Fight-Patriarchy

Outgrowing My Fear of Anger

"No woman’s anger is an island." ~ Leslie Jamison :: read more

I’m thinking about anger, and how I used to be so afraid of it.

Wednesday morning, sitting in the small waiting area while my wife gets her first mammogram. She turned 40 a few months ago. At 44, I am overdue and know I should schedule mine soon, too. I get out my phone and scroll through Facebook for a few minutes. I play with selfie filters on Instagram and post a picture of myself; my head appears to be above a blurry water line.

I think about how often women default to descriptors like “overwhelmed,” “so busy,” “crazy busy,” and “frazzled.”  I notice my own desire to distance myself from these, to claim something more grounded and peaceful.

*  *  *

The red line, 1999. I’m standing on the platform waiting for the T from the Boston Common to Porter Square. From there, I’ll walk a mile to the tiny one-bedroom Somerville apartment I share with my husband. We are newly married. I’m 25 to his 33. It’s 9:15pm; I’m coming from a three-hour graduate poetry workshop. I glance up and down the platform, which is all but empty on a Thursday night. A thought arises, seemingly out of thin air: “I’m not an angry person.”

I get home and tell him about my revelation. I feel triumphant, as if I’ve beat something, as if I’ve narrowly escaped some kind of alternate fate — the fate of anger. I do not mention the closet smoking. Or the years I was bulimic, aware that something big in me needed to be contained, choked back, and purged. I wanted the world, but also to disappear. I wanted to be invisible, anonymous — a living Emily Dickinson poem:

"I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!"

But angry? No.

*  *  *

Quick flashes: My father’s voice on rare occasions, rising in pitch. Or the smothered “s” sounds coming from behind closed doors down the upstairs hallway. Older sisters. Fights over haircuts, clothes, boys, school, drugs. A fist through a wall. Something to avoid, something to smooth over, something to make sure didn’t happen to me. Anger was my nemesis.

I granted myself permission to brood, to subvert, to sneak, to hide, to flirt, to skirt the rules, to slide under the radar, to play along, to look the part, to not fit in. But anger was one thing I did not allow. If I did, who knew what would happen? It was too risky. Anger might lead to rupture, and my young self found that to be a terrifying prospect.

The flashing thought confirming my “not angry” status is a victory of sorts, not one I sought out but that seemed to find me, confirming what the world saw: Sweet, polite, strong but not threatening. A nice person. A pretty person. Not an angry woman.

Anger was something to get a hold of. Anger was something that meant you were out of control.

Anger wasn’t warranted. What did I have to be angry about, anyway?

Life is going according to plan: Graduate school, marriage, buying a sweet duplex in Burlington, Vermont with help from parents for a down payment. Privilege, privilege — white, heterosexual, educated, employed, able-bodied, married. I want babies and community and meaning. I am hungry: For connection, deep conversations with colleagues about race and religion (I was a Hillel director, with an office in the Center for Cultural Pluralism), happiness. I go running down by Lake Champlain. I write in my journal. Poems live in the margins.

*  *  *

Back in the waiting room, I find myself wondering why I’ve historically been so frightened of anger. I take out my phone and make a list.

Fear of anger = fear of self.

Fear of anger = fear of shaking up or shattering the status quo.

Fear of anger = fear of loss (of privilege, power, identity, control, connection, perceived safety).

Fear of anger = fear of truth.

Fear of anger = fear of emotional or physical violence (your own or someone else’s).

Fear of anger = fear of confrontation.

Fear of anger = fear of uprising.

Fear of anger = fear of unknown.

Looking over these suppositions, I find myself feeling curious about the interchangeability of many of the words here. Some say all fear is at its essence fear of loss. And that anger is always a secondary emotion, masking sadness or grief or trauma.

Do I believe this? Do you? Does anger always need to be justified? Managed?

*  *  *

A friend has written about going to a “rage room.” It’s a venue designed for safely lashing out. Imagine society if everyone had access to a space like this, where anger was not only permitted, but essential. Where rather than swallowing it or causing irrevocable damage, we could turn rage outward until we were spent and ready to return to a world that is by all counts maddening with its messaging of what we are supposed to be and do?

We are supposed to be patient, compassionate, understanding, empathetic, open-minded, responsive, available, kind, and nice. We are supposed to be responsible, steady, grateful, and quiet. We are supposed to say please and thank you. We are supposed to take what we can get. We are supposed to go along to get along. We are supposed to channel our anger in productive ways.

*  *  *

I am 36. I receive a massage from a woman named Noni. My supervisor at work recommended her. “She’s amazing,” she assured me.

I arrive at Noni’s suburban condo. She comes to the door. We chat in her kitchen for a few minutes and I tell her I don’t have a particular need or complaint; I am here for general stress relief. I have a full-time job at the university, my children are seven and three, and my husband is self-employed. I am trying to write a book. I am trying to learn how to take care of myself along with everyone else.

The massage table is upstairs in a large room with curtained windows. She works on me for three hours. Three hours!

I leave feeling heightened, charged. I go sit at the counter in the window of a favorite café, writing in my journal. I write and write and write. The writing pours out of me as water over a weakened dam. Something has unlocked itself; I feel it surging. Suddenly, the amount of space I take up inside of myself has shifted, expanded. I feel powerful. And I feel… anger.

I go home and tell my husband about the massage, the writing. “I think I am angry,” I tell him. “Punch me,” he says, egging me on by poking at his chest. “Go ahead. Do it.”

I do it. I hit his chest. It feels strange, exhilarating, and terrifying. I don’t know how I will get to the bottom of this. How far does it go? How big is it? What will happen, if I follow the deluge?

*  *  *

A few months later, I come out of the closet. Everything shatters. My body refuses him. Refuses to play along, refuses to be good or nice or right. Refuses the role of wife. Refuses to “make it work.” I try, but there’s no going back. After a few months of hellish wrestling with the truth, we call it. Our marriage is over. We tell the kids. He glares at me.

There was a reason, it turns out, to fear my anger: My anger was myself.

And myself wasn’t compatible with the life I’d built, the one that followed the rules, met the expectations, looked and felt good but was always missing something, an essential component: Me. All of me.

*  *  *

One day not long ago, my fifteen-year old came home in a fit. She stormed up the stairs to our second-floor apartment, into the kitchen and through the living room to her bedroom. I could feel the anger wafting off her, like fog from a body of water. She paced circles around her room, still wearing her boots.

I knocked on the door to ask what was wrong. Had something happened or triggered her? “No,” she had said. “I’m just so fucking angry. At everything.”

And why shouldn’t she be? She’s living in a country where physical and sexual violence against women and trans people – especially those of color – are so normalized, perpetrators are able not only to run for public office but to attain the highest levels of power. Her generation has mothers who are tired and resentful, having grown up with the message that we could “have it all” and “do it all” and “be it all.”

I want her to get to be angry – especially if it means not settling, trusting her own body, using her voice, and listening hard to women from different backgrounds – especially those from oppressed groups – when they share their lived experience.

*  *  *

I’m no longer the woman in her 20s on the train platform, disavowing her anger. I’m also no longer the woman in her 30s, discovering and claiming her sexuality and agency. I’m a women in my mid-40s, divorced and remarried, self-employed, 10 pounds heavier, and more content and at peace with myself than I’ve ever been in the past.

My wife emerges from the mammogram. It was faster than I expected. I put on my hat and gloves and we head out to the snowy parking lot, talking about what it was like. And as I start the car, I realize something: I may be angry now, but I’m not angry at my life. This feels like a new revelation, one I never could’ve had 20 years ago.

The ability to be more discerning in my anger, to use it to fuel my writing, to raise my kids, to teach them to be awake to their privileges and also advocate for their own needs, to hold space where women can show up and tell the truth – breaking the world wide open, to paraphrase Muriel Rukeyser – these feel like discerning uses of my midlife anger.

* * *

A Writing Prompt

Leslie Jamison writes: “In what I had always understood as self-awareness — I don’t get angry. I get sad — I came to see my own complicity in the same logic that has trained women to bury their anger or perform its absence.”

Take some time soon to write about anger. Set a timer for 10 minutes and make a fast and furious list (see what I did there?) of associations you have with anger. You could simply start with “anger = …” and go from there, returning to this equation if you get stuck.

If you’re on a roll, ditch the timer. Don’t stop to edit yourself, worry about how it sounds, or where it’s going. Are you afraid of anger? If so, are you afraid of your own anger, someone else’s anger, or both? When have you “performed” the absence of anger? At what cost?

Fight-Patriarchy

“The giving season is over”

Flipping around the car radio,
these five words caught my ear.
I’d like to think there was more to it,
we’re not always privy to context.
Benefit of the doubt says
sometimes we’re moving too fast
to hear the rest, missing the crucial
thing that was said just after,
not seeing how it turned out,
that sad phrase, that tense moment,
that terse exchange you glimpsed
in passing.

But benefit of the doubt is tired.
It’s so tired. It’s tired and it’s pissed
that we’re living in a time and place
where context is too smart
for the powers that be, where
to listen deeply is laughable,
something only elitists do,
where our so-called president
calls Haiti and the entire African continent
“shithole countries,” suggesting we open
our doors to more Norwegians instead.
American, Aryan — splitting blonde hairs
of wholesome, pure specimens of superiority.

The giving season is over.
There is only taking now.
Taking land, taking language, taking health
care, taking names, taking neighborhoods,
taking schools, taking deep breaths
to keep ourselves sane while they take
and take take take, taking turns
with shallow apologies, taking families,
taking compassion, taking humanity,
taking intelligence, taking diplomacy,
taking kindness, taking depth, taking
whatever they want, like they always have,
and spitting in the faces
of anyone who doesn’t look like them
or come when they call.

Angry? Yes. I’m angry.
Am I frightened? Beneath everything, yes.
The giving season is over —
I heard it myself today on the radio.
My own dark curls and speckled eyes
don’t fit the profile, though I can hide
behind my rosy cheeks and pale skin.
Mind goes to trains, ships, all the methods
of death transport by the millions.
Bodies that don’t conform, minds that don’t
conform, families that don’t conform,
art that doesn’t conform, leaders
who come in so many forms confronting
daily a thousand small atrocities adding
up to something like genocide,
something like ethnic cleansing,
something like eugenics, something like
the most sinister tactics of decimation
history has seen.

Here we are again, in this place where
the giving season buckles under the weight
of so much taking.
I want to say: Rest, let me carry something
of yours here, let me take your weight
for a moment, don’t let them break you.
Instead, I wonder how long I can hold on
before the ugliness starts to ruin me.
I say I won’t let that happen.
And I wonder if it’s true.

Fight-Patriarchy

On Being a Mensch

Metal Art by Jon Grauman

This morning, I’m thinking about how we are steeped in a culture that worships saviors and skewers villains, that rides into the sunset on a high-horse of good guys and bad guys.

The great American narrative rests on oversimplification, which by definition erases and denies whole swaths of experience and truth.

Celebrity and consumer culture get in bed together to back this up, and they both rely on us thinking we’re not enough and/or our lives are something to improve or escape.

Writing, art, and leadership that ask more of us, that mirror our capacity to grapple with truth and nuance, are more critical and life-giving than ever.

Who or what calls forth and mirrors your multifaceted brilliance, your innate complexity, your ability to think intelligently and act conscientiously?

Who or what banks on your reactivity or self-loathing?

Who or what feeds on your inclination to judge and condemn?

Who or what preys on hero-worship and wins every time you abdicate personal responsibility?

In Yiddish, the word mensch — something we think of as an exceptionally “good” person — simply means “person.” And to truly be a person, a mensch, requires a degree of self-reflection, awareness, integrity, and discernment.

Today I’m going to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to. Where am I choosing — and where am I asleep?

Fight-Patriarchy

Thoughts on Writing and Fragility


All day, I’ve been pondering this: Becoming a stronger writer implicitly means becoming a less fragile person.

This notion has everything to do with my own journey, in that I’ve begun to see a correlation between writing and a more rooted sense of self, centeredness, and confidence that’s not contingent on outside approval or praise.

Now, to be clear: Developing some muscle, so as to be able to meet the world, needn’t come at the expense of being sensitive or tuned-in. If anything, I think they complement each other. But fragility — that to me has to be with being easily shattered, be it by feedback or negativity.

Practice is practice. The more I write, the more I write. And the more I risk sharing, the more I’m able to see that I am in fact risking very little. We’re conditioned with a lot of fear — what people will think of us, how we sound or look, whether we’re good enough or ready to share our writing. And the fear, in most cases, is unfounded in reality. If there is truly something at stake, it’s failure — and that can of worms is fodder for a whole different conversation.

My pondering here also has to do with social justice and the intersections of creativity with activism — the more you write and share and engage, the more you can become a participant in an urgent, ongoing conversation, as opposed to tip-toeing around and/or having an inflated sense of importance — neither of which is productive.

In my work, I want folks to get to practice writing, writing, writing — learning that they won’t die if the writing sucks, learning that inner critics are liars, and learning that ego has a lot to do with what keeps us small, stuck, and silent. Fragility dies on the vine, slowly but surely, when something deeper and more true begins to thrive.

The more you practice writing, the more confident you become in your own voice and the less defensive and threatened you need to be when confronting others’ perspectives and experiences.

The more you explore your own story, its shape, its contradictions, its nuance, its beauty, and its pain — the greater your capacity to recognize fear and limited thinking and the clearer your courage in speaking out.

The more you show up, risking being seen and heard, however imperfectly, the more you learn how to sidestep ego and the desire to look good or be right, in the name of something greater: Truth and beauty, connection and community, justice and equality.

None of this happens overnight, nor is it a process that’s ever finished. Poems, essays, books may be written. But the learning, the practice — it’s there that we return, over and over, to begin again, to go deeper, to strip the layers we hide behind that we didn’t even realize were still masking and muzzling us.

It’s work, and it’s play. It’s where work and play meet. It’s intentional and intuitive. There’s no prescription and there’s no magic eight-ball. There’s just one requirement: You have to show up. Roll up your sleeves and get out your pen. The world needs your strength.

And one more thing about strength: Like courage, it may not feel strong or brave at all. It probably feels questionable at best and stupid at worst. It’s likely to be vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes thrilling.

Yet you, on an ordinary day, telling the truth about your life and being willing to get more and more honest and real? That is strong, my friends. And it’s just the beginning.

Let fragility be nothing more than the shell that breaks open, revealing the pearl. And no matter what — keep writing.

Fight-Patriarchy

Blogaversary Giveaway!

Photo | Alex Blăjan

It’s my 11th blogaversary! Naturally, I’m celebrating with a GIVEAWAY. The winner will receive a free 30-minute coaching session to be used anytime between now and the end of January. To play, just leave a comment on my very first blog post (below). I’ll choose one name at random tomorrow, Monday, at 5:00pm EST.

A teeny-tiny bit of backstory: On January 7, 2007, I started a blog named Bullseye, Baby! (Yes, the exclamation point was part of the name.) I didn’t really know what a blog was, only that I needed a place to practice — so that was the blog’s little tagline.

There were a few times when I hit pause, thought I was done, or changed the platform and name (anyone remember More Joy, Less Oy?). For six months or so in 2010, I went dark completely. The space itself had many makeovers over the years, changing right alongside me. But it always remained my place to practice showing up.

So, here’s the first blog post I ever wrote. (You can see that I haven’t changed all that much.) Whether you’ve been there since day one or are new to my words, thank you. It’s the connection, the space between us, that energizes my writing more than anything else. I’m so grateful for the continuous unfolding.

PRACTICE WHAT?

Hitting the bullseye, baby.

It was a few months back, 2:30am, nursing my second child in the glider in her room. I was thinking about images for my new Strong Coaching business card. And I was thinking about something I read once that made quite an impression on me – that in Judaism, the word chet, usually translated as “sin,” actually means something closer to “missing the mark.” I learned this in the context of Yom Kippur, when the word “sin” comes up an awful lot in the prayerbook’s English translations. Sin – such an offputting word. So final. So full of judgment.

But missing the mark – now this was a concept I could get my head around. Forgiving, roomy. With implications of more chances. You know, nobody’s perfect. Better yet, imperfection is where all the juice is. We do our best, we practice, we try stuff, we throw spaghetti at the wall and we skin knees and we get hurt and we learn in ways that are sometimes grueling and other times graceful – about relationships, about love, about work, about pretty much everything. In all that trying, in the practice, comes the learning and the growing that we’re here to do. And in the process, maybe the bullseye itself isn’t “getting” the thing we’ve been aiming at but rather hitting on some increased ability to be patient and kind to ourselves.

I put the baby back in her crib and grabbed my journal to sketch a bullseye, knowing the image would be lost on me if I left it till morning. What is coaching, after all, but a chance to try stuff and muck around and develop greater self-knowledge and forgiveness and to make core discoveries about what it is that makes us feel most ourselves. When I feel most myself, there’s more bounce in my step, freedom in my laughter, flexibility in my actions and love in my heart. More moments of compassion and spontaneity and synchronicity, more interest in strangers, more tolerance. There are no right answers. And God is not my judge but a partner in crime who thinks I am a pretty cool chick. What is coaching but the chance to take come chances, throw some darts, and hang out knowing that you’re better off practicing than letting inertia get the better of you.

Bullseye, baby. Two babies, actually. Not a day goes by that I don’t look at them in wonder. The first blew my world open in ways that demanded spiritual integration of a whole new order. The second carries a lucidity that has placed me in the company of a whole posse of angels. Together, these blue-eyed Jewish beauties nudge me towards myself. We stand in the company of so many women, sisters, daughters, mothers. And there’s nothing quite like motherhood when it comes to practice, patience, forgiveness, flexibility, creativity…

So here is my invitation: Pick a bullseye for yourself. Sure, it might be a moving target. But you know what’s been waiting, or calling for your attention. And then make some changes. Take some action. Take a chance. Call it practice.