Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

A painting by Jane Evershed - I have this hanging in my kitchen
"The Founder's Footsteps"

When I started this blog this summer, it truly was because I was grading and needed a diversion for a little bit. I also knew that I wanted to blog with my students this semester, so I told myself that my taking the time to create a blog was actually "research" into how blogs worked... yeah, right. That thought was just some excuse not to be grading, and I know it.

At the time, I did not imagine how I would come to use the blog. Yes, I frequently post when I should be grading [like now], but more often than not, I use the blog as a way for me to process how I'm viewing the world these days.

I say, "these days" because there genuinely is a difference in how I view the world now versus just a few years ago. There really is an "old Lee" and a "new Lee."

I had a chat with a sorority sister this evening, and she made this comment to me:
You've gone from being a victim to a survivor, even in your own head.
Wow. That really sums it up.

I've alluded to this idea in some other blog posts, but this conversation really caused me to do even further analysis. You see, the "old Lee" really was a victim. As a teenager, I experienced an incident of sexual abuse. In college, I was date raped. I do believe that the first event is a contributing factor to the second, as my self-esteem tanked and I lost my ability to discern how I should be treated by others. My response to both was to hide - to change my major and consequently my career to one with very few men and to marry the first man who made me feel safe - a relationship that stemmed from a clear power differential between the two of us. In the process of hiding, I went numb. I went through the motions of what I was "supposed" to do, and somewhere along the way I lost my identity. I allowed my husband to call most of the shots, and I developed a learned helplessness that wasn't pretty.

Sixteen years after I was raped, I was in the middle of my doctoral program (which brought me back to life in so many ways) when the realization that the rape had impacted my life in ways I had not paid attention to hit me. This realization led to therapy, as well as the dissolution of my marriage. I wrote here about it, and it's worth a read, although when I wrote this piece I still had not done some major healing work, because I had allowed the rape to be my focus in the healing, when truthfully I needed to go back even further than that.

My marriage fell apart when I started the healing process, and I eventually moved into another relationship that helped me heal on some levels but still had a power differential. That relationship ended because I fell for a man who came back into my life about whom I always wondered, "what if?" Unfortunately, timing stunk, and neither of us were really ready for each other; he literally left me with this nugget: "Lee, you have to be happy with yourself. You can't depend on anyone else for that happiness."

That one comment rang truer than it ever had for me, and I began a period of soul-searching as well as recognizing that I still had a lot of healing to do. I started the process of healing from the abuse, and the depression that ensued was the perfect storm of love lost (x2) as well as the self-induced pain of healing. I also could not eat, which was very frustrating. As my therapist told me, women who are going through such levels of healing are doing so much mental, spiritual, and emotional work that mastication is more than they can do. Sleep was very fleeting, and I spent many a night crying out to God and sobbing hysterically. I truly believe I literally experienced hell on earth.

It was during this time that I started exercising as a way to deal with stress. The first time I went to the gym to exercise was pitiful. It was all I could do to get on the elliptical and have it work at its very lowest setting for 15 minutes without turning off. My heart rate was through the roof, but I persisted and gradually worked up to longer, more intense cardio. A few months into exercising, the good folks at the gym recommended that I try the BodyFlow class - a combination of yoga, tai chi, and pilates - as it would help me relax. I remember laying on the floor during the meditation portion of one of the classes and the instructor saying, "Go to your happy place." I lay there stumped. Happy? Where was I happy?

This question plagued me for weeks. I finally found the answer, though. At sorority convention that summer, a speaker had the following up on one of her slides:
Be open to the unexpected.
Be present.

Be generous.

Be your word.
Be who you are
and accept others for who they are.
Be where you are
and accept what you have.
Be the change you want to see in the world.
As I sat there listening to her, I thought to myself, "That's happiness. That's what I want."

My happy place is when I feel like I'm making a difference. It's why I enjoy my children, students, and sorority work. It's not a physical location but a result that comes from BEING. It's the recognition that each moment is an opportunity and a gift.

And so, the "new Lee" was born. I started savoring the little things, accepting people for who they are and where they are. The exercise produced another change in that I started feeling healthy and good about myself. My wardrobe began to change, too, and the clothes that I started wearing looked younger and more vibrant than before. In a nutshell, I quit hiding and I started living.

On this day of Thanksgiving, I recognize that in many ways this blog not only provides me a diversion from grading, it also allows me to give thanks and celebrate the beauty that is inherent in the process of living. I often feel like I'm writing with a perspective that is somewhat naive or narcissistic, but I think that feeling only comes from the fact that this feeling of living is still so new to me. There are some days I literally can't believe how blessed I am to be living the life I have and experiencing the things I do, and all I want to do is share that feeling of incredulity. And there are days where I am feeling anger and frustration, and I just need to get it out. The key word in many of these sentences is feeling. I FEEL!

And that is the difference between being a victim and a survivor. Today, I give thanks that I am a survivor, and that with each passing day I grow more into the woman I always should have been.

The poem that goes with the painting:

The Founder's Footsteps...

No one was watching
When you first tied fast
The tight rope of your own making,
Then summoned the strength to walk it.

Now the Universe smiles upon you
With all the women you have transitioned with,
Away from pain and bondage
Toward the seductive drumbeats
Of conscious evolution
And self empowerment.

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