The House with the Painted-Shut Windows

Photo: Tiago Rodrigues

A few months ago, my wife and I spotted a house we found for sale on Zillow. We ran some numbers and we went to see it and we loved it in person, too. We did a walk through and then drove around the area for an hour, talking. This was right after Rosh Hashanah. The air was still warm, summery even, and the apple orchards near the house were abundant with fruit. It was easy to feel like the whole thing was just meant to be. We made an offer the next morning and it was accepted by noon.

A week later, we returned for the inspection. We began with benign stuff: A missing gutter, the faucets in one of the bathrooms reversed, and other signs of work done too quickly. At first blush, the bathrooms and kitchen looked like they’d been transplanted from the nearest IKEA showroom. A closer look revealed a lack of permitting and corners cut. We’d be buying a house priced as a four-bedroom that was legally zoned as a two-bedroom.

The off-gassing from the materials used to install the lower-level flooring — it was a raised ranch with a finished basement that we planned to use as a bedroom and home office — was so strong that my sister, who’d come to help suss out the place, had to go upstairs after a few minutes. My wife started having breathing trouble. I stood there thinking: No.

The corner downstairs “bedroom” had a single bed in the corner with some butterfly decals on the walls. This room had no windows, though it looked like a child slept there.

Before I go on, let me back up a few days and hope this next part doesn’t make me sound stalkerish. Really, I’m not. I’m a curious person, and a writer, and someone who assembles stories in my head. I Googled the address to see if I could learn anything about its history and its current owners.

It belonged to a couple. Presumably, based on the child’s room and the bundle of balloons in the corner of the kitchen that said, “It’s a boy!” they had a daughter and were expecting. The man had a prior court appearance for domestic assault, from a few years ago. None of my business, I know. But if I told you it didn’t color my perception of the house, I’d be lying.

The morning of the inspection, we saw the woman leaving the house with her little girl, clearly trying to get out of there given that four strangers were now milling around her driveway. As she leaned down to help her daughter into the carseat, I tried to catch her eye to smile. She quickly looked away. Had I not read what I’d read, I would’ve thought she was having a rushed and stressful morning trying to get to daycare and then work on time. Lord knows, I’ve had thousands of those myself.

Instead, I saw a woman who looked like she was doing her best to be as small and invisible as possible.

But this wasn’t the worst part. The worst part came about 25 minutes later. We started with the visual exterior — roof, gutters (or lack thereof), deck, foundation, trees. Then moved inside — kitchen, bathroom, living room, dining room. This didn’t take long, and no alarm bells went off. So far, so good. I wandered into one of the two upstairs bedrooms, the rooms that would belong to my own kids were we to proceed with the purchase.

That’s when I went to open a window. Huh. Strange. It wouldn’t budge. A further moment of investigation, and a quick survey of the other upstairs windows, then later downstairs, exposed something we found odd at best and chilling at worst. They were painted shut. All of them. I touched the paint. It was a recent job, and my wife and I exchanged a sinking look. It appeared that he had literally painted her in.

Of course, we cannot verify this. We are not investigators. We know nothing of these people’s lives, nor was it any of our business. But we knew in that moment — even aside from the lack of permits, the shoddy work, the chemical hazard of off-gassing that, unbelievably, is still not considered a “health and safety” issue in the inspection report — that we could not live in this house.

I wished I could slip a note to her somehow, with the number of Safe Passage, a local shelter for those fleeing domestic violence. But I knew I could not nothing but hope she would have the courage and means to get out.

Maybe she thinks she deserves it. After all, dinner was cold the other night. She’d forgotten to take out the recycling. She spent too much on groceries. Or he’d just had a shit day and that was her fault, too. Or maybe she was just too terrified. She was pregnant. They had a little girl. Keeping them safe — she had to. He loved them. He said so. He was sorry. He said so. Besides, who would believe her, anyway? He made good money. They had a nice life. She was lucky he took care of them. She was making it up. She was making him look bad. She was crazy. She was exaggerating. She was selfish.

We drove away, $700 lighter, knowing we would pull our offer. Knowing this house was a bullet dodged. And knowing that there was nothing we could do with this knowledge that a battered woman and her abuser might live there.

But those painted-shut windows have haunted me. Knowing a little girl slept in a room with no windows in a basement stifled by chemicals has haunted me. The statistics haunt me.

None of my business?

Maybe that woman I saw in the driveway’s personal life is none of my business. But it is my business that in the last 20 years, 17,700,000 women have been rape victims. It’s my business that 99% of sexual violence perpetrators face no lasting criminal charges. It’s my business that we live in a culture where a history of sexual violence does not keep men from attaining positions of power, prestige, and wealth — and that these, in turn, protect them.

It’s my business that many women, especially children and young women, don’t report their abusers, attackers, or rapists, for fear of retribution and their safety, as well as the common fact that they will very likely be questioned if not blamed.

It’s my business. Because I am a woman. Because I am a parent. Because I am a human.

And it’s your business, too. It has to be. And if it’s not, I wonder why. Are you frightened? In denial? What are you protecting?

Not one of us hasn’t been touched by sexual violence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so widespread that you might not even be aware of how, or you might know exactly how and have spent many years honing your coping skills and compartmentalizing the truths your body and psyche carry.

When I was in high school — think late 80s — I went to a presentation about violence against women and the advertising industry. The images of women dehumanized, made into body parts, made into objects, seared into me. For women of color and trans women, and especially for trans women of color, the representations and realities were — and are — even more degrading.

I have had my share of near misses, but I have not been a victim myself of rape. I am not here to tell anyone else’s story, except to say that my life is filled with friends, family members, and writers who can’t say the same. Women for whom sexual assault and violence is woven into their cells.

I believe them. It’s my business to believe them. It’s my business to believe you. It’s my business to write what I can and then to stop writing and to listen, to make room for your story, if and when you feel ready to write it.

It’s my business to never shut up. To smile only when I feel like smiling. To keep doing my own work of healing a nervous system that cranks up in a millisecond if I feel scolded or scared.

And so I’m here. To tell the story of the painted-shut windows. To bear witness where I can and to refuse anything less than our full humanity, our full safety, and a reckoning the likes of which this country still hasn’t seen.

It’s time to get out our chisels and hammers, to break the seals, to break the windows if we have to. They cannot paint us in, ridicule, or scare or into silence.

Too Cold for Ice Cream, Just Right for Writing

flavors

I saw this the other night while getting ice cream with Aviva, and it captures *exactly* how I feel about my website menu. Not all the groups are offered all the time!

So what IS currently on the menu?

If you’re itching to write and could use the encouragement and camaraderie of a supportive space to both hush your inner critic and keep you accountable to showing up, here are what scoops are available in the next two months. It might be getting chilly for ice cream, but it’s a perfect time of year to get your writing on.

1. Between the Sheets: Write Your Stories of Desire, Intimacy, and Pleasure
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Delicious choice.

This is a 2-week group I’m co-leading with my Inky Path partner, Cigdem Kobu. The theme has to do with stories of desire, intimacy, and pleasure — but like all prompts, they will take people in many directions. This group starts (and registration ends) TODAY! As in ALL of my groups: The writing is completely confidential, and the vibe is supportive and completely judgement-free. It’s $99.

inkypath.com/between-the-sheets-guided

2. On the Corner: Writing at the Intersection(s)
A new, experimental flavor, combining the tried-and-true tradition of writing prompts with swirls of exploring our identities, inside and out.

This group starts Monday, September 19 and ends Monday, October 10. Prompts will be 3 days/week, and all relate in some way to the many “parts” of ourselves, how the world sees us, what we’ve abandoned and what we want to reclaim or change. I’m super excited about it and would be so so thrilled for you all to join me. There are 3 payment “tiers” — $63, $126, and $189 — on a kind of honor system.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/on-the-corner-writing-at-the-intersections

4. What If You Knew?
A classic flavor that will whet your appetite for more. Writing, that is.

My next 2-week group, with the original 10 prompts I ever wrote. I’m offering this one again as a kind of 2-year anniversary of promptressing and doing this work in the world. If you’re looking to begin, deepen, or expand a writing practice, please join me October 10-21. The cost is $99, though I’m often told it’s priceless.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/2-week-writing-practice

3. Dive Into Poetry: October 1-31
If you’re like me, and want to sample everything, this might be the group for you.

A month-long poetry celebration, with 3x/week poems & images from me, to use as springboards + inspiration for your own poems! This group is straight-up great fun. No previous poetry-writing experience is required; in fact, the whole idea is to get to play. And it’s only $28.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/national-poetry-month

**

Writing together and freewriting are ways to blast through the toxicity of comparing ourselves to each other. To show up to yourself, to what’s true, to back then and to right now and to someday. To practice being good to yourself. To quiet the voices telling you “too much” and “not enough.” To see what happens when you don’t have to be good.

We’re all 32 flavors and then some.

Come have a taste. 

And how could I possibly resist wrapping this up without some Ani?

Happy Half-Birthday to Me (and a Gift for You)

Lily
I could click “share” on Facebook all day long, and feel less and less connected.

Instead, I took my bike out of the garage and rode to town. I got a taco and a $2 lottery ticket. Then I rode home. Anger, envy, sadness, missing, confusion, and love — all perched on my handlebars like a motley crew of dark companions, offset by the chirping of birds and pretty houses and flowers growing around picket fences. It wasn’t until I got to my own old yellow house that I stopped and put down the kickstand. Put down my guard and my armor and opened my eyes again. These lilies, towering amidst weeds, growing by the curb in a kind of accidental garden.

Continue reading today’s newsletter, which includes other musings as well as a special gift for you: 14% off everything on the menu until midnight July 14 (my half-birthday!).

If you don’t already receive Fierce Encouragement for Writing + Lifesubscribe here and the next one will appear in your inbox.

Thank you for showing up, in all the ways.

Angel Posse Meets Story Sisterhood

typewriter

They don’t mind my writing about them and I don’t mind risking sounding like a religious fanatic or a woo-woo nut job.

I just spent the last hour writing a story about my angel posse, for one of the prompts in The Story Sisterhood. This new membership group of The Inky Path will dive deeply into a single theme every three months. For our inaugural theme “Gotta Have Faith,” already a group of really wonderful women from around the world has assembled to explore our stories, one week at a time, alone and together.

Though I’ve written about my angels many times before, today I wound up writing something brand new, something I would probably not have sat down to write had I not had some reason to do so. While this itself is a gift for me, such a huge part of the writing is also in the sharing and the connections that opens up between me and other humans.

So many factors at play. So much responsibility to bear. The whole “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” thing? I wasn’t sure I was buying it.

So when I say things like “I hope you’ll join us,” it’s not an empty sales pitch. Whether I’m referring to the writing groups I lead privately or the ones I co-create over at The Inky Path, what you’re getting is my heart, my whole self, and an expression of my deep and genuine desire to share some of my stories with you and to get the deep privilege of reading yours.

What you’re hearing is borne of awe at the alchemy of memory, writing, and witness.

And they are tough as nails, too. They never back down and they always have my back. My angels are my best friends. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

I don’t know what I’d do without you, either. My writing posse. This beautiful and ever-expanding community.

If taking the time and creating the space to connect with your own stories inside of a truly supportive community of women calls to you, I hope you’ll join me and my inky partner-in-crime. Cigdem Kobu in The Story Sisterhood.

inkypath.com/story-sisterhood/

Registration is open through the weekend, then will close until late summer.

“This sisterhood is unlike anything I have experienced. It has unleashed many words that needed a meadow to romp in without fear.” – Terri Jackson