There are a thousand previous versions of myself. They are not so different from one another, some a little sassier or little quieter, a little more doubtful or a little more confident. For most of my life they have bled into one another, and it is only later I can look back and see the change.
But when my friend Céline died, it was not a shaping or shedding but a rupture. When she was killed in a car accident in January, the version of myself I used to be shattered. She broke and forced me out of her before there was a new version for me to inhabit. It is as though I am without a shell, looking at all the other shells of myself I used to inhabit. These versions of myself I used to be are not so dissonant from me, but they are not me. They are not me as surely as my reflection is not me, as my favorite character is not me, as my best friend is not me. They are relatives, close but distinct.
Some of these versions I do not miss-angsty ones, dramatic ones, depressed ones. At 16 I was convinced I was wildly conspicuous and wholly inadequate, a feeling I wouldn’t reclaim for anything. At 25, however, I was exuberant and bursting in a way that makes me ache with longing to think about. It felt like every skin cell on body was a different possibility and every possibility was on fire. It felt like my life was a map with huge uncharted territories that were mine to explore.
The map I hold now is more filled in, and the woman I am is not quite so wild and unformed. I have made choices, which closed off other choices. My time in the blindingly blank spaces of the map has sometimes been thrilling, but often isolated and confusing, leaving me unsure if it was the map or I who was incomplete.
And, of course, both the map and I are incomplete. Not because we are inadequate as my 16 year old self feared, but because the world and I are always changing. Because my skin is not on fire anymore and part of me is devastated and part of me is relieved. Because there are landslides and earthquakes and the coastline of the soul is difficult to pin point.
I can feel the coastline shifting especially poignantly now, in the wake of Céline’s death. I can feel the sand slipping away beneath my feet, I can see debris and pebbles carried in by the waves. Perhaps it is no more true than it ever was, that I am becoming some other person, becoming some familiar stranger. It is just that I have mourned it, grasped at it, tried to keep the ocean from shaping the shore, from taking Céline, from taking me.
And yet we are both gone. Her body is gone and my former self is gone, and there is nothing to do but try to honor us both in this person I am becoming, in this new shell that is forming over my raw and swollen heart. This new person I’m watching myself become will probably not be so foreign from the other versions. I know she is sadder. She is both angrier and more empathetic. She is more forgiving of herself, and I hope she will be more forgiving of others. I hope that she will be like Céline and make friends everywhere she goes, that she will move towards fiery possibility instead of away from fear, that she will view faith and adventure as intertwined.
Most of all, when I leave behind this new stranger I’m becoming to become a different new stranger, I hope to bring these threads with me into every new self, that in my own quiet ways I can always live into both Céline’s and my possibility, be wild and gentle with both of our souls.
This July I became older than my older brother. It’s odd now that I’m older than him I don’t feel any more grown up than when I was younger than him. That has made me really look at my life and what I’ve done, what I want to do, and what I’m scared to do.
My brother passed away ten years ago. He had cancer and he lived almost three years with a terminal diagnosis and still looked pretty much like he always did. It wasn’t until the end that things got bad he became a shell of his former self. I am grateful for those three years because I valued and treasured all the time I spent with him during it. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him or wonder what he would think of me now, but that’s not what’s been on my mind lately.
He died at 34. I turned 34 this year. Our birthdays were exactly ten years and eleven days apart. When he died he had a three year old and a six year old, both boys. I have a three year old and a six year old, as well as a ten year old, all boys. I remember thinking that he always seemed like such a grown up and like he has everything together, even when he was sick. I don’t feel like a grown up even now. I don’t know what I’d do if I got sick, and I don’t know how I’d carry on being a parent knowing I was going to die. But he did. One of the last memories I have of him was explaining to his three year old why he has to be respectful to his mother. His last year was a brave year, braver than I will ever know. So now I ask myself, why are you so afraid? What holds you back? You have a year he never had do something with it.
So I have vowed to live this year my brother never got by not being afraid. I realize that’s a broad statement, and it’s meant to be. I’m not going to be afraid of new situations at my job, I’m not going to be afraid of being the parent that isn’t in the PTA, I’m not going to be afraid of speaking my mind to people. I’m going to stop being afraid that I’ll get cancer and die too. I’m not going to be afraid I don’t measure up, physically and personally. Those are the little things. I’m also going to learn to ride a motorcycle (I was always afraid of it). I’m going to get a tattoo with my best friend (I’ve always wanted to but guess what? Yep afraid). I’m going to let myself realize my dream this year of owning a business and working with my husband. We may not get it started this year, but we are not afraid to plan and to begin any more. I’m going to not be afraid to move far away if that’s where it leads us.
Basically, I’m going to stop giving myself limitations and excuses. My brother only had 34 years to live, and he did a lot. Hopefully I have a lot more to live. But his death gave me the gift of knowing how quickly that can change. It’s cliché to say “life’s short”, but it’s so true and so real. This is the year I owe my brother and myself. I’m ready to live a life without fear.
Trigger warning: Sexual Assault and Rape
I am a survivor of abuse and rape. I don’t ignore that reality, and I’ll never forget it. I take medicine for PTSD daily and am a client of the campus counseling center where I can get free therapy. But it’s also not my whole story. I am also a wife, a PhD student, a friend, and a daughter-in-law; but most importantly, I am a child of a loving God.
I was raped nearly three years ago by a fellow grad student whom I met at the bus stop not 100 meters from where I study and go to class. When he invited me back to his apartment, I didn’t know how to say “no.” In the past, saying “no” had merely earned me more abuse. But once we got to his apartment and he forced himself on me, I said “no” many times, anyway. I said “no” until I knew the inevitable was going to happen regardless of what I said. I retreated to the safe place behind the brick wall in my mind where I’d hidden a thousand times before. He asked me if I was a virgin, and I said yes. He told me that I actually wanted it—that he’d been with many women, and he knew how to make me happy.
Instead, he knew just how to give me a panic attack. When he saw me wheezing and gasping, he looked disgusted and kicked me out of his apartment. Somehow, I wanted him to keep me, to hold me, even though he had just raped me. Right then, he was all I had.
I saw him many times after that, walking to the bus stop that I was now afraid to use, on the campus I was afraid to step foot on but did daily anyway. At my masters program graduation, when I received the award for graduating first in my class, I knew he was there, watching me, even as my face was magnified a thousand times on the big screen.
My husband knows. A dozen times or more, I’ve cried in his arms and told him how I wish I could go back in time and make the sensible choice not to go to the apartment. My husband is kind, gentle, and understanding. With him, I’ve been able to explore intimacy freely and wonderfully. For those trauma survivors reading this and wondering if they can ever experience intimacy in a loving way, I can tell you that there is hope that you can.
But my husband is not my savior. He is not the one who is redeeming my sexuality and my life from the grave. God is doing that for me. God’s story as narrated in the Scriptures holds grave concern for women who experienced sexual violence—including King David’s daughter, Tamar, for instance, and women of Lamentations. And I think Jesus, the One whom I believe bore the sin and suffering of the whole world on his shoulders, understands the pain I’ve felt. Jesus was stripped, and his tormentors held up his nakedness as an object of mockery and humiliation. On the cross, he was exposed and ripped as much as I.
When I’ve prayed about my rape, I’ve sensed the rage of God. I grew up as a good, liberal Protestant, uncomfortable with the notions of God’s wrath. But in prayer, I’ve found that the rage of God is for me, not against me. God rages against that which destroyed my life. When I didn’t have the sense of self-worth to be angry for myself, God was angry for me. I experienced God’s wrath as a consuming fire that could overcome—and has already overcome—the graves of despair and self-hatred and shame and fear that surrounded me.
I am a survivor. But that’s not the lion’s share of my identity. I am redeemed—a word with its etymological roots relating to freedom from slavery. I am set free to love and be whoever God calls me to be.
They’re at every intersection in Nashville. The people selling their papers. Sometimes I catch myself thinking, “They don’t look like they’d be homeless. Wonder what their story is.” And then I remember.
Not so long ago I was lost. This wasn’t the Jesus’ salvation kind of lost, but the sort where my intuitive self got trapped in an unmanageable jumble. I was very alone in the world of depression and anxiety. People who survive well inside their own heads mystify me. I’m not like that. I need community. I need to check in with people to make sure my plans and ideas make sense. I’m so very envious of the folks who can think out something without ever conferring with another human being. I find it both fascinating and terrifying. What I do know is that when I listen to the voice within and seek out the wisdom of the people God sends my way amazing things happen.
During my homeless period a morning came when I was wondering where I’d be spending the next few days. My time where I had been staying was up and I had to move on to the next place. It had been like this for a few weeks. All my belongings were in a friend’s garage while I sorted out my next place of employment and a permanent address. A friend made me say aloud, “I am homeless” to help me wrap my head around the realness of my present state. A woman who worked with the local homeless population said, “You know you are eligible to sell The Contributor”, a local paper written and sold by those living on the street in Nashville. The words ricocheted around inside my bruised mind.
I was tired, scared, and grateful for friends who called with places and people who needed a house sitter or who were open to having someone stay in their home for a while. Rules changed with every new accommodation. Some places were not available to me during daylight hours. One time I was so desperately tired after a long night that I pulled off the road to nap for a few minutes before driving to another location. On this hot day when I fell asleep in my car under a tree, the occupant of a nearby house called the police about a woman who “looked suspicious” at the end of his sidewalk. The officer who came by was kind enough when I explained I had worked all night and a tiredness came over me such that I had to stop to prevent having an accident. What I didn’t say was that I had once owned a house in that very neighborhood. What I didn’t do was ask the man who felt threatened by my weary self what it was that caused him to feel afraid of me. I drove to a place where a dumpster blocked a small drive that would hide me while I slept until I could go “home” to the bed a friend had located.
Before this period I used to worry about becoming homeless and friends would say, “Now you know you could never really become homeless. That’s a fear everyone has at some time or other. That’s not going to happen to you.”
Well, it did, and the three month limit I gave God to sort things out until I had a place of my own again turned into two and half years.
There are levels of desperation within the world of homelessness. I had trappings that allowed me to not appear like I had no home address. My car and a post office box covered me like a tent. But finding a roof and bed in the evenings was when the heaviness of world settled in on me. Friends opened their doors to me for periods of time. I knew no one place would last forever. It didn’t feel right to stay past a certain point and sometimes my inner guide let me know when that was. Sometimes my host would offer a time period. It was never to get rid of me. The kindness of people kept my heart open. I will be forever grateful to the very long list of generous people who shared their space with me.
After conferring with my community who offered me their wisdom and guidance I ended up in divinity school. A fulltime job (finally) gave way to grad school. This was a God inspired thing and I don’t try to convince or prove it to anyone. Two years gone and I accept this is where I am meant to be.
What I know now. The faces at the intersection selling that paper could be mine or yours. There is no us and them. I don’t walk past someone with all their belongings in tow without doing something to acknowledge their humanity and the Imago Dei that is in all of us. When I see someone selling papers I don’t think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I am them and they are me. My soul aches because my very tired body once feared that having a physical address, a door to open of my own, would always be just out of my reach. No, my life is not somewhere out away from that intersection. I’m there and so are you. I see intersections as metaphor and we all live there. The gift is when we notice.
-Susan Hudson McBride
Releasing fractured memories
Secrets are uncovered
Within layers of untold history
Brush away the mystery
Remove the dark debris
The mosaic of discovery
Broken will be blended
In a life