on safe harbours, swimming demons, and facing your own stuff
“That’s your stuff,” said Joanie. She has a knack for delivering unwaveringly uncomfortable yet tender truths.
I spent a long, long time – a life – with a man who survived war and torture and wrongful imprisonment and ethnic persecution. Who witnessed atrocities. Who buried bodies knowing when his horrific task was complete, he’d be the last corpse in that mass grave. Who wasn’t the last body to lie in that hole and, of the dozens of men whose last journey was a one-way trip to the killing field, was one of only two men who made the grim, guilty return trip to prison. Who survived. Who, back in the jail, caught the eye of a wife demanding, pleading with her husband’s captors – “police”, “soldiers”, “bureaucrats”, sadistic, soul-dead thugs just doing their jobs and then returning home each night to their wives and children – to know the whereabouts of her man.
He knew where her husband was. From inside his cell, he held her gaze until tears streamed down her face. She said nothing. She knew. She left.
He survived. He survived that day because a Red Cross worker registered his existence the week before - which meant if he ‘disappeared’ there would be questions. And every day before and after, he survived because he was lucky, and he was wily.
And he drove me crazy. He circled around safe Canadian parking lots for eternities, passing up perfectly fine spaces for what? The one nearest the exit that he could back into and therefore drive out of in a hurry. Should he need to. In restaurants, he insisted on having his back to the wall so he could see out the windows and have a clear view of all the doors. No one could surprise him. He tensed up at the sight of skytrain police, who aren’t really even police, at all. They can give you stern lectures and semi-stiff fines and maybe the stink-eye for not having the right ticket. They can ask you to get off the train.
Public places, he scanned for signs of trouble. He knew every car and man and dog that belonged in the neighbourhood and on our street. He knew what time neighbours came and went and recognized the sound of a ‘foreign’ car from a block away.
Because that’s how he survived, in another place, where police and soldiers have permission to prey on the people they ought to be protecting.
And it wasn’t just men in uniforms who were a threat. It could be your neighbour, who told his soldier friend you had a big TV and small sisters, and then that soldier-friend would come with a few of his soldier friends in an army jeep to your house in the middle of what would be a long and terrifying night. It was a person you’d known all your life, invited to your parties, shared your beer with on a Friday evening, who said to an official, I know a family who speaks Swahili. They’re from the East. I think they’re Tutsi spies. And left the office a few dollars richer.
There were conspiracies. There was betrayal. There was danger. There were signs, and he knew how to read them.
And so he was looking for the signs, always, everywhere – even in bland Canada. And he found them. Others found them too. We knew a woman certain that the apparently Hutu student on the bus to UBC was looking at her and plotting to kill her. She knew he’d said something to the driver and any minute he’d pull over, lock the doors, and they’d finish what had started in Rwanda, continued in Congo, and undoubtedly followed her to Canada. After that, she couldn’t take the bus. Later she couldn’t eat at other people’s houses – brunches and dinners and kiddie birthday parties – lest they’d poisoned her food.
It wasn’t paranoia. It wasn’t even wrong – even here, a whole family could find harm at the fiery hands of a son’s friend. But most often it was post-traumatic stress. It was a soul-scarred sensitivity to signs. It was the same hyperattention that saved their lives two years and a lifetime before.
The signs were the same, but they meant something new in a new country. In a new context.
And isn’t just veterans and refugees and survivors of trauma who read signs and find danger where there is none. We all journey - scarred, experienced, innocent - to different countries and carry the meanings of one culture to the next. Even in our imagination. Especially in our imagination.
And in relationships.
Take the man whose last partner betrayed him. Cheated on him. He saw signs, and found a way to confirm his suspicion.
Now, in his next relationship, he looks for signs. He scans the contents of the bathroom trash can. He takes a close look at the sheets. He notes the call that doesn’t get picked up in his presence…and he thinks, maybe. And the last time he thought “maybe” it was sure.
And so he thinks his partner is cheating on him. But she’s not, and if he could see inside her head and her heart, he’d see his name in a continuously playing and replaying loop. There is only him. There is no space – and no need – in that divine harmony for someone else to play.
Sometimes it isn’t the external circumstances or true intentions of other people that trigger us. Sometimes our interpretation isn’t objective reality. Sometimes it is our own stuff. Sometimes the safe harbour – the secure country, the truly loving relationship – is where we let our gleaming-eyed demons and traumas out of our heads and into the water and hope with help and time and patience they will finally swim away.