A new anger.

I wrote yesterday about the fact that starting to move from survival mode has meant less of a focus on symptom management. And that means actually, finally, acknowledging the reality of what happened to me over ten years in a violent marriage: literally hundreds of assaults; sexual abuse and assault; more than one occasion on which I could have lost my life.

And I’m actually a bit angry about that. Not the white-hot solar flare of anger which roars out of control and incinerates everything – friend or foe – in its path. This anger is not frightening, not destructive, not relying on me to keep it under rigid control in order to keep myself, and others, safe. It’s not like that at all.

Thank God.

This anger, the anger that I’m just starting to discover, is quiet, and patient. It’s not volatile, searing up at the slightest provocation; its not clamouring for release or howling for bloody revenge; it simply is. It’s quiet, and hard, and unyielding, like a stone.

It’s a safe anger. It’s an anger that will keep me safe. It’s an anger that says, this is wrong. The injuries I’m still living with are wrong; the things I’m starting to remember, assaults in their tedious, terrifying detail, are wrong. It is not ok for one human being to treat another like this. It is not ok for me to have spent ten years in fear. And I will not allow this to happen again.

It’s an anger which tells me, too, that I am not to blame. I was a victim of, not a contributor to, assault. I am not deserving of everything that was done to me. I am not something of which I should be ashamed. I am not someone whose very existence warrants violent, and dangerous, punishment.

This new, quiet, quite gentle anger is telling me this. So are the responses of the people I’ve learned to trust with the small details of some of what happened to me. The friendships which have strengthened me these last two years, these people who have loved me both in and out of survival mode, are starting to make me believe that actually, I didn’t deserve this shit. I am worth the space I take up in the universe, all five-odd foot of it.

Now, I’m just learning to believe it.


Emancipation Day.

Today is Emancipation Day – my own personal, quietly commemorated independence day. Today two years ago I left an increasingly violent, volatile and dangerous marriage, and I showed up at some ungodly hour at my friend’s front door, with a suitcase and a black eye and a pink plastic folder full of music. My friend – blessings on her name – took me in and with her usual no-nonsense compassion made me the strongest Milo I’ve ever been subjected to. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m still on a sugar high. Still, it was exactly what I needed, and even the scent of Milo now brings the ghost of that deep relief of that morning: I’d done what I had to do, and just for that moment, someone else was taking the reins. I could rest in the knowledge that my friend knew what to do, when I didn’t.

It was a Sunday, and I didn’t sing for Mass at the Cathedral – how could I have turned up calmly for rehearsal, and then sung the Kyrie and the Sanctus and Benedictus, and the beautiful, peaceful, hopeful words of the Agnus Dei, when I’d just stepped into terrifyingly uncharted waters, and the frightening potential for homelessness? To say nothing of the very real fear of a jilted husband carrying out his threat to find me and kill me…I spent the day with my friend instead, allowing her to do my thinking for me, resting in her practical kindness, eating and drinking what was put in front of me, and ignoring the constant ringing of my phone with the increasingly desperate messages from the man who wanted me to come home, he was sorry, please forgive him, he’d learned his lesson…

I don’t remember much of that day, but I do remember deciding to sing Evensong, and I remember sitting in my friend’s kitchen, taking my music out of its pink plastic folder to sing through it in my head. And in that first moment of silent practise – the instant that the first notes formed in the maelstrom of my mind – I felt a sense of calm. The constant, low-level scream of anxiety that had ridden that space behind my sternum, which had distanced me from everything but the reality of oh my God, what had I done?, abated. Silence, when in those few hours I had become so used to quietly raging fear that I only noticed it in the light of its absence. I wish I could remember what piece of music that was. I feel like I owe it a favour, or a beer, or my thanks at least.

That was the start of a new life, the seizing of freedom, and a plunge into the darkness of fear, and flashbacks, and the very beginnings of the long, long process of making space in my soul for all that happened to me, all that was done to me, all I was forced to do. It’s been a long way out of that darkness, step by painful step, and I know that I’m a long way from that first fraught Milo-scented, music soothed day of freedom.

My friend will never know the depth of gratitude I have for her kindness, and I will never know the piece of music to which I owe those few moments of peace. I don’t even really know how to end this blog post, other than with a thankfulness I can never put words to, and the knowledge – hard and proud and unbreakable – that I survived.

A random reflection on Milo.

Our stationery order arrived at work today, and for some reason it contained an enormous tin of Milo – it must have been at least five litres of the stuff. Which is funny, because there’s really only one person in the office who drinks Milo (and for the record, it is not me. I haven’t developed that particular addiction. Yet). But my colleague opened the lid of the tin, and I caught a sweet whiff of scent, and without warning I was transported back to just over a year and a half ago.

I escaped my ex very early on a Sunday morning and found myself meeting the technical definition of homelessness – not to mention the definition of survivor of domestic violence. Because it was so early, and I was concerned about waking people, I messaged the one friend I knew would be up at that time of the morning, and told her what I’d done. She phoned back immediately: “Get your butt here”. So I did. Shattered, shaken, numb with the magnitude of the step I’d just taken, I showed up at her house with a suitcase full of random stuff, a pink plastic folder full of music, the beginnings of a black eye, and George Arthur, who is a small, black rag-doll teddy bear – also a survivor of domestic violence.

I don’t remember much of that day, but I do remember how shocked and dazed I was, unable to focus on anything, unable to settle, unable to remain still and yet to anaesthetised to move. I didn’t know what I wanted or needed; my friend knew, and she swept me up in practical decisiveness and I didn’t have to make a single decision all day – I simply wasn’t capable of it. She also made me a Milo.

It’s one of the few things I remember with any sense of clarity from that day: she put the warm mug in my hand with the firm instruction to drink all of it (it did help – reality penetrated the opaque numbness, just slightly) – and it was the strongest Milo I’ve ever had in my life, easily several tablespoons’ worth of crunchy chocolate powder. My blood sugar levels are probably still elevated as a direct result of that one hot mug; but I can’t off-hand think of a single thing that would have been safer, more comforting, at that time.

I’m not a huge fan of Milo and I would only drink it if I was really, really desperate for a chocolate fix. But to me it will always smell of safety, of sanctuary and the incredulous blessing of friendship, and of the knowledge of the end of captivity, and freedom’s fragile beginnings.

Not bad for three tablespoons of crushed chocolatey sugar, really. Not bad at all.

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.

Hatred and anger.

There’s a difference between anger and hate. Hate is old, evil, filthy. A vortex into which a mere human can be drawn and in which she can be destroyed. Hatred fuels every atrocity of our species; hatred destroys. 

Anger, though, is different. I’ve got to know my anger –  as more of an academic concept than a reality with which I’m intimately familiar, but it’s a step in the right direction and a knowledge and wisdom I didn’t have until it was forced on me – and it’s different to hatred. 

If hatred is filthy, anger is clean. There’s a purity to anger. It’s anger that says, This is wrong. This is not ok. I need to stand up against this. Either because it’s a transgression of my boundaries, or because it’s a transgression of humanity (asylum seekers, perhaps? What do you think, Mr Abbott?). It’s anger – the purity of anger, the righteousness of anger – which spurs us to call for change. To stand up for change, to make change. It is anger which provides light in darkness. 

If hatred is evil and destructive, anger is neither. It is my anger, that capacity within me to say, No, this is wrong, that will keep me safe. Will keep me from being dehumanised once more. Will keep me from dehumanising others. Hatred is a whirlpool, a black hole, a portal into a hellish and destructive world. Hatred is bigger than I. It will consume me, destroy me, take my goodness and leave me broken and bitter. Anger, on the other hand, is smaller, containable – still big, and scary, and uncomfortable, and I don’t like it, but it won’t annihilate me and it won’t take control of who and what I am and it will help me to heal, if I let it. 

I’m finding my anger – I know I should be angry, but it’s hard. It’s scary and I wish it wasn’t but I’m fearful of something natural, and pure, and healthy. All I know, though, is that anger isn’t hate. Isn’t filthy, isn’t evil, isn’t a force of destruction a thousand times bigger than I, like a rowboat against a tsunami. 

I know that. All I have to do now is trust it. 

Howling winds and a right-brained image I don’t understand.

I was asked some time ago – and I can’t even remember the context, but it’s an unusual and specific enough question that it probably came from my spiritual director: What has the landscape of prayer looked like for you lately? I was asked to let the image – not words, tools with which I’m comfortable and familiar, but image – to arise in silence. And my immediate response: howling winds.

Howling winds.

I’m not a right-brained person. I think in words; I’m logical and rational and analytical and I don’t play well with images. I’m probably quite unbalanced (out-of-balance? That sounds better, really, doesn’t it?) in that respect, really. Which, for the record, is probably a big part of why I’m struggling so much with my emotions – they live in a part of my brain where analysis doesn’t reach.

And this is actually quite a big problem for me. Because I have no way of analysing what what “howling winds” actually means. It’s safe and snug to be inside, wrapped in layers of blankets, and invulnerable, when winds are howling outside. It’s exciting to be on a lookout or a cliff face, my hair whipped back from my face, watching a storm blow in over the water and the waves churn themselves to destruction on the rocks below. But howling winds – grey, bleak, cold – can be desolate too. Lonely. An anguished landscape scoured raw by merciless winds.

And I don’t know what to make of that. I don’t know what to do with it. Partly, it’s a reflection of the fact that I’m so heavily biased towards analysis and rationality that other parts of my mind, my psyche, are starved. But – and this is the bigger part – partly it’s fear. Because for my prayer life – my inner life, my spirituality – to be anything but desolate, it means I actually have to step into that desolation.

At the moment I’m comfortably analysing it from the snug safety of my rationality. I’m looking at the desolation out of the window, knowing that I’m shielded from all it means. But I have to step out into that desolation. Because as much as God’s in here, in the safety of my intellectualism, God’s also out there, in the desolation. In the howling winds.

Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
Oh still small voice of calm. 

I kind of think I have to go out into the earthquake, wind and fire to hear that voice, at the moment. That’s where that voice is calling me. To be brave. To step out of safety and into the howling winds – to step out of safety and into something else. Something richer, and more nourishing, and more alive.

Rightio. I’ll let you know how that goes then, shall I?

A small symbol and a prayer that I’d really like to mean.

To the slight perplexity of my real estate agent, who looks askance at it every time I have a rental inspection, I have a small wooden cross fixed to the wall inside my front door, just over the light switch. It’s simple, nothing special, roughly made of untreated pine, but I keep it there as a reminder to start and end my day – whether that be working, singing, or just running errands – with prayer. A reminder that as a person of faith, I can be God to the people and creatures I meet on my travels – or I can not. It’s my choice.

When I come home to my quiet, safe haven in the evenings, I say under my breath the same prayer: Greet me in my solitude, oh God. There are times when it’s rote, a small, unnoticed and yet incredibly important part of my evening routine. There are times when it’s not.

I was struck, though, the other day, saying those words, my hand frozen a heartbeat away from the little wooden cross: seriously? You want to be greeted in solitude by the Creator of the universe? You want that pain-in-the-arse rebel, that inconvenient dinner guest who humbled the powerful and made friends with the wrong sort – you want that Nazarene carpenter, who was so much more than that, to share your evening with you? You want the Source of love and compassion, the Origin of your very being, to spend time with you? Alone, undeflected by the conversation of others on whom you often rely to turn attention away from you? Without the workplace mask of competency and professionalism behind which you hide? Given your emotional cowardice, are you sure you want to be greeted in your solitude?

Right, says the nasty, honest little voice in my head. Didn’t think so.

Because the brutal reality is, I might say all the right things (or not – sometimes it’s easier not to say anything), but I spend a lot of time shutting God out. Shutting myself off from searing compassion. Saying that I’m fine and keeping my head busy. Often it’s true. I am fine, I’m good, nothing to see here. Often it’s not true though. Scratch the surface, and I’m actually anything but fine.

I imagine what would happen if the Origin of life did take me up on my prayer and the narrative figure of Jesus did show up for dinner. I expect he’d have a few pointedly uncomfortable things to say to me – he did to most people in the gospels, after all. But then I imagine myself simply collapsing in tears – gulping, messy, undignified, snot- and saliva-spattered sobbing – and crying myself to exhaustion and rest in the arms of true, terrifying compassion.

And that just won’t do.

So for now, I’ll have to trust that the Creator of the universe – to whom all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hidden – is too pre-occupied with other things to notice that although I’d like to mean my little invitation, it’s kind of more of a general than a specific.

But I guess the Creator of eternity is probably pretty patient.