What it Means to be Safe

What it Means to be Safe

Each time I think about the subtly spiked looks that spit between us now, or the blunt words that gently bruise my shaken shoulders, my mind spirals back to the dipping of the mattress when your knees joined me on the bed, the faint creak when you leaned across the curl of my body and carefully covered me with the blanket you gave me the night the scars came back.

My head fizzed with the leftovers from my first drink. A newbie, unnecessarily tipsy. My fresh bones ached; my sharp and shiny monsters crept closer, warded off only by the felted warmth of your gift. I remember your hand on my back as I tried to sleep, its careful kindness a soft stone on my skin, and the quiet voice that questioned the sniffs I tried to bury.

There had been a night where it was I stroking your red curls in my lap while your drunken eyes refused to close, two of us on the strange couch, several dark weekends ago. In my bed you watched over me, as I had with you. My pathetic child’s voice crept past my hands. Your softened response: “I’m not angry.”

Your hands on my back sketching love on my shoulders, fingers longer than mine that held a story, that caught my hands, my hair, my hurt, fingers that the night before handed me the glass while wide eyes watched and waited with me when the buzz entered my body for the first time. Arms that curled around me when we sat in the park admiring the midnight haze and rare summer chill.

I remember what it feels like to be safe.

Leaning on you felt like leaning on a tree—broad shoulders like supple branches carrying the weight of life, your spine a sturdy trunk wrapped in the rings of your years and sheltered by experience. You were sturdy and firm. I relaxed into your soft bark, the jacket I’d lent you in the darkened chill. A shoulder to tuck my head into, kinky red hair rustling against my face. A mouth that sighed, happy.

Your legs lead me through the night when my restless yammering took us around campus. My nonstop chitchat fueled by the fizz and my hyper limbs calmed by long fingers sketching love on my shoulders.

And when I remember your calm smile, your wide eyes searching for mine, your tentative laugh at my tipsy giggle, the tree of your body planted near me, I ache harder for the strength of your branches and the calm of your voice. My stomach ticks when I think of you and heaves when I see you. I know the bright green eyes don’t search for me, long fingers don’t reach for me.

Before I can look into your face again I have to hear your voice—quiet, patient, steady. A calm wind where there had been storm. I have to taste the sadness trickling in the darkness, a sorry sap I know I have to tap.

The distance placed by months of crackled words and severed glances slips behind us when you join me on the step. Bitter concrete sends chills seeping up our skins. The inches between us may be miles or years or forests.

But my arms yawn and my spine shakes when my soggy voice creeps out from the crevice of bent shoulders.

You ask before I let your fingers gently draw across my back. A note of kindness left behind. There was a time we could have shared a note of sorry, of love. I missed you.

I need to feel you again. My demons snicker that you aren’t here; your sturdy trunk has fallen to the storm, your branches cracked and splintered in the grass.

I hug you again. I feel your bones again, I feel the fabric of your shirt, the soft and sticky of your skin, the knots of your hair, the firmness of your arms. Your fingers swirling slowly on my back.

I’m sorry. I missed you. Thank you for coming back.

It’s a different kind of touch; beneath your bark are things I can’t see. It’s a familiar sketch, but sullied and softened. I’ll never be a solitary name carved in your trunk. I’ll never hold the secret part of you I’d tried to see.

But this I can hold—this solid body, this sturdy tree. These gentle branches. The lively heart.

I feel you hold me again and remember what it feels like to be safe.

***

Kitties May 2014 082

Sometimes it’s the safest places that become the most toxic. The tree that withers and decays will still give shade until its putrid remains rain down, smothering those who claimed its haven.

There are different methods of coping with the pain. I don’t think anyone hurt me like you.

Worse than the scores by my own hand on this body that is mine. Worse than the sizzle of the two times you hit me when you were drunk.

Jagged phrases, blunt glares and deep silences.

The eyes that searched me for safety now stared at my arm as if shreds of my flesh were falling off like pieces of a smacked puzzle.

The fingers that sketched my canvass with love have by now counted the slices on my skin months after my shaking hands put them there.

The lips that met my cheek after one too many, pressed against my hands one damp midnight after work, now curled with words invented to smart.

Subtle promises and loaded gifts, snapping back with tart glowers if I took my reaction “too far.” Branches that guided and protected now lashing as at intruders in a bitter storm. Your trunk once planted near me now settled firmly opposite on the plastic benches slicked with October mist.

I snapped that night, the night you sat with me for hours in the dark chill jabbing words at me that cut deeper than my lithe blades, leaving marks more sour than the ones already splattered into my skin.

My core shook. No arms but my own shielded me from the midnight weighted down by autumn. Fingers longer than mine extended, curled and waiting, joined by the familiar murmur of my name. I pulled back, refusing the jaded caress and ignoring the cloying softness.

You can’t hold the blade unless I let you, and I was ready to snatch it back.

Our gazes clashed and for once it was you who couldn’t stare back.

My child’s voice broken by months of maybes and sobs you didn’t deserve now lashed out with stinging truths and long-awaited questions that stumped your ready mouth.

The tree never recognizes the wood of the axe that slices at its trunk.

You’d failed to see I had roots of my own. You never noticed the rings of life curling through my trunk.

Our branches had been tangled for too long. I was done waiting for the wind to set me free.

And when you saw how firmly I was planted it was you who took the fall.

The scars will no longer be for you. The pain has changed and so has the cure. I am alone but I am free.
No one’s branches protect me but my own. I’ve learned what it feels like to be safe.

073

The End

The kids are gone. My coworkers are preparing to move out. The program is over and I am left with memories of what has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve had the privilege of being part of.
I love the kids I met this summer; so many of them found their way into my heart and will never leave, even if we don’t see each other again. Working as their RA showed me a lot about what life is like for their generation now and how they cope–and just what kinds of lives these children lead; the struggles they face and the obstacles they overcome. Working as a teacher for one of their classes, I learned more about what is expected of our students and what our students expect from school. I gained confidence in presenting material I’d collected myself, and I learned methods of facilitating respectful and engaging debate. And as the students’ friend, I learned more about being a person. I learned what it’s like to be seen as a role model, as someone who’s seen more of the world than you and can help you through it. I learned what it’s like to be seen as an equal, to be sought out for a good time or a good talk. I learned what it’s like to be looked down on by someone younger than me, to be seen as a nuisance and to have my work go unappreciated. I learned methods of fostering positive relationships and ground rules for a safe and respectful living environment. I learned that there’s no such thing as an off day when you’ve made an emotional investment in something or someone. At any moment a dynamic can change, an incident can spring out of the blue, a situation can prove to be to much for someone to handle–and you have to be ready for it. There’s no turning away when a child depends on you for support. I can’t imagine what that would feel like.
Or maybe I can. But just from the other perspective.
This year I started working with kids more as I’ve explored the option of a career in youth development or advocacy. And as I’ve done so I’ve started to look back on my own childhood and how it impacts me to this day. I saw a quote on Tumblr once–“Be the person you needed when you were a kid.” As soon as I saw that I knew that was what I needed to do in order to feel complete. The mark I make in this world, if anything at all, at the very least must be this.
Working in this program, I started to wonder how my childhood would have been different if I’d been in a program like TRIO. I feel like I could have used the support, the social experience, the adventure of being thrust into a strange environment and taken to so many new places.
That didn’t happen to me, though. Instead, I got to work here. I got to fill the role I felt I might have needed. I got to help kids have an experience I never had.
One if my kids wrote me a letter before she left, and among other things she said she wanted to thank me for teaching her that it was okay to be childish sometimes. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re compelled to grow up too soon. She was the oldest in her family and mature beyond her years, already taking charge of her life in a way some have the luxury of putting off a few years. The most touching thing for me was to know I had given her some space to step back and be a kid again. To know that responsibilities don’t automatically take the fun out of life. Especially as this is something that I struggle with myself. If she got that from me, I must be getting better at knowing it for myself as well.
And if I gave her those moments where she felt like she could be childish sometimes, then I have already done for one person what that Tumblr quote requested.
The most important thing to me is that we let kids be who they are. Find their identities and let that shine. That’s what I needed when I was a kid. I needed someone to brush me off and see me sparkle. These kids are all diamonds in the rough. My team and I took eight weeks out of our summer to help polish off some of the grime life covers its youngest with. Hopefully they’ll go back to the world a little brighter than before. And I am so lucky to have been a part of that.

iPod pics 018

I’m Here

I’m Here

The other day I took a bike ride to one of my favorite places on campus, the trail tower. Our campus is lucky enough to be placed right next to a bunch of nature trails, and at the end of one is a three-story tower that college kids use to carve their names, eat takeout, have sex, or enjoy nature.

I was sitting up there listening to my music, and it was really green and windy and a little chilly out. I kept thinking of what my sister told me that day–that I was strong, that I had matured a lot, and that I was going to be okay.

We’d been talking a lot about the breakup and how unfair my girlfriend was being at that moment. My ex has basically cut off all communication with me and sworn off all responsibility for my emotions. It was right in the middle of summer camp I received her emotionless Facebook message; the kids were in bed, and I was in my room alone. Upon reading the short, dismissive message, I broke down and sobbed so loud my supervisor knocked on my door to see what was wrong.

That wasn’t the first time she’d confronted me about my mental health. On the third day of camp, she took me aside to ask about the scars on my arms, which I was convinced no one could see. She wanted to make sure I was okay, but having her scrutinize me like that, and ask me to roll up my sleeves so she could look closer, sent me into a small panic.

Later, one of the campers asked me what those “weird marks” on my arms were. Panicking once again, I told her they were cat scratches.

She looked me in the eye and said “I’m not sure if I believe you.”

She told me she knew what self-harm looked like because she had friends who cut themselves. I couldn’t speak, but stared back at her, fighting down the gasps that were wrenching in my chest. The last thing I needed was a panic attack in front of my campers.

I was lucky; she got distracted when her friend called her to look at something cool, and I was off the hook. She never asked about it again, but there were times I could tell she was looking at me more closely than the other kids.

My sister knows about the breakup, but my supervisor is the only one except my ex that knew for sure about my scars. There were so many times I wanted to tell my sister the story behind my long sleeves and knee socks, but the time never felt right enough or safe enough for me to do so.

My sister does a lot to help me cope with the breakup. She’s helped me process through every step and every interaction, which is amazing because she hates my ex’s guts. She’d never liked her from the beginning, but after what she’d done to me in the past two weeks, I could tell my sister was ready to kill for me.

My sister even called my ex a cunt when I told her what she’d been doing. It hurt to have someone I loved so much be called a nasty name like that, but to be honest, I actually laughed, thinking about it up in that tower. It was freeing. Yeah, she was being a cunt. I was okay. My ex, for whatever reason, was turning herself into a bitch to remove all feelings and attachments we’d had together. But I’m going to be okay. I have a lot to look forward to. I have two weeks of summer camp left; I have a lot of friends who I’m going to start seeing soon. I’ve made plans to go camping with my future roommmate, and another friend and I are going downtown together next weekend. I have my wonderful sister, and a bunch of great new friends through summer camp. I have so much to look forward to once classes start–my mentorship, internship, my tutoring position, my full course load, and my awesome on-campus job.

Because I have done a lot of shit and accomplished a lot. And I got here. One of the last things my ex said to me was to remind me that I’d got to college all by myself. And I fucking did! And I’m here, and I have done so many things, and nobody did any of them for me. I have a lot on my back but a lot ahead of me to and a lot to be proud of. If my family refuses to be here with me during my most successful time, too bad for them. It’s shitty of them to abandon me, to pretend like my uncle’s death won’t affect me, to tell me not to visit–because they have the benefit of distance; it’s easy for them to forget about me and pretend I’m not hurting. Same thing with the ex. I don’t need her, and I never did. It sucked that I’d felt like I had, and that she hadn’t helped make that feeling go away. But standing up on that tower by myself, with the green trees spreading out around me–below me, actually!–I felt so free, and so alive, and this time when I cried, I was laughing too.

Because I was happy.

At First

At First

I keep my distance at first because I think it will never happen. Because I don’t believe in us.

You act like you want me there, and when I need you, you’re willing to be there for me too.

You listen like no one has listen to me before—without judgement, without fear. In my turn I listen to you, and I don’t judge and I’m not afraid.

Seeing more and more of you, I become more caught up in who you are. I appreciate your quirks, your clever turns, your unexpected ability to find the deepness and worry through it.

I love how quickly we become close, how naturally you seem to start to enjoy me. How right it seems to be with you and to notice and to care.

And when you talk about him I try not to cringe, I try to listen with an open mind and an open heart and be here for you like you’re here for me.

And when you seem to ignore me I try not to let it hurt.

And when we’re close I try not to let my awkwardness show.

And when I panic I try not to let you see.

And when I feel alone among the others and you, I try not to look at you with them, try not to make my loneliness visible.

And I try not to let people see how much it means when you draw me in.

You seem oblivious sometimes and then you do something that takes me completely off guard, and the more time we spend together the more plausible we seem.

But I still wait, I still keep quiet, afraid of what the answer will be, not wanting to tarnish the wonderfulness we have right now.