Amidst Fear Lives Love & Safety

Shelby Parks
7 min readDec 12, 2019

New York, New York — Around 10 pm, after basking in the sounds of jazz, my friend and I wandered over to the Christopher Street-Sheridan Square subway stop, ready to go home.

My laugh lines were imprinted on my face, and my feet danced down the subway stairs with a hint of a bounce in them, a welcomed effect from the music that still sent those sweet notes through my body. Reaching into my wool-lined pocket, I retrieved my bright yellow metro card and swung through the turnstile as I swiftly turned my head around, looking for my friend behind me to continue the conversation.

Photo by Adi Goldstein

But I was stopped. The ease and joy I felt was immediately replaced with the unsolicited grope of a man that stood behind me. The heat of rage and self-preservation overwhelmed me and I bellowed out with a monstrous roar at him, a lash of an attack with words.

He scoffed, with a smug look on his face, “don’t be so dramatic.” And all I could think was, “you monster, who else have you done this to?”.

Within moments, my friend, another woman and man appeared, each taking on a role, a community of care and support swarming around me. My friend and the caring MTA agent called the police, and confirmed that he would be arrested at the next stop. And yet amongst that safety, the fight I had in me, froze.

You see, when someone sexually assaults you, that moment does not stand alone. Instead, the myriad of assaults from the past all take life again, flooding the psyche with flashes of tears, anger, and most of all, violations on your safety. Those incidents stay with you, building upon one another, impacting your narrative identity in the world: I am not safe.

For a moment, I found myself wanting to speak with him, to understand where he learned that assaulting someone is okay. I wanted to hear his story as a way to help heal this behavior and to prevent him from ever touching someone again. Yet, as he looked at me with those cold, unapologetic eyes moments before he escaped on the next train, I wondered, “maybe he has a knife…or a gun…would he push me onto the tracks?” And so I stopped. Silenced by the unknown outcome. Silenced by the fear.

As time elapsed and the commotion of the incident settled down, my friend and I found our way onto the subway and on our way home, once again.

As I stood on the train and crowds of people loaded on, my breathing got tighter, tears began flowing from my eyes and my heart was beating as if I had just sprinted down a track with full force. Everywhere I looked, my eyes connected with men, men who I immediately distrusted; men who I created stories about in my head…which ones would follow me home tonight…which ones would cat call me…and which ones would attack.

Fortunately, I found my peace swiftly. I replaced the nightmarish melody that played in my head with a succession of mantras, “You are safe. They are safe. We are safe,” all the while holding my hand to my chest, where my Hamsa laid delicately around my neck, calling in protection. My sympathetic nervous system returned to normal and when I opened my eyes, it was time to get off the train and walk home.

Home At Last — As I lay in bed I reflect not upon the incident, but rather the idea of safety and how rare of an experience it is for me and many others in this world. My mind wanders off towards the only place I have ever truly felt safe.

Let me begin by sharing that the words that follow are in no way a generalization or a reflection of the collective experience. I understand that this one perspective I am presenting and it is not true for everyone.

For one week, every year, I feel safe. For one week, I don’t look over my shoulder to discern the noise that is in close proximity behind me; I don’t have to think about what time I am returning home; I don’t have to wonder if the clothes I am wearing will invite unwanted attention. For one week I am instead flooded with safety and love.

This is my Burning Man. For me, it is the only community I have ever known where I feel safe, and that safety provides a sense of freedom to exist and to be exactly who I am that I have not tasted anywhere else in this world. And perhaps that is why I choose to stay sober almost the entire time, because the nectar of overwhelming safety and security is more rare than any high I could ever have.

Photo by Elisa Berger

And this last year in particular, I was able to reflect on this more than ever.

This year, my father and his friend trusted me and joined me at Burning Man. And this was the first time in my life that my father did not utter the words, “be safe.” He could feel from the moment that we touched that beautiful dust that the necessity he also felt to make sure that I was safe, was not necessary. My father saw me fully in my freedom.

Photo by Elisa Berger

I honor that I am fortunate to come from a family that loves me and cares about my safety and well-being. And for that, the magnitude of the genuine release of worry in my father’s eyes was a brilliance that I cannot capture in these words.

You see, for that week, I was not scared when I rode my bike out to the deep playa at 3 am to meditate. I closed my eyes in full surrender, knowing that I did not have to worry about my physical safety or the safety of my belongings that sat beside me.

Photo by Elisa Berger

I was not scared to walk into my neighbors camp and ask for help to pull the the rebar out of the ground, as I knew I would be greeted with smiles and hugs, only with consent, of course.

I was not scared to wear my brightly colored wig and dance around in a bathing suit in the beating hot sun because I knew that my body and my choices would be respected. I knew that I could celebrate my body in any way that I saw fit, because it is mine and no one else’s.

And I was not scared when my scarf fell from my shoulders in the middle of the night, getting caught in my bike chain. Instead, I was offered two helping hands by a beautiful man who did not want anything more than to truly help me.

For that one week, fear does not exist for me. Instead, I have the privilege of experiencing what a world would be like where love, giving, community, consent, openness, and safety rise above all else.

And so, as I sit here in this concrete jungle, watching the bright lights of New York City beam into my bedroom window, I am reminded that the love and safety I have experienced is far greater than what any attack could take from me. I am lucky to know what genuine safety feels like. I am lucky that despite the attacks I have endured in my life to have a father and brother who honor my safety by creating a home where I can express myself. I am lucky to have friends who identify as men who I can spend hours and hours with, not worried about them mistakenly believing that the quality time we spend together is an invitation for a sexual advance. And I am lucky to have had partners who have shown me safety towards my mind and my body, who have never made me feel like they own my body, but instead celebrate and honor my body as my own. These men have instilled over and over that safety does exist, and it is abundant.

You will not win when you attempt to take my safety. I will remain soft, open and offer others safety to remind them of the good in this world.

Note of Awareness: I am in no way saying that only men can create safety, and only men can attack others. This is one small piece of a greater lived experience, but in no way is meant to detract from the bigger picture or to place blame on one group of people.

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Shelby Parks

Harmonizing people’s relationship with themselves & the natural world through storytelling.