Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Being Born

Geta Bratescu. Medea's Hypostases III. 1980, drawing with sewing machine on textile

 July 11 is my birthday, but it is not the day I was born.
The day I was born I blackened my feet on gold sculpted carpet, heavy with coal dust. My gift: Art News and Grumbacher pastels.
The day I was born I felt death in the room, its big energy came to sweep away Mamaw's breath
I was born again and again at those altar calls, but took my first breath when I laid eyes on the Goddess
I was born through my mother's anger and vitriol towards me, how we made each other cry and hurt, and then how we loved.
I was born through a lover's hands and lips, where feeling flowed pure, shimmering; the first time I really made love.
I was born when lying on my back on a clear Canadian night and believed I could touch those stars if I held my hand gracefully high enough.
I was born in front of white, empty things: piano keys, canvas, paper.
I was born the four times I pushed out my babies in my own power. And now, it takes five minutes of mothering to gather handfuls of being-born.
I was born under another white thing: the heady blindness that comes from grief, which is so full of light you cannot bear its heat.
I was born each time I lost everything. 
The day I was born was when I knew we loved each other.
I was born all those times you rejected me and I tasted my freedom and the unexpected liberation of the unwanted.
I was born all those times you hit me and called me names and pulled me into your contemptuous dark silences and I decided I would be kinder than that.
I was born when I lost you, when I knew you: uncovered, when I saw you: revealed, when you came to me: unhinged.
I was born today in rain and yoga class. I will be born tomorrow over dishes and a sewing machine. 
There is no such thing as a birthday, or reborn.
There is only being born. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

jointly speaking

Ah, the joys of joint custody. Our culture seems to smile happily and vapidly at the notion of 50/50 joint custody. In our minds, we are happy to see fathers finally participating in their children's lives. Mothers have overwhelmingly joined the workplace, so they have more freedom to do their jobs. It gives them more time to date and pursue other interests, right? It's a good thing.
I'd say this is the exception and not the rule, for the simple reason that "joint" custody is much of the time, anything but.
We need to separate out what joint custody is in practice and what it is in name. In practice, joint custody involves two people who are not out to demean or subjugate the other through family court, who prioritize support of the children, who do not wish to financially cripple the other, and who, for all intents and purposes, understand the larger picture of a child's life. They understand that while they may not get what they want all of the time, that their child's well-being and happiness are more important than their own wishes and desires. It isn't about the demands of one parent.  My first ex took my kids to eat at McDonald's occasionally. While I ran a relatively health-foody tight ship, he took the kids to McDonald's. Is that worth my time and energy? Hell no. I can grumble and complain and have my feelings about such things to others, but in the scheme of things, it means nothing. It was a happy moment for my kids.  I'm sure he was not happy with some of my parenting decisions either. His relationship with his grown children now is a good one. This, to me, is what joint parenting looks like: jointly meeting the children's needs without destroying and demeaning their other parent. Having the goal of giving your kids a good life, together, because that is your responsibility.
But I get the sense that many of the fathers who vehemently-as in initiating a court battle- fight for 50/50 and even sole custody have an ulterior motive: getting out of child support. 50/50 came out of the father's rights initiative, so it was an initiative very much aimed against mothers as a group.
Kids are expensive. 50/50 arrangements with no child support aren't even considering that the only expense you save on while your child is not there is food. And for the average child, we are talking one hundred dollars a month that 50/50 saves a single mother on meals. One hundred dollars. On the low end, it costs nearly eleven hundred dollars a month to raise a child. That includes housing, clothing, and food. That number is low, for divorced parents have to pay for their own housing. So, if a single mother has no help with housing, the only thing 50/50 saves her is one hundred dollars a month per child. Anyone who is a parent knows that that is a drop in the bucket and barely noticed.
It becomes an even more acrid medicine to burn the throat when one considers the ongoing pay gap.
It becomes too big to gulp down when one sees a man's rich family deliberately stand by when there is material need in their children's and grandchildren's lives; who even work to destabilize another parent out of spite, and who help hide money. There are parents who infantilize their grown children and enable their irresponsibility and dishonesty.
And it cannot sit on my stomach when that same man cries, "I'm poor, I'm poor! I can't, I can't!" and wears his fine shoes and takes plenty of vacation time and has a mattress full of hundreds. And he doesn't care that those hundreds were won on the backs of his own children.
It's facetious and deceptive because those are the fathers who do not actively participate in parenting responsibilities during marriage. They leave the majority of the heavy lifting and daily work and guidance of the children to the mother. These are the dads who are off playing basketball, having dinner with friends, shirking responsibilities of home, and walk in like they hung the moon. But once divorced, he makes up a story that changes history. "I changed ALL the diapers. I made ALL the meals. I did ALL the driving. She was NEVER around." They criticize the mother and make sure everyone knows her shortcomings, despite the fact that she had little help from him. Through the courts and this changing of history, he can use his male role status to gain more time with the children. This sudden change in parenting allows him to pay less or no child support, and is, of course, not representative of any relationship he developed with his children. It reflects not an investment in his children, not a desire to actually be a father. I'm sure there is some benefit to the children finally getting their father voluntarily, whereas before, his participation was spotty and inconsistent. I'm sure there is a part of these fathers that does actually care for a child, way, way, way outside of their selfishness and awareness. But that is not the ultimate motive. The ultimate motive is two-fold: to demonstrate superiority and show that he can perform "mother" even better than "Mother" can, effectively diminishing her role that HE established during the relationship, and then withhold financial support from her. He cannot appreciate the bigger picture of how he is actually withholding support from the children. It's a move meant to punish and demean the mother and it becomes yet another lie she is forced to live.
Because we are constantly asked to live with these lies. It's infuriating. We hold the truth, the antidote to fantasies we are asked to swallow like good children. We know the truth, and it is taken from us systematically and replaced with mythologies.
But we know, we KNOW, no matter how many times the words are used, that this is not joint custody. It is a continuation of an abuse dynamic set out during the marriage. It is merely a property arrangement. It is petty. Let's not sentimentalize it or sugar coat it by calling it "joint" custody where there is a parent hostile to the other. One person who is demeaning another cannot co-parent; they can only tolerate control. It then becomes a situation where one parent is put in a protective position against the other's aggression, and where she is protective, she is blamed. This is worse than just a "less than ideal" situation for the children. This has lowered the bar to the whole family having to sacrifice their needs and rearrange their lives due to the selfishness and incapacities of one parent.
So, there is, in the situation of court imposed "joint" custody, nothing "joint." A supposed "fair" arrangement ends up lopsided for the parent who didn't initiate a court war. Symmetrical is not the same as fair. It leaves her without money, without a help in raising children, and having to witness her children be mindlessly shuffled to a place where she is shut out. "Mother",at the wishes of the father, is mutually exclusive of "Father". So the children lose because they will never have a good example of collaboration on their behalf; and never be able to fully realize their own needs during their childhood.

"Psychological researchers who have expressed negative opinions about joint custody include, among others, Anna Freud and Judith Wallerstein. A major problem according to Wallerstein, is that the child lives life in a "no man's land." Having children routinely shift as a temporary resident between two households that have other permanent members who "really" live there full time presents a destructive outlook for a child, damaging of identity and self-esteem. It is ironic that the fathers' rightsters who complain about not wanting to be a "visitor" in their child's life, and therefore demand 50-50 joint custody, do not seem to recognize that their solution not only renders their child a continuous visitor shifting between two households, but also that the child then does not even have a home from which to return."

So where does this idea that a forced 50/50 arrangement is so great for the children come from? Where does the idea come from that it is in any way collaborative or healthy?

There is plenty more research at the Liz Library that shows it is not:
""[Presumption of joint custody] legislation increased the number of motions to modify or enforce parenting time or child custody... the number did increase significantly (and almost doubled) following enactment of the statute. Most of these motions were to change custody or visitation, not to enforce parenting time... If the desire of the legislation was to make it easier for unhappy parents to enforce their visitation time, its purpose was clearly not met...
"Constitutionalizing child custody, or litigating in terms of individual parents' rights, is likely to harm children in many ways. They may end up living with a parent more interested in punishing the former spouse than in doing what the child needs. They may have less money with which to live, as a child support settlement for lower than the guideline amount pays off a parent claiming joint custody, or if a joint custody solution is ordered but not actualized, or if scarce resources are expended on pre or post-divorce litigation."

- Brinig, Margaret (2005). Does Parental Autonomy Require Equal Custody at Divorce? The University of Iowa College of Law, University of Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper Number 05-13 April, 2005

So "joint custody" in the most collaborative, conscious sense of the word is a joke. 50/50 being presumed is not always in the best interests of the child, and that is a smokescreen anyway for the interests of the one contentious  parent. It also increases income in the divorce industry. Money and greed are powerful motivators.
Divorce is always hard on a child. There are always issues that are going to need to be worked through. But a child should be able to heal that wound in the safest place with their primary parent, not be suddenly shuffled so a man can have rights. Those children sacrifice their rights to a supported time of healing, access to their mother, to stability in their lives. They will learn to suppress their intuition and that they are not heard. They will learn there are consequences if one parent doesn't get their way. They will see one parent being punished, obstructed, and demeaned. 
Joint custody does not fix those situations. It just makes it harder for everyone except the person who is litigating it.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Ethnography of Spirit

Ethnography, used loosely, is a "description of the habits and customs of a people." In this article, ethnography is described as a visitor  describing things from an insider's viewpoint: "The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of experience. Specifically, he or she attempts to explain how these represent what we might call “webs of meaning” (Geertz again), the cultural constructions, in which we live.
Ethnographers generate understandings of culture through representation of what we call an emic perspective, or what might be described as the “‘insider’s point of view.” The emphasis in this representation is thus on allowing critical categories and meanings to emerge from the ethnographic encounter rather than imposing these from existing models."
On this Memorial Day, I think on those who have returned from wars with heaviness in my heart. I appreciate all that they went through as a sacrifice for our country. And although I do not have an insider's view, I know the warrior culture within our military is very much a strong, necessary force, and that it carries its own set of wounds within its community. 
But I know that for me, I never had to leave home to experience a war, a war on a family, a war on me as a human being, a war against my existence, a war on my psyche, a war marked by shame and a force against my becoming who I am. This war raged on for years, and stood as a contrast to the prevailing social mores around family. The customary picture of family is one of togetherness, support, unconditional regard, time spent together as a communal river, washing and moving and  waving and splashing over a bedrock of love. In my family, there was no solid bedrock, only the turbulence of harm caused, of abuse. There was a history of pain upon pain, and holding on together in atavistic impulses to revoke the destruction. 
Having my own "ethnographic encounter" with my family of origin requires the perspective of years. Only through living years out of the experience can I do the requisite remodeling to come to my past with curiosity. Any study of one's self, of becoming aware of why you have developed your struggles or lack thereof, begins in childhood. It begins before one's own childhood and it most certainly found in the childhoods of one's parents and grandparents. Then one can begin to create the meaning of these shared experiences, and mine them for their value in your life.
For me, coming firmly from Appalachia on all sides, I widen my spirit beyond the data of how my story and the stories of my family are strung together. To do complete justice to my personal ethnography, I must consider the customs of the environment in which I was raised, and the geography. Appalachia clings to me, a mountain in the background of my mental  pictures, a church with a gravel parking lot on a steep hillside, kudzu crowding the side of a mountain, a rebellious uprising of flowers among stultifying grey rocks. I express a lot about the abuse that has threaded my life, of the themes of personal mining and exploitation, but making meaning is about widening even further beyond that narrow theme of oppressor/oppressed. It is about taking that and setting it among the mountains, those mountains where natural beauty and coal-greed ugliness coexisted and no one even thought about it. Those mountains that at once embraced, gave, nourished, and terrified. "Mountain mama" was real. And she will live, despite the ravagings and cripplings at the hands of lesser men. 
The existing model of Appalachia, in my mind, is one of exploitation and colonization. The existing models of my family contains those of personal greed and lack of remorse, mirroring the plundering of the mountains and its people. For me, the new model involves how "place" never quite leaves you, how the qualities of Appalachia are embedded in turns of my phrases, how I view people, how I respond to life, how I set up my relationships. It recently occurred to me that this is absolutely where I am from. I had focused on where I had moved, the places I'd lived, not considering that the propensity to adapt to place is a strength of character prevalent in Appalachia. Trauma had taken away my sense of home. Yet Appalachia was in me, whatever that meant, and that is my home, my place to be "from". 
If you look at Appalachia, or my family, you will also see the make-do spiritedness set among the openness to being plundered. I swear, it is the giving nature of this land and its people that causes trouble. There are two kinds of people that exist in this world in varying degrees, but they come together in stark contrast in Appalachia. Those people are at heart those who give and those who take. Living so attuned to a mountain and its people gives you a sense of abundance, and that abundance is freely shared. Take away that abundance, and you cripple a people's natural pleasure in sharing and giving. You break them down just a little. 
Then the narrative of overcoming can emerge. This is the meaning, for me, to take the grace of these mountains, their ever-imposing benevolence, there unassuming generosity, and use that part of myself to face the takers and put them in context. The parts of me that were exploited, and mined, and broken, can be healed through this grace, through this understanding that I am more than a string of hurtful incidents. I am more than a taker's depersonalization. 

I am the strength of the mother mountain. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ten Ways Family Court is Basically "Handmaid's Tale"

"A Handmaid's Tale" is a dystopian tale of a "handmaid"- a woman basically designated to be a breeder. She is treated as property, has no real rights, and her only value to society is to make children for officials and their barren wives. After the excesses of the world created so much pollution and illness the birth rate fell drastically low, a re-forming of society occurred. In this society, the rights of women and children were reconfigured while being told they were the ones in charge, and the patriarchy was solidified through strict, subversive control of women's status and roles. The society was structured around the lower masculine values of competition, dominance, punishment by death, demanding compliance, and people as property. This was strictly enforced through a pseudo-religious brainwashing regime, and strict control of what was said and done. Handmaids are basically slaves. They are forced to be raped once monthly in order to try for a child in a bizarre ritual that involves the wives of the men who are trying to impregnate them.
In reading this book, I noticed  there are parallels between today's family court and the dystopian society in Handmaid's Tale.

1. A disdain for science
In "Handmaid's Tale", science is deliberately shunned in favor of cultish rituals and unapologetic stereotypes. In family court, the brutal and often surreal actions around parental alienation mirror this disdain for science. Despite having a body of scientific knowledge of cluster B personalities, the dynamics of domestic violence and coercive control tactics including financial abuse, and decades of research regarding attachment, family courts reject all that science and instead operate from an understanding of junk science like "parental alienation syndrome" and worn-out stereotypes of women in general-that women are crazy, gold-digging, vengeful creatures out to get poor innocent men.
Parental alienation is especially dangerous since it flies in the face of research and since manipulating the children is a tactic abusers use, and the use of "parental alienation syndrome" gives the court an excuse to believe the projection of an abuser. In any other area of life, when someone does something wrong or abusive, we encourage calling it out. But in family court, truth-telling is seen as disparaging the other parent instead of protecting the children. Hence, sexually abused children end up in the custody of their abusers nearly 70% of the time. The courts in those cases become accessories to abuse.
Parental alienation is more aptly labeled "domestic abuse by proxy". It is not the same as a parent protecting a child from an abusive parent. Accusing a protective parent of "parental alienation" is indicative of an abusive mindset and possibly a personality disorder. Again, we have the research and psychological science in place to back this up. We just don't have the courts listening to research and solid science.

2. Financial rights of women are taken away
In "Handmaid's Tale", the women had their bank accounts suddenly frozen and handed over to the men. In divorce from an abusive man, this is very common, but even more, a woman can be repeatedly taken to court at great expense. With the advent of 50/50 parenting plans being the preferred situation in the courts, child support is becoming a thing of the past. This makes it easier for men who want to get out of child support to work the system and financially cripple a woman while he benefits. Spend a day at the child support office watching men in expensive shoes and expensive cars whine how poor they are and can't get a job. They are believed and even supported in their lies. The blatant concentration of resources with men with no regard to how it affects children, and no repercussions for men who disobey child support orders is chillingly one-sided and echoes a "Handmaid's Tale." Not to mention back child support is not even taken seriously, especially for richer men. Then women are still responsible for the guidance of the children, for taking one's self away financially is creating slavery and refusing to be a father.

3. Women have no voice
In  "Handmaid's Tale", women are barely allowed to speak to each other freely, much less complain about the system, have a say in what goes on, or have their own voiced desires and pain. They were severely traumatized by having their children and husbands torn from them, then told not to speak about it. In fact, the whole book could be called "Offred's Trauma Journal" as we watch her deal with the extreme and horrid situation she finds herself in and the insidious, routine silencing of women.
In family court, the same kinds of horrid strictures exist. Women who have experienced any kind of emotional, physical, or verbal abuse are cautioned not to speak of it in court lest they be seen as degrading their ex husband. Yet, when they don't speak up, they are blamed for not speaking up and colluding with their own abuse. There is no obedience to a system that will blame you no matter where you turn. The truth isn't even an issue because no one cares about truth in family court. They care about winning.

4. Children are leverage
"Offred" had her daughter cruelly taken from her. Children were a commodity in "Handmaid's Tale" and were to be given only to those of high status. There is such a trend in family court to give a child to an abuser it's frightening. See the above. A woman is blamed for speaking up about abuse, and blamed for not speaking up about abuse. She often goes into a courtroom that has already decided it is stacked against her. Add to that the fact that GALs, therapists, and caseworkers are rarely knowledgeable about the dynamics of power and abuse, and have no clue what a cluster B personality looks like or that it is abusive. This is a set up to punish the children by blaming them or having them end up with their abuser. But the real reason given is that the mother spoke up and that is not allowed in family court. If she does not obey the unwritten precept that one must always speak well of a child's parent, even when they are abusive, then she is blamed for causing difficulty.
Unfortunately, this results in death of children in some cases. Don't believe me?
See this video, and this one.

5. Mothering is debased and tightly controlled.
The culture in Handmaid's Tale is an extreme example of patriarchy. The blame for the failure of the society to procreate is placed on the woman and they are divided into two groups: women who can bear children, and women who cannot. Birth mothers are easily replaced by foster mothers, who also have no choice in the matter. In family court, the whole structure of court embodies traditional lower masculine values of competition, acquisition of property (which includes children), aggression, dominance, control, and power-over. 50/50 parenting is a way of treating children as property and often father replaces mother during that time since he most likely wasn't available to begin within the marriage.
Even men who embody traditional feminine caretaking traits do poorly in court. It is as if holding up the value of "mother" is rejected. And feminine values such as collaboration, cooperation, and mutuality are indeed looked down on, and can't even be expressed within the current structure of family court. Couples who can embody those values, or, as research suggests, men who can embody those values, don't even end up in family court. (see Gottman's research on accepting influence) The family court structure favors the wishes of men and male archetypes.

6. Gaslighting is practically a religion.
The person who can gaslight the court the most is the "winner". In Handmaid's Tale, the gaslighting occurs when the women are told they wanted a society run by females and they have it, when in fact, it is run by the men. In family court, gaslighting is accepted as truth as a man can capitalize on the biases against women and stereotypes of women as emotional, punitive liars. This then gives the man a free pass to continue his control and abuse, and look good while doing bad. He knows that the judge doesn't know, and worse, doesn't care, that he's treated a woman like shit for years. Women are told that 50/50 parenting is fair to them, even though they protest that it isn't fair to children to grow up with an unsafe, abusive, or personality disordered parent.

7. The ultimate goal is to be in service to "the man"
Obedience to extreme oppression is vital in Handmaid's Tale. If you do not obey the rules, no matter how stupid and extreme the rules are, you are at risk of punishment by death.
In family court, a double standard prevails based on the biases, often anti-woman, of the judge. A woman's perspective is rarely valued and is presumed to be anti-man from the outset. Family court was created by men, out of a system that was created by men. Women used to have no rights to their children or spousal or child support. Women and children were the property of men and their humanity was not even an issue. Any strides made in changing child support and spousal support laws are now experiencing a regression. Family courts are a mess these days as they are set up much like the "good old days"; the days before women could vote, the days where children were property and automatically given to the man. Nowadays, evidence of abuse is often ignored to fulfill the goal of denying a woman's reality and holding traditional male values.

8. Cronyism prevails.
In the book, there is a "secret" place called Jezebel's where husbands take their surrogates, their property, out on a "date". The surrogates can drink, smoke, and have "real" sex with their owners, all things that are forbidden in their carefully controlled lives. It is assumed the men do not snitch on each other, and it is also assumed this is a symptom of  a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" paradigm. In family court, judges can hand down decisions that are so biased and one-sided you know this backscratching happens. Even Donald Trump, the poster child for cronyism, demanded that the "swamp" be drained. The system isn't perfect and cronyism and corruption happens all over the nation in our court systems. But when it affects children, it should be a crime.
The father's rights movement has changed many laws in family court. Often, the men involved in father's rights are abusers themselves and simply acting out of narcissistic injury. I recognize that some men can be berated for upholding feminine values and are as much protective parents as women are, and some women can also uphold hyper masculine values and those are rewarded in family court. But the overall paradigm that is being obeyed is that of extreme patriarchy.

9. Children are property
In "Handmaid's Tale", children were merely coveted property. In family court, children also have no rights of their own. Their voice is not considered and the underlying principle is often "father knows best" when applying "best interests of the child" standards. Their primary attachments are often modified and severed through harmful parenting arrangements, and forced bonding through sudden change of attachment arrangements are traumatizing to children. Parenting arrangements suggested by men often reflect not the kind of parent they are, but a desire to get out of paying child support.

10. Patriarchy is the model of society
In "Handmaid's Tale", the most extreme manifestation of patriarchy is depicted. In family court, many of the same values are in place and the rights of women and children are marginalized and a woman's value is denied in favor of male values. As Bell Hooks writes, "Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence." Family court is one such form of psychological terrorism and violence, built by men to serve the interests of men.

Many women have been through the unreasonable, abusive nightmare of family court and readily recognize it as an extreme manifestation of patriarchy. If unreasonable constructs like parental alienation, giving custody to known abusers, ignoring the harmful impact of personality disorders, actively creating poverty in women, and perpetuating the "abusive husband/good dad" myth, then it is absolutely the kind of dystopian dysfunction that mirrors "The Handmaid's Tale." The book feels surreal. But disturbing elements of this horrid, surreal dystopia are found right here in our country, right now, in family court.

Please see my next post on this family court topic:

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Loss of Tooth

They say for every child you lose a tooth.
Today is a day I wholeheartedly believe in coincidences, the kind where your mind latches on to a theme and that theme pops up to affirm and teach you. I lost a tooth. Not by accident, it was a scheduled loss, a necessary loss, a pre-emptive loss, a prophylactic loss. It will not be replaced, as befits my current class in life.
On this same day of tooth loss, my aunt posted a video of Big Rock, VA. In this video, Home Creek, the place where my grandparents lived, is shown. I was flooded with grief and memories. I spent so many summers there, catching crawdads with my cousins, making "suicides": where you'd take all the flavors in the pop machine and mix them, occasionally taking rides in coal trucks because we thought that was the bee's knees. As was going to the Piggly Wiggly with my Mamaw. My Papaw let me drive a Datsun when I was 13 and I almost drove it into the river until someone came running out of the house to show me where the brakes were. That's where he kept bees, where my grandmother grew peonies, where I was loved and held and cried so hard to leave.
2:30-3:12 shows the area where my grandparents' house was. 

In my youth I had no clue then that there were coal companies or that Appalachia was basically a colonized area. There were coal trucks and people who worked in the mines, people who were good-hearted and who stopped at my Mamaw's hamburger stand to hang out and talk and read The Virginia Mountaineer. I had no clue I was Appalachian, even, or what that meant. Of course, it made sense in my coincidental mind that losing a tooth would be coupled with seeing a video of my ancestral home, the mountains I loved. There is such a strong connection to teeth and class, and I immediately feared judgment, felt the weight of my own personal-coal-company's oppression since I could  not afford a more suitable treatment, and the sting of yet another loss.Why didn't someone tell me I was from Appalachia? That Buchanan County boasts the highest rate of people on disability in the nation, and for good reason? That "being Appalachian" is what I've been trying to simultaneously embrace and run from my whole life?
My grandparent's house doesn't even stand there any more. After they died, it was in gross disrepair and could not be salvaged. It needed to be let go, to be cleansed. It was time. My mother's marriage was a personal colonization and the wisdom of the broken system said the way to fix a personal colonization, the way to fix an abusive man is to exile her. It was an exile for her, but a cleansing for him...all the "hims" involved. Just another mountain top razed.
Loss. Not just loss of a part of me, a tooth part of me. A loss of ideas of myself as strong.  I am fragile, breakable, a part of me injured beyond reasonable hope of repair. Dead and gone to me.
But losing this tooth and connecting to my born class in life made me feel an even deeper loss: loss of dignity. Dignity that is so easily usurped by those who don't care. Dignity that richer people don't mind taking from poorer people. Dignity is fragile, class is immutable. That my dignity could be so threatened by a cracked and broken molar just indicated a life of trying to find dignity and hold on to it, of trying to leave Appalachia.
 The truth is, I don't want to "leave" Appalachia. I want to leave the stigma of being a commodity: to men, to culture, to others. I want to leave situations of oppression. I want to leave the feeling of being "pillaged and plundered", exploited, used up. I want to leave the feeling of being someone who deserves less than others. I want to leave the orbit of abusers and get to the good stuff: the beauty of the mountains, the incredible goodness of the people, the kind, giving nature of the souls there, and the make-do resourcefulness that helped them, and me, survive. I want with all my heart to identify with the mountain. I have loved those mountains my entire life, exile or not.
Pillaged and plundered. When I read this incredible article, I latched on to that phrase. My tooth was mined, taken from me, indicative of a poor diet when growing up. My dignity has been mined from me, indicative of a propensity for choosing the wrong men, pillaged and plundered.
For every personal colonization you lose a tooth. For every oppressor's judgment you lose a tooth. For every bout of poverty you lose a tooth. For every verbal or physical manipulation you lose a tooth.
For every reminder of being from coal country, you lose your dignity. For every trip to family court, you lose a piece of your humanity.
 Alice Miller in her book, "The Body Never Lies" speaks of the importance of having an "enlightened witness" to trauma. The stories of colonized peoples are the stories of trauma and traumatization, stories of the dance between those who traumatize and those who are wounded. I will just sit with that for awhile. I believe one of the gifts of consciously healing trauma, of becoming aware of why you were abused and where you came from to get there is to become an "enlightened witness". You understand better than anyone what went down. "Enlightened" in the sense of complete compassion.
Compassion does not exist in abusers, oppressors, those who colonize, those who harass others for fun. So we need more people who DO really hear and affirm that it is wrong and hurtful and inhumane to oppress another human being. We need more people who understand and seek to empower those impoverished and exploited by rich corporations. Unfortunately, that is the way it works. Compassionate others are the ones who end up cleaning up oppressor's messes.
And that is the path, to take up acting with dignity and value as a human being.
A friend of mine, on hearing my latest "tale from the colony", that part of my life where I'm just a miner in a mine and the coal company charges me exorbitant prices at the company store and takes, takes, takes, exasperated, asked me, "why? Why did you choose this?". Why, indeed, would anyone willingly be pillaged and plundered? To learn, I told her. I didn't know any better. Now I do. It's made me deeper and more aware. Tormentors are teachers. In their cruelty, they teach us how NOT to be. They teach us congruence through their manipulative hypocrisies. They teach us to stand up for truth through their gaslighting and lies. They teach us to tolerate no less than love, through their hatred.
Cause, Lord, if you can forgive a coal company, even a "relational coal company", you can do ANYTHING.

Monday, May 15, 2017


Love them or hate them, they are still a marvel and a beauty of nature. Marvel with me, please:

all photographs copyright. Please ask for permission before using so they can be credited.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Coat of Many Narratives

The winter of our exile, 1978, we nestled in to a split-level apartment, in northwest Ohio, far from coal and Virginia farms and bars and in-home beauty shops. The kitchen was on the top level and was the place of the back door, the upper means of escape. Escape was important, as we'd learned. Vital. Necessary.
That year, the snow closed in over that door in an eight foot drift. We wore our pajamas and watched cartoons. We had our faces turned toward the TV but our ears tuned to the snap of the Valium bottle, the quiet sobs of our mother. We had only one escape route; the front door. Reduced circumstances.
The judge had exiled us. He gave my mom a gun permit and told her to move far away, so she did. All of us, all being my brother, my mother, and myself, wore the typical cool, blank faces of the shell-shocked. I was in fourth grade, and I remember absolutely nothing about school that year.
After such a pain, such a wound, so much conflicting inside, healing has to come. It just does. A wound cannot be escaped; it must be prodded, explored, questioned, assessed. It must be expressed in hobbling, a stultifying lilt in your voice, a hesitation towards Life.  You must sometimes leave your body and gaze on its hurt state in order to handle it. Wounds take time to close. "Letting go" cannot be conflated with repression. No steps skipped. Slowly, slowly, you drag your wounded self back to life.
I watched my mom do that. Looking back, I see her as a wrangler, roping and wrestling yearling calves, deftly steering a quick pony. Her arm is raised over her head, a rope circling. She is on a mission to overcome, because one cannot face the sadness of abuse without getting PISSED OFF.
And overcome she did. What preceded the judge exiling us was my mom following my dad to catch him cheating. The story goes, she then sold the cattle and bought a 1978 red Grand Prix with a white leather interior. Roping calves. She lost a ton of weight and looked like a babe in this black leather coat with a fur collar she'd bought. Skillfully riding her horse.
That coat became a symbol of my mother's liberation and strength for me. It showed she could pick up her grief-stricken, sore-hearted self and get back to wrestling and wrangling despite those wounds.
The coat itself became an object of fascinating lore for me. I had this vision of my mom, a discarded and abused woman, refusing to act like she was just wiped off a man's shoe. She went on to work at General Motors as a foreman (fore woman?). That's a far cry from her life as a hairdresser. But she managed men in her factory job just fine. She found her strength.
She later told me a suitor from her foreman days bought her the coat. I was deflated, because I was certain she'd told me it came with the car, so to speak, and was part of her post-divorce 'coming out party.' Or she had to buy it when we moved to Ohio. The coat is sassy, rebellious, super fitted, shiny, durable. It screams, "I have been THROUGH divorce hell and now I'm back and feeling my own power." It told me my mom didn't take shit off of anybody, and she was a real catch. The coat had achieved epic status in my mind, more than a coat, it was a cloak of freedom.
That coat was the exit, the sign of leaving reduced circumstances. No matter what doors closed to her, my strong, beautiful mother found a way.
I think about the circumstances we are born into. My mom was born in Appalachia, and so was I. There is so much to be gleaned from those the area is structured to meet the insatiable needs of corporate libertarianism. How one of the strengths of the people has historically been their ability to adapt to reduced circumstances, in some grow their gardens and trade with their neighbors. Yet I'm convinced the structure of neoliberalism has a trickle-down effect to personal relationships. If all your men are being exploited, then by default, some will come home and set up that same exploitative structure in their homes. Entitlement is a yeasty, insidious presence that is unconsciously absorbed and wielded by some. The stress of being exploited and this enforced class and poverty disintegrates relationships and communities, or, it can be a unifying force, a motivation for "buck against" and overcome. My mother and I grew up in this structure of relationships, this creation of oppressor/oppressed, of user/used. Everything trickles down...the sins of the fathers...the tears of the mothers.
Somehow, despite a person formerly known as an intimate trying to drag you down, despite all the lingering messages of class and stereotypes sticking to you like a "kick me" sign on your back, despite the structure into which you are born and learn to adapt to, somehow, there arises in some a desire to make it better. There arises a strength to take the worst circumstances and make good out of them. This strength is what my mother modeled for me. I know, like me, she had times where she didn't think she could make it, where she didn't think she could cope, where she was overwhelmed by all the burdens of the past and present. I learned that poverty can dog your steps and nip your heels for a long time and not many people will care, especially not the people who should, like your children's parent or family. Appalachia gets recreated as one marries an adherent of personal neoliberalism, of exploitation of the poor, of making the rich man richer, of having you take up their slack.
This is what I admire about my mother-this alchemy of spirit, this drive to rise above reduced circumstances. We have been through the wringer with each other as we have tried to reconcile our own feelings and grief cycles with each other. My mother has always modeled reconciliation and has very much desired a relationship with me, despite the hurts we've given each other. There won't be a day that goes by that I don't think about my mother, how I hear my voice turning just like hers, when I see my face looking so much like her. My mother is in me, and I am in her.
When I wear that coat, I wear its stories. I wear the overcoming of the terrors of abuse, the symbolism of leaving poverty, the unblocked exit door, the power of wounds and the gifts of exile, and the ever-present hope in good things to come. My mother gave that to me, and I am forever grateful for her gift.
Happy mother's day to all the strong, beautiful women I know, especially to my own sweet mother, who to this day has the most generous heart, is still incredibly funny and sassy, and who is dearly loved by her family.