How Do We Feel Safe In an Unsafe Place?





I drove to work today bathed in the thick scent of cheap cologne. It was the smell of violation and it made my stomach lurch. This morning I opened my car door to find the contents of my console emptied onto the seat, my homemade cds rifled through, my cheap sunglasses examined for a name brand worth selling. My name tag from a conference in was in plain sight and my ID was on my car registration in the glove box, which I am sure he checked. He knows who I am. He might not care, but the idea of it makes my skin crawl. Touching my steering wheel and sitting in the car seat where he sat, his lingering stink surrounding me, made me itch as if I had a case of the cooties.

It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last.

The electric locks on my car doors no longer work from being forced so many times. It is $200 to fix them, but I don’t bother – he would just ruin them again. I just don’t leave anything I want in my car. I make sure to have the “no-jack” bar in my steering wheel – a necessity since he stole the whole car, leaving it abandoned 20 miles away several days later.

He breaks in to my car almost every month. I know it isn’t the same guy – “He” is some faceless ghoul, like a character from a Scooby Doo episode, one guy who represents all the bad guys.

This time, he also went through my housemate’s car. I am sure my housemate was pissed, but his sense of violation wasn’t as profoundly personal as mine always is. Last summer after the thief went through my car, he vandalized my bumper sticker – the one that read, “Obedient women will never be remembered in history”. He’d taken a sharpie to the word “obedient”, leaving it to read: “women will never be remembered in history”. This, almost more than anything, makes me want to hurt him. Badly.

Earlier this the week, I had a heated (on my part) discussion with my partner and my roommate about personal safety. About how I don’t feel I can walk in the city alone or hike in the woods alone. About how even going to the bathroom in a crowded bar is difficult. About how I want a dog to protect myself. Or a gun. And how even if I had a dog or a gun, it probably still wouldn’t matter, I would still be afraid. My life is about adapting to various degrees of not feeling safe.

Having my car broken into, or stolen, is certainly not the worst of the violations I have experienced, though I am no poster child for having a victim complex. Rape, domestic violence and workplace harassment and violence have colored my life, as they have a good portion of all women’s lives. But these days, I am worn out by personal and global vigilance. Recent terrorist attacks and shootings have shown that attention won’t keep me safe. My address makes me a target. My gender makes me a target. My nationality makes me a target. The fact I breathe makes me a target.

I can’t stand being a target.

Both times I traveled in Ireland this past year,  I experienced the profound and enlightening experience of safety. I hadn’t even realized how UN-safe I felt until the burden of it was lifted from me. I remember the night I spent on Sheepshead, a narrow 13 mile long extremely remote peninsula that juts into the Atlantic from the southern part of Ireland. There were no streetlights, no nearby town, no police to come and save me if I needed help. Hell, there weren’t even any places to eat dinner that night. The light from the full moon woke me, its river of shimmering white beckoning me to walk the heathered hills. It was bright as early morning, but I didn’t know how to be a woman alone in the night in an unfamiliar place. There were things to be considered. Or were there? Less than a week later, I walked at dusk, alone, miles from anything, blissfully aware that the ability to do so was sheer decadence.

Maybe it was an illusion brought on by my relatively elite status as a “world traveler”, but I’d never felt this sense of security any place I’d been before. In Ireland, I could walk alone, unguarded, with a man or dog to protect me. Even at night. The people I met were friendly and helpful and would have been so even if I needed more help than I did. I didn’t hear sirens. Or see heroin or meth addicts. Or prostitutes. There were no gunshots in the towns I stayed in, and the local radio news wasn’t full of drug busts, shootings or crime. Which isn’t to say that Ireland doesn’t have those things, but at home in the Seattle metro area, hostility, violence, addiction and sexual exploitation are part of my every-day norm, just like the “no-jack” in my steering wheel.

The harshness of returning to the “real world” is a part of coming home from every vacation and a little sadness is to be expected. But I find myself in deep grief over my inability to inhabit my body and my life in totality because here I must stay on the defensive all the time. I was happy when I was gone because I could be whole. The expression on my face in our vacation photos is one of contentment. Friends repeatedly commented that I looked like I was in my element. I was. Because I was in Ireland, a place I am in love with, but mostly because my “element” is a level open-heartedness I cannot maintain in the face of the cheap cologne smell left by the thief pawing through my car. It doesn’t partner with the need to clutch my purse to me when a drunk approaches me at the video kiosk in the dark. Or when gunshots outside my bedroom window wake me in the night.

I need out. WE need out.

This ongoing level of violence is killing us – killing me. Literally.

I wanted to have something positive to say, something uplifting and profound. But after I wrote the first draft of this, my news feed was full of yet another mass shooting/terrorist attack, this one relatively close to home.

How I am supposed to feel whole here? How can I be all I am meant to be in such a profoundly unsafe place? How do any of us continue to be a light that shines brightly for good in this world of hatred and greed?

What I do know is this: Sunday I organized a community event for the small town I work in. Santa Clause was to arrive to light a 70 foot tall Christmas tree at my workplace. It was very cold and the children in the crowd gathered tightly around me, eager and excited. They didn’t know me – I was a stranger with a microphone in the crowd of 800. It is odd, but you know, I don’t remember a single adult face in the crowd? All I could see were the kids around me, trusting and shining and joyous. When the blare of the Mac truck horn broke the relative silence around us, when I asked the kids, WHAT WAS THAT???? their innocence and enthusiasm, their willingness to believe in magic nearly broke my heart. When the truck pulled in, bearing a kindly Santa waving to the crowd, when he “lit” the tree with the Deputy Mayor and everyone was bathed with sparkling light, I wanted nothing more than to believe that we WILL create a better world for these kids. A safe world for them. And for me.

2 thoughts on “How Do We Feel Safe In an Unsafe Place?

  1. Ah, Robyn, your words are painful, poignant, and inspirational. On Tuesday I had a conversation with a friend about Ireland, telling her how safe I felt walking alone, exploring, being with the land, the sea, and myself. Back in Phoenix, I’m fearful, anxious if I forget to bring pepper spray when I go for a walk. I, too, have experienced the violations you describe, and I commend you for not being a victim poster child, but a strong, courageous, beautiful woman who chooses to bring joy to your communities – the one in which you now live, and all the communities around the world that you have touched. I’m honored to be part of the Anam Cara community with you. Love and a hug as we mourn and do what we can to make this world a safe and loving place for all the children.

  2. My simplistic answer, feel the fear and do it anyway. I realized long ago that there are things to be afraid of, both real and imagined. I sometimes feel like hiding in the closet with my gun, a cross and some holy water, and waiting for the demon that is hunting me on that day. But, instead, I CHOOSE to stand up tall, buy insurance, security system for the house, bullets for the gun, stay in close contact with the friends, family and neighbors who sustain me through my fears, try to avoid making things easier for those who would shatter my composure, and go out one more time. Yes, I am vulnerable, and afraid and I refuse to let it beat me or define me. You are, indeed, “braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than think”. You are My friend and together, with others, we just WILL…one more time; and the children will see us and learn that they CAN overcome, just like you.

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