By Candy Alexandra.
In 2015, I had the chance to experience the FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden. It was the first time I met her in person. I embarked on the long, sweltering train ride to the Bronx alone. That trip was just about us--me and Frida. As I stood in a room full of visceral self portraits detailing her ailments, I understood that the pain I felt in Frida’s narrative was brushed onto each canvas by lucid hands. I was puzzled and astonished that she was able to immortalize broken bones through such clarity and beauty.
In his introduction to The Diary of Frida Kahlo, Carlos Fuentes also wonders about Frida’s ability to coherently render lived pain in her portraits. He asks the question: “How did Kahlo transform personal suffering into art--not impersonal, but shared?”
I reiterate: “Not impersonal, but shared." It’s been three years since that meeting with Frida--I am now more focused on learning to share my personal suffering, which is not an easy undertaking for a person who learned to grieve in private. This piece is a step in that learning process.
A year after meeting Frida, I had an accident of my own. It was unexpected and unwelcome, especially since it fell in between the first and second year of my MFA program. I was using papermaking equipment I’d used dozens of times before, but accidents don’t need more than a second to alter the course of a life.
tender flesh surrenders
Virgencita, ¿qué me pasó?
to unrelenting steel
Virgencita, ¿qué hago?
r u p t u r e
Virgencita, dáme fuerza
sutures etched to skin
dáme fuerza, dáme fuerza
unbreakable meets frail
protégeme, cuida mi mano
f r a c t u r e
ten piedad de mí, protégeme
bone turns to dust
quítame el dolor, quítame el dolor
surprise turns to unmitigated pain
dáme fuerza, dáme fuerza
confusion to shame to confusion to pain to
pain to confusion to shame to panic to
no me dejes caer
I tried to wake up.
While I only came into art-making midway through college, I’ve always been confident in my manual dexterity. As a kid, I excelled at crafting, teaching myself to draw and sew. With the help of Food Network Stars, I taught myself to cook, bake, and decorate cakes. When I took my first formal drawing class halfway through college, I felt as if I’d been touched by a higher power. Who would I become if I lost my ability to use my dominant hand?
While in the ER, I vividly remember being consumed by the fear that my right hand would not recover functionality. In that moment I thought about Frida. Pies para qué los quiero, si tengo alas pa’ volar. Pies para qué los quiero, si tengo alas pa’ volar. In her diary, Frida says, “Feet, what do I want them for if I have wings to fly.”
I gratefully regained full functionality. Puckered seams live on my fingers as a reminder that my prayers were heard. Yes, the breaking of my bones were indescribably painful—though in what I believed to be the height of my pain, I longed to arrive at my time for healing. I did not expect that healing would be equally as painful as the breaking.
My relationship with pain and healing has always been messy, at best. I am a first-generation immigrant, Latinx femme, raised by a warrior whose method of healing from trauma is to work herself numb. According to Maria, mi mamá, there is no time for depression when one is working. Her logic is that physical exhaustion stifles emotional suffering. Less than a month after my cast was removed, I returned to Philly to finish grad school. After all, I am my mother’s daughter. I slowly savored the victorious moment I returned to my grad program. I thought my studio practice would be the perfect antidote to the stiffness in my fingers. At first, it was. In the months after my accident, I focused on healing physically in order to return to my life. I was eager to move forward.
My ability to empathize with telenovela and movie characters’ suffering is often cause for teasing from my family. However, I’m a llorona that prefers to suffer in solitude. This is the result of deep socialization that taught me to believe that tears are a sign of weakness and lack of self-possession. These two attributes are typically associated with femininity and, as someone whose natural instinct is to push back against stereotypical tropes of femininity, I learned to suppress tears of personal, emotional trauma as often as possible. After my accident, I recounted a sanitized version of the story to each person who just had to know what happened. The more I spoke of it, the more I minimized the emotional impact the accident left buried within. My healing process became a performance and I, a method actor. I told myself--and those around me--that I was fine so often I began to believe it. After all, I am my mother’s daughter. The world must not know how much I hurt.
I descend from
a long, resilient line
of women named
Maria, who hide
their pain in the crease
between their brows
who only cry
in the dark
who carry the worry
of their familia on their backs
who have become hunched
by the weight of it all
who wear lying smiles
in the face of every challenge
in front of their children.
I wear that smile too often.
A crack is growing
at the corner of my mouth.
My instinct to seek isolation in the face of adversity is alarmingly strong. Before my mind registers that I am about to cry, the parchedness in my throat and shortness of breath has triggered my eyes to search for refuge. If that fails, I bow my head down or look away, retreat to a headspace awash with shame. Allowing myself to be vulnerable in front of others is difficult and counterintuitive, and I know I’m not alone in this. We adopt these attitudes of propriety from a tender age. Cry baby, cry baby, cry baby! ¡ Llorona! Boo hoo! Big girls don’t cry! ¡Para de llorar! Grown ups don’t cry! We begin to internalize this language before we even set foot on a playground.
I spent the moments in which I most needed solidarity from my loved ones accompanied only by my own shadow. I eventually came to writing as process of healing. I wrote my chapbook Process because I could only ever be honest about my trauma with my writing journal. I don’t blame myself for closing off and putting up a front during my recovery. I felt like I had something to prove: that I couldn’t be knocked down. As a woman, especially as a woman of color, I didn’t want to allow others to minimize my trauma. I thought I could beat them to it. Oh, it’s not that bad. You’re lucky; it could have been worse. I was still given these unwelcome judgments on how I should be feeling. So, why deny myself the nourishing warmth from the compassionate people who offered it?
Since reading Angela Davis’ Freedom is a Constant Struggle, I can’t stop thinking about the extent to which Western society’s internalized ideas of individualism and expectations of individuality contribute to systems of oppression. Throughout the book, Angela Davis reminds us that none of us are free until we are all free. She reminds us that individualism is often a capitalist, white supremacist tool used to prevent an oppressed majority from coming together to work towards collective liberation. I mention Angela Davis’ teachings because ideas of individualism bleed into our understanding of how we should experience pain and healing. We’ve learned to build walls that both prevent us from reaching outward and discourage others from reaching inward. In the past, I have kept instances of struggle to myself because: I do not want to burden others, we all have shit to deal with, I assume others won’t understand and empathize, I am afraid I will be perceived as weak, etc. I repeat, I know I am not alone in this. Unlearning these toxic ideas that I have inherited and internalized is hard work. I am currently in the process of divorcing every instinct that drives me to isolation in moments of suffering. Inspired by Frida, I've determined that, for me, that process begins with sharing.
Candy Alexandra is a Latinx papermaker, printmaker, book artist and young poet from Miami, Florida. She began writing creatively during a letterpress workshop in 2015, where she was encouraged to write for her visual work. After resisting and eventually giving in to gentle encouragement, she wrote her very first poem and loved it. In her visual and written work, Candy captures the essence of her experiences as a first generation Latinx immigrant in the United States. She received her B.A. in Romance Language and Literature from Mount Holyoke College in 2014, and her M.F.A. in Book Arts and Printmaking from The University of the Arts in 2017. You can keep up with her on Instagram @candy_alexandra1.
By Lora Mathis.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the information our communication styles carry about our childhoods, histories, and traumas. The ways we communicate with others — especially in moments when emotions run high — are maps to how we have been hurt, our perceptions about the world, and the defenses we have built to navigate it.
Last night, I read through screenshots that my close friend Sam* sent me of a text conversation with their recent ex, Alex*. Too tired to offer a helpful response, I allowed my eyes to lose focus of the paragraph-length messages, and went to sleep.
When I combed through the messages in the morning, I realized that as much as I could relate to Sam’s heartbreak, the conversation contained toxic expressions of anger. I knew that to be a friend was to not simply validate their hurt, but to point out the ways their conversation seemed harmful.
I bring up my friend’s experience (with their consent) because of how many pieces of myself I see in it, and how, through it, I became aware of how my anger has shifted in the past year.
My childhood was a time of confusion and blocks in the road. I moved twelve times in ten years, and more than I can remember most childhood memories, I remember my consistent feeling of disorientation. I was confused by the moving trucks parked outside our home every summer. The new schools, the loss of built-up friendships, and the continual lack of familiarity did not make sense to me. Nor did my mother’s pain — how she would sob in the car while driving my brother and I to school, then spend hours crying on the phone with my drunk step dad and tromp downstairs, her voice sharpened into a tool of rage.
To mark time in my memory, I think back to the homes our small family had shared. Eleven years old was a three bedroom apartment in North County San Diego, decorated almost entirely in white; the couch was white, the carpet was white, the walls were white — and we were not to touch any of it.
I remember how routine it was, in this spotless space, for my brother or I to provoke my mother into a fit of fury. I cannot vividly recall the actions that would enlist one of these fits, only that it would not take much.
My mother would react to our behavior by turning so red she was almost purple. Her face would contort into the shape of a rotting berry and she would begin to scream. Her loudness filling our small apartment, until the sharpness in her voice gave way to choking. She would chase after whoever was the cause of the rage in that instance, sending us running to our shared bathroom, hurriedly locking the door behind us. From the corner of the living room, my sister would yell, YOU'RE KILLING HER! as my mother’s face transformed into a terrible, purple thing, spilling hatred.
I did not know how to make sense of the rage that overtook my mother. Instead, I learned to navigate interactions with her with great care — to swallow the noise in a room, to tiptoe in my speech in order to judge her mood. This navigation took a significant amount of energy. And, as time proved, silence did not necessarily put an end to the fury, nor was it easy for me to maintain.
I would bite my tongue until I cracked. Sometimes my cracking would come as an instance of seemingly uncontrollable rebellion. All at once, I would grow tired of my quiet, my unwilling obedience, my hopes that silence would cease the screaming. In those moments, a rude comment would spill out of my mouth, provoking a larger fight and unraveling my carefully crafted self-preservation methods.
In other instances, my mother would make a calloused remark, one that I would typically respond to with controlled patience, but — perhaps because of a bad day or my defenses being worn thin — I could not handle at that moment. I would begin to scream, to cry, to punch myself in the face, to tear at my hair and bang my head against my bedroom walls. The rage would take over, transforming me, like it transformed my mother, into a thing made wild by its own hurt.
Each time I succumbed to rage, I would be filled with an intense amount of self-loathing. My anger made me feel weak and uncontrollable. Following each break down, I would tell myself, It will be better next time. If I just hold my tongue for longer. If I just learn to be quieter, silently hoping to will myself into the shelter of invisibility.
This was the pattern my mother and I played out for years, with our rage mostly ignored outside of the moments it was expressed. Occasionally it would become a joke passed around the dinner table, my mother laughing about my inability to remain calm when provoked, and my self-inflicted rage bruises. She confidently deemed me angsty as I self-consciously touched at the ever-sore purple spot on my cheek that I told friends was caused by me slipping on ice.
It took me years to recognize my household as a site of emotional trauma. To realize that this place of screaming and anger was not present in everybody’s homes. The few times I brought friends over, my shoulders were hunched with dread, fearing that at any moment my home would descend into fury. I worried that someone would witness this anger and be horrified. The time I shared with friends allowed me to momentarily shrug off the dysfunction of home, and to craft the illusion that it was escapable. For them to witness the anger, and discuss it with me outside my home, was to dismantle that illusion. That illusion was what made my home manageable; it was what allowed me to exit my mother’s car before school and walk into first period with my tears wiped away, a wavering smile on my face.
Later, I would learn that this anger would not disappear once I left my mother’s home. It had weaved its way into my speech and reactions, and become an almost-physically present coil to untangle. Still, when I left my mother’s house to move to Portland with a partner, I was thankful for the escape from that environment.
Portland was a dim, moldy basement that was always on the verge of flooding. I treasured the safe place my then-partner and I created out of our friends’ art, Craigslist free-section furniture, and objects from abandoned homes. It was not an especially cute room, but it was ours. To me, who had previously lived in a place where I never felt like anything was mine, it was everything.
Still, there were nights when my emotions were pummeling waves that left me no time to catch my breath. Leaving my mother’s home meant accessing bits of myself I had long pushed down and coming to a deeper sense of self-understanding, but it also meant crying on our mold-ridden carpet and not understanding why, or how to stop. It meant running into the street some nights, overwhelmed by my own emotional weight, while my then-partner continued to fold laundry, unaware of the roar of the waves I was under.
Now, as I read the texts Sam sent to Alex, I remember my behaviors at the end of my relationship with my then-partner. Back then, my head felt like a foggy terrain I was navigating without a flashlight. When I was upset, I would shut down, and rather than explaining what was in my head, I would begin to cry, sometimes ceaselessly for hours. Other times I would leave to tearfully stumble through the shadowed neighborhood, dizzyingly exhausted by my own dramatics. Or, I would spit out a brash, reactive comment to whoever had prompted — or was witnessing — my cracking, which, at that time, was often my then-partner. Following these emotionally charged reactions, I would feel immense self-disgust for my lack of control and for behaving this way in the midst of someone I cared about.
It was not simply that I was spilling out fury senselessly, it was that I did not know how to exist beneath the weight of memory. A slight tone of rudeness in someone’s voice would provoke me into tears. A swell of life-suggestions from my then-partner — even if they were rooted in the desire to help — would cause my defenses to harden. Criticism from them would feel like a return to helplessness. In all of these instances, I often communicated my feelings unproductively; my voice whittled into a tool for rage, my anger a thick flame beating hot and resolute.
I text Sam, Although I know you're very angry with them, and you do have valid reason to be, I think it's still a good call to pick apart the language you've both used and see how you both bring out toxic bits of each other.
Sam tells me they’ve been silent and quiet and good and chill this whole time. They tell me they feel crazy, and I understand. I know how trauma can shape a person into a wild thing, filled with a rage that they do not comprehend. How it can cause you to take out your anger on those who are undeserving, and to behave self-destructively. How it can leave you with a mangled mess of learned communication habits that you must work to untangle, while also trying to validate the feelings that produced the anger.
Last month, I flew from Philly to the West Coast to visit my then-partner in the hospital. In the car with my mom, driving from Los Angeles to her house in San Diego, I was silent as our small talk gave way to her telling me that abuse is cyclical. That how she communicated with me was a result of the way her mother has treated her. I stayed quiet. I had waited years for her to say this to me, but was hesitant, waiting. I wanted what she had to say to be said without me forcing it.
She told me about how the last time she visited her 93-year-old mother in Montreal, her mother had turned to look at her at one point and spit out in French, Look at you. Five husbands. What have you done with your life? You failure.
Later, she chased my mother out of her apartment by hitting her with a dish rag. My mother recanted, I had nowhere to go. I had just cancelled my hotel reservation because she asked me to stay with her. With a mother like that, who needs enemies?
I was surprised when my long-kept anger was swallowed and I calmly replied, She is jealous that you were able to leave toxic marriages when she stayed in her own till he died. She is 93 and her life has not turned out how she hoped. It’s not fair or okay. You deserve to be treated differently. She has a huge amount of hurt that she does not know where to put, so she takes it out on you.
Sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s car, watching Southern California move past us as a blur of apartment buildings and dead shopping malls, I became aware of the depth of hurt that is carried in my family. How the women in it have held it close to them for years. They stayed in unhappy marriages and homes, believing that solving their unfulfillment was secondary to fulfilling familial and societal obligations. I realized how similar my mother’s pain looks to my grandmother’s, and to mine. Everything my mother says about her mother, I have felt about her.
My mother said, She’s evil. I’m never talking to her again. I’m never going to see her again.
This filled me again with a pang of familiarity, as I remembered my childhood desires to leave without a note, to slip out at night and have my empty, tousled sheets be combed over. How, under the yellow lamplight of my bedroom, I would craft escape plans that would quickly feel too difficult to carry out beneath the exhausting weight of helplessness. As my fantasies of getaway travels wilted, my desperation to get away melted into perpetual suicidal urges. I wanted so badly to find relief from the fighting, to be gone.
I thought of some of my close friends who have cut toxic mothers out of their lives, and how I have unwaveringly supported them in their decisions, knowing someone should never be asked to unwillingly maintain a relationship with someone who has hurt them.
Still, with a patience that surprised me, I broke my quietness by telling my mother that while her anger is valid and I understand it, I did not want her to not say goodbye before her mother died and regret it.
She sighed and told me I did not understand.
I admitted to her that I had thought about cutting her out of my life the year before, when, right after my then-partner and I had broken up, I moved to Philadelphia. I told her how I had considered changing my number, not providing my new address, and never contacting her again.
That’s ridiculous, she said. You would have hurt yourself more than me. Your anger will eat you up.
Although I was hurt by her shrugging off my desire to escape, I knew she was right. My anger was eating me up. Instead, I want to change things. I want to redefine what our relationship could look like.
There is an Anne Carson quote, from Grief Lessons, that says: Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.
When I study my anger, and my mother’s anger, and her mother’s anger, I see it as a processing of grief. It is a grieving of unlived dreams, of plans suspended to tend to obligations, of hopeful selves which were deteriorated by duty, of loves that spoiled, of painful childhoods, of families that did not show us the validation and care we craved. We are in grief, and so, we are furious.
I text Sam, I understand you've been fighting to be heard and that the aggression probably comes partially from the place of being silenced. You gotta find a way to validate yourself and to communicate with them with a clear head. You gotta get out that anger, see what it's rooted in, and then express the roots — not the anger itself.
I suggest that they apologize for lashing out. They tell me they are tired of being the bigger person, that they are always apologizing without receiving one in return.
And then they text, Reminds me too much of my mom.
I type, I feel you, it sucks so much to constantly be the one apologizing. No one who has hurt you will ever create the space of acknowledgment and care you crave. You gotta create that space for yourself, sit yourself down and remind yourself how valid your pain is, and how deep it runs.
I am surprised that the advice I gave myself for the past year, in the shadows of my Philadelphia bedroom, has now become my initial reaction. I tell them the things I have been teaching myself for a year. That we must remember that anger is not the starting point. That pain comes first, and anger is almost always a reaction. That learning our anger allows us to know whether we are responding to a present situation or a built-up well of invalidation.
For two years after I left my mother’s, I carried intense bitterness whenever I was around her, even if she was polite to me. I would remember previous fights, and become upset, often making defensive comments until the talk was pushed into fury.
I waited years for a conversation with my mother that I hoped would take away all pain. I wanted for sorry to be said until all childhood aching was scrubbed away, until there was nothing but glowing clarity. But the conversations we have had about past events have not provided the deep validation I have waited for, nor do I think they ever totally could. It has been found in time I’ve spent unraveling the tangled ball of my learned defense tactics, slowly and carefully working myself through.
Sitting on the roof of our Philadelphia row home in the humid, mosquito-ridden summer, my friend Terra tells me how she tries to ensure that her communication is non-violent. When I talk to her about a text I am writing to express my discomfort with a situation, she nudges at bits of my language, trying to get me to see from the other person’s point of view. At first I am internally defensive about this. I am right!, I want to tell her. But when I sit with this feeling, I realize she is not trying to invalidate me, nor declare anyone as right, but instead, cause me to look deeper.
I delete any passive aggression woven into my message. The “lol” at the end of a comment. Any instance of finger pointing. With care, I pick apart my language to see what of it is being used to garner a specific reaction.
Untangling passive aggressiveness and apologizing for lashing out do not have to be complete acceptances of the hurt others have caused. They can be awareness that our anger, and how we express it, is our responsibility, even if we didn’t ask for it.
I tell Sam, It is painful to have all this hurt and want someone to make it go away, but we have to learn how to communicate with others in a healthy way. To apologize when we lash out. To know that our pain is valid but that people aren’t punching bags. To heal ourselves by sorting through all these layers. It’s hard work, it's lonely work, but it's necessary.
Anger is a twisting, mangled root, and working through it involves breaking the soil to trace it to the stem. I want to break my family’s cyclical fury. I want to validate myself in a way I have been searching for my whole life — in a hoped for apology in my mother, in the safety I create with my friends. I want to forgive myself for the ways I have taken out a hurt too big for me to understand — both on myself and others — and to do better. I want expressing my hurt to leave me feeling well-articulated and clear-headed, not ashamed. I want to grant myself permission to move forward. I want to keep writing myself into understanding; my fingers deep in thick soil, my anger an uprooted thing drying out on the dirt, shriveling in the clarifying Southern Californian sunlight.
*Names have been changed.
Lora Mathis is a writer, artist, and musician from Southern California. Their work is used as a tool for internal healing, and often focuses on unlearning, intimacy, and self-awareness. They are the author of two poetry collections, the most recent being instinct to ruin, and have been featured in The Huffington Post, Paper Mag, Words Dance, and more. You can keep up with their work on Patreon, and follow them on Instagram @falling_n_laughing.
Photos and interview by Terra Olvr.
Kate Foley is a 23 year old writer based in Easton, Pennsylvania. Recognized by the Academy of American Poets, her poetry has been featured in Thought Catalog, Voicemail Poems, The Legendary, Words Dance, and more. Her debut collection, The Bird Hours, was published by Where Are You Press in May 2017, and is now available on Amazon. She has performed in slams, speakeasies, and high school classrooms, among other places. She is the founder of Crooked Arrow Press, and is very excited for their inaugural issue to launch in January. Passionate about healing, dog kisses, and embroidery, she's here to help however possible.
Hi Kate! We're incredibly honored to have you here. In what ways has writing been cathartic for you?
In my experience, writing has been a restoration process. The creative journey I’ve taken has allowed me to transform myself from an aimless person into somebody with direction. Poetry is purposeful for me — not in a this will get published and I can advance in my career way, rather in a this will help me come to terms with my life and I can advance in my own self-growth way. Over the years, I’ve learned to harness suffering and turn it into art. For me, it’s all about channeling my feelings into something that I think is bigger than myself.
Our own writing can be a powerful message for our future selves. I often find myself revisiting poems I wrote years ago to remind myself, "Yes, I've been through this before, so this I can overcome." Are there any poems of yours that help you recenter? That remind you of who you are, who/where you have been, and who you hope to grow into?
With The Bird Hours specifically, “What We Lost in the Casino” comes to mind. Written about the first time I realized I had a drug problem, this poem keeps things real for me. I no longer need to compromise my values to be happy. Whenever I read or perform this piece, it cements in me the fact that I don’t have to go back there. Another poem that helps me recenter is “Seven Things I Need to Tell Myself to Make It Through the Day.” The mantras written in “Seven Things” are ones I forget pretty easily. You could argue I need this poem in order to continue healing from trauma. I’m grateful the past version of myself is consistently looking out for current me.
What does your self-care practice look like to you?
What’s magical about self-care is that it looks different for everyone. Sometimes, for me, it means wiping off the residue of my makeup from the previous day or only leaving the house to buy cigarettes. Self-care is survival and surviving is not easy for everyone. When taking a shower becomes a victory, it doesn’t always feel like a triumph. But when the basic things become a struggle I know I have to treat myself with nothing but tenderness. I deserve to love myself. I deserve to make it through another day. I deserve to stay.
How has community been important to you?
After my most recent sexual assault, I was afraid to go about my daily life because my rapist knew where I lived, where I worked, where I went to my support group. I shared with my friends what I was going through and the support I received really came to the forefront. People let me crash on their couches and cry on their balconies. They drove me to the ER to get a rape kit. They picked me up from the police station. My friends showed up when I needed them. It dawned on me that I have several beautiful circles filled with love and care. I felt listened to, supported, and believed. Without community, I would have been more lost than I already was.
Who are some of your influences, both creative and otherwise? What about them resonates with you?
My friend Christopher and I were discussing gateway poets the other night. We asked each other what writer ignited our own craft from the start. The first person that came to mind was Andrea Gibson. I remember someone showing me a YouTube video of Andrea reading Maybe I Need You sometime in high school. Hearing their words resonated with me because it just seemed like Andrea felt everything so deeply. I could identify with that. I’ve always felt my feelings loudly. Other creative influences of mine include Megan Falley, Amy Winehouse, Cat Power — anyone who can spin their emotions into words because that’s always what I’ve aspired to do. It’s what I try to do on the regular.
On top of being a writer, you're also a spoken word performer. How does sharing these vulnerable pieces of yourself in physical spaces differ from sharing your work in print?
Speaking my poems aloud is like a therapy session but with a whole crowd of people. Although I’m grateful to have my work in print, especially as it is more accessible for others, sharing my work in a public space allows me to find a sort of solidarity that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Having venues such as open mics and slams allows me to confront my past while also valuing the present moment. I think life gets a lot easier when you don’t have any secrets. I do my best to live up to that philosophy.
You recently launched Crooked Arrow Press, a new publishing press "which explores movement and passion and art." Can you tell us a little bit about the meaning behind the name, and the vision for the press?
Arrows are typically straight and fly in a steady direction. The concept of a crooked arrow hit me. If it was crooked, the arrow would still probably shoot forward, just not linearly. Life isn’t linear. There are bumps, falls, hiccups. I like to believe that it’s okay to struggle, so long as you struggle forward. Crooked arrows do this. My hope with Crooked Arrow Press is that we can give a platform to poets through two themed online anthologies a year. We eventually hope to make the jump to print. On a more emotional level though, the vision is that the writers published in Crooked Arrow will represent the radical act of movement.
The first issue you will be releasing through Crooked Arrow Press is centered around the theme of platonic love poems. For me, the unending support of friendship has played a key role in finding the confidence in my voice and belief in my life-path, though I've only recently learned how to pour as much love into my friendships, work, and self as I used to solely pour into partners. How has platonic love been important to you?
How a stranger becomes an acquaintance becomes a friend is totally mystical to me. I find strength in these bonds because, ultimately, these people I choose to have in my life provide a level of comfort I haven’t found anywhere else. There is pure encouragement, pure support. It’s a sort of love where you want to see each other grow. I’d even argue that you can find the same butterfly moments as you did with romantic love. Friends are precious.
In The Bird Hours, you boldly share your experiences with mental illness, addiction, and recovery. Healing often feels like an ongoing process that constantly demands we dive into ourselves, untangling the pieces that draw us to certain habits, behaviors, and conditioned responses to our environments. How do you define healing? And how do you hold space for yourself when healing doesn't look the way others expect it to be?
Honestly, healing can be exhausting. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. What’s interesting about healing is that there’s no official final goal. If there was, it would be to just live. Healing means life and I like being alive. Although, it’s up for interpretation for everyone, which is really appropriate given that everyone is healing from different things. I hold space for myself when my process is looked down on by allowing myself to feel things fully and by reminding myself that there is no perfect way to get better.
In what ways do you hope The Bird Hours will speak to those facing an active addiction, and to those in recovery?
I hope that addicts who read my work can identify with the story I’ve told. The Bird Hours has taken on a new meaning to me since its publication in May. My collection gives me courage, strength, and hope. My biggest dream is that it can do the same for anyone in active addiction or recovery. I hope The Bird Hours can encourage other addicts to share their stories as well.
In what ways do you hope The Bird Hours will speak to those who have loved ones facing an active addiction, and with loved ones in recovery?
It would be incredible if The Bird Hours offered loved ones a new perspective. I think of poems like “Hard News” and “If My Brother Was a Writer.” My hope is that a friend or family member of an addict can get a better understanding of what runs through the addictive mind. However, I don’t want to be a spokesperson for addiction, so a bigger and more realistic hope of mine is that an open dialogue can ignite between the loved one and the addict. It would be so cool if my work could inspire that.
If you were to write a letter to your past self 3 years ago, what would you say to her?
Sadness will come again. Don’t fight it. Allow yourself to feel. Know that with every ache, there will come something more bright and more powerful. There will be days where you think the best thing is the worst thing and you’re entitled to feel that way. Keep making mistakes. Keep writing. Keep being. And remember, pain is necessary because what else is there to move on from?
By Rivka Yeker.
It is a recurring thought of mine that life’s entire purpose is to teach us lessons. We fall, we pick ourselves up, we learn how to catch our falls — all in order to find the ground within ourselves. This never-ending process of growth and introspection is the only way we stay stitched together, regardless of what seeps out. We are our own band-aid. Whatever is inside us is what heals us.
When we lose that grounding, we flail. We find ourselves gasping for breath while we can’t seem to find the ocean floor. Every heartache, every dose of bad news, every failure becomes the winning punch that sends us flying. We stay alive yet are consumed by misery, by distrust, by resentment.
Last year, I spent the entire summer trying to unlearn bodily perceptions of normalcy. I taught myself to believe that notions of “good” and “bad” were merely filler words without any inherent meaning, that there was no right way to live in a body, and that we were all seeking solace for the ways our bodies reject us.
Since I was 12 years old, I’ve lived with chronic headaches that turned into chronic migraines, and the only treatment I received was over-the-counter painkillers and the advice to exercise and drink a lot of water. I finally went to a neurologist when I was 19, who prescribed me stronger medication that was essentially just a much more potent version of Excedrin.
On top of the chronic migraines, I was diagnosed with chronic Candidiasis after struggling to understand the root of my fatigue, increased depression, various bodily imbalances, and overall constant brain fog. I’ve always had the headaches, so all of these symptoms felt normal to me, but experiencing them on a level that left me completely out of touch with my own body sent me into a journey of healing and getting better. Except — there was no getting better. There was only acceptance and moving forward.
Now, there is a slight feeling of victory and catharsis when I look back and remember how that summer sucked the life out of me. By the end of the summer, I was thrown in for a loop and had to get a minor (yet unbelievably painful) surgery that was completely unrelated to my chronic conditions. I took those months of recovery from that surgery to accept the uncertainty of life and the beatings we take to survive. Yet, as someone who feels connected to a God and the divinity of timing and human spirituality, I found meaning in what seemed like the end of the world. It felt as though I had no other choice.
My mother has said to me, “When we heal, it is easy to forget what the pain we once felt feels like again.” I think about what it means to forget our pain, how it leaves our bodies in one way and comes back in another. This pain is something we can’t escape no matter the amount of therapy or medication we take on, and no matter what we do, both the physical and mental pain is something we are destined and created to endure. That is why, in my own healing, I have learned that the more I accept the cyclical nature of pain, the more equipped I become in dealing with whatever is thrown my way.
I often have to remind myself that every single person is dealing with something monumental. There is never-ending tragedy — a perpetual streak of heartache and death and failure — yet somehow amidst it all, so many of us find reasons to keep moving. The world at large is traumatized. On top of political greed and systemic oppression, our personal lives face the same cycle of pain that I find myself growing to accept.
This past year, I fell in love for the first time and watched it dissolve into thin air when it was suddenly forced to end. I think about the part in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts where she and her partner Harry are giggling on their red couch, in a bubble, and how she didn’t want to break that bubble when she had to confront the truth and conflict in their relationship. While my relationship had to end, Maggie and Harry merely left the red couch and grew into a family instead. As much as I tried to stay in that bubble, there is a certain moment where reality strikes us right on the skull and reminds us that things just aren't working out.
The breakup was for the best, and I still have a lot of love in my heart for that person, and we will be in each other’s lives no matter what, but it just really reminds me of the temporality of what I thought could last forever. It’s cliche, I know, but I think we sometimes cope by not letting ourselves put a time stamp on things. If we do, it’s a form of self-sabotage — a nihilistic approach to accepting the end of everything. I guess it depends on what works better for each person, but at the time, it was nice to believe it was never going to be over.
While not quite like the year I battled my newfound diagnoses, as I was still adjusting to what was in store for me, this was the summer that I thought love and my brain were going to kill me. They didn’t, obviously, but I was losing myself to a strange, dark, empty void. I never thought that would happen, never thought I’d fall into that hole so deeply and so quickly. But we recover. That’s what’s so interesting about the human spirit — we have the power to recover, we get back up, we keep moving. Not all of us, but the ones who do are covered in scrapes and bruises, mending broken bones and wrapping bandages, all while refusing to give up on this life.
We are currently in a state of complete vulnerability where we unabashedly share our emotions on the internet, process our feelings through memes, watch the world burn in unison via our computer screens, and accept whatever end is near. We let pain cycle the way it does, run into it without fear, endure life’s brutality and all the glory that comes with it. We heal because we are reminded that the opposite of heartache is love and the opposite of tragedy is peace. We grow because once all of this is understood, there is no way to keep living except freely, without expectations, without time stamps.
We allow ourselves to be consumed by pain the same way we are consumed by euphoria.
We find meaning in all that hurts and all that doesn’t.
We accept all that is and we move forward.
Rivka Yeker is the managing editor and co-founder of Hooligan Magazine, a publication created for the sake of art, authenticity, and ambition. She is currently a student at DePaul University, where she is finishing up her undergrad with a double major in Media & Cinema Studies and Public Relations, and a minor in Creative Writing. She lives in Chicago and works at a bookstore where she hosts monthly open mics and various events centered around the arts. Her latest chapbook, Fleeting With No Good Reason, was released through Ghost City Press, and has had other work published in Vagabond City Lit, Rising Phoenix Press, Sobotka Literary Magazine, Maudlin House, and Crook & Folly. Her work tends to explore the confines of language, the relationship between the body and mind, and how we communicate with one another. She is gender non-conforming and goes by she/they, but finds power in the reclamation of a femininity that never made sense to her. You can follow her on Instagram @rivka.yeker.
By Kiki Nicole.
i open my mouth until it is again the mouf i was born with. let it all hang out with my bedroom door open. reclaim the back of the bus so everyone can hear the heavy of my consonants in each ear. the nigga's fall out my throat a mile a minute in some ambiguous accent nothing like the white girl voice i put on at work. on the phone. this nothing if not Black, if not ancestral, if not divine fury. often i am the only dark thing on the bus. in my house. how like smoke reversed i transform from thin air into burning thing.
I used to operate between two emotions: OK or not OK. I was a highly sensitive child that grew into a highly sensitive adult. Growing up, I made myself small to limit inconveniencing everyone else. Always the quiet kid, my white Teach for America teachers would pat me on the back when home trauma taught me to keep everything in. I was the product of so many black femmes. I became entirely to myself to make room for everyone else. I stayed quiet. They called me one of the “good ones.” In high school, I once made myself so invisible, I lost my voice after not using it for weeks straight. I keep my Hurt in a special place no one else can see and only I can feel. During my first reiki session with a Black woman, I was told I have an incredibly blocked throat chakra.
My childhood was spent in inner city Baltimore and we was all angry. Still am. When I harbor my pain in my chest, I feel safe, anchored by emotional cholesterol. Sometimes it feels like my heart is failing.
My childhood was lived amongst Black femmes who were so good at holding it together. I was/am a crier but that was a white girls’ game. I am tired of softness that doesn’t include my black ass hands slapping the walls and my own face in between tears. I am tired of softness that doesn’t include the hood black girls who would congregate on my stoop after we got out school. Who would walk up the street with me for Freezee cups, Hot Fries, and penny candy. Who was loud and sucked in they teeth with me. Who chased away the boys from our femme concrete wonderland. Who threatened to beat they full ass at just five years old. What is Black Joy if not Noise? What is Black Joy if not Yelling? What is Black Joy if not You Finna Not? What is Black Joy if not Rage?
I’m so angry I want you to know. I’m so angry my blood boils. Got an eye twitch. So angry I wanna fight at every club, sober or not. So angry that he left us. So angry I can’t even. So angry I hate you and you and you. So angry My Skin. So angry Misgendered. So angry Another Death. So angry Not Good Enough. So angry Unwanted. So angry Unheard. I wanna die, I’m so angry. I’m crying; I’m so angry. I’m here and I’m so angry. I’m Still Here; I’m So Angry.
I HAVE A RIGHT TO MY RAGE. IN MY BITTERNESS, BLACK JOY. MY HANDS, ANGELA’S BURNING CIGARETTE ON THE BURNING CAR. MY MOUTH, KELIS’ I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW. AHH, MY BODY, LISA’S BURNING HOUSE. THERE IS BEAUTY IN THIS BITCHFACE. THIS HARD. LET NOTHING HARBOR IN MY CHEST. MAY I RELEASE IN LOUD & CONTINUE TO CONJURE. MAY I HATE & HURT WITH ALL MY LOVE. MAY I FURY. MAY I BURN. MAY I BURN. MAY YOU SEE IT.
Kiki Nicole is a yung negro artist trying to remember how to breathe in the Pacific Northwest. They are a Pink Door Fellow and a member of the Spring 2017 Queer Emerging Artist Residency cohort at Destiny Arts Center. Their work has appeared in Wus Good Magazine, Radar Productions' GLOW Queer Poetry Feature, Voicemail Poems and elsewhere. Find them in the middle of the club with a book in their hands and a subtle twerk. You can keep up with their work on their website, and follow them on Instagram @yungnegroartist.
By Amanda Jowsey.
In the days leading up to my first Reiki healing and attunement session, my ego fought back with an unstoppable ferocity. I'm confident that she knew I was about to proceed through a certain threshold — a barrier I hadn't yet climbed over — into a place where she no longer had control over the wheel, where she was just a passenger to my true spirit. Her navigational suggestions were no longer welcome in the vehicle that is my body. I wouldn’t panic and drive off the road when she cried out. I wouldn’t simply walk down the street that she wanted, when she wanted. I would show her that we are on a mission, that there was no longer any time to veer off onto her paths of destruction.
My ego was hurt at first. Initially, she felt rejected, but after all she’s put us through, she finally surrendered. Eventually, she even apologized — both to me and to herself — for making the journey so much more unpleasant than it needed to be. She was finally satisfied in knowing that this wasn’t a rejection at all. It was only love. It was only protection so that I wouldn’t get the both of us killed. She had never been loved like that before — where her feelings had been acknowledged, understood, and pacified by this wholehearted acceptance and understanding.
I have spent the most recent months somehow trying to crawl back into old skin, trying to fit into the carcass that was my ego, only now with a renewed spirit. But this only left me feeling unclean, like a lotus trying to push itself back into the mud. After my first experience with a hands-on reiki session, when I started to feel that urge to go back into old dimensions of being, a force-field of some outside energy would lovingly and gently stop me. A “do not cross" tape has been strung around the areas that return me to a lower vibration, like the scene of a crime that I shouldn’t return to.
Sonic Reiki, from a very basic explanation, combines tones and frequencies to help move and shape energy, using a universal life-force energy called reiki. My reiki trainers explained that "vibration is the song of life.” Everything created and consumed — food, art, music, media, language — holds its own vibration.
In this space, I could hear the lows of words that cut, and feel the emanation of thoughts that strangle the mind. I understood that I could keep the mind, body, and spirit in a high vibration by attuning myself to the higher vibrations of the universe. Just the same, I could bring myself closer to a lower vibration with every thought, word, and action. When working with my own, another’s, and the universal life-force energy, I could create a healthy space for my highest spirit to dwell and thrive.
My Reiki Masters, Linda and Tom Sylvester of Sonic Reiki in Buffalo, New York, describe a quantum configuration chamber in which a person returns to their own center, and are encompassed and protected by an energetic shield during and after their healing sessions. Time no longer existed in this new space. I felt like I had finally caught up to myself in that moment, as a pure and loving energy, where the sky and the earth meet, in a space without time.
Picture yourself watching a movie that takes place in outer space. The astronaut floats around, safely connected to his spaceship by a tether. He is a distant observer of himself and everything around him. Everything is quiet — there are only the tones and frequencies of a vast galaxy spinning through a spiral. I was the astronaut, but I was still safely here, connected to earth. I was safe in my own sacred spacesuit. Here in this space, your soul sings a song to you. It’s the soundtrack the universe plays to you as you journey down the roads of your divine purpose. It is the song of your soul.
The most significant change I noticed on the way home from the session was that everything moved more slowly. At first, it was unusual to become re-accustomed to this new passing of time. There was a wave-like quality to it, but somehow, it was exactly the right pace for once — as if my own body aligned with the same frequency and movement as the beat and pulse of the cosmos.
I was no longer living in that panicked and hurried speed of a society that leaves our eyes rattling through our heads, and our heads stumbling over our feet as we try to keep up. I had no need to rush at all, even if I had somewhere to be. I had nowhere else to be but in the present, here in my own skin.
The healing that took place didn't necessarily mean that the negative thoughts and the feelings they bred wouldn't resurface, but I no longer had any real desire to bring myself back to that level again. I could finally hold the highest love for myself when I was tired enough of my old dimensions, so that all I wanted to do was to choose what was good, and what was good was what was in alignment with my highest purpose — with my soul contract.
The experience felt like soul-retrieval. Sometimes, we first have to tear ourselves into pieces in order to re-adhere ourselves to ourselves. Having my true spirit back in this body was the ultimate comfort, like sleeping in your own bed after a long trip away from home. Maybe she had to evacuate for a while as the renovation was taking place.
Now, it is a much safer and happier place for my inner children to play. I feel whole again, like when Peter Pan sews his shadow back to his feet. My dark side and I are no longer divided. We have achieved a state of balance, of harmony within myself. My corrosive overthinking has slowed and returned to a normal pace. I have room in my head for focusing on my goals and daily tasks without being called away by senseless worry. It feels like breathing again. My heart is processing love instead of pain. The weight that I have been carrying on my back, chest, hips, and knees has finally been lifted. The black ball of stagnant and tangled energy from the paths I have walked and the experiences I've collected are slowly melting away.
A part of me thought I would miss these pieces of myself, but I don't. I didn't need to cling to them. They didn't need to cling to me. Only the whisper of their ghosts hang somewhere off in the distance. I won't go chasing after them. I've incorporated what they had to teach me to the highest possible degree at this time. And if I need to revisit them, I will do so from a strong and quiet place, safely in observance, as if I were floating in space, connected and grounded to the earth by her umbilical cord.
Amanda Jowsey is a writer, poet, essayist, and aspiring Reiki practitioner based in Buffalo, New York. She has a B.A. in English from the University at Buffalo. Her work has appeared with In Good Health, NAME Magazine, and Generation Magazine. Her first book is scheduled for publication later this year. You can follow her on Instagram @a.leeswholeistichealing.
By Yena Sharma Purmasir.
Here is a memory: I come home from school and the apartment is dark. My father’s wheelchair is empty, facing his bed. He is on the floor. His forehead is bleeding. I am six years old. I help him up, which involves putting my arms around him and repeatedly saying that he is okay, that everything is okay. My father is strong. I know this because there is no way I have the strength to lift him back into his wheelchair. But he does. I am just a beam supporting the house.
I get a damp paper towel and wipe his forehead. He is quiet, his whole body slumped down. I call my mom at work, tell her that I got home from school and Daddy fell down but he’s okay and I helped him and I only have spelling homework tonight, so I’m going to go watch some TV now.
As a young child, I was incredibly close to my father. I loved spending time with him, especially when it was just the two of us. Those few hours after school — when my mom was at work and my brother was at daycare — brought me tremendous joy. My father would watch Sailor Moon with me, a plate of cookies between us. He would show me how to use the computer. I would tell him about my day.
Those were on the good days. On the bad days, my father would be at the hospital, sometimes for weeks on end. I would think about him all day at school. I would imagine his loneliness, his dislike of hospital food, and his total loss of control. On those afternoons, I would go to a friend’s house, do my homework, and wait for my mother to pick me up.
The day my father was in the car accident, I was at a friend’s house, eating healthy after-school snacks and fiddling with his Sega game console. When my mother came to get me, she was crying — a vulnerability I had never seen from her before.
I was terrified on the way to the hospital for that first time. I was five years old — everything I knew about hospitals and accidents and broken bodies came from glimpses of TV dramas, the kind of shows I should have been too young to watch. But my father was fine. Or, he wasn’t fine — his body was a series of breaks, wrapped in plaster, stitched up and swollen. He looked hurt, but he also seemed happy. He joked with us. He made me laugh. My father could always make me laugh.
I saw him cry exactly once, in the middle of the night. He was talking to my mom -- it was a tender moment between the two of them. I remember climbing onto his lap, and I told him to be brave. He wiped his face and hugged me.
According to my mother, I’ve always had a pleasant disposition. Apparently, as a toddler, I only had a tantrum once. After seeing a friend of mine fling herself on the floor, kicking and screaming, tears running down her face, I thought about adopting her dramatic insistence for myself. It worked for her. It did not work for me. I never tried again.
I was a happy child, quiet but friendly. I never broke down in school, I didn’t sulk, I wasn’t envious of other children. There was no reason to be angry — life was complicated, but it was also good.
Every week, my family would share a Cadbury chocolate bar, rationing four square pieces. I remember this tradition as the sweetest, purest thing. In the evenings, I would rub my father’s back. My little hands worked on his knots — he seemed to bend like the letter C, all curvature. I used to rub lotion on his leg, paying special attention to the bolts of his metal brace embedded in his skin.
A few years later, that leg would be amputated. When we saw him after that surgery, my father asked us what kind of animal his stump looked like. I thought a dog. My little brother thought maybe a pony.
A few months later, he had an operation that involved removing skin from his chest to take out his decade old pacemaker, completely irrelevant to the plethora of issues that came from the accident, but even more serious. It was one of the more invasive surgeries that he endured. The scar was huge, the size of a steak, with the pink and white layers exposed. My mom couldn’t bear to look at it. Neither could my father’s sister.
I was seven years old. I said I could do it. One of our neighbors, a lovely nurse, came to check on my father daily. I was her assistant, changing his dressing and cleaning the wound. He winced through the whole process. Once, he tried to tell me that I had already cleaned it. It started off as a joke, but then he became irritable. He wheeled himself away from me. I had to coax him to sit still, to let me peel off the medical tape and gauze. It hurt him, the wound, and maybe the fact that I was the one looking at it.
The day my father died was the second time I saw my mother cry. In the days and weeks and months that followed that moment, when the strongest force of nature in my life suddenly lost steam, everything changed. The kids in my class had written sympathy cards to me and my brother, and every single one of them insisted that I had to take care of my mother, because she needed me, and because she could die too.
I don’t remember the exact point in time when I became so close to my mother. Just that one day, she was the person who knew me best, the voice on the phone when I came home, the body on the sofa as I watched Seinfeld reruns, a bag of jalapeño chips sitting between us. And I worried about her just as I had worried about my father, imagining her developing loneliness and unfurling nightmare. While my mother never asked me to rub her back and I never found her crumpled on our living room floor, I still felt that same overwhelming responsibility.
It’s wonderful to be needed, to be given a sense of purpose. In the adult world, where young people so often become background noise, and living metaphors for innocence void of personhood, I was given the space and agency to participate in my family tragedy. I had a role and a function. But, in taking care of my father, and later my mother, I also gave up the ability to be more than caring — to be anything else but happy.
The truth is, after my father died, I was furious and sad and scared. My entire world had shifted, as though the roof caved in. I was eight years old — it should’ve been okay for me to feel those things. Someone should have seen that storm growing inside me and asked me to let it out. But no one did, and I locked a lot of those thoughts away. In fact, writing was the only space that allowed me total freedom of expression, serving as powerful medium in my life. But it has limits. Creative autobiographical content is still treated as content, still seen as separate from reality. When I first started writing, teachers thought I was innovative and resilient, not lonely or unhappy.
Here is another memory: I break my arm and it hurts. It’s a hairline fracture, so on a scale of pain, it’s not the worst. I have no reference point because this is my first big injury. But I’m afraid to talk about how it aches, how it itches in the cast. My father recognizes this. He tells me that my pain is real. And that it’s okay to say that it hurts. That it doesn’t make him feel bad. My arm is broken and it’s supposed to hurt. Just because he has more broken bones than I do, it doesn’t change the fact that my arm is broken. He tells me this. When he’s done, I say, Daddy, my arm hurts.
Loss is complicated. Sometimes, I mourn my father’s life because there is so much he didn’t get to do. Towards the end of his life, he talked about going back home to South Africa. But he couldn’t travel, not in his precarious condition. He never saw his children graduate from elementary school or high school or college. He never got to celebrate his 20 year wedding anniversary. I mourn these never’s from his perspective, because he once had a perspective — because he was a person with hopes and dreams and goals, so many of which were never realized.
But sometimes, I mourn the loss of these things from the other perspective — from mine, from my brother’s, from my mother’s. There are things we each lost, parts of our lives that will always be incomplete. For the three of us, some of these things are the same. We all lost the simplicity of splitting a Cadbury bar four ways. But some of our pains are more specific, and they go unshared. My mother lost her life partner. I lost my favorite grown-up.
If pain and suffering are essential parts of life, then love and care help us endure. Loving my parents has changed me, has made me stronger. Maybe I did lift up my father that day, I don't know. My mother has changed, too. In the years of my father’s absence, she has begun to take life less seriously. Now, her laughter inspires my laughter.
We’ve adopted parts of my father — his strengths and weaknesses, his easy sense of humor, his overpowering obstinance. We give up these roles and then reclaim them as our own. Not all is lost. Some part of our old family, our old time, is still here. Some part of us survived.
Yena Sharma Purmasir
Yena Sharma Purmasir is a poet, author, and essayist from New York City. Her first book of poetry, Until I Learned What It Meant, was published by Where Are You Press in 2013. In 2015, she published her second book of poetry, When I’m Not There, in the voice of and addressing the absence of her deceased father. A graduate from Swarthmore College, Purmasir majored in Psychology and double minored in English Literature and Religion Studies. She has held the title of Queens Teen Poet Laureate. Her work has appeared on Thought Catalog, Mask Magazine, and The Rising Phoenix Review. She believes in the power of hard work, second chances, and, above all, love. You can keep up with her work on Tumblr, and you can follow her on Instagram @yenasharmapurmasir.
By Kaitlyn Dagen.
The church sings David Crowder's hymn "Come As You Are” together in worship and I am suddenly overcome with the profound weight of grace in this statement. For me, it’s easy to quickly pawn off these sentiments onto other people: Come as you are, it doesn't matter where you're at, you won't be judged here. I accept you, you are forgiven, you are loved. But this time, as I learn to live amongst the push and pull of both worldly and self-induced double standards, I let this sense of acceptance wash over my own guilt, my own confusion, hurt, pride, fear, and shortcomings.
Today, I am the one in desperate need of this reminder.
Today, the voices of Fear and Disappointment take my hand and pull me to the left, saying, "Kaitlyn, come this way. It’s safe over here. Your dreams will never come to fruition. You will never be able to make them happen. You have failed. It’s not in you.”
I look to the right as my other hand is pulled in the opposite direction, the voices of Pain and Confusion saying, "Yes, Kaitlyn, come this way. You deserved all that has unfolded. Everything you had is now gone — the people, the opportunities, the experiences. You care so much, but for what? Put your guard back up and you won’t get hurt again.”
I wrestle as my arms are pulled in both directions. I am bound and unmoving. It can be easy to give in and justify the voices on both sides of this internal argument; to allow them to become a truth about me. Sometimes they mean well. My arms get tired. I long so badly to be free of them. If I'm feeling strong, I might try to stay and fight them off for a while. Yet the more I try to fight them off, the more I have to struggle.
But what would happen if I stopped paying attention to these adversaries? That's all they want — attention. If only I would stop struggling, stop giving life to the voices that pull me in multiple directions.
I squint my eyes as they catch something straight ahead in the distance. It has been there the whole time, but I have been too distracted to notice. This voice is not a forceful thing; it quietly and patiently beckons us. It’s softer, sweeter. It weeps as it watches the inner struggle against the deceptions that seek to entwine us.
Why do I so quickly forget that the real Voice, the real Truth, is straight ahead of me? As I center my gaze upon it, it gently says, "Come as you are, it doesn't matter where you're at, you won't be judged here. I accept you, you are forgiven, you are loved."
The grip on my wrists loosen.
Even if our arms are being pulled to the right and to the left, may we continue to walk forward with our eyes, ears, and hearts fixed straight ahead, like the gaze of a Son who looked to his Father as his arms were pulled to the right and to the left, hands nailed down to a tree, three days away from liberation.
Kaitlyn is learning to embrace the community that surrounds her home in Lancaster City, Pennsylvania. While her home base is in Pennsylvania, at heart she is a creative nomad always looking for the next big adventure. She has a B.A. in Anthropology from Eastern University, and will forever be pondering the beauty of culture and the meaning of our humanity. She works with adults with disabilities, and enjoys serving among local refugees in Lancaster City. She founded and curates The Mustard Seed Conspiracy, a fledgling project that seeks to unite spiritual and creative reflectives. You can follow her on Instagram @themustardseedconspiracy.
The therapist stares into a space a little beyond my ear as she asks me if I indulge in self-destructive behavior.
I focus my attention on figuring out the etiology of her crossed eyes. She never faces the window, so she could be photosensitive, but she likes the light – the curtains are always drawn.
“Yes,” I state, matter-of-factly.
She scoffs, snickers. I assume the joke is a plane rattling right above my head.
My scars itch. She scribbles in her notebook. I zone out again but keep up appearances. I doubt she can see anything I want her to see.
Sessions later, after helping me understand why I felt the need to end my life around my birthday every year, she callously called my propensities “the most cowardly thing a person could do.” I came back home feeling like a gutted fish still acclimatizing to the atmosphere.
When I first reached out to a friend for help, they met me with, “It’s all in your head.” I remember the rage I felt when the therapist said we would be working on how I react to my circumstances in a healthier manner. After being taken under the broken wings of various forms of abuse, being conditioned and groomed to cater to very specific needs for nearly twenty-one years, I was devastated that I still had more change to grow through.
That’s when the feeling of helplessness regarding my situation hit me. It was hard enough seeking professional help in a society which functions and prides itself on its mental health taboos. Now, I was at the therapist’s office, sweating frustration on a couch only to recondition myself, and my abusers would still squint at the sun, not paying for the ways they rewired my brain.
In neuroscience, a postulation for the mechanics of memory suggests that a specific pattern of neuronal pathways get activated when you recall something enough times. The more times you are put in a situation to recall a fact or event, the quicker you are able to recall it without going through every motion necessary to do so. It is a bit like that with trauma as well; once you have experienced a similar horrible situation enough times, you needn’t go through all the motions to remember and register the incident to experience a complete, potent sympathetic response.
Some days, I can trace the cortisol erosion in my brain substance. It shows in the littlest of ways — staying in bed to avoid responsibility as long as my attendance in school doesn’t suffer too much, keeping quiet and zoning out when my friends get tied up in conversation, listening to my music to have an excuse to space out during day-to-day activities.
The more time I spent with myself in dissociation, the more realizations I had about myself. Most of them were debilitating, particularly one where I began seeing all of the emotionally-stunted parts of me as a five-year-old version of myself. The most traumatic experiences occurred as a child, so the parts of me that still responded to criticism and threats like a child needed something I never quite received: love and patience.
I had repressed so much of my trauma — hid it where no one could lay a finger on it — so anytime failure would hit me, I could pry the traumatized five-year-old from underneath the rug and do unto it what had been done unto me. For example, I frequently held my breath when I was a child, every time things were tough at home. When things began taking a turn for the worse, my attempts became more violent, emotionally and physically. For the longest time, shame was all I felt.
One of the strongest realizations I had was in noticing how much of my self-worth depended on the ways that others perceived my intelligence. This explained my lack of motivation when mentors assumed I was dumb or not worth their time. This part of me only gave its best where it was appreciated – a skill that I now try to extend everywhere else in my life.
In only a few weeks of therapy, I was able to significantly counter a lifetime of trauma because of this emotional resilience. This actually proved to be detrimental to me. In my particular case, my functionality made everyone around me take my resilience for granted. To others, I only lived to serve the purpose of a fallen-angel-in-need-of-saving narrative, or to never move from my pedestal where I inspired them from. The metaphoric and literal bruises on my body looked like skin now; there was no plain reason to complain – supposedly, I functioned better than anyone around me.
Anytime I faltered, cried, or showed any semblance of humanness, people often responded with, “But look at how much you’ve accomplished. Look at what you have made of your life after all of this.”
In response to this, I often found myself asking, “Why should I have had to?”
Healing is in no way a one-size-fits-all scenario; it is a deeply personal, life-long journey – one that requires more patience than I was conditioned to have. My entire self-worth used to depend on what I could do with my intelligence and how fast I could do it. Cultivating a mindfulness practice helped me slow down, and changed the way I saw my dissociation.
For the longest time, my methods of hurting myself included unconsciously allowing myself into situations of abuse similar to the kind I experienced earlier on. Those circumstances were the only thing my warped idea of love could convince itself to deserve. While stress definitely destroys your body in horrible ways, it always starts out meaning well – as catecholamines release in your bloodstream, your body prepares for battle with primed muscles and a strong, beating heart while your rising oxytocin levels help you reach out to your loved ones for help, all to help you survive and thrive in a stressful situation – but when this becomes excessive and without proper check, people start getting hurt, similar to the tactics of many misguided covert childhood abusers.
My dissociation had always been self-protective, but at some point, it became detrimental to my mind and body. So much of the time, when we aren’t mindful, we are the most hurtful people to ourselves, abusing ourselves in the same ways we once were treated. Now, when I find myself retreating, I ask myself, “What about this situation is making me return to this safe space? What does this remind my body of?”
There are weeks when I feel more like a victim than a survivor. I have a love-hate relationship with my resilience; surviving has made me live with a weight I am sure I cannot carry most days. But surviving also allowed me to retell this story the way it was meant to be: with my voice. My words. My autonomy.
There are days when all the strength I can muster barely gets me out the door, only to slam my way back in. But amidst all of this, there are moments when my mind is quieter than it has been for the longest time, taking in each stimulus without over-analyzing it out of existence. Moments when everything around me is not a threat – when my muscles needn’t stay stern and primed, where my toes uncurl and my chest expands fully; and in those moments, I can swear that it lasts longer than the times before it.
In her third year of medical school, Orooj-e-Zafar is a storyteller/spoken word poet based in Islamabad, Pakistan currently working on the editorial board of The Missing Slate. Orooj has been featured on TEDxPIEAS, the 5th Islamabad Literature Festival, and schools across Islamabad, performing, speaking, and training young poets. She was most recently published at Crab Fat Magazine, DERANGED - An Anthology by Picaroon Poetry, and won the 2nd Judith Khan Memorial Poetry Prize. Orooj hopes to unravel emotionally and grow her mental skin with a patience she is learning to cultivate. You can keep up with her work on her Facebook, and follow her on Instagram @oroojezafarwrites.
By Richelle Kota.
At first my knees bruised and then they calloused. Prayer on bended knee was tricky for me when I was young. I never understood humbling myself in front of a god that was supposed to love me unconditionally, but I arched my back in silence just like everyone else and waited for the love of jesus christ to fill me.
We went to church if we were well to ask god to continue to bless us with good health, and we went when we were sick so god could heal us. As it was, Sunday mornings meant regrets that turned into repentance, communion grape juice stains I would not bother to clean, and unwritten rules I could not challenge. Initially, religion terrified me, but I held fast to it when I was young — a time when I was so full of honesty and fear.
Once, my mother asked me if I wanted to be saved during our daily bible study. In our family, being saved meant accepting jesus into my heart so he could change me, fill me with love, and somehow make me better. But I already liked the way I was.
I remember etching memorized verses on the headboard of my bed at age ten.
“Not today,” I remember saying.
I remember going to Christian camp and how the separation of boys and girls sexualized us before we even knew what sex was. But my parents told me it would make me a better person. It would make me a better Christian. It would make god love me more. I still didn’t know why god was dissatisfied with me, and I was still confused about how love worked.
My mother sat across from me and softly placed her hand on my leg. I tried to look away, but she found my eyes. She spoke softly, but with fervor: “If you don’t get saved, you are going to go to hell for eternity.”
The fear of the fiery pits of hell kept me awake that night. The thought consumed me. My heart was already full of love for my family and friends, but the next day I squeezed jesus in there, too. Just to be safe. I was four years old.
There was so much, and then all of a sudden, there was nothing. There was nothing for me but hurt I didn’t have enough hands to hold, and etched verses I was ashamed to scratch out. I could not unsee this upbringing even though I tied a blindfold on the past.
A couple of years ago, I heard a cover Sufjan Stevens did of an old gospel song, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and I found myself singing along to every word. They did not mean anything more to me than old rituals I was still wading in, but it touched some small part of me that wasn’t still drowning. It was like a phantom pain and sorrow of sleepless nights I spent wondering if I died, where I would go.
Now, as an adult, I am still searching for the mystical and trying to reconcile the relationship I have with the universe, but the guilt of my childhood never seems to fade. For me, there is seldom shade in the shadow of the cross. The sun of religion has always and will always scorch me. I have sunburns that have never healed and I have scars that will never go away. When a Christian hymn begins, there is no doubt I will murmur along to the chorus, feeling parts of me that I thought had long disappeared. But then I hear the voices of those who condemn me and I feel shame, because, like a long lost parent, religion will always hold me and remind me that it was there to watch me grow up, even if I do not want it to.
Richelle Kota is a writer, nature enthusiast, and a student living in Philadelphia. Earlier this year she released her first self-published work, Where There Were Roses: A Memoir Through Poems. She aspires to live a very simple life on a farm with many pigs, goats, and dogs. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @tiniestdad.