I spent all last weekend with an incredible group of women who were taking the Basics course from Impact Bay Area. It was my first time assisting an adult class. There were several women in the class who had survived rape, and I was stunned by their courage to confront their fears so directly.
The work for me and the other assistant was to keep paying attention, keep paying attention, for twenty-five hours over the course of three days. Sixteen women, four instructors, and us. I feel like their faces and stories are burned into my brain, stories I can't repeat here because of confidentiality agreements but which I can never forget.
As always, there was diversity in the class. The youngest woman was a teenager, the oldest was in her sixties. Some women were in excellent physical condition, others were working with injuries, weight issues, and health problems. Some were self-described "bad-ass" types who had had a lot of dating and street experiences with men and took responsibility for their own weak boundaries which had sometimes led them into bad situations. Others had led relatively sheltered lives, married at a young age, not much experience of the outside world--and they were shocked at the language the muggers used, and the situations the other women described.
It's amazing how much work it is just to pay attention.
The whistle instructor's work is more physical. She's on the mat the whole time, demonstrating, coaching, whistling, teaching, correcting, leading. We assistants anchor the line, one on each end. We notice who has jammed her finger or torqued her knee and we run to the freezer for ice packs.
We notice who is crying and we get tissues and sometimes follow the student out of the room and comfort them. We get cups of water for people. We make the name tags, help people tape up their weak ankles, cheer them on when they are fighting. We turn the video camera on and off (that was my most challenging thing. I can handle heavy emotions any day, just don't give me a job where you have to push buttons.) We empty the trash and clean up the space.
It was a kind of review for me, to watch the class without having to be in it. I got to learn or relearn some of the things that I missed the first time because I was so focussed on trying to get my kicks and strikes right. I paid special attention during the boundary setting part. Like many women, I don't have strong boundaries (this is where the Oscar/Felix analogy falls apart in my relationship with C as well. Oscar doesn't give a shit what Felix thinks or feels. I do care how my behavior affects other people, and I feel terrible when my insensitivity hurts someone.)
I can act like I have good boundaries, and at those times I channel my mother and the way she used to talk to vacuum cleaner salesman. "And don't call me honey!" I remember her saying, as she hung up the phone. I can access her voice within me, clarion, confident, and it comes in handy when I'm trying to keep a rowdy class in order, or ward off a hustler who approaches me on the street. But I don't think it's really me. It's hard to set my boundaries from my own core, and hardest of all to do it from a place of self-love.
In many ways I think what C and I have been doing in our relationship lately has been a dance of the boundaries. Sometimes he sets his boundaries with me. Sometimes I set mine with him. Sometimes we transgress each other's boundaries and then there are hurt feelings. Maybe we are also testing each other's boundaries. "You say it's here, but can you move it at all? is there any wiggle room?" I don't know if there is a way to do this phase of a relationship without stepping on some toes sometimes. Because it involves both of us changing, perhaps opening up a boundary we had previously thought was inviolate, perhaps refining our definition of what our boundaries mean to us.
The fear, of course, is that if we really say what our boundaries are, the other person will abandon us. But we've both already done the thing where we don't say anything, and then resentment builds like poison, and the relationship implodes under the weight of unspoken violations. So neither of us want to do that anymore.
I remember when we were first dating, how impressed I was with C's courage. I could tell he was not a forward person at all, and yet he took the risks to reach out to me, to tell me the truth, to make himself vulnerable. So many times in my dating experience, the men who never pushed my boundaries were the ones who weren't that into me in the first place. There's this delicate balancing place when you're with someone who actually loves you, wants you, and you're asking them to also respect you, to put that third leg into place. And then you have to do that for them. respect them after you have become each other's family, the place where, historically, the most disrespect happens.
Hopefully, if we do this thing right, we'll be letting the other person in on deeper and deeper levels. But every step of the way feels fraught sometimes.
Since my boundaries were trampled when I was a child and his too, when the other person starts leaning over the line and testing the boundary, it hurts, it's scary, it feels like the childhood violation might happen again.
During the sweet times in between the testing moments, we have comfort and pleasure, cuddled up with good food and a good movie. Each evening after class I came home to to C, who made me salad and a glass of wine. We sat together and watched The Wire, a nice relaxing show about drug wars in Baltimore.
Still, on Monday morning I woke up feeling like I'd been run over by a truck. I was so exhausted and my shoulders were hunched up around my ears and hard as rocks. I have been having deep, distrubing, colorful dreams with about 17 story lines going on at once, involving death, resurrection, police, murder, and a thousand other things.
We are counting down the days to C's Christmas break. Meanwhile, I am trying to find a way to write about woemn's self defense in an essay (I've already rewritten it multiple times but it's still not right. Doesn't convey the full power of the experience.)
And I'm revising the first act of the new play.