How a Green Dress and Kindness from a Teacher Saved Me After Sex Abuse

“As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her.”

Trigger warning: there is a description of a child’s sexual encounter.

Hiding behind the house, between the brick wall and the wooden privacy fence…summer air… evening fresh…crickets chirping…and these words: “If you don’t let me, I won’t be your friend, and no one else will, either.” At the age of seven, my neighbor, Donny, who was my same age and size, convinced me to let him put his penis in me and stick his tongue in my mouth. With his little brother and all his friends watching. In fact, he liked it so much the first time that he came back for a couple of repeats; and I, who was so desperately lonely, was too afraid to lose one of my only friends to say no.

After the negotiations were concluded, Donny and his friends led me behind my house, and he made me pull my pants down. I couldn’t look up, I just stared at the feet of the boys. I had seen boy penises before, I had two little brothers after all, but theirs had never been erect, and they’d never been near my own skin. I let him put his penis into the space between my naked legs as he stuck his tongue in my mouth and enacted adult sex. He didn’t really understand where the penis went, so he slid it between the lips of my genitals, and it felt wrong somehow. Even with absolutely no knowledge of what sex is, no prior instruction or indoctrination, I believe human children instinctively sense a problem. I believe their spirits rebel against the aberration of sexual exposure. Mine did, and it felt shame.

If I close my eyes, I still see his face, with its button nose, freckles, and missing teeth. His hair was light brown. I can sense shadows of the boys who were encircling us, serving as witnesses and guards.

I can only assume he’d witnessed his own parents having sex. Or worse, saw porn in his house.

I remember when I found out that all the neighbors knew. Donny’s neighbor Karen was my age, and I knocked on her door, which her mom answered. “Can Karen play?” I asked. Karen’s mom simply glared and answered, “Karen is not allowed to play with girls like you.” She called me “nasty,” then she slammed the door in my face. Of course, I knew what she meant because I carried the shame in body, mind, and spirit.

Donny’s brother had tattled, so he told his parents that I was the one who forced him, not the other way around. As a result, I spent the next year in nearly complete isolation. I rode my purple bicycle with the banana seat around the block or down to the elementary school playground, but I never got off and dropped my bike in a friend’s driveway so we could play. I never rode bikes in a cluster of loud, boisterous, giggling girls.

I had always been quiet and preferred playing with just one or two friends, but this isolation was different. It was forced, it was ongoing, and it was complete. It’s when I started really knowing true loneliness and hushed days.

There was just one house where I was welcome. Our next-door neighbors were older folks, probably in their seventies. I remember white hair and a white mustache, and a kind spirit. His wife rarely came outside, but she did send out snacks. All the neighbors called the gentleman “Grandpa,” though he was none of our biological grandparent, for he filled the role for the neighborhood kids. He kept a pool table in his garage, which was a safe haven for me; I was never kicked out of that room. Occasionally, I asked Grandpa how to hold the cue stick, and he helped me hit the ball. I remember the click-click of the billiard balls striking each other. It’s a sound that, to this day, puts me right back in that garage, next door to my lonely house and my tainted back yard.

Grandpa had a tree in his front yard, a locust, which grew long brown bean pods. I used to climb into the tree and eat the hard little beans, observing the other kids as they played. I spent a lot of time in that tree. It was safe. The garage was safe. Grandpa was safe.

I began drawing with my pencil, little naked figures of anatomically correct boys and girls, with pointed penises and sharp clefts. I kicked the dog. I hid the drawings. These were the first inklings of my rage– not a cute, prissy, toddler-style anger expressed with pursed lips, but a violent and potent fury which was almost always turned back on my own self.

Incurlers: A Vintage Hair Rollers Buying Guide

I felt compelled to punish myself. I can’t explain it, really, it didn’t come out of clear and methodical planning, but out of gut-level, molecular shame: I began to insert hair curlers into my vagina. These were not smooth plastic ones, they were made of wire and had some sort of sharp plastic prickles around them. Wincing, with eyes teary, I would push them up inside me, which was not easy. My skin and muscles rejected the intrusion, and I forced myself to hold them there for about thirty minutes. When I drug them out of me, they were always covered with blood and mucus.

There was another place where I sensed love: from my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hoover. She set up a classroom store where students used good behavior reward coupons to shop for treats, it opened for business once a week. Early in the year, my eyes fell upon a beautiful dress. It was a soft minty green with a fitted bodice and full tulle and organza skirt (I didn’t know any of that vocabulary as a seven-year-old, but I surely recognized beauty). The bodice had satin piping in three rows around the rib cage. It had been donated by someone’s mom, but as far as I was concerned it was delivered by an angel, sent as a gift from the Almighty God, just for me.

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I started saving my behavior coupons like they were the very link to life itself. I was always a well-behaved child, so it was no struggle at all to mind my manners, take out my Mysterious Wisteria reader when told, and tidy my messes. I was quiet, though, and my extra special efforts could easily have been overlooked. When you’re good and always quiet anyway, sometimes teachers forget to notice you when they are busy corralling the noisy troublemakers who shoot rubber bands across the room, make fart noises during phonics instruction, or don’t clean up after themselves at the art table. But Mrs. Hoover saw me and quietly set coupons on my desk for my goodness.

Each Friday when the class store opened, my classmates cashed in their coupons for pencils, Hot Wheels, or stickers. I held my breath and watched the green dress. My teacher watched me watch the green dress. After months of waiting and saving, I had enough coupons for it. 43 years later, I remember the moment it became mine. Mrs. Hoover beamed when I gave her my tickets, and I carried it home on a cloudy, gray winter day, holding it gingerly for all six blocks until I got to our little home.

This dress became the inspiration for years of imaginary play: princess, queen, debutante, wife, singing star, all enacted alone in my room wearing my heavenly mint green dress. It remains the most enchanted single item I remember from childhood, that gown scattered little bits of fairy dust over my wounded, solitary spirit until it eventually fell into tattered pieces.

I wish I was not so hurt by this story– I know there are so many women and girls who have endured violent rape. By comparison, my story seems tame, it was a kid my own size, for God’s sake. Indeed, in my telling of my experience with Donny as a middle-aged woman, there have been some who didn’t understand the trauma, who compared it to adult sexual molestation and thought that because the perpetrator was a child, rather than a trusted relative or adult, that it really should not count. They have said, “You were too young to even know what sex was, how could it have affected you so? It couldn’t possibly have.” Dismissed.change 2

Except that I suffered. I really did: isolation, fear, and an awareness of sexuality long before I was old enough. Blood and mucus. Shame. Sexual shame, yes, but just as debilitating and maybe more insidious is the shame of letting him. Many, many people who have been molested talk about this particular shame, and they were likely molested by a full-sized adult who had the physical strength to force them. I said yes to a boy my own size, not because he had strength on his side, but because I feared loneliness. Oh, and underpinning it all was the understanding that boys get to dictate what girls do with their bodies. I learned that if I said no, I would lose my few friends. I said yes, and I lost them anyway.

Though I didn’t realize the lessons I’d internalized, they informed most of the rest of my life, up until about my fortieth birthday. I didn’t ever think of myself as a virgin. I did think of myself as a slut. That’s a sad thing; I understood quite well about men and power; and I lived and worshiped in a church culture that placed such a high value on sexual purity that I was terrified I would be banished to hellfire should I perish in a car wreck. As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her nakedness. Even more, now I understand that the Divine One was with me, surrounding me, and in me: feeling the strange, hard little shape between my legs, trembling with fear and pain as I withdrew bloody curlers from inside myself, adoring a gentle and perceptive teacher, donning a discarded prom dress to escape my lonely world, and gently rocking my shameful spirit on its long, long journey to freedom.

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If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, there is help. Here’s a crisis text line, it’s discreet and could be the thing to save someone who’s hurting. https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/sexual-abuse/#understanding-sexual-abuse-1

 

Women, Rooted in Kindness

It’s World Kindness Day, a day for wearing cardigan sweaters a la Mr. Rogers and for random acts of kindness like paying for the latte of the lady behind you in the line at Starbucks. I am stuck on my sofa, snuggled up under a crocheted mossy green blanket, post-surgical bandaged knee propped up and crutches nearby for my occasional forays to the kitchen for cookies. I am not out and about in the world to share my own sprinkling of kindness, so I will do the next best thing: tell you of two of the kindest women I have ever known; women whose unexpected impact on my life and the lives of others cannot be measured.

I move pretty quietly through the world. I do not change the social temperature of a room by walking in. I listen and observe more than I speak. It’s not that I am afraid of speaking, in fact my voice has, at times, caused friction in relationships, especially in relationships with those who have certain ideas about how I am meant to interact with the world, or with women who, though friends, are competitive. My innate quietness has served to isolate me through much of my life. Even if it looked like I was surrounded by friends, I was likely lonely. But when the time was right, when my spirit, heart, and intellect were ready for new lessons, when I could hear what the Goddess had to tell me, She delivered two amazing women into my adult life. In my youth, there were women who filled that need, but when I became an adult, there weren’t as many. These two women fully attended to what I had to say. They heard me. We don’t often talk about the power of female mentoring. These mentors are not family members, they are just women who befriended me; and beyond friendship, they gave wisdom and advice and profound examples of something I wanted to emulate.

Ellen-Ketchum

Ellen was brassy and clever, with the mouth of a sailor and the heart of a warrior artist. She was a former administrator with a Tony Award winning regional theatre, and I met her when I auditioned for the role of Julie Jordan in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, Carousel. I walked into the theatre not really knowing much of anybody, but knowing that I loved Julie Jordan. I had a good audition, I got the part; and from that moment on, I had a new mentor.

Ellen made my family her own. She harmlessly flirted with my husband so he’d feel a little sexy, she grabbed on to my theatrical daughters and coached them, particularly the older daughter, who was beginning her college studies in theatre. For me? First, she reignited my confidence. I had struggled to find a home in the theatre community of our area; but she nurtured my talent and endorsed it. Publicly. Once, I walked into her theatre, where she was holding an acting class, and she introduced me to her students as “one of the best actresses in the Houston area.” Now, there are many amazing actresses in Houston, so the validity of that proclamation might be in question. But no matter, because there is, quite literally, no measure for what that compliment, coming from a former South Coast Rep staffer, did for me after years of being shuffled to the side in the town where I have struggled to do theatre.

Ellen had me choreograph, assistant direct, act, and sit. We would sit and talk shop after rehearsals. We would sit in her living room and drink glass after glass of white wine and pet her dogs, laugh with her roomie and swap stories about kids and other actors and husbands. In her bedroom, she displayed a gorgeous black and white photo of herself: in her forties, laughing a huge laugh. Ellen was the first ballsy woman I had ever truly known and deeply loved. She challenged and cultivated my bravura and my art.

Even as she languished in chemo for ovarian cancer, Ellen kept her toes bright red with professional manicures. She wore sandals, even though her ankles weren’t narrow and her feet were wrinkled. She brazenly lifted her shirt to “shoot up” with insulin, she didn’t care who saw her stomach. She didn’t wear makeup but she wore a smile as wide as her face and as big as her voice.

I miss Ellen every day. I miss her spirit, she radiated joy and tenacity and authenticity, no matter the cancer or the gray hair or the bastards that tried to hold her down. 

There has been another mentor, too. One who nurtured my spirit and mothered my soul. Dorothy.

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In our final youth ministry position, Dorothy was a church elder’s wife. She is a well of deep wisdom. Her walk with the Divine One is potent and real; it is her life’s work to act as an intermediary between God and Her beloved people, especially women. When my husband had to face the church and confess his addiction, it was Dorothy who sat in my living room and listened to my heartbreak, fury, and worry, without judgement. The next Easter, when I was barely able to walk with my chin up, it was Dorothy who took me shopping for my very own Easter outfit and shoes so that I could stride into the church building with a little spark of confidence. When I struggled with the temptation of attraction to another man, it was Dorothy I entrusted with that burden. She has been present through all the physical relocations, hers and mine. We have been involved in each other’s family weddings; my youngest was a flower girl in her daughter’s wedding, and they all came for my daughter’s wedding. We got to live with Dorothy and her husband one autumn for a month. Just at the time when my relationship with my son was undergoing a sea change and a prolonged silence, Dorothy was there to prop me up and keep me going. Here’s the thing about Dorothy: she is sweet, for sure. Gentle and kind and nurturing, yes, but she is sharp and wise and discerning, too, and when she perceives a threat to a loved one, she is resolute in her protection. For me, whose own mother was such a disappointment and void, Dorothy became Mother.

Both of these women listened with their full attention, they weren’t waiting for me to stop talking so that they could start. They didn’t interrupt. They didn’t have an agenda. There was never a sense that they wanted to change who I was. They just loved. They heard me. They saw me. They spent years cultivating these deep and precious friendships.

For learning how to love in the healthiest of ways, I had Dorothy to nurture me.

For learning how to live in the most courageous of ways, I had Ellen to show me.

For learning what authenticity really looks like, what finding my life’s mission and then embracing it wholly, I had both. Their kindnesses came not in syrupy-sweet, cutesy packages but in brave and truthful love and the living of it.

Beginning way back in childhood, I was the tag-along friend, the one who was, quite often, passive in the relationship. I have owned that- too often I waited to be included, standing to the side for silly photos instead of jumping in, keeping my ideas of what might be fun pastimes to myself, holding the secrets of my family safe. So many times, I have, in the presence of, shall we call them “strong personality” friends, just acquiesced and enabled my own hushed invisibility. To be honest, I was lonely in my own friendships.

What I have begun to understand as I write my life, is that authentic friendship is multi-directional. When a friendship is one-sided, when all conversations are from one point of view, when a friend no longer asks about you and interrupts your story to redirect the conversation back to herself, it’s time to rethink the friendship. Time to walk away and search for healthier relationships. I have learned that there are women who, when they are friends with someone like me, a quieter presence, will take care to include and invite, who don’t compete, who seek meaningful conversation, and who are trustworthy in the very best ways. Women who are actively kind, like I hope to be.

The Divine One has been kind enough to place people in my life now who, with nurturing and time, will be life-long friends. Friends with whom cynicism is not the regular language and score-keeping is not the modus operandi. Friends who, knowing I have been lonely, have stopped by the office to say hi, or sent encouraging messages, or sent precious gifts. People who are proving how powerful and nourishing it is to be seen and heard. Some of these women are from college, some from grad school, some from teaching, some from theatre, some from old churches. I love their diversity.

  Women can, and should, hold each other up. When we are together, our collective voice resonates and proclaims victory and strength. Vulnerable, authentic friendship with women I trust has become a non-negotiable aspect of my life. Kindness of the sort that is sacrificial, ongoing, and world changing is a constant, conscious effort. But it’s worth it. Ever so much.

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I loved this story of two English women using their gifts for crochet to spread a little kindness!

https://www.kenilworthweeklynews.co.uk/news/people/kenilworth-women-pass-out-crochet-hearts-with-messages-of-hope-for-world-kindness-day-1-9141537

 

Playing Church

When I was a little girl back in the mid-1970s, my brothers and I visited my grandparents during summers in dusty, windy Lubbock, Texas.

My grandmother was a professional seamstress and my grandfather was a carpenter, these were folks who made their living with their hands. Salt-of-the-earth people. Humble people. Wonderful people.

 

There wasn’t money for lavish entertainments when we visited, and my grandmother was always in the middle of sewing for paying customers, so our play was very simple. Simple and quite wonderful. In the cabinet where toys lived was a Dennis the Menace doll that I always played with, I am pretty sure it belonged to my father when he was a boy, or maybe one of his little sisters.  A can of Lincoln Logs kept me busily occupied, the can was of cardboard with a tin lid, they rattled and shook within that canister, letting us know that they were ready to build. There were board games and puzzles and paddle balls, lawn croquet was a favorite. I loved the way my grandmother said the word, “Wicket.” Her head kind of wiggled almost imperceptibly and her consonants were eloquently crisp.

 

But the game I remember best was when we “played church.”

It was always at Grandmother’s suggestion, but I didn’t mind. I was a little girl who loved church. My grandparents’ church was a beautiful one, with a sanctuary awash in sunlight. It was open and airy, with acoustics that made the robust a cappella singing that is the hallmark of my tradition reverberate through one’s chest and very heart. I remember Bible stories told on felt boards and enacted with puppets and singing “Roll the Gospel Chariot Along” with exuberance, running right over that old Devil with my tiny, righteous fists. There was a gentleman who kept his jacket pockets full of peppermints each Sunday morning so that the little ones in the congregation could slip their hands in for a treat and a sweet smile.

Back yard church was warm, the air sweet and juicy with the scent of my grandmother’s muscat grapes ripening on their vines. Bugs buzzed around our heads, as cicadas chirped an accompaniment to my song leading and preaching. My congregants were my two little brothers and some dolls; Grandmother fetched aluminum pie plates from the cupboard and set a handful of saltine crackers in them, and we were given a jelly glass of grape juice. With these sacraments in place, we passed the plates and imagined we were partaking of the body of Jesus.

I remember feeling loved and sensing God in those moments. It was a sweet game, a pretend with nothing but the purest heart of a little girl at its nucleus. Perhaps these memories are why I feel most in tune with the Divine One when outside, or in a small home church instead of in a building. Quiet worship suits me best.

Lots of folks “play” at church as adults, but their games are not genuine and wholesome. For too many, their faiths are not conduits to a true experience of God, they are instead a set of criteria, like chess rules, that are used to manipulate others into fear and compliance. Sometimes, the game-players strenuously clamber over others to be king-of-the-mountain, instead of walking in the shadowy low places, where humans hurt. The draw of the powerful is, to these churchgoers, more alluring than the ache of the broken and disenfranchised.

broken_cross_by_cantabrigianWe are, of course, seeing this play out on a national level, and our country is cracking under the pressure. There are politicians and public figures who are donning masks of piety, fooling some into believing there is no rot behind the facade. That matters, oh yes, it does.

It matters down here where the regular folk live, in church organizations where members play “politics-by-tithe,” more money is spent on smart lights or interior designers than on feeding the poor, or just plain old kindness is a rarer and rarer commodity. I don’t think that the problem in America is that we need more Christians, I think we need kinder Christians.

Put simply, faith is about kindness. It is “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” It is “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” It is “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”

I know I am imperfect in this. I sometimes speak cruelly. I often miss chances to serve, sometimes because I don’t realize, but also sometimes because I am just not into it.I can really screw this thing up.

There are days when I wish I could turn back the clock to when I was nine years old, confidently waving my arm back and forth as I sang “Blue Skies and Rainbows.” But I can’t. No, I just try to keep my soul connected to the One who matters. I watch and listen for Christians who aren’t playing games, who use the tenets of their faith to nurture, not needle. And I remember my sweet grandmother, her grapes, and pie plates of crisp, salty crackers.

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