There is something unique and strange about human nature when it encounters a truly impressive rose. It’s a wild and illogical being, growing on a stem of thorns, pushing out of its barbs and barriers that scream “danger, Will Robinson, danger” and exploding into a cacophony of petals that bleed color and vitality. And the impulse, for some, for many is to pluck it. The impulse is to separate this unutterable, unmanageable form of beauty from its protective barbs, to snap the spine of the threatening rods that root it to the earth and to the life giving water that fills its visage with richness, and above all to possess the thing itself and hold it in one hand. Because once that stem breaks, that is what a wild rose is, a thing. No longer a part of the earth which breathes and exhales and lifts its face to the sun, but an object or an ornament that is possessed by the person who has plucked it.
I am a wild, illogical being. I’m not better or worse than any other person, but like all people — I’m unique. An individual. And my personal essence in the world I only know to describe as kinetic. I live free, I experience and celebrate impulses, I chase dreams with the colossal hunger of a starving lion taking down the last gazelle on the Serengeti, I play like a child and work like a fiend, I lift a prayer of gratitude for my freedom and the beauty of the world with every inhale and a plea for strength and fearlessness with every exhale. The God I know I know through the human capacity for true, unadulterated love. I love sex and the biological imperative to seek unbearable pleasure in the physical. I love laughter and exercise and exploration. I love art and music and theatre and words and what they are capable of evoking. I am ravenous for the contradictions in the world that make contradiction moot; I model lingerie and I sing hymns in church. I am always in motion, always elusive, and always myself. The result is to find relationship with the world, with people, in extremes. It is in those who admire and cannot fathom, those who abhor and ridicule and mock, those who crave the freedom a wild creature can teach them. And there are those who seem incapable of resisting the desire to pluck the wildness from the vine, to possess it, to prove that it can be broken or tamed or diminished, that it can be shamed into becoming smaller.
There are a million kinds of beauty in the world. The beauty of human beings is astonishing in its variegated forms. This is not a question of beauty, unless it is of the question people like me ask themselves in the dark about whether or not having some form of beauty could be a crime. This is about the magnet that seems to live under my sternum, pulling the darkest and most occult and dangerous desires and needs of human beings toward me, their progress inexorable and intoxicating. The most threatening of these desires were those of men, who otherwise were and remain my favorite creatures on the earth.
The first time I knew sexual violence I was at that cusp of childhood where I scarcely knew what changes were happening in my body, my mind, in how people would look at me. It was brutal, extreme, overwhelming. I swallowed the shame and the secret and covered the broken parts of me. I set out to prove that I, my body, belonged to me and me alone and in the process made the most foolish decisions of my life and took the most extreme risks a young person can take. And I survived.
Over the following years I learned to read the warning in a glance that held a little too long, which jokes to laugh at in earnest and which might conceal a threat. Words that, to some, become the ultimate validation became for me small knives attempting to pare away bits of flesh, bits of my soul. I found myself in dominance and physical strength first, in the knowledge that in at least most conceivable situations I was capable of violence, vengeance, self-preservation. My sense of invincibility led me to still more men, the men that could possibly want someone like me (someone broken, someone filthy) whose definition of love included fists and palms and threats, temptations to try illicit substances to prove that I could, the encouragement to push my tolerance for alcohol or pain as far as it could go for the simple reason that if I couldn’t, I wasn’t man enough. I was a woman, albeit a young one. Everything about me that is utterly female has remained utterly desirable, but also the ultimate threat to the status quo of men like this, and therefore something to be had and take pleasure from, then crush.
Violence served me well, as one could ask a young man whose aspirations of possession and penetration ended with a knife in his thigh. But violence also took me far away from an intrinsic part of myself, a part I had to rediscover slowly and gently on a yoga mat, in a dance studio, in the words of a church hymn, and the smiles of much older adults who looked into my upturned face and saw only potential, not brokenness.
I have done the work. I have studied Jung and Freud, Meisner and Shakespeare. Studied psychology, sociology, Hester Prynne, the Kama Sutra, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, The Art of War, history, and myself through the lens of a therapist and through the lens of young, powerful experience. And I have found the formula that still baffles my comrades, but that works for me. Love first and always and with the unconditional compassion that whatever God you’ve found or will find is capable of. Forgive even if you can never forget. Work hard. Tell the truth. Seek first not to harm others. You will have to cause pain, sometimes with the truth, but pain is not harm. Exercise. Make art. It works for me, it helps me survive, and it helps me believe that there is intrinsic value in being me, regardless of those who would take it from me.
It had been small for a long time, a customer who advised me at a restaurant job that without clothing his tip would have been far higher, a manager at a different job who called me “chi chiquita” as he slipped two fingers in the front of my waistband, almost as though I wouldn’t notice. It’s been in catcalls on the street, in threats made almost in jest but made in the bedroom or when I’m vulnerable and unprotected.
I have not been small. I have not been passive. I have succeeded in preserving the vitality that is my life’s blood, in not losing my sense of pleasure in desirability, in not feeling shame in the openness of my heart or the broadness of my mind. I have contributed to the world.
And then very recently, another man saw me in my element. Saw me at the apex of my power and joy in my freedom and something happened to him, to his insecurities and his need for control. That man responded to his fear and desire and loneliness first. Somewhere he missed the stop at the station to get off the train and work from the inside out, and instead reached out to grasp at a thing that he didn’t understand, but wanted. We forget that when we talk in our high blown rhetoric about “objectification” that the concept is really so very simple. It’s the making of a person into an object, something that can be possessed, something without feelings or needs, something that we can own and use and break.
I faced violence again, and found myself clawing upward through the mire of emotions that seem so long ago and far away no matter how many of their cousins have danced in my veins more recently, like trace doses of a drug in comparison with the explosion at an injection site. And I reached out for my strength and invincibility, and for God and for grace, for the sheer willpower that Howard Thurman once aptly described as a “hard purposefulness” in human existence toward living, toward survival. Those things hovered just past the tips of my fingers as I cried out to the sky “this place is a prayer” from a rock in Central Park at two in the morning, as I let a friend put hands gingerly on my wrists and my throat and my face and tried not to scream, and as I tried without success to sleep while the cruel words my attacker said as he hurt me echoed in my mind.
There is a concept voiced by writers as erudite as Tolkien and as popular and contemporary as the creators of The Vampire Diaries, that in the deepest pit of pain and fear at times all that a person can do is channel everything into one single concept, one idea, one emotion. I want to say that I was able to do that, to survive, on my own sense of agency and strength and beauty. Maybe eventually I would have.
Instead I found myself whispering the unspeakable for a woman who loves men, sex, life itself into the shadows and into the distant ear of someone who I’d almost not told, whose kind heart it had horrified me to wound with the truth, with the details of human cruelty and selfishness with which I’d been reacquainted. I whispered that I had been trying, failing to remember the last time someone touched me adoringly, desired me but not striven to take something from me or diminish me, felt lucky to be with me. The last time that someone touched me the way I believe all people, inherently beautiful by virtue of being human beings, deserve to be touched. And he gently, painfully reminded me that it had certainly happened at least once, at his incandescent hands.
I’ll ask nothing more of this person, but that thread of memory became the channel for me to stand up slowly. I suddenly remembered what it is to be kissed by lips that tremble to taste your skin, to be lifted and moved by hands that bless as they relish, and to feel pleasure in the arms of another person in that less animal, less typical way than that which can happen anywhere with anyone. The shivers of joy that come from needing more and more and drinking in the fading light over another person’s shoulder as your fingers touch and your eyes close. The quiet of it, the ease of sharing and giving is as real as the deafening horror of violence and taking.
I have been an object, thrown against the rocks to shatter or the ground to wither. I have been desired with healthy voracity. I have been independent, strong, a survivor and a warrior, alone. But I have also been adored and I have adored. If disillusionment, cruelty, hurt, and the attempted theft of my honor cannot take this from me (and it cannot), then I will truly be indomitable. The universe seeks balance, God seeks to meet out only that which we can survive and conquer and return to the world tenfold in goodness. This is my balance; that I have been seen and can be seen, that I have been loved with the tenderness of grace and have given love with the passion of music.