A Supposedly Straight Woman’s Process for Grieving after Orlando

My name is Jessica. I recently graduate with my doctoral degree so, in some spaces it is also likely that I am referred to as Doctor Williams. I am 5’9″ with an undercut and kinky, curly natural Black hair atop my head. I weigh somewhere between 250-350 lbs at any given time depending on what is going on in my life but I always identify as fat. Today my shirt is a “Large” and my skirt is a size 18. My preferred gender pronouns are she/her and I consider myself heterosexual, though my affect and affinity for the Queer community has made me curious about how much of my sexual identity as heterosexual is socially constructed. I am a feminist who believes that people have the right to define themselves for themselves. I identify as Christian, though feel my union with God to be unable to be contained within one religion. I see religion as sociocultural and not necessarily indicative of one’s faith beliefs. I grew up in a middle class, though some argue upper middle class home in Atlanta, Georgia a majority minority city and later Douglasville, GA a middle class suburb of the city. I have minimal physical ability barriers, but am currently managing PTSD and an anxiety disorder stemming from sexual assault. I would describe myself as a beautiful mess.

Fresh off the high of learning my dissertation had been published the mass shooting at PULSE nightclub in Orlando, FL happened. It knocked the wind out of me. First because my younger cousin who identifies as lesbian had snap videos in the club in Orlando the night of the shooting. I reached out to her immediately after finding out about the tragic incident yet once I learned of her physical safety, the sense of comfort did not come. Days later I would find myself in a lesbian bar celebrating a friend’s birthday. A place I’d frequented for various reasons over the past few years in San Diego now had a coldness to it that had nothing to do with the temperature. The mood of the space–set by the additional security  and rainbow flags at half mast–had shifted.

“I’m sorry I haven’t said anything about Orlando to you,” I found myself texting to a dear friend of mine who both identifies as Queer and manages an LGBT resource center at a university, “I honestly did not have the words.” My research conducted on fat women and identity highlighted the kinship between the Fat and Queer communities. In my dissertation I wrote:

Borrowing on the popular “We’re here, we’re queer!” mantra of the gay rights
movement, Fat activist Katie LeBesco (2004) recalls chants of ‘We’re here, we’re
sphere!’ from the fat community. LeBesco details Pam Hinden’s “fat coming out story” noting that “coming out” as fat was akin to “coming out” as queer in that it meant that one was going to intentionally and unapologetically forego traditional social norms; “coming out meant mustering outrage to engage in activities usually thought proper only for thin people (Lebesco, 2004, pg. 95)…”Queer language such as
“outing” or being “in the closet” further illustrated the bond between these two
marginalized communities. Says Margaret Wann (1999) on her last day “in the closet”, “living in the closet [was] not working…[I] decided to come out as a fat person and tried to do it really publicly and really loudly because [I] wasn’t going to put up with exclusion” (pg.95). In this instance “coming out” was strategic to indicate one’s acceptance of self be it our sexuality or our bodies. While it may seem paradoxical as a person is conspicuously fat where queer may be harder to visually assume, the idea of “coming out” refers to an individual proclaiming an internal truth to an external audience. Being “here and queer” or “here and sphere” was less about queer or sphere but in fact, it was about “here” and the acknowledgement of one’s self which in turn calls for acknowledgement by others.

marsha-p-johnson1If it were not for the research I had quite literally just completed, I am not sure I would have felt like this tragedy was mine to own and ache for, like this was a hurt that I had the right to publicly express. However, my connection to this community, my community was undeniable. I look at a leader like Marsha P. Johnson who just went out to dance and ended up making history at the Stonewall Inn. PULSE nightclub could have been any night club in any city at any time and that is what chills me to my core. As a woman, going out requires careful calculation. My heels must be high enough to make my legs look good but not too high that I could not run at the end of the night. My dress should be short enough to move in but long enough to make it clear that I am not public property or for public consumption. The flowers in my hair invite conversation, even adoration but not objectification. The love made between me and the music is our own and sometimes it is a threesome with a man of my desire, but sometimes it is not.  Nearly every woman, and every single fat woman I know frequents “gay bars” because it is a space where we, too, feel free.  The space was not created for us, the space is not ours, but yet we are welcomed and accepted in this space.

For someone to violate such a sacred space…it’s the chill. It’s the kind of cold you feel after trauma that requires swaddling and circles rubbed across the entirety of your back. It is the hurt that you cannot put words to and you cannot describe to anyone who has not also felt this sort of violation. I shared with a Lesbian friend of mine that it felt like rape all over again in some ways. The feelings of confusion, helplessness, loss of safety, loss of comfort, need for closeness with your community and also a fear and hesitancy to put yourself out there again for fear of repeat violation. You try to make sense of the hurt, try to understand why and not one single explanation makes sense.  All you know is that it happened and now having lived through it, you are different and everything you knew before you know now in a different way. You become more attuned to shadows. You grow more suspicious, more cautious, more timid, more “safe” and you try your best not to close off from the whole world. Only that does not help either. It only leaves you alone with your pain to fester and rot. God damn this curse of survival, I do not want the memories, I do not want the pain, I do not want the scars, the tears, the flashbacks, the loss, the confusion, the sadness, the worry.

Then you remember something. For me it was Marsha and it was Audre my two heroines who, in my mind, could just as easily beat a face, speak in couplets, as they could fuck up systematic oppression. I remember them and I said to myself, No one is going to ask you if you’re gay in a nightclub if they are coming to shoot. You cannot escape the pains of the queer community through semantics and uncertainties, this is your fight because otherwise you are turning your back on an entire population that has opened their arms to you, loved you when you did not know how to love yourself, shown you the importance of self acceptance and self expression, given you the freedom to express your impulses and explore your inklings and held you in a way that only someone who has been there can hold you. I not only gave myself permission to fully grieve Orlando, but I made myself accountable to action to respond to the needs of those affected by Orlando–not just now, but always.

This year, San Diego Pride will mean something much different to me. Being in attendance will not be just dancing and drinking in lavish and colorful outfits. It will not be just a celebration of love and acceptance, I imagine it will also be very emotional. Cathartic. It will terrify me to be in a crowd knowing that at any moment someone could inflict pain on myself or others around me for reasons that will never make sense. However, there really is not an option to not go, to not participate and to slip quietly into the “safety” of supposedly “straight” clubs. The first pride was a riot; says Michael Fader,

Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back [after the Stonewall riots]. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us…. All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.

And we won’t.

Holy Grail

You’d been on my mind. Moments after our conversation ended, I bit the inside of my cheek. Stay here. I urged myself, knowing that I have the tendency to float away on clouds of what-ifs. Fabi said to me, “I have something for you.” I opened the card, a Ketubah tree. It was beautiful with twisted bark bursting with colorful blossoms. It reminded me very much of her, and it reminded me very much of bashert. I opened the card and it read:

My dearest Jessica, 
Moldavite, much like yourself, descended from the heavens. Found as a meteorite crashed against the earth it is found only in Bohemia. It is supposed to stimulate the heart chakra and the mind’s eye.
I closed the card and looked up at her. Thanked her profusely and told her I’d been running from this. She laughed because she knew and then she waited while I put on the green moldavite earrings that accompanied my sweet card. I fingered the stone as I sat cross legged in the sunshine, I forgot to bite my cheek so I was floating. Googling later I would find the following information about Moldavite:  Moldavite is a tektite, and a stone of intense frequency and high vibration. In ancient times it was thought to be a mystical stone that could bring good luck and fulfillment of wishes. These natural green crystals are powerful stones for transformation, as it is thought to be the stone known as “The Holy Grail Stone.” It is one of the best stones to use for psychic protection, as negative entities find it difficult to connect to your aura when you are wearing it. Wearing this stone is an advantage when you are working with spirit, so you can be sure that what you are making contact with is of ‘the light’. Using this stone in meditation is very powerful. One of its best assets is that it is a protective stone, and especially if you are working on developing psychic abilities. Change and spiritual healing are the common elements that this powerful natural crystal stimulates amongst most people, and this may take different forms. This beautiful green stone can affect any or all of the chakras but it major effect is on the heart chakra, which resonates the vibration of love.
I found it peculiar that (it should be noted that twenty minutes has gone by…I’ve sat here contemplating all possible outcomes of me saying the thing I’ve been trying not to say, trying not to feel for some time now.) I found it peculiar that your discomfort lead to my own. That your pain solicited the need to care and the desire to heal in me. It was not out of obligation; it was not something I did because I felt I should it was something I did because I wanted to. Because when you are at east, I feel more at ease.
I keep telling myself to stop saying I’m bad a relationships, at monogamy, at commitment, at trust. Not because it wasn’t true, but because it was not the only truth available and it was not the only story that could be told of me. Here is how I know what is truth from what is a story…my legs? They are always in motion. I get it from my mom; restless legs. Sometimes I ask my body what it would prefer to be doing in the moments my legs shake. The answer is never the same, but still my body stays in motion. The rhythmic dance is soothing to me. I have grown accustomed to it. Others have noticed it and commented on it asking me if I’m cold. However I noticed that I’m still with you. I thought perhaps it was a recent development. Now that I had been somewhat honest with you about how I felt about you, and us. But as I thought back I realized I reached for you for comfort more times than I cared to admit. Sometimes guised in other things,  but always for the same end game: the quiet still moment that would inevitably come, after.
It would be too simple to say I like you because of the version of me that emerges with you, though that is certainly part of it. I like you because you like quiet. Because you act with intention. Because you are ambitious but not selfish. I remember you called me sexy once, and I wasn’t doing anything particularly sexy. I breathed that moment in deeply and found myself intoxicated by the idea that me as I am could be sexy so effortlessly.
I remember a time when I would crave compliments, attention, acknowledgement from men I desired. I did the things I thought they wanted me to do, I dressed to bring that character to life, I spoke in her voice and I lived her life until I could no longer keep up the charade. Ending the relationships with the act. And yet here we were, you asking for me, and me actually showing up. I don’t know “what” we are, but I know this is the most honest pairing I’ve ever been apart of.
I also know that I love you. For right now, just my knowing that is causing a huge stir. I don’t want to make sense of it, I don’t want to pinpoint how or why, I just want to lay back like I did that night in the Caribbean sea  wrapped in the warmth of the feeling, the peace, the slow motion of it all. As much as this is about you, us, here in this space, its about me. Allowing myself to be here and feel this is monumental. Not running from it, not hiding from it, not convincing myself that it is fruitless or a fast track to failure. Not needing the words said back to me to validate or affirm my own feelings…that’s major. I don’t know how you feel. I have guesses, but I wasn’t looking for reciprocity or permission. I simply wanted to be present, tell the truth, and let go of the consequences of telling the truth.
I’m open and I’m writing about you, I warned you. Surely you knew it was coming. However I think I’ve respected your privacy even while exploring my own feelings quite intimately. Because slowly you’ve begun to matter in a way you never did before. I’m not the type to run away with myself writing your last name as my own day dreaming about engagements and future plans. I’m the type of girl that dreams of lazy days of reading and sporadic discussions, kisses to the bend of my wrist while I drive, hugs that last too long and vacations that we take last minute and forget to bring a camera.
Is it too soon? Maybe. I don’t know the rules and was never one to follow them anyway. What I do know is that I wanted to say it in a way that felt natural to me. Putting it in context. Taking it not just as an emotion between you and I but also as a sign that this work, my heart work, is in progress. It’s evidenced by my feelings and by small signs such as the earrings and the card. It’s about me facing my fears and being open despite any reaction you may have. It’s about wanting to give you an out and say “don’t feel pressure to say it back or think I’m asking for something…” and instead letting the words just be, the feeling just be, the moment just BE. An open heart in a present moment, that’s the holy grail.

Closets

…and you’ll go write about it in your journal I felt the words pierce my skin and chill me. When I woke up the exchange still lingered and a pervasive cold clouded my sunshine all day until I stared the storm in the eye.  When I realized it wasn’t those words, specifically, that hurt so much I was both relieved and terrified. If it wasn’t that, what would be my reason? 

I like to sit in corners. If there is a sectional couch, inevitably my spot will always be in the meeting of the two pieces. Curled into myself, preferably shielded from the world by a soft blanket. I liked to know my back was against the wall, something stable, and I could see all there was to see. Always deeply curious. Always tremendously proud to achieve any goal. I would have to be the best. So good that I would not even compete with others, I was in a league all my own and I was a marvel. I told myself. I reminded myself when his actions would tell me otherwise. 

Why 

Wasn’t

I

Good

Enough

I would ask the question of every man I’ve ever loved. Beginning and ending with him. To date I have never received an answer. I do not anticipate one. So I tell myself how fly I am. How beautiful. How intelligent. How loving kind and generous. I buy myself white peonies and I take myself to dinner. I cry into my Cabernet because I wish like hell you were here with me. More than that, I cry because I so deeply believe that if you’d wanted to be, you would have. And now I wonder if another will fill the pages of empty journals stacked on my bedside table. There is not another option. I am whole and will not exist believing otherwise. 

Done. Did.

I was reflecting on the past five years of my life. The past five years that I have poured myself fully into pursuing my doctorate. The past five years where I have experienced some of the lowest lows:

  • Break-ups
  • Miscarriage
  • Debt
  • Theft
  • Friendships Ended
  • Loss of Loved Ones
  • Sexual Assault
  • More debt
  • PTSD
    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • Disordered Eating
    • Bouts with Self-Harm

The past five years where I have experienced the highest of highs:

  • Moving cross-country
  • Making a life for myself
  • Buying a car
  • Traveling Internationally
  • Teaching
    • Teaching Internationally
  • Taking part in meaningful research
  • Making wonderfully rich friendships
  • Discovering myself and my own strength

The past five years have been full. I could not see this day, then. I could not conjure the feeling of surviving the lowest lows and soaring through the highest highs. I did not see myself here because my mind just does not work that way. I did, however, know that I would make it. Even on the days where I did not know how I would make it. I knew that a way would be made, sometimes out of no way.  I knew that because this step, this process, this half decade roller-coaster was meant for me. I have unwavering faith that I am supposed to be here. And when I tried to share the credit with others, Heather–the executive assistant for my academic department and truly the most remarkable soul–reminded me that I took those steps. Yes, I absolutely had a tremendous amount of help and love and support throughout this entire process however my actions also deserve recognition.

It is not just “done” but I did it. When I allow myself to sit with that emotion I become emotionally overwhelmed. I wanted to give up so many times and all I knew was that There was something meant for me in each difficult experience. That I would be made stronger, that I would have more of a testimony, that I was not going to be a victim of my circumstances. God saw fit for me to make it, so I was never not going to make it.

I am left with the feeling that I can truly accomplish anything and also the knowing that not everything is meant for me to accomplish. I am trying now to create pockets of silence in my life. Spaces where I can hear God speak to me and guide me towards what is right and what is ordained. I remember the days where I was crying uncontrollably unable to get out of bed wondering how I was going to make it through the day yet alone design, conduct, and publish original research. I did not know how I was going to live…but I did. The answer to all my improbable “hows” are always By the Grace of God. That answer will always and forever be sufficient. In this moment, I have finished my dissertation, I can officially sign my name Jessica J. Williams, PhD. I can answer to the name “Doctor” without feeling it will jinx my process. It is done and I did it. And for today I do not want to wonder what is next or what is yet to come. I just want to sit in the moment and feel the sense of accomplishment all throughout my body. I want my toes, liver and veins to feel like a doctor. I want every cell and fiber of my being to sit in revel. And yes, I also want to allow myself to feel the warmth of pride. Be in this moment. It is sacred and it is precious and you have earned the right to be here. It is done. You did it.

Black Oceans. 

Watching the offering that was Lemonade stirred up all the earth that had settled at the bottom of my sea. Gold flecks caught the attention of the moonlight and whispered to me that maybe it was time to reveal my treasures. Your value, said Osun, is more prismatic than light. 

Ebony skin smoothed and slick like moss on rocks I closed my eyes and looked upwards at the heavens. Constellations marked my skin in freckles reminding me that I, too am an endless horizon stories unknown and expanse immeasurable. 

I spent a year trapped in my body. Believing I was flesh and bone, spoiled and diminished by the unwelcomed. The sky was the only freedom from his influence. Because I am wider than my hips, more full than my lips, taller than the Andes and softer than the inside of a rose’s petal; he no longer laid claim to me. Nothing of mine was stolen because where I exist is beyond reach. 

There are memories in my skin. Fingerprints tell my age in centuries I am older than the redwoods. Southern trees bear a strang fruit. Southern women sweat tears of generations. Our bosom vast to comfort the hurt of the nation. Who comforts us if not Yemayá? 

Tell me, are you surprised God is a woman? When her waves sing of love and forgiveness is it not a sweet soprano? But what of the great roar of storms, hurricanes and ships tossed into harbors; strength of men surely. Remember  the womb from which all sounds first echoed. Cavernous her being she sacrificed her form to carry humanity, mother you are God. 

Grip tight on my spine I lay to rest and inhale deep the perfume of flowers. Everything comes to the light. Bulbs open, moths fly and as she spreads her legs and pushes, the next generation covered in her blood is brought to life in the light. 

I learn to honor my mother. I grow to honor my Creator. I shine  to honor the women who live in skin like mine. Persimmon. Cocoa. Tar. Midnight. Dark and frightening because we cannot be contained. We cannot be solved. We cannot be silenced. 

You see me when you close your eyes. You return to me. Black. Mother. Earth. You replenish me and in my surrender to you in prayer in triumph or in rest, it is only darkness that makes me whole once again. 

Words I don’t want to say

They rolled all night one right after the other. Finally I took a sleeping pill. 

When I awoke to prepare for the workday my eyes were swollen from crying. Bloodshot and sore I told them I would be late. 

Three hours of sleeplessness and a bucket of tears later, I called out. 

The jar of rational thought became sealed tighter and tighter until I could no longer hear what reality sounded like. All I could make out was the staticky white noise of panic. 

I clawed at my skin. A habit id developed when I was trying to avoid the attacks. If I could channel the pain somewhere else, sometimes they wouldn’t come so strongly. 

Today I was just left with welts on my skin and a body sore from the havoc the attacks leave. 

Every hurt is a sore. It’s how the pain gets out and the healing gets in. I tell myself to soothe my spirit. I am still healing. 

I roll over as Annie leaves wishing me good night. A noise from upstairs startles me and I begin to cry. So I slip my hand under my shirt and dig my nails into my skin. I can breathe again. I know I shouldn’t. But right now if it takes a bit of pain to make it stop…to dull the pulse of that deep vibrato of hurt from resounding within me. I chew hard on my tongue until I can taste blood in my mouth. 

As if on cue, my eyes get heavy. Now I can rest. 

Law of J and Konservation 

I never imagined this day without you. It was true, I hadn’t. And in preparing myself to transition out of and into various stages and roles. I revisit you. 

If women could recall the sensation of pain, the world would cease to exist. We are built to forgive it. To become strangers to it almost the instant the threat passes. Our minds cling to hold our memories to the stove eye because we’ve been hurting so long we don’t understand ourselves without anguish. My reflection in the mirror permanently distorted as I meet her often with tear soaked vision. 

Why were we fighting again? 

Who is mad at whom again? 

I couldn’t recall the origins of chaos only smell the burning of scorched earth between us. 

I never imagined this day and in some ways this day was made possible by seeds you planted. Your faith in me was catching as soon I began to believe in myself–quite fiercely. 

Despite all our dead ends and splintered branches, I wanted you there. I still do. In a new way for old times sake. Because there will always be love. It’s only energy and energy can’t be destroyed. There will always be love, Krell. But never the same love twice. Attraversiamo, let’s cross over? 

The Middle of the Night

It didn’t occur to me until tonight on the sixth out of seven nights that I’ve woken up buzzing with energy that it might be God. I was used to night terrors or nightmares. They aroused my energy and made it difficult to calm down and fall back to sleep. Tonight was not that, though. Lead to an article online I found myself reading about a woman who travels the world on her 30k salary. When asked how she does it she answered “obedience”. 

What is God asking from me in this moment? 

Listening to God feels a bit like taking Felix Felicitus potion. I wonder if J.K. Rowling equated the two when she wrote of it. But you have inexplicable urges and should you decide to indulge in them, they lead you exactly where you are meant to be. 

Your job is to allow enough quiet that you can hear Gods instructions. I came to the conclusion that this was the reason for my night interruptions. I closed my eyes and asked God, What are you trying to tell me in this moment? 

It was like my question was an incantation. Immediately a flood of instruction came to me. This is what I’ve been missing insisting on my own way and coming to my own conclusions when I promised to surrender to a more omnipotent power this year. The article lead me also to Luke 16:10. A sentiment I’d been feeling ever since I accepted my job. A job whose salary is far lower than I initially wanted but that felt so right to my spirit. The scripture reads: 

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.

It was clear to me. God will not give me what I cannot handle. So it is my job to prove I can manage what I have before I am entrusted with more. This is not punitive. This is protective. This is in my best interest. This is how God teaches me, scaffolds me for the life I know is waiting for me. I do not want to disappoint God. 

And now that I’ve gotten the message, God will give me rest. 

Lessons from Panic

I have been struggling to write lately. Feeling guilty about blogging without dissertating, I’ve sequestered all words to a place in my mind where they float around bumping into each other all day. Each day I would wake up in full panic knowing I needed to write and being both physically and mentally unable to. 

I tried my old tactics. Giving myself something to look forward to–graduation and trying to imagine the feeling of completion but it didn’t help. It wasn’t until this morning I woke again in panic but also seemingly in the middle of a conversation with Zachary. 

I am afraid. No longer being a student. No longer working towards a prescribed goal. No longer the script and regiment of academia. As much as I hate it sometimes, I also love being tethered to something. It is nice to…

I could feel his listening and his words before they crossed his lips. It was safe. School, for me, is my safety net. I am good at school. I know how to succeed at school. I can write. I can network. I’m even spectacular at math and science, I am not a one trick pony. I am a very intelligent woman who has always excelled at learning. “Yes, and…” I sensed him inquiring. 

Yes and, I don’t know how to be good at what I want to do. There is no prescription. There is no handbook or framework or precedence. 

There had been strong moments of synchronicity lately. Messages from “them” or “they” sent to inform me. It boiled down to listening and trusting what I felt right now in this moment. Presence. 

I could feel Zachary warm to this line of thinking. And so now that we have acknowledge the fear, we have sat in the panic rather than tried to escape it, we can write. We can press on. 

It was the first clear moment I’d felt in a while. And with that, I was ready. 

I

She told me, “I think the kind of tired you are can’t be fixed with sleep.” It didn’t stop me from trying. I couldn’t shake the nauseating recollection of the events that transpired one year ago, nor the turmoil that would follow in the days since. No tears, no breakdowns but a tiredness that would not let up. A hunger that was insatiable. And an ache in my body so deep I didn’t know if I needed a masseuse a chiropractor or church. Probably all of them. I didn’t have any other way of explaining how I felt except I hurt. I’m exhausted and I’m in pain.

Yet, the days must go on. The work must be done. I pushed through with the basics and told myself that would be enough for now. Looming deadlines threatened any thoughts of rest or exhale. I felt sick to my stomach. I was sensitive to everything again, smells made my head ache. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to do anything. I wish I didn’t remember; rather, I wish it never happened. But it did, and now I have to wonder how long I’ll hate the month of february.