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.

Differences within families

Families often have one member who’s different from the rest: an artist in a family of sports fans, for example, or an enthusiastic member of debate teams in a family of book readers. Most commonly occurring, perhaps, are personality pattern differences. A really big challenge in families (and other human groupings) is learning to observe a family member’s behavior patterns without calcifying them into judgements about “who” that person is. When that happens it becomes impossible to truly see those close to us. Instead, we paste a projection onto their faces and attempt to interact with it, instead of engaging with real people in open and thoughtful ways. Focusing on the ways in which a family member is different from the rest also makes it impossible to see differences in other family members. Then everybody loses: nobody is properly seen, and no one in the family gets their needs met or the emotional validation which is so important for every person’s well-being.

In our family, two of our children are twins. This exacerbates issues already common to families with siblings: twins are relentlessly compared to each other. Since our twin daughters are very different from each other, and developing at different rates and in different ways, the potential for developing conflict, jealousy, and limiting, stereotyped views of each of them is high. Ted and I have been conscious of this from the beginning.

Additionally, there is a great deal of personality alignment between Hazel (our oldest daughter) and Emily (the other twin). So comparisons are easy to make between Emily and Hazel, on the one hand, and Joanna on the other.

Our family is composed of two extroverts (Hazel and Emily), two introverts (Ted and Joanna), and one introvert with an extroverted wing (me). Ted and I, being adults, have learned how to handle functioning in the world (at least to some extent). Joanna doesn’t have our decades of experience. She is thoughtful and curious. She is quiet. She likes to take her time to experience the world around her. She very often gets run over by her sisters, who tend to dive in with verve and enthusiasm (especially Emily). Because things go so fast, she winds up just copying Emily a lot. Partly, this is a totally genuine appreciation for others’ enthusiasms. But partly, it is because she needs space made for her in our family, space and time to think and feel and decide without pressure.

She also winds up asking for help and assuming a certain degree of lack of capability on her own part. This is partly because everyone thinks Joanna is cute and sweet and wants to help her. This is also partly because she has had the tendency since very early on to reach out for help. Ted and I (and our wonderful nanny H) are making a conscious effort to encourage Joanna to try first, before we help her. As Ted pointed out today, our expectations of our children will have a tremendous impact on their own perception of themselves and their abilities. We know Joanna can do many things: we need to provide gentle and consistent feedback and support for her to learn this about herself too.

Sometimes people will say that they parented all their kids the same way. I find this extremely improbable, and also not even a goal to shoot for. Everyone is different. We all have different strengths, areas of challenge, tendencies. We need different sorts of support in order to grow and thrive. We all need to learn how to be leaders and how to accept direction. We all need to learn how to take care of ourselves, and how to ask for help. But we will all learn and acquire those skills differently.

So, today a Wonder Woman costume arrived for Joanna. We’re all getting super hero costumes; I ordered a plus-size Super Girl costume I was extremely excited to find last week, Joanna chose the Wonder Woman costume, and Emily chose a Batgirl costume. Hazel wants to be Super Girl too; I am not sure yet what Ted is going to choose. Anyway, Joanna’s arrived today. The girls have been very excited to get their costumes, and the box was an object of very enthusiastic attention. Hazel and Emily immediately rushed over to it, and Emily reached out to open it.

I called a halt, told the girls to step back and give Joanna some space. This was so hard for them to do that ultimately I made them sit on the benches next to H and me, so that Joanna could open her box unimpeded. I enforced no talking to Joanna other than to offer things like, “Oh, that’s cool!” No suggestions, no questions, no “help”. Hazel twitched. She kept trying to offer suggestions/orders to Joanna. She drummed her feet on the ground. She got really mad. She said she was bored. Emily started to copy me; I told her not to jump on the bandwagon (a common issue in our house, something we work on a lot.) She relaxed and watched Joanna.

Hazel, to her credit, did not throw a full-blown fit. She wanted to try on Joanna’s Wonder Woman “boots” (knee-high leg coverings). After I told her no the second time, she dropped it.

With this firewall in place, with a space in which she could explore and know her stuff was just hers, with time to process, Joanna smiled. She poked around. She asked for help: we told her to try it herself. We offered silly suggestions when she seemed stressed by the idea that she could find the packaging flap and open it herself. She puttered. She initiated conversation. She gradually found everything, gradually put it all on. She enjoyed herself. With a big smile, she said that her costume had come first; she told Emily that hers would come soon. When there were things Joanna genuinely needed help with, we asked her whom she wanted to help her. She pointed at Hazel, and said, “You!” Once Joanna was all dressed up in her costume, she sat on the floor, and Emily came and sat down in front of her. They stretched out their legs and put their feet together.

Afterwards it was time for Ted and I to go have our downtime. We walked down the street together, talking about parenting. We want to help our kids learn to consider the needs and boundaries of everyone in the family. We want to help them understand and appreciate each other’s differences without turning each other into caricatures. For example, we want all of them (Joanna included) to understand that Joanna needs time to experience and process the people and things in the world around her, without reframing that as, “Joanna is slow.”

We all fall prey to making those characterizations, and to being the object of them. The story about me, from when I was little, was that I was emotional, impractical, and unrealistic. “Touchy-feely woman”, and “sees life through rose-colored lenses”, were two associated descriptions used about me. In actual fact, though I have strong emotions, I am quite analytical. It took me decades to realize that the characterizations of me were not, in fact, the definition of who I am. Even more importantly, that who I am is less important than what I choose to do: that the behavior patterns I choose to establish and the skills I choose to acquire are at least as important as the tendencies I was born with.

I want each of my children to have the space and support within our family that will help create a foundation upon which they can discover themselves, gain needed life skills, and learn that to a large degree we are what/whom we make of ourselves. Very little is set in stone, and there is always more about a person (including oneself) than we think.

Ghostbusters!

I saw the new “Ghostbusters” tonight. I came out of the theater glowing, so happy I felt it sparking through my body, off my skin, lighting me from head to toe. Four women. Four women! FOUR WOMEN! Leading the film! Not talking about relationships! The dramatic tension in the movie was NOT about a relationship with a man! Four funny women taking out the paranormal trash!

Was the movie perfect? No, of course not. But I laughed out loud many times. I got my jolt of nostalgia through listening to the music and the visual style of the ghosts. And I was incandescently happy about the lack of sexy-woman-ness in the movie. Oh god, it was so wonderful.

NO FAT JOKES! Not a one. Women eating, joking, getting to know each other. Women screwing up, women being smart, women running but not in an unrealistic superhero way, women getting shit done, and nary a bikini in sight.

It is literally impossible for me to convey how much all that meant to me. It’s like being told, finally, that I get to be a real person. That will be impossible for many people to understand. But the total and complete absence of anyone of my gender who looks like me NOT being the butt of jokes through the movie, or of pity. Oh my god.

I loved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in a lot of ways. But even Buffy stayed pretty hip by nice tight jowl inside the universe of our screwed up beauty standard. And a lot of the tension in that show was built with more or less standard tropes, having to do with Buffy’s feelings about the various boys and men in her life.

Melissa McCarthy is only 2 years younger than I am. Kristen Wiig is 3 years younger than Melissa. Leslie Jones is my age. My god. Middle-aged, competent, funny, brave, interesting, smart women kicking ass.

Nostalgia is powerful. The patriarchy is yet more powerful, enormously so. Seeing this movie starts to show me how deeply I have absorbed the message that only men can be authoritative, funny, creative, believable, and *real* in that authentic, representative of the human species way. I can feel that programming resisting the data in front of my eyes. When humor, language, physical presentation, emotive expression, and style are all placed inside small, predictable boxes, it becomes hard to even recognize anything else. I remember the first time I had milk fresh from a cow. I was 14 years old. We were staying on a farm B&B in Cornwall. I didn’t like it. It tasted nothing like what came out of our plastic white jugs at home. It was warm, and so strong-tasting. Ew, I thought. It took a few days for my taste-buds to start adapting, for my expectations to change, for my mind and body to open to new experience.

Watching this movie, watching the few others I have seen where the female lead is not driven by romantic love or sexual trauma, and especially where the female lead is doing comedy, has been a similar experience. I almost cannot recognize the material. It is immediately filed away in my brain as not-right, less-than.

In fairy tales, the heroine is (at least in the books of my childhood) almost exclusively the youngest and the prettiest and the sweetest girl. Those stories were always about someone else. The rewards were unreachable, and the lessons learned directed at others. I never imagined myself as the heroine. How could I? I was none of those things.

Movies are even worse. There is visual evidence that people of interest, people to whom we are meant to relate, are in a category and class entirely unreachable by me. I’ve written about that before on this blog.

And so the reaction I describe above seems to me to be to be a societal definition of girl- and woman-hood that excludes everyone else, creating self-hatred, which is then directed outward again at any sort of cultural/artistic expression which counters it or provides an alternative vision.

The sexist backlash against this movie has been predictable and disgusting. Some people act like the makers of this movie and desecrating an altar, reaching into their minds and ruining their memories. And the racist backlash has been even more awful: Leslie Jones felt it necessary to leave Twitter due to the horrific things being tweeted her way. (http://fusion.net/story/327103/leslie-jones-twitter-racism/) The violent, violating, infantile fury of people who want a white world of strong white men and sexy white women is a thing that damages people every day. It must be resisted every day. I think many people forget the necessity of resistance, because it’s the water we all swim in, and it’s made that way, to corrupt and divide and vanish into the murk when challenged.

And so, we give into self- and other-hatred, we dismiss, we acquiesce, we judge.

But I have had experiences where I feel the scales falling from my eyes, where I stretch and breathe and get a different sort of oxygen in my lungs. Spending time in dyke bars does that for me. Spending long and intensive time with women does that for me. Sometimes in a great while a book does that for me. And I am going to watch this movie over and over until I can chuck the societal definitions screaming in my head, and take in what is before my eyes, let it sink in.

A place where someone like me can be fully human.

I saw the movie with a friend who is 22 years my junior. I have known her for 15 years, since she was in elementary school. When the original movie came out I was in my mid-teens, 10 years younger than she is now. The world was a different place then; I was very different then. Being a private cello teacher, I’ve had the chance over the past couple of decades to watch quite a number of kids grow up. I have been so happy to see how many of my female students are involved in sports, reaping the benefits of a more vigorously enforced Title IV. My friend has had since she was a kid a stronger sense of herself and her capabilities than I did when I was a kid, partly due to family environment, and partly to personality. But also, though it’s not linear and there are definitely ways in which things have gotten the opposite of better (gender expression polarization, for example, and the toxic explosion of pink-beauty-princess-defined girlhood), there have been real gains made too which I see manifested in her life and the lives of my students.

Being able to have a feminist joy-fest with her, to share the laughs and the joys with her, was a special gift.

My 7-year-old has been picking up on the pretty significant gender disparity in media and books. She notices. And that is a great thing. I tell her what I think about it, but I cannot tell her what to think about it, not really. What I want is for her to notice. She’s starting to notice the media white-wash, too. I told her this afternoon that I was going to see the movie. I told her I was really excited about it, because it was a remake of one I’d seen when I was a kid, and this one was 4 women. She said, “Oh, and it was all men before?” I said that yes, it was. “And,” she said, “was it all white people?” Yes, I said, it was.

Right now, though I am terrified, horrified, agonized about many things happening in the world, I do believe that change is possible. It is possible to re-learn. It is possible to prioritize justice and love and collaboration. And to do so one has to live it every day. And one has to forgive oneself for the thousands of times one fails to do so.

This movie makes me want to shout and punch things and dance and laugh and conquer and learn and grow.

Thank you to everyone who made it.

Practicing Agreement

After several days of really challenging practices with my daughter, I decided to apply some Positive Discipline techniques. This afternoon she and I discussed how we both wanted to structure her piano practices, and what we want to try in case of conflict. The basic ideas follow. We each contributed to this plan. I am sure it will be tweaked and re-worked, but I feel confident already that it will help. It will mean a lot less of my daughter feeling that I am driving everything. I will be able to back off and stop talking as much. Agreements are good. Execution is important. I am looking forward to this!

Pick a piece:

    Identify what to focus on during the run-through;
    Each of us picks something to work on;
    Another run through;
    Another piece;
    Sight-reading.

Things to consider:

    Piece logistics (r/l hand; fingering; note direction; chords, etc.);
    Notes;
    Rhythm;
    Technique;
    Dynamics

And in case of conflict, we made some communication guidelines:

    Take a deep breath and try again;
    Restate what the other person said;
    Leave the room to cool down briefly;
    Share a hug (if both people want to);
    Request a different piece or section or task.

And our incentives are:

    For practicing: a regular sticker;
    For using a regular voice: a special sticker each;
    For excellent focus: 10 cents / 30 minutes of practice

Grief and Stress

Tonight, as Ted and I sat watching a TV show (something that is a pretty rare event for us), I worried. We hadn’t seen one of our cats since the day before, and this cat never spends more than a couple of hours away from the house. He is a home body. Earlier, I had called the Animal Control line and listened to the descriptions of the cats that were being held. I felt guilty for sitting and watching TV, thought about Pepper out somewhere, hurt or dead, thought about telling my kids, felt agonized.

After the second episode, we started getting ready to close up for the night, talking about our difficult feelings about our cat. I went out the back door and called for him, and was entirely astounded to hear his meow. I looked over the stairs to the path between our house and our neighbor’s house, and there he was. I called again, and he slunk under their gate and came, slowly, around to our stairs. Normally if he’s been out a bit longer than he wants, he bounds up the stairs, shoots up them like a four-footed bullet.

I let him into the house, came into the kitchen, and started to cry.

My dad died in December. It was a shock. Though he had major health challenges for decades, he’d been relatively stable for a long time, and was not in an obvious health crisis at the time of his death. I headed back home immediately. The day after I got back I had rehearsals, since there were multiple concerts coming up. The second rehearsal included a Corelli piece I know he would have loved, and I felt a passionate wish he could be there to hear it. In the break I stood up to thank the orchestra for its caliber, its feeling. And, talking, I cried. I felt stabs of grief for the loss of my dad.

Mostly, since then, I have not been able to access that grief. This year has been so incredibly stressful in various ways, and though it has also been a lot of other things, I am learning another lesson in how stress can inhibit the experience of other emotions: it can undercut joy, certainly, but it can also block grief. It commands one’s system, demands attention, demands appeasement. And when it goes on for long enough, it frays nerves, depletes resources. And yet, as it does so it refuses to give way to anything else.

But sometimes things can slip in anyway. One grief can be a conduit for another. We were just in my hometown last week, and seeing my kids play in the house where I grew up does bring into focus my dad’s absence. He loved to read to his grandchildren. He loved to see them, to talk with them. I can see the smile on his face now. The house has been changed quite a bit since his death, due to my siblings and I rearranging it for my mom, who was hospitalized in January (and who is doing much better now). The changes in the house bring my dad to mind, thinking about how he would feel about them. I felt his absence acutely that first morning we were there. And then, one thing I did while I was in town was to go pick up my dad’s things from his university, a place he taught for decades. I had a wonderful conversation with a couple members of the administration, and with a former colleague of my dad’s. Talking about his professional life, about his love for his subject and his colleagues brought him back to me freshly.

So it was up and present when, tonight, I feared that this week we’d be grieving the loss of our cat and attempting to help our kids process it. And when Pepper came into the kitchen, I felt undone, that I can’t take any more.

Lately I’ve felt the impulse to beg the universe for a break, because I’d love to have a few months free of major challenging events. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. I feel like all it’s possible to really ask for is support, help, love. And there is a lot of love.

For me, stress is often about worrying about things which feel out of my control. I fear negative results or events, and so I worry about them. Stress can sometimes be an attempt to handle that which we cannot control, which is to say, life. It is often about the future, and an indeterminate future at that. It can be about worrying about what other people think or feel, about what may happen or may not happen. It can involve projections, incomplete information. It can be a habituated response to the circumstance of not knowing what is going to happen. It’s very noisy, internally. And, as noted above, it takes up a lot of my resources.

So, today I have received another lesson in the necessity of practicing staying in the moment, accepting my feelings whatever they are, and trusting myself and the universe that whatever happens I will respond to it. Not that I will handle it, not that I will be able to control it. But I will respond, and I will do the best I can.

If I can remember that, I can dial back the stress. And then it’s easier to feel. And it’s easier to act.

So, I miss my dad. I miss his intelligence and thoughtfulness. I miss his love and delight in his subject, and in the art of teaching. I miss his love and joy in his grandchildren. I wish I could see him again. And, somehow, I do not believe that he doesn’t exist any more. But I cannot frame that in a rational/logical/mind sort of way. It is a feeling.

And tomorrow, instead of making signs with which to plaster the neighborhood, Ted will dig out the tracking collars we’ve previously used for the cats. And I will teach, and then I will take Hazel to her piano lesson, and then I will practice, and then I will go see a movie. And I will, when it feels right, have a dialogue with my dad about what I’m doing in my life. And I’ll look forward to playing music on the sound system he and I picked out together many years ago, and I will remember him.

And I will try to make time in my days for remembrance, for reflection, and to give my heart a time and place to feel what it does, in the present moment, without the incredible racket of stress. I don’t know whether it’s time to say goodbye or hello or what, but I don’t need to know or understand that, either.