensue.

Americans value voices freely raised. And for that fact above all others, we have stood in support of Egypt for three weeks. Americans value a people’s victory. And for that fact, we too are celebrating. Mostly to ourselves, our friends, or in our facebook status. But we are celebrating, nonetheless.

My vision is slowly clearing up from the frosted glasses I wore in my last relationship. For me, three months is a long time to snap out of it. I am used to feeling freedom and joy almost the instant I get away from whatever man I’ve leeched myself onto.

What explains the gradual drift away from him, rather than a sudden snap to consciousness? I’d like to believe it’s a sign that I have grown as a person enough to leave a relationship before I am on the edge of despair. In the past, I have left relationships as a last-ditch effort to survive. My grieving the betrayal and loss of most relationships occurs while still officially in them. This time I left earlier in the process, and so maybe I continued the grieving once I was gone. Maybe I’m getting wiser.

In any case, my cathartic experience was Monday, when I finally moved the last of my stuff out of the house and over to my new rental place. In the process of hauling stuff out of the basement, I passed a sickening sight. He’s got a bunch of trash and furniture strewed at random along the side of the house. Who knows how long it’s been there – a month? Plastic, wires, broken things, tools, and painfully- furniture. For example, a pine hutch for the kitchen with cupboards and a drawer. It was in perfect condition when I left. It is now beyond salvage; warped and bleached from rain and weather. One of the pieces was a large oak entertainment center that I had come to get. He had at least laid a piece of plastic on top, but the base was in three inches of standing water. The bottom trim is warped and blackened with mold.

“Just like common white trash,” I thought to myself. “Leaving a bunch of stuff outside in the yard to get ruined.” I wondered: Who is this person who is so thoughtless and careless?

And it hit me: there is no difference in this behavior than anything I knew about him in our six years together. This is how he has always been. He has carelessly smashed half our dishes over the years. When we moved he piled everything in a jumble in the moving van so nearly all our wooden furniture is damaged now (that is, the stuff that wasn’t totally ruined). He stacked spare tires on a rocking chair, so that when we unpacked the chair the fabric cushions had ground-in black rubber. Ruined. It doesn’t occur to him to place any extra value on things that are expensive or of quality construction: to him, no things are valuable. In one way, it could be said that he is not beholden to material objects, but on the other hand – since we have often struggled for money – he was thoughtless and careless not to consider that everything he ruined had to be replaced. For a price. Sometimes the things he ruined had nostalgic value to me and can never be replaced.

The difference is that I am no longer there to walk behind him and clean up his messes.

My transformative thought was that the whole damn relationship was probably me! The catharsis is that I am relieved to know that I was correct to leave him. He isn’t only careless with furniture; he is careless with his life. He does not cherish his friends, and he does not cherish his family. I thought back over all the catastrophes he helped create and maintain, and I thought back over the lies that I told to my family and my friends to protect and support him, and to protect myself from my embarrassment and shame. Like when he was unemployed for 14 months and I helped him maintain all his excuses and lies about why he wasn’t employed. Yes, the economy was bad – a perfect alibi. But I didn’t tell anyone the truth. Such as the time he got a job offer, and let it go.

I am angry at myself (No, not at him; I feel sorry for him.) for not learning this lesson yet. I am a world-class enabler and after forty years and hundreds of relationships (well, it SEEMS like it!), I just cannot seem to learn to stop it.

I need to stop valuing people according to their potential, and begin placing value on what they actually do with their potential. I glom onto a man believing that with support and encouragement, he could be the man he truly is inside! I give, and give, and give until I am sucked dry, and there is nothing to show for my investment. And my bonus gift is that they always (Always.) find a way to spin it so that I am the one who betrayed. I am the one who let it fall apart. I am the evil trickster.

He said to me recently that he has watched me fall into deep depression in the past two years (actually, I have indeed been depressed a lot). He said I am the most depressed person he knows. “I am truly worried about you without me there to look out for you,” he says. “Now that you’re gone you will withdraw from life and sink more deeply into your depression. It drives me crazy because everything you want, I give you, but you can’t be satisfied with anything. You think leaving me will solve all your problems, but you had all you ever needed with me, and refused to see it.”

For the last year I’ve believed him when he told me what a dark soul I was, dragging him down when otherwise he would be happy. Today I say back to him as Eowyn said to Wormtongue, “Your words are poison.” I will no longer listen.

I am now free to try again to live up to my own potential. It is a beautiful, limitless path with brilliant possibility.

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I came across this classroom assignment I wrote in 2006 for an International Mediation course I was taking at Brandeis University. The first third of the paper is a tidy re-cap of the traumatic battle surrounding the discovery of a 9,300 year old human skeleton beside the Columbia River. The remainder is obviously student-speak designed to answer the many questions put to us by our professor, and designed to prove that we had read all the texts assigned.

Pursuing any current and relevant news, I found an article in the Tri-City Herald noting that ancient human remains were again found in the area. Startled, I read on to discover that the bones, estimated to be 300 to 350 years old, were handed over to the Tribes claiming them by the US Army Corps of Engineers. No fuss, no scandal, no lawsuits.

Painful as it is, the truth looks ugly. Scientists, arguably among the most intelligent of us, appear to be using only their empirical data in these two cases. Inciting war in the first, and granting peace in the second. They apparently have decided that Indians have the right to claim 300 year old remains but not 9000 year old remains. Yes, I see the difference on the surface. But ideologically, what is the difference? Why does one group get to draw the line, and where exactly is it drawn, and why?

My apologies if I lost you, because this stuff is so central to my core that I find it hard to express to someone else. But let me try: Indians claim that ancient human remains in North America are their ancestors because their oral traditions (i.e. their religions) tell them so. Scientists track ancestry through DNA samples, and many believe that there are multiple lineages that populated North America. Thus, any kinship ties could only be proven through meticulous scientific study.

The fact that no ownership war began over the 300 year old remains says to me that scientists are willing to agree on kinship ties in that case. But NOT because they respect Indian religious traditions, but because it happens to be in line with their own religion of science. This stuff makes me furious. 1) If your scientific point is that DNA is required, then why not battle with equal ferocity over the 300 year old remains? 2) Why do the scientists get to set the terms? 3) If 9000 years old is clearly not an ancestor, and 300 years is clearly an ancestor, can we please have the exact year that delineates? (ok, yes, that was sarcasm)

Multiple parties were (and are still) passionate about those particular human remains called both Ancient One and Kennewick Man. Opinions vary on how they should or should not be handled, stored, examined, discussed, or buried. Millions of dollars and millions of hours were spent to make a decision on whether American Indians who claimed ancestral ties had the right to dispose of the human remains as the Tribes saw fit; or, whether anthropologists should be allowed to study the remains for the benefit of adding to our human knowledge base of early versions of our species.

My take was that, had the situation been handled properly, there may have been a way to satisfy some of the needs of both of these parties (as well as the needs of other parties also involved, to include the US Army Corps of Engineers and the intriguing Asatru Folk Assembly).

Again I fear that this is evidence that minority parties rarely get respect or validation. It is depressing and heartbreaking, not to mention frustrating when groups of stereotypically “intelligent” people such as scientists are the ones furthering ignorance, discrimination, and destructive hegemony.

On the optimistic side… there is a chance that I just witnessed an evolution of another kind. Can it be that we have learned lessons over here in the Pacific Northwest, and applied them successfully?

I am moving out of my house on Tuesday, November 2. Election Day. I elect to run away from my problems. Again.

The House on Morrison Street still has my name on the mortgage, so I’m going on faith that Mark will do his best to try and make the payments. His mother, Rene, will still be living with him, and he’s seriously considering inviting his best friend and the friend’s girlfriend to move in.

The new house is only three blocks away. I would have preferred more space between us, but only to help sharpen my perceptions of how clean the break is.

I discovered that Mark remains in the conversation if I talk in terms of moving out, and not in terms of breaking up. “Breaking up” is too big; “moving out” is easier to negotiate. It’s been the most respectful, adult form of separation I’ve ever experienced. So in that way I see that my own partner choices have improved. Thank god this hasn’t been full of screaming threats and raised fists and me having to sneak around to conceal my plans of escape.

And besides, I don’t know for certain it’s a breakup. I just have to go. This house is like living with Jupiter’s gravity, or living inside of giant magnets or something. It’s so heavy. Truly, truly, I am a person with an inner buoyancy. When left alone, I bob back up. Sadly, I connect too tightly, too empathically to those I love to remain buoyant when they are not.

Additionally, I frequently reach toward others hoping for their magic to fill my cup of need. I keep ending up with partners who can’t manage my weakness well. They are confused and emasculated when I beg to be saved. I need to be told: “Knock it off! I care about you and I see your pain and you’ve got to fix it for yourself.” I wish for the perfect dose of arrogance in my partner who can say to him/herself: “Crystal is in a sad state, but I’m fine. Hopefully she pulls out of it soon.”

Rather, my weakness and my partners’ weakness twist into knots, feeding off each other, and gathering dark strength from outside attacks (bad jobs, financial stress). Yuck. I just want to go back to that light heart of twenty-something and start over with the knowledge that I now have. I had hope, hope, hope then. Now… not so much. I am losing faith in myself. Why can’t I learn to be strong with a partner? Why do I sink as though I am rescuing someone who can’t swim? They never asked me to come, why do I still feel their frantic struggles and dead weight?

And what is up with my desire to run? It’s always easier for me to take off and nurse my wounds in solitude. With enough time alone, I come up shining and new. Perhaps I can make peace with my strength as an individual, as a friend, a mother. And give up on thinking I should try a romance.

One of my many guises

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