It’s Not Just About the Boundaries

I’m visiting my family this weekend, and I have so many mixed feelings about it. I’ve been grappling with yet another layer of grieving what I never actually had.

I wish I had a family that loves and accepts me, a family that doesn’t disdain me for being bi or non-Christian or feminist or anything. I want a family that can be proud of me for my accomplishments rather than seeing me as a blight on their reputation.

But I don’t have that.

I’d settle for a family that owns up to the abuse of whipping me as a child and gaslighting me as a teen and young adult. I’d accept a family that could apologize for raising me in a cult with all of the religious and psychological terrorism that accompanied that.

But I can’t have that either.

The last few years have been about me learning how to remain unhooked around them. I’ve practiced non-confrontational answers that allow me to set a boundary and avoid conformity while also keeping the peace. It usually involves little things like not closing my eyes when my parents insist on praying for the meal or changing the subject when they start to stray into a topic that would lead to conflict. I’ve passively refused to answer letters or questions from family members. I’ve mastered the ability to not respond to the subtle backdoor messages of criticism and guilt. I’m great at blanking out so that they don’t have anything to grab hold of.

It takes two to tango, right?

At this point, I feel pretty confident that I can avoid anything uncomfortable and have a fairly smooth visit with my family for a few days. But now that I’ve achieved that, I’ve come to realize it’s not what I want going forward.

It’s nice to have that option, but thinking about that being the sum of my relationship with my family for the rest of my life feels intolerable. It still involves a measure of my hiding myself. I’m not longer allowing them to dictate my morals to me. I won’t allow them to nose into something I want to keep private.

But I also don’t feel like I can bring myself into my visits either. It’s like I leave myself at home but bring all my boundaries with me.

I’ve toyed with the idea of cutting my ties and allowing myself the freedom of not having to worry about whether there will be disapproval or arguments or whatever…but if I only give myself permission to be in contact with them when I’m trying to keep the peace, then ultimately, I’m still letting them dictate what it’s acceptable for me to be around them—letting their approval determine what they see of me or don’t see of me.

I want to be me, regardless of whether they accept it. I want to be proud of being me. To be able to stick up for being me.

Even if that means they hate it.

My parents can’t take a belt to my backside anymore. They can’t send me to hell. They can’t hold me captive.

They can talk and say horrible things, but ultimately those things have little power in and of themselves.

I know this cognitively, but it’s surprising how incredibly scary I still find them. Somehow, my brain thinks the most catastrophic thing that could happen is their vocalized disapproval.

I have almost talked myself out of this visit so many times I’ve lost count. I recognize that I don’t want to be there…

But I need to be.

I need to challenge myself to show up and be present, to dare to let them see me, even to dare to let a fight break out because I refuse to accept the dichotomy that I either need to walk away or hide who I am.

I don’t expect myself to be perfect. I’m sure there will be times when I could stand up for myself and don’t because I’m not ready to take on that battle yet. However, if I can walk away from this visit having refused to be invisible in small ways, I will consider it a successful phase of continuing to develop my ability to give myself what my family has never been able to give me—acceptance, pride, and unconditional love.

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Let There Be Words!

“Why do we need labels? Why can’t we just be people who love people?”

It’s a question I’ll hear or see periodically in discussions on sexual orientation and identity.

Most often, it comes from very privileged places—people who don’t have to deal with erasure and all that goes along with being an invisible minority.

Sometimes it comes from those who belong to said minority and seem to think the prejudice and invisibility are due to the label rather than to bigotry. For them being invisible is preferable to being targeted.

Very rarely it comes from someone who honestly doesn’t feel the need to have a label for themselves or is perhaps unsatisfied with ones that still don’t seem to fit.

Regardless of where it’s coming from, I always encounter it after someone else (sometimes that someone else is myself) asserted a desire for their identity to be named, recognized, and respected. It will pop up in discussions about all the identities under the Queer, Bi, or Trans umbrella. It will creep into any conversation about bi-erasure or biphobia—guaranteed. It will be present in the discussion over how many letters should be in the LGBTQIA+ acronym.

And it will come up whenever and wherever an individual is complaining about social justice issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s one of those insidious questions that sounds like a mere preference of the individual expressing it but ultimately has a silencing, erasing, and oppressive quality to it. It’s not just about that individual’s desire not to use labels for themselves but about controlling the language and the existence of words that others want to use.

Below are some of the reasons why I think that label and identity words should and must exist.

To Express Internal Experience

As a language nut, I recognize that words hold a very special power. It’s not impossible for people to experience something without the language to describe it, but we’re verbal creatures. It’s much harder to acknowledge that experience, and impossible to talk about it in a meaningful way, without language.

I remember the first time I came across the word “bisexual.” In my mind, there was only gay and straight. Finding out that there was something to describe my internal experience of being attracted to multiple genders is on my list of most exciting life moments.

I was twenty-one, though, by the time I found out there was a term that felt like it referred to me.

For those who have never felt invisible, perhaps it is difficult to imagine what that experience is like. If you’ve ever read one of those lists of “untranslatable words” and thought, “damn I’ve experienced that!” when reading about schadenfreude (German word referring to the joy at seeing other’s misfortune) or dépaysement (French word referring to feeling displaced when traveling) then you can imagine a shadow of how I felt.

Generally those untranslatable words refer to things we experience periodically. Living without that word isn’t too problematic, and our happiness at finding that there is something to name that periodical experience is generally within the realm of the happiness of stumbling on five dollars dropped in the street. How lucky!

But when it’s something you experience every day and the language to describe that experience is lacking, the significance of finding your word goes well beyond mere serendipity.  Take that joy at discovering a beautiful, single word to describe an experience for which English doesn’t have a word and multiply it by…basically the sum of your existence.

To Decrease Isolation

Without language to create commonality, people also can’t find each other.

Being invisible can get lonely. Feeling like you’re so outside of the normal range of experience that there isn’t even a word to describe you can be a very isolating thing.

But having a name for that part of your identity means that even if you are the minority in your area, you can look for others who might understand you. You can reach out and find support, whether online or in person.

That’s why survivors of every imaginable disease and life experience have support groups. They recognize that they experience/d something that other people may not be able to understand and that bonding with others who “know what it’s like” is important.

Queer centers and pride centers are a haven for non-heterosexual people—a place where they know they can exist without hatred or judgment. Online forums are a lifeline to isolated and closeted individuals who need to know that there is more outside of their conservative Christian home and close-minded home town.

But it takes having the language of identity to be able to create these spaces where people who share that identity can connect.

To Seek Social Justice

In government and society, if something doesn’t exist as a word, it doesn’t exist. Period.

Oppression, discrimination, and prejudice towards a group of people cannot be addressed without the language to first identify that those people are even there.

Some express trepidation that labels create division—an us vs. other.

In reality, the division already exists. There is already oppression and prejudice. Being able to say “this is homophobia/biphobia/transphobia” doesn’t suddenly bring it into existence. It merely identifies it as already present—again putting a name to the experience of being hated for an aspect of your identity.

Diversity is never at fault for division. People’s intolerance for diversity is what creates the us vs. them mentality.

We never see scientists or doctors asking each other, “Why do we need to name this new discovery?” “Why do we need labels for disease?” “Why do we need to differentiate the elements and chemicals in the lab?”

Within most areas of knowledge, we recognize that the naming process is important. We take great pains to make sure that an appropriate name gets attached to a new discovery.

Hell, for a certain amount of money, you can even name a star after yourself for no other reason than to feed your own vanity.

We find it important enough to spend money on naming processes when the categorization of Pluto as a planet is probably going to have the least real-life effect on people, but somehow honoring a label that helps someone express their inner experience, find others who share that experience, and gain recognition in fighting oppression is…what? A waste of words and energy?

I don’t buy that.

Only you can decide what label, if any, is right for you. Only I can decide which is right for me. But as to the existence of words of identity—that shouldn’t be up for debate.

New Moon Meditation: Creating Mantra Cards

I’ve developed an interest in watercolor painting recently and have started a project of creating mantra cards for myself. I’m hoping to have a deck about the size of a small oracle deck when I’m done, but it won’t be for a while yet.

Trying to decide what quote or message to put on the cards as well as what to paint on them is an overwhelming undertaking for someone who is a perfectionist.

To help ease the pressure I placed myself under as soon as I settled on this idea and bought supplies, I have chosen to paint only one a month–probably on the new moon as part of the inner reflection of that time.

The first I created was in honor of my grief, a blue card with spidery script and rain splatters.

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“The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain.” -Longfellow.

It reminds me of the importance of sadness, the futility of resisting my own process, and the beauty of surrendering to it.

This new moon, I was feeling the need to validate both my body and my sexuality. While being slut-shamed by my doctor, fighting imbalances in my body, and seeking to recover my confidence of being worthy of love and pleasure, I needed something that would be body-positive. I pained a torso of a woman in a sheer scarf and selected a quote by Lenore Kandel.

“You’re a divine animal and you’re beuatiful the divine is not separate from the beast.” -Lenore Kandel

I liked this quote in particular because it doesn’t seek to deny either the body and its humanness or the divine and its sacredness. It reminds me I don’t have to be flawless in order to love my body and celebrate my sexuality. In fact, the flaws are part of the package. They are not to be overlooked but rather to be celebrated as part of the whole. That holds true for subjective flaws like, “my stomach looks weird!” to susceptibility to infections and complications.

At first, I thought the process would be fun but that the meditation portion of what the mantra cards were for would come afterwords. As I built a collection, I envisioned myself shuffling them and drawing one out to focus on at various times.

What I discovered, though, was that the very process of creating the cards was a meditation in itself, requiring me to tap into the feeling behind the quote to understand what the picture should be, and then to further focus on the quote itself as I wrote it out.

I’m a beginner with watercolors, so there was also a certain amount of uncertainty and experimentation, allowing for flaws in my own work as well as trusting my intuition from time to time. Both seemed as important a part of this sacred process as the creation aspect itself.

I don’t know what I will be painting in the future. I find that trying to plan ahead which quotes or ideas I will explore decreases the power of what I’m trying to create. I prefer to wait for the message to come to me when and as it is needed each month.

The Good Goodbye

The Art of Goodbye

If never mastered, you stumble
Through transitions, losing your
Heart in places you never meant,
Or tearing another’s out as you walk
Away before you’ve detached.

 

Despite how much I love to write poetry, this may be the second time that I have ever posted it (also, first time in a year I’ve had time to write it so…).

I’m thinking about the importance of goodbye a lot right now. My semester is ending, bringing two of three years to a close for grad school. My internship is ending, and with it all of the relationships with people I’ve worked with.

It hurts to be losing so many connections all at once, but it’s also given me a chance to really immerse myself in my own philosophy of closure.

I haven’t had many good goodbyes in my life, but a handful have stood out to me. The first being my goodbye with my first ever counselor. She was an intern at my college counseling center, and the first person who had validated the pain I had gone through. When I found out that after graduation I would have to find another counselor to work with, I was devastated.

But she took it as an opportunity to give me something I’d never had before. Closure and parting “when people are still on good terms.”

She didn’t just see me on our last scheduled session, pat me on the back and say, “good luck.” She took time to memorialize what we were losing and express appreciation for what I had brought into the relationship with me.

That stuck. To this day, I look back at that as one of the most powerful pieces of the work I did with her.

As I’ve been in grad school, I’ve noticed that some teachers will keep teaching right up until the last moment before they let you go, yelling “have a good break!” as students file out the door. Others will dedicate half or entire class periods to goodbyes with rituals, crafts, or gifts to students, encouraging students to share with each other what they valued about the others in class.

It’s always more fulfilling to leave the latter classes. There’s a kind of balm on the separation wound and usually something meaningful to take home.

I’m convinced that goodbye is one of the most important skills we can master, and one of the skills that few ever try to master.

Our first encounters with goodbyes are often nearly traumatic, the sudden loss of a relationship—due to death, argument, or life circumstances.

Or we first learn that goodbye means fading out or ghosting.

Goodbyes tend to toggle between the sudden eruption and the slow, unclear disappearance.

We’re left to walk around with these throbbing, straggling attachments that we don’t quite know how to heal, and when we enter into new relationships, those wounds haunt our attempts to connect anew.

What I have learned from good goodbyes is that even when the goodbye is welcome—as with the ending of a class, leaving a job, graduating from school, etc.—the goodbye still marks a loss that needs to be honored. Taking time to say goodbye gives us a chance to acknowledge the grief, honor what that relationship meant, and express clear reasons why it can no longer continue (especially important with breakups).

It allows us to cleanly sever the attachment cords and bandage them up so that they can heal.

Granted, intentional goodbyes are not always possible. Sometimes, that sudden rupture is necessary or inevitable. Sometimes the fade out is appropriate (rarely, but sometimes). But I, for one, have committed myself to making sure I take every opportunity I see to give those with whom I’m parting the good goodbyes that have been given to me.