9 year old girls scare me…and now I have one

September 20, 2015

Today my daughter, Mackenzie, turned 9 years old.  A milestone normally celebrated with gusto has left me distracted and with great unease. You see, I have been afraid of 9 year old girls for over two decades.

“What could possibly be scary about 9-year-old girls?” you may wonder. I wasn’t bullied by a crew of 3rd graders and I would have no problem putting a gaggle of them in their place if necessary. My fear isn’t so much OF them as it is FOR them. TOMKID38

My biological father is a twice convicted pedophile (which does not account for all the victims for which he did not serve jail time). In clinical terms, 9-year-old’s are consistently his “age of preference.” And not just any 9-year-old girl, mind you, but ones that fit a particular profile; sweet, artistic, highly sensitive, hopeful, trusting to a fault. Stanley scouts out little girls, deeming some desirable victims and others too clever or judicious to adequately manipulate. It’s beyond difficult for me to stomach.

Growing up, my older sister was, thankfully, one of the sophisticated ones. We joke that Stanley was more afraid of her than anything else. I didn’t quite make the same cut. I was 7 when Stanley began “grooming” me, 8 when his parental rights were terminated. I didn’t survive him completely unscathed, but was miraculously spared the worst of his atrocities. I turned 9 just outside of his reach.

During a time when girls are often deeply exploratory, enthusiastic, and exuberant I have come to imagine them as terrifyingly vulnerable.  Who knows how many other 9-year-old girls were his victims? Most days, I’m no longer haunted by the thought. Today was different.

Mackenzie is incredibly sweet, charismatic and animated. She’s got a clever sense of humor and a sometimes painfully compassionate heart. She’s witty, creative and imaginative. Today, in alignment with her true nature, Mackenzie literally danced her way into her 9th year. She did so encompassing the same innocent and enchanted spirit with which, I too, identified at her age, making it all the more unnerving.

girl-running-through-field-photo-by-Kristin-DokozaBeing in fear is a choice I have made. For, as long as 9-year-old girls are imagined beacons of abuse, than I can focus on ways to control and protect them. The alternate reality has, until now, been much more appalling; that I will never, ever be able to control him.

Choice is a gift; the choice to interpret, the choice to heal…of course, it often requires patience to integrate a new way of thinking.  Today my intention is to release 9-year-old girls from this imagined cloak of vulnerability and, instead, become present to the glowing light that is my daughter; to celebrate her blooming.

On this, my daughter’s 9th birthday, I choose to acknowledge that she is wildly free and, in doing so, I have freed myself.

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Story of my Body

During a rest break at an indoor water park this week, I found myself suddenly awed by the many half naked bodies all around me. So many shades, shapes, sizes, abilities, and challenges. I found myself captivated suddenly by the elaborate stories potentially told by each person’s human form; where they had been, what they had overcome, in what ways they were soft, angry, vibrant, frightened. For a moment the entire beings of these “strangers” surrounding me were completely visible through my simple observations of the skin and flesh making up the human form.Now-Foundation-Love-Your-Body

I hugged my knees into my chest and rested my head there. Immediately my own story began to unfold from my body. My belly, my center–the round cushion of protection with which I most struggle. She tells of a shock to the system, of the fear and desperation endured. She also speaks of a soft, sacred place, a land of wild femininity. Within my belly is a vault of stored up kisses regularly placed there by my children. Their love begs me to treasure the sacred story contained within every inch of this frame.

My body is colored by the brush strokes of experiences captured along my travels. Each stray hair, each crease, line and curve offers information, tells of another territory visited on the map of my life. Some of these visited places grew me warm, open, radiant and smooth. Some nations have proved more treacherous, laced with betrayal, despair and terror.

Our bodies speak of insight and wisdom and simultaneously of terrain still waiting for its time to heal. Our bodies are evidence of all the beauty and time that has unfolded since we manifested into physical form. The seasons themselves are revealed in our cells. Perhaps most amazing, these bodies reflect a commitment we made to do more than simply exist but rather, to live a life.

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Peace Orders & Racism

Yesterday I filed for my first protective order with the Howard County District Court. No, I’m not involved in an abusive relationship, no one is threatening, stalking or intimidating me. In fact, I feel safer and more grounded than ever before in my life.

My dog, on the other hand, has been being taunted and threatened (to the point of attempted physical violence) by a neighborhood man for months. This past weekend, my husband and I had enough. We caught the man on camera attempting to hit our dog with a large stick from the other side of our backyard fence and then called the police to report him.  april 2013 104

An officer arrived at our home within minutes. The officer took our concerns seriously, wrote a report, went down to the man’s house and collected the information we would need to file an affidavit with animal control (for “cruelty”) as well as petition for a peace order. The officer then returned to our house to inform us of all his findings and made recommendations on how we might proceed. He made sure our family felt safe.

When I arrived in court yesterday afternoon for my case to be heard before the judge, I had the opportunity to listen to the case before mine. An African American woman similar to me in age began to describe the intense scene that lasted for hours at her home that very morning. She explained how her fiance had threatened her, screamed at her, put his nose to her face while he spat abusively. He demanded money, argued about their children, and verbally degraded her. The woman then explained that she had to call police three times during the long morning, each time they arrived and explained there was “nothing they could do.”

I sat in the courtroom with my mouth open, previously thinking I knew something, anything, about racism.  After all, I’m a Jewish woman. I’ve experienced my share of religious discrimination, of minimization, disrespect and unfair treatment. And yet, this woman, this person was being directly threatened by her partner and three times her call for help resulted in, essentially, a write off.  My dog, under the care of a white family, was stalked by a neighbor and the police officer practically handed me my case.

I’m grateful for the excellent quality of support from which my family benefited and it should be noted that both of us received our emergency peace orders, but I’m sad and disgusted on behalf of my fellow complainant. Of course, maybe something was miscommunicated or perhaps her description of the responding officers was inaccurate in some way; there is surely more to the story that I don’t know.

I can’t really know much of anything about what it is to be the woman sitting beside me in the courtroom…which, after all, is maybe the whole point.

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The Passing of a Generation

Standing several feet away from the painfully familiar front door, I wondered for a moment through my tears, “Does this make me a stalker?” But no one I knew lived at this apartment anymore and it was simply for the feeling of standing there itself, that I had unexpectedly arrived.

I stepped back, close to the balcony railing and closed my eyes briefly, imagined myself knocking on the door. The images came so easily; the feeling of warm anticipation before my grandfather would pull open the door. His smile would broaden while he stood there shirtless, his skin a deep brown from the sun under fuzzy white grey hairs. He’d rest one hand against his blue and red bathing shorts, in the other he’d have a ripe red tomato half-sliced, juices threatening to run. “We don’t want any!” he’d tease in the doorway, as if poised to close the door just before stepping back to open it wide.

I’d grab him in a damp hug before gliding down the narrow hallway, tossing my wet towel into the dryer on my way into the main living area. My grandmother would appear from the master bedroom doorway, still wearing her brown bathing suit covered in large white peony flowers. “Well, c’mon then and have some lunch.” she’d encourage. By now grandpa would be back in the kitchen, finishing off the thick turkey sandwiches with ruby slices of tomato and crisp iceberg lettuce leaves. “Bernie, did you put out the potato chips?” grandma would bellow from back in the bedroom. “I have the chips but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let you have any!” he’d cajole back at her.

This is where I will be eternally safe, eternally loved. Standing in this living room in my imagination. The smells of Coppertone SPF 4 and men’s cologne, the awareness of my sister and cousin in various states of showering and dressing, the soft peach carpet soothing the bottoms of my feet, tender from the sand. Gazing into the mirrored walls, I was surrounded in an embrace by the ocean herself.

My grandmother died on June 24, 2015, just shy of her 94th birthday. She lived 15 months after losing her 95 year old husband to whom she was married for 72 years (see March 2014: “Life After Pop”).  Her death was the last of a generation of relatives and friends in whose presence I knew myself to be part of something precious and timeless.

Maybe someday soon I will write about her, Phyllis Rice; a woman I adored and admired as my grandma and deeply cherished as my friend. For now, I try mightily to trust that the memories will remain fresh, that the surreal quality that has seemingly overtaken the earth will dissipate in time, and to know that, in that living room by the sea, I will always be able to find them.

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Mackenzie Prison

The first time my biological father went to prison, I was fifteen years old. Perhaps it was not actually his first stint, but it was certainly the first of which I was aware. Since that time, the word itself has taken on expanded meaning; an institution that was once both elusive and alien became alive and threatening.kuyf

My fascination with reality based prison shows didn’t emerge until “Stanley’s” next sentence almost twenty years later. The interest was motivated by a temporary need to understand the full range of ominous horror that is prison life, but ended quickly once I realized I would never understand, nor did I really want to.

Then one night, in place of her usual pattern of bedtime rituals, I found myself in “Mackenzie prison.” Mackenzie prison is simply the title given by my eight year old daughter of the head-lock type hold she now regularly constructs around my neck at bedtime. As we are preparing to say our final goodnight Mackenzie hooks her arms around me with determination, beams a mischevous grin and then wriggles an ankle or two around my back.

“Mom, you’re in ‘Mackenzie prison!” The first time she said it my heart lurched into my throat with a wave of dread. Despite how widely out of context her statement was, and how long it had been since I had entertained the thought, an image of Stanley in an orange jumpsuit immediately flooded my mind. I winced.

“Mom, you can’t escape!” Mackenzie emphasized, hoping to jolt me out of my sudden disengagement.

Over and over again my children invite me to release, to let go, to heal what still needs healing. When I looked back into Mackenzie’s brown eyes, they were wide and expectant, like a fawn looking up from foraging among the grass.

luAt the sight of her, a loud laugh burst from my chest, the muscles now unclenching easily. I inhaled, releasing deeply on the exhalation, imagining the lingering pain and confusion burning up into glittering pixy dust.

“Wow, you are freakishly strong!” I mumbled. Mackenzie roared with satisfaction, pulling my face down against her neck.

I smiled and whispered in her ear, “Mackenzie prison is my favorite kind of prison!”

The Sounds of Silence

 

The Sounds of Silence

August 12, 2014

  vipassana

 

It’s a normal question to ask, “How was your meditation retreat?” Yet every time I hear it I find myself immediately stumped. “It was…hmmm…well, parts of it were…”  Now that I’m two weeks past the 4-day silent Vipassana (Buddhist meditation) weekend, I’m ready to more fully integrate the experience.

So how was it; to be among 100 other people and refrain from interacting; to rise at dawn each morning and spend the next 15 hours walking mindfully or sitting in a meditation hall with no outside distractions? I’d like to say it was pure bliss but I’d be lying.

Several weeks before the Vipassana weekend I began reading Paul Foxman’s The Worried Child. In his book, Paul describes the critical link between the physiological process of birth trauma and the development of childhood anxiety. My son, James’ entry into the world was far from peaceful (hence, my memoir available here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/valerie-r-mcmanus-lcsw-c/the-boy-who-birthed-me/paperback/product-21660301.html ) and, despite a strong support network, he has shown intermittent challenges with anxiety since a small child.

Aside from the day after his birth, there is only one other occasion during which I truly felt the trauma associated with my son’s close-call with death. Two years ago I attended an Infant Loss workshop designed for therapists. The facilitator shared a slide show of families artistically captured in their grief. Images flashed on the screen; mothers and fathers smiling tearfully witnessing their newborns taking their first and last breaths of life. Full-term still born babies, wrapped in blankets as if asleep.  Once back to my car I found myself crying and shaking. Weeping in bed later with my husband, trying to ground myself from the images flashing in my head, all I could say was, “How could I have not realized? We almost had a dead baby!”

As the Vipassana retreat got underway on Thursday, I felt a tightening across my chest. Without the countless distractions of everyday life, all there was for me to do was breathe into this pain; just offer myself love and compassion. re-anchor my experience in my hands, in my feet, ride the waves of emotion, cry silently, breathe again, notice the sounds in the room and focus on the present moment. It was not the peaceful break I had envisioned for but I embraced the work, hopeful of where it may lead.

The next morning I gathered with eight other yogis and one of our retreat leaders, Ruth King, a wise healer and renowned author. Our small group meeting was intended to offer a short reprieve from silence, an opportunity to check-in and share how our experience was going. We all cried. Even the woman who described her experience as one of being cut off from her emotions was in tears as she described her pain. Then it was my turn.

I dissolved into tears, “I’m okay. Really, I’m okay, I just can’t seem to reel this back in.” Ruth nodded and offered, “Can we give this space? Can we just let it be here then for a moment?” I nodded and allowed for a few sobs to leave me unrestrained before quickly struggling to take back what was spilling out of me.

“I have been on a low dose of an antidepressant off and on for nearly 10 years since my son was born. This is the first time that I’m completely free of an SSRI in my system. What perfect timing for a meditation retreat!” My new friends laughed with me. Then I offered a brief synopsis of James’ birth as well as his current challenges.

“He’s starting with a therapist next week. I keep telling myself that he’s in pain because he almost died, that he came into this world dying and was not able to access comfort from his mom. He was just whisked away and taken through a whole slew of invasive medical interventions.” This time, when a sob erupted it was accompanied by trembling—my trauma sign.

At that moment, the man seated beside me turned his body towards me in an invaluable gesture of loving support. Though silent, his posture spoke to me,“Your pain is not too much.” The gesture gave me the courage to continue.

“Omigod. I just realized what’s going on. I think I’m processing more fully the trauma of my son’s birth. I’m so grateful for the medicine. It probably saved my life during the worst of my postpartum depression. But it’s also kept certain things protected from me, behind a screen. I never fully experienced the trauma of what happened and now I’m wrecked—10 years later. Amazing.”

The rest of Friday flowed out in front of me both daunting and curious. How unconscious we are in this culture rich with technology, food, drugs and endless distractions. Even when left to our own devices we are in a near constant state of planning, thinking, remembering, daydreaming, hypothesizing, preparing, intellectualizing. We are almost completely missing our actual lives. With this retreat came an expanse of time to simply be. Simply notice my body, notice my sensations, be present to my surroundings, experience the stillness and wonder, ride the waves of physical and emotional sensation and remember what it feels like to breathe. To sum it up, I cried a lot.

Friday night I had a vivid nightmare. In my dream, it was my daughter who was drowning, trapped in a plastic box full of water. I tried desperately to free her from her prison, unable to bust through the sealed lid, helpless. Finally, the lid gave beneath my prying hands and I pulled her out. She was suddenly small, blue, battered, limp and lifeless–the exact image of her brother upon his entry into the world. Desperately I tried to resuscitate her but she would not be revived. In my dream my body heaved with panicked sobs, still working frantically to save my baby girl, “She might already be dead!” I wailed just before awakening. My breath was quick and my heart raced. I lay frozen for just a moment, “Not real, not real.” I chanted to myself before leaving the bedroom altogether, hoping to shake off the remnants.

On Saturday morning I posted a note to Ruth on the cork board made available to us for communication, “I’m definitely experiencing some trauma and had a horrible nightmare last night. I’m not sure that continuing with the program as it’s outlined is most loving for me right now considering…” Despite my uncertainty, I entered the meditation hall for our morning sit, awaiting Ruth’s response. Tears again came, and I quietly rode wave after wave of fear, horror, grief. Unbenownst to me, Ruth tacked a note to the board, offering to meet with me that morning. I missed both her note and the meeting time while doing a walking mediation on the back lawn.

But in the meantime, something started to change. The waves of distress began to lessen in their height, became less painful to ride independently and the day wore on. My body was calmer, less activated. Mid-afternoon I went back to my room and slept for almost two hours. I woke more peaceful, less tearful and took a walk among the trees. I noticed the rays of light shining through the heavy cover of leaves, pressed my foot into the dirt and rocks, tasted wild raspberries and laughed at my own fears bubbling up, washing over me and floating away.

By evening I was tacking another note on the board, “Thanks for your note, Ruth. I think I’m okay now.” For the remainder of the retreat I found myself mostly in a state of ‘okay-ness.’ It was not one of meditative ecstasy nor was it one of deep pain and fear.  While I have practiced a variety of medication techniques off and on over the years,  enveloping myself in a meditative state for an extended period was new for me. It was a slow and curious existence both pleasant and unfamiliar.

Since the retreat has ended, I do feel calmer and more grounded around James’ mental health challenges. He is surrounded by loving support and guidance as well as harbors many internal resources including wisdom and compassion.  And while I didn’t expect to be catapulted into something so raw, the circumstances of the retreat invited its movement in a much more expedited way.

But I’m also a little angry. Where, in my developing consciousness, were all the pink lotus blossoms, serene smooth lakes and peaceful smiling Buddha surrounded by candles and incense? Is that really a fair representation of what is more regularly experienced by many during meditation practice?

Perhaps, for now, I’ll follow the wisdom of Vipassana and simply let it be.

 

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18-Revisions Deep

18….Eighteen…

On Sale Now

Revision 18

  • The age I was when I met my husband
  • The age my kids will be when the government determines them to be “adults”
  • The approximate number of times I have read my favorite book, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
  • The number of revisions I have made to my memoir, The Boy who Birthed me.

The number of revisions I have made to my book. 

Granted, most of these were before turning on “public access” on the self-publishing website I’m using, but there have been at least three since then.  What this means for those of you who have bought it is that you all have different variations of the same text.

“Isn’t that kind of weird?” my husband asked today over lunch.  “Depending on when people bought your book it could be slightly different? Shouldn’t you just stop messing with it and leave it as it is?”

My answer is this:  Yes. Yes, I should.  Will I? God, I hope so.

What am I doing?! Why don’t I just stop and be satisfied with the almost 10 years I have spent writing and editing and living this memoir?  Because there are misspellings and places where the spacing is wrong and my mom got upset and my grandmother was uncertain and because maybe I misinterpreted my experiences and may have hurt someone’s feelings and I left out an important word and added many in unnecessarily.  All this inner turmoil led to a self-induced migraine last Friday (sorry, again, to my last minute client cancellations), yet here I am today, uploading another revision…

The message of my book is that we are all imperfect journeyers. We all wear masks to protect the world from seeing our perceived flaws, our mess ups, our misspellings and moments of insensitivity.  How perfect then, that this creation itself, this thing I birthed into the world, is triggering the very fears I encourage us all to embrace in my writing.

The invitation in this revision frenzy is to notice, again, that proclaiming my belief in embracing imperfection doesn’t make it completely true.  Yes, I know that we are all imperfect and I truly believe that connection lies in our ability to accept our common humanity.  I know that people’s opinions of my book don’t give me worth or take my worth away.  But sometimes it feels that way.  So what do I do with all this?

I take a break, take a breather. I notice what’s happening. I own it, write about it, share it with you.  Perhaps in doing so I will again find that higher part of me that can witness my precious fears with kindness and compassion.  Perhaps I will invite others to do the same, thus shedding the mask again, for just a moment. Maybe I will even forgive myself.

My greatest fear throughout this memoir journey has been that it will leave no meaningful impact, will have no purpose and will makes no difference.  I suppose my fears are unfounded since, for me anyway, it already has.

Please comment and feel free to share/re-post this for others.  And if you haven’t already purchased your copy, feel free to click on the Lulu link below.  But a note of warning, you might want to wait for the next revision.
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.