Shackled Grace

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Ngozi was a pretty girl with fine, delicate features and a dazzling smile. She was a happy girl and truly loved school. Her favorite subject was science and she read as much as she could at school because she did not have any books at home. Ngozi grew up in a Somali village until the age of nine. That was when the rebels came. They tore through, destroying the simple patch homes with fire, slaughtering innocence and driving out her family. Upon returning from school, Ngozi found her burning home but not her parents and siblings. Along with other schoolchildren and the few adults who dared come back to collect scattered belongings, she fled on foot away from all she had ever known.  She walked and walked, frightened and unsure of where her steps led her. Days later temporary lodging was found and a terrified Ngozi was given to a family who agreed that she may stay with them until she could be reunited with her family. As the days passed, she often remembered her mother, sister, classmates and missed going to school. She remained with her adoptive “family” and in exchange for their generosity, she was required to care for the younger children, do laundry and help with cooking. She was not permitted to attend school or read. To comfort herself, she made a small doll to look like her mother out of leaves and straw. At the age of 12, as payment towards her servitude, Ngozi was forced into prostitution. She was unclean and therefore forced to sleep outside of the hut ruled by her adoptive father. By 14, she was in a violent arranged marriage which later gave to her a daughter of her own.

Ngozi and I met when she was about 19; her chubby cheeked daughter just a toddler. They had arrived to the U.S. only two weeks before with her husband. Upon arrival, an apartment had been secured for them in the same community as the husband’s family. This is common practice in refugee resettlement as it typically ensures a more successful resettlement process. However for Ngozi any dream she had of a better life, away from the camps was stolen from her. She had been kicked out of the home by her husband and forced to fend for herself. We had never seen this happen in our work before, but there she stood, a small torn suitcase in one hand and the other wrapped in her daughter’s tiny fingers. As a refugee, the agency with which I worked was able to provide some basic support services to Ngozi. However the help was minimal and it was imperative that she find work. Unsure of just how to handle the situation, Ngozi was brought to my office by her caseworker to see if I could arrange for special assistance. She stood quietly with her head down, not looking up to greet my eyes. She was slight of frame and it was a struggle to support the bustling activity of her very active little one. Ngozi did speak some English and in an attempt to converse with her, I asked if I could give her daughter a toy and lollipop. The child began playing on the floor, freeing Ngozi’s tired arms. I had lunch delivered for us and the look on her face was quite comical when she held the chicken and vegetable spinach wrap sandwich and fruit smoothie. She had never eaten green bread and looked at it skeptically. However she was hungry and within minutes the lunch had been completely consumed. The next order of business was locating an apartment for her. Concerned for Ngozi’s safety, I was able to find a one room apartment in the same community where I lived. This would remove her completely from the Somali community but provide someone she knew close by in case of retaliation or other emergency.

We were separated in age by only a few years. Somehow this provided her some comfort and her story began to unfold. As she spoke, her long, graceful fingers would sweep the delicate features of her face in shame. I remember thinking how beautiful her hands were considering the struggle that bound them. She was bright, hopeful…even in the face of all she experienced. She dreamed of becoming a teacher. For three months she lived as my neighbor. A few times a week, often late at night, I would hear a slight tapping on my door. Ngozi would stand there, always with an apology for disturbing me, although it never was a disturbance. Her daughter had a severe diaper rash, or she was unsure how to work the oven or she needed help understanding forms for medical and food assistance. I often saw her sweeping…sweeping not only her apartment in absence of a vacuum cleaner, but sweeping the stoop of the entire row of apartments that surrounded hers. As she swept, she would hum. Upon seeing me she would wave her hand with a shining smile. It is really quite amazing…the power of the human spirit to overcome extreme adversity and still smile so genuinely.

Her public assistance ran out and after trying for a few months to find work and take care of her child without any support, sadly Ngozi fell back into the violence of her husband’s home. Overwhelmed, hungry, without food or a job to provide money, she felt there was no other way. Unfortunately there was nothing more the agency could provide to her. The last time I saw her, she still hoped that one day she would find her parents and siblings and return to school. She still hoped.

Ngozi’s story is common to many women and children around the globe and here in our very own communities.  I hope reading her story has made you think and want to take action. For more information and ways you can make a difference, go to: http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/index.shtml

The first step in building a society free from domestic abuse and violence is to take action rather than step back. Speak out against violence happening in your community.

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When Fear Moves In

Simon Kerrie and Me(Simon with his Star Wars blaster, me and my sister- Kerrie)

As a girl, I loved climbing trees. I would climb until there wasn’t anywhere else to place my bare feet and it was just me and leaves rustling in the breeze. I would imagine different worlds and a different life. At some point, during such a climb, I slipped and in doing so, scratched up my bare knees and elbows, hands and the soles of my feet. This did not prevent me from climbing again. I climbed higher the next time…higher than I had ever climbed before. Only this time, I could not climb down. I was stuck. I remained there for some time…a couple of hours I think, until my dad who refused to climb up and retrieve me threatened to take his belt to my backside if I did not climb down. With tears welling up in my eyes and with absolute fear, I slowly made my way down the big oak that stood in the back yard of Maggie’s house. Maggie was one of my parent’s hippy friends who lived in South Austin at the base of the railroad tracks. She had creamy white skin and shoulder length wavy, brown locks. Her real name was Margaret and she planted Marigolds. This fact always made me chuckle. I thought she was beautiful even though she had the brattiest son I could ever imagine- Simon. All he ever talked about was Star Wars. Even so, he was my buddy but we constantly fought like brother and sister. Stuck in Maggie’s tree that day, as the sun was beginning to fade and a train tooting somewhere in the distance, I could hear that turd- Simon, laughing and no doubt pointing his finger up at me. With caution in the placement of my feet on each rung of limbs, I very slowly made my way down the tree. I still received a spanking for causing a ruckus and climbing so high that I became stuck in the first place. That was the last time I ever climbed a tree.

In fact, it was not long after this that I stopped doing all sorts of things I once did. I used to twirl around and sing. I often borrowed Maggie’s red cowgirl boots which were far bigger than my feet and clomped around with my long hair brushed straight, parted down the center singing “Don’t it make my brown eyes bluuuuue,” before proudly proclaiming how I wanted to be just like Crystal Gayle. At some point, I stopped singing in front of other people. Sure I still sang quietly to myself, but at the moment someone else would walk in, my throat would tighten up and cease to make the same sounds. I’ve been afraid of the dark for as long as I could remember. I became afraid to ride a bike or skateboard for fear of getting hurt. In my teen years, I was afraid to talk to boys. I was afraid to sneak out of school functions to go to a party with my sister. I was afraid to be home alone. I was afraid to do many of the things my friends did such as drink, take off in cars to drive the drag in town, tepee houses and skip school. I was most afraid of getting in trouble at home. My dad, who while always strict, had become a completely different person. He became violent and cruel with his words. He often would look at me and say, “Don’t think about it…your face is like glass. You will never get away with whatever it is that you and your sister are planning.” Hand to my heart, I swear that we rarely planned anything. As with most teenagers, the few shenanigans we managed to get into were completely spur of the moment and often prompted me begging my sister to just go home instead. I was afraid of getting hit…afraid of having to explain away new bruises. Somehow at the age of 15, I found an internal strength that declared, enough! I was not going to be treated that way any longer and I ran away from home. The day I left, my stomach was sick with fear…fear of being caught while leaving…fear of being found after leaving…fear of my friends who picked me up in their car getting in trouble for their role.

Living on my own, working as a live-in nanny for different families while attending school, the fear did not completely dissipate. One would envision a girl of fifteen, living without her parents to go off and party or get wild. Not me. I was too afraid of being taken advantage of, getting pregnant or something worse happening. In time, I began to open myself up to experiences. In writing a story for the school paper on the campus ROTC group, I was invited to rappel the tallest building on campus. Although it was only three stories high, to me it looked like the Empire State Building. Standing on top of the building, too afraid to even look down, the ROTC members busied themselves with strapping the harness across my chest and between my legs while a team on the ground secured the ropes. I watched several members escape off the edge of the roof and heard the cheers below. It took nearly twenty minutes for me to make the first move of swinging my leg over the ledge and it seemed like another twenty before I would release my grip from the place my hands instantly clung upon doing so. My friend, Jimmy stood above me speaking calm words of encouragement. Then I simply let go and somehow remembered the procedure that we practiced of squatting against the building and pushing out with my legs. In seconds I had reached the ground. Although the ordeal was over in far less time than it took me to start, the feeling of my body, tethered to ropes but swaying freely and at the same time still in complete control stayed with me to this day. It was exhilarating! I felt powerful and like I could accomplish anything.

A few years later, I had the strength and courage to leave all I had known, pack up my belongings into the trunk of my first car and drive cross-country to start a new life in Boston. I made a some tentative connections online, had a couple interviews lined up for jobs and submitted an application to enroll at a small college. Driving through small town after big city, I felt free. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill had been released a few months before my road trip and it was the soundtrack for the duration of my drive with its snide, angry lyrics and nasally but defiant voice. I sang my way through state lines arriving in Boston with complete faith in myself and without fear. I began to experience life…entered into my first relationship only to be completely crushed, did well in school and was nominated for a position with a U.S. Congressman’s office. I made friends and did things like run into the ice cold ocean without any concern just to feel the waves against my skin or dance until dawn, laughing and enjoying living.

Through the years, fear began to lurk around me once again. Now married and a young mother, I opened the doors and invited fear for a visit. It was told to me on an almost daily basis that I was not good…I was not smart. I was many things, all of which were said with a hiss and sometimes with fists. Eventually I fell back into the same trap of fear, accepted the same lies fear provided…I was not enough. Although it took ten years, once again I found the courage to let go of the ledge, swing my foot over and push away. This time it was without any tethers. I was scared but determined to have a better life. It was tenuous but I manged to start over for myself and my daughter. I made new friends in a new environment and started smiling and volunteering my time again. However I still listened to fear and did not allow myself to do many things…things I wanted to experience and enjoy in life.

On an evening two Octobers ago, of what had been any ordinary Monday and having just arrived home from work, I sat while sorting the mail. The phone rang and it was my mother. Although now close, my mother and I do not speak much by telephone due to busy schedules. She started the call by asking, “How are you?” Her voice seemed calm and nothing out of the ordinary. After pleasantries were passed, she told me that my younger sister’s body had been found off a small dirt road in East Texas. My younger sister, the sister I used to have nightmares about while living on my own…the sister who I had returned home to  rescue and protect, was murdered. It is hard to write about her in the past tense. It is hard to type the word murdered when thinking of her. The horror she went through in her final moments broke a piece of my heart. It also frightened me more than I had ever been frightened before. I no longer went out with friends at night. I stopped going to the grocery store or shopping mall beyond a certain time of day. I triple checked my front door to ensure it was locked before sleeping. I began to look in my back seat before getting in the car. I stopped accepting offers for dinner or coffee with men I met. I had been hurt emotionally in relationships…even physically in relationships, but this was different. I wanted to protect myself in a new way that I had not imagined before.

This past Summer marked my 40th birthday. In the months leading up to it, I began evaluating my life and goals, dreams and experiences. I realized that there was still so much that I wanted to experience and that the fear that had begun moving in slowly at first, had eventually dictated my every move. Fear prevented me from truly living. Upon this realization, I began to break through the wall that I allowed fear to build. I made drastic changes, did ridiculous things like join dating sites and even entered into new waters, investigating a lifestyle that from a distance seemed appealing. I believed I wanted that way of life due to parts of myself that I had not yet unearthed but more so out of a desire for passion…a desire to experience deeply…a desire to feel…a desire to be wanted and loved…a need to release fear. So I dove in, head first. I crossed the street without looking in both directions. In so doing, I had exposed myself in a way that had never yet been exposed. I opened myself to a potential for harm that I would never have imagined myself allowing. I had become afraid of being afraid to the point that I was behaving in a way that was not me. I was trying to force fear out. To some degree, the experiment worked, however I lost a little self respect in the process and had to work on regaining some dignity.

Fortunately, this foolish behavior was brief. Logic and reason won and due to writing about my experiences and thoroughly examining my feelings, I regained some balance and once again found my center. I’ve taken stock of fear, carefully chipped away at the majority of what I held and reserved a small portion to preserve my sensibility. While I am still afraid of the dark and also super afraid of heights, I no longer live with fear. It may take a couple cocktails for me to loosen up enough to sing at karaoke with friends, but fear left in search of a new swain. I took back the drawers that I had designated for fear, reclaimed my key and kicked fear to the curb.

Through these experiences, starting over, falling back, being taken advantage of and treated in a way I should never accept, the sorrow of losing my sister and in breaking through fear, I learned a good deal about myself. Funny thing is that what I learned were beliefs I already claimed all those years ago at the age of 15 yet somehow allowed to be taken from me. I have always known myself quite well but had allowed fear to create doubt. I am wiser now than then and although still kind, probably not as honey sweet as at 15. Yet I know that whether it is climbing on top of a ledge or living life alone, singing at the top of my lungs to my steering wheel or traveling across the world, I am enough. I am capable. I am smart. The whole world is at my grasp waiting to be experienced. Through each new experience, I breath in strength and release a little more fear. ❤

 

Thomas, the Contender

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Ten years after Katrina, a life of woe continues in this, the story of Thomas:

While a relatively small city, Orleans Parish, paroisse d’Orléans…the city of New Orleans, Louisiana serves as one of the major ports along the U.S. coastline. The city was established by French colonists and is named for the Duke of Orleans. It is often referred to as The Big Easy due to being the birthplace of Jazz music and its support of Jazz musicians over the decades.

Growing up in the lower 9th Ward, Thomas accepted that he did not have much. Along with his belongings, he carried hope in his two hands. There were not many opportunities for a man of little formal education and poor upbringing. Still, Thomas managed to get by. Life in The Big Easy was not always easy, but he had a job. He had a home. He had a dog. Family were nearby and overall, Thomas was happy. Not happy in the way you see on glossy television shows, but he was happy…at least until August of 2005.

On August 28th, 2005, the mayor of New Orleans declared a city-wide, mandatory evacuation; the first ever in New Orleans history. For days, the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center had been tracking a storm that started over the Bahamas. Originally believed to be a potential threat to Florida, the storm- now officially Hurricane Katrina- shifted and New Orleans would be at its core. With the majority of the city under sea level, it is protected by levees built by the Army Corp of Engineers in the 60’s. Upon receiving the mandatory evacuation notice, poor residents in areas such as the 9th Ward, did not have any other place to go or the resources with which to get there even if they did. All along the Gulf Coast, some residents just simply did not believe the threat was significant.

By the time Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29th, Thomas along with some 14,000 other residents had escaped to the Superdome arena where temporary shelter was offered. They knew their small tract homes would not survive Katrina’s 125 miles per hour winds. Before leaving, Thomas tried to find his dog but no amount of whistles or calling his name resulted in his return. Frightened and unsure of what tomorrow may bring, Thomas waited for the hurricane to pass. He could hear the wind howling and beating against the walls of the Superdome and rain poured through the roof in a few places. Eventually the howling stopped, but the nightmare continued for worse than the force of Katrina’s winds was the water. There was so much water. Some 53 of the levees surrounding the city were breached. Up to 80% of New Orleans was submerged in water, with water coming inland up to twelve miles. The Coast Guard and Army Reserves had not prepared enough for this sort of damage. The Superdome was dry but her doorway was flooded with residents seeking aide. Food and water were scarce. Babies cried as mother’s tried to console them. Thomas felt imprisoned but was thankful to be alive. To keep his mind off of the devastation they were hearing on the radio and to keep his thoughts from worrying about his dog, Thomas volunteered to help soldiers process the influx of people. An officer of some sort, maybe a reservist, asked Thomas and a couple of other men to follow him. They were led down a hall to another room where upon entering Thomas immediately felt sick. Rows of gurneys were set up, some empty but some containing body bags. Over the next few days, he helped soldiers carry in bag after bag. Thomas did not want to count them but believed there to be hundreds. By the third day, they had run out of bags. Although he kept his face from looking into their lifeless eyes, Thomas could feel the puffy, cold flesh in his hands through the latex gloves he wore. He became sick after carrying in the remains of a young man whose body had been ripped apart by the jaws of an alligator.

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How does one simply go on after experiencing what he had experienced? Thomas later found his home to be completely destroyed. Everything he owned fit into a plastic grocery bag. His dog never returned. Thomas bounced around between the generosity of friends and the few shelters operating in the city, all of which were overrun with other souls not any better off than was he. He worked odd jobs to help pay for food. At night, his mind would fill with memories of the Superdome…memories of the bodies. The air around him still reeked with the stench of death. He became a prisoner to darkness and a slave to alcohol. After several years of barely getting by on the damaged streets of New Orleans, Thomas managed to save a little money and took a bus to Houston. He had heard of others who came to Houston and were able to find work and get off the streets.

The day we met was a stunning early November morning with crisp air and soft rays from the Sun. Thomas had been living on the streets of Houston for nearly six months. After sharing his story, I offered him a couple granola bars from the camera bag and the few dollars I had on me, to which Thomas raised his hand in protest and simply said, “thank you, it was nice to have someone to talk to.” We said goodbye and wished one another more blessings tomorrow.

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Hurricane Katrina first struck the U.S. on August 25, 2005 and tore through the Gulf Coast, ravaging homes and cities until August 29th. She took the lives of 1836 people. Several hundred people are still missing or unaccounted for, including prisoners of Louisiana jails who either escaped or were swept away by water. Animals and wildlife suffered equally with thousands of homeless pets left after the water receded. Hurricane Katrina is one of the fifth deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history and damage estimates totaling some $108 billion. The city of New Orleans is still in recovery nearly ten years later. In this moving rendition of Bob Dylan’s 1967 song- I Shall Be Released, famed New Orleans Jazz musician- Al “Carnival Time” Johnson is backed by New Orleans brass band- Bonerama and OK Go, from the You’re Not Alone lp that raised funds for displaced New Orleans musicians, including Mr. Johnson who had become homeless as a result of Hurricane Katrina: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDz7i1sgD8M

Liberated Truth

In order to feel pretty, I relied upon cosmetics, clothing and other add-ons all of which were unattached to me. I purchased new lip colors or pots of cream promising radiant skin only to be disappointed. No amount of dieting changed my vision. Shoes…pretty, sparkly shoes…as much as I adore them, once removed and in my bare feet, the magic vanished.  In my own skin, I was not pretty in any shape or form. Like many women, I fell into the trap of requiring things to define beauty. While there is nothing wrong with these things, they are only things after all and things cannot make a person pretty. Beauty does not reside in things.

As a girl, attention that I received from the male gender was untoward. The aggressiveness, the language, the blatant disrespect…it not only was uncouth, but it was frightening. With shame, I hid my body under baggy clothing and jackets, long hair covering my face. I didn’t want to be seen in the way I felt when men looked at me. Walking home from school was a lesson of indignity as adult men would yell things out the car window or approach me on the bus. Once while rushing to class with my head down as it usually was, an older student reeking of alcohol and whose name I didn’t know, pushed me against a wall and bit my neck before running off into the crowded student body. Afraid of being punished at home, I wore my hair down and high collared shirts buttoned to prevent the bite from being seen.

During the Summer of my eighth birthday, we lived in a campground near Austin. Earlier in the year, our family lost all of our belongings in flooding that swept through the property my parents purchased near Smithville. It was beautiful property and my parents used their last dollar to buy it. While lying in the tent, listening to chirping and other sounds of nature, I realized it was my birthday. I was eight! It was early and my mother still sleeping so I sneaked out of the tent and ran to the park bathroom where I was greeted by a maintenance man. He looked familiar to me and knew my name. Happily I informed him it was my birthday. He came closer and asked if I would like a present. “Yes, please!”, I replied. The man’s rough hands pulled me up, pinning my arms at my side, my long golden braid swinging. Before I could realize what was happening, he kissed my mouth. He kissed it hard and I felt his tongue between my lips. His uniform a dark green, smelled like sweat and dirt. I kicked and tried to be free of his grip and his mouth. Then he placed me back down on the ground, his fingers still holding my arms and looked into my eyes and asked if I liked being kissed. Holding my breath so as not to cry and not to breathe him any longer, I turned my head. I didn’t want his eyes on me. He clutched my chin and forced my face to turn back towards him, then said if I told anyone that he would take my little sister and I would never see her again. At that he let me go and I ran. I forgot that I needed to relieve myself. I forgot the excitement of turning eight. I ran as fast as I could back to our camping space, unzipped the tent and got back into the sleeping bag silently hoping my mom wouldn’t wake up. She would scold me for having left the tent at all, even if it was my birthday.

I share this story not out of pity for myself in any way, but as an example of the sort of atmosphere in which I grew up…the atmosphere which we must be aware and be careful, as it surrounds most little girls and more often than we realize, little boys too. So you see, by the time I was a young woman of fourteen, the catcalls, the stolen kiss and other unwanted experiences caused me to be ashamed…ashamed of being a girl, ashamed of my body, ashamed of my face…sometimes ashamed of just being. It took some time to realize that those experiences had nothing whatsoever to do with me but were out of underlying sickness that is hiding within society. However it took significantly longer to not feel ashamed of my femininity and develop pride in being a woman. It was not until a few years ago that I began to embrace being a woman and with it the full understanding of beauty. After a failed marriage that was not the glistening love I had imagined, but one that was instead hateful and at times cruel, I was left feeling more ashamed than before. I was insignificant. I not only felt unwanted, but I was ugly. I was stupid. I was unseen.

Being mother to a young girl, this was not the example I wanted portrayed to her. In my work with young people, it was easy to encourage them, cheer for them, support them, love them and believe in them. Yet somehow I neglected this same belief in myself. While realizing logically that this was preposterous, convincing my spirit was an entirely different story. Unsure of how to correct this poisonous thought process but completely determined to do so, I began writing love notes…from me, to me. I wrote sticky notes with pretty words of inspiration and placed them on my mirror, my desk and anywhere else I would see them. Each morning I forced myself to stand in the bathroom mirror, just me…my skin exposed…no makeup or hair products and forced myself to stand there looking at the reflection until I could say something nice. It began with compliments such as, “you are a nice person.” Weak sauce. Then I began to compliment my ability. Less weak. It was awful to stand, looking at my body with all of its flaws, the lumps, the little lines around my eyes, the fake highlights in my hair, the big backside, the soft stomach, the one tooth that is a little crooked and chipped from a childhood accident, my red cheeks and the little vein than runs from the side of my nose to its tip. I completely hated looking at myself! That is a strong word, a word I do not often use…hate, but it was true. However I had made a rule and rules are rules after all. So there I stood until I could begin to say something nice about my appearance.

In time, I began to see someone else entirely. Between the lines, I saw a sparkle in my eyes. In spite of my extra weight, I saw feminine curves. My smile is warm and sincere, even the one little slightly crooked tooth with a tiny chip. As the fake coloring in my hair grew out, I chopped it off where it barely graced my chin so that it could grow back in its natural color. The reflection changed more with each day. I began to see intelligence, honesty, a kind heart…even beauty. I began to see me…stripped down, exposed, vulnerable, genuine me. Away from the mirror, I filled my soul with all the things that brought me warmth…the things I loved as a girl…books, music, art, nature, prayer, charity to others. I found my strength. I reclaimed myself. My voice became stronger and heart became fuller. While I am left now with a modest since of myself…it is an honest view. I accept the me that I am…unsophisticated, dorky, silly, mushy, sentimental, kind, full-figured, honest, red-cheeked, loyal, loving, passionate, genuine me.

There was liberation in finding and accepting my true self. I do not compare myself to others…to what they have or their achievements, their appearance or lifestyle. It matters not the things they may possess. Without any expectation or thought of change, I accept them as they are in the moment I meet them…complete in their being and understanding at the place in time they exist when presented to me. They are them and I am me and it is not necessary that we be the same in any way. I accept me as I am but still with the continual desire to be better, smarter, stronger, kinder than the day before. This liberation brought an understanding of Beauty. Beauty is raw. Beauty is honest. Beauty is emotion. Beauty is experiencing and feeling life with such force that it influences your steps. Beauty is genuine. Beauty is within the being…the bare bones, clean skin, heart of the being. Beauty impresses upon the soul a hunger for truth. This is where beauty resides. ❤

birds birds birds by lara zombie
Birds Birds Birds by Lara Zombie

Blameless Shame

There is a shame in being homeless. The scowl of others as they pass by shaking heads. There is a fear in being homeless. A fear of nots…not having food…not having warmth…not having security. I don’t know which was worse…the fear or the shame. I’ll go with shame. We had been here before. While there were times we had enough and times we had plenty. Not having more than what I could hold in my two small hands was all too familiar.

It was a shame not caused by any action or choice of my own. It was a shame caused by foolishness…by unplanned dreams…by substances I knew little about. The first time I felt that shame, even understanding the idea that we were homeless was beyond my comprehension. Until age 11, we had been homeless no less than five times…maybe six. What did I know about the world? What did I know about money? What did I know about responsibility? I was far too young but I did know shame. I knew fear.

I had difficulty with math and time. Even now I sometimes must concentrate when looking at a clock that doesn’t have numbers or marks. At the time, as a homeless kid in America, we were not able to enroll in school when we didn’t have an address for letters and grades to be sent. We missed a lot of school during those years. I remember my mother pleading with the elementary school registrar when I was in grade four about enrollment. She and dad needed to work. Where would her daughters go during the day if not to school? The registrar was defiant as she looked at my sisters and I before replying that she could not take us. I cried as I tugged at the sleeves of my jacket…too short to reach my wrists. We were unwanted. We were not good enough.

Having only lived in Reno a few months, my parents finally found jobs. We stayed in the camper of my dad’s pickup truck during the day while mom worked at a copper pipe company nearby. For weeks, we sat parked outside the dog food manufacturing plant, acridity seeped through the camper’s crevices. I can still taste it in the back of my throat. We sat there all day…reading, studying flash cards, playing jacks or Go Fish. My older sister needed to use the restroom so badly that she could not wait for my dad to come out for a cigarette break. As I watched for witnesses, she made a puddle in the grass on the side of the dirt road next to the factory. Just then the door opened and a woman with yellow hair, her bangs so tightly curled they practically grew back into her scalp, came out a side door. It was a door that I had never noticed before…grey metal that blended in with the factory’s outer wall using the same accompanying red stripe that followed down the length of the cement block building. Just as I saw her eyes with frosted blue shadow and thick mascara, she too saw me. She looked puzzled, returned her cigarettes to the pocket of her purse and back through the unnoticed door she went. About half an hour later, the door reopened. I peeked out of the corner of the camper window, covered by pale blue curtains of a heavy material imprinted with tiny white rosebuds. My mom made them when we lived in Austin, that was before moving to Nevada. Why we ever moved there to begin with was beyond me. This time the woman had a security guard and a few others along with her. Rap rap rap, my sisters and I sat as still as possible holding our breath as if to not exist. RAP RAP RAP. The voice of a man shouted to unlock the latch to the camper hatch as he knew we were in there. I looked at my older sister who replied with a shrug of her bony shoulders. We ignored the officer. The wrath of our dad was far worse than we thought the security guard could ever dole out. Back through the door they went. What felt like an hour passed before the door reopened. This time, with the whoosh of the heavy door being opened, we also heard the deep baritone voice of our father. My hands covered my mouth as I peered at my sister…I told you sonow we are really going to get it! Why couldn’t you just hold it?

Dad unlocked the camper and we saw police offers standing next to him. The officers asked our names and if we were his daughters, pointing to my dad. We nodded our heads. My dad explained to the officers, for what clearly wasn’t the first time, our family situation. The yellow haired lady stood by sneering. The way she looked at me made me feel like a mutant. So I looked pointedly at her with half a shake of my head…what are you looking at? She turned her attention back to the officer’s conversation. Then she piped in that my dad would be leaving the premises immediately and he would not be allowed to return so to take any belongings from his locker. Dad got in the driver’s side of the old truck, slamming the keys into the ignition along with the door and we drove off.

Soon after my parents decided it was time to move…again. This time we would not go back to Texas. We wouldn’t go to Colorado or Arkansas, Louisiana or any other state I could remember well. This time, we would go back to Arizona. I had little memory of living there before. What I did know was that compared to this place…compared to sitting outside smelling dog food all day while our stomachs grumbled, compared to sleeping in the crowded camper with four other people wondering when life would get better…compared to feeling this shame…Arizona sounded grand. My parents promised us a place to live. They promised us school. School! I missed school. I missed books. I even missed math.

rugrats

When will the heart be aweary of beating?

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I bruise easily. Purply blueish-grey colored blots appear, sticking out against my fair skin like a a blotch of silky ink on smooth white paper. The colors fade into a distant yellow and soon enough completely disappear leaving no remnants.

For as long as memory provides, just as my skin, I am also tender; sensitive to the emotion of a moment or of others. As a girl, hours were spent outdoors…exploring, picking up feathers, rocks, leaves and pine cones. I can recall finding birds with damaged wings to care for or other creatures; once a wounded baby Armadillo. One such feathered friend was kept in a box next to my bed. I fed it dots of mash made from earth worms and breakfast cereal. Using a dropper, I dripped water into the tiny beak. Eventually it was strong enough to be free. I set the box down on its side and encouraged the little bird to leave the safety it provided. There in the grass it sat, never taking another step further away, at which I cried. I didn’t want to say goodbye either.

One Summer I repeatedly watched The Elephant Man with John Hurt. Each time my eyes swollen and red with tears. When he was struck, I winced. I cried as he was beaten and left in the streets, then my heart would fill with hope as he sat in fine clothes at the theatre. Why couldn’t they see how beautiful he was…how kind…how intelligent? Convinced he needed a friend, I told my mom that once old enough, I would marry John Merrick. As usual, my mom laughed and shook her head. She and I were vastly different. She saw me as whimsical and a day dreamer; traits that not only did not fit into her practical view of the world but she saw them as a complete waste of time. This difference of perspective would cause great frustration in her. She often told me to be more serious. I was serious. Completely. It mattered not that John dies at the end. It was with all the confidence I had in my little girl’s heart that if we were married, he would live. He would be happy.

When will the stream be aweary of flowing
Under my eye?
When will the wind be aweary of blowing
Over the sky?
When will the clouds be aweary of fleeting?
When will the heart be aweary of beating?
And nature die?
Never, oh! never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.

Now, fully grown and independent for nearly 25 years- more than half my life…my heart is just as tender. I still feel nature calling in her gentle breeze or firecracker whips of lightening. A landscape moves me as much as the sound of birds calling out “Good morning!” at dawn. This connection is something for which I am grateful. I sometimes walk alone in the rain just to feel the drops, each one filled with cleansing purity. Music moves my heart equal to a Spring storm…the kind where the Sun shines as droplets make blotches on the earth. I do not possess any musical ability, which makes me marvel all the more at amazing compositions that stir my thoughts into sweet emotions. Nature is my friend; Music my comfort. Whenever I feel blue, usually rather than share those feelings with others, a quiet walk among the trees or sitting with my eyes closed breathing in each melody of a masterfully composed piece of music, provides some peace.

I learned to accept my mushy-gushy, sentimental heart. It serves me well. It calls me to serve others…giving of my time, resources and myself through acts of charity or a willing ear. My sensitivity is now somewhat more refined. It has been influenced in the way that we all are…sifted by experiences as we grow older. My mom and I are different too. We respect each other as women now, not just love one another as mother and child. She recently gave me a card. In it she expressed that she is proud of the woman I am. Upon handing it to me she told me that it may seem she gave my sisters more but it was only because they needed more. She said she never worries about me…her middle child. She knows that I am always okay. Upon hearing this, my heart felt a little fuller.

This time of year- Autumn and my most favorite month of November, I usually find myself a bit more pensive. This seems a rather common feeling. The cooler weather brings holidays, busier schedules in preparation for another year’s end. In thought, I’ve realized that I learned a few things about the disposition I was given. It is a gift to me. Sometimes it makes for a lonely journey. However I would rather live feeling the world around me so deeply with every beat of the heart…feel connected to every particle than to live feeling detached and dispassionate. I have learned that a tender heart must be tendered. It requires attention. It requires room to breathe and heal. It requires moments spent in silent introspection. Most importantly, it requires splotches of light…light that can only come from giving…from loving. In this light, bruises fade a little faster. When will the heart be aweary of beating? Never, oh! never.

Nothing will die;
All things will change
Thro’ eternity.
‘Tis the world’s winter;
Autumn and summer
Are gone long ago;
Earth is dry to the centre,
But spring, a new comer,
A spring rich and strange,
Shall make the winds blow
Round and round,
Thro’ and thro’,
Here and there,
Till the air
And the ground
Shall be fill’d with life anew.

(With excerpts from Nothing Will Die– Alfred Lord Tennyson)