What Happens in the Heart Stays There

What Happens in the Heart Stays There

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my abuser. She was the first person I ever dated, but more and more I’m reluctant to call what we had a romantic relationship. I used to think I was in love with her. But I’m starting to think it was more of an infatuation. I was obsessed with her. With getting to know her. With being in her life.

And she took advantage of that. She used that to her advantage. She held it over my head. Even if she didn’t know what she was doing. She abused me. She refused to commit knowing I would stick around anyway. She sucked up all my emotional energy to fuel her ego. She flushed herself up on my concern and my care. And she gave me the bare minimum in return–checked in just enough to keep my energy up, touched me just enough to make me tingle. But she withheld real intimacy. She tallied up my weaknesses and methodically touched each trigger when she needed to set me off, needed to steer me a certain way. She held labels hostage. She set all the expectations knowing I had never done this before. She ridiculed my concerns, making it clear that my requests for clearer boundaries, better times, a stronger connection were unfair and selfish. She told stories of healthy relationships with the side note that those relationships were unrealistic, clingy, and gross. I kept most of my ideas for myself. I trusted her too much. I trusted that she knew where to take us. I trusted that what she said was true, that it was normal for couples to refuse to acknowledge they were together, to refrain from making long-term plans, that it was okay and healthy for her to refuse to invite me to her gatherings with her “other friends.” It was fine that we never held hands, even when we were alone.

I was not allowed to ask for more. I was not allowed to expect more. I was not allowed to feel resentment towards her restrictions. If I complained, she gaslighted me or guilted me into taking it back. I had to follow her rules. I had to stay on her track.

She could talk about the man she was in love with even while she claimed she wasn’t attracted to men. She could spend all her time with me talking about him, how perfect he was, and how much she missed him and couldn’t stop thinking about him.

If I mentioned my self harm, it was treated as trivial and unimportant. Not worth her time to discuss or try to help me. Apparently I just did it too often for her to care anymore.

I could not be weak; I had to monitor my emotions by myself and take her for her word without breaking down. I was not allowed to self-deprecate, because comforting me was just too inconvenient.

And yet I could not be strong: I couldn’t stand up for myself, I couldn’t question her, I couldn’t begin to stray away or do anything that indicated I knew I deserved better.

I had to stay exactly where she wanted me, while at the same time she berated me for not growing up, not taking care of myself, not being the person she wanted me to be.

She never said “I love you” until she was blackout drunk.

She never thanked me for staying with her the night she lost her grandmother and drank herself into a stupor.

She never apologized for making me miss the obligations I too readily gave up for her sake.

She never asked me about the scars or the lowering grades, the skipped classes, the guilt spirals, the emotional distress, the self-abuse (mental, verbal and physical).

Everything was fixed with a tight hug, a mumbled excuse, a reminder of how shitty her life was.

I clung so desperately to what little she gave me because I didn’t know anything else. I was used to being taken advantage of, abused, neglected. I was used to being consistently invalidated and mocked. My parents had been doing it to me for 20 years. When she fell into my life, it just seemed natural to let her do to me the things she wanted to do.

She never made plans; I had to deal with her last-minute texts asking me to drop everything and come to her. When it was my idea, the timing was bad, the idea was wrong, the details were illogical. When it was hers, I had no say but followed along because I thought I loved this person.

For four months I did everything she wanted, everything she asked, everything she needed, because I though that’s what I wanted, I thought, that’s what you do for the people you love.

I thought I loved her.

I never really did.

It felt like love at the time, but since then, I’ve felt what love truly is. I understand the difference now.

I was infatuated with her, obsessed with breaking down the wall she’d so viciously built up. I was sure I could get through to her when no one else could. I was intent on learning every detail of her life so I could examine and cherish it.

Since then I’ve felt real love from my friends, my chosen family, the amazing girl I dated for two and a half months, and the incredible people I’ve filled my life with since the abuse.

I thought I had no regrets. I comforted myself with the belief that everything happens for a reason.

I’m sick and tired of excusing her. I’m sick and tired of refusing to admit the regret I feel for every time I let her shove me down. I’m furious that my society had me convinced that in the long run my abuse was worth it, because everything happens for a fucking reason.

Sometimes things just happen.

And you can be angry as hell.

And that’s okay.

Because sometimes there’s no good reason for things to happen. All the lessons I leaned from my abuse, I could have learned from having loving parents and a secure support system. I could have learned it from a better social life growing up, from a few casual dating experiences I was never allowed as an adolescent. I could have learned it from so many other events.

There is no good fucking reason I had to suffer at the hands of a selfish cunt for a year and a half because society allowed me to be stupid enough to believe that I DESERVED IT AND IT HAPPENED FOR A REASON.

I want everyone to take a minute to reflect.

You don’t owe the universe anything.

Sometimes shitty things happen.

And it’s okay to be fucking angry about it.

Because there was no good reason. It just happened.

Allow yourself to feel the extent of that pain, because no matter how shitty it may feel to know you were hurt without there being a positive outcome, it’s so much better than lying to yourself and excusing the actions of your abuser to defend the idiotic idea that people getting hurt is okay.

Contrary to Popular Belief, Inclusivity is Important

It’s not about “not offending people,” it’s about making sure people are safe. I’m not “offended” if you misgender me. I’m hurt, invalidated and dysphoric. I’m not “offended” if you make jokes about suicide or self harm. I’m triggered and sent into a panic spiral that can last for hours or days.
It’s not about policing people’s language, it’s about building a culture of respect and understanding where people are aware that everyone comes from a different place and people are willing to learn from the experiences of others, and respect that certain things are not okay to say. Is that really such a bad thing?

Powwow

Deep and earthy rhythms
rumble from the skin
stretched on oaken frames.

All hearts beat together
shake the listeners’ bones
till all jump up to dance.

Midst feathers and the forest’s brightest hues,
the lithe and agile bodies hop and peck
as the wobbling white girl finds her feet.

Let go, the music beats.
Follow, we will lead.
The drum pounds in her chest.

Her bones throb with noise,
feet hop, body follows—

She beats with the drums.

 

 

Originally published in The Sheepshead Review, April 2016

Free Speech Should Not be an Excuse to be an Asshole

Free speech is important but sometimes people forget that it comes with consequences. Historically the amendment was made to protect individuals from persecution if they speak out against those in power. It does not and SHOULD NOT protect against hate speech, so I’m glad to see many college students are making this distinction. I have been told numerous times bu many different people that “no one has the right to not be offended” and under the free speech amendment they can say whatever they want, and if I get upset them I’m preventing them from exercising their freedoms or even accusing them of thought crime. Maybe I don’t have the right to not be offended but I do have a right to a safe environment where I feel I will not be harassed. I have been told that harassment is protected under freedom pf speech. I have been told I can not speak out against my oppressors because I am preventing them from exercising my rights. A good friend once told me “You are free to say whatever you want, but you are never free of the consequences.” If the consequence is something as simple as me reminding them to use inclusive language, I don’t see why anyone should have an issue with that. But a lot of people have essentially told me that free speech gives them the right to be an asshole. If someone wants to be an asshole, go right ahead; but be prepared to be called out for it! Free speech should not negate the need for inclusive language and hate speech should absolutely come with consequences from the University. Free speech should protect students’ right to protest but it should not excuse harassment. In my job I work hard to make students aware of our bias incident/hate crime procedures, but there are those on this campus who would get rid of those resources in the name of “free speech.” My question to them is always: Are you inconvenienced by people’s right to report you for saying racist, ablist, homophobic, sexist, and other discriminatory things? If so, I probably don’t want to be your friend, because I can see you’re not a safe person to be around.

I don’t know where to go

I don’t know where to go

I declined one of the best positions I’ve ever had in favor of something I might not get. I can’t get the job I want, the job that sounds almost perfect, until I get a driver’s license. I’ve already failed twice. My next test is in two days. What if I fail? I still have options. Nothing is ever ideal. I wonder if I’ll ever find something that seems right. What am I even looking for? I can’t trust the people that love me most and the people who are supposed to care the most about me scare the shit out of me. As soon as I love people, I push them away. I expect them to leave. And that hurts them. I’m tired of hurting people and I’m tired of being stupid. I’m tired of being seen as small, dumb, helpless. I’m tired of making stupid mistakes. I’m tired of never knowing what to do. I’m tired of trying and trying and trying but almost always failing to get people to trust me and look up to me. I want to be a help and not a hindrance. I want to believe in myself. I want to make a choice by myself without someone acting like it was a horrible thing to do. I want to be able to push away the people that hurt me and hold close the ones who love me. I don’t want to go, but I don’t want to stay, and I have no where else to go but sometimes it feels like there’s nothing else I can do. Where am I supposed to be? I have no context. I have these people on this side saying these things and those people on that side saying those things. Who can I believe when my sense of self is so off-balanced? There’s so much about me I want to change, but I don’t know what would be left when I’m done. I don’t know what a better me would look like or sound like or act like. I wish I could try on someone else’s brain to see what life would be like. I envy those who can walk through life without my filters. It was almost better when I was younger and just blamed all my stupid thoughts on myself. There was no label I could blame for the way I am and that’s better because it’s so hard to look at a word and accept the fact that you can’t change it. I wonder why I have to live in this world where what I am doesn’t even fucking exist, where I have to rely on exceptional people to just fulfill what most other people take for granted. If I tell them who I am, I could legally be fired or turned down from even applying. Those people that look at me and smile like I’m a ten year old because I guess my grade school kids are right. And there’s nothing I can do. I don’t know how many of my kids in Pine Ridge are still alive. I don’t know why I was prevented from going back when fate brought me there in the first place and going there changed my life. The world is telling me one thing but people keep telling me something else. I don’t how long my kids from TRIO will last or if they remember my face and what I told them. And every minute I remember who they are and how much they’ve seeped into my life and nag at every thought that goes through my brain. Because I want them to keep going so I have to show them I did too. And I keep saying how much I’ve changed but what was there at the start that I could even change from? How is there progress if there was nothing at the start? I wish I could go back but I hate what I would have to go back to. And forward is so scary sometimes I want to forget everything that’s kept me going. And I think that’s the really scary thing. Because if I love someone it makes it that much harder not to stay.

Sharpies

Sharpies

 

This time last year, my favorite self-soothing technique was to draw on myself with Sharpie. Whenever I got triggered, I’d take out my box of Sharpies and roll up my sleeves. I always started on my arms, often with the word be on the back of my hand and eventually my wrist. (That would become my first tattoo.) I’d elaborate upon it across my arms: be willing, be real, be true, be brave, and whatever else I could come up with—everything I wanted myself to be. I’d fill in the gaps with swirls, flowers, balloons, animals, mushrooms, leaves—anything to take my mind off the shivering my spine, the spiraling in my mind. I loved watching the broad, bold lines coloring through the bland pinkness of my skin, turning me into a living canvas. The vibrancy made me feel alive; often, the bold colors obscured the scars. And the most important part: I would never cut into skin that was covered in Sharpie.

The first time I went all out with my coloring was the day before we left for South Dakota. I wore long sleeves the night we started out fourteen-hour drive, despite the fact that it was warm enough not to in the cramped and stuffy van. My teammates already viewed me as somewhat weird, often the oddball out. I didn’t want to reinforce that by flaunting the splatters of color on my arms.

I tried to wash the Sharpie off during my first shower at the Ranch, but it was determined to stay. I learned that Sharpie stays on for a very long time.

It stayed on bright and vivid throughout our stay, and throughout my interactions with Ty.

Ty was the tough kid, the one who knew everyone else at the Pine Ridge Boarding School. Ty was the one with the cap and the eleven intricate tattoos. Ty was the one the little kids ran to for comfort, who greeted them with “What’s up, little sister? What’s up, little brother?” when they sought out Ty’s aid. Ty was the master at hackey-sack, the troublemaker in the hallway and the paint room. Ty ignored us all, so we all wanted to be the one to break through with Ty.

Ty was the one we all thought was a boy until I found out she was a girl.

I don’t want to assume anything about who Ty really is; at the very least she’s a very butch lesbian. Her gender expression was masculine enough for a few of us to wonder if she was trans, but with her limited education and few available resources, even if she was, she might have no idea.

I was interested in Ty because I could tell she was on the queer spectrum. I also knew she was the type I could never build rapport with, so I didn’t try very hard. We were painting at the same table once, with one other girl who was more receptive to my conversation. Not that I was saying much. I couldn’t figure out what to say, while it seemed like everyone else from my team was having lively conversations with the kids, gaining favorites, and having a blast.

Ty was ignoring me point-blank even as I tried talking to her and the other girl. The first time she acknowledged me was when she was drawing a hill and a sun set and I told her I liked how she was texturing her work.

“You know where I learned that? Blue’s Clues!” she mocked me, shooting me a dangerous look.

“I like Blue’s Clues,” I said weakly.

I shut up after that.

When Ty was done with the picture she crumpled it up, claiming she wanted to get an interesting texture in it, probably mocking me again. The she threw it at me.

“Here, here’s a present,” she said, and then left to play hackey-sack with the boys.

“Thank you,” I said, opening it to look at the platters of color. “I really like it.”

I think she heard me, but I’m not sure.

I was bad at hackey-sack so I didn’t join in until the third day, our last time there. Most of the little kids had gone home due to the third suicide that week. But all of the high school students were still there, giving us the opportunity to focus our energy on the group that had primarily ignored us. I was afraid; the little kids liked me, thought I was funny, and loved that I’d go along with whatever they wanted to play. The teens would only play hackey-sack. Ty was a master. Ty schooled us. Anytime we served ourselves Ty made sure to catch the sack and chuck it at us—and I’ll tell you that little bean bag hurt when hauled by that kid’s fist. But Ty took the time to hold my foot and place the sack on it, giving me instructions and showing me how to improve.

As we were preparing to leave many of the team members were asking the kids to sign t-shirts they’d bought earlier on the trip. The shirt I was wearing was patterned and left no room for names, so I asked a few of the kids I was closest with to sign my arm. It was already marked with Sharpie, which was faded enough that the kids wrote on top of my pictures without trouble. After most of the little kids I’d played with had signed, I took a deep breath and called out to Ty to sign my arm.

She strolled up to me barking “What?” and I showed her the Sharpie and my arm. “Can you sign your name?”

She stared at me narrowly, obviously thinking it was stupid, and asked why.

“So I can remember you better.”

She shrugged and grabbed the Sharpie, then seized my arm and twisted it roughly as she tried to find an open spot. She rolled up my sleeve to reveal my upper arm and when she looked she stopped moving.

“What?” I asked, but when I looked I saw what she saw.

“It’s okay. We’ve all got those,” she said softly.

I started shaking. Ty scrawled her name on my arm. “I’m going to give you a hug,” she said suddenly. “I think you need it more than I do.”

I coughed in surprise as she clamped her arms around me. She was at least three years younger than me, but was as tall or taller, and had a bigger build than my tiny skinny frame. I hugged her back. I swear I heard her sniff and take a breath. “I’m going to write my name on your jacket too,” she said, and to this day her name is still on the shoulder of my long-sleeved jean jacket.

The next thing that happened is confusing because it was so quick and I observed it from a headlock position under Ty’s arm. She grabbed me, telling me she was going to carry me back to the van. I laughed and asked her to let go but she dragged me, yelling “Make way for my new best friend.”

My team was taken by surprise; some of them laughed and took pictures, others ran after me yelling my name, as if I could break free of the kid’s iron arms. My ex later told me she was afraid I’d been hurt because she couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying.

“No one else got that close to Ty,” she told me when we talked about it later. “She picked you for a reason.”

Ty dragged me to the vans and finally let me go when I said I had to leave. She hugged me again and watched as I got into the van, watched us as we drove away, and I swear I heard her yell “I love you” before I closed my door.

 

A week later I pulled out my razor and rolled up my sleeve, but when I saw Ty’s name still scrawled across my arm, I stopped. I stared at it, I shivered, and got up to throw the blade away.

A day or two after that I found her on Facebook. She accepted my friend request. She immediately messaged me, “wyd.”

I smiled to myself and took a deep breath, and started typing my reply.

(The name of the student in this post has been changed to protect their identity)

 

 

A Bowl of Chili

A Bowl of Chili

I walked towards my First Nations Studies professor’s office, found the door ajar, and knocked. My hand shook a little because I knew one way or another this conversation was going to be emotionally charged. It had nothing to do with academics, but at the moment, it seemed to have everything to do with my life, my future, and my relationships with some of my closest friends.

My professor was squinting hard at something on the screen and looked almost angry, which made me even more nervous. I knew she didn’t like the root behind the topic I was going to bring up, and I’d felt she was a bit disappointed in me when she learned I had been a part of it last year. She was a small, curly-haired, powerful Ojibwe woman, with a large voice that could be remarkably soft when she needed it to, and the greatest sense of empathy I’d ever experienced from a professor—or any adult, really.

She looked up at my knock and her scrunched-up look of displeasure smoothed into one of pleasant surprise when she saw me at the door.

“Well, hello! What brings you here?”

First things first, I decided. I held up the can of Folger’s coffee that Stacie had asked me to bring in as a gift for the Elders in Residence. My professor was delighted, rising from her chair to receive the gift. She welcomed me in, thanking me and telling me to thank Stacie next I saw her.

But she could tell there was something else on my mind, and asked me about it.

Here it came.

“I have to cook a pot of chili tonight,” I told her. “And I’m not sure if I should.”

She could have laughed, as others had; she could have immediately offered suggestions without knowing the story behind it. But instead she met my gaze and nodded, straight-faced and interested, and asked me to sit down.

“Tell me about this pot of chili.”

I took a deep breath and told the story from the beginning. The Inter-Faith organization at our school had been leading a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation for one week during spring break, each year for I don’t know how many years. The trip was extremely controversial. The man behind the Inter-Faith center had refused help from the First Nations Department when they reached out, claiming he wanted his students going on the trip to enter as “blank slates” as they were immersed in the Lakota culture.

“But it doesn’t really work like that,” another of my FN professors had explained to me. “Just by virtue of being a part of modern American society, each student has already developed prejudices and stereotypes from their exposure to popular media.”

So each student that went, went in uneducated, unsure, culturally awkward, and relatively clueless, unless they had background in First Nations cultures. But student with background in the culture tended to be excluded in favor of the “blank slate” concept.

I’d gone on the trip last year. My ex had convinced me to go. It was our first conversation after meeting each other. As soon as I told her my parents would never let me go, she was on me, forcing me to go. But in the end (as I sometimes forget) it was really my sociology professor who convinced me, telling me how much I would learn, and how much I could grow.

I was the only one on the team of fifteen that decided to take a First Nations class the semester of the trip in order to better prepare myself for interacting with a culture I’d had no prior contact with. That’s how I’d met this professor I now sat in the office with. I’d been naive. I’d had no idea that the FN department had been rejected from making the trip a better one, and that my professor was extremely bitter about the whole thing. I’d sensed her reaction when I talked about it, saw her awkward anger, and never brought it up to her again.

I went on the trip. The goal was to finish staining the porch of a mobile home belonging to a family on the reservation our school had been working with for years. Years, mind you—one week each of the past six or so years to get this home up and running. And the family patiently waiting. And our group feeling so proud of themselves for this miniscule accomplishment. I’ll be the first to admit that there was some of the White Savior in me too.

But what I was really looking forward to was meeting the kids at the Pine Ridge Boarding School. The other part of our project had been raising enough money to buy them art and sports supplies, and we bought a decent amount of each of these. Kids had terrified me for most of my life after some experiences of accidentally hurting them, and I was determined to shake that. This was the trip that would define my life and my passion for youth advocacy.

It started the moment we walked into the school. It was a large and colorful building, with bars, stripes, and circles integrated into the wall’s color scheme, and a medicine wheel on the floor of the very center of the building, where hallways branched off leading into the dorm wings and the recreation areas, and the two large front and back doors, leading respectively to the parking lot and to the playground and basketball court.

Our team was greeted by the dorm mother of the school. We were informed that a twelve-year-old girl had hung herself that weekend.

It was then I realized that there was nothing I could do here.

There was no way I could be a savior. No way could I help these kids. Nothing I could possibly do to bring that girl back and stop the next one from killing herself.

The only thing left for me to do was observe, and learn, and see what I could do. I was shaking for almost the entire day and into the night. By the third day of interacting with heartbroken, energetic, paranoid, hyperactive, troubled, wonderful kids, my mind and heart had begun to fill with a desire to help them and all the kids like them. The kids in my city. The kids I see each day in my textbooks, on the news, in my social media feeds. 

Kids who were like me when I was their age. 

I wanted to learn how to help suicidal kids, depressed and anxious kids. That’s what started my work in youth advocacy, lead me to change my major, and prompted me to get involved in local service projects while remaining in contact with a few of the kids I met on the reservation (a notable one being described here).

The trip was being planned again for this year. My ex, having been the team leader the year before, told me I could go again and serve as an advisor to the new team lead. That was before we broke up. I didn’t think the breakup would have any effect on my participation in the trip. What I didn’t know was that during the time we were not speaking with each other, my ex had continued organization without me, picking her friend and my roommate as leaders, and all of them had begun planning without me. So by the time we considered each other friends again it was apparently too late for me to jump on board.

The fact that our breakup was now the only thing preventing me from going, no matter how many stupid excuses m ex made about my previous behavior or lack of team ethic (all of which were wrong according to everyone else in my life), infuriated me beyond anything I’d ever felt before. I fought to keep myself on their radar, offering my time, ideas, experience, input, and by far doing the most outreach via classroom presentations (I’d have to say almost half, if not more, of the people who applied did so because they saw me present about it in their class).

I offered to cook chili for a dinner fundraiser they’d planned. That was before other things started happening.

Before my roommate told me I could not go on the trip, despite the fact that my ex was in a different country and no longer had influence.

Before I found out from the other leader that the Inter-Faith supervisor hated students to go more than once unless they were leading. That his main focus was not building support for and connections with the Lakota people on the Reservation, but exposing students to what was basically poverty porn and voluntourism if it wasn’t pulled off right.

Before I found out that their next project was to build a coffee house on the Reservation.

When she heard me say that my professor leaned back and drew a hand across her face.

“A coffee house?” she said. “Who’s going to travel miles and miles across that huge Reservation to pay five dollars for a cup of coffee?

“Who’s going to run it? Who’s going to pay for it?”

“It’s not part of their culture,” I said.

“It’s such a middle-class, white thing to think of!” my professor exclaimed. “If they want to help they could just build a generic rec center, not restrict it to a particular use.”

“And it has nothing to do with what we learned last year. No one we talked to said they needed a coffee house. They all focused on their youth—they need more resources for their youth. I can tell they’re going to frame it as a way to build community and have an alcohol-free space, but first off, it’s not going to work—it’s not part of their culture, it’s going to be expensive, who’s going to buy coffee when they could buy whiskey, and the kids aren’t going to be interested in it. And second, it lets me know that the one big takeaway they all had last year was that Pine Ridge has an alcohol problem. Not that they’re taking great strides in providing for the next generation, not that they’re building themselves up.”

The issue was that I wanted to say all of those things, but I had been given the opportunity to lead the trip next year. If I put myself in a bad light by criticizing the current teams’ every move, it was unlikely I’d gain favorable rapport and be able to lead.

But I also wasn’t sure I even wanted to lead anymore. It was not the trip I’d signed up for; I’d gone in with a completely different perspective on what it was supposed to be. Did I really want to be a part of bringing a bunch of “white saviors” to perform tasks I didn’t agree with and work with people I was coming to resent?

An alternative was to start a project right here in my city, helping out the local kids. As my professor pointed out, “You don’t have to go all the way to South Dakota if you want to help out the Natives.”

“There’s porches to paint right here,” she said.

We talked about launching a mentorship program or coat drive with local schools. We generated a few ideas; I got excited; my professor spoke to me again.

“You were put on this Earth to do big things,” she said, resting her elbows and clasped hands on her desk. “The trip you went on, the impact it had—that goes beyond you. You were meant to go on that trip. And I didn’t say anything when you talked about it, because I didn’t want to interfere in your learning process. You got to this point by yourself. And I’ve seen the work you have done since then, and what you took out of your experience was good.”

South Dakota 18

I breathed slowly, and she leaned back in her chair again. “You came in here to ask about a bowl of chili,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m not sure if I want to make it. If I don’t agree in what the trip stands for anymore.”

“I can’t tell you if you should make it or not,” she said slowly. “I can see it would be difficult to make something if you don’t agree with it. But I can also see that you gave your word, and keeping your word is very important.

“I can tell you if you decide to make it, make it with good thoughts in your mind. Make it with positivity, and that positivity will go into the food, and everyone that eats the food will feel it. Because if you make it with bitterness, and put your frustrations into the food, then everyone who eats the food will take in that negativity.”

I nodded.

A few more things were said, we thanked each other, and I walked out. I felt lighter. Hearing her speak and the method with which she used her words, the patterns and rhythms of her thought, always calmed me, always helped to guide me.

I want to believe what she said. That I was put her to do big things.

I know the effect of this trip goes beyond me, and that’s why I can’t let it go. The trip influences every person that our students interact with on the Reservation and everyone that we talk to about it. It affects the kids that I met, the ones who want me to come back and see them again. The ones I told I wanted to come back. The ones who would not see me and who would add me to their list of people they could not trust to hold their word.

Because that’s the kind of relationship this trip is promoting.

I walked back to my apartment and into the kitchen. I pulled my tomatoes out of the cabinet. I started cooking onions. I thought good things as I stirred, and when I hugged the pot as I carried it to the Inter-Faith Center, I felt its positivity.

My impact goes beyond this one pot of chili and I’m determined not to waste it.

Erik

Erik

The first time I saw Erik was when he asked our tour guide at the Bundestag to speak in English. The second time was when the guide stopped the entire tour because my shoe was untied, and Erik stooped to tie it for me before I even noticed why we’d stopped. Our brief exchange in that moment was in German because neither of us knew yet the other spoke English fluently.

The third time was when we paused for a break and we sat in couches across from each other and he asked for everyone’s name and major. I told them about my plans for a Social Justice degree and wanting to work with children. I told him about my summer camp. He listened intently to my stories. He nodded eagerly when I explained how I preferred to explain the rules to the kids rather than just enforce them, give respect rather than just demand it, and learn from the kids rather than just act as the “sage on a stage.”

“What you’re doing, that’s what the world needs more of,” he said. “It’s amazing that you took the time to stand on the same level as your students.”

I smiled, self-conscious but pleased that someone was finally appreciating the extent to which I strived to help my kids. I went on the tell the story of how a group of the kids had started throwing a banana around until was brown and splattering against anything it touched; how that was the only time I spoke sharply to the kids, scaring them all a bit with my sudden firmness as I explained the food they ate was free and they needed to respect it.

“See, I hate that,” Erik said, leaning back on the couch. “You should never tell a child they have to do something. It shuts them down.”

I thought about that—he had a valid point, but I still believed what I had done was appropriate.

“Maybe I could have gone about it better,” I said. “But from my perspective, food is a precious resource. And I know a lot of these kids come from low-income homes, where food is not always easy to come by. For me, food is a task. It’s a commitment and a struggle. And I know a lot of the kids face the same things. So when they come to summer camp all the free food seems phenomenal. But I don’t want them to take it for granted. They have to understand that it comes from somewhere, too. And they’re lucky to have it, just like I was lucky to have free meals three times a day for taking that job. I appreciated every single one. I wanted them to, as well. And since it was the only time all summer I raised my voice at the kids, I think most of them didn’t shut down—they took me seriously, because they knew if I was yelling it must be serious.”

Erik looked at me keenly and leaned forward again. “You know, you’re right,” he said slowly. “Thank you. I take back what I said.” He reached over to shake my hand. I accepted the gesture, a bit taken aback by his graceful but significant redaction. I couldn’t remember the last time someone told me I was right about something like that.

Erik left a good impression on me then. I saw him here and there throughout the course of the trip, but it wasn’t until I almost got left alone on the train heading back to the hostel that we had our next, and last, significant interaction.

He waved at me through the window, already outside with the others, and seeing him out there I quickly jumped off the train right before it started off again. The others were a ways ahead of us now, leaving me and Erik alone amid the city throng.

“You almost got left behind,” he said, leading the way out of the train station. “That would not have been a good thing.”

“No, probs not,” I said, a bit uncomfortable by how close he was walking to me. I tried to inch myself away but it was difficult as we wound through crowded streets and up and down stairs. He had a habit of grabbing my every time I stumbled or tripped, and I found I had to shake myself free. I knew it was a cultural difference in spacing and contact preferences, but I couldn’t help feeling violated by how many times he grasped my shoulders or clutched my elbow to steer my around corners.

“Do you know which way to go?” he asked when we were about halfway to the hostel.

“Kind of,” I said, afraid that he didn’t and we were going to be lost. I hadn’t been paying much attention to directions to and from the train station during our excursions. I was irritated to be caught off guard.

“I ask you because I want you to be able to find your way back, if you are walking back by yourself sometime,” he explained.

Of course, that is totally logical and makes perfect sense, and it’s nice he was looking out for me. But his method was so annoyingly like that of my ex that I instantly became pissed off and defensive. I stepped away from him again and quickened my pace.

“I’m pretty sure we go down this street and then turn left,” I said, which was fairly accurate.

“Look, here’s the street sign. Boxhanger Strasse,” he pointed out. “You can always look for Boxhanger Strasse.”

“Boxhanger Strasse, got it,” I said, hoping we were almost there. I hopped off the curb and made my way across the street, half zoned out with thoughts of consent and exes, and half used to the small-town world I grew up in where pedestrians have the right of way and crossing lights aren’t a thing.

“Whoa, whoa!” Erik snatched me back again as the cars barreled towards me. Still irritated as hell, I yanked myself free of his grip and snapped, “I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but we have this rule about no touching in my country.”

I couldn’t tell if he was offended or just annoyed. To be honest, I didn’t care. We crossed the street at the green light and he told me that I looked “irate” when I jumped into the street like that and people would think I was crazy or going to get hurt. All I could think was You mean erratic. But I didn’t say anything.

We made it to the hostel and for the rest of the Berlin trip I saw very little of Erik. Maybe he was avoiding me because I’d offended him. Maybe it was a coincidence. Either way, once we got to Kassel he seemed to have forgotten about our escapade. During a tour my shoe came untied yet again and he smiled at me, saying it was a habit my shoe seemed to have. I said only “Yeah, I guess.” At one point he quoted me in his notes during class and made sure I saw. I was confused but also pleased that he once again made a point to show his appreciation for my opinions. I wasn’t sure what to think. I didn’t have many more opportunities to test my feelings.

The last time I saw Erik he was surrounded by people and music and laughter and tears. He was a popular guy in our group. His smile seemed genuine and his farewells were touching. I even appreciated the poem he read at the talent show. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was wrong. Or maybe we both learned from each other, since that was what this trip was about.

People flicker in and out of our lives and I always wonder what impact those short-term relationships have on us. I’m still figuring out what the definition of Erik is in my life. For now I’ll just appreciate it as it stands. Annoying, yes. Uncomfortable, yes. Touching maybe, and funny. The man who stooped to tie my shoe on the front steps of the German Capital building and didn’t know about consent in touching and holding hands. People are a lot more complicated than I was raised to think.

 

 

 

Cultural Experience

One of my favorite things so far is being able to meet people from different countries and cultures from all over the world—not just Germany. I’ve met people from Hong Kong, Australia, Maryland, Massachusetts, California, Jamaica, The Dominican Republic, Panama, and probably others (I wasn’t able to catch all the names). The people from California and Australia talk about how cold Germany seems while I’m thinking how it would be much colder in most of the Midwest right now. The students from Hong Kong (many of which, interestingly, are studying in Queensland right now) very emphatically informed the entire group multiple times that Hong Kong is not in China or Japan. The man from the Dominican Republic (to whom I dedicated an entire post, for various reasons) was shocked to find that most of us had heard of his country. I loved listening to the various accents and languages and words, and eagerly answered questions about my home and culture when I saw others were as curious as I was. I hadn’t even begun the educational portion yet and already I was learning so much.

At our New Year’s Dinner, though, I was stuck at a table with various students from America and one Australian who didn’t say much. For the past two days I had enjoyed the feeling of being on equal footing with most of the students there—equally lost, equally stupid, equally fascinated, equally curious. But at this table I found myself back in the same old boat. It was like I’d never left the States. Here, once again, my limited experiences in certain areas prevented them from acknowledging my expertise in others. My input was rendered invalid because I disagreed with popular people. My preferences were ignored because they were unconventional.

After a while I shut up and sat quietly seething at the table listening to the Americans banter around me. I had come on this trip partly, if not mostly, to escape my stupid self-centered individualistic non-inclusive fast-paced culture, and yet here I was smack in the middle of Berlin surrounded by fucking American privileged middle-class white college kids. Just like back home.

When I’d talked to my Australian friend about ethics and gun control we exchanged ideas and opinions on equal footing and listened to each other’s experiences and input. When I’d talked to Erik (see other post) about my summer camp experience he listened in fascination and applauded my methods, asked me a lot of questions, and supplemented my narrative with his experiences and input. The one time he mocked my method I calmly explained my thought process, and he went so far as to apologize for passing judgement too quickly, and shook my hand. But when I asked Grace to be respectful of the food she refused to eat, she and the other Americans acted like I was pushing it after the second time. The three girls from my school act so petty sometimes, but I feel like I can’t say anything testy to the people who were nice enough to give me a ride.

People are actually judging me because I don’t have much money. I’ve experienced subtle prejudices against lower-income folks in general but so far I’d been lucky enough to avoid direct jabs against my personal financial situation. These people were mocking me for not bringing money I didn’t have, and making me feel stupid for getting cheated out of almost half my Euros at the conversion kiosk at the airport. Most days I didn’t have enough money to buy water or go to the bathroom and had to ask people for loose change or favors, which made me feel horrible about myself and my situation.

I miss tutoring International students. I miss their open curiosity and eagerness to learn, and I miss talking to them in that nonjudgmental environment. I learned a lot about language from them and them from me, and neither of us made fun of each other for cultural differences or previous experiences. Honestly, sometimes I feel more similar to non-Americans than to Americans.

Selfie Culture

People tell me I will feel better about myself if I accept the fact that I am pretty and my body has few flaws. I notice I take more “selfies” when I am feeling especially pretty or especially upset. I try to capture the moments when I feel good about myself so I can look back on them and know that they exist. A weird thing about our culture is that older generations complain when our generations post too much gloom and doom on social media, but they also complain when we post too many “selfies” or “groupies”, which for many people serve to capture the positivity that tends not to last nowadays. So we’re not allowed to be negative OR positive, essentially. We can’t point out the flaws in this world or the good things we see about ourselves and others.

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I know it can be annoying to see pretty much the same pictures of people over and over again, and it’s rough getting criticized by the older generation who says we’re attention-seekers whose happiness is dependent on how many likes we get on a given picture. I’m not going to say some people aren’t victim of that, but try thinking of it another way.

I’m not posting these pictures for you. I’m posting them for me.

I don’t care how many likes I get on my pictures because it doesn’t matter. I know who likes me, and I know who loves me, and pressing a button on a web site doesn’t change that.

I don’t care who sees my pictures, but it matters to me that I have the confidence to put them out there.

Because here’s the thing.

I already know I’m pretty.

I’ve known since I was little, and I’ve always appreciated the fact, because everyone kept telling me how pretty I was.

But it was never that important to me.

It actually got kind of annoying how hung up people got on that.

It got embarrassing. It made it seem like they thought that was the only important thing about me. How I looked.

It backfired. I started hating my face. My body. My shape. Everything about me on the outside.

I wanted people to appreciate what they couldn’t see. I wanted to be smart, to be clever, to be artistic, like my brothers were.

Because on the outside I’m perceived as a girl, the language about me changed.

It took me a while to reclaim my appearance. To remember that I’m not trying to be pretty for anyone.

Not even myself.

I’m not trying to be pretty at all.

I don’t feel like I have to be.

That’s not what’s important to me.

I post pictures of myself when I feel good about myself or especially upset, and I do it to remind myself that my ultimate goal is not the number of likes I get or how good my face looks.

My goal is to be loved and wanted for who I am inside.

And more than that, my goal is to make a positive impact wherever I go in this world.

And that has nothing to do with the way I look.

There are many reasons I still dislike the way I look but none of them are because I don’t think I’m pretty enough. I learned that about myself kind of recently. I don’t feel my current body reflects who I am on the inside, but it has little to do with societal conventions of beauty.

I already know I’m pretty. And yes, it’s nice to hear that, especially since current society’s definitions of “beauty” are so strict. My body has flaws that few people ever see, but I’m lucky that for the most part I happen to fall into this mold of “pretty.”

But that’s not important to me.

The reason I’m smiling in these pictures is because I know I’m a good person. I know that I try my hardest. I know that I’ve already started to make a positive impact. I know I have a lot to look forward to, a lot of work left to do. I have good people in my life. I have people that expect good things from me.

People tell me I will feel better about myself if I accept the fact that I am pretty. What they don’t know is that I’m past that. I’ve tried that, and at this point, for me, the “feel better” I get from thinking I’m pretty doesn’t last nearly as long, nor have nearly as much of an impact, as the feeling I get from reminding myself I have worth as a human being.

It was really hard getting to this point and I’m still struggling to stay there. I’m struggling daily to remind myself what’s important to me.

But I have moments to fall back on that help remind me. I take pictures like this to capture the light of those moments.

I don’t like everything about who I am. I don’t know many people that do, and those that do tend to be self-centered, terrified of life or boring. Knowing that I can dislike parts of myself and still like others gives me more strength than just looking in the mirror and thinking “Yeah, I’m pretty.” Being able to look at my reflection, turn away in dissatisfaction, and remind myself that actions speak louder than appearances, is what I need the most right now.

Being able to be dissatisfied with my appearance but know that it’s okay, that I have more important things to focus on, gives me more confidence than saying “I’m pretty” and believing it.

I dress up or down for myself. I opt out of makeup not because I believe it’s a scam but because I just don’t feel like wearing any. And when people tell me I should I shrug it off because that sentiment doesn’t matter to me. I might play around with it and enjoy it but right now I’m fine not putting any on in the morning.

I wear clothes that hide my shape because I happen to like loose baggy clothing. I think it’s more comfortable. And when people tell me it’s a waste of my curves I don’t pay much attention because I know what feels right to me.

And then there are days where I do feel like dressing up, I do feel like wearing skirts and leggings or fancy shirts, and when people tell me they wish I’d dress like that more often because I seem so confident, I look at them and wonder what is it about them that prevents them from seeing that same confidence when I wear my normal clothes. They may not see it but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.

I don’t care how I look to other people. Society tells me I should. That’s what I struggle with the most. Living in a society that tells me I have the wrong priorities, that I should care more what people say about how I look. But I don’t, really. I care what people say about my actions and my character.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this; it turned out a lot longer that I thought it would. But it’s my two cents for the day. I hope you got something out of it.