Saturday, February 20, 2010

Environmental Soul Repair

I take her for a walk a few times a week. I have for years now. It's the only time she feels her "old self again" she says.

She's recovering from some injuries so she walks slowly. She's always going on about wanting to run again, like me...but I don't know if that will happen.

She's healing from a broken heart as well. She sighs a lot during our walks. My mom used to sigh all of the time, but hers came from a place of dramatic resignation. My friend sighs to release her cares, her sorrows, to breathe deeply once again. Her sighs don't bother me.

She fell for this man hard. He brought so much light into her sad, little existence that when he left, her life felt even bleaker than before. "Why me? He knew the shape I was in. Why does it always turn out the same way, where I get hurt?"

This man left her life incrementally, with little fanfare. He eventually stopped responding to her. She felt used, stupid.

I try to explain to her that he had his own problems.

That doesn't stop the pain, she tells me.

Yes, but it's better to understand that its nothing personal, I tell her. It's better to celebrate that love entered your life at all. He was a blessing overall. You know that.

She nods in halfhearted agreement and sighs.

After a moment, she turns to me and asks in a childlike voice, "I'm a blessing too, aren't I?"

Her question stops me in my tracks. I turn her to face me.

"I think you are."

Sometimes I want to send her flowers on his behalf, so she believes in kind acts and romance again. Or write her a warm, heartfelt letter, signed by him. Just to take the sting out a little. I wouldn't of course. I wouldn't dupe her like that.  It's just hard seeing her this way. I've known her so long. When she hurts, I hurt.

At some point of our walk, we usually sit down on the beach, close our eyes and meditate for a while. I can feel her next to me, tense and struggling, trying to tame her stormy thoughts.

Sometimes, I peek over at her: brow furrowed, shoulders tight. I fantasize about kissing her on the lips during one of those taut moments. It seems that's all she really needs, that magical fairy tale kiss to wake her up, to make her feel safe and alive again.

Instead she begins to cry. I put my hands on her back and her body melted in response. Human touch.  I found myself crying with her. No one should have to fight hard for "inner peace," you know?
"Just breathe. Be present. The answer is right here, I promise. You don't have to try so hard for it."

We both closed our eyes again and grabbed what little nirvana we could find. And after a few moments, we were breathing together, in sync with one another, in sync with the world. For a few moments, we simply existed and let go of all the silly emotions.

Her days at the beach are numbered. She's leaving the island soon. She's unhappy here and needs to leave.  She won't tell me where. It's a "secret." I can see through her ruse; she's not sure where she's going next and feels self-conscious about it.

"What will I do without our walks?"

Again, I have no answers. And luckily, I don't have to. Our walks, I hope, will heal her from the outside in. The universe will fix her, with its generous sunlight and sparkling seas and wild winds. Environmental soul repair.

And I think my listening helps as well. It's amazing how transformative it is when someone simply validates your feelings, isn't it? When someone is genuinely open to you, no matter what fractured state you're in?  No one shoulders her disappointment and anger and hurt like me. I accept all of her broken pieces. She needs me and I'm happy to spend some time with her.

"I worry too much damage has been done," she says. "That I can't find my way home."

But I think she may. Someday. Somewhere.

"Just keep walking."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Stay Alive

Liz Falco and Cathy Cushla, my dead friends.

While grocery shopping, and old college friend popped into my mind suddenly. A fiery, outspoken gal named Liz Falco. Kind, cute as hell, with wild curly hair. The type who could speak her mind without ever offending anybody.

I'm going to look her up, I said to myself. I hope she's still alive. A strange thought, considering our relatively young age. After some research, I found out that she had been murdered years ago in Philadelphia.

Cathy Cushla was another early goner. I went to high school with her. She was a warm, vibrant and kind soul with a near constant smile and bubbly, eruptive laughter. She liked butterflies. She resembled one somehow. Cathy was also murdered several years ago, during a drug deal gone wrong.

The details of these cases don’t really matter. What does matter is that if you're a woman, you're vulnerable.

So how do you stay alive?

Staying alive as a woman requires a heightened sense of alertness. It’s not just the seeming unlikelihood of a serial killer snatching you up in a van. It could be your ex-boyfriend. Or a date gone wrong. Or a drunken friend with an explosive temper. Or a strung-out dude walking behind you on the street while you’re chatting on your phone.

I studied martial arts after getting mugged years ago. But not everyone has to study self-defense (though it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself so why wouldn’t you?). Self-defense requires taking a look a realistic look at the way you exist in the world on a daily basis.

1. How aware are you?

Self-defense starts with a high level of awareness. Always. Even in a state of rest. (Think cats.) When you're on your cell phone or have headphones on, your awareness is lessened and you’re at a greater risk. When you're zoned out in front of the TV, you’re less aware of a strange sound in your backyard.

Let’s take an example:

You go to a bar. Do you take note of the exits? Do you notice when someone is standing just a little too close to you and reposition? Would you pick up on erratic behavior nearby? Do you have your back to the crowd or are you facing out? What kind of weapon do you have nearby if needed?

Some might call this kind of inventory paranoid. Kathy or Liz would probably differ with you. Kathy was killed in a friend’s basement and Liz was abducted on a bike ride home. I’m sure neither of them thought even remotely they were in harm’s way.

2. What's your body like?

No, this isn’t a lecture on fitness but if you’re overweight (or underweight) or don't work out, you’re more susceptible. You may not be able to run quickly or your reflexes slower. That fighter in you is underworked and flabby. So the answer is easy: work out. Strengthen your body. Prepare yourself for self-defense.

If you have physical issues, compensate in other ways, such as increasing your awareness to prevent situations from occurring in the first place. Or learn the use of weapons. Or take self-defense classes where you learn a few basic defensive moves.

3. Do you startle easily?

An easily spooked individual doesn't tend to react well in dangerous situations. They blank out. Think of a martial artist like Bruce Lee. Centered, calm, focused and dangerous.

In my years of sparring, I tended to get my ass kicked when I got upset or angry. If you're always on edge, work on techniques such as meditation to ground yourself. Being grounded is half the battle; it naturally increases awareness as well as your likelihood to respond correctly in a dangerous situation.

4. Can you take/throw a punch?

Women often think they’ll knee a man “where it hurts” in a crisis. But that’s not a dependable technique. You may not have access to a crippling crotch shot. Mace is also difficult because you need to be within shooting range of his or her eyes—not easy if someone comes up behind you.

As human, we’re built to take some punches. But if you’re a woman, a punch can be so startling, we slip into shock. I “play” spar with a few male friends occasionally. It’s a safe ways to get into the habit of knowing what it's like to fight a man.

What about your ability to throw a punch? Do you punch like a girl? Do you (wrongly) put your thumb inside your folded fingers? Do you know how to throw your whole body into a punch then follow up with another one? When did you last practice punching? It’s easy enough to try on your own.

Some may argue that generally women will lose to men in a physical altercation, no matter what. That's not entirely true. Many factors come into play such as size, age, agility, mental state, speed, weapons. Maybe he is stronger but if you can manage one maneuver, it could save your life.

If learning to punch seems beyond you then practice smashing someone in the nose with the palm of your hand in an upward motion. That can cause a blinding, searing pain that will stop most people in their tracks. Your elbow can also do some serious damage. A good kick to the shins can drop someone. And while gross, eye gouging has also been known to work.

5. Can you spot danger?

If a car is pulling up behind me slowly on the street, I get out of the way (of course) and sometimes, turn around to face them. If there’s a gang of young guys walking down the street, I naturally move to the other side. Do they mean me harm? Maybe not. But why risk it?

I pick up a large stick when going for a walk in the woods, just in case. I'm extra aware when I open a car or my house door (vulnerable locations).

When I was mugged, there were tons of warning signs but I didn’t know them at the time. I was walking down a dark street (external disadvantage), weighed down with bags (physical disadvantage), distracted because I had lost my keys (lack of awareness) and it was icy (another external disadvantage).

I walked by a man slamming his body into a brick wall repeatedly (erratic behavior). After I passed him, I turned around and saw him running toward me. Get this: I didn't want to appear rude and cross the street. So I kept my back to him. He clotheslined me with his forearm, punched me and took my pocketbook. It took about 5 seconds.

Bottom line: I'd notice all of those signs now. Years after my martial arts training, a man attempted to mug me during the day (in Park Slope, an affluent area of Brooklyn). This time, I saw his erratic behavior when I walked by him. I looked behind me and he was heading toward me--quickly. I started running. That scary part? So did he. But he stopped after a half block. Bottom line: he didn’t want to bother chasing me down.

6. Can you run away?

Running away from a dangerous situation ensures you don’t have to test your abilities of self-defense. It’s generally the smartest move in just about any scary situation.

I don’t often wear shoes I can't run in because it makes me feel vulnerable. (I wear chunky heels when I get dressed up because I can move quickly in them.) How fast and far can you run? If you’re not much of a runner, then focus on a strong, focused walk that tells the world you are in charge.

7. Do you pick your battles?

Most altercations are not worth it. Don't get in them in the first place and you're better off. Walk away. Ignore the comment. Go home.

With that said, you need to be able to read a situation, weigh it, then decide.

There are times you have to stand tough to make sure someone takes you seriously. There are times when acting a little crazy and unpredictable can give an attacker pause. (No one wants to mess with a nutcase, not even another nutcase.) There are times to look someone directly in the eye so they know you're not afraid. There are times not to make eye contact.

Every situation requires a specific response. The more you increase your awareness, the better you can adapt quickly.

8. Where's your weapon?

Are you aware of the ways you might defend yourself at this very moment? If someone is in attack mode, they’ve already chosen their weapons. Be on par with them. Not a fan of guns but I have a billy club under my bed. I have a knife in my car. But it can be anything. A beer mug. An ashtray. A frying pan. All weapons.

These questions are laid out before you so you can review the way you interact with the world and increase your power and awareness. Don't think it can't happen to you. (I’m sure my friends never dreamed of it happening to them.) But with that said, the idea isn't to live in a constant state of fear. Knowing how to defend yourself ultimately makes you feel like the protector and the protected.

                                  Be safe. Be aware. Stay alive.

One of the fiercest women I know, Angela Tiene, my martial arts mentor.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Plumber is Watching

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet."

~ Franz Kafka

The first time I see him, he’s leaning against his work van, watching me intently.  I'm taking out the trash, doing my best to ignore him. He starts to whistle some dumb tune as a way to get my attention. I just want to take out the fucking trash. I don't want an audience. His whistle gets increasingly louder.

Do you think I’m a dog? Do you think if you keep whistling, I’ll jump up on your lap and lick your face? I’m not paying attention to you for a reason, moron.

The second time I see him, I'm putting mail in the mailbox, several hours later. He is sitting in his van, with a sloppy sandwich in his hand, biting into it like an animal. The window of his van is open.

He makes this grunting sound, as he chews and watches me, as if it’s me he’d like to eat me for lunch. As if, by eating the sandwich, he can almost taste me. He makes me ill.

"I think the mailman already came by," he shouts, his mouth half full of food.

Why? Why does he have to be here again? The only two times I've left the house today and I have to deal with a slimy plumber boring holes through me? Why do I leave the house at all?

Again, I ignore him. Because I know the mailman didn't come by. I know the sounds of my mailman. I know the shuffling of his feet on the sidewalk, the slamming of my mailbox--the dull sounds that make up my daily existence.

At the rate my luck is going, I know I will see him one more time. It's Tuesday and I’m in charge of the local writing group at the library today.

I dress up for class a little. Present myself. It's important. To polish yourself up and look your best…okay, good enough. I look in the mirror and realize, in a detached way, that I do look pretty today. A good feeling sweeps over me. I put on my coat and walk out the door.

He's not there, the loathsome man. His van is still there but he's not there. Good. If he sees me, he'll only harass me more. His aggressive libido has obviously trumped the importance of my privacy.

I run to the car and start it up. Shit. I forgot my notebook. I run in the house and grab it. When I walk outside he is there, next to his van, staring at me yet again.  A bomb starts ticking. My passivity, my muteness, is quickly turning into white-hot rage.

He starts waving his fat arms wildly at me. His previous attempts to get my attention haven't been rewarded so he's resorted to this ridiculous gesture. I start to climb in my car but then stop in my tracks.

“What the fuck is your problem?” My voice sounds deep and dark, like it climbed out of the depths of my bowels.

“I’m just trying to say hello.”

“And I’m obviously trying not to.”

“Well, that’s not very nice,” he laughs.

“Yeah, well its not very nice being fucking harassed on my own fucking property.”

“Harassed? Ha!”

“Yeah, its real funny, isn’t it?”

“Just trying to be friendly.” He throws the cigarette on the grass and stomps it out.

I’m shaking. And not finished.

“No you weren’t. You weren’t trying to be friendly. Don’t fool yourself.”

“You got a problem. You got a real problem, lady,” he laughs dismissively and walks away.

I want to show him my problem. I want to show him my real problem. Because mere words don’t do my problem justice. My problem could wrap around his fat neck and squeeze so tightly, his veins would pop. My problem could grab the last greasy few strands of hair on his sweaty head and slam him into the side of his van. My problem could be the last thing he ever sees.

Instead I'm left standing there, rage all over my nice outfit. I hear him whistling inside the house. Immobilized, I watch the mailman as he pulls up and takes the mail.