Listening to anger

I get angry a lot. Sometimes the anger is apparent externally, and sometimes it is just simmering within me. Its arrival, regardless of its appearance, demands an instant response. And for me, most of the time that response shows up as criticism. Especially with my kids and my partners, people close to me.

Very, very often, shame follows on anger’s heels, and even mixes itself into my response, twisting it and shutting off the exits, making it hard for me to back down or change course. Because of the shame, part of me feels compelled to emotionally justify my feeling and my response to that feeling.

I get to where I feel pretty disgusted with myself. And then I wish for the impossible: if only I were a nicer person, a better person; if only I didn’t get angry, or I only got angry in a measured way in entirely morally justifiable circumstances.

But what if anger doesn’t truly demand instant action? What if anger is a messenger from within, a demand to pay attention not to the people in my external environment, but to myself? What if it is a clarion call for self-care? What if it takes anger to get my attention, because I’m so used to devaluing what I actually need in the moment?

Suppressed anger toxifies. Instead of flashing like lightning, it rises like gasses in a swamp, coalesces in the gut and drips down as a rain of bile.

I think of myself as an angry person, but I am coming to suspect that isn’t true: the anger speaks, over and over, attempting to get me to hear the message, but instead I react and then choke it (and myself) with shame.

So often the advice given about anger is to stop, count to ten, and then continue talking in a more calm way. This misses the effing point by about a mile. The stopping should be a chance to communicate with oneself, NOT to suppress one’s feelings.

Here is my goal for the month: a) notice when anger shows up; b) stop and ask anger what its message is, telling my kids that’s what I’m doing: “Hang on a minute, I have to listen to myself”; c) determine my self-care steps; d) ask for (or say) what I want (if that’s part of the self-care steps) and/or let my kids know what I need to do.

And in that communication with my kids, remember to give them the reason first and the request second. They respond (as do I) so much better when things are presented in that order.

I don’t want that acid to burn me, or my kids. Anger is necessary. But weaponized anger really hurts people. So I’m going to try to do a better job of listening.

Body image lessons by way of my children

I learned in 3rd grade that I was ugly. I may have suspected it before then, but it was confirmed in the sing-song tones of childish torment that told me I was fat. And I needed no one to tell me that fat=ugly.

Humans come in so many different shapes and sizes. Some people are angular; some people are curved; some people are a mixture.

I am round. I have round arms and legs, round belly, round butt cheeks. No matter what I weigh overall, my body is curved. From very, very early on I learned that I didn’t fit, that I spilled over in ways that should rightfully embarrass me, that my body was shameful and something I should not inflict on other people any more than I had to.

And not too long after that, I learned that it was my fault. I was greedy. I ate too much. I was morally inferior, and it was showed plainly in the shape of the body I inhabited. By the time I was in 7th grade I had come to hate my body. Anyone who told me different was obviously lying, either from spite or in a misguided attempt to make me feel better about myself.

A high school relationship not grounded in consent or good communication did further damage, and by the time I got to college I literally could not feel touch or receive love or appreciation. Stomach churning with my terror of intimacy, I vomited during or after more than one date.

Now, at the ripe old age of 48, I have, by dint of ongoing work, come light-years from that place. I can look in the mirror at myself, and not only not recoil in disgust at the sight of all that fat (as I did for long, long decades), I can see beauty, vitality, evidence of the way I love and move and act in the world. I can see thick wavy hair, dark eyes, strong legs, capable hands, a bountiful chest, and even, sometimes, a belly that stretched and increased in capacity to nurture three human beings in two pregnancies, and whose skin is a map of those gifts.

My two youngest are twins. They are very different from each other, though when we brought them home from the hospital we put fingernail polish on J’s nail so we could be sure that we didn’t get them mixed up. At that time they were alike in their tiny-old-man wrinkled hairlessness, very similar in weight. Now, they are growing into very different bodies and temperaments.

J is taller, slender, lighter-haired, elfin. E is shorter, rounder, darker, powerful.

Looking at E this morning, I realized that her arms are a smaller replica of mine. Her limbs are sturdy, like mine. J’s arms and legs are longer and not just thinner, but a different shape altogether. She has lines where her sisters have curves.

There is a part of me which has really struggled, seeing H, my older daughter, develop a body like mine, too. That self-hating, fat-phobic piece of me which is desperate to see thin rather than thick legs, a flat belly rather than one which is round. I must have compassion for that piece of me, wounded so early and so deeply.

They all eat the same thing, a pretty healthy diet which prioritizes vegetables and protein over carbs.

They look different. They have different bodies. This has nothing to do with failure or weakness. They are different. I was the plump person in a family of thin people. I was not worse. I was just different.

This morning I had an orchestra rehearsal. Walking back to my car carrying my cello in the sunshine, I could access gratitude for my body, with which I make music, hug my friends and family, cuddle my children, make love with my partner, see blue sky, hear birdsong, feel the textures of my clothing, make and taste food. My body, which tells me when I need food or rest, which carries me and nurtures me. My body, which I can decorate. My body, which houses my heart and mind and spirit. My body, which is beautiful with life and vitality, tenderness and expression. I need to keep listening to my body, caring for my body, appreciating my body rather than taking it for granted.

I owe myself just as much love as I wish to offer my children. And while my children do not owe me love, they offer me loving lessons every day. I am grateful for their presence and their authenticity.

Nevertheless, She Persisted

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This phrase feels so powerful for a number of reasons, including that it is an accurate tagline for me. I persist. It has been an attribute, a behavior pattern, a tendency of mine since I was little. Along with it comes courage, bull-headedness, clarity of vision, fear, blindness, determination, an ability to see the big picture, an aptitude for analysis, strong intuition, desperation, hope, confidence, belief.

We are all such complicated, conflicting, sometimes beautiful mixtures of attributes and actions.

Persistence is what we need to teach and encourage in our children, especially our girls. Research shows that girls respond to a (learned) belief in innate characteristics by giving up when they don’t succeed “fast enough”.

One thing factor that contributes to girls’ learning and ability to develop patterns of persistence is having role models in the form of women in positions of power, women who persist, women who are able to tackle problems and move forward because of or despite those challenges.

I thank the universe for the rough grace of Elizabeth Warren. And I am proud of myself. And I will keep persisting, keep resisting, and stay committed to my values and my heart.

Life lessons from comforters on the floor

Most mornings the twins wake up to their sunshine/birdie alarm clock, spend a bit of time upstairs playing, and then come downstairs. When they arrive in the kitchen I’m often there making a pot of tea, or maybe still in my room checking my schedule, or just possibly still asleep in bed, depending on how late I was working the previous night, or how late I was up due to having gotten stuck in my insomniac mode.

This morning I woke up feeling reasonably rested and with dreams still rolling by inside my head. That happens when I’ve slept well, not having woken up 3 or more times in the night. I sat up, still half in my dream (which of course I can’t remember at the moment), pleased to discover that I felt like I’d slept.

*thump*

I wondered what that had been. I got up, went out into the kitchen. Then I heard crying over the monitor, and went upstairs to investigate. Emily and Joanna met me at the top of the stairs, tears spilling onto Emily’s cheeks. She had fallen out of Joanna’s bed. I hugged her, and then moved toward the bathroom, beyond which is their room.

In their room, the comforters were on the floor, along with the usual pile of pj’s and clothes and stuffies. Ted and I both regularly get super frustrated at the state of our house. Any parent will be able to relate to the sheer volume of hours it takes to clean up and put away the sheer volume of stuff which kids can at light-speed scatter across all available surfaces in the house, but which apparently gains 10,000 pounds when they are asked to put it all away.

The state of the house causes my inner child distress, and when I get distressed I tend to default to getting critical and angry in response to my distress. And then, if I don’t catch myself, I bark at the kids, which upsets them; and then if we get the cleaning done it’s in conflict and sadness. It doesn’t leave any of us feeling good.

Sometimes, though, I manage to do my inner work fast enough to intervene in that cycle, and get to a place where I can be productive and playful, instead of pissed off and punitive.

This morning I caught myself. It helped that I had gotten enough sleep last night. It helped that Ted and I are moving toward a kinder and smarter schedule, and I am feeling more hope these days. It helped that I’ve had a couple of therapy sessions lately in which the necessity for self-care (for me and others to do) is up in my conscious mind. I was able to offer that scared and upset part of myself comfort, to direct my attention inwardly instead of projecting it out.

I asked the kids if they could put their comforters on their beds. Emily lifted a corner of hers and desultorily waved it at her bed. That was the moment when I could have slipped into drill-sergeant mode.

“Bunch it up,” I said, lightly. “Bunch it! Make a big pile!”

She grinned and started bunching. Joanna giggled.

“Then you’ll be able to pick it all up,” I explained. “Joanna, can you help Emily?”

Joanna and Emily pushed and shoved and bunched, laughing as they did so. They got the comforter pushed up next to the bed, in a more compact shape.

“Heave!” I cried. “Shove it up there! Heave!”

“Hoove!” they replied.

“Heave!”

“Hoove!”

We were all laughing. They got the comforter up on the bed. Then they went to do Joanna’s. There was more heaving and hooving and giggling.

Emily landed on her butt.

“My laughing fell me over!”

While were on a roll, I asked them to put all the pjs that were on the floor on a bed. They started picking them up.

“Fling!” said Emily, tossing a top onto the bed. I laughed.

Then I asked Joanna to put the stuffies away, and Emily to put clothes in their dresser drawers. I coached them to stuff the clothes in so they could close the drawers. They hung dresses up. Emily proudly showed me a button she’d buttoned on one dress. They got so much done! I let go all the need for the comforter to be neatly spread across the bed, for the clothes to be folded before they were put away, for the clothes to go in the right drawers. And now their room is much neater. And they were proud of themselves. And we were all happy.

As the months go by we’ll refine techniques. But the process is more important than the result. I want to remember this positive experience. That’s why I’m writing it down.

Life can be so hard. So full, so complicated. So many things to deal with, from the tiny to the life-alteringly huge. But in the midst of all that, if I can cultivate kindness and love for myself, for my overwhelmed inner child, it’s much more possible to express it to others, most especially my children.

Life lessons. Profundities can be found in all sorts of places from the domestic to the world stage.

Edited to add:  one of my college friends is visiting, staying in our guest room. Just now Joanna and Emily earnestly asked her, “Do you want to see my room? It’s all clean!”

Stand up, speak out!

A few years ago I was at a Home Depot. I was in the line to checkout, and the person in front of me was a man with dwarfism. As he finished his transaction and turned to leave, the woman behind the checkout counter said, loudly and in the syrupy tone people sometimes employ when discussing small children, “Isn’t he cute? I mean, he’s just so cute, isn’t he?”

I was wildly uncomfortable. I squirmed.

I said nothing.

It is so hard to unstick one’s tongue from the roof of one’s mouth. So often one thinks of the perfect response later. But speak up and out we must. We must start challenging discrimination when we see it; notice and point out microaggressions as well as larger instances of racism, sexism, ableism, etc.

So we have to practice. Think of phrases, I statements. Say them in the mirror. Role play with your loved ones. Practice.

“I am uncomfortable with what you just said.”
“You may not have intended it to be, but what you just said is racist.”
“Stop touching her.”
“That is not ok.”
“Do you need help?”

etc.

We have to move out of our comfort zone and speak up. Take action on others’ behalf. Not necessarily because the person who is speaking or acting inappropriately will hear or listen. But we must start creating a climate in which people are consistently given the message that it is not ok to touch without consent; that it is not ok to use racial slurs; that it is not ok to threaten deportation; that it is not ok to threaten rape; that it is not ok to blame women for having emotions; that it is not ok to demonize and punish anyone for stepping outside your concept of gender; that it is not ok to “other” other people.

We will make mistakes. But we can do this! We can change our cultural norms. And changing one half of the dynamic changes the whole thing.

Large swathes of our citizenry are afraid, and justifiably so. Let’s help make America a safer place, together.

Shock, awe, and blindness in reaction to the loss of Madam President

There are so many things to be said about election night. I haven’t thought about more than a fraction of them, let alone come to any conclusions. But one thing came to me tonight I wanted to write down.

One of the biggest privileges there is in a society is to have the space and room and right to just be. To just be oneself without coercion, constriction. To be assured attention and respect, to be granted significance and relevance for just existing.

These are things that accompany life as a white man (I know, I know, not all men all the time; please, just wait and hear me out.) The reverse is true for minorities and for women, and for children, especially non-white-male kids. From my perspective as a woman, living life in a society which willfully and with malicious intent refuses to acknowledge the existence of more than a narrow slice of who I am, of who women are, takes an immense amount of energy. It takes energy to absorb or deflect daily patronizing communication, aggression, dismissiveness, arrogance, violence, and just the sheer insistence of many men that you make room for their opinions regardless of your comfort level, interest, or need in the moment. It takes energy to hear, for the millionth time, that the real reason there is any sort of issue happening is that you, a woman, are having an emotion. And by default that emotion is messy and inappropriate, because ewwww feelings. There are about a billion other examples, but I am too tired to come up with them.

The fact that women generally speaking apologize way, way, way too much? It’s not frivolous! It’s not random! It’s training and feedback. The pushback that women get for just having an opinion and daring to express it is sometimes incredibly fierce. And if a women so much as mentions that pushback, it intensifies with sometimes scary rapidity.

So.

No or very few role models. A tiny fraction of speaking roles for women in movies, the majority of roles being decoration/girlfriend/way to show man’s relatable flawed nobility. So few women in power. Woman drama = men/baby/rape. Intense and punishing beauty standard. etc. etc.

I see movies and I howl with the anguish of the fact that in popular culture it is impossible that someone like me could be viewed as possessing full humanity, let alone be allowed to express it.

I am human. But the barrage of messaging I receive daily is in contradiction of that fact.

I want to have the space to be me. I want to be able to be me without pushback ranging from merely weird to annoying to scary to violent. I want to live in a world where simply saying, “No thank you” to a date doesn’t mean weeks and weeks of cold sabotage from a colleague. I want to live in a world where expressing my opinion in anything other than a carefully modulated tone is received as being emotional and therefore instantly dismissed. I want to live in a world where I don’t have to watch my friends and I be berated, told that we’re oppressing men, disrespected, simply for setting a conversational boundary along the lines of, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t talk about that right now.”

The idea that we were on the verge of having our first woman President, and a woman who had the audacity to state that women’s rights are human rights, was extraordinary and exhilarating. I didn’t realize it until the catastrophe of Tuesday night, but I was already stretching and spreading, already expanding my lungs, already starting to send tendrils of myself out into areas of thought and expression I’d (with damn good reason) blocked myself from for decades. I was already anticipating a greater societal space being opened for me to be me with greater safety, acceptance, and even appreciation. I was beginning to communicate more directly with less fear and caution or defensiveness, with more clarity and ease.

I realized all that as my teeth were kicked in right before I got shoved violently all the way back into the cage. It is a cage built of fear and microaggressions. It is a cage constructed, like a placenta, dually by society and by me. Its bars are made of things like holding keys in your hand so that you have a weapon if someone attacks you as you walk to your car at night; the internal debate about whether to smile back when some guy demands your attention on the street and risk being called a bitch (or way, way worse) if you don’t comply. Again, there are a million examples, but I am just too fatigued to list them all, and definitely too tired to be carefully eloquent.

I thought I was going to be able to breathe, but here I am, air moving in and out, but not enough, looking through the bars, yearning, feeling defeated and betrayed.

And. This is only one cage. There are so many. And they interlock. And as a middle class white person I am to varying degrees complicit and responsible and involved in the creation of others.

52% of white women. 52% voted for Trump. More than half. Racism trumped the sisterhood. It is such a betrayal. And I definitely feel scales falling from my eyes.

I am human; they will re-collect and I’ll have to take them off again. And again. But this is evidence so clear.

And it’s not only racism. It’s internalized misogyny, self-hatred. Women sucking down those messages about inadequacy. By 6th grade girls and boys no longer have equal presidential ambitions. And if a little girl things, “Not me,” she also must think, “Not her”. And, “Not them.”

I had a conversation with my AP English teacher in high school once. She said a few things that have stuck with me, having to do with reasons that I had a hard time socially. She summed it up this way: I talked in class and was unrelentingly honest; the boys didn’t like that, and the girls liked the boys and therefore didn’t like it either. I am sure there are oversimplifications in that statement. But damn, it rang true. My manner, my style, my self, did not fit. I was always, always too much. At home, at school, in life.

Of course there’s more to it than sexism. But it plays a role. How many times have girls, taught from the cradle to value boys’ time and attention above all else, overlooked or dismissed or underestimated the value of the girls in their lives? How many fathers have been praised as heroes for simply wiping a baby’s butt or taking their kids to the grocery store, or even, gasp, cooking dinner, when moms’ contributions are invisible except when they’re being criticized?

Men and boys are valued more in our society. And it’s not even something a lot of them notice. It is in the air they breathe. It is an invisible entitlement. Until you say no, or not now, or god forbid, I don’t like you, or you’re incompetent.

Women are trained to value primarily what is happening romantically in other women’s lives. It is often the first or only thing that is asked about. Yes, I know. Not all women, not all the time. But it’s a pattern. I hear so many comments about my girls’ appearance, their dresses, their cuteness. Who ever asks them what books they like to read? Who asks them what sports they like to play? Who asks them what they want to be when they grow up? Almost no one.

Of course women don’t think a woman should be president.

And then there’s the racism. Van Jones referred to a “whitelash” to President Obama’s 8 years in office. It is stunningly, obviously true. And I think the idea, to some people, that a black president would be followed by a woman president, that we might have 16 years of feminazi PC bullshit in the White House, was abhorrent.

Holy shit. Talk about cages. If President Obama were to evince a tiny, tiny fraction of the rage Trump trades in, he’d have been politically eviscerated. Black men are automatically perceived as dangerous. Women are automatically perceived as less capable. In order to just open your damn mouth you have to fight to get out of the cage. And it’s often not even really possible to do so.

So you massage your language, attempt to come up with acceptable content and presentation that won’t scare or offend or anger anyone, hoping that with this sort of stealthy craft the content will get in, make it through the eardrums and into the grey matter, and be considered for itself, on its own merits.

It’s laughable. And it leads to dishonesty, inauthenticity, stress, strain, dissociation.

I want to be free. I want my black and brown fellow citizens to be free. I want every person to be able to stand in the air under the sky, themselves, to face difficulty and trauma and joy and tedium and all that makes up life, without having to massage their personhood into a bland enough container that it won’t offend white male sensibilities.

I thought we were on the road. (I realize that we are on the road. But that’s a later stage/post.) As a woman, I am shocked and wounded. As a white person with some knowledge, I have to admit that I was not seeing clearly. I have work to do. I am not innocent. No one is.

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

A final note: my loving and caring partner sent me this piece. Being cared for, being seen, being understood, being supported; it doesn’t get much better than that. I am grateful for my loved ones, and for the communities and relationships in which these topics can be discussed and compassion and love flow with mutual goodwill.

PMSing my way to self-love

I’m off my game today. It’s been like that since I got up this morning. We were interviewing a potential new nanny. We made opposite assumptions: hers involved an AM and ours involved a PM. So she showed up when I was still in bed, and we did the interview with me in my bathrobe. We asked questions. She asked a few questions. We told her about our family. She told us tidbits of her experience. It wasn’t an exchange that sparkled.

Then I made some breakfast, but realized as I was making it that I had to be leaving in under 20 minutes. I got a couple of bites in, but wasn’t really ready to eat. I talked with our nanny, part of my brain constantly in resistance to the knowledge that I really needed to get out the door.

I made it to rehearsal in the nick of time. And then…

You know how in the presidential debates Donald Trump liked to stand there and say, “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!” while Hillary Clinton was talking? That was happening in the interior of my skull today. I hate getting into that emotional space, where I wind up flinching away from mistakes and with each one the volume of my internal criticism rises to peaks of insulting derision so that I stumble from shame to shame and the betrayal of my hands.

Hillary Clinton is a world-class master in maintaining her composure no matter what is being thrown her way (a mastery built through devastating experience in which people other than herself exposed her private vulnerability to public view and then attempted to personalize every possible aspect of her life, whether it was in the public sphere or not).

Unfortunately for me, I sometimes make the mistake of attempting to substitute suppression for self-centering. And so, instead of gaining a real composure, I just get tighter and tighter and tighter, and it gets harder and harder to play. And then I’m more likely to make mistakes. And, as well, I’m more likely to assume that anything I hear that’s off is my fault. And pretty soon what I can mainly hear is that nasty voice shrieking, “Loser!” in my inner ear.

That lasted for the entire 2.5 hours of rehearsal today.

*sigh*

Then I came home and discovered that I’d gotten my period, something which has become a lot less predictable in the past year as I’ve apparently entered perimenopause.

Here was my (typical) sequence of thoughts.

Inner adult: “Oh, no wonder!”

Inner parent: “You’re just making excuses for your terrible playing.”

Inner adult: “But no wonder I was feeling so emotionally destabilized; that sometimes happens when I get my cycle.”

Inner parent: “Really, just stop making excuses.”

Inner parent: “And besides, you can’t admit that reality. That will just add fuel to the fire. You’ll just prove it. You know, that thing that women are unreliable and can’t be trusted because ew. Because, you know, periods. You know, women turn into crazy bitches at that time of the month. So just suck it up and practice more so you don’t suck so much next time.”

Inner child: crying

Of course, all through this I am aware that I’m being really harsh with myself. I have not entirely lost my perspective. But it is enlightening. On the one hand, roughly half of the population spends decades bleeding on average once a month. It’s a human experience. But it is one of the experiences which in patriarchy is very othering, and which ranges from annoying to mortally dangerous, depending partly on where you live in the world. And there is this tension between on the one hand wanting to be honest about one’s experience in a female body, and on the other, hating to give one iota of energy to the trope of the bitchy woman on the rag.

We all have bad days. We all have times where things are not clicking or flowing right (so to speak). But the experience of women in this instance, and minorities in general, is that a behavior one exhibits carries inappropriate weight because it’s used to justify a cultural narrative. And so, black men, for example, are hugely pressured to police their expressions and behavior lest a white person feel threatened and add that experience to the heap of supposed evidence that black men are violent and dangerous. And women are hugely pressured not to express emotions, because doing so might add to the supposed evidence that women are emotional and irrational and unreliable.

Hillary Clinton, in the 2008 primaries, allowed a tear to roll down her cheek. The endless, awful analysis went on and on and on. (Here is one sample.) It literally doesn’t matter how she comports herself. It is never right. Never acceptable. Never enough. Never too little. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

And that is how it sometimes feels to be a woman in this society.

I learned early to hate myself in ways that crippled me. This was due to a combination of factors, including societal messaging, school environment, and family patterns. I can be incredibly nasty to myself. I am only beginning to unpack why the reclamation of “nasty woman” has felt so empowering for me, but I think this is part of it. Donald Trump outright rejects the validity and standing of half the human species (way more than half, of course, when you take into account his feelings about anyone who’s not a “successful” white man). Claiming my nastiness feels like claiming my whole self, refusing to chop myself into little pieces in order to be more acceptable to others and to myself.

This nasty woman still bleeds every several weeks. And cries. And works hard. And will continue working hard. And this nasty woman is learning, slowly, to love herself.