It was a gathering of poets and artists, survivors and friends of survivors, grandmothers and urban professionals and high school students. We met last night at a coffeehouse in Snowstorm City for a poetry reading that would raise money for the Women's Shelter.
Poet Woman and I went out to dinner first, a slow meal at a downtown restaurant that serves the most wonderful bread and hot tomato dipping sauce. We talked and ate and talked, and the waiter kept bringing us more bread and dipping sauce. Afterwards, we walked through the city, taking our shoes off to splash barefoot through the fountain that was shooting jets of white water against the sunset.
Then for the next three hours, in a cosy coffeehouse filled with women and artwork, we listened as one by one, people approached the microphone and told their stories We were celebrating the survivors of domestic abuse, their strength and resilience, and the room was filled with survivors. But when Poet Woman got up to read, she asked for a moment of silence, for some of the women she remembered from the shelter, women who were warm and loving and wonderful, women who did not survive. I closed my eyes during the moment of silence, hiding behind my hair, because I could not bear to look at the faces around me.
The room was quiet as Poet Woman read a poem about the time many years ago when she was getting beaten by her husband, and someone called the cops. The cops arrived and asked one question: "Is this your husband?" And when she said yes, they left, and the beating continued. It was 1966, and that was the law then.
The evening went late, and it was close to midnight before everyone had spoken. I kept thinking how important it was for our community to say those words aloud, to name abuse and acknowledge pain.
The rule of silence in a dysfunctional family is a powerful force that feeds the cycle of abuse. "Don't air the dirty laundry." The clothesline project draws on that symbolism: women write their pain onto shirts which are then hung on a clothesline. Speaking up and speaking out is an act of incredible courage that helps break the pattern of abuse.
That step of finding words for the pain, for acknowledging the abuse, seems to be an important moment in every survivor's story. It's the way cycles get broken, patterns get changed. A friend tells a friend. Secrets lose their power when they are no longer secrets. Words rip apart the silence.
A friend tells a friend. I don't understand completely the healing process but I have seen it work. I could feel it last night as women and men spoke into the microphone, and everyone in the room listened, trying with their bodies to absorb the pain, to pull it into their bodies so that that the pain could become diffuse and shared. I tried to think of all the experiences I've stored in my body -- lazy summer days at camp, a drive around a deep blue lake, strolls along a coastal beach, a walk through ancient trees -- and use those sunny moments as a way to buffer the painful words I was listening to with my whole self.