To Know Our Own Way Home
Love, Accountability, and the Path Forward
Unraveling happens while I sleep.
In the dream, he is next to me. He has been visiting me for quite a while now, showing up when I am sleeping, to introduce himself and say hello.
I am seated in a chair, something elegant and raw, a dining chair that I have seen in some high-end online catalogue, a wrapping raw piece of oak winding its way around my shoulders and into which I lean for support.
I am trying on shoes.
They are not my usual style, not the Sophia Webster works of art with butterflies and crystals, not the Doc Marten boots that populate my closet for the days off, not even the Stan Smiths I bought yesterday to replace the favorite pair of Converse the dog ate a few weeks ago. No, these are something slip-on, canvas, comfortable, very not glamorous, supposed to be “for everybody,” but most importantly: they do not seem to fit me.
The salesperson who is assisting us is confused. “These shoes should fit anyone!” he is announcing, in a curiously Italian accent. “Never have I had this problem before!”
The salesperson brings another size, and that size too doesn’t fit, despite these shoes supposedly being designed to fit all of us.
It is so strange. And I am so anxious. I keep trying to cram my feet into the next size and the next size, and the salesperson is growing increasingly agitated at how my elegant ex-dancer’s feet just simply will not conform as demanded to these shoes.
But the man who is beside me, this man who may be mine, he is calm.
I turn around in the chair to look at him. He is gently holding the back of the chair and his forearm is tattooed with the Ace of Spades. I kiss his forearm. This is new.
I look up at him, concerned about the shoes and this strange thing that is happening. He nods, he smiles, he says, “It’s ok. It’s ok.”
I look back down at the salesperson who is trying to cram my foot into yet another shoe that doesn’t fit. The salesperson is legitimately angry now that he can’t get me into them.
I look back up at the man next to me, this man who is so beautiful he shines. I am scared.
“Elizabeth,” he says quietly, because this is meant only for me, because this is private. He holds my gaze, and kneels down next to me, and gently puts his hands on the side of my face.
“It’s ok,” he says, “I want you.” And then he takes a deep breath, tucks a strand of hair behind my left ear, and he smiles at me. And then, he decides to change the emphasis.
“Elizabeth,” he says, “It’s ok. I want you. I love you.”
Waking up is work. A mind colonized by patriarchy, down to that long lost Cinderella story, continues to try to find a path to healing—even, it seems, while I’m asleep.
The thing about love in all its redemptive possibility is that we live in a culture that teaches us that we have to be certain things and capitulate in certain ways in order to survive. Whiteness, capitalism, patriarchy, are imbued into everything we do.
We are taught that some of us are more worthy than others based on the shade of our skin, and we spend lifetimes capitulating to that belief, trying to get closer to power, fawning over it in the hopes of acquiring safety, or carrying out violence in its name to show that we are loyal to it.
If we resist this, if we fight back, the mechanisms of the state are there to enforce it on us through denial of the means of survival, through police violence or mass incarceration or death, and through each other.
We are taught that we have to sell our labor to survive, auction off our time and effort for food, for housing, for medicine, for access to power, and that if we can’t work for whatever reason, or if we aren’t constantly striving to allow our value to be extracted, or to consume what is offered, by those billionaires who are ever-hungrier to take until there is nothing left to take, then we are lazy, or flawed, or unworthy of even living.
If we resist this, the mechanisms of the state are there to enforce it on us through sweeps of tent camps of the unhoused, through denial of healthcare or a basic social safety net, and yes, through police violence, mass incarceration or death, and through each other.
We are taught that there are only two genders, one of which reigns supreme, and out of which none of us are allowed to escape to be anything else. We are taught that one of those genders gets to decide for all others what we do with our bodies, down to what we wear, what we call ourselves, what we do with our own internal organs. We are taught that one of those genders is worthy of praise and caretaking and fawning and survival, while all others are inherently not, unless of course we conform, capitulate, caretake and please.
If we resist this, if we dare to believe that we should decide how and when we reproduce, if we should dare to name who we love, if we dare to claim the truth of another gender other than the one we were assigned, if we dare to claim control over the bodies in which we live, if we dare to wear clothes that don’t conform to the assigned gender paradigms even, well, surprise surprise, the mechanisms of the state are there to enforce patriarchy on us too, through the courts, through the media, through the endorsement of interpersonal violence, through police violence, mass incarceration or death, and through each other.
Some days, it’s all we can do to just carry on.
Some days, love is elusive, or non-existent, or the longing for it becomes a vulnerability or a weapon.
Some days, we do what we have to, to please those who have power over us, in order to survive.
Little girls, listen closely 'Cause no one told me But you deserve to know That in this world, you are not beholden You do not owe them Your body and your soul Show some skin, make him want you 'Cause God forbid you Know your own way home Ask yourself why it matters Who it flatters You're more than flesh and bone
-Fall In Line, Christina Aguilera and Demi Lovato
I told him I loved him, the man who molested me.
I did it because over the years it took, starting when I was twelve, to get to the moment where he first took my clothes off, he told me over and over that no one loved me but him.
I did it because I knew that if I didn’t, it would get worse.
I did it because I knew, as my barely teenager self, that I had no power. My own mother did not believe me. There was nowhere to go and no one to tell and no way out– until there was.
One time, his wife called the office of his family therapy practice while he was molesting me. He got his forty year old body up off of me and answered the call, wearing only his underwear.
I stayed there, naked on that couch, watching him speak to his wife on that black rotary phone.
I stared at him, knowing I wasn’t really supposed to move.
Clear as day, the thought arrived, like a bell, a harbinger, like a lightning strike of awareness that never left from that moment forward.
Someday, came the thought, I will ruin you.
Five years later, in the basement of a courthouse in Harrisburg, I was on a witness stand, testifying against him.
But it took me a long time to forgive myself for telling him I loved him.
We do what we have to do to survive.
None of us is perfect. We fail. We fall. We hurt ourselves and others.
We are harmed so violently as children and by this culture that we numb the pain of our trauma, we get addicted, we take out our shame on one another.
We are taught by capitalism, whiteness, patriarchy, to define ourselves by what is dominant and what is not, to separate ourselves from one another, to identify ourselves so that identity can be weaponized against us, and to conform.
We learn to hate– others and ourselves.
We learn to fear– others and ourselves.
We insist on perfection in others that does not exist, because we’ve been taught that we will never be enough, never live up to the standards demanded for our survival, so we demand it of others, because maybe if someone else is perfect enough to satisfy whiteness, capitalism, patriarchy, we might be able to be someday too (this, the American dream), but if not, at minimum we can show loyalty by becoming enforcers.
We lift up, lionize, pedestal those we think have conformed well enough to be worthy of survival, only to brutalize them when it turns out that they, too, can’t satisfy the demands of power, when they choose to not conform or they harm or they just prove themselves to be human.
We despise and we break and we leave no room for healing– of others and ourselves.
Our humanity is betrayed by our cultural indoctrination, so we betray ourselves, and then, if we’re not careful and sometimes even if we are, we betray others.
We are so broken by our indoctrination that sometimes we become agents of it, we become its violence, because that’s what’s required, too, in the name of power.
Because if you step outside the box, no matter who you are, no matter who you are, you might not survive.
This is the story of power. It is the story of everyone in America, to differing degrees.
I see it all now through the lens of indoctrination and power.
My family was neglectful and sick and unable to keep me safe because of the demands placed on my mother– that she release her dreams and wants and needs and marry as barely an adult, just days before her 21st birthday, that she conform to the demands of her strict Catholic upbringing with all of its attendant control, that she birth children before she was a fully formed adult herself, that she do it because that was her prescribed role. My father, taught to provide because that’s the only thing that would guarantee his ascent out of the working class, was absent most of the time, and that combination allowed for the festering of wounds that are directly attributable to systems of power.
Before them came my grandmother, a first generation child of immigrants who chased my mother around the yard while beating her with a shovel when she would not abide. My grandmother was birthed in a tiny house in Philadelphia under where I-95 now runs to a broken, Polish-born woman who cleaned houses to survive, and to a father who would suicide because he couldn’t provide for his family’s survival as capitalism demanded, leaving my grandmother, as a tiny child, to find him hanging from the rafters. This brought next an abusive step-father, necessary thereafter for the family to eat, and changed the course of my grandmother’s trajectory for life. Her brother, my great-uncle, became a cop, and over the course of his professional life was eventually snared, and then turned state’s evidence, in a federal corruption investigation as the head of Mayor Rizzo’s secret police force that terrorized Black Philadelphia for a generation.
And before that came my great-grandmother, their mother, who was put on a boat from Poland at 14 or 15, never to see her family again, forced to give up her language and her culture and assimilate into white America in the name of a “better life,” where the hierarchy demanded that she indoctrinate into anti-Black racism and into one of Philadelphia’s ethnically segregated neighborhoods, where three Catholic churches on three corners at one intersection catered to three different communities of immigrants, where at least if you were a “dumb Polack,” you weren’t Black. She birthed six children, only four of whom survived.
And before that were her parents, their names recorded in a church register on the day she was born in a tiny village in the area of Poland from which she came, the state itself not identified until 1920, in war-torn land between Russia and what is now Germany that changed “ownership” back and forth for centuries, in the name of colonialism and domination and servitude and greed. No one’s life was promised and no one’s was guaranteed and there was no way out that didn’t require labor that worked you until your body broke or you starved to death.
Capitulate to whiteness, capitalism, patriarchy, or die.
This is the direct lineage that led to the circumstances that put me on a sofa underneath the man who molested me. His lineage, too, was birthed through capitalism, whiteness, patriarchy. He knew he was entitled to me, because the culture taught him that. He had already gotten away with it many times, because power granted him that. He would get away with it again, despite every effort I undertook to stop him, because the state refused to hold him accountable despite all the evidence. And he did it all under the cover of whiteness and cishet manhood, though he, too, would never be whole or satisfied or sane within the confines of the monster he had been conditioned to become.
So goes the story of my family. So goes the story of America, with all its violence, played out against so many families in so many different ways. So goes the story of colonialism and white supremacy, and all its attendant legacies.
When you step back from our individual stories of how power has done its damage to us individually, the incredible map of the intersecting paths of power and harm that led us all collectively to this moment become radically visible, and it is clear why this nation teeters on the brink of horror, where we are breaking and broken.
None of us are individually responsible for how we got here. No one individual can change it.
Our survival depends on one another, on our collective choices with regard to power.
And lately, I find myself wondering if we know our own way home.
I’ve been in trauma therapy for the better part of a year now. Lately, my therapist has been encouraging me to think about forgiveness.
Forgiveness, she says, is an act of self-love, first and often only.
I struggle with this beyond belief. If I forgive myself for all that I had to do to survive, does that mean I have to forgive others for all their abuse and violence?
She notes for me, over and over, that forgiveness does not mean to connect. It does not mean to be in relationship. It does not mean to allow boundaries to be violated and violence to continue.
Maybe, though, it makes room to understand that we are all products of what has made us, and that allows us to start healing.
Clarity came recently, when my therapist, in the face of my absolute refusal to entertain forgiveness, talked about how we have to forgive ourselves first. We have to forgive ourselves for the things we’ve done to survive, for the things we’ve done because we didn’t know better, because we’ve been gaslit and abused and misled, because we’re desperate to survive and to be loved and because white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy breaks all of us so that it can carry on extracting what it wants to benefit the tiny number of wealthy white cishet men who control the means of power and who just want more.
Through that lens, we can start to understand how the systems that created us created those who harmed us, too.
Through that lens, we can start to see where power shifts when we refuse to carry on the cycles of harm that made us.
Betrayal is a teacher, because it brings the truth.
And the truth is that we are all indoctrinated, and that we are all victims and perpetrators to greater or lesser degrees until we know better, until we decolonize our minds and hearts, until we see that we are all being used in the service of structures of harm to benefit those in power, and that the enforcement begins at home, as children, where our very survival is at stake.
It is possible to love that child you once were, before you were taught what you had to do to survive?
Is it possible to love the child that was taught to hate and harm and abuse you, before that child became a monster?
Is it possible to love yourself, for all the things that you have done that carry shame and self-hatred, to understand what made you, and to understand what must change and then to set about changing it?
Do you know your own way home?
The longer I watch this country decline into madness (as though this all wasn’t predicted from our genocidal enslaver origins), the more I think about transformative justice and how to heal.
Project Nia, founded by the prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba, provides a curriculum for communities seeking transformative justice, from which all of us have much to learn. This curriculum describes Transformative Justice as follows:
The goals of transformative justice are: • Safety, healing, and agency for survivors • Accountability and transformation for people who harm • Community action, healing, and accountability • Transformation of the social conditions that perpetuate violence - systems of oppression and exploitation, domination, and state violence The principles of a Transformative Justice approach to addressing all forms of violence include: • Liberation • Shifting power • Accountability • Safety • Collective Action • Respect Cultural Difference/ Guard against Cultural Relativism • Sustainability Transformative Justice invites us to ask: • How do we build our personal and collective capacity to respond to trauma and support accountability in a transformational way? • How do we shift power towards collective liberation? • How do we build effective and sustainable movements that are grounded in resilience and life-affirming power?
There is so much work to be done, so much care and slowness and healing and wisdom to be engaged.
There is so much need to understand that it doesn’t have to be like it is, that we must open, finally, the gates of the prisons that hold all of us, and with the nuance of accountability and action and dignity, start walking on a different and better path.
So, to love.
To be really seen, to be really known, to be understood and accepted and held, to be viewed through the lens of everything that made us and brought us to this point, to see the ways we have been harmed and the ways we have carried that harm forward until we knew better, to forgive ourselves for believing the lies told to us in the name of power, and to grant dignity to ourselves first, to grant love to ourselves first– well, this is everything.
I know what redemptive love looks like. I know how it feels in my bones.
It begins with loving yourself despite what you had to do to survive.
It begins, as well, with an understanding that power returns to you when you choose to not continue to perpetrate cycles of harm.
It begins there, with choosing to do something other than what we have always done.
As Dayna Lynn Nuckolls has so eloquently said, surviving whiteness, capitalism, patriarchy is not freedom.
And once we realize that this is what has been done to all of us, all of us, to greater or lesser degrees of cost and harm, we can begin to see the way out.
Because the shoes do not fit. They were not meant to.
None of us were meant to have to conform to survive.
Systems must crumble. Power must shift. Life must be affirmed as worthy, for all of us, in all our wild and beautiful diversity and difference, outside of any demarcation or division put upon us, until the whole of us are healed.
We deserve liberation. We all deserve it. We deserve to be in relationship to one another in the cultivation of trust and love. We deserve more than to just survive.
It will begin in the moment when, despite being afraid, despite being broken and torn and beaten and harmed, despite how ruined this nation and how much we have ruined one another in the name of power, we can start to turn to one another, and especially to the most marginalized and victimized among us, and say I love you, I want you, exactly as you are, for who you are, completely, your life is worthy, you belong, it’s ok, you are wanted, you belong, you are safe, you are free here, I love you.
Because you are perfect in your imperfection. We are all perfect in our imperfection. Yes, we carry scars of so much abuse and violence, and we will for a long while, but it will not be that way forever. There is a pathway out.
We all deserve to be safe and loved and held and honored, to walk together, arm in arm, unloading the learning and the hate and the harm that’s been done to us, striving for better with an understanding of how we got here, as we find our way to the possibility of a better future and a way of being that will also necessarily be imperfect, but where all of us are free.
We can commit to it, starting now.
We can take those deep breaths, say what we mean, commit to telling the truth, and change it all.
I love you.