The Telling Times

We have become a people pitted one against the other. Invisible is the line that divides us, but the chasm is vast and wide – for we cannot speak, we cannot listen, nor imagine bridging the gap between ourselves and the “other” on that side. The struggle of our time is to bridge that gap, and we are none of us immune to it.

We see battles springing up on every corner of the horizon, and among them is one catalyzed by a great rage building in the hearts of the women of this land. One in three of us has suffered rape, assault, abuse or physical violation of some kind. One in three of us has a story to tell of a burden we are bearing. The stories vary, as do the many ways in which we are wounded, and until now they have mostly been stories we keep to ourselves.

Until now.

The wounds are icy tendrils that dig down deep – usually all the way down to a place where we can close them off in the dark and not think of them every day. But often it happens that time passes and we wake up one day years later to the realization that the wound is festering. We begin to understand all of all the many ways in which we have been affected; how it has stunted our growth in this and stifled our potential in that.

We are taking courage in hand and shining a light on what we’ve kept in the dark. We’ve begun sharing our stories and through this process, so too, does healing begin. It is the courage of other women who have come forward, and the deepening awareness of just how widespread and systemic this issue is within our culture that have compelled me to shine light on my own dark truth.

At 13 years old I was all lanky legs and glasses. I was innocent and optimistic, despite having been witness to acts that would be harrowing to anyone, at any age. I had just returned to my hometown in Georgia from two years in Bogota, Colombia that were punctuated by danger and violence. Two years – out of many-- where drug lords waged war on the people by blowing off heads and blowing up buildings around me. In my desperation to be safely away, and because I wanted the chance to connect with my father, I left my mother behind when it wasn’t within her means to move back with me.

I took up with my recently-married father and new stepmother. It was 8th grade. I was home-schooled and “churched” three times a week. There were many new rules in this household and I tried my best to stay within the guidelines and parameters laid out. I listened to the oldies station and read Little House on the Prairie in between self-guided school lessons.

Every Wednesday, I went to spend the day with my grandmother and together we would watch old movies and crochet. For my whole life up to that point, my grandparents represented safety and love; their home a haven from the dysfunction that characterized much of my upbringing, their affection pure and confidence-building. In the arms of my grandmother, I felt loved and of worth. She was a beacon of light and more dear to me than these words can justly describe.

But then, things changed forever.

It began on the days she had to away on some errand or appointment. I will spare the details, but tell here now that my Grandfather – who I trusted and loved as the father that my own father hadn’t always been, began molesting me. At first, I didn’t want to believe it was happening. I couldn’t believe it. It was him, and he surely wouldn’t do this to me. I was aware enough to know that it was wrong and that it was not my fault, but I was scared and confused. I was conflicted about what to do. Should I tell? Would people believe me? Was there a way to make it stop without having to tell? Would it stop on its own? I knew even then that there was no turning back from these perpetrated actions – life would never be the same. In the end it was anger over the injustice that won out and I told my grandmother what was happening.

What took place in the aftermath of my telling was a gathering of select family members and church elders, who ushered us all into “counseling” sessions. It was determined by them that my mother, still miles and miles of land and ocean away, should not be told for fear of her reporting my grandfather’s actions to the authorities. These adults, who were responsible for my body and well-being, thought that silence was best in this case and assured me that all was OK now because it was “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb”. He would not do it again. He had repented and even given me his old car as a form of reparation. Assurances given, silence granted.

Even when he tried it once again.

You see, it wasn’t that they didn’t believe me – it was that my truth was inconvenient and didn’t line up with image that had been constructed of us as a good, Christian family. They didn’t want to be known as that kind of family, and because we were such good friends with the church, the church helped with the sweeping away– or rather, “washing” away of the truth.

The last time was the last time only because there was no confusion on my part and I immediately told. My grandfather, understanding that the game was up, took off in that car that he had given me and disappeared for three days. Nobody knew if he was dead or alive and when he finally did return in tears, my grandmother took him in without question. Together they decided a new beginning was needed so they sold the house, bought a motorhome and hit the road. The lanky-legged girl who was innocent and optimistic went along with what she was told in order to show everyone she was OK, but inside a fracture had formed and was splitting the foundation.

A few years later, after my mother returned to the States and I had resumed living with her, she tried desperately to understand what was happening to her daughter. Where had this rage come from? Why was she spiraling out of control? The truth that I had been convinced to lock away from her was driving me to destruction. I stopped caring about the things that had once brought me joy, and abandoned pursuits that I had previously determined would be my path to success. I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, I dropped out of school, and sought love and revenge in the arms of the undeserving. Such is the way of it for many broken girls, who are then ironically shamed for their behavior.

Twenty-four years later and I am still uncovering layers. Healing comes in waves along with each new level of understanding of just how deeply this has affected me. It has not come to me through the church and their “counseling”, but through my own determination to be whole and to break the cycle of ignoring pain and problems – to leave nothing buried, even if the act of uncovering is painful. There are no band-aids that do not eventually peel up from the edges.

Forgiveness is a part of that healing process and I was eventually able to forgive my grandfather when Grandmother took ill and died. It was the first time I was able to feel any kind of compassion for him as I witnessed his grief over losing her. I’d lost her years before and so it was a grief I understood well.

But forgiveness is not forgetting and some actions demand a remembrance.

Today my grandfather enjoys the respectable position of Elder within my uncle’s church. This is the same uncle who was called to the house all those years ago when I first told Grandmother. The same uncle who has also – unbelievably, and irresponsibly – given him access to troubled youth. The counseled has become the counselor, in yet another example of a man who is placed in a position of power that his past actions should have disqualified him for.

So why do I write these words? Why do I tell this story when it runs the risk of being read by those who knew back then, and have gone along with the pretense ever since? I write them because of a sense of responsibility towards those troubled youth he has access to. I write them as a part of my own healing process, because there is no peace, no justice nor healing without truth, and it must be spoken – regardless of the cost. And because I am one of many, many women who will no longer tolerate the systemic injustice.

If you are a woman reading this and you are not a part of that horrific, 1-in-3 statistic, imagine you stand in a row of women. Look to your left, then look to your right. One of you has an ocean of pain behind a smile put forward for the comfort of those around her. And if you are a woman who is a part of the statistic and you have been swayed by the narrative being pedaled that boys and men are the real victims in all of this, please take some time to examine the source and motivation behind this narrative. We ask you to stand beside us; to believe us, to let your actions reflect that belief and hold the guilty to account, to remember and to not hide from the truth. The light is being shone and we will no longer be silent.

These are the Telling Times.

Mom & V in Bogie Town

Sumac on Serenity

We left my hometown and have come to the place where we will stay until it is time to leave Georgia, once again.  It is a peaceful place with lots of trees and green space.  There is a magnolia tree behind our bedroom window and it wraps the room in the loveliest green glow in the afternoons.

On our first night here we went for a walk to check out our new temporary home surroundings.  I was delighted to discover a beautiful grove of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) just down the way.  Soon after I first began my study of plant medicine, and for several months now, I have felt strongly that I am being called to work with Sumac. It has come to me in dreams several times and the message that I intuit from them has lead me to believe that this plant, particularly, will help me to resolve some of the deeper-seeded struggles tied to my upbringing / hometown, my family and to the South as a wider source of unresolved and inherited trauma.

For a plant that is wide-spread and plentiful in many places, it has proven frustratingly elusive to me. I have found a single shrub here or a stand on the side of the interstate there, but never plentiful in a place that I felt comfortable harvesting.  The day before we left for our recent trip to Ottawa, I found a small stand of it in an auspicious place.  It was just down the road from the day care center I attended before kindergarten, now defunct and in disrepair.  I had been out on a last minute harvest of mimosa flowers that morning and came by it unexpectedly on my way home.  I was so excited to finally find a harvest spot!  I gratefully took a small amount and told myself I'd be back after my trip.

In Ottawa, I discovered that another type of sumac (Staghorn, Rhus typhina) grows literally everywhere in huge bountiful swaths, but with no way to legally bring any back with me I had to content myself with a smile and a self-reminder that I'd be able to harvest at my sweet lil' auspicious spot when I got back to Georgia.  Unfortunately, that chance never materialized. When I went back, the sumac was nowhere to be found.  Those beautiful plants had practically jumped out at me before, but now -- nothing.  I looked around, down at the ground and then could see the remnants.  Every last one of those sumac plants had been chopped down and mowed over.  I couldn't understand why someone would do that -- especially because they had left other,  less "ornamental" brush just beyond where it had been.  It was upsetting, but I knew that we would be leaving my hometown soon and I would find a better place to harvest once we landed in the next town.  And so it was that when I came upon a massive grove just steps from our front door on our first night here, I couldn't help but feel like there was a touch of providence involved.  We had come to the right place and this was where I would finally begin my work with this medicine.

That same evening, a rain storm came through.  It wasn't that bad; mostly rain and not much wind, but it was enough to bring down a giant Northern Red Oak that stood behind the sumac grove. The oak buried the grove and so now only roughly 1/3 remains standing.  Part of that is now also shouldering the weight of several downed branches and so there is a chance the rest of the grove will also now fail.

As someone who finds meaning in just about everything, when I allowed the more underlying  implications to sink in, I couldn't help but wonder if this was some big cosmic joke. What is the reason for this and what does it mean given the personal context as relates to my struggles with where I am from?  Since coming back to Georgia, I have had a very difficult time trying to reconcile who I am today with the person I could have been, had I never left my hometown.  I've been trying to find common ground with the tribe I was born to -- even when parts of it are rife with unapologetic racism, deep ignorance and moral hypocrisy.

I try to make my peace, but what if the only peace to be found is in walking away?  This is different than running without first examining the reasons for running in the first place.  It's seeing a thing for what it is, and knowing your heart and the incompatibility between the two, you then create a boundary there.  Is that the lesson I am here to learn this time around? To salvage what I can, cut my losses and then move on?  To accept what I cannot change? 

It is a difficult lesson, but I guess that's why it was made into a prayer.

(Photo below: Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra, in flower.  Griffin, GA.  Copyright: Vanessa P.)

Do Unto Others

What can I ever hope to add to this earthly experience that is novel or distinct, but than to catalog the woe and mystique that a sweltering Southern upbringing can conjure.

There is blood in these hills and the land has been worked and reworked nigh unto death on the backs of the broken. Still she provides for her children and delights at those with a gentle touch and a kind word of gratitude for all she offers.
We are returning, one by one, to the way of reciprocal living..
Pray it be before the madmen have their chance to burn us all up with their fire and their fury, and their endless greed for money and power and profits from this war.. Or that.

Fought somewhere over there.. And here?

They say they pray to Jesus.

What good is your place in Paradise when your children and their children are left with naught but rubble and ash?

Do unto others.

Masonic 9.28.17

I have a love of exploring and photographing abandoned places.  They are unintentional time capsules, left to be reclaimed by the land. It is always fascinating for me to discover what was deemed unimportant - or simply forgotten - and left behind.  There is a creepiness factor that gets my blood pumping as I usually prefer to explore these places alone and it's impossible not to play the scene of any horror flick in my head and wonder if there's a psycho killer waiting to grab poor, unsuspecting me. 

The Masonic Ruins of the Eastern Sierra have a creep factor of about 9 out of a possible 10.  They are rumored to be haunted and my day-trip there back early October made me a believer.  From an already remote location, I drove a further 15 miles on very rough back dirt road to arrive and find that my dog and I were the only ones there.  I approached slowly and the breeze blew the main structure in a way that created a cacophony of creaks and occasional bangs.  I almost turned around and left.  For real.  I was walking back to the car thinking 'never was there a more perfect place for the psycho killer to lie in wait'. But in the end I pushed through the nerves (read: I put my knife in a more accessible place) and had a glorious day there on the mountainside with my dog, my cameras and the ghosts of another time.  Highly recommended, if you're into that sort of thing. 😉

I Want to be Startled

I stand on a mountainside, staring out over a landscape of endless thirst.. Beautiful in its bleakness.  I want to stand in silence and drink in the moment. 

I want to be startled -- startled into the next adventure, wanting that adventure to become the Great Purpose of my life. 

We are what we are becoming, yet we know not what for the moment. 

And in this moment, the desert wind caresses softly as a lover or a good, good friend and not as the bringer to bear over this scorched and desolate earth.  

It wakes me.  It warms me. 

And so begins the thaw and the unfurl.  This is the bloom in the desert.

Devils Golf Course

On Meditation

My mind is a whirlwind.  Swirling bits of gravel and grit, pulling at my attention with their pings and their stings.. Ever leaning towards that whip-up.

But still I carry on with this practice, for in the midst of the swirl I remember my breath and I pull back to the rise and fall and the blessed sound of silence.  It is in those moments of nothing that is comes through; a word, an image, a torrent bursting through the dam -- a holiness all my own.

It is there in stillness that I remember how to dance and how to sing and sometimes how to shout up to the rafters and bring the whole goddamned place down.  Sometimes it's easier than others.  Sometimes no silence can be found.  Still I stand here in the whirlwind and command those swirling bits to ground.

Artwork: "Ellipsis" by Dan Hiller


From small things...

When I was a little girl I would gather acorns and bring them home to my mother at the end of the day.  She received them in the same spirit as they were given; as tiny treasures, and she kept them in a beautiful box on her vanity.  The box  has since come into my possession, a treasure containing treasures.  Something inside me knew that there was something special about these little things - so often overlooked and crushed beneath careless feet.  I didn't actually know what they were then (I was three or four) but I gathered them up for the woman who filled my existence with love.

Thirty-three years later and I find myself marveling at the perfectly-formed acorn of a California Black Oak, found on a walk this past Autumn.  Of course, I know now what it is and that from the acorn comes the tree. I take this knowledge into myself deeply on the heels of a winter season that has been a season of intense shadow work and inner exploration.

It is the seed that grows the garden, the spark that builds the fire, the tiny Chickweed flower - often overlooked, but full of powerful healing properties and it is the acorn that grows into the mighty Oak tree.  From small things, greatness often comes.  I receive this medicine as the days grow longer and tiny bits of new life begin bursting forth all around me.  I meditate on it now and remind myself in the moments when I feel small.  

Feeling small often keeps me from putting pen to paper - or when I do, from sharing the words with other eyes.  But more and more I feel compelled to.  I feel the urge to hold out my hand to anyone who may want or need to take it - for anyone who may be feeling small.  It is never too late.  You are exactly where you need to be in this moment.  

What great thing are you growing into?