Rose

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?

Rose

The Little Things, Like Offerings


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These are big numbers in my world.

I just spent an hour FINALLY tackling the unwieldy pile of receipts that’s been accumulating for months.

I just wrote a sentence with not one, but two words with i before e except after c. I actually misspelled unwieldy the first time, and again just now, and had to go back to fix it.

These are the little things.

The single person or two who decide to sign up for my newsletter.

The receipts that represent manuscripts printed on recycled paper up the street at Collective Copies, stamps and books mailed, coffee dates with writers, ink and paper and notebooks and all of the completely unglamorous stuff that goes into my everyday work, the work that is, here in my kitchen, as much a part of life as boiling water for tea, helping my kids navigate big decisions, and watching TV in bed at night with my beautiful wife.

The little things. The piles that pile up. The stuff we avoid and move around the house, from one room to another until the evening comes when we sort and record and file and purge. The notes from folks who say how are you doing what you’re doing and instead of writing back, I say when can we talk. And we talk and she says I think you are awesome and I say, wait, I think *you* are awesome, and we agree that the irony is complete because each of us thinks the other is rocking their business.

The little things. The way I always come back to this, it seems. This being the real, the tangible, the mess, the clean-up. All the times I feel like oh shit, what if this isn’t working. And then I think, wait, that’s just part of it. Everything keeps changing, and this is not an emergency. I tell my nervous system it’s safe, we’re ok. We can rest. We can adjust. We can even take our time.

The little things that are big things.

Like how the sanctuary volunteering isn’t ultimately about security but about human presence. And how I am walking through my days freely without an ankle bracelet that the government is tracking.

The little things like taking a moment to breathe and appreciate what is ending — a month-long poetry group that knocked my socks off — before catapulting into the next thing. Trust, trust, trust.

She asked if I have a strategy.

I laughed.

Not really, I said. I try to come back to ease. I try to recognize the expectations I’ve cast off like someone else’s idea of who I would or should be. I try to check in with what freedom feels like, and joy. To remember that there are so, so many of us. And when two people say yes, I’d like your words in my inbox, when one person says, yes, I’d like to trust you to read my unedited words, I am floored. Every time.

We live in a competitive world. Women are taught to look at each other uneasily. The “how does she do it” trope is so so tired and worn. None of us does it all. Not a single one. None of us is a fucking Marvel comics character.

All of us have such full, full lives. Lives filled with little things and big things and medium-sized things. Lives that are mired in grief or soaring on reclamation or plodding along somewhere in the muck or going by so fast we don’t even remember the last time we really, really stopped.

This is often what I crave the most, the stopping. In the past, I imagined it as a kind of all-or nothing. Surely stopping meant going away, checking out of the demands and responsibilities and having a room with a view, preferably of some mountains and oceans and palm trees and white against blue. We are sold this, too. Town & Country magazine’s top 10 places to restore your soul.

But no. Stopping is a little-big thing. A way of coming clean. A way of being real.

It’s this.

It’s sitting down after recording the i-before-e-except-after-c receipts and then stuffing them in an envelope in case you ever God Forbid get audited. It’s going to bed early tonight. It’s a hug in the middle of the kitchen and it’s the lingering.

Is it amazing? It is, sometimes.

Is it exhausting. It is, sometimes.

Is it too much? It is, sometimes.

Is it sustainable? That question always stops me in my tracks. I don’t know the answer. I notice how this makes me uneasy, the not knowing. And I decide that I can let it in, the question. I can say hello, question. Have a seat. I’m making tea. You might have to stick around a while, giving me time get to know you better and you to get to know me better and we’ll see what this thing is between us.

The little things, like Bukowski’s shoelace, can be the death of us, that which makes us snap.

Or the little things, like offerings — like nickels and twine and stones and twigs — can bring us back, back to right here, back to right now, back to what’s solid and known and seeable and do-able, trusting that the rest will come or go or some combination of coming and going, and we don’t have to know, what happens next.

Rose

Same Sun, Same Moon

I’m in bed. It’s only 8:13pm but after a full day, it felt good to slip out of my clothes and under the clean sheets. In a little bit, I’ll turn off the computer and we will read a chapter from our current book before watching a show. Then Mani will put on a short meditation from the Daily Calm app (we call it the Daily Clam, after that one time I misread it), and with any luck, we’ll both get a decent night’s sleep.

This is more or less how it goes every night. When the kids are here, I read to Pearl and say goodnight to V before locking up. I try to motivate to wash the evening dishes, since it’s so nice to wake up to an empty sink in the morning when I go to make the coffee. Some nights, I get sucked into working late or just fucking around online.

Yesterday at the end of my run, I saw the fox again, the one who makes the occasional appearance in our driveway. He crossed the street and trotted down towards the woods near Sunset Farm. My mind wandered to tattoo daydreams.

Then I was home and the sweat was pouring and I was proud of myself for moving my body. I took a cold shower and shaved my legs and drank cold water and forgot what day it was.

Self-employment is a lot of things. One of them is flexible. Other than calls with coaching clients and my upcoming Monday night in-person group (which isn’t on my website, by the way, so if you’re local and you want to write with a small group of women for six weeks in Amherst, let me know), I rarely have to be in a particular place at a specific time. There is a definite rhythm to my days and weeks, but it’s one of my own making and shaping.

Sometimes I forget this and I revert to treating my life, not to mention my writing, like something to squeeze in around the edges. I’ll find myself bringing the same tension to getting to the kitchen table to greet a writing group in the morning that I used to feel driving to work — hurried, tense, late. Then I remember that no one in said group is checking their watch. I don’t clock in or out. There’s no payday or benefits office. I am all the things. This is both amazing and challenging. I wouldn’t trade it.

Today, I watched a video by a writer I admire. She’s very funny, irreverent, and ballsy. The video had nearly 35,000 views. I do not know how that happens. I do not know if that even matters.

Just now, I looked up from the screen and there was the waxing moon on the other side of our bedroom skylight, bright in the still-blue July sky as if to say: No, it doesn’t matter how many views you get. Thanks, Moon. The moon always has the best timing.

Today, I ran again. Just me and my tiny iPod shuffle and the midday sun. I ran north to UMass and around the little pond in the middle of campus. There was a group of young adults milling around with matching blue backpacks. Many of the women wore colorful headscarves and I imagined that they were a visiting group of students here for some summer program. I thought about the Travel Ban and wondered what country they were from.

Arcade Fire’s album “The Suburbs” has been my running soundtrack lately, along with some old-school Madonna and a smattering of other indie-pop songs that keep me moving. I didn’t run all winter, and then all of a sudden a few weeks ago, I started again. Just like that.

Summer and I are old friends. We share stories that don’t need to be revisited. We both enjoy fresh-water swimming and napping in hammocks and ice cream for dinner. Everything seems a little more do-able. My daughter is quick to correct me if I say there are more hours in the day, but she knows what I mean. I am a goner for heat and light.

On my bedside table, so many books. Half-read books, unread books. Paperbacks, hardcovers. On my head, more grey hairs every day. I pluck them, not in battle but more like a new hobby. My skin is changing. My life is changing.

Our lives are always changing. If we pay attention, we might even notice. But so much of the change happens while we’re so in the days, the news, the fury, the mundane, the passion, the questions, the sweat and tears of it all, that we don’t know until later. And then later is the new now and here we are: Kids older, bodies older, love a few layers deeper, understanding wider, with just as many places to be lost and found as ever.

I find myself running again. I find myself pounding the pavement, creating the rhythm of my own days in this life, loving my people, and not worrying about the numbers. I look up to find that the moon has already moved slightly further west as it starts out its nightly journey across the small slice of sky we can see. I marvel, like a child, that it’s the same sky, the same sun, the same moon, for you.

Rose

Already Whole: Day Three

In today’s edition of Real Life, we present the sink full of dishes & the laundry that needs to be separated into 4 piles. Not shown: Trash & recycling, unmade bed, desk in disarray. This is my kitchen. It’s also my office.

This morning on a short run, I reminded myself: You are out for a short run at 10:00am on a Thursday, clearing your head between waking, a couple hours of work & a call with a writing coaching client. It’s easy to forget that this was what I once longed for. I would sit in my office on campus, looking out the giant window at the summer day, watching the clock, wondering how I would survive indoors till 4:30.

I didn’t quit my job as much as life pushed me out of the nest. My wife was in very serious condition health-wise, with a steep, narrow, lonely & painful climb ahead. My being home was imperative for practical reasons. I didn’t follow my bliss as much as I pried fear’s fingers away & chose to believe we’d be ok.

It’s not always easy or pretty. I don’t work in a Pinterest-like space or have someone come clean my house. We rent our apartment & pay more than I once spent each month on a mortgage. But it’s our home and I say thank you every single time I leave the grocery store with a cartful of food, every time we go to the doctor and pay the co-pay.

The ACA made it possible for me to leave my full-time job two years ago. Health insurance was vital, as was my being home. If it hadn’t been for the connector care plan we’ve been enrolled in since, I honestly don’t know what we would have done. Like millions of Americans, we would have figured it out–or not.

Running a household and a business, being there not only for but with my wife and kids, and taking care of myself– it’s a lot. We *all* have a lot. If I’ve learned anything from leading writing groups, it’s that.

You know what? Our real lives are treasure troves of amazing stories. Shitty, hard ones. Gorgeous, glorious ones. And 10,000 in-betweens, where life unfolds & surprises us, plunges us down & lifts us up again.

Every day brings new dishes & laundry: Evidence that we’re alive. Yay. And sometimes a drag, too. I’m all about the space where both get to be true.

What stories are you ready to shed or share?

Written as a member of the support team for Already Whole, a 3-day storytelling campaign created and hosted by Andréa Ranae Johnson and Cameron Airen to launch Whole Self Liberation

Rose

Already Whole: Day Two

My mother has blue eyes. So do both of my kids. Mine are green, with tiny brown flecks in them.

My mother’s hair was pin straight when she was a young woman. I think later she got a perm. Later, it seemed to get curlier on its own, but nowhere near as curly as mine.

People came up to me on the street my whole life, asking if my hair was naturally curly, telling me how much they spent to get hair “like yours.” My kids have straight hair, but Aviva has recently started showing signs of curls. To my surprise, she’s happy about this.

I married a woman with curls, and people have often asked us if we’re sisters. I have two sisters; they have straight hair. Genes don’t make sense so much of the time.

My Grandma Lee, or Nona, was the curly-haired one. It’s said I also got her eyes, the way they squinch all the way up when I smile. When I was little, kids used to ask me if I could even see when I smiled. Nona chain-smoked & fed everyone, which frankly doesn’t sound so bad to me. She was also known as a psychic and a seamstress.

Today Pearl and I went to a funeral. Someone told her she looks just like me. She doesn’t agree. She does look a lot like her dad. In fact, when she was born, my ex-mother-in-law pulled out a baby photo of him, and we couldn’t tell them apart. Meanwhile, Aviva has started looking more and more like my mini-me, and to my surprise, she doesn’t seem to mind the resemblance.

I didn’t know I was Jewish growing up. It wasn’t a secret but it also wasn’t common household knowledge, at least not to me. I loved Christmas morning & later spent years as a young adult trying to figure out where I belonged. I cried in synagogue after synagogue, feeling at once alienated and home. I dreamed of the ground itself in Israel & decided to become a rabbi, them instead kept being a poet and found other ways to whisper to God. I wanted to be a translator. I wanted to learn all the languages, disappear into the world completely. Instead I got married, had babies, and wrote my way to what I’d always known was true.

Women are my home. Challah and dancing and justice and poetry are my home. Babies, all the babies, and the kind of fierce listening I do when I’m alone.

What stories are you ready to shed or share?

Written as a member of the support team for Already Whole, a 3-day storytelling campaign created and hosted by Andréa Ranae Johnson and Cameron Airen to launch Whole Self Liberation