He followed me. I wondered: What did I look like to him in that moment,…
A long time ago, a man I once tried to love nearly killed me, held me at gunpoint and brutalized me for 17 hours in what had once been our home, after I ended the relationship in a direct and desperate effort to protect myself from his mounting jealousy, suspicion, rage, and escalating abuse. It was a lifetime ago, and aside from a book I wrote, the scorched earth, and the speeches I give to change the systems that allow such violence to perpetuate itself among far too many of us, I have little attachment to that experience beyond the launch-point that it was. This is a photo of me, homeless, after I escaped him and ran to the National Poetry Slam Finals in Chicago because I knew enough to know that poetry just might (and did) save my life. The moment this photo was taken of me I was homeless, terrified, being threatened and hunted by him, but I was hopeful enough to smile, to sit on a lion statue in a storefront in downtown Chicago and to listen to my life telling me that my story was not yet over. The woman I was that day, and in the unfolding of that ordeal, is a far different woman than I am now blessed to be, or have been for many years. That night made the woman I now am possible, made the work I have done to support and uplift other survivors possible, made the life I now live in all of its wild unfolding the only possibility I claimed with all of my heart for myself and for the people I love who have held me from then to now. That night, and the months that followed as I fought for myself, made tonight possible, and I celebrate every January 22nd the grace that got me from there to here, with an open and deeply grateful heart.
And yet. Someone criticized me this morning for even recognizing this anniversary, so many years removed from it, saying to me that because I recognize it and hold the commitment to celebrate my survival and all that has come since that night with a man with a gun who tried to kill me because I would not let him “hold me” that I am somehow bound in some deeply flawed and questionable way to my past. The judgment, and the assumption that anyone has the right to judge how I live inside of the arc of my own life, struck me deeply as indicative of the lack of generosity and compassion we might otherwise extend to people who have lived through hard moments that their lives have delivered upon them – which means to every single person alive.
We do not know what people carry, what they have endured, what courage it has taken for them to live what was asked of them, or what faith it takes for them to rise up in the aftermath and to commit themselves to claiming the best of life available to them. Please think before you assume to know enough to judge. Please uplift the people around you who are showing up in the face of hard history or experiences they did not choose for themselves, but have adapted to the best they can. Please extend grace to people whose stories you may hear but never have to endure yourself. Please accept the visible examples of people doing the best they can in the face of their own lives. Please extend to the array of people around you some degree of the grace, acceptance and appreciation that you yourself would hope be extended to you, without judgment or contempt.
We are all one another’s keepers. We are bound to each other. I hope the binding brings more unity between us than separatism, more acceptance than judgment, more love than silence into the rooms that hold us, more hope to the moments we share together so that the sharing joins us in all of the myriad ways we may otherwise be led to believe we are alone. I have shared my history to not be alone within it, and to help others with similar histories to not be alone within theirs either, and to support them in claiming for themselves the strength, hope and possibilities still before them as I have tried to claim for myself. To me, “celebration” is another word for “alive“, and I I’m grateful to be both. I hope you are, too, for me and for yourself and for the people around you, no matter what your life has asked of or offered to you. Thank you to each one of you who have been part of making “celebration” and “alive” the possibility I claimed for myself, across the wide and miraculous arc from that night to this one.
ALL PEACE TO EACH ONE OF YOU. DORA
P.S. If you or someone you know is in a crisis situation, or in need of immediate support or help for experiences of Domestic or Sexual Violence, Child Abuse or Human Trafficking, please refer to the extensive listing of INTERNATIONAL RESOURCES FOR SURVIVORS that I created for anyone in need, anywhere in the world. There are many outstanding programs available to help you find your way, no matter what you have experienced. And remember: You are not alone. It is not your fault. You will be believed and supported. And you can heal and reclaim your life with the support and assistance available specifically designed to be present with you as you do. I wish you peace as you find your way.