Have you ever seen a tornado? Or the aftermath? I grew up in a direct line and it seems like they came every year. I remember driving by houses with roofs in the backyard, yet mysteriously enough the ceiling fan still dangled from a beam over a dirt floor, flakes of tile here and there.
Cars were turned upside down. Telephone lines choked trees, wrapped around like Christmas lights on snowy pines. Streets were coated with martyred branches and stuffing from coaches—nature and home united. Families held to one another, trembling because now they could only rely on their souls for memories.
But the house next door kept standing. You heard it breath out a sigh like one, big glossy tear as it tried to reach out and hug its wounded neighbor. Though it towered above the rubble, the surviving house bowed. Bowed to the shingles and the photographs baptized in mud. That house next door knew it stood, but stood amid many funerals.
I’m tired of people talking of God and suffering as if both are like those houses.
I get so mad I could spit.
As if it’s all as simple as flattening and sparing.
As casting to the violent wind and cupping in a palm.
All who stand, stand in many funerals.
I’m sitting on a bamboo floor with knees to my chest, hugging myself, rocking back and forth. A young girl lingers over the mantle. She’s in a portrait, but listens to our conversations anyway. She can’t help herself. I lean against Ms. Mary’s knee and she occasionally pats my head.
‘To the little girl in me;’ twenty-something stories share this title. One by one they go…
A woman who looks like Maya Angelou writes to the little girl in her who always wanted to shine, to create and perform a scene, naming herself the star. She opens her mouth and seamlessly recites Sally Field’s monologue from Steel Magnolias. Harriett Tubman, Rosa Parks, Toni Morrison—women who shine beyond their lived lives, these are who she names to her little girl, mourning her because she doesn’t know how to shine like they and won’t start learning till fifty-six. Her shine will bring her to hustling streets of Detroit. To smoking the best and the most. To money. Always, always money.
Another woman speaks between sobs, barely letting out one word at a time. She hates her little girl inside and her little girl hates herself. She hates her mother for giving her dark skin, for being unable to braid her hair like the blonde girls in school. The taunting never stops. But drugs helped her avoid feeling, and then giving her body to people who could care less about her dark skin. She wants to crawl out from that skin now because the little girl still tells this woman she’s ugly. Can anyone live into her skin if she hates it? This is this woman’s journey of recovery: a coming into skin. And she must feel. Feeling her way through is the only option.
Some know how to feel with their little girl inside. One returns to her quivering body lying on the ground, a grown, stout man with a finger to his lips hovering over her, demanding she tell no one as he undoes his belt. She was seven.
Another admits she liked how it felt, and that’s the guilt she’s been running from all these years—a child with no idea of what was happening to her body, but only knowing she liked how it felt.
Still another, trafficked as a child prostitute from state to state, prohibited from speaking. She speaks plenty now, calling the child within, “Baby girl,” still only wanting to be held and told, “I love you.” This is her recovery—learning that the one to offer love and embrace to the little girl inside is herself, the woman that she is. To come to love oneself—now this is harder than getting clean.
“Girl, you don’t even know,” says a woman sitting near me. I’m patted on the back and given tissues because I’m weeping more than anyone in the room. It is true. I don’t know. Several women quickly decide I look porcelain and call me “baby doll.” “I’ll bet you were the purest girl in youth group,” someone said to me in the garden the other morning. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I am some porcelain girl who can’t even seem to stop biting my damn nails let alone grasp what it would be to leave cocaine and prostitution for good. But I cried for and with these women today on a bamboo floor. I lamented, joining the funeral song of little girls who never received the chance to really live—who were robbed of dignity. And I’m having to feel my way through, too. It’s the only way.
A woman I’m close with decides to remain at Magdalene, “to stick and stay,” as they say around here, though she misses her family. Her roommate (the Maya Angelou one) responds with a passionate fist pump, knowing what we all know: the swim is upstream and a daily choice to remain is one more jab at the beast of addiction—at the oppression of women. Suddenly I’m believing in God again. It’s hard to keep believing when the friends you’re spending time with and coming to love have been raped their entire lives and you were not. But I’m believing because women survive. On days when their own story isn’t enough to keep them going, they hear those of sisters and breath in a second wind. With the same fervor that kept them alive on the streets, these women fight to be well.
Who am I to speak into your trouble? I am only me. And I am porcelain to you. I am the house still standing…for now. And all I can do is bow. Bow to the rubble pleading to be rebuilt because you are my neighbor and both of us can only see trees and not the forest, the trees that crushed your home like a house of cards but forgot about me.
Bow and unlock my door.