Finding our Way Home

This summer I attended ArtsPowered Schools (APS), a week-long intensive workshop on integrating arts into literacy in the K-12 classroom. Each teacher participant signed up for a studio-intensive workshop from a choice of five artistic media; we met in our studio groups for 90 minutes of direct and guided instruction each day. We could return to the studio for independent work at other times during the day/evening. We signed up for single-session classes in a medium we might not have tried before, or in something that piqued our interest, but that we would not normally spend a full week studying. All sessions were taught by professional, working artists from the state of Idaho who, in addition to their professional practice, work in collaboration with the Idaho Commission on the Arts as artist-educators. We also attend whole-group sessions dedicated to the practical side of integrating the arts, artistic process, and artistic expression into our existing literacy curriculum. All this work is centered on a single theme each year.

This year, the theme focused on Homeand the process of going home. I participated in the theatre studio intensive, and we generated and performed our own content. I’ll come back to this in a moment because it is important, but in this self-generation process (which we can take into our classrooms and use with our students), our instructor explored a full range of images and emotions with us. We used our five senses and talked a lot about kinesthetic response. We tuned into our own bodies and watched the physical responses of our peers. When there was a collective gasp, or a moment of stunned silence, we held that. At one point, one teacher (who had never considered herself a writer or an actor) had the whole room in tears. We honored that.

Side trip: Two weeks after APS, I drove home to visit my family for two weeks. It was an important trip. For one, since I moved out in 2003, I always go home over the 4th of July because my grandparents’ anniversary was the 5th. Grandpa died last April, and since I’d been home for the funeral and was in a play at the end of the summer, I missed my July trip home. For two, this would be my first time doing the road trip alone, without any driving companions.

My second day of driving shuttled me home. My second day of driving was 13 hours between Missoula, MT, to my parents’ farm in rural North Dakota. Confession: I have not always got along well with my mom. And she did not always get along well with her mom. And we make each other a little frazzled, frustrated, and other emotions that sometimes invoke a “throwing things” response. But “home” is still overwhelmingly positive, in the grand scheme of things. The closer I got to home, the stronger the pull felt. As I got close to the driveway, I cued up “Home” by Ingrid Michaelson and let all the driving tension from the previous 13 hours out. I pulled up in front of the house at midnight, the porch light on, and I wept. I was so glad to be home. (And for the record, mom and I got along swimmingly while I was there!)

Back to APS: in every one-off session I attended–creative writing, storytelling–and in the whole-group, arts-in-literacy sessions, the tone was overwhelmingly positive. No where, except in my theatre studio, were we given the opportunity or the space to dig into the negative aspects of home. In one workshop, we were explicitly instructed to stick with positive images or memories of our childhood homes. One teacher sitting across from me sighed: I don’t want to go back there. They keep sending me back there. Not only were we not permitted to choose our preferred incarnation of home, but we were limited to a narrow range of emotional language. No where were we equipped with tools or strategies for working with a student whose artistic process dredged up unhappy, unsafe, or unpretty images.

How is an arts practice accessible if it only speaks to the positive experiences of our students? 

Case in point: one of our activities, as a whole group learning to integrate performance (and later visual art) into the literacy curriculum, used the text Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This is a rich text, full of rich illustrations, deep subtext, and an opportunity for students to read both the word and the world. We got only the text, removed from the book entirely. All of the activities were upbeat and engaging, and while they brought the text alive, got the text on its feet, breathed life into the words… I felt that the activities were devoid of any deep meaning. And we completely neglected the fact that Maurice Sendak had a long legacy of children’s books that were not shiny-happy.

If reading is about making meaning, we spend far too much time teaching children that the text is king. All this focus on “close reading” in the Common Core concerns me. The text is important, yes. The author’s intent is also a text. What isn’t written is a text! The illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are contribute to the text as much as the words themselves. But children also bring their own texts: themselves. Their environments are texts. Max being sent to bed without supper? His anger at his mother? That raw, childhood anger that students feel toward parental injustice is a text, and should not be ignored in the discussion or art-making process. Doing so is insulting to children as full humans capable of complex emotions and complex art.

Not everyone at APS cries when they pull into the driveway of their childhood home. Not all my students are excited to go home on Thursdays to spend the weekend with their families. If I censor those emotions, I sever an important piece of my students’ life experiences. I lose an important opportunity for human connection and critical instruction.

For a theme so central to our identities, we barely scratched the surface. We need to go deeper.

All of us need to go deeper. Language. Reading. Art. Our students deserve more.

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Sunday Smörgåsbord: September 6, 2015

I’m back to work, back to graduate studies, back to blogging (a few posts a week, anyway). I’m not back to any version of what I could call “normal,” or even a “new normal,” but I’m back. I’m fighting back. And I’m worth the fight.

Here’s what I wrote this week. I dug deep. I opened up. And I’m ready to move forward.

  • Why have I been gone? Because Depression Sucks. That’s the reason, in as few words as possible. More words are available on Monday’s post.
  • Another reason? Because I stalled out after my Josh Duggar posts, and before I could do any more writing about sexual assault and abusive power structures, I had to come out as a rape survivor. A lot of my friends knew my story, but my parents did not know yet. So I drove 1200 miles to tell them. And that’s a bit of a process.
  • Fit Friday. One of the warning signs that my depression was depression, and not only medication withdrawal, was the return of some old, unwelcome thought patterns on body-image and weight.

Thank you to everyone who has jumped back on reading right along with me. Please share my posts, ‘like’ my Facebook page, and comment so we can have conversations.

Fit Friday: Side Effects May Include….

Side effects may include weight gain.

When I got my IUD, the thought of gaining 20 lbs. was unpleasant, at the least. In 2013, I was the fittest I’d ever been, playing roller derby and weight-training at the YMCA. Then I had surgery on my ladyparts, got an IUD, filed for divorce. I vowed not to be the n% of women who gained weight with the Mirena IUD.

I now know that 20 lbs. is a small trade for being able to function during my period. A number on the scale means very little to me compared to the the ability to live with severe dysmenorrhea.

Weight is a number indicating the earth’s gravitational pull on my body, not a measure of my health.

Since 2013 (until this summer), my arsenal of prescription drugs had grown to four: Effexor for my depression/anxiety, the IUD for my dysmenorrhea (since the surgery didn’t help and I can’t use estrogen), amitriptyline and Topamax for the migraines. The IUD and amitriptyline both cause weight gain. Topamax has a side effect of weight loss, but I didn’t lose any weight when I started it.

After years of body image issues, battles with food, restrictive eating habits, disordered thought patterns, I have made a lot of progress in just eating the food. Moderation is the name of the game. I’ve maintained a healthy, stable weight since late 2013, after the initial medication-weight-gain. I made one final foray into disordered-diet land when I bought into a Beachbody program, but that didn’t last very long.

Until this summer.

My neurologist changed my medication regimen and started scaling back my amitriptyline this summer. The withdrawal was yucky. I was taking it for migraines, and it’s used for long-term, chronic pain management, but amitriptyline is an antidepressant. I got depressed.

And then that little side effect of Topamax kicked in, and I started losing weight. The first time I accidentally lost weight on a medication was the first time I really, really got into trouble with dieting, my senior year of high school. I noticed what was happening this time, and I didn’t weigh myself. That is an important detail. If I had weighed myself, I would have ended up down the rabbit hole again. This is how I knew I needed to call my doctor: I was miserable. The sick/nausea was pretty much past, but I couldn’t sleep, or eat, or focus. Normally a whirlwind of creativity, I was the human embodiment of inertia. I had no motivation. I wanted desperately to go back on the medication. But that little voice in my head said, Yeah, but look in the mirror. Do you really want to gain that weight back? Just hold out one more week, and you’ll see that it’s worth it. You’re barely eating, but you’re not even hungry. Isn’t that great??

I got scared. Really, really scared.

It still took me a month to call my neurologist.

But I still haven’t weighed myself. Weight is a number indicating the earth’s gravitational pull on my body, not a measure of my health. If anything has illustrated that, this summer has painted it in technicolor.

Survivors. Digging Deep. And the Exhausting Nature of Rage.

Content note: discussion of sexual assault, rape, depression

I haven’t blogged in months. Three-and-a-half months, roughly. On Monday, I wrote about how depressed I was most of the summer, and that’s part of the story.

There was actually a lot I could have written about this summer. I took an arts-intensive workshop with other K-12 teachers and got a lot of great teaching ideas, but also came away with a lot of questions and a desire to take it further, because, well, I think we can do more and expect more for our students’ ability to engage in the art-making process. I think the way we engage them is often insulting to both their cognitive and emotional intelligences (and I’m not talking about the way Powers that Be talk about “raising the bar.” They can shove their Bar).

I took a week-long graduate-level pedagogy seminar with Donaldo Macedo. It was life-changing. Career-changing. Did I mention life-changing? There was so much to unpack from the four-day seminar, and so many connections to what I’ve done, what I am doing, and what I will be doing in my classroom. I connected it back to the arts workshop, and made even more connections to what was missing from that experience. I will be writing about it later. But I could have written about it this summer, too.

Here’s what happened, and why it’s taken me so long to come back: I wrote about the Josh Duggar abuse scandal. And my post turned into a three-post series. And I had to dig pretty deep for part of it. And I had to word things carefully, and try to keep a cap on my rage, and not say too much. And then I was tapped out, and I could go no further. Before I could write more, on anything, I had to talk to my parents. There are issues too important, too damaging, too harmful, too caustic, too violent for me too keep myself partially shrouded. And some things are things too important for my parents to read for the first time on a blog.

So I took a break. And I drove home, 1200 miles, took my parents out to dinner, and told them something I’d kept from them for 11 years.

I am a rape survivor.

It made so many things make sense to them, that never clicked before. I told them I’ve been in counseling, I’ve been working on it, I’ve been healing. It doesn’t control my life. But I’m to the point where I want to write about it, to help other women, to help men and women understand, to volunteer with victims/survivors, to help the Church respond better.

Because that’s the part that made me so angry I had to quit writing– when I first started opening up to friends in the church I was revictimized by the responses, and writing Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones drudged a lot of that up. And it was exhausting. It was exhausting to write about it circuitously when I wanted to write about me. It was exhausting to know how feels to be a rape victim, and to have the response be about restoring purity or forgiveness, rather than on pursuing justice or making sure the abuser gets real help or is kept out of positions of authority so he cannot abuse again. (By the way, my abuser abused again. They do that. It’s a thing).

Now I’m back. I’m back teaching, back to grad school, trying to get a handle on this latest depressive cycle. And I’m “out” as a survivor.

There are more of us out here than you probably realize or know. That has to change. This culture of rape and abuse has got to change.

Migraine Monday: Depression Sucks

Depression sucks.

My neurologist took me off one of my migraine medications this summer. We scaled back slowly, but the withdrawal was still awful. I couldn’t sleep, and yet all I could do was sleep. I wasn’t hungry. Food was boring. I lost weight. My motivation was sapped, my energy drained. I cried.

All of this makes sense, I reminded myself. Withdrawal is hard. It’ll get better. 

Withdrawal is over. It’s not better.

My head is holding out, for the most part. I’ve had no major vascular episodes. I’ve had some tingly fingers and lips, a couple visual auras. At least two days with olfactory hallucinations. But no pain. I’ve lost, I would guess, 10 pounds, which my doctor told me to expect. I don’t weigh myself though…that’s opening a whole new can of worms, but my thinking on the issue provided a clue into how depressed I was getting (more on this for Fit Friday).

You see, depression sucks. It lies. It sucks my energy, saps my strength. It stalls my progress, regresses my growth. It plants dead and dying thoughts in my head and distorts my view of reality.

Worst of all, it makes me believe I deserve to feel as shitty as I feel.

It’s just withdrawal. You’ve felt worse. You were suicidal back in junior high, and at least it’s not that bad. Sure, your sleep is disrupted, but at least you’re sleeping more than four hours a night, and you’re getting naps. You’re not eating much, but it’s summer, and you don’t get terribly hungry in the summer anyway, and your roommate is making you eat dinner at least, and your pants fit better now don’t they?? The structure of the school year will snap you out of my funk. You feel okay. Okay is okay!!

Okay is not okay. I deserve to feel better than just “okay” for the rest of my life.

And here’s the kicker, at least for me: at least three people very close to me are depressed right now. One of them, I counseled and helped get back to the doctor to re-start medication. And things are looking up. Another one? We remind each other to shower and eat when a really bad day happens. Because sometimes someone needs to remind you to shower. And the third? That’s my sister. We’ve been doing this together for over a decade. I can see it and help it in other people, but for myself?

Self care is hard. Because depression lies.

So I called my neurologist this week. I started with him. If he wants to stick with the medication change, I’ll go to my regular doctor and see about my depression/anxiety medication. I don’t deserve to live this way, sleeping on half a bed while the other half is covered in laundry and library books, eating only waffles and coffee, counting my days in naps and avoided phone calls. Okay is not okay.

No one deserves to live this way. My medication withdrawal has passed. Time to stop withdrawing from life.

Sunday Smörgåsbord: May 31, 2015

This was my last week of teaching for the spring and I cried a lot. The students I’ve had for three years are moving on to another teacher, and that is always a tough transition for me. I felt a lot of feels, and I channeled that into some aggressive pieces about which I also felt a lot of feels.

I wrote a set of three pieces triggered by the most recent case of sexual abuse in a high-profile American Christian media family. While these posts are applicable to this case, they have broader implications because the same themes emerge every time this happens: empty calls to forgive the abuser,  and attempts to maintain the power and authority structures that facilitate this kind of abuse in the first place. And all of it is disturbingly centered on the abuser while the victims/survivors are almost entirely ignored.

And, because I needed a light in that dark tunnel, on #FitFriday I wrote about my grammy, body positivity, and threw in a video of her exercising at 93 years old.

Be well this week. Stand on the side of the marginalized. And if you’re feeling down, watch my grammy exercise. The best bit is when she realizes she’s being recorded. ♥

Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

This is my third piece triggered by and simultaneously about and not about the most current sexual abuse scandal in the news. This topic grieves me and angers me. Even though I am not from the same faith tradition as the current focus du jour, I have seen this play out across Christian denominations. I have friends who have been abused and friends who have been sexually assaulted, and well meaning church people who have handled the information in ways that perpetuate abusive thinking and center the abuser rather than the victim.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

In Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t, I added

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

One of the most disturbing trends I’ve seen in regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and the conversations surrounding it, is in the same vein as the forgiveness post. But I was so troubled by it I needed to write a whole separate essay and take a few extra days to process.

“A sin is a sin is a sin.”

I am not going to get into a theological discussion about the nature of sin, or why the Catholic tradition has mortal sins and venal sins, or the irony/hypocrisy of the evangelical church putting so much emphasis on sexual sins and purity as though fornication is the ultimate sin until one of their own men is in the spotlight for just that.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

This is not just a conversation about sin and the church. This has implications beyond our physical church walls, or the arbitrary boundaries between denominations. Molesting children is against the law. Delicate language recasting it as a mistake, a misstep, an indiscretion, a sin is carefully dodging the consequences of acknowledging the criminal nature of sexual abuse.

My pastor is the executive director of a year-long, faith-based recovery home for women. The vast majority of the women who enter the program have broken the law, often multiple times. I have witnessed these women walk out incredible transformations in their lives. When they give their testimonies at the end of their program, they pull no punches as they share their old lives of addiction and pain. They don’t use soft language or try to dodge consequences. In fact, even as they acknowledge their forgiveness, part of their program is to fulfill all consequences, restitution, etc., that is part of their criminal sentences. But as they name it, they do so because it takes away the shame of secrecy, and establishes a habit of accepting the consequences of their actions.

By dismissing the serious, violating nature of sexual abuse by quipping, “A sin is a sin is a sin,” in a misguided invocation of forgiveness, bloggers and supporters of the perpetrator uphold the code of secrecy that allow perpetrators to escape the consequences of their crimes. And completely ignoring the victims.

“Let he among us without sin be the first to cast a stone.”

I read a really awful blog post, based on a really awful tweet, all based on a gross misuse of that concept. All hash-tagged with support to forgive the perpetrator.

I wrote on Thursday: it is not for any of us, the general public to forgive him. We were not wronged, molested, or abused by him. If we repeatedly avoid hard conversations about abuse, assault, and the systems that facilitate the molestation of children–all under the misguided call for “forgiveness”–these crimes will continue unabated and the bodies and lives of children and women will continue to be attacked.

Now, let me tell you what it can be like to be a female victim of a sexual crime in the church. Elizabeth Smart speaks about her captivity, and the lessons she learned about sex a la the “chewed gum” analogy  significantly impacted her perception of herself as a rape victim/survivor. When I attended church camp in middle school and high I went to a small-group lesson on boundaries in dating. We signed True Love Waits cards. I remember learning that once we passed boundaries there was “no going back,” and that it was my responsibility (as a female) to keep the physical side of the relationship in check. During college, a group of friends were talking when someone opened up that she had been raped freshman year. One well-meaning but misguided friend’s first instinct was to ask if her boyfriend knew she wasn’t a virgin.

This pervasive fixation is aimed at girls remaining pure. And in all those lessons I learned–directly and indirectly–there was no grace.

The full context of the casting stones verse involves a woman about to be stoned for adultery. She is about to become a victim of the male-dominated purity code. She is marginalized, just like every person for whom Jesus went to bat. When people trot this verse out, lacking context, in defense of an abuser, they miss the point entirely. When high-profile men lose positions of power and authority because of sexual abuse or sexual assault allegations, they are not victims. Their victims are victims.

On Thursday, I said I feel no nuance about standing on the side of the marginalized. These girls–now in their teens–don’t have hash tags or social media campaigns. But I’m guessing they have a lot of hurt and misunderstanding. Maybe they feel like chewed up gum. Maybe they only now understand the full extent of what happened to them as young children. Maybe they are horrified by the support offered to their abuser while they feel ignored or revictimized.

The church has done a terrible, terrible job of standing up for abuse victims/survivors/overcomers. It rushes “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” and centers the abusers instead of uplifting and surrounding the hurt and abused. Is it any wonder the rest of the country stares back, agog?