My breasts and bottom were fair game for open discussion; I learned this early in life. I was small for my age and the youngest in my class so I was teased for being a “shrimp” and called “2×4” when other girls had already started to develop but I had not. “Just give Nicole two band-aids to cover up those mosquito bites on her chest,” a male family member joked. Everyone laughed while I died inside.
As I grew, so did the jokes. If I was too thin, I was mocked for not being enough. When my curves started to fill out and I worked hard in private lessons for a year to gain the position of drum major of my large marching band, it was still my body (and not my talent) that was on display. I was then seen as too much. Comments about my large bottom in my white uniform pants made me blush, but by then I knew this was just normal behavior. Family, friends, and strangers—anyone—had the right to comment on my curves and their proportion to what others expected me to be.
Before I’d barely begun to realize the difference between boys and girls, my admittance into the dance world sent conflicting messages about my sexuality. Dress it up in sequins and put it on display with high kicks and gyrating hips. It was normal for drunken men to gawk at my teenage body dancing at the Superbowl halftime show.
Hide it under a waif-like ballerina body, the carefully placed neckline, and perfect posture. It was normal for my friends to starve themselves for a role, to be the perfect combination of desirable but just out of reach. But always the message was clear – your body is ours to look at, to scrutinize, and to judge. It’s your weapon to wield. It’s our prize to view.
The church added to the messages my mixed-up teenage self kept hidden like the A-cup bra straps I needed to keep tucked away under modest clothing. I was told not to let my brother stumble but my brothers kept coming at me anyway. Their comments were acceptable. People laughed them off. But somehow I had to keep them at bay with longer hemlines.
The night I fell asleep next to a friend on the bus and woke up with his hand under my shirt, I pretended I was still asleep. I just let it happen because I was too ashamed to call my body my own, too naïve to know to call it abuse. It was just another normal step in a culture that gave others ownership of my sexuality but asked me to be its guardian...
Shut tight, it was closed against the outside world.
It wasn’t so much to keep out that which offended
though I would have said that was the intention back then.
The reason was much more that I didn’t trust myself,
didn’t know how to stay on the straight and narrow.
I was so afraid of making the wrong choice,
of not being enough to earn the acceptance I so desperately craved.
You’d yell and say I was close-minded,
that I couldn’t see anything outside of the safe little world I’d created.
It wasn’t my mind that snapped shut in those early years of faith though;
It was my heart.
I couldn’t open it to anything that threatened to destroy what I’d found.
If I just kept my head down and my eyes straight ahead,
maybe I’d earn this love I ran towards with all my striving.
The cracks were small at first, just tiny rays of light shining through.
It was moment stopping to cross myself at the altar with tentative hands.
Could I be contemplative and contemporary at the same time?
It was a piping hot cup of green tea and silence.
Was it okay for me to be here with you, learning about meditation?
Fissures followed, all I’d built being torn down around me.
The walls tumbled down and I could finally see…
When I was young my grandma called it, “going home.” We would pile books and our pillows into the backseat and watch cities and farms go by on our nine hour drive from Georgia to the small-town in Indiana where my grandparents grew up. I visited cousins and went from house to house in this foreign world where doors were left unlocked because everyone was related or knew each other.
As my mom, sister, aunt and I embarked on the journey – my first time in eight years since my grandma’s death – I couldn’t help but feel a part of me was going home. I never lived there and didn’t have many ties left except a few aunts, uncles and cousins. But as cornfields made way to coal mines, I realized this place was a kind of home to me.
This Midwest small-town held all of the stories that shaped the life of my family. As a child I played down by the creek but was oblivious to the living history all around me. On this particular homecoming, I started to listen.
I watched my great uncle, now in his nineties, smile the same smile I saw as a ten year old child on the face of my granddad. I held back tears as I watched familiar eyes looking back on me, imagining granddad would have looked much like this now.
I listened to his stories of the 13 siblings growing up and fighting, of how my granddad went to World War II to avoid life in the mines. He told us about generations I didn’t know existed that bootlegged during prohibition as we looked through boxes of faded photos.
I also stood beside graves and learned about my great grandmother who married three times and the miscarriage I didn’t know my grandmother had in her first marriage. I heard the tales of divorce, abuse, addiction in my family tree.
I realized there was so much pain I missed looking at my family as a child, hurt and sin under the surface that I never knew.
I also realized there was healing and hope, a God who saw all of the pain and was with my family generations before me.