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
I have a tattoo on my neck that reads D I V I N A.
It is the feminine term for divine, in Spanish. You see, I have chosen to affirm my greatness through my body, and I consider this tattoo a proclamation to myself and an affirmation to my female ancestors. I love this tattoo because it is an indicator for outsiders to know who they are dealing with, when they approach me.
Some might say, I hold my head too high.
My perceived pride, is not pride, it is perseverance. But people ask me, ALL the time: WHY DO YOU THINK SO HIGHLY OF YOURSELF? As if I should not be proud. As if I should simmer down…
But why???? I have parents who maneuvered class mobility with an ease that can only be described as perseverance.
When people made fun of me for not celebrating the Americanized versions of Halloween and Christmas, I had to own that reality or crumble under their snickers. I had to accept my culture.
When people questioned why I wore Goodwill/no-name clothes, instead of brand-name clothes, I had to own that too. I had to accept that we were poor.
When children asked me why I was so tall for a fourth grader, without any knowledge that migration kept me from school for an entire year, I had to own my age. I had to accept that my migration story was written all over my face.
I cannot afford to be weak, and I never want to be considered “less than” because I do not see myself as “less than.” Despite outsiders considering my culture, class, and migration status indicators of me being “less than,” I cherish mi tierra natal, my Goodwill clothes were a dream, and my migration means I have an entire family back home who all love me.
So I am not proud, I am simply working hard every day to keep you from erasing me from my story.
So discontinue perpetuating your reductionist ideas of humility onto my Latina immigrant feminism. I do not need it.
– Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez
I don’t remember how old I was. Eight or nine possibly. Some details didn’t stick in this guilty memory. But I remember the restaurant. It was a cheap pizza chain. I remember the smell of heat-lamp pizza and wilted pink salad with ranch. I remember the pleasure of seeing greasy wadded up paper napkins on empty beige plates next to half-drunk red plastic cups. Empty plates meant full tummies. And of course I remember distinctly the stained industrial carpet under the tables and chairs where I crouched and hid in mortification.
Blue collar establishments like this were our regular dinner destinations when I was a kid. They had cheap food and arcade games, and the dirty looks from paying customers aimed at parents of loud and messy children were limited because everyone here had loud and messy children. It was a community of worn out parents at the end of a long week. But all I cared about was gorging myself on all-I-could eat pizza and then begging for quarters to feed into the stack of machines at the back: Gumballs? Bouncy balls? Tattoos? The possibilities were endless in this magical place.
I don’t remember who I was with. I assume my family was there, but I can’t quite recall. Maybe it was a congratulatory trip with my Girl Scout troop for earning another badge. Or maybe we were out with my cousins. I know there were lots of kids around, I can remember that much. We were fed and wild, running around like we owned the place while moms and dads enjoyed much needed grown-up talk.
I needed to go to the bathroom. Or we were playing around in the bathroom. I don’t remember. Sometimes kids just like to run in and out of places, you know? So whatever the reason, I was running headlong into the bathroom, pushing through the swinging door only to run into a body on the other side. A child’s body, like mine, but a little bigger. Stockier. Taller. I looked up at him and realized it was a him. And I was instantly sure he was in the wrong place.
And because I was eight or nine or however old, and because at that time and for a long time after I was in a constant state of desperation for approval from my friends, and because I had been running around and my adrenaline was pumping, I felt like I had courage. And then I made a mistake.
Someone was rushing in after me. I turned to her, a friend, a cousin, someone I can’t remember, and I said, “Don’t come in here! There’s a boy in here!” And I was laughing at the awkwardness of it, certain it was funny. Wasn’t it funny for a boy to be in the girls’ bathroom? Wasn’t that weird? Shouldn’t we laugh about it together?
She did laugh, this friend of mine, whoever she was, and she turned around and ran out. And I turned back to the boy, the child around my age or a little older. I don’t know why I turned back instead of rushing out with whoever I was with. Did I want him to laugh with me? To realize his silly error and feign embarrassment and then come play with us? Did I want to be friends for the night? Or did I feel badly for laughing at him? Did I want to make sure he didn’t dislike me for actually embarrassing him? I don’t know. I don’t remember.
I stood there in the doorway looking at him, and I saw anger and disgust staring back at me. I was instantly shamed. He was hurting and I knew I had caused it. And then he took a step towards me and said angrily, “I’m a girl!”
And I realized he was definitely a girl. And I was stupid. I was a stupid little kid who didn’t know the difference between boys and girls. This girl had short hair, and was dressed like a boy, but she was most definitely still a girl. I didn’t learn the word androgyny until many years later, but I’m sure this was my first experience with non-normative gender expression.
Oh the shame of an eight or nine year old or however old I was! Oh the humiliation, the mortification! I couldn’t stand and face her another second, so I turned around and dove under a booth far away from the restroom door and I knelt in embarrassment. And as the tears brimmed I watched from beneath the table as she walked out of the restroom, her head held high. She met her parents at the door where they were waiting for her, and they all exited gracefully, seeming to possess more knowledge of the ways of the world than I could even imagine.
I sat there a long while under that table. That carpet was filthy. And I felt filthy.
Guilty memories like these are the ones that stick with you the longest I think. I still wonder about that girl. How often was she told she was in the wrong place? How often did she have to defend her identity to ignorant children and adults alike? Where is she now? Is she still a girl? Does she like women (like I sometimes do)? Is she confident? Is her hair still short? I desperately wish I knew her. I want to tell her I’m sorry for giving her an identity she didn’t claim. I want to tell her I’ve learned more things now, that I’m not as stupid as I was.
And then I look around at the life I’ve made for myself and the beautiful wonderful company of the friends I keep. And I realize I do know her in a way. And when I speak to these friends and listen to their stories of injustices wrought on their personhood, I earnestly repent of my sin and beg forgiveness and seek to do better today and everyday than I did on that day as an eight or nine year old or however old I was. I don’t remember.
I cannot tell you how I first came up with the idea for HerStory without first telling you about a place called Thistle Farms. Thistle Farms is a social enterprisese and nonprofit located in Nashville, Tennessee, and during the last year of my graduate program at Vanderbilt Divinity School I was their full time intern. The company makes natural body products, healing oils, and a few household goods. But that is not what is special about Thistle Farms. Thistle Farms is special because women who have survived trafficking, addiction, and life on the street make the products. These women come to Thistle Farms in search of recovery and a new life. They are given two years of free counseling, housing, and treatment, while also being given the chance to earn a living wage and learn the skills that they need to become free and independent women. It is from these women that the idea for HerStory was born.
The women of Thistle Farms are the most joyful creatures I have ever encountered. They have been hurt and broken in unimaginable ways but they have so much joy for whatever life has to offer. It is a joy that oozes from them, seeping from their old wounds and manifesting in songs, dancing, laughing, and story telling. Its contagious, the way they choose to live their lives, acknowledging their pain, but understanding that the world holds more.
Halfway through my internship I asked my advisor if I could start to teach a creative writing class to some of the women. I had already helped a handful of women write down their experiences, and I wondered if more could be done. My advisor agreed and right away my mind started racing–character development, plot lines, and open mic sessions. The possibilities were endless. Or so it seems.
On my way home that afternoon it hit me. Not the fact that I had never taught a creative writing class, I had taken enough to know what I was doing. I realized I was not taking into consideration the women I would be teaching. I was so focused on having the perfect class, on making it fun and fulfilling that I forgot about my students. My students were not going to be looking for the type of class I wanted to teach. They were not scholars or academics. They were not college freshmen looking to find themselves in their writings. They were women with extraordinary stories of pain, violence, healing, and forgiveness. They were strong brave women, who had more life experience than your average college freshman. I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake. What if I offended someone with a topic I chose? What if they laughed at me? What if no one came to my class?
“What would you like to write about?” I asked a week later, while sitting in the living room of one of the Thistle Farms recovery houses. Nearly 20 women sat with me. Watching me, their eyes eager and excited. They were filled with anticipation. I only hoped I could deliver.
“I want to tell my story,” one of the women said. “I have a story inside and I want to tell it. I need to tell it.” Women started nodding their heads. “I want to tell my truth.”
And that was what happened. We told our truths. It was so simple. I threw out my outlines and plans and every week I went in with a small prompt, and every week I was floored by the way the women responded, with truth, and beauty, and grace.
For three months we met once a week and wrote about ourselves. Even when I gave other story or poetry prompts everything came back to the stories of our lives. Everything came back to telling the truth about ourselves and discovering our narratives.
I say “our” because I wrote along with the women. It only seemed right that I too should share intimate parts of my life with them as they were with me. Every week we wrote about ourselves, and every week I learned more about who I was because these women were teaching me to look inside of myself and pull out my own story, my own history.
I soon realized that it wasn’t just these women sitting in the sunny living room of a halfway house who had stories to tell. I had a story of life on a farm, of a struggle to understand myself as a woman, a lover, and an independent soul.
My friends had stories.
My teachers had stories.
Women I saw in the grocery store had stories.
Stories were everywhere just waiting to be told—to be discovered. It was in this moment of realization that I knew I had to do something. Whose voice wasn’t being heard? Who was feeling lost and alone because they did not know someone in another state—another country—had experiences similar to theirs? All women have stories. All girls. All females.
I grew, sitting in that room with so many brave women. I grew listening to their stories. As I told my story along with them I was validated, loved, and supported. My story was just as important as their stories. Your stories are just as important as my story. We all share the common bond of being women, of calling ourselves female. And often we share the heartache of not getting to tell our stories—of not feeling valid, or heard, or needed—of being made to feel we are unequal, of looking at fashion models and thinking that is the body we must achieve. HerStory exists to tell our stories, to learn, to pass no judgment, and to come together as keepers of our own histories.
Every Story Matters.
-Julia Nusbaum, Creator