My mom jumped on my suggestion of a socially distant visit by renting a 50 foot boom lift so Kathy and I could paint the pergola of my great-grandfather’s barn in upstate New York. This is where my mom spent her summers growing up, and where her mother was raised, and likely abused, perhaps by her brother(s) or father. It’s beautiful, with old trees that haven’t been clear cut in more than 200 years. On the second day of painting, as we continued on the back side of the pergola, the wind picked up, as the lift swayed slightly from its less-than-ideal hilly placement. At that moment, hovering very high above the earth, waiting in fear for the wind or swaying to subside before continuing our journey sideways over the roof, my dad says, “Well, I’m going to the store.”
“We don’t have a cell phone! Tell mom to stop mowing and watch us!” The sound of the riding lawn mower roared in the near distance. Why my 76 year old parents travel 200 miles to cut the grass rather than hiring someone is beyond me.
Dad made it clear that neither of them were going to stop what they were doing just to watch us be blown around in a metal box. “If you don’t feel comfortable up there, just come down.”
It wasn’t said unkindly, but I was upset. As dad went to the store and mom continued on the noisy mower, I realized that moment tapped into a main experience growing up– dad leaving and mom doing something else. An environment that allowed me to be sexually abused by as a pre-schooler by my grandmother, and as a 4th grader by my older brother.
I was particularly upset, though, by the agency that was put upon me, that I was the one responsible for making the call about what was and was not safe. They put me in a risky situation, and then wouldn’t even be present to me in it. This too, of course, tapped into the abuse. It was SUPPOSED to be fine that my grandmother came over 3 days a week while my mom was at work, it was SUPPOSED to be ok that my eldest brother was in charge. But it wasn’t. It made me think about how we put too much on the vulnerable to claim their/our own safety without also accompaniment and watching out for them/us. Yes, of course I will come down if I think it’s unsafe, but what if I’m not sure? And what about feeling paralyzed, stuck, and just wanting it to be over, not able to do anything about it?
The homily at Delores Mission last week, the start of ordinary time, quoted James Baldwin about “trying ever to know ourselves better so we damage ourselves less.” This seems a worthy project, overcoming fear to speak the truth, as that which is most personal is also the most universal. The Jesuit homilist at Dolores Mission went on to say, “In fear lives violence, the violence of silence.” And, as Audre Lorde says, our silence will not save us.
Writing truthfully, not censoring myself, feels scary and draining and exhilarating and draining. I’ve been thinking about how change happens. I’ve been watching the PBS Reconstruction documentary, of the 2,000 black office holders between 1865 and 1885. And also thinking about K. Switzer, who ran the Boston marathon in 1967, just by signing up. Don’t wait to be let in, just sign up and do it.