On Strength

I’ve been thinking about crying lately. I wrote in my post On Dreams about how often I cry. I’m very sensitive. Caleb used to tease me about this. When sappy commercials would come on the television, he would laugh and yell, “Change it, quick!” I would hide my face in a pillow, trying not to cry.

Sometimes I think about the ways in which he loved me. The ways in which he treated me so tenderly. He laughed at my crying, then pulled me in close, “This is why I love you,” he would say, leaning in to give me a kiss. His eyes smiled at me, even when he wasn’t smiling. His affection felt so real.

And it was also real when he screamed at me. “Stop crying! Stop being a child! Where is my wife? Where is my wife who is an adult?” And I would wonder the same thing myself: Where is that woman? Where is she? 

I drove across the country last week. I drove through nine states in four days. Last year, I did the same drive. The day after I arrived last year, I went to the courthouse for my divorce hearing. We had only one hearing. I compromised on far too many things in order to make that happen. My compromises were so great that the judge stopped the hearing in the middle and asked me “Why are you doing this?” I hadn’t expected that question. 

“Because I wanted an agreement,” I said. 

The judge turned to Caleb. “Is that true?” He asked.

Caleb was flustered. He admitted to the judge that he had agreed not to create a legal battle for me if I gave him what he wanted. He told the judge that I would someday make more money than him. His bitterness over this likelihood was apparent.

The judge was not pleased. He threw down his pen. He raised his voice. I don’t remember everything he said, but the premise was this: You should want your wife to be happy.

And he should have, but he didn’t.

Caleb and I walked outside the courthouse near each other, but not together. My lawyer stayed by my side. She is a lawyer who only represents domestic violence victims. I remember thinking, “Is she scared? Her job is dangerous.” But I wasn’t scared. I had stopped feeling fear long before that. Maybe that absence of fear was part of the problem. The worst had already happened. He could do no more damage to me. 

At least that’s what I thought, but of course, he could have. There was still so much damage that could have been done.

I thought I would cry in the car on the way home from my divorce. I wanted to cry. I even tried to muster up some tears. But they didn’t come. Instead, I felt something in my chest. A weight released. And then, unexpectedly, euphoria. It was a euphoria stronger, even, than the dread I had felt on the eve of my wedding.

The next day, I finished packing a U-haul and moved to Ohio. I left behind the house that Caleb and I had bought together, the kitchen I had designed myself, complete with retro coral boomerang countertops, the lilac tree I had planted in honor of our spring wedding, and a lovable and furry retriever named Hank. I put the keys on the counter, closed the door, and I didn’t cry. 

But I have been crying today, a little over a year later. It started last night. I was trying to hang a shower rod. I could not get the thing to work. I struggled with it for what felt like hours. After finally wedging it into place, I stepped down from the side of the tub, and it fell. And with that, I started crying. And I have been crying off and on since then.

And it feels so good to cry because I’m tired. I’m just tired. I’m tired because I drove for almost forty hours last week. And I’m tired because, when I got home, my house was infested with spiders. And I’m tired because it was also full of mouse droppings. And I’m tired because it wasn’t fully unpacked. And I’m tired because there is a layer of mold from the humidity. And I’m tired because while my love for Reed is boundless, he’s an eight-year-old boy who is never tired. And I’m tired because I have work to do, and grants to write, and editors sending me requests for revisions, and new essays to write, and a syllabus to create, and course schedules to figure out. 

And I’m tired because I’m lonely. I’m tired because I left behind some of my closest friends and my family a week ago. I’m tired because I miss my nightly walks with my friends where the sun set, and we laughed and kept doing laps in the dark because we were having too much fun to go home. I’m tired because I didn’t have the time to go backpacking with my dad. I’m tired because I haven’t been backpacking with my dad since I married Caleb. I’m tired because so many things I loved got shoved to the side when I married Caleb, and I’m just now beginning to get those things back. I’m tired because I miss the stars in the Idaho sky, and I’m tired because I miss my mom. I’m tired because I dipped my toes back into the dating pool this summer, and that was scary, and wonderful, and also, very overwhelming.

So I’m tired, but I’m tired because I’m getting better. I’m tired because my heart is no longer a tight, little fist that can’t even recognize it’s lonely. And that’s a good thing. I don’t want my heart to be a tight, little fist. I want my heart to be an open hand reaching out. 

After I left Caleb, I grew so hard and numb. It was the only way to cope. I remember telling a friend that I would never date again because no one would ever get to love the woman who I was when I met Caleb. That woman was trusting, open, vulnerable, and lovable. I told my friend that I would never be that woman again, that I would only be some worst, possible version of myself. And I know now that’s not true. I know now that the woman I am now may be different, but she is also, in so many ways, better. I know that the woman I am now is a grown-up. The woman I am now is strong.

When I was with Caleb, I thought I wasn’t strong because I was abused. That was hard for me because I ‘m a spunky, opinionated, and assertive woman. People have been calling me “strong” since I was a kid. I was the kid who went to bat for my friends. I was the high schooler who would stick up for the underdog, even if it meant getting picked on myself. I was the twenty-something who always took the path less traveled and never apologized for it. I wasn’t supposed to be the kind of woman who got abused. I thought abuse didn’t happen to strong women.

I’ve written about it before, but I had a significant moment when I was running on the treadmill after I left Caleb. I was trying to create enough physical pain to obliterate the emotional pain. A pop song came on that said “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” I wanted to scream. 

I thought, “I am not stronger. I am not stronger because of what he did to me.”

But I am stronger.

And I was strong before I met him.

And I was strong during the abuse.

It was my strength that gave me the courage to love someone so fiercely who was so broken. It was my strength that gave me the integrity to try and do what I thought was best for our child who loved his father, even though I was suffering personally. It was my strength that allowed me to forgive Caleb so many times. It was my strength that told me to draw lines with him, that he would need to get counseling, that he would need to quit drinking, that he would need to go to anger management, that he would need to take medication. It was my strength that made me adaptable enough to survive while he tried these different strategies. It was my strength that made me eventually realize these strategies were not going to work. And it was my ultimate strength when I gave up.

I wasn’t weak because I loved a man who abused me. I was strong enough to love a man who abused me. And now, I’m strong enough to recognize that’s not love. I’m strong enough to learn from my mistakes. I’m strong enough to cry.

The My Writing Process Blog Tour

This post is a deviation from my regular posts about my experience with surviving domestic violence, but since my writing life has been heavily influenced by that experience lately, I’ve decided to dedicate some blog space to participating in the writing process blog tour.

I also recently had an essay reviewed at Essay Daily, and as a follow up to that essay, Melanie Bishop did a Q & A with me where I talked in length about what it means to write and be labeled as an abuse survivor.

Thank you to Rachel May for passing this blog tour on to me. Rachel found me on Facebook after reading my essay, It Will Look Like a Sunset. Since then, I’ve enjoyed our interactions as well as her creative and scholarly work on quilting, narrative, and cultural studies. 

About her book, Quilting With a Modern Slant, Rachel writes: No matter how we define ourselves, quilters forge powerful communities, in which we rely on each other for friendship, feedback, and inspiration. I’m excited about that sense of community, and what we can accomplish together.

I’m excited to be a new member of Rachel’s community. My most recent writing has brought me into a community of survivors, activists, artists, and writers, and I can’t say that I’ve ever had a more fulfilling experience. So thank you to everyone who stops by to read about and share my experiences with me.

And with that, I’ll answer the following four questions about my writing process, then pass it on to three writers who have become part of my writing community in the past year.

1) What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a collection of linked essays about surviving domestic violence. I’ve already published two of these essays, I have another one forthcoming, and I’m working on a different one now. As I progress in this project, I’ve noticed the essays becoming less about the abuse and more about my own internal dialogue, how I’ve been recovering from the abuse, and how I’ve been negotiating life after divorce, and as a single mom. I have many stories to tell, and the abuse is quickly becoming only a small part of my story. I have a completed manuscript, Demolition (which I’m sitting on for now while I decide what to do with it). In that book, the essays are more quiet and nuanced. They focus on pedestrian topics like babysitting and demolition derbies, but the various threads are about interpersonal relationships and the tension between the landscape and its inhabitants. As I’ve progressed on my current manuscript, I’ve found myself returning back to these quieter themes. I’m currently working on an essay tentatively titled “Poppies” about the poppies that now grow in an abandoned yard after a neighbor’s house burned down with him inside of it, but like all of my writing, the true subject is me, how I reacted to that neighbor during an incident before he died, and how that reaction was typical of the way I responded in such situations. Domestic violence is a thread in the essay, but it’s only one of many.

2) How does your work differ from other work in its genre?

I’m very interested in structure and using structure to create tension within my essays. A writer recently told me that I would be a good screenplay writer because I know just when to end a scene, and I think that is a strength of mine. When I’m writing, I often write scenes first, then piece them into a complete essay. I don’t know if I’m capable of writing a sustained full-length memoir, but my essays usually come together as a collection. With Demolition, I remember thinking, “How should I arrange these essays?” But the answer was so clear–chronologically. As a whole, they were a memoir. In a conversation with an editor recently, I had to admit that I’m an essayist at heart. I’m too attached to the short form to let that go. I love the feeling of completing an essay. I love to use maximalist language. I love to create scenes that have punch. I started out writing poetry, but I wasn’t a very good poet. Still, I hope that my initial love of poetry comes through in the lyricism of my essays.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I write whatever the little spark inside of me wants to write. I get an idea. An image. A scene. And then I have to write it. I have a whole folder on my computer of ideas, and those ideas are usually based on some kind of image that I’ve seen in my daily life. I’ve lived an interesting life. I’ve seen many interesting things, but that doesn’t mean that I want to write about them. As a writer of nonfiction, people are always telling me “You should write about X.” Well, yes, I probably should, but I can’t. I write what my body wants to write.

4) How does your writing process work?

I’ll be honest and say that my writing process needs some revision. In my defense, I think this is largely because of my life circumstances. I’m a single mother in a PhD program with academic and teaching work to complete on top of my writing, so it’s not always easy. I’m also trying to nourish myself holistically, so in the summer, I work a job in the outdoors where I get a lot of sunshine and interact with many fun rafters on a wilderness river in Idaho. This job has nothing to do with writing, but as my friend pointed out to me at lunch today, I always come back to my program at the end of the summer calmer and more centered, so I’ve made the decision that my writing life actually benefits from that experience. My life is my subject so I need to live it. Pam Houston, a writer whose work I deeply admire for her ability to make connections between her inner life and the outside world, once said that she writes in “bulimic bursts” and I would say that I’m similar. Maybe that’s symptomatic of being a writer who very much values the outdoors and lived experience, but I don’t want to always be shut indoors writing. I did that during my MFA, and I was miserable, so for me, I need to have balance. During the school year, I don’t have that balance. I work very hard. I raise my child alone. I’m ambitious, driven, and disciplined, and I generally have a great deal of output. Then, during the summer, I give myself a bit of a break. I allow myself to daydream. I take five mile walks every day. I sit in the river in a camp chair with a friend while our legs bob along in the surf. Those are the times when I think about poppies.

And now for the writers who I’ve chosen to feature:

Kirk Wisland blogs at But Then I Think…. Kirk entered the PhD program at the same time as me, and we have bonded over being fellow nonfiction writers, children of Midwestern Lutherans, and as a result, maybe, slightly, overly accommodating…. I love Kirk’s work because of his honesty, wit, careful language, and thoughtfulness. 

Kirk is a full-time wielder of the Pen of Nonfiction, occasional short-story writer and woefully infrequent blogger. His work has appeared in The Normal School, Diagram, Creative Nonfiction, Essay Daily, Paper Darts, Phoebe, and Fiction on a Stick. he lives in Athens, Ohio, where he is pursuing is PhD in Creative Writing at Ohio University. He is an ardent Timberwolves fan and unrepentent political junkie. he wanted to surf, but feared the sharks.

Chelsea Biondolillo blogs at Roaming Cowgirl. She has already completed the Writing Process Blog Tour here. I met Chelsea at when we were part of a panel on publishing flash  nonfiction. In the past year, I’ve grown to enjoy her visceral writing about vultures, and the way she makes connections between the natural world, her body, and her inner state. I also enjoy her many unapologetic food pictures that she posts on Facebook. 

Chelsea’s prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, Guernica, Rappahannock Review, River Teeth, Shenandoah, and others. She has an MFA in creative writing and environmental studies from the University of Wyoming, and is the 2014-15 O’ Connor fellow in nonfiction at Colgate University.

Rebecca Hazelwood and I met on Facebook through a writer’s group. Rebecca and I have bonded over talk of personal essays and our mutual desire to someday have our very own Danny Castellano from The Mindy Show. Rebecca’s essays are honest, disarming, sad, and poignant. Rebecca blogs about the awkward and mundane (and what she’s reading) as Wild Ruled on tumblr and she runs a poetry blog, Structure and Style with a friend. 

Rebecca has been published in PANK and Still: The Journal, and she’s working on a memoir via essays about her father, her family, her aunt’s gun, and what she’s afraid of. She holds an MFA from Georgia College and is just starting a PhD in English/Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Survivor Stories, Guest Post: Final Girl, Part 3.

Thank you for reading the third and final installment from Final Girl. You can find more of her work at her Tumblr and Facebook.

Invisible Bruises III:
The Scars
I stand, holding a stencil in one hand, a can of paint in the other, waiting for passing headlights to dim, listening for the whirr of a car on the road (is it approaching or fading?). It’s after midnight, and I’m shaking from nervousness, excitement—and memory.
Because a man taught me to do this. 
The street artist known as Swoon was born Caledonia Dance Curry. A boyfriend dreamed her painter name, said he saw her in a vision making art on the streets. So she took the name and did. Left him, took the name, and did.
I dreamed my own name, but a man taught me the details: to choose the cardboard carefully, trace the image with markers, cut with razors, aim the paint—close or far, steady or in spurts. A man taught me, and told me I was good, better than anyone he had tried to teach before. He told me his secrets.
Then he lied. Then he kicked and bruised and called me names and made me crawl.
He was still a man, never a monster. He was still a human man. But he became someone I could not love, I could not work with, I could not be alongside and survive.
It was one of the first hazy nights of spring. I thought we were just going for a walk after dinner—but then he kneeled, took out his wheat paste.
Turn your face away, he hissed when a girl turned down our alley. He put up his piece on a garage door, then asked me: Are you going to do something or not? 
I did have art in my pocket, little stickers I would paint by hand when I was watching TV or waiting for a ride, but I didn’t want to put anything up.  To muster the guts to do graffiti, I had to really feel it.  I had to feel the piece was timely: in some way, needed.
Maybe there had been an assault. Maybe there was a girl missing. I would want then to do a piece that might give someone strength or encouragement.  I would paint a strong woman. I would paint a key.
We were standing on a busy street next to a parking garage.  Cars kept whizzing by, catching us in their lights. I didn’t feel it that night, not that insistent, essential feeling.
But: Do it, he said. Are you going to do it? He turned away. No, you’re not going to. He spat on the bricks at my feet. 
We often ended nights like this.  He called me weak, scared, judgmental.  He picked at me until I cried.
It’s difficult to do the thing you love after the person who used to accompany you is gone, after so many memories of the activity you did together are sorrowful, like this one. There is pain every time I cut a new stencil. There are memories even in the brand of paint I use. 
I change razors more often than he did, though. I’m not interested in making posters, as he used to do. I draw with markers sometimes—he never did. These were not conscious changes. I did not set out to make my process different from his, but these small distinctions are ways to make art my own.
Already I have gone out on more missions alone than we ever did together. Already I have made more pieces solo in my tiny spare room— crouched by the closet door, my back aching from the iron bar of the bed pressing into my back, the stencil tipped up against the wall—than I ever painted in his spacious studio.
I remember: I love this, even outside of my past with him, even outside of the pain our time together caused me. I love this.
That love has nothing to do with him.
Whatever you do, you do something: paint, sing, watch movies, run. And maybe you did it with someone who hurt you. And now you can still do it, even alone. 
And now it gets better. Because alone, you can paint all night if you want to. You can use the last bit of black. You can see the gory horror flick. You can eat all the desserts or only appetizers. You can go where you want to go. You can run and run and run as fast or as slow as you need, all the way to the bridge, all the way up the hill.
I like putting art up by myself. I like going out into the night alone. Alone, I can chose my own spots carefully and slowly, be quiet, take as much time as I need, abort the mission if I want.
Alone I feel safe.
I’ve been struggling to write this post about recovery, because I don’t think I’ve recovered. I think I will bear the invisible scars of how he abused me for a long time. Maybe forever.
I do know this: When you find the right man or woman after being abused, a good man or woman, it will be difficult to trust them. It will be difficult to know. They will need to be patient. You will need to go slow.
I also know, I have learned: Having no partner is better than having the wrong partner. Silence is better than being screamed at. Empty arms are better than bruised ones.
Go painting alone. It will take you a long time to love it. 

But know this: One day, you will.
Final Girl is an Appalachian street artist.  Her essays have been published in Hillbilly Speaks and Bending Genre, and her art appears in many secret spaces.  You can see more examples of her work at https://www.facebook.com/Finalgirlart