Christmas Anger

Because anger never came easy to me, or because I’d never seen it expressed by my mother and so I too learned to hold it in, I suddenly find myself attuned to it, in all its subtleties, and as such, it’s blossomed, especially after Menopause, which deftly set it (and other such vicissitudes of nice, sweet & pretty) free.

“Anger is sad’s bodyguard,” I’ve heard said, or: “Fear is the root of all anger,” but doesn’t that imply that anger has no value in and of itself?

I recall the beauty of a pure encounter. I was 37, with a new infant, a dead mother, a physically present but otherwise absent spouse, and a dilapidated farmhouse atop a mountain filled with in-laws.

The anger arose spontaneously (following a grievous transgression) was almost blissful, uncontaminated as it was by thought which is not to say that it was expressed mindlessly, like outrage, but instead, it burned clean, and was received, and something else, just as potent—it was released—without the festering of anger swallowed or anger dealt cuttingly on the sly.

“Choose discomfort over resentment.”

This is from Brené Brown best said with her Texas twang.
It was my motto last year, and it is also the intention I hold in relationship to my grown children.

“Parenting without resentment may be too ambitious a goal,” my therapist cautions.

In recent years, as the onslaught of hormones rocked me further and further from the shore of self-containment, I began to notice the very moment anger appeared.

Turns out it comes a lot at Christmastime, that time of year when I’m supposed to be all cookies and aprons and good cheer.

Tired is a huge trigger for me, and is a very close friend to overextended. Sick is another trigger, especially once I’m on the mend.

“If you don’t meet your expectations, lower them.”

A teacher of mine, Megha Nancy Buttenheim, spoke these words, and I suppose I’ve been at this lowering for the better half of my life while spending the first half (and apparently previous lifetimes) unconsciously driven.

Like any recovery, it’s one day at a time.

I am so ANGRY.
I am glad no one is home.

At 55 (wow, that’s such a huge number all of the sudden), anger is compounded by the awareness and understanding that arises with age and awakening (and with the election of a misogynist and the electrification of the #metoo movement, so very necessary and centuries too late.)

Nowhere is the gender differential experienced more acutely than during the holidays as our invisible work–caring for homes and families and communities and corporations–is exponentially magnified by the season of giving.

I love giving. I truly do. I enjoy the exchange of energy that gifts bring. That baking provides. That volunteering offers.

“Whenever we reach within and ask how we can delight each other physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, we are on Holy ground,” wrote my friend Michele Morgan Doucette.

But I am so angry. I am so tired. Not just angry and tired in this moment (recovering from the effects of a particularly protracted recovery), but angry for all the ways my mother was tired—she, who would bake cookies for every floor of the hospital (cut-out cookies and fudge and almond bark) while continuing to do the books for my dad’s practice, and caring for our home, and their six children, while Christmas shopping for all of us, including her 7 younger siblings and their families, and my father’s four younger siblings and their families, not to mention neighbors and friends and my father’s colleagues, along with hand-written (and addressed) Christmas cards sent far and wide to all the places we’d lived before.

My dark-haired, dark-eyed mother would arrive on Christmas Day, totally spent, a shell of herself, an absence glaringly magnified by the fact that it was her birthday.

WHERE ARE YOU? I wanted to scream.

Instead, I learned how to make a turkey dinner with all the fixings, her favorite. I bought her flowers, not just on her birthday, but year round. And breakfast in bed too. Eggs Benedict was her favorite. I wrote her cards–from every place I traveled, brought her presents. On Christmas Eve, I would stop by after Midnight Mass to be the first to wish her a Happy Birthday, catching her at that sacred hour when all the kids (and my father) were asleep, and she was most alive, on her knes in the livingroom wrappin.

Sometimes, I stayed on to help. Once, I let her continue alone after my boyfriend and I finished putting together the multi-storied Barbie Dream House at 2 am.

The Magic of Christmas.

I judged my mother for everything. For her vacancy. For not speaking up to my father. For not demanding help. For not claiming some time for indulgence on her own fucking birthday. For not taking time to at least buy something nice for herself. For being so disorganized that she’d save wrapping for Christmas Eve. For disappearing. For being tired. For drinking so much coffee and eating so much sugar. For never reaching her dreams. For never wanting anything.

I judged her and I carried her, and even though I did it all differently, her burdens became mine.

(Here come the tears.

“Anger is sad’s bodyguard.”)

On our very last Christmas together before our family imploded (and reconfigured), and just afater I finished exams, I took my father’s credit card and squeezed in a shopping spree so that my mother might have new things on Christmas Day, too. That silk blouse. Those velours pants. The hair clip. The gold chain. Right down to the stockings and boots.

It wasn’t enough. Or it was too late. Or it was too much and my claiming awakened her own.

Relatives blamed me, blamed her for listening to me.

“Tell Dad you need time for yourself,” I demanded as I watched her disappear.

She left my father in the New Year, but not directly. She went out the side door. With another man. Barely a man. 20. The best friend of my boyfriend. (I expect she wanted the youth she never had. The youth I had.)

Later she left all of us with the bottle.

Finally, after ten years sober, her departure was final. Cancer. Just 2 years older than I am now. Her body riddled with guilt and regret.

My mother was a kind, gentle soul caught in the crossfire of what it is to be female, to grow up poor, to want more but not know how to claim it, to never know that you are deserving/worthy, just as you are.

I appreciated my mother and always told her so. But now I’d like to tell her something else. I’d like to gather her in my arms and say:

None of this was your fault.

~

(Note: For the longest time, I loved this photo, holding onto it and “the way we were,” and then one Christmas, I dropped it, and the glass shattered, and I realized then that I’d hated it, hated it for the way it made me feel sad.

Just now, I’m beginning to see it differently, something new creeping around the edges, two women, one 18, the other 39, saying, however imperfectly:

We’re here too.)

Advertisements

When to rage, when to meditate


On a day trip to the coast, my husband and I found ourselves in atypical traffic driving over the mountain that leads out of our town.

A pick up was ahead of us, tailgating a large camper that was slowly navigating the sinewy curves down the mountain as it towed a car behind it.

The pick up was persistent; swerving into the opposite lane around blind turns, and riding the camper way too close.

At first Casey and I were annoyed, and then alarmed, and finally furious.

I wanted to honk at the tailgater, holler out our window at him, pull him over and give it to him, take down his license plate and call the police. (We couldn’t see the plates.)

I began fantasizing revenge.

This was my red flag.

May he feel safe. May he feel at ease. May he feel in control…

To the offering of Metta, I added a cooling breath, rolling my tongue, and breathing through it like a straw.

Within moments, I felt better.
Did he slow too?

Soon we were at the bottom of the mountain and the camper turned off the highway.

I thought about my voice and politics.

Alleviating or exacerbating?

To whom am I paying attention?
To what?
And how might I be most helpful given the circumstance of each situation?

Great Expectations

Runge, visipix.com

There were always great expectations for me–as the treasured first born of two proud families.

However my mother said that I was always rather average. I wasn’t able to potty train at 6 months–despite the swan seat my Nana bought me, and I didn’t walk early either–despite the pretzel gold fish that the same Nana used to entice me.

Talking may have been the exception–which they soon came to regret.

“Chatterbox,” my grandfather chided.  “Please stop talking for one moment,” my mother begged.

And yet, they continued to dole out expectations.  “You are the oldest grand daughter Kelly, you must set a good example for everyone else.”

“You are my oldest niece Kelly, your cousins all look up to you.”

“You are our oldest daughter, Kelly, your sisters emulate you.”

Boucher, detail, visipix.com

Dressed in fancy clothes, telling everyone what to do, my mother says I was thirty by age two. No wonder.

“Dinnertime was particularly stressful,” she said, helping me understand why I had become so bossy, and why I didn’t like sit down meals.

“There were so many aunts and uncles and grandparents telling you what to do that it gave ME a stomach ache,” she confessed.

Peas were to be eaten with mash potatoes.

Steaks were to be cut like so.

Elbows belonged off the table.

Young ladies didn’t chew like cows.

It wasn’t until my late-twenties that I could relax at the table again. Meals that had once been places of instruction and correction–later became places of argument. Often I was sent from the table to my room.

Unless it was a table of younger children to whom I was to attend. Then afterward, my grandmother would help me with my French.

“I always wanted to be a translator at the UN,” she said, “but I never finished college.”

She was married with a new baby before graduation.  Four more babies followed, and a life at home–without the satisfaction of a career of her own.

Klimt, visipix.com

I felt the weight of her expectations–not just for my life–but for the life she never led.  She had so many hopes for me, but then she died before I got to realize a one.

Thus my life was cloaked in great expectations–which served to nurture and smother me.

When faced with an unwanted pregnancy at 16, there was no one I could tell.

There was no room in the mythology of “Kelly” to allow for such disgrace.

Though my boyfriend suggested marriage, I firmly declined, keeping my eye on college and a future of travel.  I refused to let anything get in the way of claiming the life that my grandmother lost.

By my late teens, the great expectations were self-propelling–and out of control.  I became so driven that I was tortured by headaches on weekends, not knowing how to slow down–without being sick.

During summer “vacation,” I managed my uncle’s restaurant, working a hundred hours a week; and when I returned to school and was diagnosed with monoucleosis, I insisted on going to classes and condemned myself for letting my grades slip below straight A’s.

My professors questioned my lagging performance, but  it never occurred to me to ask for help or exception. My father was a doctor, as was his father, and his father; we knew how to be tough; coddling was for wimps.

My father actually knew everything, especially about me, and I longed to hear his latest proclamation of success.  More often, it was criticism:  “Hold in your stomach, Kelly,” he said, and so I did.  “Your hair looks much better straight,” he said, and so I removed the curls.  “You need some color,” he said, and so I spent some more time outside.  “You need to loose weight,” he said, and so I did, until he told me that I was too thin.

Friedrich, visipix.com

No matter what I did or how I looked,  I could never reach his moving target of approval.  And once my parents divorced and he remarried, he quickly lost interest in me altogether.

For a long time, I didn’t know who I was anymore.

Our last remaining connections were grades, but by the time I graduated from college, I had to convince him to attend the award ceremony where I was honored for being at the top of my department. (In the end, he skipped it for another event.)

Despite my success at school, my relatives were disappointed that I hadn’t become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. They had expected so much of me.

I made up for it in the classroom.  At the end of each day, I would tutor and run student counsel meetings and volunteer as a mentor.  On vacation, I taught summer school and tutored some more. I couldn’t get enough of work. “Notice me. I’m important,” I seemed to say.

I was afraid of silence.  I filled it with everything I could–with television or radio or more often, people; Otherwise, I’d hear the noises in my head–the ones that told me what to do and how to do it better.

“Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, Kelly,” they’d echo…

After two miscarriages, my doctor urged me to slow down and consider taking some time off. This terrified me–but not as much as never being a mother.

Modhersohn, visipix.com

What followed was a decade of growth and pruning and slowing down–so much so that I became afraid of noise, and of work–and of the return of the Great Expectations–mine and theirs.

I spent another handful of years waffling between retreat and engagement, confused about who I was and what I wanted and how to know either.

Which brings me to today, where I sit in a quiet house enjoying the silence, all the while holding GREAT EXPECTATIONS for a new role to which I aspire.

This is a place that I could bring my grandmother’s atlas and claim her lost hopes. This is a place where I can feed that part of me who loves the world–not in the driven backpacking days of my college years–but with the wisdom and heart of a mother.

This integration of past and present and future has unleashed a fiery dragon from my belly–oozing the unexpressed bile of dozens of years when I couldn’t hear–the precious voice–of my own–insides.

Kelly Salasin, November 5, 2010

Click here to read the previous installment, The Zen Monk in Me in the series; or the ensuing post: The Revolution Inside or here to see the full life path journey–home.)