Never Quite at Home, Never Quite Safe

What lies beneath? Jen, what an invitation and what a challenge this question is. And how serendipitous right at this moment for me to have to reflect on it.

What lies beneath? Last year for the first time I talked in depth with my mother about her life as a teenager in the Netherlands during World War II. While she herself would never use this word to describe the lasting impact of the War years, it was clear that her experiences had been traumatizing for her. Her story is not mine to tell, but the impact of her trauma on me as one of her children is my story. I was raised to never completely trust my surroundings and  to not identify with a single country or culture because as a foreigner any relationship is tenuous. The chorus of a song I once wrote includes the lines: “Like Moses in the wilderness / You led your tribe but were dismissed / From stepping into promised land / You never made it in the end / Sky scrapers tumbling down on you / You run through ruins without shoes / What can hold you, what can save / You’ll take that question to your grave.…”  It is easy for me to identify with nomadic Biblical Characters like Abraham and Sarah, or Mirjam and Moses who never seemed to have a place where they truly could belong.

While for the most part this all this lies dormant beneath, it does sometimes come up. For example, a few years ago when I watched demonstrations of the far right in Germany against “Ausländer” and “Asylbewerber” on a German news show,  it triggered the experience of feeling unsafe even though I was in the United States at the time. Last week I had a similar experience. The systematic and casual brutality of the events during the week evoked a fight/flight response in me. It felt perplexing: I myself felt unsafe and at the same time I could not even begin to imagine the magnitude of danger with which people who are not light skinned like myself have to live with.

On Saturday I watched somatic trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem describe how trauma is passed on from generation to generation. In his focus on racialized trauma he emphasizes how necessary it is to not simply engage trauma on a cognitive level, but to trace how it works its way into our sinews and bones. Menakem talks about how for any healing to happen we need to slow down, feel the the pain and discomfort in our own bodies rather than staying on the surface by only talking. When I challenged myself to slow down I found myself close to tears: Not only did my visceral sense of being in danger emerge,  I also felt discomfort at recognizing that although I myself feel unsafe, I still am privileged and my privilege is endangering others.

In the midst of the immense sadness of the weekend I started mixing up my English and German. I know that when the traumatic family pattern is activated the balance between the three different cultural pieces that live within me just beneath the surface can become unbalanced: I might be writing in English and begin using German grammatical structures (those with the long sentences and a verb at the very end) or during a conversation have the Dutch or German, but not the English word come to mind for something I want to express. While this was not helpful on Saturday afternoon when I was preparing for Sunday worship, the loss of feeling at home in language is helping me to continue to slow down and pay attention to how my experience is inscribed in my body. It also slows me down to listen to the voices of Black people rather than having a running internal commentary that provides the overlay of  my experience. Being “speechless” drives me to look for language and imagery that can reach beneath the surface. Franz Kafka once wrote: “Ein Buch muss eine Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns“ (The word should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us). At the moment I am living with the imagery of the prophet Ezechiel at the beginning of chapter 37: He is placed in the middle of a field with skeletons and bones. And while the chapter continues with God promising Ezechiel that “these bones shall live” I find myself needing to pause and stand amongst the bones. And as I continue meditating on this image I wonder what will surface.

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