What Phillis Wheatley Taught Me

Phillis Wheatley came into my life pressed between the pages of a rather lack luster anthology. I was twenty-one when I first sat down in my American Literature class ready to be thoroughly educated. My professor was young and handsome. He wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches and I knew that we would have great discussions that would change my life. I was right. My interactions with him would change my life.

The only Wheatley poem my anthology contained was the short but controversial,

On being brought from Africa to America

‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither fought now knew,
 Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

I read the poem with understandable concern. My white Gen-X background in no way prepared me for a woman who spoke with gratitude on having been taken from her family at the age of 7, sold into slavery at age 8 and then named after the slave ship which transported her. How she ever survived the long voyage aboard “The Phillis,” no one knows.

I sat in shock listening to my professor discuss the hardships of her life in blasé tones. He furthered the insult by saying that Wheatley’s poem was ironic. My indignation was instant. Nowhere in her words could I detect irony. I heard a fragile voice, as gentle as moonlight, singing out an ideology forced on her through hardship, a new and vengeful God coupled with the tortuous cruelty of slavery. Surely, no one with a heart could read this poem and honestly believe that Wheatley’s poem was ironic. Slowly I raised my hand, stated my case and flatly refused to back down.

My professor believed that his word was the last word on all subjects literary. My refusal to understand that Wheatley’s poem was ironic angered him so much that he began yelling “ironic” at me every time our paths crossed: In the hall, out on the green, in the parking lot. My reply to each and every one of his attacks was to simply say, “sincere.”

At the end of quarter, after turning in every paper, after aceing every quiz and test I received a D-. The girl who sat opposite me never turned in her papers, missed tests and didn’t read the assigned texts but was shocked to receive an A. I approached my professor, I stated that he’d switched the grades and he replied, “How very ironic?” Yes it was ironic that I should fail this simple class with my strong English background. Yes it was ironic that I should fight for a defenseless black poetess, and yes it was ironic that I, a woman, was forced to defend my belief before an empowered white male. I went to the Dean, I filed my complaint and nobody listened.

So this is what Phillis Wheatley taught me. She taught me that even when you’ve been bullied, brainwashed, stomped on and threatened you have to keep on speaking what your heart tells you is right. Since failing American Lit. I have become a lover of Wheatley’s poetry. In her words I find sweetness, beauty, and a refinement not of this world. Her voice is more tangible to me now than any grade. My soul is strengthened by her poem On Virtue. My love of art grows in her poem To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works. My favorite of her poems is simply entitled,

On Imagination.

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
 Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

Phillis is one of the reasons why I write about silenced women. Her history is part of why I will always take up a cause my heart recognizes as pure. Phillis could not speak out against slavery when she herself was enslaved but read again On being brought from Africa to America and notice how gently she presses the truth that we all have the right to find grace.

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Choosing Healthy over Hellish Love: Understanding the Trauma Bond

I’ve known several people who believed in this phrase, “We always hurt the one’s we love.” These people weren’t naturally abusive but each had a brutal past, a despair based perspective and an intangible grief. They lived in a state of bitter despair, their days clouded with careless words, biting comebacks and bursts of violence. There were constant stories of war, drunkenness and past wrongs depicted so vividly that, even though I wasn’t there, I experienced them vicariously.

Trauma Bonds make you the secret keeper to other people’s traumatic experiences. These bonds hold you hostage to atrocities, forcing you to turn for support to those who witnessed hell with you. Break a trauma bond by starting a better life and you will never be forgiven for leaving your fellow victims alone with their pain.  Stay and you will be forever stuck at the scene of the crime, a captive victim to a hellish past.

Trauma bonds are fused by a love that goes beyond healthy. It asks that you bare your soul, set aside your values and immerse yourself in a cult like existence. The bond is so overwhelming that you forget who you are and what you ever wanted for yourself. Only the trauma exists; the perpetuated recollection of the darkest moments in life replayed again and again within the trauma bond collective.

Trauma bonds are defensive. Everyone outside the bond is viewed as a potential risk, criminal or predator. Within a trauma bond there is no room for growth, no room for happiness, success or healthy relationships with the outside world.

In my book, The Only Home I’ve Ever Known, my character Gidra is trauma bound to her mother Sophia. They survived a war, hid from enemy troops and forage for food through bombed out villages. With the wars end their trauma bond continues. It grows, warps and twists into a new kind of desperation which makes Gidra’s life impossible to endure. At the beginning of the book Sophia artfully recalls their shared past in order to maintain her control over her daughter. You and I have been through a lifetime together and there is no one in this world who will ever love you or know you the way I do. Please remember that when Parker starts to make you promises. Please remember how hard we’ve fought to stay together when life wanted to separate us.” With these well-chosen words Sophia strives to enforce the trauma bond and destroy any hope Gidra may have of a life outside their bond.

Identifying and breaking away from a trauma bond is an important step to discovering your autonomy.  If you are experiencing a relationship that leaves you feeling depleted or depressed it may be traumatically fused. Separation is usually the first step. Only through separation will you begin to gain a new perspective of the world around you. Secondly, forgive your trauma partners for the life they offered you. When you learn to let go of your past you will be ready to embrace your present. Practice self-protection. Set safety boundaries that free you to live authentically. Open your self to new experiences slowly. Too much too quickly can send you back into old habits.  Practice everyday gratitude (this I really can’t stress enough). Chose to be happy and remember that you do not owe your life to anyone. You were born to live each day on your terms. Go forth and truly live.

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Locating your Authentic Self

Locating your Authentic Self is an important step towards relational intimacy. It is impossible to experience deep sustaining love if you are hiding behind a role. In life we misplace our true identity behind labels and ideas that obscure the person we really are. Removing the layers of pretense and fear driven identity can be an intimidating undertaking. Only through authenticity can you find freedom, joy and true love.

Fake identities manifest through fear, loneliness and a need to please, protect or be accepted. These labels come from parents, siblings, society, educational titles, or they may be self-applied. Labels start small but they quickly take on a life of their own, crippling their host’s ability to live authentically in the process. False identity states: I am not a whole person until you know this fact about me. Or, I wouldn’t be good enough for this moment if you knew the real me.

My most destructive false identity came with childhood. I was told that I was, drifty, irrational, difficult, bossy, too sensitive and controlling. These labels grew into, Bitch and finally Crazy Bitch, a title I took to with zeal. I wore it like battle armor, ready to shred my life and my family. Being Crazy Bitch, offered me a way to escape the permanent victim hood I was raised in.

When my husband first asked me out I said, “You don’t want to date me, I’m crazy.” Was this my truth? At the time I thought it was. After years of being labeled, of rebelling, and of being labeled again, I developed an identity that said I was crazy, untrustworthy and mercenary. He looked into my eyes and said, “You’re not crazy.” I remember how sad I felt for him. I knew that at some point I would shred him, break him, hurt him the way I had my family. I overcame my destructive false identity and have a healthy authentic marriage because of his love, trust and support.

In my book Magdalena’s Shadow, I introduce my audience to Coco, a girl who struggles with finding her true identity. Her story begins under the labels: idiot, unlovable and crazy. As the story progresses her labels grow to encompass: model, single mother and whore. Coco could succumb to these labels but like so many of us she strives to overcome the labels she was branded with. Guided by a strict code of personal integrity, Coco begins a compelling search for personal freedom, self-worth and lasting love.

Freedom is yours when you rise above unwanted roles and other people’s beliefs about what you should be. Sit down and list out the roles which you identify with and ask yourself, “how does this role make me feel?” Question, “who would I be if I didn’t believe this about myself?” Listen carefully to your heart’s answers. Be still with your authentic self. Take time to bond with the feeling of just being you, even if only for a moment. Stripping away the layers of false self can feel scary. It helps to understand that the false self has no integrity, is incapable of lasting love and lives wholly outside of intimacy because intimacy cannot be achieved in the presence of a lie.

The Covenant of Relational Intimacy Part 2

So what does the modern covenant look like? How do we swear to one another that we will stand against all peril, keep vigil and give solace when they are needed? The answer to this question changes with each individual experience. Though the word covenant means to cut a thing which is eaten, (break bread, offer sacrifice, feast,) its inherent meaning slices far deeper. Covenant is an act of coming together to prove we are not alone, that our individuality does not ensure loneliness and isolation. Covenant is the promise that someone, be it God, our spouse or our best friend, will always be there no matter what. Covenant is seen as a necessary component to relational intimacy because it is the promise of security, safe passage and safe harbor in a world fraught with storms.

How do you create a sense of safety, home and community in an ever expanding world? We must turn again to the covenant of relational intimacy, the sworn loves, fidelities and friendships that guide us, house us and keep us feeling safe.  Humans are born to enter covenants, to make packs, swear oaths, to love and care for one another, and to protect at the risk of personal sacrifice. Within true covenant friendships are not allowed to slip away.

The covenant of relational intimacy is the single most important thing you will do in life. Now we have the opportunity to do this on a global scale. Create community in every way you can. Educate yourself about the lands, beliefs and lives of others. Take advantage of this momentous time by immersing yourself in the flow of humanity; be it through twitter, spirituality or travel. Make time for conversation, even if you’re in a rush. Stop to ask a person how they are then take the time to really listen to their answer. Each interaction will feed your soul and expand your awareness of your place in the world.

I look forward to knowing you in this fast moving and fascinating time, maybe over coffee, maybe through the web. In the meantime, I’ll write about your loves, your courage and your covenants. I’ll write about the honor and strength it takes to become the person you were put on this planet to be. I’ll write about your losses and joys as our lives continue to weave through this modern age. It is our shared universal covenant that is the greatest epic story in the cosmos.

The Covenant of Relational Intimacy Part 1

Blood is thicker than water, what does this really mean? In the book The Blood Covenant, by H. Clay Trumbull, a ‘blood covenant’ is a blood ritual more binding than familial ties. Under a blood covenant you remain your father’s son, your mother’s daughter, but your true allegiance rests with your sworn sisters, your blood brothers; the men or women you would die for without question.

As a child I became blood sisters with my friend Stephanie. We cut our thumbs, rubbed the cuts together and knew we’d never be apart. I lost Stephanie from my life eighteen months later and have passed years without once thinking of her. Why did I so easily accept her loss? Why did I allow her to fade into nothing more than a foot note in my history?

At the time my world felt too big, my community was scattered, my days fogged in by the names and faces of people I would never see again. I told myself that if I had been born in a village construct, raised in the intimacy of extended family, then perhaps I would not have handled the loss of my blood sister with such silent resignation. With an ideal home life I believed I would have fought her loss, grieved her absence, prayed for her in absentia instead of allowing her name to pass from my mind. Why did I feel such resignation to loss? Why did the memory of our friendship fade to indifference?

Desperate for answers and a sense of community I spent years in various churches, joined groups, went to parties only to feel as alone as when I first set out to find “My People.” This search for relational intimacy, for my place in the world, led me on a search for knowledge, for community, and for the home I longed for. What I found after years of wandering is a very simple truth. We have evolved sociologically beyond our original communal constructs. Our small village idea of community has opened to a world experience because of population density, global media exposure and our beloved internet. So many people pass through our lives that it is impossible to keep them all close, yet you can grieve their individual loss and love them in the moment.

In part two, I will discuss how covenant has remained an integral part of human relationships.

The Importance of Relational Intimacy

Society is centered on money and prestige. It’s that simple. Even if you were born a happy hippy kid raised on granola and kisses, by now you know that money=prestige=success in western culture. Our cultivated egos value expensive cars, big houses, designer clothes, and exotic destinations. From the moment we mature to the moment we die, the framework of our life is corrupted by the idea that material achievement is a necessary component of happiness.

We are the wealthiest society in the history of creation. This fact alone should ensure our happiness, and yet we are stressed and depressed because we place our values on things that will never love us back. We cultivate riches instead of enriching the relationships that heal us.

Western culture’s definition of mental health coincides with the dominant values of our culture: autonomy, independence and wealth. We are raised in this isolated society to stand alone, be rugged individuals and to be capitalist ground-breakers.  A healthier way of being productive would be to move, work and create within relationships. I am reading the book Silencing the Self, Women and Depression by Dana Crowley Jack and I agree with Dana that it is natural, not needy, to look for intimacy in relationships; to cleave to a lover, friends, family and community for support.

Women are far more injured by our western role models because a woman is raised to seek intimacy in relationship, to communicate her feelings, to trust in and nurture others. A man is raised to strike out on his own, to keep his feelings subdued, and to be strong, decisive and courageous. This male role model does not mesh well with the intimacy seeking communicative female model. The sad truth is that men need intimacy just as much as women do; they just aren’t raised to know it.

All of my manuscripts are based on the importance of relational intimacy. As a writer of woman’s fiction, I am constantly looking for new ways to show the beauty of deep sustaining love; between friends, lovers, brothers-in-arms, or sisters of a common cause. Nothing we do in life is more important than the people whose lives we touch with care. Intimacy unearths pain, supports healing and is more valuable than any amount of gold. You cannot take your riches with you to heaven, but you can take the love and compassion you’ve invested in others.