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

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.

Layla-Saad

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.

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.

Layla-Saad

Writers, Authors, and People Who Write

Photo: Aliis Sinisalu

It’s not at all uncommon for my father to give me a volume of poetry from time to time, usually when I’m stopping by my parents’ house to say hello. A few weeks ago, he handed me a slim but dense collection called On Balance, by contemporary Irish poet Sinéad Morrissey. I keep coming back to a single poem called My Life According to You. I think it’s one of the best titles of all time.

We spend so much time trying to figure out our lives according to others, negotiating rules we didn’t create, and bumping up against systems that shape our very sense of self-worth, usually according to external, quantifiable factors.

“What do you do?” we ask each other, right after “What’s your name?” and perhaps “Where are you from?” If your name is unfamiliar or your skin color difficult to categorize, you might even get an extra special, “Where are you really from?”

If “writer” is your lucky answer to the question of doing, you might be familiar with subsequent questions, such as: “What do you write?” “Have you written any books?” “Do you make a living doing that?” Depending on how you respond, you might be met with a blank look, something like pity, or just a polite smile.

I hear from so many people who write but hesitate to call themselves a “writer.” Why is this?

Maybe we’ve grown attached to the idea that a real writer rises before dawn and writes until noon, then enjoys a simple lunch and takes a walk around the acres surrounding their 1800s farmhouse. Maybe we think real writers must down half a bottle of whiskey every night, collapsing in a post-cathartic heap in the wee hours.

What if ALL writers are –gasp! – regular people?

People who have to read the laundry instructions and remember to defrost the chicken for dinner. People whose day jobs are demanding and draining, fulfilling and anchoring, or some combination thereof. People who are navigating family dynamics with siblings and spouses and aging parents. People who are raising children or looking around an empty nest wondering how it went by so fast and now what. People with bills to pay and health issues to contend with and a stack of unread books on the night table.

Many of us who are writers simply love writing and cannot imagine life for long without the blank page, without the solitude of the writing process, without the journal or the iPhone notes or the pen and back of the envelope snatched from the glove compartment to grab a fly-by poem at a rest stop on the interstate.

There are as many ways to be a writer as there are ways to be a person.

When it comes to life according to someone else, be that “someone” an authority figure from your past, society at large, or a vicious inner critic, what rules have you come to believe, consciously or not, about being a writer and who gets to claim such an identity? Ironically, the very word “authority” contains “author.” What if you could be the authority about your own writing?

It’s not a new conversation, but it’s evergreen in its relevance to the creative process. Why? Because a rigid definition of what constitutes “real” writing keeps you from exploring what could be possible in your writing if you allowed yourself room to be totally imperfect.

Permission to suck is as close to a magic bullet as I’ve ever encountered — and I don’t really believe in magic bullets. What I do believe in is showing up, day after day or at least some of the time, to play with words. Sometimes this feels awful and cringe-y. It’s tempting to select all and delete without saving, or rip the page out of the notebook and toss it in the recycling bin.

I get it.

When I think of friends and colleagues who are authors – commercially successful, published authors, with advances and publishing contracts and agents and the whole megillah – I know they weren’t born that way. Well, they may have been born to write. But the “success” part of the equation is the part of the iceberg visible to the naked eye. Beneath the books is a mountain of uncelebrated hours, shitty drafts, abandoned ideas, unfinished projects, questions, conversations, doubts, and uncertainties.

There may also be something else at work: Commitment. And not allowing society’s prescription for success to define what gets written, what gets tossed, and what ultimately gets shared with the wider world. Believing in your voice isn’t a one-time thing. It happens gradually, as a result of working alongside whatever tells you to give it up already.

Often, when you hear about that best-selling debut novel, what you don’t hear about are the 15 unpublished novels that came before it. If publishing is a priority for you, you will plug away at it and it will happen. I really believe this. And if it’s not, or if it’s simply lower on the list of things that matter most, that doesn’t make you less of a writer.

Something begins to shift the moment we loosen the reigns and declare, “I am a person who writes. I am a writer.” And this is the crux of the matter: A writer is a person who writes, and not all writers must be authors.

Writing can infuse other fields of work. It can be oriented towards personal growth, political commentary, or a prolific imagination that imagines entirely different realities and brings them to life. It can be a practice that reminds you who you are. It can be a form of communication with yourself and with the people you love most or relate to least. It can be something you work at or something you do for pure pleasure.

Your writing life can change over time. It can ebb and flow. Sometimes, it might feel Sisyphean in its effort. Other times, the words might pour out of you, like rain from the sky through the vessel of you.

What it doesn’t have to be is torture.

And if writing is torture for you, consider what rules you’re agreeing to. Whose are they? Where did they come from? What would be possible without them?

When it comes to creativity, a little permission can go a long way. Once you relax the expectations of what being a writer must look like, what the results should be, and what counts as “real,” you might start to find that it’s actually not so torturous after all. It might even be… fun.

Imagine that.

* * *

Want to end the year revisiting what it means to be a writer? Celebrate the return of the light during my 2-week online writing group, What If You Knew, December 11-22. As a holiday gift and gesture of my appreciation for this writing life, I’m offering a 25% discount! Register here.