Every woman’s share is powerful, an opportunity for growth and learning for her and everyone who takes the time to listen to/ read it. Every now and again that woman ALSO happens to be a majestic writer.
This Sunday’s Share Your Story just happens to be penned by one such woman. Christine Marie Ristaino holds back nothing in her story. And, she does it with literary genius.
Christine is a survivor – not of one brutal violent incident – but, three. As she proclaims: “It’s it’s not really the three events themselves, but how I climbed out of their ruins that interests me.” Making a whole life for herself as a professor, author, mother, wife, friend, and more; Christine’s wisdom and insights are a gift to us all.
This week’s Share Your Story: Christine Marie Ristaino.
KUELLIFE: What are you pursuing now, at this stage of your life, that surprises you or might appear to others as if it comes out of left field?
CHRISTINE: It’s not what I’m pursuing right now that surprises me; it’s what I’m not pursuing. I no longer have any interest in cooking. I used to bake cookies with my mom and I looked forward to it as much as the dessert it led to. We would talk and cook and I could smell, in only the way teenagers who are always hungry smell, the winding scent of the cookies as they moved into each stage of baking. And sometimes I used to cook a three-day sauce, handed down from my grandmother’s grandmother, with my friend, Sara, who moved across the country with me straight out of college. We would fill our bowls with sauce, sit on the kitchen floor, talking and eating that delicious sauce without a drop of pasta. My husband and I used to cook together when we first fell in love—we couldn’t stand to be apart. And I remember cooking with my children—cookies, cakes, pasta. They would circle around the room as we waited for the timer to go off.
My husband is a wonderful cook. He does cook a bit more meat than I would like, and occasionally his dishes are too fatty. He hates vegetables and I love them, so I find myself microwaving a frozen packet of spinach, broccoli or cauliflower for my daughter and me, and eating it, all plain and uncomplicated, with a side of what my husband has cooked. I don’t think its laziness on my part that has stopped me from cooking; it’s something that comes when your life changes in a steady, organic way. Simply put, I would much rather be eating the cooked meal, laughing and telling stories, leaning in to hear more, devouring the things I learn from others, the meal, and the stories I hear.
This may surprise my students. I co-teach a course comparing Italy and China through the medium of noodles. We talk about making noodles together, the storytelling that happens there, and this is true, I do love that part. But now, with my kids focused on other things and my husband wanting the kitchen to himself, when given the choice of cooking alone or being on the receiving end of food, taking a long, thin noodle and twirling it around my fork with homemade sauce as the conversation winds around me, I would choose the hum of that scene, that precious sharing of food, to the empty room and boiling water that precedes it.
KUELLIFE: What’s a typical day like for you?
CHRISTINE: Here is my quarantine routine: I usually wake up, have a cup of coffee, and listen to the news, then teach my classes at the kitchen table on-line. My husband teaches high school and my son is in high school, so mornings and early afternoons are filled with on-line teaching and learning and meetings. After our classes, my husband and I take a walk, I call my parents and sometimes my brothers or friends, have a late lunch, and do work. Eventually my husband cooks dinner and we all eat together. In the evenings I have meetings with students on-line or help my son with homework. I advise three student groups: undocumented students, the Survivor Anthology, and the Italian Club, and we usually meet at around 8pm. My son loves anime, so we watch a show of his choice after that. My daughter is in college and we talk at around 10pm, or text, or Instagram each other. I plan my lessons, email, and catch up with my work between 10-12pm. I write late, just before I go to bed, for about 20 minutes. Then I get up the next morning between 7-8am to do it all again.
“Because I experienced sexual violence, I have always felt there was something wrong with me.”
KUELLIFE: With what do you struggle?
CHRISTINE: I struggle with self-esteem. Because I experienced sexual violence, I have always felt there was something wrong with me. Why else would somebody have molested or raped me? So, it’s a constant battle between loving the person I am becoming and my old go-to-place of ‘I’m not good enough’.
Whenever I don’t get enough sleep, am a bit down, or overworked, this is the place I find myself. “What’s wrong with me? I must have done something wrong.” In the past I would spend days in this place, but now I use it as a barometer. “What is missing in my life? Oh, sleep. I better sleep then.“
This works better than anything I have tried before—positive self-talk, ignoring how I feel, writing apologetic emails for something I didn’t do. I realize I am good enough but I’m tired of playing old tapes. It’s a wonderful relief every time I understand this and do what my body needs it to do.
There are moments when even that doesn’t work. In that case, I’ve made a deal with a friend who does the same thing as I do when she’s tired, stressed, or down. I call her and I’m completely honest with her about how I’m feeling. She talks me out of it, reminds me of who I am.
KUELLIFE: How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
CHRISTINE: I take things one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time. I check in with myself often and make sure I have the right tools to stay motivated. Sometimes I buy myself chocolate! I also have a support system of strong women who I can call at the drop of a hat if I need encouragement.
KUELLIFE: What advice would you give fellow women about aging?
CHRISTINE: I used to feel the soft skin on the back of my grandmother’s hand and now, when I hold my mom’s hand, I feel that same soft skin and round, wiggly veins. My brother would play with the saggy skin under my grandmother’s arm, his thumb in his mouth and the other hand running gently down her arm. My teenagers grab onto this same underarm skin on me, the opposite of a muscle. “Mom!” they say, “When did you get this?” I’m 53 and my grandmother was 57 when I was born, so I assume it just happens over time.
I don’t dislike aging and I don’t believe anyone should. I love that I am larger than I used to be, that I take up more space in the world, that my skin is soft and hangs a bit, that my legs, once hairy and earthy, are losing their hair, bit by bit. I love that my personal truths are so palpable, that I only cry now when I’m happy or moved, that being in this world means so much more than just existing in it.
Aging is an opportunity to know ourselves better, add ourselves to our list of friends, and enjoy our own company. Aging means wisdom, acceptance, and loose skin, the kind of skin that makes us feel human and glorious in our imperfect, aging bodies.
KUELLIFE: What does vulnerability mean to you? What has the ability to make you vulnerable?
“When I can’t hold back tears, or a laugh, or a fart.”
CHRISTINE: Vulnerability is a strength, or at least admitting to it is. We are all vulnerable and feel it, especially now during a global pandemic. When people let down their defenses, admit they are vulnerable, admit they make mistakes, have faults, that’s when I love them the most. We all make excuses for ourselves when we aren’t on top of our game. But, the world is flying by and we are all grabbing onto its tail with an untenable grip. When we pretend we’re not holding on for dear life, when we say it’s easy when it’s not, that’s when we’re the least likable, the least human, the least relatable. One day we will die, but we continue to live, and that makes us all vulnerable and beautiful at the same time.
What has the ability to make me vulnerable? So many things. When I can’t do it all. When I feel too tired to think. When my children are sick or sad. When I feel as though I haven’t come through for somebody. When I’m insensitive. When I remember what I’ve forgotten. When I can’t hold back tears, or a laugh, or a fart. I feel vulnerable when I’m giving my children or students a compliment because I cry every time.
When we admit to our vulnerabilities we can laugh together, or cry. We can connect with others. We can say what a jack-ass-stupid thing we just did and put our hand on our foreheads in disbelief. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, when we think about it long enough, though, we definitely can believe it.
KUELLIFE: What are three events that helped to shape your life?
CHRISTINE: A year ago, I published a memoir titled All the Silent Spaces. It’s about three experiences with violence that shaped me and how I interact with the world. You might think violence is a terrible way to have one’s life shaped and I couldn’t agree with you more. However, it’s not really the three events themselves, but how I climbed out of their ruins that interests me.
I was molested by my grandfather, when I was eight or nine years old (I can’t remember my exact age). I used to sleep over at my grandparents’ house. It was after my grandmother had gone to bed. I was on the couch in the living room and my grandfather was watching tv in a small room next to the living room. There was no door between the two rooms and I couldn’t sleep because my back was itchy. I got up and visited my grandfather, asked him to scratch my back. He sat me on his lap, scratched, then tickled, then did more.
At age twenty-one, I was at a party at a friend’s house. I had a curfew and I asked my friend to find someone to take me home. She introduced me to an acquaintance of hers, who wanted to dance first. I did and it was fun and then he kissed me. When I got into his car and began to give him directions, he turned the opposite way and took me to a deserted old place, a very small house with beds in the front room. It was there he raped me.
At age forty, I was attacked in a parking lot in front of my three and five-year old children. I ended up on the ground covered in blood with a broken nose, black eye, and slight concussion. My children and I fell apart afterward. It was during the rebuilding when I began the long process of facing the other two events. I realized I didn’t know who I was. I was hiding these three formative experiences from my family and had always felt separated from them as a result. I had never quite allowed myself to be completely me.
Something surprising happened, though. As soon as I began telling my family, friends, and colleagues about these events, I could finally feel what mattered to me deep inside and it was powerful—a bit like falling in love, you just want to learn more about that person. I don’t know if there was any other way to get here, but this process of self-discovery I wouldn’t trade for anything.
KUELLIFE: Who influenced you the most in life and why?
CHRISTINE: Isabel Wilkerson, a dear friend of mine who wrote The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste has been a huge influence on me during my adult life. She has taught me so much about overcoming challenges, and shown me what it means to bear witness to others, hear their stories, and make important culture change in the process. The Warmth of Other Suns is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. She spent 15 years bearing witness to one of the most important stories of our country’s history, the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North. Because she did this and wrote such a powerful book, many people saw their own stories in the narratives of the people she wrote about, and this process has changed us as a nation.
KUELLIFE: What is the best advice you’ve been given from another woman?
“it’s more that women are constantly modeling how to be the best woman they can be”
CHRISTINE: As far as writerly advice goes, Carole Glickfeld, author of Swimming Toward the Ocean, taught me so much about the craft and what it takes to be a strong writer. She told me I should never edit and write at the same time, but do these processes at two different times of the day. It has changed the way I write and I’m a much more effective writer now.
Regarding advice about being a woman, it’s more that women are constantly modeling how to be the best woman they can be, through their courage, passion, and authenticity. Before I was able to talk about the violence I had experienced, I witnessed strong women talking about their own struggles. I learned that talking about our challenges shows strength, not weakness. I learned this because the women around me showed me this was the case through the way they interacted with the world.
KUELLIFE: What woman inspires you and why?
CHRISTINE: My mom, Jean Ristaino, inspires me. She has overcome tremendous hardship and struggle and always remains positive and kind no matter what is going on in her life. She bears witness to everyone around her with love and strength. Her strength has kept me going many times.
KUELLIFE: Are you grown-up?
CHRISTINE: Yes, finally!
KUELLIFE: What do you do for self-care?
CHRISTINE: I have to admit, not enough. However, if I can write for 20 minutes a day, I feel as though I’ve given myself some good attention and a nice reset. I also take short walks with my husband and dogs each day.
KUELLIFE: And last but definitely NOT least: What are the top three things on your bucket list?
CHRISTINE: To have a conversation with Oprah Winfrey about so many things, to hold a lunch for Jimmy Carter and my undocumented students, and to sit on my porch with my children when I’m in my eighties and know they have had good lives.