I am hiking with Sweet Dog at dawn. The trail signs say "Open from dawn till dusk", but I forgot that dawn is still quite dark, especially under the leafy canopy. It is so quiet I can hear very little, mostly the dog and me panting rapidly in time with each other.

As the trail narrows, I find I am covered in the gossamer strings of spider webs that criss-cross the path. They quickly give way, lacing my arms as if they were trying to catch me but of course they are no match for my power and size.

There was recently a big storm here and there are freshly fallen trees all around. As I navigate around them I lose the path for a moment and it gets darker and I hear noises and I am suddenly scared because, of course, I am a woman alone in the woods with only my ferocious attack dog to lick someone to death.

And then I am angry that I am aware of this, that I'm mentally replaying in my head all the ways I can protect myself, that I'm imagining the angles and speed necessary to successfully connect knee to scrotum. Men don't have to think this way, do they? But as women, we do. We fear.

Suddenly, every twig breaking in the distance becomes not a deer, not a fox, but a homicidal maniac. Every bird song is a reminder of just how far away I am from other people, good people.

Why do women have to feel afraid? Why do women have to worry about the safety of their bodies and psyches? There is nothing new about this realization, of course. This is Women's Studies 101 anger I'm feeling here.

But I'm angry anew for my daughters.

For surely they will experience this feeling at various points in their lives. Whether walking home late at night from a night club or hiking through a forest enjoying a beautiful dawn, suddenly their attention will be taken away from fun, solitude, or peace and toward fear. As the wisps of spider webs trail behind me like invisible streamers, I am saddened by how quickly hard work can be undone. Careful intricate preparation destroyed in a moment by a bigger, more powerful organism.

I find a turtle on the trail and marvel at its compact disappearing act. I envy his shell; he can pull his squishy sensitive bits inside and protect himself from anything scary at a moment's notice. It's so efficient; as soon as the danger passes - POP - legs and head all come out again as if nothing ever happened. If only it were that easy for us, if only our hard protective shells built of fear and pragmatism could be carried with us, used when needed but then we could just as easily, just as quickly, emerge.

As I continue to hike, I am angry at vague ideas and broad sections of humanity but also at myself. I'm angry that I read all those true life crime books in high school, for they now fuel my nightmares and day-mares. I read them obsessively, as a way of shocking myself with the absolute worst case scenarios. I spent my allowance on cheap paperbacks with grainy black and white photographs of women with Farrah Fawcett wings and men with blank eyes. One in particular that I reread numerous times was called something like "Lady in a Box" about a man who kept a woman trapped in a box under his bed for years. I was amazed that somebody could do that. And by "that" I mean both keep someone in a box under the bed and survive. But of course, people do do that, don't they? People keep other people in boxes. And people survive.

I've been wondering lately how to broach the topic of safety with my girls. Through books, I guess, as that's always my go-to answer for everything. (Though definitely NOT "Lady in a Box.") I have some books but I haven't shown them to my girls. I am having a prolonged ostrich moment about this, as if I can just put my head in the sand and the rest of the world will go away and I will never have to tell Z and E about people who might want to scare them, hurt them, take them.

At six, Z is still very innocent. She's a first child, she doesn't have many older friends and she has parents who are very protective of her and closely monitor what she sees and hears and experiences. Once I was trying to get some money from the ATM and she wanted to stay in the car. I would only be a few steps away but you're not supposed to do that, right? There are laws, DO NOT EVER LEAVE A KID IN THE CAR EVEN FOR A MOMENT. She was five at the time and starting to become a more reasonable and mature human being and I thought, I'll just leave her in the car for a minute, and lock the doors.

"Why do you need to the lock the doors?" she asked.

I paused and answered "For your safety."

"Oh I know," she said seriously and I froze, afraid of what she might 'know', "like burglars! They might steal my doll!" I smiled and nodded my ostrich head and didn't say what else strangers might do.

When I hike, I like to get to a particularly nice spot and stand still and close my eyes for a few long moments. Sight is by far my strongest sense and when I hike I'm mostly focusing on what I see. With my eyes closed, I can hear so much, every breath of wind, every bird call, every cracking leaf. Before I do this, of course, I look around to make sure there's no one lurking in the bushes. After checking, even when my eyes are closed and I'm finally hearing, really hearing, the intricate bird calls, I'm also, in some small corner of my mind, listening for footsteps and imagining what I would do if I had to.

We just got Z out of being afraid of strangers. "Strangers are just friends you haven't met yet!" we'd chirp at her a few years ago when her natural wariness when meeting new people turned to frightened avoidance.  Now there is no stopping her. She will chat with most anyone. Everyone is a potential friend.

"Strangers are just friends you haven't met yet!" she's repeated to her little sister a few times recently.




grammalouie said...

I love this post and wrote a perfectly good comment which somehow never got posted. Now I can't remember how wise I was or wasn't. Anyway, you do come by this "fear" honestly. I'm the one who carries pepper spray when I'm walking in black bear country (along with the knowledge to play dead if necessary but try to tell that to my dogs - ha). I think we all just need to concentrate on the beauty of the woods and forget about any potential dangers. Ha again. It's worth trying, right?

girlcat said...

I went to school in the Big City of Philly, with which you are familiar, and walked many a street on many a night that I probably shouldn't have. I got lost on foot on mulitple occassions after getting off at the Wrong Subway Stop and had to make my way out, clearly a stranger in the area. I lived for two years in a 'transitional neighborhood' where I was accepted by the people who lived there, but not so much by the ones hanging at storefronts that lined the roads from the SEPTA stop to my street. I quickly developed a confident and bold stride, a pavement-pounding but not-too-fast pace, a determined and hardened look to my face that said, "I know where I am going. I know what I'm doing. Don't f**k with me or you will be sorry." Even when I was about to pee my pants. I also took a self-defense course and learned about the most vulnerable parts of the human body (knee to the scrotum is NOT the most incapacitating, btw - grab, twist, and pull) as well as the recommended ways to act given certain situations.

Today, I am older and wiser (pause for internal chuckle), and am more wary even though I live in a safer city, statistically speaking. Today, I own a handgun and have a permit to carry it, although I rarely do- because I am not trained well enough to use it in an adrenaline-fueled situation. However, I do bring it if I am traveling alone in a car long distance, and it sits in a safe by my bed, within arms reach- and I practice enough to feel confident with it in those two situations.

My boyfriend is a Marine, former infantry, who has shown me other moves, things that could be used to take down people three times my size. He has also taught me that with the right knowledge, a person can easily and completely incapacitate someone else, no matter the size difference. A 100-pound woman can render a 350-pound man unconscious in a matter of seconds with the right placement of her arms around his neck, if she knows where to put them and how to squeeze.

In an isolated situation like hiking alone I think women AND men are at risk, albeit (maybe) for different reasons. In any situation you have to be proactive and prepare. Is it likely that you will be attacked/kidnapped/killed hiking in on the trail you're on? My guess is no. Yet it never hurts to take precautions: letting someone know where you're going/when you'll be back; taking a cell phone ("if I'm not back by x time, call me"); taking pepper spray (that you've practiced with!) and noise maker.

Yet precautions should be proportionate to the risk. Do I need to be packing along with mace, a whistle, and a knife to go to my local suburban grocery store? Of course not- but if it is nighttime, maybe I do need to put on a little of that PhillyGirl swagger when I walk out to my car.

Confidence is a big thing- even if you have to fake it. Don't look or act like a victim.

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