On a cold day in January, I am the lone Indigenous woman in a theatre workshop.
We are exploring a story about a young American girl and her correspondence with Manuel Noriega, the former leader of Panama. I am asked to write a monologue from the perspective of Manuel Noriega.
I am asked to reconsider. I express my concern. I am assured that I was assigned to him not because we are both of Otherness and are therefore the same, but because I am a strong writer.
“It is not my place to write about a man whose history and culture I know nothing about, who has lived a life of experiences to which I cannot speak.”
On this same cold January day, I am asked to write a short story – one page, double-spaced, present tense, “engage the senses!” – about the moment I lost my innocence.
I dare not refuse again.
(You see, when a white person refuses to do something, it comes from a place of confidence and power, but when the rest of us refuse, we’re uneducated and lazy.)
And so I write …
‘Innocence – first from the Latin, then the Middle English – can mean many things: guiltless, naïve, chaste … but none of these strike me as possessing the capacity to be lost in a single moment. “Innocence,” I write, “is not lost in one fell swoop, but in bits and pieces.”
Sometimes we tear away at our own innocence, breaking it down with our little sledgehammers, desperate to grow up and move on. Sometimes we shatter the innocence of others, by accident or on purpose. Sometimes we simply fall over the edge by mistake, when curiosity gets the better of us. Often we try to Humpty Dumpty ourselves back together, and dream of Kings and Horses and Men that will stick us back together again, but we are never quite the same as we were before, and we know deep down inside that we never can be.
“Perhaps the only true loss of innocence comes in death,” I whisper to my dog, who doesn’t care about the brown(ish) colour of my skin, or the roundness of my face that I got from my mother. I stroke his warm, furry head as it rests patiently and lovingly in my lap. “Perhaps there is only innocence in death, and everything else is simply growing up.”
If this is true, then I grew up fast, in fits and starts, with none of the effortless grace and dignity I observe in my friends and in my enemies. Instead, shard-like memories of growing up pockmark my childhood like scars on the humble face of Sitting Bull at Little Big Horn:
Lazy. Uneducated. Alcoholic. Half-breed. Squaw.
I will learn later that these are called micro-aggressions and that they are all about power and not about me, but when I first hear them I am only a child, all alone on a swing in a Catholic School playground at recess while the other children play hide and seek.
My tears taste salty, and I close my eyes and imagine the ocean.
I envision my tombstone full of little holes, tiny little fishies swishing and swimming through the empty spaces of my soul. The cold water rushes through these gaps, chilling me to the bone and filling my heart up with its icy flow, but even when it does, I am still incomplete. The water ebbs and flows against my bare brown(ish) ankles in time with the caw-caw squackity-squack sounds of seagulls flying overhead.
The sticky smell of salty air as the caw-caw caw caws mix with the dry wood beams of the dock baking in the warmth of the summer Sun. It reminds me of lakes, of woods, of nature, and of home. As it beats down upon my lazy half-breed, brown(ish), squaw caw-caw face, I envision my holey tombstone of rough concrete as a mighty colossus decaying amidst the vastness of an ancient, faraway desert.
Here lies the lazy uneducated alcoholic half-breed squaw. Here lies a life of innocence and experience. May 18th 1986 – January 22nd 2016.
The sweeping sands are hot as fire as they sizzle under the watchful glare of the midday orange red flickering flaming star up above as it blazes its own little path across the Universe, one of billions just like me, growing up and growing old, innocent and experienced and never quite the same as it once was.
Perhaps the only true loss of innocence comes in death, and everything else is simply growing up.’
On a cold day in January, I am asked to write a short story about the day I lost my innocence.