Light in a circle of hell.

I’ve spent the day (for work, I hasten to add) at the Magistrates’ Court which serves my local area. Tomorrow, I think I’d rather spend the day in the first circle of hell. Or any circle of hell, really.

Unless a Magistrates’ Court is in fact one of the circles of hell.

These are some things I witnessed:

  • men wearing open-collared shirts and stiff new suit trousers and Converse runners and bad tattoos, their bravado as ill-fitting as the formality of their court attire.
  • women thinned and wizened and aged before their time by hard living and alcohol and weed and too many children and not enough money and the weight of the world on their skin-clad shoulders.
  • a young woman, huddled into her defendant boyfriend, shoulders hunched against the over-heated stuffiness of the air-conditioning and her face tight with tension. She kept touching his hand in her lap, as though to remind herself that he was still there.
  • a conversation between a defendant and his solicitor – “How can I explain to the judge why you did that? You just lost control? And you regret it now, of course?” – while his mother watched anxiously in her best clothes, twisting the strap of her green leather-look handbag around and around in her fingers. Later I watched her coming out of one of the courtrooms, alone but for the solicitor. “Six months,” she kept saying, as though that would somehow force this new reality of her life to make sense. “Well, it was a serious offence,” he said gently, and his face was tired and his eyes were sad.
  • a child, a little girl, barely more than four, playing quietly in the waiting area while her mother waited to have her own charges heard. (“What am I looking at? Four to eight months? Jesus, can’t you get me off?”) She alone of all of us was an innocent, untouched by the world’s darkness, looking people in the eye – the most alive creature in that place – and yet when her mother’s frustration erupted in a push that cracked the little girl’s head against the wooden doorframe, she was completely unperturbed by the sudden and – to her – unprovoked assault. Already, this little being is impervious to the violence which will almost certainly mar her life.

I left the courthouse reeking, in my mind, of the stench of human misery, human despair, which clung to my skin. Now, after a hard workout and a shower and a glass of juice and Beethoven’s first symphony on the CD player, I’m trying to remind myself that there’s light in all the darkness I saw today. The gentle, tired sadness of the solicitor and the innocence of the child, the love of the mother and the girlfriend, whatever idealism or determination which keeps the Legal Aid solicitors at their battered formica tables in the windowless, unadorned room they’re allocated. And there’s light in the fact that each of those human souls trapped in that place – whether they left under their own steam or in the back of a prisoner transport van – is a sacred manifestation of the Divine, loved beyond their capacity to understand by a Creator they may never know, but Which holds them, passionately, in the safety of Its arms.

And there it is. That’s the light in the darkness I was looking for.

Brightly-lit darkness, and where safety lies.

I’ve spent six hours in travel today – from home to Sydney and back – for a three-hour meeting, and then arrived home in time for an evening counselling appointment, and fatigue has set in. There’s a Naomi-shaped hole in a wall, and I’d like nothing more than to sleep for about eight days. Only, I can’t do that, because I’ve got to go back to Sydney tomorrow. The only difference is, tomorrow I’ll be getting on a train after six am, which is when the coffee shops open. Today I climbed on a train without coffee. That’s just cruel.

The last time I went to Sydney, I travelled down on the train, quite late at night after Evensong. My friends were worried about me. It’s dark, they said. You’ll be attacked. Make sure you keep a whistle to hand so you can blow it to attract attention. Stay in well-lit areas and sit up front, near the guard.

All of this is good advice, and it’s something that any smallish woman should probably take account of when she’s out and about, especially at night. But here’s the thing: I feel safe at night. I feel safer at night than during the day, in the bustle of people and demands of a bright-lit world. I know the dangers that lurk in dark corners of cities and streets; but I also know, as well as anyone and better than some, the dangers that lurk in brightness. Behind the security of closed doors, locked against an inhospitable world. In the security of well-lit houses, curtains drawn tight against the press of night – that’s when a fist is drawn back, when words are used as weapons. When a beating happens. When a rape happens.

That’s not my life anymore, and now a locked door really does mean security, and a brightly-lit flat in a dark night means nothing more than the fact that I’m still awake and working, or reading. But this morning when I walked to the train station in pre-dawn darkness – something which should instil fear – I was reminded of those people for whom light is not safe, for whom security only means captivity.

And I thanked God that I’m no longer part of that captivity, and that I’m not afraid of the darkness and I’m learning not to be afraid of the light. And I’m grateful for that lost innocence – I know what dwells in both, and I won’t let myself fall into its clutches again. And I raged against the reality of the thousands of women who remain in the clutches of such darkness, and I said a prayer for them too.

And the God of light heard.

Bright denial and last night’s storms.

Outside, the bright wind
laughs away yesterday’s storm:
it never happened. 

I wrote this literally, some time ago: the storm of the day before, violent and volatile, was denied by the light playfulness of the breeze, so much so that I wondered whether I’d imagined lashing winds and menacing clouds.

And yet, so many mornings of the almost ten years of my marriage were like that – not a meteorological phenomenon, but a metaphorical one. How many alcohol-fueled tempests, bruises that flowered like storm clouds under my flesh, cruel words that lashed at me like whipping, dust-laden winds, were denied completely in the sun-lit brightness of the morning after? How many injuries were conveniently ignored, how many insults shrugged off, how many shattered glasses and damaged possessions (mine, usually) dismissed casually as the result of clumsiness? How many brutal, nightmarish arguments became lovers’ tiffs, how many frenzied terrifying rages – to which my only response could be to keep my head down, say nothing, and allow them to break like punishment over my head – became robust, healthy arguments, for which I found myself taking half of the responsibility and all of the hurt?

Very convenient, the light of day, sometimes.

And yet, the thing that really outrages me is that I fell for it. I allowed the brightness of morning’s sunny skies and the lightness of a playful breeze to blind me to the darkness of night’s storms, and the very real and very constant danger that they threatened. It was easier, perhaps, than facing the reality  that I couldn’t acknowledge: that I was a victim, that I was being abused, that I faced the path of becoming a refugee from my own home.

I’m continuing to dredge through the process of remembering. Storm by storm, bruise by bruise, beating by beating and insult by insult, I am drawing the darkness of my past into my present, in order to banish it once and for all. It’s agonising, and it’s hard to take care of myself in that, but it’s the only way I’ll be able to sing again – this darkness and the fear of it threatens to take my voice. So in the sun-brightened calm of a new life in which no one hits me, in which I am not in danger, I step back into the darkness of storms.

Because yesterday’s storms did happen. I’m not going to laugh them off. I’m not going to pretend that they had no consequence: uprooted trees, damaged homes, twisted wreckage. I’m going to have the courage to be a witness to that destructive reality even as I seek to heal it.

And if I have to eat my own body weight in chocolate in order to cope, then so be it.

Handel, and death and resurrection.

Yesterday my choir sang Handel’s Messiah . Singing Messiah is not something you do lightly. It’s not something that’s easy, either musically or emotionally or spiritually. To sing Messiah – to sing it properly, to really feel it – required me to live, musically, the whole story of the incarnation of God in the world: birth and betrayal and torture and death and resurrection. To go through that journey, that harrowing and miraculous narrative, in three hours and probably thousands of sung notes.

It’s not the first time I’ve sung Messiah. I’ve sung it once before, two years ago. My then-husband was supposed to attend, to support me, to be, in his words, “a good husband”. He didn’t. He spent the time doing something else, something sordid and horrible, and when I got home – afloat on the wonder that is probably the most amazing oratorio ever written – he used it to punish me. I knew that my post-Messiah euphoria would be short-lived; but even I was surprised by how quickly it happened. How brutally. And it’s only now, in hindsight, two years and an eternity down the track, I realise that it was probably deliberate. That there was probably a level of calculation in making me pay, making me suffer, for doing something that was so vital to me, that brought me so much joy and meaning. That there was probably a sense of mean-spiritedness, and plain nastiness. Not very nice, really.

This time was different. This time my parents came all the way from Melbourne to attend the performance. If last time I faced mean-spiritedness, this time I faced its antithesis: graciousness, openness, a genuine celebration at what brought me joy. I am more grateful than I can say, and I sang of resurrection with a greater sense than ever of the meaning of that familiar word.

And yet it was different in another way too, because this is the first time I’ve sung Handel’s Messiah with PTSD. Singing’s hard at the moment anyway and there were times my hands trembled so violently that I was grateful for the hours of practise which meant I’d almost memorised the score which was shaking too hard for me to read. There were times there wasn’t enough air in the vast space of the Cathedral to fill lungs held rigid in anxiety’s grip; there were times I thought I’d have to bolt, drop my music and flee to safe solitude and the disappointment of letting everyone down. If I sang of resurrection with a greater sense of the meaning of the word, I also sang of death and darkness and the frailty of life with a stronger understanding of its sting.

And I hate that and I mourn for it. I hate that singing is so hard, that something that should be simple joy is so fraught with fear and uncertainty. I rage against it, and I struggle to work my way though it, to keep singing, to keep accepting the love and care and understanding of my friends, because the alternative – to give up, to cede defeat, and to leave the choir – is as unthinkable as the option of quitting breathing, or of severing my own arm. And so I have no choice but to persevere with it all, and to do it with as much grace and strength and selflessness as possible, and to hope to God – literally – that I get through it.

Because if singing Messiah has reminded me of one thing, it is this: that after the frightening darkness of death, the fragility of a human body that can be tortured and torn, and of the human spirit which can be crushed, there is resurrection. The Creator of the universe grew up to be shamed, and abandoned, and tortured, and killed. But there was resurrection. After death was life, after darkness was light.

I can’t get back what I’ve lost and I shouldn’t try – it’s impossible. There has been a death – within me – and all I can do now is know that there will be resurrection. Because I know how the story ends. I sang it yesterday.

A White Ribbon and one of the lucky ones.

Today is White Ribbon Day. Today, men and women all over Australia have sworn never to commit or stay silent about violence against women. Images of white ribbons are all over my Facebook news feed today. Even my work intranet site has a white ribbon image that drew my eye this morning; so does Google.

And yet, for many people, domestic violence is something that happens to other people. Not in my neighbourhood. Not in my family, my workplace, my friendship group, my church community. Not in my educational level, or socioeconomic status, or political leaning. Not on my radar. It’s terrible, but it doesn’t touch me. We might buy a white ribbon, or spare a thought for those poor unfortunates for whom domestic violence is a harsh reality – don’t get me wrong, it’s with genuine concern, genuine regret, genuine compassion; but with the same level of distance with which we view images of a famine victim on the news. It’s so far removed from our experience that our compassion and distress are academic. We are naive to that particular horror. It’s the oft-repeated refrain: no one I know.

And so, I’d like to introduce myself: I’m a domestic violence survivor. I’m a rape survivor. I’m a sexual assault survivor (yes, there’s a difference). I will never look at a white ribbon with a sense of equanimity. I will never re-gain that sense of naivety, that sense of innocence that I once had. I wish I could. I wish my friends could: some of them, those I’ve trusted enough to really let into my experience, can no longer say that domestic violence is not on their radar, is not personal. Neither can my parents, who must live with the fact that their beloved daughter existed in a violent, volatile war-zone for the better part of ten years, and deliberately and desperately – with the best of intentions – kept them in the dark about it.

For the record, I think that’s probably my biggest regret in all of this.

One woman each week dies as a result of violence from a current or former partner. As terrible as that is, that statistic is not reflective of the literally thousands of women who experience domestic violence over the course of a lifetime. And that statistic is not reflective of women like me, who was too frightened and intimidated and cowed to report what happened to her.

I’m a year out, and I’m still paying for what was done to me. I will carry the scars on my psyche for the rest of my life. I hope that they cease to trouble me after a while. I worry that they won’t. But I got out. And I’m healing, and I have friends and family who care for me and who’ve got my back while I do it.

Which makes me one of the very, very lucky ones.

~

It’s worth mentioning that White Ribbon Day is a male-driven campaign. These are men standing up to other men, saying that domestic violence is not ok. Condemning it. Making it hard to ignore. Standing up for, and with, women like me. Women like so, so many of us. Thanks, lads.

~

It’s also worth mentioning that this is one of the hardest blog posts I’ve ever written. Literally, it has taken several hours. It’s all just a bit close to home, really.

 

A fight I’ll choose.

There is some irony in the fact that while I (almost) never compromised the choir, it is now the thing that is most compromised by my mental health. I think the most difficult thing about living with PTSD is that it hugely impacts on my capacity to contribute to the choir. Anxiety, panic attacks, flashbacks, dissociation – I’m so much more likely to experience all of those things when I’m singing – the thing that kept me alive in the first place. If I didn’t know that God’s not a bastard, I’d think that He was having a laugh.

They are the words I wrote last Sunday, words that raged against the fact that singing – the thing that kept me alive – is now about the hardest thing I do in my week. Something that brought and still brings me joy is now fraught, painful. Something that should be easy, that should come naturally, feels like working my way through a storm.

I found myself late last night wondering what I should do about it. My limbic system, my irrational fearfulness, my very body with its fight-flight response is letting me down; I hate it. I found myself wondering whether I should have a break from the choir. One email would be all it would take: explain the situation and withdraw myself from the singing for a month, or two, or as long as it took. Or simply fail to show up. No one would notice, the nasty little voice in my head whispered. It would make no difference. I could do it: admit to myself that it’s too hard, that I don’t want to put myself through this struggle week after week, that it’s too painful, that my mental health is letting the choir down and that I should put them first and pull out, at least until I can work through some of this stuff in the quiet privacy of my own head.

Even writing the words – the first time I’ve ever acknowledged that option outside of my own mind, for real people to see – I feel myself recoil. The idea of pulling out of the choir is simply abhorrent to me: like the idea of cutting off my own hand, or putting out my own eye. It’s akin to self-mutilation: mutilation of my very soul. I could not do without the people who have become friends and family to me, who are God to me, who have the grace to allow me to be God to them. I could not do without the music that feeds me, that flows through my veins and that heals me even as it sears me down to the bone.

It’s not the first time though that I’ve had that thought. Maybe it is just too hard. Maybe this will be the thing that I can’t do, the thing that gets the better of me. It’s not the first time I’ve been wooed by that siren call: just give up. It will be easier. But I can’t. For one, I’m too stubborn. I’ve taken beatings for singing in this choir: I’m damned if I’m going to give it up now. Mostly though, it’s the music. It’s the friendships. It’s what this means to me. I couldn’t not sing. I won’t not sing. Fuck it. It’s that simple.

And there’s pride in that. I’ve stuck it out, despite everything. Despite how hard it has been, despite how hard it still is. Despite all temptation to accept the resigned peace of defeat. I’ve fought, and I’m still fighting. I might not win: I have to accept that. I probably will, though, if for no other reason than the value of what’s at stake.

And while I’m fighting, I know that there are a hell of a lot of people who’ve got my back.

A quiet death.

The other day I watched a tree cut down. A jacaranda. The tree was leafy, a vibrant bright green. Light green, but there was a depth to the colour, just as there was depth to the mindless being which stood for so long shading that corner of my city. Offering its branches as shelter. Offering the strength of its boughs as home and safety and sanctuary to birds and other creatures who find none on the ground.

Trees are such quiet things. They endure silently. Because they are quiet they go unnoticed. Like self-effacing people who are overlooked, who mean nothing because they say little. Their calm wisdom, their understated intellect, are disregarded. People will only notice that tree now it’s gone: “Hey, didn’t there used to be a tree there?” We have an insatiable appetite for the instant, for that which we can grasp, and yet trees exist in a sphere both on the periphery of and beyond that. Their history, their wisdom, whatever consciousness they might have – it is too slow and deep for the swiftness and demands of human thought.

I stood on the corner and I listened to the roar of the chainsaw so at odds with the tree’s former gentle fortitude; I heard the deep groaning of anguished splitting wood: the tree made its loudest noise as it was being wrenched apart. And I breathed in deeply as it released its scent: intoxicating, fresh, like sunlight on forests, like cleanliness. The tree released such life-giving aroma in the moment of its death and even those men whose job was to destroy it stopped to inhale how it coloured the air.

I watched the death of a tree and drank in the fragrance of the tree’s final gift, and then the next day all that was left was the sweetly-scented drift of sawdust, scattered like a memory.