One of my first real jobs, when I was in my late twenties, was at a Rape Crisis Center in Portland, Maine. I had had other jobs before, but this was really the first one in which I didn’t live in a tent, wear pink polka-dotted rubber boots on days that it rained, or regularly eat mid afternoon snacks of peanut butter and saltines. I was a real grown up. I carried a briefcase and a beeper. And I spent my days counseling survivors of sexual assault. I liked my job a lot, and I was very good at it.
On the second Saturday of each month, we offered a self defense class for women, run by a local martial arts expert and attended by high school, and college students, mothers, professional women, senior citizens, and many who were some combination of these groupings. They learned the eye jab, the bridge of the nose whack, and, my personal favorite, the ball crush. I attended many of these workshops, because every other month, it was my job to check people in and provide a healthy and nutritious lunch. I practiced diligently and became rather skilled and confident about my ability to foil a potential attacker and, potentially, inflict some damage myself. I was much younger and spryer in those days, and, even if the potential damage infliction went against my pacifist leanings, I felt like I was ready for anything.
I remember coming out of the sessions feeling strong in mind and body. I would scan the parking lot for danger. I would walk briskly, with my head held high, aware of my surroundings, just like the instructor instructed us. I had practiced my attention-grabbing yells, and I was pretty sure I could bellow with the best of them should the need arise. I was confident that I could poke, jab, and crush my way to safety. In short, I was the ideal student. In all ways except one.
There was one phrase which the instructor, first, and the class, in response, recited many times throughout the class. It was, “I trust my instincts.” I could say it, in a loud, assertive voice, often accompanied by a poke- jab-crush. Intellectually, I knew how important it was to listen to what my instincts were trying to tell me, more important than the whacks and bellows. I could say it. I could understand it. But I was not sure that I could do it.
These days, I do not often find myself in situations that I would call dangerous. But I have learned to rely on my instincts, to listen to that little voice that tells me that something is not right, and to trust what it is telling me. I am no longer fending off rapists, even in my imagination. I am warm and safe, with good food and good coffee, with cats and a life filled with meaning and people who love me. But I have not forgotten my little voice. I check in with it every so often and listen to what it tells me. Just like, every once on a while, I finish my workout session with a few practice pokes, jabs, and crushes. And it still feels really good.