One of the greatest gifts to give yourself
"For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind." ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Have you or anyone in your family ever been assaulted?" That was the first question the defense lawyer asked potential jurors selected from the jury pool. And me, I was sitting in the front row of the jury box.
When my turn came, I answered, "Yes. My father was assaulted by my cousin." The coldness in my voice when I said those words surprised me. Moments before the jury selection process began, I had been smiling and chatting lightheartedly with the woman sitting next to me.
"How old were you?" the lawyer asked.
"About seven years old," I replied in that same steely voice difficult to recognize as my own.
"What happened next?"
"The police came and hauled him off to jail."
Boom. The lawyer dismissed me as a suitable juror. Disappointed, I returned to the jury pool to await selection for another trial. Uncalled, the rest of my jury duty was served quietly reading "War and Peace", wondering what had caused my voice to turn so hard and cold.
This incident in the jury box happened in my late 20s while living in New York City. Here, I thought I had dealt with the emotions from that traumatic childhood experience. Clearly there was something still unresolved within me. Despite that realization, I pushed it aside because I was busy with work and life.
“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” ― Laurell K. Hamilton
Fast forward to 2003. I was 34, married, living in Rotterdam, and making my second mosaic artwork, titled "Yggdrasil". In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is a mythical tree that connects the nine worlds in Norse cosmology. I refer to it as "the tree of living and dying".
"Yggdrasil" came about as a way of working through a nightmare I'd had three years earlier in which I saw my father die. Yes, it was only a dream, but it was deeply distressing. The dream haunted me.
As macabre as it sounds, the artwork was designed as a gravestone. For my father. Here's the strange part: after I finished the piece, I got a phone call informing me that the cousin who had assaulted my dad had died. That's right, he died soon after I finished making a gravestone.
Hearing the sad story of how my cousin died is when I realized I'd never forgiven him. I'd been carrying around anger for decades without being conscious of it.
Forgiveness: to stop feeling anger toward someone who has done something wrong.
While I didn't witness the assault, I still remember bits and pieces of that night like vignettes of a movie. I especially remember the distress in my mom's voice. It's the only time I ever heard her use that tone. It's a sound one never forgets.
I remember there was a lot of chaos that night. A lot of powerful emotion, too. Strong anger and fear. My dad was my idol when I was young, and seeing him hurt and needing to be rushed to the ER by my mom was hugely distressing to me. I had wanted to go with them, but my dad's sister blocked the front door with her body. She stood with her arms crossed over her chest and feet spread wide apart. I tried to get past her but couldn't. "And just WHERE do you think YOU'RE going?!" she bellowed at me. When I told her my brother and I were going with our parents to the hospital and that they were waiting for us in the car, she stepped outside onto the porch and waved my parents to drive to the hospital without us.
My parents drove off. And left us behind at my grandmother's house where the assault had happened.
To the 7 year old me, that was terrifying. Not only did I feel abandoned, I felt threatened. My dad's sister became, in my eyes, the Wicked Witch of the West and the witch in Hansel and Gretel rolled into one.
I ran to the guest bedroom with my brother in tow and barricaded the door with a dresser. I spent the rest of the night huddled on the floor in a corner, crying as I held my brother to comfort him. We woke up hours later when the door banged on the dresser when someone tried to enter the room. It was my dad. Once we'd let him and my mom into the room, dad wanted to know why we'd barricaded the door. So I told him. Everything.
We cut our stay short and left the next morning for the 16-hour drive home, never returning to my grandmother's home again as an entire family. Nothing was ever discussed. It was upsetting to us all, but one thing my parents didn't know was how to avoid a scary situation turning into a trauma for their kids.
HelpGuide.org defines emotional and psychological trauma as "the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.”
"When childhood trauma is not resolved, a sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for further trauma."
(Read more about how to resolve trauma here.)
"Yes, we are indeed formed by traumas that happen to us. But then you must take charge, you must take over, you are responsible.” ― Camille Paglia
In my mid-30s I realized part of me was still stuck in the emotional world of that traumatized 7 year old girl who felt abandoned by her parents and needed to feel cared for and safe. It was time for me to give that side what it needed and to face the trauma so that the 7 year old inside of me could finally grow up.
One of the first things I realized is that no one can hurt me now. I know how to defend and protect myself. I am safe.
Next, I looked at the situation from another viewpoint. From my cousin's. I see now that he had lived through hell and had done the best he could with the cards he'd been dealt.
The last time I remember seeing him was when I was 16 years old and staying at a friend's home nearby my grandmother. He was about 30 years old by this time and still living in my grandmother's home. He was so proud to show me that he’d just re-tiled the bathroom. Me, I was still quietly fuming, so I was unimpressed with his achievement. I recall sarcastically thinking, "How hard can it be to tile a wall?"
After showing me his handiwork, he gave me his favorite childhood book, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon". I know it was his favorite because he made a point of telling me that. Reluctantly I accepted his gift, without thanking him. Despite my anger, I knew he was giving me more than just a book. It was a peace offering. He was trying to make things right between us, but I wasn't yet ready to forgive him.
Making "Yggdrasil" years later finally allowed me to forgive him.
If forgiveness is defined as "to stop feeling anger toward someone who has done something wrong", then forgiveness is the greatest gift to give oneself. Because carrying around anger doesn't feel good. And hey, my number one priority is to feel at peace within myself.
Knowing what I know now, I believe the nightmare of my father dying was actually my subconscious mind helping me remember the trauma in order to deal with the unresolved emotions. The mind has a way of burying trauma until a later time when the person is ready to process it, so the trick is to realize what's happening and to do "the work" when it comes up.
"Yggdrasil" was made at the beginning of my six years working in mosaic. Mosaic as a medium is cathartic because it's so slow. It allows you to consider possibilities and options about how one piece fits into the whole before making a choice. Mosaic is the medium that helped me learn to trust myself and my intuition again. Once I trusted myself, I switched to the freedom of working quickly and spontaneously painting cement frescos.
"Yggdrasil" was designed as two halves of a whole whereby each side has a tree with a butterfly on a branch, symbolizing transformation. The branches are iridescent. The tree trunks are formed by flowers and white doves flying upward, representing peace and harmony. Life and death are divided by an undulating yin-yang line, and a rainbow wraps around each tree like an aura to bind them together as a whole. The border of black and white undulating lines represents the interwoven chain of life and death, set against a red background symbolizing the blood of family. The entire artwork is about wholeness and to see and acknowledge both sides: the good and bad.
While I consciously designed the mosaic with much symbolism, when making it back in 2003 my cousin was not at all on my mind. That said, I don't believe in coincidence and find it curious that my cousin died when "Yggdrasil" was finished, after having lain in a coma for some time.
I had had a strange feeling that he was watching me make the piece, as if he had stopped by personally to tell me of his passing. Perhaps he was also laughing, because at that point I hadn't yet learned how to cut glass and had struggled with those tiny red pieces of tile representing the blood bonds of family. They answered my question, "How hard can it be…?"
While I don't know the full story of what happened or why, that night forever changed me. That said, I know I've come to terms with it because I'm finally able to write about the experience.
Having stopped holding anger towards my cousin has given me peace. With that peace came a lightness of being.
As I know now, the final step in resolving a trauma is to grieve for what you lost. Grieving helps you to let go of the pain and anger. (Read more here.) In my case, making a gravestone was my way of grieving. It allowed me to finally lay that trauma to rest and to open up more to life.