Elizabeth Mira is an artist, a survivor and my friend. She was my partner in crime trying to figure out ways to bring all the furry creatures home with us; learning that although I loved horseback riding, it is not for her; and taking a hit for the team as she ate the tsampa and yak cheese graciously provided to us from the Nuns in Tagong, Tibet and so many more crazy adventures it is hard to tell you about all of them.
She was the reason for this adventure and it was an experience of a lifetime to say the least. Check out her first event she is hosting at The Ward on Wednesday, November 11. She will also have her own studio space at The Ward starting this month so be sure to stop by.
The idea of sacred spaces and of metaphysical meaning being inherent in the structure of a place is nothing new. But I do feel that more and more it is something we must seek out on a personal level in our world of skyscrapers, strip mall and suburbs. We seek out the places that match the rhythm of our souls, whether they be forests, mountains, wastelands, or abandoned buildings.
The Amber Fort in Jaipur, India, is a sandstone monolith rising out of the barren, gemstone riddled hills of Rajasthan. It is a place over 8000 miles from the Appalachians where I was raised, and one where I recognized a sort of mandala for my own body and soul. There is, of course, the Wikipedia story, the one my travel companion Nicole and I listened to as we wandered about the fort on a blazing October day. This man and his conquests, this man and his many wives. This man long dead.
My story of this fort is something more organic.
The fort itself looked to me like a sleeping sandstone dragon, its ramparts like vertebrae tracing the edges of the imposing hillsides. It was in the heart of the dragon that I found poetry.
Beyond the gates of the fort you will find the Queen’s palace, where a stone garden of ground gemstone pigments covers the latticework, beyond which you will find the Sheesh Mahal. This is the mirror palace, and this garden is one of light, every surface covered in intricate glass mosaics of stars and flowers. I saw my reflection splintered into a million facets, as if all of the moments of my life were strewn out and rearranged, the past blending with the present, the sum of my parts. It was a garden of stars for the queen who had once lived there, for it was said that if someone burned just two candles in the hall it would be reflected into thousands of pinpoints of light. A night sky for a queen who was not permitted to sleep beneath the true stars, the ones Nicole and I had watched emerge from Everest, from the Thar desert, from Jaisalmer rooftops over cups of masala tea. I had never so badly wanted to light a candle, to see her bittersweet universe emerge in shards of mirror. I had never wanted to cry at seeing my reflection before, but seeing it there, both shattered and blooming, felt like the truest reflection I had ever seen of myself.
Later that evening Nicole and I found ourselves in another part of town, far from the imposing remnants of the past laid out under the blinding Indian sun. Far from the present too, which drifted into the room only in the muffled sound of the frenzied nervous system that is Jaipur traffic. In a tiny room lit in the dim red tones of a darkroom, lying naked on a table save for a strange little sumo wrestler-ish paper diaper, my travel weary body looked foreign to me. It was drenched in sesame oil, a necessity for the Ayurvedic massage called Abhyanga, and in the dim light it made my skin glow like the inside of a ruby.
I had been traveling for nearly six weeks through Tibet and India with my friend Nicole. Her adventurous spirit didn’t exclude her from indulging in things like pedicures in Varanasi, tacos in Chengdu or massages in Lhasa. Her approach was starting to influence my head first, embrace-the-nosebleeds approach to travel, and was why I found myself in that room being tended to by a tiny Jaipur woman for my massage. She was only 37, just a few years older than me, and nearly a foot shorter, but I felt like a child next to her. She was all grandmotherly, hen-like and tender in demeanor, and I tried to surrender to her care the best as I could. Being cared for is not something I’m particularly good at. It’s like a fortress growing tendrils, because a fortress is what one becomes after assault, and assault is a part of my story.
I was sexually assaulted by a group of four men when I was nineteen, just a few days before Christmas. I don’t remember much about that Christmas. I don’t remember parts of the assault either. There are black spaces, jagged cutouts, and the spaces which are filled in do not make me want to know what is in the spaces that are missing. Over a decade later I was going to an incredibly well meaning therapist, a man who once gave me money out of his own wallet to buy food because he was alarmed when my weight dropped. To this day I am grateful to him, and for the very real guidance he gave me. When he gently insisted that without hypnosis therapy to recover those memories I would never process the entirety of the assault, and thus never heal, I walked out the door and never returned to therapy.
Other suggested paths to healing had presented themselves over the prior years. When I started hearing about things like Project Unbreakable, a photo collection of survivors who confronted their experience using portraits of themselves holding signs with quotes from their attackers, I paused for a moment to wonder if I should join their ranks. It only lasted a moment. I have the utmost and complete respect for these people, because I respect survival. I know that it takes on a different meaning when you wake up one day on the other side of that line, and I respect the means by which anyone achieves it. But I also knew that what served as a catharsis to others would only be a gutting to me.
I refused to use my own experience as a platform or a battle cry, despite being extremely outspoken about the subject, especially when it came to the topic of extremely marginalized male rape victims and their stories. It wasn’t denial, because I spoke very passively of it over the years, and those closest to me knew about it. All of my rage and all of my pain I channeled into being intensely non reactionary, and this reasoning made sense to me. We are, after all, defined in part by that which we are in opposition to. I refused to sit in opposition to my rapists, or to define myself as either victim or survivor. I would not even give them the pleasure of bearing the title of my enemy. If I gave them nothing, they became nothing, they defined me in no way. For over ten years I did this.
What I did not realize was who I had set across from me in their place. Who I stood in opposition to. The girl sitting across from me, drinking the very stiff drinks. I might as well have set a mirror in that chair, because my cold war was with myself, and the belief that a threshold had been crossed which made me unfit to exist. My attackers may have been made into ghosts, but everyday I fought with my flesh and blood self. I was swallowing poison in small doses to make myself immune to it. I was walking wounded. And I was completely in denial about it.
It has been in listening to and learning to live in this body that I have found ever more frequent moments of release. It’s strange, because when you feel that release it’s like the world breathes back into you. My sensory and sensual world started to fascinate me the way they had when I was a child, when something as simple the scent of green onion growing in the yard could completely intoxicate me.
When I walked out of therapy that day it was not out of fear. It was out of a belief that the wiring of my brain had blacked out those memories for a reason intrinsically linked to my survival. It was a choice to listen to my body rather than to a doctor.
Around the time I quit therapy I also began modeling nude for figure studies in art classes. My body found a new life in each of these classes, the sum of my parts metamorphosing into planes of light, shadows, contours. It was an alchemy of trust for me. I was putting my body in these artists’ hands in a very literal way through the images their talent produced. And I could be still, feel all of my body’s little nuances, feel blood leave limbs then tingle back into them, feel my stubborn heartbeat.
Ayurveda entered into my consciousness here too. Ayurveda, for those unfamiliar with it, is traditional Indian medicine, and its origins predate written history. In the words of Dr. Frank John Ninnivaggi, “self-inquiry, self-realization, and self-actualization are central themes.” It is a science which required me to listen to my body and its fluctuations to find answers, and it allowed my sensory instincts to begin emerging in tiny, brilliant ways from a very long sleep.
A sleeping dragon waking. A candle lit in a mirror hall.
I learned that my favorite scent since childhood, sandalwood, was particularly calming to people with my particular dosha, a sort of specific Ayurvedic constitution. (It is also said to be the scent of paradise.) I found in an over 6000 year old discipline from another continent a means of understanding why certain “healthy” foods made me sick. The intelligence of my body began fascinating me. When I fell in love, disastrously, with a man with beautiful blue eyes I researched the cocktail of neurotransmitters that was causing me so much blissful anxiety. And all of these connections only heightened the mysterious beauty of how my body was reacting and evolving, how both my pleasure and pain were deeply rooted in my body’s instinctual, silent need not only to exist, but to heal.
It was heartbreaking to realize my body had fought for me when I hadn’t fought for myself, when I felt it unfit to exist. The idea of showing one’s self compassion will probably always be one of my most difficult lessons.
I am lucky these day to be able to recognize my teachers. The tiny woman in Jaipur was one of my teachers. Standing there, completely naked (that little sumo wrestler diaper doesn’t hold out) and experiencing having a woman from another world who shares no common language with me gently wipe oil off my body with warm towels, there was no shame. There was no danger. There was only me being cared for by another human being when I deeply need it.
It is in these moments, in unexpected ways, that I am finding my fight. I have found it in purposely stripping down naked, the state where I was once most vulnerable, and putting my body in the hands of others. I have found it in surrendering to trust, trust for my instincts and trust in the grace of others. Some people will hold you, and in doing so press the fabric of your sadness against you, and you’ll find it dissolves.
I recognized my fight in that hall of mirrors in India, in a shattered reflection turned into a garden. There has been a tiny, stubborn light in me, a cellular blueprint, which is enough to keep making a universe. I saw in that fort in India a mandala not just for my broken body but for survival, for the idea that we can be shattered and reformed.
In thousands of glass petals, you find your fight. Sometimes, you find your fight in a tender place, far from the words of your attackers and any power they might have given or taken from you. You find it in an art class. You find it in a room in Jaipur, lit like a darkroom. You find it in the strangest corners of your life, but you find it. You find your fight.