Walking Into Loss and Light
January 6, 2018 was Epiphany on the church calendar, the day we celebrate the wise men following the star which led them to the world’s Light. That morning, before my husband and I took down the Christmas tree, we had attended a funeral. One of our closest friends had buried his father that day. It was not just a day of light. It was a day of loss.
In the afternoon, as soon as the ornaments were boxed and the tree was hauled out the front door, I left the house to go take a walk before the sun set.
I left in the light, unknowingly walking straight into loss.
I lost my confidence to walk alone on my city’s streets. I lost my capacity to think the best of strangers who stop and ask me for direction. I lost my desire to help others. I lost my refusal to be cynical or fearful. I lost my desire to stay put in the city’s center and wanted to flee to a safer place. I lost my innocence, my belief that ‘it won’t happen to me.’ I lost my illusion that I live in a safe neighborhood. Nowhere is safe, really. We can’t build enough gates and walls to keep evil out. I lost my false belief that I could talk my way in or out of just about anything.
Several times I have been asked the question, “What did he want?” The man who jumped out of the car and ran up behind me: What did he want? My answer is that I don’t know because he didn’t say anything.
The car had passed me before stopping. I was walking with my phone was in my left hand. I moved to the right when I heard footsteps behind me, thinking I was letting a jogger pass on my left. When I saw the shadow over my right shoulder, I knew I was in trouble, even before I felt him touch me.
He could have easily just snatched my phone from my left hand had he passed me on my left side. Did he want my rings? Me? I will never know. He never said a word. Not one word.
But I did. Loudly and forcefully. And I’ve found comfort in that for ten months.
For years I’d had a recurring nightmare about being attacked. My husband would hear me thrashing in the bed and wake me up. I would recount the dream to him and say, “I tried to scream and I couldn’t. Nothing would come out.” I’ve always feared in a moment like that, I wouldn’t be able to make a sound.
Living out that nightmare shed light on who I am and what I’m to become.
I gained a confidence that my voice will rise when I need it. I found an instinctive ability to fight that I didn’t know I had. I found an intuitive wisdom that is built into my body that I’d ignored most of my life. I gained a capacity to tolerate fear and loss and move through them. I found the strength to let go of a false self and some codependent traits. I found that talking my way through things is better than talking my way in or out of them. I found that help comes running from every direction when you ask for it.
My counselor tells me that whatever I said in the moment was ‘survival brain’ talking. The prefrontal cortex, our thinking and reasoning part of the brain, goes offline. We go into ‘fight or flight’ mode, all our resources working toward survival. In that moment, we are instinctual, like our animal friends. Illusions and false selves are stripped away (because they are useless) and our essence shows up. Only recently, after all these months of mining that experience for meaning, have I realized the importance of WHAT I said that day.
“What are you doing?” I shouted and spun to my right into him as I saw his shadow and felt his body making contact with mine.
“Get away from me!” I screamed as I pushed or pulled to untangle myself from his grip and stared him right in the face.
In the most fearful moment of my life thus far, my words came out asking a question and defining a boundary.
I’ve been asking questions all of my life. The only profane word my dear mother has ever said was to her worrisome second-born who incessantly tugged on her elbow asking “Why?” I caused her to spill an entire box of detergent into the washing machine. “Leah, you worry the sh&t” out of me,” she said.
My teachers, professors, husband, children and friends can all attest to my inability to refrain from questioning. I have tried sometimes to not be the questioner, to just ‘not care’ when everyone else seems to accept the status quo. I’ve not been successful, however. In my own mind, I’m always circling back to the questions.
The boundaries have been harder. If you read “Julie Is Dead" you know what a people pleaser I have been, how adept I had become at impression management. And yet, when I think of my childhood, I often jumped on my bike and took off alone, down to the graveyard where I could see the lake and the railroad tracks and create an imaginary world. When I couldn’t define a physical boundary, I retreated in my head.
Much of my adult life has been a struggle with boundaries. Blame birth order, being female in southern culture, family of origin…any of those will do if you want to cast blame, but I don’t. I just want healthy boundaries going forward.
I used to teach Robert Frost’s poem to my ninth graders. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Did I really think that was only about property lines - squabbles over timber or cattle or apples or sheep?
Among the losses that day was the illusion that I could continue to live with a foot in two worlds: Using my voice as a force for good but still being the smiling “Julie” who makes the cruise entertaining and accommodating for everyone else. Among the gains, recognizing I’ve been given a voice whose purpose is to ask questions and draw boundaries.
As Advent begins and I live through the darkest month of the year, I find myself praying for Light to come in a new way: Illuminate the landscape that needs surveying. Show me the questions I should be asking? And as I set priorities and begin or continue relationships in a new year: Show me where the lines should be drawn. Give me courage to build a fence where I need one for healthy relationships with my people.