When I was eleven, I started to plot my escape. Financial independence seemed like the prerequisite, but the 50 cents an hour I earned babysitting weren’t going to take me far. So, baby steps. I started by purchasing my own shampoo and toothpaste, keeping them separate from the family stuff. I figured I’d gradually work up from toiletries to food, clothes, rent, etc.
It’s funny, eleven-year-old-me making solo hikes through the woods to the drugstore for Colgate. It’s also awful, because my family was so poisonously miserable, so hostile to the person I was trying to become, that I couldn’t imagine staying in that house one second longer than I absolutely had to. And, of course, freedom was a long time coming, even with scholarships and summer jobs and, eventually, teaching assistantships. As my professional life has demonstrated, I’ll take a certain amount of abuse, playing the long game, as long as I have some safe space in which I can retain dignity, do work that feels worthwhile, and speak my mind.
Take that space away, though, and I’ll break, whether or not I break and run. This is one of the many ways poetry has saved me–reading and writing puts me in an honest place. Plus, while poems contain struggle of all kinds, they also constitute separate worlds it can be a great relief to enter, because good poems are not unjust or disruptive of bodily integrity.
Poetry’s doing just fine during the current political mayhem, but other spaces seem way less safe than they ever did. Not that I ever felt welcome and at home in Lexington, Virginia!–but I had friends’ houses, and a few public spots that I felt comfortable in, and a creek to walk beside. Ever since the co-owner of the Red Hen, a few blocks from my house, took her moral stand against hatred and lies by asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, the full ugliness of where I live has been on inescapable display. Media that are often depressing–from Facebook to the local paper’s editorial page–got vicious; picketers with offensive signs staked out the restaurant, which has not yet been able to reopen; the KKK leafleted our neighborhoods with fliers reading “Boycott the Red Hen” as well as “Wake Up White America.”
I want to get out of here. Aside from short trips, I can’t. My husband just got tenure; I also receive, for my kids, a major tuition benefit, which we need for the next five years. I’m finding it really difficult, however, to negotiate the fight-or-flight response that keeps ripping through my body. I hate living in the middle of the Confederacy. I hate how my government commits abuses in my name.
I said so to my daughter the other night, and she answered something like: I’m not leaving. I’ve committed. I’m going to fix this country.
I know that’s a better answer. I just have to figure out how to get through this woods of bad feeling. To feel peace in my body as a prerequisite for helping make peace in this damaged, damaging place.