Where are you going? Where have you been? Some Thoughts: All These Quiet Places

All These Quiet Places was written by Christopher Krzeminski/Jennifer August. You can reach out to Chris on twitter: @CEKBooks, or by email at chris.krzeminski1@gmail.com

What follows are my own thoughts on this book, as I’ve read it.  I’ve no vested interest in the story other than that as a reader.  These opinions and words are my own.  It’s not a review, endorsement or advertisement.  Just go buy it and read it for yourself ~Jess

Accountability is a word that is often used in our culture, but it generally has caveats. We stress the need for it, or at least pay lip service to it, but it rarely translates as a personal commitment to change those aspects of ourselves that are least attractive and beneficial. Instead, we like to live in a world of blame. I blame the government, or society, or my ex husband for things which I may staunchly insist are out of my control. It’s a mantle of victimhood that many wear like an old, familiar coat. Victimhood is comfortable, because it removes from the individual any need to be personally accountable for certain, unpleasant aspects of character or circumstances.

It is possible to be victimized. It is more than possible and we see it every day. People are cheated, swindled out of retirements promised by unscrupulous financial institutions. People are robbed, beaten, and murdered, daily. There are verifiable accounts of citizens being attacked and even killed by those in power. We see it in the highest forms of government all the way down to the most intimate violence that can be perpetrated on the weakest in society by those meant to protect them. Parents do unspeakable things to children. Spouses inflict the most horrific trauma on partners, and every heinous act from greatest to the smallest, all throughout the spectrum.

Is it is the fault of the victim? Never. Was anyone really ever “asking for it?” Certainly not. But these events occur and the worst happens. What, then, happens after? What is the aftermath of such brutality and pain? For those able to cling to life after such devastation—we call them survivors. They survived. But what happens to them after? After the headlines, and the sympathetic clucking of tongues quiet down—when the articles stop circulating off raw story and the shares stop on facebook and twitter—what happens then?

Some people pick up the tatters of their lives and try to reshape them into something resembling existence. And it’s an extremely individual process.

I’m not writing today to address the larger issues of society, or to discuss in general terms, the way that we treat those whom have been treated at best unfairly, or at worst, been deprived of life. I’m just writing about a book. A single book. One account of a person’s story, written by an author attempting to record and understand what is, in the end, a very personal journey.

Jen August and I have been following each other on twitter for a long time. We’ve had a lot of interaction, and sometimes we agree with each other and sometimes we don’t. Even in the virtual world of twitter, this is nothing dissimilar to how people interact in daily life. I think one thing Jen and I agree on, though, is choice. That you make choices every day which shape the reality of your life, inasmuch as you can. Some choices, of course, are not choices consciously made, but framed by the external forces over which an individual has no control. Simply put, you didn’t choose the people who birthed you. If you are working for a paycheck, you can choose to tell your boss to go fuck himself, but you probably won’t have that job by the end of the day. You may have been born into an extremely advantaged circumstance, or you may have been born into extreme poverty—those aren’t choices you make.

But, at some point, even within the framework of the life you find yourself living, you will be faced with choices you CAN make. And, when most people try to examine someone else’s life, they seem to focus on the series of choices a person makes and total them up into a ledger that might, on the balance, give a picture of that individual. This to say, we are judged by the choices we make. And this book, while recounting a harrowing tale of abuse, loss and ultimately, survival, is not written so much to give a prurient look into a life or horror, but as to illustrate that a person, this person, chose a path of personal accountability to effect a change in her life so substantial as to overcome the horror of what happened to her, and…indeed the further horror of those who might have liked to keep her there.

Whoa, you say, reading that last sentence. NO ONE, you shout at me, in his or her right mind, would ever want another person to exist in that same non-space, a continual cycle of horror and pain.

Yeah, except socially, we kinda do.

Oh yes, I expect to be blasted for this. But, I’m not afraid of criticism, so here goes.

When horrible events happen, and the victims are identified, as a society, I would suggest, that we like keeping those victims there. It gives us a way to define people. I used to see this all the time in nursing, when people stopped being recognized as individuals and started to be known by whatever terminal or debilitating condition they were managing. So, when someone is abused, we say, “They were the victim, it’s not their fault.”

That is absolutely true.

Then, as that person struggles to process what happens, maybe working with a therapist, or in their own head, we continue to say, “They are a victim…they are a victim.” In the active present tense—meaning that victimization is now going on forever, stuffing the individual into a perpetual loop from which there really is no escape. That person WAS victimized, bet your ass…and then, by continuing to slap that label on them in the present, we keep them there—comfortably pigeonholed in a never ending cycle that keeps the individual right where the initial perpetrator wants them: in an unceasing chaotic hell.

Part of what happens, as anyone whose suffered domestic abuse can tell you, is that over the passage of time you cease to be a person to the abuser, if indeed your humanity was ever acknowledged, but far worse is that you cease to be a person to yourself. You generate coping skills, rarely healthy, that allow you to survive the acute assaults, but the fear and overwhelming isolation combine in order to slowly erase who you were, or who you might have been. Once you lose your ability to identify self, and accept the unacceptable as normal, it is more than difficult to get that back. And I’m not sure that we help.

I think what happens is that we tell victims that we want them to move on with their lives, but we only partially mean it. So, we condition the person to accept a perpetual mantle of victimhood, and then, when we arbitrarily decide enough time has passed, we then say, “How long are you going to allow this to define you? What the fuck’s the matter with you? Get over it, already.”

We placed them firmly on the rug of special-status victimhood, then yank it out from under them. Surprise! You’ve been fucked again!

So, how are you, the person who suffered, going to overcome that? The road is broad and there are any number of forks, on that path to recover and for the individual it’s going to come down to choice.

In this story, the character (Yes, based on a real person and real events) chooses in slow, incremental steps, to rigorously examine what decisions brought her to that initial place from the beginning and makes further choices to change parts of her character that lead her there in the first place. Acknowledging a sense of personal accountability is not the same as saying “This was my fault.” It does, however, give you the ability to say, “That was me then, but it isn’t me now…and from here, I can and will be different.”

When you begin to define yourself in your own terms and not allow anyone else to make your decisions for you, there is a small flicker—a spark of freedom that can, if nurtured, grow into a fulsome sense of self.

On twitter, long before this book was written, Jen would refer to herself as (and here I’m smiling) “the motherfucking boss.” And so she is. It was the reaction to that which most interested me in the early days of our acquaintance. How other people took that statement fascinated me. There were people who cheered her on and said, “Yeah! You are!” And some, clearly took it as though her words should be some kind of guide for others, or themselves, and with an almost sycophantic groveling would chime in and give themselves up to the power of that phrase. I’ve always imagined Jen shaking her head a bit in response to that. Because of this: I’d read those phrases and think, “Fucking right you are. You’re your own motherfucking boss…but not mine. I’m my boss. I belong to me.”

I think that is the best take-away from this. It takes strength and an unflinching ability to put yourself first in your own life…not selfishly, not aggressively…but to say, without apology, that I, as an individual, will be responsible for the things I do and say. I will be responsible for how I allow other people treat me and I will not be boxed into a set of labels that conveniently define me so as to make my existence more comfortable for you. I will not be “put in my place.” I will seek out and find my own place—and if you want to know me, if you want to be around me, you’ll learn to respect the place I’ve earned for myself.

This is why accountability is empowering.

Like all good books, it’s not just the story that should attract a reader, but the ability of the story to cause a reaction within the reader that makes it personal. Brings it home. As I sit on my own back porch this morning, and write this, I’m struck again by how profoundly good my life actually is.

What seems a lifetime ago, now, I was in a marriage that shared some similarities to the one described in the book, though certainly not all. When I eventually left, with my children, my own family began the well-meant litany of “You were the victim. It isn’t your fault.” And in the acute events, that was true. But as I took back myself, and began to determine the courses my own life would take, there were things I vociferously demanded. I refused to ignore my part in what happened, and I have always said, “No one held a gun to my head and forced me to marry him. And during that marriage, even in the worst times, there were things that I did, decisions I made, that I’m not proud of and treatment I meted out that was unworthy of who I consider myself to be.” I did those things. No one else. And I’m responsible for them. I was lucky. I got out. I’ve had unending support and assistance from those who love me, but, now, I rarely think of those times and honestly only deal with my ex-husband in reference to our children, and as they grow older, my need to interact with him decreases. Do I hate him? Nah. I don’t have time or energy for that. I have my own real and present problems which demand my attention.

But, had I not accepted my part in what happened, and what I did, I would not be married to my present husband. My husband is the joy of my life and my family, the four of us, is something I guard with happy ferocity.

This year, having been diagnosed with a chronic condition, I’ve been faced again with that repeated litany of “It’s not your fault.” Well, of course it fucking isn’t. But, what happens now, what choices I make and how I choose to move forward with that information is all on me. There are things I can’t control, but I am firmly in control of my responses . Am I worried and scared? Often. Do I have dark days—Sure. A lot of them. But, I’m still here, still bulling ahead. Ive made commitments and honoring them is part of how I define myself.

And that means I’m careful. I’m careful about who I let in my life and when a relationship becomes toxic to me, I’ve learned to recognize it fairly quickly and while it is painful, sometimes I let people go because I have to make sure that I’m taking care of me. When I take care of myself, when I’m unapologetically my own boss, then I can take care of the people who depend on me. Perhaps this is why this book resonated strongly with me. You can and should have empathy for others. You can and should assimilate the strength another person shows in sharing such a story, but you do this character a disservice if all you do is feel sorry for her. She’s not asking for that. And you’ll understand it better if you read it yourself.

My path to recovery was different than Jen’s. I’m not Jen and she isn’t me. That seems basic but it is important to remember. And I’m not you. I’m not responsible for you, and I resist anyone else’s efforts to be responsible for me. Autonomy. Accountability. Compassion. They matter.

As I end this, I’ll take a moment to recognize the assumption of responsibility Chris assumed in undertaking the task of writing someone else’s story. It’s very clear in the introduction how he processed the information and fashioned a story which is the work of a writer. There was a time I made my own living with writing, and it may happen again, so I’m cognizant of the skill it takes to bring a story to fruition. He treats the subject matter with honesty and without apology—this is more than just the regurgitation of someone else’s facts. As you read it, you may be uncomfortable. You should be. You would do the author as well as the subject a grave disservice if you focus on the idea of fictionalization. Just because it is written as it is should in no way detract from the account. And if you say to yourself, “Well there’s no way all that could happen.” Recognize that is just your own discomfort talking. There’s no way it SHOULD happen, but it does, every day.

Is it a cautionary tale? Not really, although if it makes you examine your own life, that’s not a bad thing. Is it an uplifting story? Not in the details, but if we are, any of us, unable to rejoice in the ability of one person to take a hard look at their life and say “No, I deserve and will have better,” then there’s something wrong—an essential lack of character that should warrant closer introspection. One of the things that I often repeat on twitter is my firm belief that we’re all in this life together, and how we treat one another matters. I feel strongly that it starts with respect. And it starts with respecting yourself first. If you don’t respect yourself, I don’t think it’s possible to respect anyone else.

That said, go and read it. All These Quiet Places might make you angry. It might make you sad. It might make you despair for the working of the world. One thing I feel confident in saying is this: The subject of the book won’t care if you read it or not. She lived it. She doesn’t think you owe her anything, including reading her story. She’s busy living her life. She’s already moved on.

Whistling in the Dark

It begins for me with sweat. First I start to sweat, then I can’t breathe. I become aware that my chest is numb and I can no longer identify my own heartbeat. Then I press sweat-slicked fingers against my own wrist and begin to count. I can’t feel my lips now, or half of my face. There is pain coursing through my left arm. And, still, I know I’m breathing despite the fact I can’t seem to gasp, because I’m conscious. I’m thinking. And if my heart had stopped beating…if I were really unable to breathe, I would have already lost consciousness. I’m alive. I’m not dying.

I’m having a panic attack.

And it’s been a long time since I’ve had one this bad.

This isn’t something you tweet. This isn’t something you distill into 140 characters and try to define to your friends and followers. This is the grip of unknown, and sometimes very well known, fear. And even though I know what it is. Even though I know it will pass because my clinical experience and knowledge assures me that my own system cannot endure this stress indefinitely, I still sit and I wait to die.

Before that comes, however, I am treated to memories. These are the memories I live with daily, and they are different than yours but they affect me, exposing me to a kind of torment that only the mind can offer. In a flurry of images, I hear sounds, smell scents, and squint against the visualizations that my brain throws at me. I am aware, always, that these things are not real. They are sensory memories. They are not hallucinations.

As an added inducement to madness, my mind also enjoys the sadistic pleasure of supplying me with any number of images that are not memories, but projections. I imagine the phone call I will receive when my husband has been killed in a train accident. Every sound in the house becomes the precursor to some awful event befalling my children, and always the certain knowledge that something will happen and my heart will stop, leaving my teenager to find me cold and lifeless in the morning.

You don’t live tweet that.

You can’t.

Eventually, as I slowly begin to command my own breathing again, and along with the thrum of my heartbeat beneath my fingertips, I become aware of my heart beating in my chest. I wait for that moment of tandem pulse—in my core and beneath my fingers—and then I can move.

But slowly.

Because my mind is racing out of control, still. Because I feel the adrenaline and every nerve screams in terror of memories past, I am shaky on my legs. One by one, my coping mechanisms come alive. First, I acknowledge the weakness of my physical body. The numbness is related to whatever is happening to me neurologically. The contortion of my face is related to trigeminal nerve involvement. The pains shooting through my arm and legs are neuropathic in nature. My balance which is no longer that of a nimble-hoofed goat is suspect. So I will move slowly.

Next, I focus on a single task.

My grandmother used to say, to my grandfather, “Oh no, I can’t die today. I haven’t finished clearing the kitchen.”

And that’s where I go, because there’s so much to do. I can’t focus for the longest time, and I stand in the middle of the littered floor, bewildered by the space, and I don’t know what to do. But I must do something or crawl out of my own skin. So, I start with the crockpot.

I made beans today. They are now almost cool, and certainly cool enough to handle, so I find a clean container and tip them into it. I leave them on the stove to finish cooling.

Next, I move to the dish drainer. Running my fingers over the dishes I washed earlier, I’m no longer satisfied that they’re actually clean. Fearful of dropping them, I carefully put them back in the sink and add soap and hot water. Washing the dishes takes on a ritual tone. Wash, rinse, leave to dry. Wash, rinse, leave to dry…until the sink is clear again. Then I can start fresh with more hot water and soap, adding the evening’s dishes until they are submerged, soaking.

Then the counter to the left. I can manage to clean that. Sweep the crumbs, stop to breathe—wait for the spots to stop dancing before my eyes and remind myself that hyperventilation isn’t good for anyone—then wash the tiles. When it is clean, I set up another, larger towel, because the dish drainer is full and there will be overflow when I tackle what is in the sink.

But first I sit on the floor for a few minutes and remember to breathe. And wonder why I’m crying because cleaning the kitchen isn’t, frankly, a crying matter. It’s a little game I play with my own brain. We both know I’m not crying over the dishes, but we have an agreement that this is the fiction I will tell myself until I am strong enough to acknowledge more.

And I slow down even further.

Looking around, I try not to think about the fact that there are things in the room I can’t remember buying, much less remember where they go. My eye falls on a white bag with a blue top. Flour. King Arthur’s bread flour. I carefully stare at the canisters on my shelf. I find the one that reads: bread flour, then I get up, and go about the business of transferring the bread flour into the plastic container marked for holding just that. Then I do the same with the All purpose flour. And as I do it, I whisper to myself, “Bread flour for bread and rolls, AP flour for cookies and cakes, sometimes fine breads. You can do this. You know this. You remember this.”

What is next?

The bench to the right of the sink is cluttered. As I begin to clear it so I can wash the tiles, I make deliberate motions.

I move the coffee maker.

(Why are you bothering? Nothing matters.)

I sweep the crumbs.

(There will only be more tomorrow, and you won’t live to see them anyway)

I wipe the scale.

(Measurement. Time. You don’t have any. You’re finished.)

I stack the days baked goods in proper containers with contents and date.

(No one will like them. They are inedible.)

I scrub the bench.

(Scrub until your fingers bleed. You’ll never be clean enough. Never good enough.)

And then move on to the next task.

Gathering the trash.

Tomorrow is our garbage day, and even if I don’t survive the night, I am determined I won’t be discovered with a festering garbage can in the kitchen. So I gather the garbage, and the bottles, and the oddly shaped box that won’t be any good for mailing, and carry them to the stairs.

The stairs.

I am afraid of the stairs now, and even more so because my right leg is already shaking and numb. I weigh my need for a clean, ordered space to prove to myself that I’m not worthless against the solemn promise I made my husband that I would do everything in my power to prevent a fall. I hear my own voice in my head admonishing my mother and eliciting the same promise. My mother is 74. I will be 44 in a little over a month. It seems like arrogance now, to have demanded that of her.

Still, I am faced with the stairs. The children are in bed, so I cannot enlist help and in the end, it is the thought of the children that pushes me to take one step at a time, carefully placing my left foot, then my right on each tread and not moving again until my balance proves secure. Step, step, drag trash. Step, step, drag trash. And when I reach the bottom safely, I put the bags down and look first to see that both kids are breathing, and well. They are. Sleeping safely. It’s enough for me to then carry the garbage outside, check on Remy-the-outside-cat, then make my way back upstairs.

Still, I can only do one thing and that thing slowly. I move a box. I put a container in the fridge. I wipe a cabinet. Each motion, I tell myself, is one move closer to clean. And I’ll know I’m finished when I’m finished. So, I turn my attention to the dishes in the sink and carefully wash round II, leaving them to dry on the second towel.

Finally, I clean the stove then sweep the floor.

And with those tasks completed, there’s nothing left between me and my own racing thoughts.

I remind myself that these are thoughts. They are transient. They can be replaced with better ones. So, I focus on that. It’s another coping mechanism.

I remember the children in summer, playing in the swimming pool. We all enjoy that. I make a note to take them swimming at the weekend. I remember the cats and make sure the litter boxes are clean and that fresh water is down for the night. And when I feel the crush of impending memories from the really bad days, I fight it with the memory of my wedding day.

My anniversary is almost here. In a little more than a month, I will have been married to Martin for a year. This has been our first year, and I have many happy memories from this time, the first and one of the best being the day I married him.

I remember what it felt like to be happy and well. I can remember what it felt like to have sharp faculties, to feel as though I’d never forget even the tiniest detail of those days that were so perfect. I concentrate and bring up the sights and smells of Gibraltar, the tang of the sea and the scent of good coffee. I remember the tactile sensation of my husband’s skin beneath my fingers and remind myself that those things are real…those things are true.

And though I will spend much of the night feeling my own pulse, and forcibly making my own chest rise and fall, my clinical knowledge reminds me that I’m not dying…I only feel like I am. Sensations, though experienced, are not always truth.

I will, eventually, sleep.

I will wake up tomorrow.

And between now and then, as my father would say, the rest is just whistling in the dark. Keeping the shadows at bay, and the pushing back the crippling, encroaching thoughts. I’ll still be here tomorrow.

I Dream of Julia

I have a glass of wine.
I have ginger snaps.
I’m listening to my husband sleep over the phone.

And I’m watching Julia Child’s original programs on Amazon via my Xbox. Regular readers of my blog will know that I’ve been away for a while. I was writing poetry which I actually finished but the results were too painful for me to post. And I have a file of posts concerning immigration but I have not sufficiently dampened my own ire in order to make them readable. And because, almost a year after we married, I am still living in a separate country from my husband, I have been looking for ways to occupy my time.

I have great friends on twitter and I have lovely friends here in person as well as family business to keep me busy. My recent diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis and the subsequent testing to narrow that diagnosis has kept me out of work and I’ve had time to devote to what I really love—my family and my interests. Chief amongst those interests are sewing and cooking.

Most of my friends know that I’ve always regretted going to regular university and not pursuing a career in cooking. My happiest days have been spent working in restaurants, whether front or back of house. But, I had other dreams, too. Other aspirations, and though my life can seem disjointed, I have no regrets. I’ve seen some amazing things.

Still, I keep circling back to the kitchen.

I feel at home there. I’m happy there. I like to taste the things I make, though I don’t make them so I can eat incessantly. What I really like is cooking for other people. I like the science behind food. I like experimenting and learning. I like the study.

And as corny as it may seem, I like Julia Child.

In watching these older programs, what strikes me is how laid back she seems. How much she really seems to love what she’s doing, and what a brilliant sense of humor she must have had. I enjoy Gordon Ramsay, to an extent, but I’m not sure I’d want to be sitting next to him at a dinner party. Julia Child, however, I’d kidnap for the weekend.

These early productions are not quaint…they’re fantastic! She makes the kitchen seem a normal place to me. She tosses out grand French phrases and then in the next breath excuses herself to go get her glasses. She shows you pictures of a dinner party she hosts at home and recommends that you have “a diversion ready” when you’re plating up a dessert that’s absolutely going to crack before you’re finished plating it.

Most of all, what I love, is that she seems to be encouraging everyone to get into the kitchen—to not be afraid of the process, and to try new things. I get so tired of new fusion foods. I get tired of celebrity chefs struggling to outdo each other by reinventing the wheel. I like to make beautiful, delicious food that is not only good enough to serve at a restaurant but is good enough to serve to my family.

Because, you see, I save my best for them.

When my husband and I have rare times together, we seem to have little free time. He always offers to take me out, or to get what would make me happy, but what makes me happy is to be at home, with him. And when I cook for him, and my children, I want them to think “this is so much better than anything any chef could make in any restaurant.” Not because I have the best technique, materials and ingredients, but because of the love and laughter that accompanies it.

I wonder, had I been alive and watching her program in the sixties, if my life might have taken a turn. I wonder if her easy manner would have encouraged me to believe in myself enough to admit what I really want to do. I’m 43 years old. It’s too late for me to steep slowly in the food industry and become a chef.

But, when I’m cooking, there are things I make that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to serve to any chef. And when I see the smiles on the faces of my family, I don’t care if I never work in another professional kitchen again. It’s more than enough.

So, thanks Julia, for everything you did. Thanks for the continued inspiration.

Also, she used the largest chef’s knife I’ve ever seen. She was badass!

Day #6

A Woman’s Worth

 

Legs bound,

unable to kick.

Starved for a week, to minimize defecation.

Sips of water only.

Urine dripping over lacerated, poorly stitched flesh.

 

Who was the first to think

women should be treated this way?

 

And why, now, does the dust swirl around

the naked ankles of a woman, who holds the knife?

Day #5

Where are you going? Where have you been?

 

 

The streets of Amble are narrow,

turning back onto themselves in a maze of houses and pavement.

Walking, arm in arm, with my father-in-law

I was struck by the easy cadence of his voice,

a gentle swell of words, much like the sea that edged most of our walk.

 

My husband is, sometimes, gently aware that his father repeats certain stories.

But, I adore them.

The music he loves, the things he has seen.

There is a sweetness in my father-in-law that is reflected in the kindness of his son.

 

On the main street, the high street,

we passed a small market, and a grocery, butcher and yarn shop,

and I in suede boots made more for show than for walking,

leaned into the sturdy strength of a man I’d never met before,

but would have loved for the son alone.

 

I was struck, too, by the real concern of my mother-in-law–

nervous that we’d been gone so long,

my presence a kink in the smooth routine of their days,

but not at all unwelcome.

 

When I say I could listen to my father-in-law tell the same story

from now until the end, it’s not exaggeration.

 

Although they never met, my own father would have found

enjoyment, a kindred spirit, in the form of such a man.

And for me, the words, in an accent still new to me,

reflect language I know—a tether to my past,

a hint of my future.

 

Would that they had met, for each to know that those

happy children, remembered as toddlers playing at their feet,

would come together,

like trees growing side by side.

 

And the branches, intertwined, striving for the sun.

Day #4

Benefits

 

Dry earth on a hot summer day.

The scent of Paella.

The flash of fireworks.

Hot fingers on night-chilled skin

 

Erotic to you.

Terror for me.

 

Maybe what you think you know is wrong.

 

Spring

Spring

 

The moss on the rocks has come up in brilliant hue.

The creek chirps and dances to its own merry tune.

 

The thick, Virginia humidity glosses the clover

and the air condenses with the honey of it.

 

And on the concrete wall, the husk of a beetle,

empty,

still grasping the cracks with a mandible.