I think about how a highway offers a slight time warp, like the idea of worm-holes in space instantaneously connecting immense distance. Highway protocol: enter via ramp, the bridge between normal life-speed and accelerated highway pace; speed toward destination more rapidly and directly than other routes allow; exit back into regular-life time. It feels like cheating time, just a bit. Though not nearly as much as flying on a big commercial jet from place to place. And short trips on the highway don’t move us fast or far enough to have any remarkable effects on time, especially since driving is so deeply rooted in our culture, so everyone operates on that ramped-up wavelength anyway. But what if one spends five weeks on the highway? Or more (we met a family in South Dakota that had been on the road for two years)? At the end of a trip like that, do we end up with road-lag? Have we somehow lived more than we would have off-the-road?
It feels that way. The entirety of the trip feels like we committed to existing in a time-warp all its own. We sped along in a blur of huge green spaces, dotted yellow lines, women’s voices and faces and hands. We forfeited the security of stillness and consistency; we gained the present. We challenged ourselves to rise to the unpredictable occasion of each day, some nights laying down our heads in a place we did not expect to exist that morning.
Entering into shelter requires a similar detachment, a commitment to present. The actual distance from one’s house to the nearest shelter may be only a few miles, but it is an unknown world apart. It’s a jump off the edge which forces present-mindedness because the familiarity of the past is gone and the future is too nameless, too much a departure from normalcy to be predicted. At first, shelter is not home; it’s a strange building full of strangers. The movement toward independence from abuse first requires dependence on shelter staff and programs. Survivors must let go of fear and pride to step into a grim truth, accept help, and work endlessly from there. Caroline and I knew our trip would end eventually; the passage of a survivor continues always—an exit-less highway! Their bravery to embark on such a journey cannot be underestimated or exaggerated. So much stands in their way on top of the difficulty inherent in leaving behind everything familiar. One staff at the shelter in West Virginia told us about a woman in that state who went to the police last month to report her abusive husband. But her husband has friends in high places; the sheriff of the town is on his side, and his trial date was pushed back two weeks. In the meantime, the staff related, this woman endures harassment from police and other people in town, pressuring her to drop the charges.
Stories like that offer proof of the problems perpetuating violence, like corruption and sexism in the law enforcement system. Stories are important. People who don’t overtly experience that oppression may need to hear such stories to believe that things need to change. And the process of telling painful stories in a safe environment is cathartic. The workshops we did, though, initiated healing by affirming that each participant was valuable and deserving whether or not we knew her story. Caroline knew from the years of work she already did with Traveling Postcards, but I learned now: regardless of the particulars of their individual stories, every person in shelter overcame remarkable odds to get themselves there. Upon choosing shelter, their lives effectively became ruptures in a chain of violence, spaces of courage for all to draw power from. When we visited them, we didn’t need to know details of their pasts to give them our total respect, and they did not need to know all about us to celebrate that we were together in the present.
Creativity was the catalyst for that connection we feel so grateful to have forged at each workshop. Our admittance into the shelters and the participants’ trust in us was possible because of the creative process that brought us together, engaging our hands and hearts. Caroline told them, “each one of your cards is a self-portrait.” In making something beautiful for someone else, they were confronted with their own exquisiteness.