On Leaving

written by AMANDA K GROSS

I started making Trauma Containers soon after purchasing a home in a city still new to me. I wasn’t actually residing in my relatively new home at the moment of their first construction. Instead, I was taking my first Restorative Justice course at my undergraduate alma mater and was feeling overwhelmed by the stories of violence that had led the family members of murdered loved ones to sit down with those who had committed the violent acts in an effort to reconcile, possibly forgive, and restore — or maybe more accurately, transform — what had become harmful relationship.

But this post is more about divergence than conjoinment. And at the time, I was motivated by my own personal overwhelm from hearing other people’s traumas, not from experiencing my own.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

I needed a way to hold their stories respectfully, but I also wanted a container external to myself, with a lid so I could write down the bits and images of their stories, which kept following me across wakefulness into my dreams.

My first Trauma Container was small and soft and green with a button and string. She fit cozily in the palm of my hand. After a heavy case study was shared, I would write the stickiest of details down, whisper a prayer for the people involved, and neatly roll up their traumas so I wouldn’t internalize stuff that wasn’t mine.

Thus began a decade of me and Trauma Containers. They took on many forms over the years and evolved as gifts for friends embarking on hard journeys, as a collective activity for White Women’s Group in initiation of our anti-racist family history projects, as a personal tool for processing my internalized dualism, and as a vessel for healing intentions. My most profound experience with Trauma Containers has been in using them to acknowledge, process, and (usually) release specific relationships… with myself, with other people, with communities, and with places. These relational Trauma Containers eventually leave me. (Maybe you’ve had a glimpse of one at a public park or found one alongside the road.)

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

Last year I turned thirty six and decided it was time to uproot and leave the City of Gray. This was a decision I might have made sooner, which, in retrospect, I probably should have realized sooner, but I was comfortable (enough) in my solitary space, distracted by a self-imposed excessive workload of VERY IMPORTANT and PURPOSEFUL anti-racist lifework, and affixed by something I’ve now come to understand as depression. (Seasonal Affective Disorder is real, folks.) In fact, I only came to clarity and commitment around leaving due to some major disruptions and upheaval in my home, work, and social life.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

But even after I knew I was ready to leave, knew I wanted to leave (for my mental health, I may have even needed to leave), I still spent most of the last year holding on, weighing myself down by obligation, a sense of responsibility, and a fear that the deepest desires of Amanda Katherine’s heart would reveal themselves to be racist, individualized actions driven by access to privilege and not-at-all in alignment with collective liberation. Most of all, I feared repeating a multi-generational trauma pattern of fleeing, which both historically reinforced my ancestors contributions to white settler colonialism and, in return, enabled them to repeat it.

Instead, I chose another family-iar pattern (so many patterns to choose from!). From the dropdown virtual menu of inherited multigenerational coping mechanisms, I went with the classic martyr-freeze response. I chose in my daily routines and in my relationships mostly not to fight for myself. I chose mostly to endure. I chose mostly to follow the lead of a handful of Black women and repress/suppress/ignore the discomfort in my gut and tightness in my right rhomboid.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

This time around, the depth of my perfectionism has surprised me. There are layers there that I didn’t notice before: a whole driving-force layer of perfectionism, which has been steering a lot of my work with Mistress Syndrome over the past six years. I have preached that there is no one right way, but I have been practicing a few hard-and-fast rules. For example, I have been so committed to the idea that the right way to do anti-racism work for a white person is to have accountability to and follow the lead of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color that I have created an unhealthy (and unsustainable) power dynamic in some of my closest relationships. I have nurtured distrust of my ability to see, know, and understand my own whiteness — especially to know which is my Self and which is my very sneaky false white self. I have been at times very confused about which parts of me are ME and not just white violence in disguise to the point of shutting myself down and limiting a full range of self-expression.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

I feel angry at the way these anti-racist rules for white people were taught to me and at how I chose to learn them. I feel hurt by how I feel harmed within these relationships. I struggle to direct my hurt and rage at the abstracted systems and cultures which led to the interconnected playing out of our harmful coping mechanisms and not attribute my pain exclusively to the individuals with whom I have shared such intimate spaces. But mostly, I feel angry at myself for not fighting harder for me in those moments when I invoked self-sacrifice instead.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

Leaving town, as I have come to accept, is, of course, like my ancestors, facilitated by my privilege. Not staying to fight the local fight alongside my Pittsburgh community is, in many ways, a manifestation of individualism. And, also I am increasingly okay with that.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

Leaving, is the most compassionate act I have done for myself in a long long while. I am finding joy and agency and energy and excitement in this liberating practice of self-compassion. It does not necessarily surprise me that in selling my home, scaling down my work responsibilities, and letting go of relationships, I feel freer. What is currently a most delightful surprise, is that through accepting it all, I am experiencing a deep and buoyant joy.

I am also experiencing a paradigm shift. Some of the rules I attached to are getting transformed in surprising ways; where once there were pedestals (for myself and others) now there are only bubbly, hot tubs.* A healing container of a different sort.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

In the month leading up to my departure, I began an outdoor installation of Trauma Containers, to honor the joys, triumphs, challenges, failures, and growth which have marked my time here and also as a parting gift to the land, creatures, and people.

Maybe you’ll notice them when you’re out for a walk some day.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

*Thanks to a dear friend for the suggestion to replace pedestals with a visualization of everyone in jacuzzis!

Snow White Denial – On Being the Victim, Villain, and Heroine

written by AMANDA GROSS

My grandmother was recently moved to an assisted living facility. At 92 and 2/3rds, she now has a 250 square foot space (actually intended for double occupancy) all to herself, that has a view of the mountains and a bird feeder with it cheery seasonal flag. It was hard to visit her.

Driving south through West Virginia, the snow fall began. After an hour of hazardous conditions and a couple of tense moments, I arrived at her home in the mountains, the countryside blanketed in a fresh 12-inch coat of snow. The mid-March snow cover in its equanimity hid both the carcasses of last night’s roadkill and spring’s daffodil starts.

Snow White 2; Photo by Amanda K Gross

I was in denial too. My last visit had been in November and the one before that 11 months previous. My phone calls to her were becoming fewer and farther between as her memory and conversational skills began to disintegrate. Sure, I’ve had my reasons – busyness, work schedule, distance, unreliable transportation – there are always excellent reasons! But the impact remains: my not wanting to look at the painful truth of her aging has furthered her isolation.

Nannie with the Strawberries; Photo by Amanda K Gross

She was always the strong one, of the Pop & Nannie pair. Not overly warm, soft, or cuddly like my other grandma, Nannie was no-nonsense, get-to-work, and reliable in the way that shouted her love from the mountaintops. She was always so sturdy and stable – a rock and sometimes a hard place. Now her balance and mobility falter and her heart is cracking open, too.

Since I have been praying to be a truth-seeker, revelations are following me around everywhere I go.

The night of my arrival my mother somewhat matter-of-factly handed me an article during dinner. “I thought this might interest you,” she said, as I quickly skimmed the evidence that our Mast cousins who had “disappeared as Mennonite” after mid 1700 migration from Switzerland to Pennsylvania to North Carolina did indeed enslave humans and also raped them. “Kinship Concealed: Amish-Mennonite & African American Family Connections” co-written by my 12th-ish cousin, Dwight Roth who is white and by my also 12th-ish cousin, Sharon Cranford who is Black, challenges decades of Mennonite denial around our connection to and participation in slavery.*

“Sharon Cranford portrayal of the Charlie Mast legacy” article by Paul Kurtz

What an incredibly horrible and profoundly delicious fate. I chose the title Mistress Syndrome to align my white lady identity with the legacy of the mistress of the antebellum plantation because I reap the privileges (and the pain) of her legacy today whether my biological ancestors enslaved people or not. Turns out they did. In my delusion of control, I thought that I had cleverly chosen Mistress Syndrome, but clearly she chose me.

This feels like confession and I’m not even Catholic.**

WWG3 Family History Altar; Photo by Amanda K Gross

In other do-gooder narrative-shattering news, European Mennonites had an affinity for Nazism. I first learned a piece of this shushed history last year reading Ben Goossen’s article entitled “Mennonite Fascism“. But then, this week while gazing out across the snowy mountain view, I read a Facebook post from a former professor that there was enough of this history for an entire academic conference on it.  Her post shares her learnings from the conference which “feels like a betrayal of everything Mennonites are supposed to stand for…”:

“• German racial scientists used Mennonite church records and measured Mennonite noses and foreheads to prove Mennonites were “the purest Aryans”
• Some Mennonite theologians advocated for racial theology in which “morals pass through blood” and race mixing was forbidden
• Some Mennonites in Poland and Russia joined the Nazis in evicting Jews from their homes and some even participated in massacres
• Mennonite refugees sometimes were given land, homes, furniture, and clothing from Jews who had been forced into ghettos or killed
• Some Mennonites hid Jews and participated in challenging Nazi authority. At Yad Vashem in Israel, there are about 40 Dutch Mennonites who are listed as part of the Righteous of the Nations for taking risks to save Jews
• There are stories of Mennonite-Jewish mixed marriages as many Mennonites and Jews lived side by side in many European countries.
• In one case, a Mennonite woman decides to die with her Jewish husband and children rather than hiding with the Mennonite community
• Mennonite Central Committee purposefully portrayed Mennonite Nazi war criminals as refugees after the war, denying their German identity and asserting that Mennonites had their own nationality and deserved a state in Paraguay, just as Jews were creating Israel
• Some Mennonites brought these theories of racial superiority to Canada and the US. There were Mennonite Nazis in church leadership in Canada. And the white nationalist movement was started by Ben Klassen, who coined the term “racial holy war” after having grown up in a Mennonite colony in Ukraine and reading Mein Kampf there.”

It is tempting to want to remember the heroic tidbits and throw the villainous ones away. We hold all of these identities – victim, villain, and heroine – within us, at the same time.

We are living in a time of uncomfortable revelation. If we listen and absorb, it might change our lives.

Snow White; Photo by Amanda K Gross

But denial runs deep. I see it in myself and I see it in the white ladies. Like the February story link “Virginia Missionary Pleads Guilty to Widespread Sexual Abuse in Haiti” that sat unopened on my browser for weeks because I suspected he was a Virginia Mennonite Missionary (he was), like the carcasses under the snow, like the slight stench of urine that permeates my grandma’s newfound assisted life, I don’t really want to know. It is easier or habitual or a privilege to ignore it and leave the clean up to the paid help. It is easier to recite the narrative of victim and heroine, to post our chosen trauma and chosen glories*** on social media and write letters of support in order to demonstrate our righteousness. It is easier to claim the territory of anti-racism rather than take responsibility for our actions. It is easier, but is it healthier?

Confrontation is not a Mennonite value or a white liberal one. I have internalized that being in open conflict is wrong (because violence is wrong) and bad (because everyone should like me) and that superficial harmony is preferred and also rewarded with the trinkets of white womanhood. So to be confronted so specifically with a personal inheritance of Slavery, Systematic Rape, the Holocaust, Colonization, Missionary Imperialism, Systematic Rape of Children, and my Grandmother’s Decay all in one month feels overwhelming.  It is painful to feel and also sometimes I feel numb. In response, I make art and write blog posts late at night.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

But what keeps me (on most days) from wallowing in the quick sand of self-pity, what keeps me from ten thousand excellent reasons to turn my head, what keeps me from luxuriating in the rabbit hole of rationalized self-care is ACCOUNTABILITY. A six syllable monster of a word that is not as scary as it sounds. Actually in my experience it has been a relief.

Right beside my feeling of overwhelm and grief is the recognition of the humans at the receiving end of my bloody inheritance, the impact of which is not so neatly in the past. Knowing this keeps me grounded. Being in relationship keeps me focused. Knowing that people suffer today because of my contributions – whether current or historical – gives me an opportunity at redemption. Every breath-filled moment I have on this earth is a chance for renewal. While much of it has been written, I get to add chapters to Mistress Syndrome’s legacy every single day.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

I have accountability to others and I have accountability to myself. I know from experience that denial is a form of self-harm, that repressing and ignoring trauma does not make their effects go away, that running only amasses more of whatever I was running from. I confront in order to save my Self.

Collage detail by Amanda K Gross

The confusing thing that we must learn as white ladies is that our contributions lie not in the heroism (heroinism?) of the helper’s cape, but in our ability to shovel away the snow where there will certainly be both carcasses and daffodils. We must go through it. There is so much snow to shovel that it is not an individual task, but one we must go through together. The shame, the pain, the misery, the excuses, the mental illness, the greener grass, the fear of vulnerability will seek to divide us and threaten our success (it already has). But my critical realism is ultimately optimistic. It has to be.

Chickens and Krokbragd; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

*The article entitled “Sharon Cranford portrayal of the Charlie Mast legacy” was interesting in that its title left out the white co-author’s name (who is also portraying the Charlie Mast legacy) and that it was written by my great-uncle who has taken on the honored role of family historian since my great-grandfather – his father – passed.

**Catholic private confession grew in popularity at the same time as land privatization at time when the ruling class sought to undermine the social fabric and resistance of European peasants. It also made priests the middle men of community relationships and possible encouraged passive aggression and conflict avoidant behavior.

***I learned about chosen traumas and chosen glories from the Little Book of Trauma Healing and will be writing more on this theme in the upcoming book also entitled Mistress Syndrome.