Last night was cold and windy, the kind of November night that made me think it's time for me to get out my mittens and winter hat. As Poet Woman and I hurried across a dark parking lot, we almost crashed right into Evening Poet and her husband. Evening Poet was wearing a purple winter hat, and Poet Woman said to her, "Oh, in the dark, I thought for a moment you had dyed your hair purple!" Evening Poet, who gets very tense before a poetry reading, could not help laughing. We stopped to exchange hugs in the chilly air before walking together into a coffeehouse with colorful walls and soft lights and the rich smell of coffee.
The night's event was a fundraiser for the women's shelter, the place that provides a safe haven for women and children who are escaping abuse, a place that provides counseling and support. The evening was a gathering of poets, musicians, and artists, a gathering of survivors and friends of survivors.
We looked at the artwork for sale, we bought raffle tickets, we drank herbal tea and hot coffee. We sat at little tables and talked, warming our hands on the steaming cups. And then as the event began, as the first woman stepped up to take the microphone, I set down my tea and got ready to listen.
Evening Poet cried as she read poems about her childhood, and people in the audience cried with her. Between poems, we heard bits of each person's story. One woman who was sexually abused as a child said she repressed those memories for so long that she was in her thirties before she finally acknowledged that she had been abused. Another woman said that in the culture she grew up in, it was acceptable, even desirable for a husband to be jealous; his jealousy and his possessiveness were considered signs of love. A young man from a family of abuse played the guitar and sang songs he had written. Poet Woman read a poem with such horrific details that she felt obligated to say afterwards, "Yes, everything in that poem is true."
I listened. After Poet Woman was done, I would take the microphone to read poems about healing, poems about meditation and reiki and friendship. I would read a poem about hope, a vision of a world in which women and children and men would all feel safe.
But mostly, my role was to listen, to witness the incredible courage of people who have survived abuse – and are doing the hard work of breaking that pattern, who are through their own actions helping to create a world in which everyone can feel safe. It's part of the healing process: saying the words aloud, telling the story, acknowledging the abuse.
When the reading was done, everyone lingered. I could hear intense conversations going on between people who had just met. I exchanged hugs with women I'd never seen before and talked with the young man who had played the guitar. Washing through the room, as strong as the smell of coffee or mulled cider, was this undercurrent of relief, a release of tension, the feeling that little bits of pain had been unlocked and released into a loving community.