Friday, December 28, 2012

UNTITLED (a story of sexual assault)

A 23 year old woman who was recently gang raped and beaten on a public bus in New Delhi has died. The trauma was too much for her poor body to overcome. When I read the details of her rape I was repulsed, enraged but not in a state of disbelief.

The summer that I was twelve years old I went to our family doctor for my junior high school health exam. The doctor was not someone unknown to me, he was someone who for years had treated each member of our family for the normal annual exams and ailments. This however, was my my first  exam with the doctor alone. Initially a nurse was present and a few minutes into the exam he sent her out of the room. He led me to a room adjoining the exam room. It was a room about the size of a walk in closet with a wooden bench. I was only wearing underwear. He shoved me onto the wooden bench and went through the motions of testing my reflexes while he roughly fondled me. After, he told me to dress as he made notes in my chart. Before he released me to the reception area he told me that if I told anyone he would tell my parents what a dirty whore I was.

My father was waiting in the reception area reading a magazine. We left the doctor’s office and I stared out of the passenger side window as the town became the countryside and said nothing. I didn’t cry, I simply felt sick and soiled. I remember that my father asked me if I was okay and I quietly responded, “Yes, I just want to go home”. I recall going home, going to my bedroom, shutting the door, moving the dresser in front of my door, sitting on the side of my bed and staring at the floor for hours. I never told anyone until I was well into my thirties and until now those that I told were limited to less than 4. That doctor’s appointment defined how I saw myself through my teen years and most of my twenties.

The doctor who molested me died of a brain tumor just a few years after. At the time I felt relieved to hear about his death and then I tucked the event away. I recently read an article about a man who began acting out of character, he was accused and convicted of pedophilia. While in prison a large tumor was found to be pressing against his frontal lobe. When the tumor was removed his urges subsided. Later the tumor grew back and the urges returned. When I read this article I thought of my molester. Some part of me wants to believe that his behavior could be explained by his tumor. The other part of me doesn’t give a damn about any explanation and hopes his suffering was long and painful. 

RAINN ( reports that out of 100 rapes in the United States only 46 will be reported. Twelve will lead to an arrest, nine will be prosecuted, five will be convicted of a felony crime and three will do time. 

I often send my learners in France articles about women in countries like Afghanistan or Yemen where women are treated like livestock. We have read about a 17 year old woman who was raped and impregnated by her married relative and then sentenced to prison for seducing a married man. We have read about 11 year old girls that are forced into marriage and die giving birth at age 12. I ask them if we have a responsibility to women like these women in countries unlike our own. Some will say, “Life will change for these women over time”. Some say, “Yes, we must help them, but how?”. Some tell me that we simply need to respect that the culture is very different than our own. Some say we can start to change the world by educating our own sons and daughters.

I don’t know how to implement change in countries like India, where that young woman who could have been my daughter, my niece or my neighbor was brutally gang raped on a public bus. I don’t know how to implement change in my own country where victims are too ashamed and frightened to report their rapes. I only know that I am very, very angry and something has to change.

The man that molested me was a trusted member of my community. I’m certain that I was not his only victim but I know that he went to his grave without ever having to take responsibility for his crimes and that is a tragedy. The other tragedy is that like most victims, I was more concerned with being identified as a dirty whore than with seeing my molester convicted and I told no one.

If you are a victim of sexual assault or if you would like to learn more about how to prevent sexual assault please visit .

Monday, December 17, 2012


I am not a good sleeper. I know that I was not, even as a child. I hate naps and resent that I get tired and must sleep. There is just too much good stuff going on in life to waste time sleeping. My children however, have always been able to cast a spell on me. They learned early that holding a book in their hands as they crawled into bed or asking me to “just get beneath the covers” and sing one verse of Summertime would weaken me and I’d nuzzle into their sweet necks and be seduced by a sweet blanket of sleep. I’ve taken to saying, “Oh, so this is what heaven feels like” as I drift off. My nine year old, Elias, has adopted the saying. It seems that it serves as a good catch phrase for everything from beating the final level of a video game to savoring a bowl of Hagen Daz, Vanilla Bean ice cream. I imagine that line will come in handy with the “ladies” one day.

If you know me or have read my stuff before you know that I think about the afterlife a lot. I am not a religious person but I tend to think that the “human spirit” or animal spirit for that matter is far too powerful to simply stop when life ends. I am inclined to think that when we take our last breath we pass onto a sort of holding area to rest up and recharge for our next journey to learn the lessons that we didn’t learn from the last life.  We move into the next chapter. My philosophy is that life is the ultimate recycling program that offers us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves until we get it right.

Although I don’t claim to have it all figured out, I hypothesize about that light that people report walking into. I imagine that the people that we have loved are there to greet us. I think about the people that I want to see again, like my Dad. I want to tell him that sometimes I hear his words when I write. I want to see my sister in law Patty and just bask in the warmth of that beautiful smile. I want to remind my mother-in- law that we still have a deal for the next life.  I want to tell my friend Don how sorry I am that I didn’t recognize his agony before he extinguished his own beautiful light. I don’t fear death when I think of it in those terms.

I want to believe that that light holds the answer to the things I don’t understand. I expect that we will learn that every element of life, each animal, each insect, each microorganism has a function in the balance of what is really a perfect world. Like the arteries and veins that carry oxygenated blood from our hearts, I think that we will learn that our lakes and streams carry the vital blood that nourishes our earth. I think that we will find that like our bodies which react poorly to excessiveness, our earth too suffers as a result of abuse and neglect.

I think that the “light” will offer us the ability to understand the people that have confounded us. It will help us to understand what lies beneath the grumpiness of the neighbor who looks at us and scowls. It might help us to decipher the thinking behind violence committed in the name of religion. It might give us a real peek into the frailty of a mind that snaps and kills innocents. It will offer us true empathy.

Recently my childhood friend lost her father to a long battle with cancer. She told me that in the last moments of his life, her father, a devoted democrat, said “I am wearing Bobby Jindal’s jacket”. She told me jokingly, that she feared he was going over to the “dark side”. I’d like to think that it meant that it that he entered into the “knowing” and that he found underneath all of our garments we are souls on a journey to have experiences, to see one another more clearly and to “get it right”.  In my mind I can see my friend’s dad as he looked the last time I saw him. He is young and healthy and he is wearing Bobby Jindal’s jacket and it’s a black leather motorcycle jacket.

 Javetta Steele Over the Rainbow

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Day After

I grew up in a home without guns. Well, that’s not entirely true, there was a rusty old rifle sitting around our old farmhouse like a lot of houses in the country. It wasn’t exactly a weapon as much as it was sort of like spatula that had seemed like a good idea once but wasn’t really functional and throwing it away seemed like a waste of a perfectly good spatula. I think that it had been part of my Dad’s attempt to enter into country-gentlemandom but I never saw it fired and there was never ammunition in our home.

Monday morning I will give my first English lesson at 6:00 am to a learner in France. Like every first lesson after a mass shooting in the US, each lesson will consist of questions and comments about the US Gun culture and I, as the token American for all of those with whom I teach will be held accountable for an explanation. In July after the shooting at the Batman Premiere in Aurora, Colorado I was able to use those questions to build a lesson which allowed the learner to search for soulful answers and find the vocabulary from the recesses of their minds to express an answer. I asked questions like, “Do you think that violent movies and video games desensitize violence in modern culture?” 

More recently after the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, I tried to turn the tables. I brought up the shootings committed by French-Algerian Mohammad Merah who killed three soldiers and then days later went to a Jewish school in Toulouse and opened fire killing four people, three of which were children. I made the point that although there is strict gun control in France, Merah managed to find guns and use them to kill innocent people.  I reminded them that in Norway, a country with very strict gun policy, Anders Behring Breivik planned and carried out a mass killing, which ended in the deaths of 77 people, mostly teenagers. 

This morning I am sitting at my computer at 6:00 a.m. looking out over the dark street wondering how I will respond in just 48 hours to the questions that will be asked of me regarding the shooting that took place in the Connecticut elementary school yesterday. I’ve tried to minimize my time in front of the television viewing the repeated shots of grieving parents brought to their knees by hearing that their child is dead or perhaps with the relief of learning that their child is alive. I watched one short video of our president wiping away his own tears as he addressed the atrocity of this act before the nation. I’ve skimmed over comments posted on social media made in attempt to reach out to others for comfort or to comfort and I’ve asked myself over and over the question that parents everywhere are asking themselves, “Next time could it be my child?”. 

On Monday morning I believe that I will have to do what I hope all Americans will be doing. I will have to take a deep breath, look straight ahead and make the admission that we have a problem. It is time to stop hiding behind the second amendment laws created long before we entered into what is now obviously a very deeply, broken, societal problem. This is not only an issue for our government leaders to solve, whether we are gun owners or not we each have a part in this. We need to look at the incidence of violence worldwide and study what promotes it. We have to take a long hard look at our own lives and ask ourselves what we are doing or not doing to perpetuate the brokenness. We have to act quickly and efficiently to prevent this from happening again and again and again.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cashmere and Mink ( A Christmas Story)

I recently wandered into a vintage clothing store knowing that I would find the perfect stocking stuffer for my daughter Olivia.  I imagined finding some absurd trinket, a blue plastic poodle in a begging pose, a pair of cat eye sunglasses or perhaps an old Partridge Family lunch box, I found none of those things and turned to leave when out of the corner of my eye I saw a full length, blond cashmere, swing coat with a blond mink collar, era approximately 1957. I stopped dead in my tracks, dropped my purse, removed my coat and slipped it on. It was in perfect condition. The mink (I normally would NEVER wear fur) was pristine and the fabric of the coat was free of signs of wear. My arms glided in so easily and the weight of the coat blanketed me in warmth without making me feel weighted down by its mass. I slipped my hands into the pockets and felt the soft silky lining that was free of holes and the perfect depth, not too shallow but not too deep. It was so absurdly not what I ever imagined wearing (I typically don’t desire real fur) and yet I couldn’t leave it. It was not just the fact that it fit my broad shoulders or that it’s blond shade in contrast to my dark features was striking. There was something more. There was something about the idea that another woman who before I was born, wore this coat and loved it enough to protect it from moths and dust for over 50 years.

I have a hard time with Christmas. I actually begin having anxiety when my local supermarket starts stocking Christmas candy in late October. For a long time I thought that it was because I am not religious and that I felt it was rather hypocritical to join the hoopla of this holiday when it held no real meaning for me. It irritated me that a holiday that is supposed to represent one of the most holy of days, really only represents shopping, eating in excess, decorations that have don’t seem to have any real symbolic relationship to the holiday and that the number of retail sales nationally seems to serve as a measure of the health of our national economy. The very image of “Black Friday”, an occasion for people to stand in line waiting to burst through the door of a retail establishment like horses at the starting gate, offends me. The images of people fighting and being arrested for wrestling over the latest gadgets sicken me. At my very core I reject this culture of what feels like greed and want to walk away from it. I am however a mother to children who have been raised with the commercial idea of what Christmas represents in our culture and I must balance that fact with my aversion. 

Perhaps, I am most offended by what has become a “throw away” culture. We consume in mass, we are addicted to meaningless “stuff” of no real significance. As I throw the obscure plastic pieces from the latest McDonald’s Happy Meal into the trash bin, I often imagine future archeologists and anthropologist hypothesizing about its relevance to our society. Will they perceive the huge number of plastic Disney characters they find in the landfill evidence of something our children worshiped and held near to their hearts? Will they see them as a symbol of who we are as a culture? How sad is that? And what about our addiction to cheap, empty, fast food? Our culture pours millions of dollars into an industry that promotes poor nutrition and as we drive away in our cars we don’t even recognize that the person who took the money that we work to earn, didn’t even bother to smile or say, “Thank You”. 

As I write this I find myself wanting to enter into a tirade about the outsourcing of manufacturing and our lack of concern for the human rights in the countries that are manufacturing our goods. I want to start discussing the quality of workmanship and the era of temporariness of products. I want to pound on my desk and speak of the number of unemployed people and the level of pay that could be provided to otherwise unskilled laborers within our own country. I want to scream about the carbon footprint left by our need for a fast, cheap and momentary “fix” for more stuff. I want talk about how our addiction is killing our planet and destroying the animal life that creates the perfect balance of what is true and real but that’s not what this is supposed to be about. This is supposed to be about what I want Christmas to mean to me and to those I love.

This year my husband and I will buy that plastic Xbox controller that my son believes he cannot live without. We will also buy him that cheap mini foosball table that he believes will bring him hours of fun and entertainment and perhaps even serve as an avenue to building bonds among his “buds”. I will also buy him a book of short stories that we will read together with the knowledge that his memory will associate those stories with the moments that we will share together. He won’t remember how that controller felt in his hands but he will remember the warmth of our time together. Moreover, I want the moments that I share with my extended family to be meaningful, not rushed and stressful. I want to see those children of my husband’s siblings through the candlelight of dinner and celebrate the adults that they have become. I want to hear about the world as they see it through their young eyes. I want to talk with my brothers and laugh at their dry humor for situations that are encoded in our history. I want to marvel at how beautifully they have aged and how the new lines in their faces are a map of their experiences and gained character. I want to look at all of our children and see a glint of my father’s smile in their eyes or witness the familiar gesture of a relative I’ve never met. I want to see my mother relaxed and happy and surrounded by love.

Maybe the vintage coat that I bought will become my token Christmas coat. I should wear it as a symbol of the longevity of things that we truly value and a reminder that those plastic pieces that we throw into the landfill should not define who we are.  It should also serve as a reminder that the “stuff” that we value should come with an investment of love, respect and preservation.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Indos On the Prairie

My three older brothers and I are what are known as Indos. Indos are people of Indonesian and Dutch heritage. Although we are largely Dutch and Indonesian, because of Indonesia’s history there are some Indos that are also German, Turkish, Indian, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish or any number of combinations. We are spread out all over the world. Interestingly we are rather chameleon-like, we can blend into many ethnic groups and go relatively unnoticed. The history of the people known as Indos is not very well known. But in order to tell you my story, I need to give you a bit of Indo history. 

My friend and fellow Indo and co-founder of The Indo Project Inc., Priscilla, has provided me with a lot of information to help me “wade” through the vast history of  WWII Asia and more specifically Indonesia. She reminds me that an Asian Holocaust occurred. She reminds me that over 23,000,000  people were killed in Asia during WWII and yet the information that is readily available on the subject is rather limited.

Europeans began arriving in Indonesia in the 16th century in pursuit of spices, thus the name The Spice Islands and also known as The Dutch East Indies. Long before however, as early as the 8th century Muslim traders began spreading Islam and by the 13th century when Marco Polo arrived Islamic states were strongly established. In the 1500’s the Portuguese began to trade Indonesian spices that were used for cooking as well as food preservation but were also thought to cure disease. The Dutch however took over the trade and established a spice monopoly. The Dutch for the most part gained rule over Indonesia although a native rebellion began as early as 1825. During WWII the Dutch under German occupation were powerless against the Japanese and by 1942 the Dutch surrendered Indonesia to Japanese occupation. Initially the Indonesian people thankful to be relieved of the Dutch, welcomed the Japanese referring to Japan as its older brother.  

After four years of the brutal Japanese Occupation of Indonesia on August 15, 1945 the Japanese surrendered to the Allies but were asked to maintain “charge” of Indonesia under the Allied forces arrived.  The Dutch seemingly not having gained much empathy after the German occupation of The Netherlands returned to Indonesia for what they referred to as “Reconstruction”.  This also marked the beginning of the Bersiap period.  Indonesian Independence leaders began to take control of positions left by Japanese leaders and violence against Indos began.  Indos routinely disappeared and were later found floating in canals.  By the end of the Bersiap period, 20,000 Indo men, women and children were abducted and never returned home.

By 1949 the Indonesian Independence Movement led by President Sukarno was successful in regaining control of Indonesia and eventually all Dutch Nationals were expelled from Indonesia. Upon expulsion most Indos went to The Netherlands where they were not necessarily welcomed by the Dutch. Fortunately for people like my family there were refugee programs sponsored by organizations like Church World services and many had the opportunity to come to the US. 

I’m often really envious when I learn about Indo immigrants that landed in places like California where there was a community of other Indos or at least other Asians. My parents and two older brothers immigrated to Kansas….rural Kansas. My Dutch father who was serving in the Royal Dutch Army volunteered to go to Indonesia after WWII for “Reconstruction” or what I now understand to have been “Re-colonization”.  He had recently been liberated from a work camp in Germany and I imagine that venturing into a vast world without confines confirmed his freedom. Upon arriving in Indonesia, my father not only fell in love with my Indonesian mother, he fell in love with Indonesia. I think that my rather socially awkward father found a place that he felt he belonged, in Indonesia. He would have happily lived out his life in Indonesia had he, my mother and my two brothers not been expelled from the country.

The Netherlands felt claustrophobic to my father after living in Indonesia and of course the economic conditions were less than ideal. When the Church of the Brethren offered sponsorship to my family the idea of going to Kansas seemed like a great idea. If my father imagined grassy plains and wide open space, he imagined right. He might not have imagined a landscape dotted with small farms, the beautiful tree covered rolling hills, the lazy lakes or the rushing creeks of northeastern Kansas. He probably also never imagined that although his Caucasian features would allow him to “blend right in” his wife and children would be sort of an oddity.

We were an oddity. At some point my father decided to start buying land and he and my mother bought a white farm house with a dairy barn. He had a romantic idea about farming so he bought a tractor and some cows. Although I don’t really remember the story firsthand, the first day he took the tractor out in the field it broke down and never moved again. At some point in the late sixties, my brothers, experimenting with, Peace, Love and the Age of Awakening, painted the tractor bright orange. The cows often succumbed to the idea that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” and frequently succeeded in an effective “jail break” to sample the fare on the neighbors land, as a result there was a lot of emergency fence mending, usually in the middle of the night. The idea of farming did not last long. Fortunately for all of us, my father did not quit his day job.

My parents kept the land and rented it out to local farmers. It served as a beautiful part of my childhood. For me the land my parents owned became an extension of our garden and a huge wonderland for untroubled play and exploration. At a very young age I would venture off into the wooded property, take my shoes off and wade in the cool water, catch crayfish in my hands and stage crayfish races and other amphibious, athletic feats in the mud. Occasionally I would encounter a snake, sometimes venomous and run to the safety of my home not to return to the woods again until the image of the snake was dulled by time.

I don’t think I knew until I was nearly 12 that there were a lot of Indo people like me roaming the earth. I was comforted by that knowledge. I imagined that somewhere in the world there might be a girl like me, eating satay with cucumbers and peanut sauce with rice in the middle of a prairie.  In the 1970’s beauty and glamour were defined in my adolescent eyes by the women that I saw on magazine covers and television series. Those women were Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah Faucet and Cheryl Ladd. I looked nothing like those women and neither did my mother. The American stereotype of an “Asian woman” was a meek, subservient woman…that wasn’t me either.

To date the only other Indos I have ever seen in real life are my brothers and our children. The Internet has introduced me to other Indos who have filled in a lot of the “empty blanks” in my life. You have no idea how reassuring it is to know that sambal, ( a hot pepper paste used as a condiment) is a staple in other people’s homes or to know that there are others who believe that a house is not complete without a barong (a hand carved mask, that is rather fierce looking) to ward off evil spirits. The truth however is that I search through all of their photos of the early days in Indonesia hoping to find a glimpse of my mother. I keep hoping that through some strange synchronicity, I will find that one of their father’s knew mine as children in Amsterdam. Some of those “blanks” are still empty. 

There do seem to be some of us, like my brothers, who don’t seem to need the confirmation that Indo groups offer. One of my brothers does not have one symbol of our ethnicity in his home. While the other two proudly display wood carvings and other artwork perhaps as an appreciation for art more than for what it symbolizes. For me the hand carved wooden sculptures and masks, although appreciated for their artisan quality, are a reflection of something I carry within me. It is something that is deep and primal that makes me feel connected to my ancestors for whom the works were not only art but part of a belief system. The tiny wooden shoes and whimsical delft blue canisters in my office or orange Holland scarf hanging in my closet are symbols of my Dutch pride and allegiance to my father’s country. I need these symbols in my life to give me balance, to remind me of who I am and from where I came.

As a parent I recognize the responsibility that I have to share my history with my children and yet I realize that the symbols with which I surround myself are not enough. My beautiful, American husband has perfected his satay recipe and I make a mean batch of Nasi Goreng, it is comfort food for my children, this also is not enough. We live in a culture in which multi-ethnicity is becoming the norm. Our Indo children have representations of other people of mixed ethnicity in the media and in film. There will not desperately seek out the comfort of the familiarity that I have sought. The people that have created groups and publications to bring us together are truly heroes but each of us has to keep our story alive by telling our stories, honoring our history and like the siblings who have shared our journey holding tight to one another.