Revisiting Two Old Pieces

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The first summer I worked at a camp teaching blacksmithing was a blur of sexual harassment and deep discomfort. I was 17 and had never confronted  such casual lewdness in all my life. I was deeply unsettled, and bottled it up until finally during my first semester of high school taking classes at Bethel college, I began to work though the aftermath through the academic coursework of my creative writing class.

After I wrote When I Was A Man, my teacher encouraged me to submit it for publication. I was still friends with my coworkers, and sent my area director a message with the piece attached-

Hey M, we need to talk.
Which you should probably just read the attachment before you go any further, because otherwise none of this will make any sense.
My teacher wants me to submit this piece that I wrote to a professional literary magazine (Brevity), and it would be really big for me if they were to publish it. However, because of the content matter, I don’t want to risk it coming back to you or to camp, which while unlikely, would always be a possibility (it only takes one person to read it and make the connection for this to potentially cause some friction).
But more importantly we need to talk about the more fundamental issues, being the reason I wrote the piece in the first place. And I apologize, because I should have talked to you about this way back in week 1 of camp (you probably didn’t really realize anything was going on, as you weren’t really so much a part of it). But I was just so confused, and angry, and hurt, and culture shocked, and a bit of a deer caught in headlights, that I wasn’t able to work through everything I was feeling until midway through first semester of this school year, quite literally as I began writing about it and turning all the confusion and fear and anger into something that I could look at on a page, rather than just a bottled up mess that I kept inside of me, and let surface in more indirect ways.
And I realize that this is pretty much all my fault, because if I had just spoken up this all could probably have been avoided. And I also realize that nobody really meant any harm in all of this, and probably nobody really realized they were making me so uncomfortable and upset and hurt; we are just all different people who think in different ways. So I mean, I’m not blaming anybody (except for myself, really, because I know I handled this all like a completely ignorant noob). I don’t really know if there is really any point in telling you anyway, and I don’t know what I expect to come of this. I just know that when I am staffing this year, my body has to be off limits in terms of any jokes or conversations or side comments. Period. That is a line that should have been there from the get-go.
And so anyway, I apologize because whatever you were doing before you read this message, this was probably about the last and most unexpected thing you wanted to have messaged to you as you were going about it. And I also apologize because I just sent you a really long message and a lyric essay in lieu of actually talking to you about what’s going on in person, a choice of medium which I know you are probably beyond a little perplexed and not thrilled about.
If this piece is published in Brevity (the professional literary magazine that my teacher has been encouraging me to submit it to), a lot of people will read it. But I don’t think anyone involved in camp would really be a part of that literary following. And if someone who had any connection to camp were to recognize the work as coming from me and ask about it, I would deny that it has any connection to camp or anyone who has staffed there. It truly is, at it’s heart, more of a commentary on society than anything else. But I am not going to submit it to Brevity until we talk about this and unless you would feel comfortable with that.
Also, needless to say, I have approached you about this not only because we inevitably would have needed to address these issues before camp, but because I am concerned with protecting your and everyone else in area’s privacy and feelings, and I would expect that you would do the same insofar as not sharing this with other people on camp staff without talking to me about it first. While I know that I’m talking about publishing this piece, and you probably wouldn’t understand this because you are not a writer, it is still a piece that is very personal, discussing issues that are very personal.
Again I apologize, because you are probably thinking ‘What the f*ck is all this shit? Why did I hire this nutty artist/writer/female person?’ People are really complicated. Needless to say, I still think and have always thought that you, and C, and camp, and blacksmithing are the greatest.
No rush to respond. Have a really great day.

I met with M for tea to discuss these matters, and being the person I am, came armed with a letter that I had written beforehand:

  • You know how I feel about you and C and blacksmithing and camp. I like you guys, and I respect you guys. And while it is only fair to tell you that I had been seriously considering quitting or switching to a different area in camp for quite a while, there is no doubt at this point that I am coming back next summer to work in blacksmithing. But there is an obvious issue here that I need to talk to you about, being this sexual harassment that was going on practically all summer, which you personally were not actually a part of. But there are a lot of other things that tie into that whole experience, while they are more trivial in nature and not actually worthy of bringing up. But I can’t really talk about the sexual harassment without also talking about everything else, because otherwise you will not have a clear picture of what this is all about. And so basically, while I apologize, I’m just going to bitch to you for the next 15 minutes.
  •  To start out, working with you and C, and then the other staff members in our area, has been complete culture shock from the beginning. I have never really been in a community where dropping curse words all over the place is normal, and making perverted jokes about sex and women is funny, and where negativity is so standard so that “you suck” is  almost a friendly greeting. And for all the time that I have worked with you, I have never really been comfortable with all of that.
  • So where my lines have always been is completely different from where anyone else in blacksmithing’s were. And because just going through a normal, uncontentious workday seemed to necessitate that I just let so many of my lines be crossed left and right, I just let it happen. But eventually, I completely lost the ability to draw any lines at all, and it just got worse and worse from there.
  • But on top of that, I don’t think you guys realize how hard it is to be a female working at a boy’s summer camp.
  • And by that, I mean it’s just a bunch of stupid stuff that adds up.
  • I’m not sure it’s quite possible for you to grasp how intimidating it can be to be surrounded by men all the time, or how intimidating it is to work with men all the time, especially in such a manual job as blacksmithing.
  • For just a stupid example of the intimidating nature of being surrounded by hoards of men: During staff week, everyone went down to the sports field to play ultimate Frisbee. And it’s stupid, I know, but it’s intimidating to play a sport with a bunch of sportsy guys who all know and trust in each other’s athletic ability.
  • I mean, even from the beginning, when we’re picking teams for the first game. Everyone picks the people they have staffed with before, who they know. And then they start picking the more athletic-seeming male first years. Without having even played a game, they picked the girl last, even after all the really weird first years.
  • And then they’re all running around with their testosterone and their sportsyness, and you’re just like ‘I like ultimate Frisbee. I can be fairly decent at Frisbee. But I really feel like I have no place here…’ And so I gave it my best-ish shot, and I ran around and blocked people and got open for passes, but I couldn’t bring myself to get aggressive or to shout to get my teammates attention like everyone else, which I don’t know if that would have helped anyway.
  • So despite being open for so much of the time, nobody ever once passed me the Frisbee. And the stupid first years just loved coming over to me and asking me how many times the frisbee was passed to me, and explaining to me how I’m so bad at sports, and going on and on about how nobody passed me the frisbee.
  • Which, of course, I would just laugh it off and hope that nobody heard them. But even though these first years are really stupid, it really gets to you.
  • And then eventually, several games into this whole thing, someone noticed that no one had passed to me. Probably they heard the stupid first years that nobody likes anyway talking, and so they decided that they would be nice and start passing frisbees to me. But by this time I was already so flustered that it just made everything worse, and I just had even more semi-mortification to laugh off.
  • And then sometimes it seems like the whole camp is pitted against you, just by nature of you being a woman at a boy’s camp made for boys, and not for you.
  • Like when you spend the first half of staff week in another area, first because the rest of your area isn’t there. But then when they do get there, they need to leave camp to get supplies. Only, it turns out that people under 18 can’t go. Except, well, C’s like M’s brother, so he can go even though he’s not yet 18. But you’re a girl, so you can’t unless you get your parent’s explicit permission. But it turns out that even after you get your parent’s explicit permission you still can’t go, because there isn’t another girl on blacksmithing staff who can go with you. So you spend a very uncomfortable few days without a lot to do, having to field peoples questions when they ask “Why aren’t you with your area? Don’t you work in blacksmithing?” And you don’t know how to respond, because you can’t say “Well, I’m stuck here because MP is a dick.” So you smile and you look for odd jobs you can do around the other areas, like scrubbing every bit of furniture, to keep from feeling completely useless as you question whether you are really cut out for working in blacksmithing after all.
  • And males just interact differently with each other than females do, which has been difficult for me, and E, and K, and I’m sure almost every female staff member here from time to time.
  • Males are just, generally, more ruff. And less affirmative, than females are.
  • For instance, continuing with the previous story– Finally your fellow staff members come back, but you’re pretty much pushed into week one of camp with no real training other than the little blacksmithing you did at B’s shop. And you have no idea what to do, but you are just trying to be useful. So as you are sitting there cranking the blower, just trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do, you make it too hot and a piece gets burnt. And at that point you’re just sitting there, feeling so terrible. Literally, you are running through your head all the things you would rather have done than burnt this man’s project. Like die. Or have a million needles poked into your flesh at once. And your area director comes over and starts teasing you about it, but you are literally on the verge of tears. And he keeps going on and on, because I don’t know, maybe with boys they think that would help. But you feel so bad that you can’t even say sorry because you’re afraid that if you open your mouth, you will fall apart into a pathetic ball of tears.
  • So all that stuff. It’s just all the stupid little stuff, but it makes it hard to be a girl at boy’s camp. And it’s hard to have a job teaching things that you don’t know how to do. And it’s hard to be a first year at camp, especially if you are a total introvert, because it feels like everyone expects you to be as extroverted as possible, all the time. And it is especially hard when you are trying to relate to and work with people who sometimes seem as if they are from a different planet.
  • And eventually all of that wears on you, to the point where when a boy carries some firewood for you week 4, you are thankful for his kindness but nonetheless resentful of the implication that a woman can’t do that work as well as a man. And when you and another staff member are burning a pile of brush and he wants to take the blow torch from you, you just want to explode, because you are tired of people not letting you do your job and thinking they can do things better than you can.
  • So by the time you get to the real problem here, the sexual harassment, you are already pretty raw.
  • And you find yourself just trying to do your job and be cheerful, when standing three yards away from you, there are two staff members speculating about the size of your vagina in comparison to the sizes of different men’s penises.
  • And if you try to say anything, they’ll just say “never mind,” or “it’s nothing” or “your hair looks nice,” so eventually you give up and just try to ignore it.
  • But practically all summer, they’re always making these comments, just loud enough that you can hear enough to be hurt, but not loud enough that you can hear everything they are saying and be sure enough of what you have heard to confront them about it.
  • And when I was at camp it all hurt so, so much. But it wasn’t just degrading. It was confusing, and disorienting.
  • And so then when the school year started and I started taking classes at Marian and Bethel, suddenly I was surrounded by these overtly christian people and I was just like “Aaah. This is what respect feels like. Respect, I missed you. I really like respect.” And then I began to see everything that happened over the summer a bit more clearly. And I was just so mad that any of it had ever happened.
  • It took me quite a while to work through all of it, and be able to calm down about it, and not be so upset.
  • But I mean all this stuff led to other issues to; issues more so about identity than worth.
  • When you are a deer caught in headlights and just feeling so invaded, you can’t feel at ease.
  • And it’s hard to be yourself when you can’t feel at ease. And I feel like there have been very few times when I have actually been at ease when I have been with you, and for whatever reasons I feel like I’ve never actually really been able to authentically be myself for any length of time with anyone from our area.
  • And it’s hard to feel good about yourself when you are not acting like yourself. Actually, you just walk away from every encounter feeling really shitty.
  • And it’s impossible to build legitimate friendships with people who are totally comfortable with everything when you are trying so hard just to act normal.
  • And it’s hard to talk to people about things that really matter who you don’t feel comfortable with because you haven’t learned how to be yourself with them in the first place.
  • And this is especially true when you are such an individualistic person as I am, because it is all compounded with this aggravation that everyone seems to think they know who you are and everything about you, despite the fact that you are just struggling so much and you are not yourself and they don’t even have a clue.
  • And so then I didn’t want to feel so shitty anymore whenever I was around you. And I started making an effort to try to share more about what I care about. But that’s hard when the people you are talking to don’t think the way you do, and they don’t get your jokes, and it seems like they laugh in the face of everything you hold dear.
  • I talk about history. You make it about porn. I talk about history. You tell me I should be a stand up comedian and just get up on stage and talk about history to make everyone laugh. I get it. You don’t want to talk about history. You don’t have to talk about history and you don’t even have to listen to me talk about history if you really don’t want to, with the exception of preparing for Living History next summer. But I love history! It is one of my dearest passions! It is mingled so much with a huge piece of my soul, and I care so much about it. It’s fine if you want to tease me about it, but you cannot bash it so hard just because it is not something you can relate to. It is no more geeky or stupid or worthless than blacksmithing may be. I mean, teasing is fine, if a person is reenforced with some sort of affirmation. Otherwise you just tear them down.
  • Which translates to another issue that bothers me far, far more than the perceived non-acceptance of the non-blacksmithing parts of who I am.
  • I am so negative when I am around you. I am never so negative with anyone else. When I am with you guys from area I am so negative, and unenthusiastic, and not-whimsical and not passionate. And that is not how I am with anyone else. At least not with people I am comfortable with, or in places where I feel comfortable.
  • And the thing is, you guys only know me coming from a place where I feel out of place and uncomfortable, where I am new and scared and unsure of myself. And you make all of your judgements and suppositions based on that.
  • Over the summer I drew a sketch that didn’t turn out well so I burned it. And C said “It’s okay. You don’t need to know how to draw. You’re a blacksmith!” But that is not the case at all! I mean, with you, blacksmithing is such a large part of your life. And if I want to really get to know you, knowing you in your blacksmithing is such a huge part of that. And the same is true of C, at least to a lesser extent.
  • But blacksmithing is such a small part of my life, and it wasn’t even a part of my life at all until about a year ago. So that is just another frustration. It’s not a problem that anyone needs to fix, but it’s just something that you guys should be aware of.
  • And through all of this, from the beginning, I’ve made everything worse by not talking about it. I don’t tend to tell people when I am having problems, and that just served to exacerbate the situation even further.
  • So I mean, in short, I just completely lost all sense of self worth and self awareness and had an extremely painful experience last summer. It was probably the second worst summer of my life. But by the same token, it was also probably the second best summer of my life, and I would not have given up that experience for anything. I learned a lot about a beautiful craft, about different sorts of people, and about myself.
  • And coming off of that experience, I feel like, truthfully, you and I have gotten to know each other far more since the summer has ended than we ever did during camp. And part of that is because I have been making a very concerted effort to just be authentically myself when I am with you, which is really not actually that easy. And I’m sure that that has just made me all the more confusing to you,
  • because me acting like me is not what I think you would expect me to be like;
  • because it’s a lot easier to be myself when I am texting or writing you than when I am with you in person, so I’ve sort of created a bit of a roller coaster which I’m sure is very confusing;  and,
  • because I also falter a lot. There have been so many times in the past month when I have just metaphorically slapped myself on the forehead and said, “I’m sure he thinks I’m bipolar”
  • However, because I am trying to just be genuine, and also because I have become more comfortable with you since the summer ended, I now feel like I actually can talk about this with you, even if I still feel really uncomfortable doing so.So, I guess that most of this long bitchy letter has just been so that maybe you could understand a bit more where I’m coming from in this.

But I guess at this point what I want would be

  • That I want you guys not to talk about, joke about, comment about, or anything about my body. Ever. Sexual harassment should NOT be an issue and I do not want to go through another summer having to deal with that. Actually that is more of a need than a want.
  • And I want you guys to just understand that everyone is so different. And that that is okay. But we need to be aware of our differences so that we can be present to each other in real and healthy ways.

And I mean, I don’t think these next things are realistically going to happen, at least not all the time, but

  • I would prefer it if everyone could just refrain from directing perverted jokes at me. I mean, if there are other people around who like that sort of thing, such as probably anyone in blacksmithing but me, joke around about it with them all you want. But if we are the only two people in the room, there is really no reason to even go there because in most cases, I’m really not going to enjoy that sort of humor, so it’s not even worth it.
  • However, I would also prefer it if, as you are making your pervy jokes with each other, you would refrain from making jokes that obscenely dehumanize women when I am around. Rape is not funny. It is very real and terrible. Porn is not funny. Porn is disgusting, turns women into objects rather than the people that they are, and is known to increase the likelihood of sexual harassment, violence, and assault against women from those who view it. Porn kills love and it destroys people. It’s toxic, nasty stuff, and not at all a laughing matter.

And that is all.

After that, I chose to forgo the opportunity to potentially have my piece published in the notable magazine, in the interest of pursuing better working relations with my coworkers. I put a lot of time and energy into that job, and, admittedly, into that relationship with M.

If we are to be incredibly frank, I would admit that my relationship with M had grown quite complicated and somewhat indistinguishable by this point, hence The Departing of the Calla Lily. There was an element of intimacy that was more than friendship, though at the same time I constantly doubted that we were even friends at all. It was rather an unhealthy work relationship, and an entirely foreign beast to the naive girl that I was. This in itself was jolting and disorienting.

Before going into my second summer working there, I thought I had learned from my mistakes and handled the situation. But I hadn’t.

I returned to work in the same place for a second summer, and I dug myself deeper into the unhealthy, complicated, rather turbulent and somewhat indiscernible relationship with M. I allowed my world to become this barrage of conflict, unhealthy emotion, and pain that spilled over into the entirety of my freshman year of college.

Things with M were actually quite complicated and messy. We spent a bit too much time discussing the sorts of qualities we felt were important in a person to date, the number of kids we could both agree would be a good amount to have, him giving me rides after my wisdom tooth extraction and then once all the way down to Indianapolis, and me ghostwriting work for him and spending altogether too much time trying to convince him not to do dumb stuff… and going over to his house to play with his ducks.

Our ‘friendship’ was rife with conflict as ever. I think I can illustrate that point mildly by sharing one of many letters I wrote to M and did not send (I am the sort of person who does that with everybody. I’ve probably written a letter to you and not sent it half a dozen times by now 😉 —)

Dear M,
I don’t think you know how much I miss you, and how much it pains me to have to restrain myself from reaching out to you in this time of controversy. I am on the verge of tears half the time I am awake, constantly checking my phone in classes, jumping at every bing or dink I hear when classes are out. I miss you so much. My heart is so conflicted.
I wish you could figure out what I meant to you, and just decisively tell me. Or better yet, maybe treat me like a human being. I’m going through some tough shit right now. Really tough. Stuff that I think I’m probably never going to tell you. But know this: It is so much harder alone, without you. I miss you always.

Loving regards,

Firstly I would like to point out the irony of that letter— back then I thought I would still be keeping all my private problems private, and now they are on the internet and you are reading them. My judgement was more than a bit questionable. I was a mess that year, physically and mentally. Between finishing high school and going to college, moving to and living alone in a new city, struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and going through a series of medication adjustments, suffering from and being scared by and ultimately diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease, ridiculously unhealthy relationships, desperately trying to make things work in a toxic work environment—  I did not have my shit together enough to be entertaining any sort of relationship with M, friendship or otherwise, and especially not to begin dating a man 5 years older than me who worked in the same camp but a different area several months later.

I understand now that over this spanse of time I made a lot of bad decisions, that lead to what was over all a somewhat traumatizing experience. Namely my faults were in this: in not believing that I was worth enough to protect myself; in allowing men who were made of unsavory substance to cast too heavy a weight on my faculties of reason and emotion; and in not recognizing that my deep vulnerabilities at the time were incapacitating to my inner voice of reason. I think that there were many, many more faults for which I am to blame, but I think a good many of them in this matter stem from these three.

Hopefully I have learned my lesson, but I guess only time will tell.

One thought on “Revisiting Two Old Pieces

  1. Pingback: Two Bodies | Marita Chustak

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