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.)

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The Beachcomber

I dreamt of a beachcomber–

dragging its rake across the sand,

Removing life’s debris

Exposing jewels

of all colors and shape

Rising out of

breath-filled days.

Renoir, detail, visipix.com

I wake to the delight of this dream, sensing my life’s work in this metaphor as my mind drifts back to a jeweled moment from the sands of time….

I sit in a single booth at the edge of the restaurant from where I make schedules and plan meetings and talk to staff.

My younger sister sits across from me. She is a waitress.  It has been a choppy summer with me as her boss–sinking back into familial roles, shouting back at me across the bayside dining room when I give a direction.

Our lives together have been similarly choppy. There was the time when we shared not only a room, but a bed, and I– at the precipice of puberty– could not tolerate the brush of her skin against mine. At ten years old (or was she nine?) Robin insisted on bringing her entire collection of stuffed animals into our double, crossing the imaginary line I drew between her side and mine. As the family Aquarian, our water bearer, she couldn’t imagine leaving her friends on the floor and so, it is she, who slept there instead, while they shared our bed.

And yet, we spent many a summer evening running our fingers over each others bare backs in a game that made you the “back scratcher” once you succumbed to giggling; and we took turns fetching cool water to pour onto each others pillow; and shared a wet washcloth to press against our foreheads in the heat.

When our family moved from the mountains to the shore, our lives drifted apart–separate schools, separate beds, separate rooms. As the oldest, I thrived in our move, as I was expected to do; and Robin suffered, coming home from school each day crying, until she learned how to navigate the social sail of pre-teen days.

We were both deep into our adolescence when our parents’ marriage began to silently sink. Our interactions turned violent. Heeled shoes flung. Chairs. Even scissors. In retaliation, I dug my nails down her back.  Drew blood.

We were rescued from this drama by distance—I headed off to college while she took over the wheel of what had become a captain-less ship.

When she visited me at school, the bitter winds between us had begun to die down.

When the final blow to our family came, and our mother began drinking again, Robin’s role at home grew impossibly large. For the first time in our lives, she reached out to me–and I finally opened enough to respond.

There were many sobbing calls to my apartment, and finally I placed an ocean between me and my family so that I wouldn’t drown. Robin visited me there too. I forced her to walk the Heath at Hampstead and she forced me to rescue her from the two bobbies she accidently picked  up at the night club in Camden.

But it was that moment in the booth at the edge of the restaurant on the water when our relationship took its final turn.

There at the end of summer –at the end of our innocence–we understood that we were the only ones holding on.

Everyone else had let go…

For the first time in my life, I succumbed to a tidal wave of grief, and it was my little sister who reached across the divide and took my hand in hers.

This is the jeweled moment when all that pained and separated us,

was swept away with the tide,

and what remained

was our shared treasure–

Each gazing into the others tender eyes…

Finally.

Seen.

Kelly Salasin

Acadia

Lava’s cabin in Maine near Acadia.

At 42, I left the cocoon of my life as a mother, and set off to a friend’s seaside cabin in Maine.

I went alone–with my laptop, my journal and my drawing pad–planning a long weekend of retreat. I spread my personal things throughout the cabin–into the second bedroom, the loft, onto the desk and coffee tables, and even onto the porches; but I couldn’t fill the absence of my family.

When night came, this vacuum left me engulfed by peril–from the beautiful lapping water right off the front porch, to the Maine woods on each of the other sides of the cabin. There weren’t any neighbors to speak of–not within shouting distance–and I had this creepy seventies horror-film fear that someone or something could be lurking in the pines outside the window beside my bed.

My imagination prevented me from falling to sleep for hours into every night, and woke me early, before the dawn, exhausted, but relieved to have one less night of terror to face. What were these feelings and where did they come from? Was I experiencing some existential theater? Unresolved childhood trauma? Was I really in danger? Or was this simply the dark chasm between motherhood and the return to self?

With a map in hand, I jumped into my vacant mini-van, and drove toward Acadia National Park in the dark. A visit to the park hadn’t been part of my plans, but the previous guests had left a pass behind so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.

I decided to at least go see the Park, assess its merit, and return to the cabin to write in the comforting light of afternoon.

I never did return to the cabin that afternoon or during any of the following days until late into the evening, because once I entered the Acadia, I was gone. It was if I had mistakenly slipped through the cracks of my life into a slice of heaven. My small contracted mother-chasm-self expanded there–into all those open vowels, tall trees, mountaintops, lakes and streams, ocean and sky, boulders and cliffs.

On the second dawn, I drove to the summit of Cadillac Mountain to greet the rising sun atop the highest peak on the East coast. Before the day grew warm, I climbed to the top of another peak, Penobscott, and stood there alone—with mountains and water and air in every direction. On the way down, I formed a crush on a bolder and even took a self-timed photo of us together before I pulled myself away.

Me & My Bolder, Penobscott Peak, 2006, Acadia National Park.

I swam at Echo Lake and at Sandy Beach where the ocean waters barely crested 50 in July. In the afternoons, I journaled beside Jordan Pond with a pot of tea and a basket of popovers and jam. I fell in love with Acadia– and with myself there.

Why then, driving around its stunning Loop Road, did I see myself leaping from the rocks to the water below?

Were these delirious daydreams? Blissed out fantasies? Suicidal threats?

Desiring death made no sense… because I was so happy.

Happy– and exhausted– I suddenly realized–from a lifetime of holding on so tightly that I finally wanted to just let go.

This exhaustion began, not with motherhood, but with a childhood steeped in fear and abandonment–influenced by birth order (first), alcoholism (my mother’s, grandmothers’ & aunts) and divorce (my parents.)

I had been “gripping” for as long as I could remember, and I was ready to let go—forever–right here at Acadia, the closest thing to heaven on Earth. I saw myself turn the wheel so that I would fly off the road ringing the ocean and head into the air over one of those amazing cliffs; or  parking my van and carefully crossing the road before jumping–right into the water or into the rocky beach below.

These images came to me over and over again, even after I returned home–sweet Acadia beckoning me to death.

There had been two other times in my life when I’d “imagined” suicide. Once was at Christmas, the year my parents divorced.  The second was decades later in the in the winter following my mother’s death.

But if I was so ready to die, what was this fear I felt each night in the cabin?

I’ve felt it before, I realized–during a particularly poignant gulf of understanding with my husband, so that even though he was beside me, he felt miles away, so very small—or just the opposite–so close that he was a smothering giant.

This fear-induced delusion first came at four-year’s old in the huge expanse of my grandparents’ bedroom, entombed in the hum of the air conditioner, and manifested by high fever.

Where was my mother?

Where was mother when those feverish images returned years later so that the cellar shelves grew closer and closer to my bed– and then so far away that I had no idea where I was or if I existed apart from them at all?

And where were her arms when my beloved, “Licorice” disappeared; and  when I shook in terror after the neighbors family--all but the boy my age–died in a fire; or when my grandmother and aunts were killed by a sixteen-wheeler; and when I lost my first and second pregnancies?

In the face of my own abandonment, how could I ever leave my children? Who would be there for them in the horror of that loss if I drove off the cliff?

Or, (and here’s the kernel of my fear): If I found that new career that I longed for?

I’m the one who brings the forgotten teddy bear to school when Aidan calls home in tears. I the one who makes the lunches, gives the kisses, pops the popcorn, waits for the school bus.

I tend the secret fears, hold them back at night, tuck them in.

Are my arms, my heart, my self even wide open enough now to the gift of my children? Or do I stand, protected, like my mother, resigned to the inevitable loss?

How can I love that so deeply which ends?

And how do I let it all go without giving up?

Kelly Salasin, 2006

(Note: Upon the realization of my great exhaustion, I took a three-month “pause” from career searching–and just about everything else–experiencing a long-awaited “honeymoon” with self–and writing!)