Layla-Saad

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?

Layla-Saad

The Reunion, Part Two

After she read the piano reunion story on my blog, my mom pointed something out. Something that changed either everything or nothing about the emotional experience I’d had just hours earlier: We didn’t have a Steinway & Sons.

The baby grand at The Arbors had never been my piano after all, and what I perceived — and at the time wholeheartedly believed — to be a reunion with a childhood instrument was nothing of the sort. At least not in the way I had imagined.

At first, this struck me as almost desperately funny; there I had been, weeping, playing my heart out, on a keyboard it turned out I had never so much as laid hands or eyes on before.

But then, something else fluttered into me, something akin to shame. I felt sheepish, as if I’d done something wrong. Did I need to recant what I’d shared about how moving that thirty minutes had been? Was there something like a lie, a hint of fraudulence, tied up in my story, now that I had learned the truth? Other questions swam past, too: What had happened to the piano my parents had donated there? Where is it now?

Needless to say: All day, I’ve been considering perception.

I believed it to be my piano. Clearly I wanted, even needed, for this to be true. The experience of playing it had given something back to myself, of myself. In sitting down in that empty room, at what I thought was the piano that had witnessed me grow up, in doing so in the place where two of my grandparents lived their last years, time reached around its own body, performing a bind of sorts, clasping its own ends together and holding me safely inside that gentle grasp.

The tears that spilled weren’t, ultimately, about the actual piano, but for everything it had represented to me over the years, from earliest childhood to adolescence, to young adulthood and motherhood, through death and divorce and becoming and remarriage. As my hands hovered over and moved across those keys, something in me settled, as if the waters in me had quieted, revealing depths I’d always known were there.

It is said that we see what we want to see, and this may be a fact. For nearly 11 years, I was married to a man, devoted to our commitment and growing a family together. Coming out shattered that, but it didn’t make my life a sham. It took me some years to fully believe and embrace this, to let go of guilt or self-doubt, and not to punish myself for having lived an unconscious lie.

Deception is not the same as ignorance. Had I written about the piano reunion with the knowledge that came later that it wasn’t the piano of my youth, that would’ve been manipulative and dishonest.

But my experience had been authentic, untouched by any such knowledge, and this leads me to believe that the reunion stands. Maybe it was a reunion with some cherished part of my past, myself.

And in that case, my perception provided me with a potent gift, the gift of believing in meaning and memory, in the power of presence and practice to witness us as we grow and transform over the years.

In the end, the piano itself is nothing more than a symbol of time’s passage, of returning to roots and of letting roots go, of arriving at a place that exists only within, where the music has always lived, like an underground spring with no name.

Layla-Saad

The Reunion


Late this afternoon, I stopped by The Arbors, an assisted living facility here in town. Pearl’s piano teacher was sitting shiva for her mom, who passed away. Today would have been her 93rd birthday.

Walking into that building for the first time in nearly 15 years brought back a kind of visceral memory: The heavy scent of air freshener; the living room with the leftover holiday decorations; the long corridor lined with numbered apartments. My Grammy, Celia — my mom’s mom, and my Grandpa Max — my dad’s father, both lived out their final years there.

Sitting in the bright, nicely furnished apartment for half hour or so was poignant; Pearl’s teacher’s friends came in one or two at a time, with food and flowers. We looked at some photos and heard a story or two recounting her mom’s exuberant spirit — stories I’ve already passed along to Mani, stories that will now live with me even though I never met the woman.

**

After I said my goodbyes, I made my way back to the lobby. But the piano in the sitting room was whispering to me, so I asked the woman at the reception desk if it would be ok for me to sit and play a song or two. “I don’t see why not,” she replied.

I didn’t even take off my coat before pulling out the bench, lifting the lid, and exposing the 88 keys I’d known my whole life. It felt like a reunion. It was a reunion.

I stuttered through George Winston’s “Thanksgiving,” a piece I learned by ear in high school and used to play with great feeling. The piano was woefully out of tune, but this did not stop me.

Next came the angst-ridden crush song I wrote for Jamie Ferguson when I was 16 (hint: “I just can’t tell if you notice me”). And then I stopped trying to remember anything by heart and did what I used to do for hours on end: I improvised. And found myself in tears.

**

When I looked up, a woman with keys around her neck was standing at the end of the baby grand. “That was beautiful,” she said. Tears were spilling down my cheeks and I could hardly catch my breath.

“This is — this was — my piano,” I managed to tell her. We introduced ourselves; her name was Tiffany.

I played this piano from the time I began begging to take lessons like my big sisters. I played Suzuki and Bartok and later Bach and Beethoven on this piano. I practiced this piano every day from age five until I quit taking lessons, sometime in high school. I was stubborn when it came to working on the hard parts. But I never stopped playing.

This piano was where I went for comfort, for solace, for expression, for fun, for a good cry.

Then I moved out and moved on.

**

Eventually, I got a piano of my own, an upright my then-husband surprised me with for our third anniversary, not a week before Aviva was born. This was the piano both of my kids learned to play on. And though my technical abilities faded with time, my love of improvising never left me.

By 2003, both of my remaining grandparents had passed away. And my parents decided to donate the baby grand to The Arbors, where it would bring joy to many elderly residents for years to come — right up until this day.

One house and three apartments later, the sad day came when the movers broke the news: They couldn’t get the piano around the turn at the top of the stairs. I cried. We moved it to my parents’ living room,  to the same nook where the baby grand used to live. Now, we have an electric keyboard the kids play; I’ve tried to sit there, but it’s just not the same.

**

It’s like that, isn’t it? The locks to memory ride with us like quiet passengers, until something turns and clicks and suddenly we are awash in emotion we didn’t see behind the door we’d forgotten was there.

I have to admit, for a hot minute part of me — something childlike and irrational — wanted to say, “I want it back! It’s mine!”

Instead, I walked away, and asked Tiffany if I might come again to play some more. “I live right up the street,” I told her.

“Anytime,” she said with a kind smile. “Anytime at all.”

Layla-Saad

The Privileges and Perils of Snowdays

Pearl wanted to spend the snow day playing over at his dad’s community, and since it was early in the storm, I agreed to bring him over there this morning (knowing that he may end up staying the night). We drove through campus at about 10 miles per hour — counting cars along the way (fewer than a dozen over three miles).

We talked about who gets the day off and who doesn’t, what work places are closed and which aren’t, whether businesses and companies necessarily put their employees’ safety first, and the fact that for people who are paid by the hour — as opposed to receiving a salary — a day like this can mean simply no money coming in.

The weather itself takes me back to my early childhood in Buffalo, New York; this is how I remember winter: swirling, grey, gusty, white, deep, powder, trudge, snowpants, sledding, fun. And I’m happy for all the happy kiddos who get to enjoy that today.

I’m also aware that for many folks, with or without children, extreme weather can be hugely stressful and sometimes dangerous.

I just read a Facebook status that someone’s husband had no choice but to drive to work — from a rural area, no less — lest he lose his temp job.

Another local friend shared a photo in which he seemed to be wearing every item of clothing he owned, as his building was without heat.

Frozen pipes, power outages, elderly folks who live alone, homeless shelters at capacity… I sit here in my apartment watching the chaotic conditions outside the windows, at once thankful for warmth, physical safety, and sustenance and also acutely aware that the growing intensity of storms in every season means loss, instability, and dangerous conditions locally and globally alike.

Sometimes I do wonder what the point is of reflecting on this stuff if I’m not actively offering solutions. It’s one reason I’ve stopped sharing as many news stories; you all know where and how to find them, and my clicking “share” willy-nilly isn’t going to change a thing when it comes to the latest tweet or injustice.

But who am I if I don’t reflect, if I don’t try to make sure my own kids are aware of the greater impact and implications of something as seemingly simple and even fun as a snow day?

And so it comes down to what I perceive as a moral responsibility for anyone living in relative comfort, with the privilege of employment that can withstand the weather and a warm place in which to ride out the storm: To stay awake to the inequities among us, to stay compassionate towards those more vulnerable to the elements, and to identify even small measures we can and must take to support and see each other through.

Layla-Saad

These Birthdays Go to Eleven


On the 14th of this month, I’ll turn 44. The fact that my new age is a multiple of 11 is making me irrationally happy. Rather than celebrating a big round number like 40 or 50, turning 44 feels special.

Why?

That’s easy. I was born at 11:11am.  Eleven is my number.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions per se, but there is something in the air about this year. It feels big and a little bit tingly in my chest, like when good news is coming and you don’t know what it is yet.

It feels slow and steady, like the mountain goat that symbolizes the Capricorn sun I was born under on a cold Buffalo morning.

It feels like trust and keep going and a deepening of the path I’m on, after so long of trying to get footing in my life, belonging in my body, and clear purpose in my work.

It feels like conviction and commitment and a claim to being all the way here. And it feels like writing-wise, a year to reap some of the benefits of so many years of practice.

This morning, I found myself thinking back on turning 22 and 33, and realized both were pivotal in my writing + life.  Since I geek out on numbers and patterns, I couldn’t help but get excited about this and its implications for turning 44.

22

I was working full-time at what by all rights was a plum job to have landed not long after graduating from college. But by the spring of 1996, the daily commute from Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn to Lincoln Center, which my office overlooked from the other side of Broadway, had lost any shred of romance and become a schlep. There were a few failed attempts at dating. I was lonely and inhibited, and I longed to go disappear into the world without a clue as to what they meant or how it could look.

I met Deborah Digges, a poet and memoirist who lived in Amherst and taught at Tufts, on Memorial Day weekend of 1996. My parents had invited her over for brunch, and it was there at the round oak dining room table that I first heard about Bread Loaf, a writers’ conference in Ripton, Vermont. She would be teaching there that summer, she told us, and encouraged me to apply for her workshop.

I can still hear her sing-song, “Bread Loaf for you!” I loved her already, and set my sights on Middlebury in August.

By some small miracle, I was accepted. And rather than doing the logical thing — using a week of vacation time to attend — I quit my job. I paced around Central Park for two hours t hat morning, screwing up my courage into something like a voice, and told my boss I would be leaving in July. (Mind you, this was early June, and I learned an invaluable lesson that summer: Never give that much notice. It’s torture for everyone. Read more about that experience if you wish.)

That decision changed my life and became the foundation for my writing in ways that would take many years to become evident. I learned more from my time with Deborah, at Bread Loaf and in the six months or so after when we remained close, than in the entirety of my MFA program.

33

On January 7, 2007 — one week before my 33rd birthday — I started a blog. I named it Bullseye, Baby: A Place to Practice.

Practice what? That, my friends, was the title of my very first blog post! (Read it now, if you want. I’ll wait here.)

That month, I embarked on a 15-week writing class in Vermont. It was called Women Writing (for) a Change, under the guidance of a poet named Sarah Bartlett. One evening per week, we gathered, wrote, and shared. Our voices filled a candlelit room. We ate chocolate. We cried and laughed. We came from all different backgrounds and brought our true stories to the page.

I began to take my writing practice seriously, giving myself the blog as a place to show up and drop into whatever was happening in that moment, or to synthesize a swirl of thoughts and activities that, as a working mom with two small children, threatened to subsume me.

I had a single reader for the first 11 months, and then, seemingly out of the blue, a flurry of comments when our dog Juke was dying wrapped me up in a newfound sense of writing community. I was finding my people. I was finding my voice, on the page and in the world.

44

Two days before the new year, I submitted an essay to the New York Times “Modern Love” column. The odds are not exactly forever in my favor, but I am not indulging the overdone, doomsday, “there’s no way they’ll publish it” trope. We all know the statistics, but whatever — you gotta play to win, and if it wasn’t clear by now, I’m in this for the long haul, and not just to get published.

What began as a place to practice became a place of community, then refuge, then livelihood; writing and sharing is the foundation for pretty much my whole life now. And this — this is what I dreamed of and didn’t for the life of me know how to make happen.

I don’t know what this new year, this new multiple of 11, will bring in terms of writing + life, but I have a good feeling about it. Could be the fact that supermoons will bookend the month of January (fun facts: did you know the supermoon looks 1/3 brighter and 14% closer than other full moons)?

Or that I’ve always been a big fan of birthdays — mine and everyone else’s (but especially mine, lol).

Maybe there really is something in the air, as evidenced by nothing but that sparkly sensation I get at the top of my head, in my chest, and in a slightly mischievous twinkle in my eye when something good is coming and my intuition is ON. You better believe me when I say: I’m here for it.

And if the something good is more of what is already here– writing, practicing, showing up, not waiting to get it right, not worrying about being good, and connecting with people near and far in beautiful, true, and unexpected ways–I’ll take it.

Yes, it’s all a bit woo-woo. but I’m choosing to believe that the multiples of 11 carry an extra dose of mojo, depth, and clarity. Stay tuned — because you already know I’ll be writing all about it.

P.S. On a whim, hours after writing this, I checked the word count. You won’t believe it: It’s 1,111 words.