A meditation on anger
Or: how I met my great-grandmothers
Two years ago, shortly after we moved into our big, dilapidated historic house in South Hill, I was visited in a waking vision by my female ancestors.
All of them.
I’d never had a waking vision before — at least, not like this; not, perhaps, since childhood, before the natural and supernatural split into two separate realities. It wasn’t visual, per se — but also it was. It was like I was looking around my dining room one minute, then blinked, and when I opened my eyes again I was seeing another reality — a supernatural energy, perhaps like a heat signature for emotion. The room was the same, but the walls had also rather dissolved, and in place of the walls and the neighborhood outside them, was what I can only describe as a ghostly host of women. Some of their faces I recognized from my life, and from photographs: my mom’s mother Marjorie, my dad’s grandmother Madelle and her grandmother Mary, my mother’s sister Sharon. Other faces were obscured, because I didn’t know their names.
Their energy surrounded me so strongly that I started to sob. Uncontrollably.
Do you want to reach your purpose, daughter?
How could I possibly say no to my eponym?
They tightened their circle around me.
Then let go of your wounds; let go of your fear, and anger. Embrace love.
Apparently my grandmothers are Jedi*.
[*Which, of course, actually makes good sense. George Lucas was a student (and collaborator with) Joseph Campbell, who was a student of Carl Jung, who himself experienced waking visions and symbolic dreams of a not dissimilar nature throughout his lifetime. So yeah. I stand by that concept.]
Once I’d picked myself up off the floor and began to examine my experience, my initial thought was:
I’m not an angry person — am I? I’m not fearful — am I?
Generous; kind-hearted; risk-taking; empathetic; open; adventurous; these are all adjectives I would apply to myself. Yet there my grandmothers had stood, like a clap of thunder, handing me this mandate.
Yet I am, as I’ve discovered, also fearful and angry. Increasingly so, as I get older. Just like the pain in my scoliosis-riddled back gets stronger each year, my base level of frustration grows. Meanwhile, my grandmothers’ collective words echo in contrast with increasing frequency, and increasing urgency.
I tried to patch things up with my brother. I really did. That, of course, was part of the problem: having any expectation of change.
I reached out to him a few days after my visit with the grandmothers. Offered to chat on Skype, which we hadn’t done in about five years. He was always eager to have an audience, and loved getting me embroiled in emotionally charged debates about whatever political or theological rabbit hole he was currently falling down — which was one of the reasons I had severed contact for so long. So I thought my casual outreach was an olive branch, and expected it to be treated as so. Classic mistake.
He emailed back and told me that he wanted me to talk to his young mentee who was involved in his MLM business about his latest insights on theology and herbal health first. Before my brother and I talked. So I would have “context”.
“Oh ok,” I replied, “or you could go fuck yourself. Have fun still being crazy.”
We did end up talking after that. And I tried to do the whole “I forgive you” thing where in the movies when you say the words, some magical cathartic transformation takes place. But there was no magical transformation. Just a lingering sense of danger, and a dulled sense of disappointment that things are still the same.
I’ve written about it before, but I should probably take a moment to mention that my brother is the reason why I maintain my boundaries so fiercely. And also why I’m prone to bullying bullies. Self-diagnosed as aspbergers with a history of violently enforcing his obsessive compulsions (which, as children, included asserting dominance over me, who he perceived as not being adequately disciplined by my parents), my brother is, as a therapist would likely tell me, my core wound.
I talked to him a few weeks back. He was talking to mom on Skype when the family and I arrived Friday night after a long work week, and demanded to talk to me. When I sat down to say hello, he immediately launched into a 5 minute soliloquy about his neighbor’s living situation. When I told him I really didn’t care to hear much about his neighbor, he switched gears and invited me onto his podcast (he’s a voluminous creator of content), and started talking about his “news publication”.
“Isn’t it funny that we both became writers?” he pauses briefly to muse, in as close as his tightly constructed demeanor can come to an intimate, familiar tone.
Then he launched into a new 15 minute soliloquy about a conspiracy theory which has been published on his publication about government-sponsored groundwater contamination in Michigan which makes residents angry and irritable —
“Which would totally explain why dad was so angry all the time, you know?” he asserts without stopping to breathe.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said. “Dad wasn’t an angry, irritable person. He was an irreverent hippy.”
But he continues, undiminished, telling me about the story published on his site which, as it turns out, he hasn’t read or edited. Finally, as I look to see where my husband and children have run off to, I say:
“Is this why you had to talk to me? To tell me all about your neighbor, and conspiracy theories about groundwater, and to remind me how little you know about industry best practices?”
“There, see what I mean?” he says eagerly. “There’s the anger and irritability, right there!”
“Oh go fuck yourself,” I said, slapping the laptop closed.
I think it’s a hard thing to understand for people who’ve never experienced narcissism or sociopathy in those close to them. Those who are familiar with experiencing emotional abuse can appreciate the hopelessness of the cycle that’s kickstarted merely by engaging.
How do you let go of anger and fear towards someone you keep barred out of your life for good reason?
Among the thousands of old scraps of paper among my great-grandmother’s boxes of family artifacts is an old checklist of notes she’d written to herself ages ago. In the early 70s, judging by the content.
Madelle’s notes are scrawled on the back of a peach colored single-sided flyer in a form which is shockingly familiar to me: she’s arranged her thoughts in ascending order of urgency, in bullet form for ease of review — just like I do. In her notes, Madelle muses on about the management of her family’s estate, updates about my dad (who had moved to Michigan, where he met my mom), and the costly and unsavory exploits of her grandsons, Tommy (my dad’s evil half brother) and Jimmy (my dad’s good half brother).
But the real kicker came in the concluding line:
If it weren’t for stupid grandsons, I’d have enough money to live out the rest of my life on love.
Her frustration was vindicated in the end. Madelle’s estate was largely sold off and gambled away in one fashion or another by Tommy and my grandmother Betty Lou. The family homesteads in the Snohomish rainforest were all sold off before I reached my teens.
…to live out the rest of my life on love.
It still feels like such a contradiction. Needing money to have love…your own offspring preventing you from having enough love…the concept of a linkage between money and a scarcity of love — I can’t quite make sense of it. But perhaps that’s the point. Madelle was notorious for her head-scratching colloquialisms.
Angry. Madelle was angry that her family’s work and heritage — my heritage — was being squandered. I sometimes fancy, when I chat with Madelle’s eternal self (which is, as I’ve learned from my grandmothers in their many visits since, just a specific manifestation of my own higher self) that she was really waiting for me. That it should have been me, in my dad’s shoes, there close enough to catch the family legacy and carry it forward. To pick up from my grandmother’s failure. To restore my great x5 grandmother Mary’s legacy of providing and nurturing for her family and community through hard work, good business practices, and common sense.
But I wasn’t. And I couldn’t. And now Madelle calls me to complete her work, which has nothing to do with building an estate. It’s to find the grace she couldn’t.
My dad gave me a gift before he died. In much the same way Ebeneezer Scrooge was given a gift by the Ghost of Christmas Future. Melonoma took him over a decade ago now, when I was just out of college. The consummate survivalist, libertarian, self-sufficient, conservative hillbilly hippy that he was, dad was a gleeful rebel and outsider his entire life. The flipside of that was his growing fear over the loss of the personal freedoms he held so dear to his family’s way of life, and an unquenchable anger at the corrupt and unjust systems which lie just behind the facade of modern society. He was bitter towards those born to wealth and privilege, and hypersensitive to their hypocristy and ignorant entitlement — even towards our own family friends.
None of which is unlike myself. Not even a little.
Dad would watch the 90’s movie Conspiracy Theory’s opening title credits — the part where Mel Gibson is telling his taxi cab passengers outrageous government conspiracy theories — and would chortle along: “Oh, I’ve heard that one. Yep, that one might actually be true. THAT one is DEFINITELY true. Oh — that one’s my favorite.”
He marched with some of his gun club friends on the state capitol in the 90s during the Clinton administration’s push for gun control. I’ve still got his protest signs in the pole barn. My favorite reads:
BAN GAN VIOLENCE
ELIMINATE THE CIA, ATF, FBI, & NSA
That one I’m hanging onto. Because it’s absofuckinglutely true.
He used to listen to Rush Limbaugh. He spent a lot of time yelling at the radio.
In the last decade of his life, however, dad had a spiritual awakening. Some might call it a religious conversion (which my mom’s church was quick to erroneously claim credit for), but it doesn’t really matter. The result was that he spent more time working on his spiritual and emotional aspects, and began to focus on having more positivity and gratitude.
It wasn’t soon enough though, unfortunately. Dad’s diagnosis came not too long after his conversion, and after a few years of relapse, it came back with an unstoppable vengeance.
“You know, Jorie,” he said rather offhandedly one nonchalant day a few weeks before he died, “I think I might have brought this on myself. I’ve spent too much time being angry at the government, and politicians, and not enough time enjoying the good things — you, and your mom, and this beautiful place,” he motioned to the sea of green woods around the back deck, where my mother still lives.
“I think I might have missed the point of all this,” he said.
As I prepare for my 35th birthday, I feel my ancestors’ baggage creeping in on me, emotionally and physically. I feel the anger from being walked on, passed over, and stabbed in the back by various and sundry clients, employers, and colleagues. I seethe at the injustice of so much of the corporate world, and watch helplessly as it saps away energy and life from my husband, like the torture machine does to Westley in Princess Bride’s Pit of Despair. I feel it compound in the painful curves of my spine, which bother me more and more each year.
I feel my father’s anger; I feel Madelle’s disappointment; I feel my own indignance. The feelings simply repeat as the injustices are catalogued endlessly, like a hamster on a wheel.
Let go of your fear, and anger.
It’s easy enough to see the logic of. And even the urgency. Breaking the cycle is another story.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Universe since my grandmothers all showed up and kicked my spiritual ass into next Tuesday, it’s that anything worthwhile requires practicing presence. And, in fact, presence is the only thing we actually possess. It’s a spiritual iteration of my favorite old adage that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Bizarre an image as eating an elephant may be, I think it’s fitting for the massive and strange work we each face as individuals in finding ourselves and fulfilling our purpose in this lifetime. And in this analogy, we understand that the only way to move forward on a massive endeavor is to focus on making incremental progress in the moment.
Letting go of all fear and anger, forever — like cutting out white sugar or coffee — is a terrifying and seemingly impossible task. Choosing to hold humor, joy, wonder, and gratitude in lieu of anger in this particular moment is still challenging, but quite a bit less daunting.
And anyway, it’s true that we’re surrounded by beauty. Beauty that’s ripe for the taking, in each present moment.
That’s the theory, anyway.