Anger, bitterness, disappointment and grief: like unwelcome guests they parked themselves on our couch.
I am just the type of introspective nerd who turns to books for solutions great and small: from anxiety to ambition, from disappointment to death. Recently, at my local library, I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Taming the Tiger Within,” a collection of meditations culled from previous works that reflect on the necessity of facing, not fearing, powerful emotions.
Opinion: The bookworm discovers that sometimes books don’t have all the answers
He offers a particularly apt image for us Radical Housewives: Think of your anger as a needy infant, he writes, likely unaware of how intensely this hits home. It takes no effort at all to imagine a small, red, squalling thing, arms and legs pulled in tight. The baby shakes, howls; his eyes squeeze deep into their sockets, his mouth widens and gasps out every last bit of oxygen. Those tiny lungs (each one the size of a clenched fist) make a desperate sucking rasp just before the volcanic explosion of the inevitable WAHHHHHH!
This insight is courtesy of a childless, male, Buddhist monk. You know he was a housewife in a previous lifetime.
It’s evolutionary, of course. Think of other obnoxious noises-jackhammers, George W. Bush, the airplanes rumbling over south Minneapolis-none of them cause the same panicky flush as a baby’s scream triggers in his mother. Darwin figured that if my baby didn’t induce a near-seizure in me every time he needed something, he might not get it. Without milk, a clean butt and some cuddling, he’d never have survived those years in the dark forests of my ancestors. Biology kicks in, and I mother my hollering baby accordingly. The child lives to breed another day.
But where biology falters, philosophy enters. I don’t need Stephen Jay Gould to tell me that I seem to have an overactive fight or flight response. Part of this is just cavewoman DNA, and part is a family of origin whose communication style never evolved (pun intended) past the shrieking stage.
Like all former babies, I craved independence. Out in the world, I discovered I lacked many of the skills needed to negotiate emotions safely. I was not going to end up passing on any DNA, socially defective or otherwise. So I worked at it (with help from books and therapy) et voila! A new family was born.
But no book predicted a screaming, colicky first baby who never grew out of his tantrums. A diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome provides some explanation and a new stack of books but brings us only marginally closer to helping him. Or ourselves. Or the daughter we had two years ago.
Anger, bitterness, disappointment and grief: Like unwelcome guests they parked themselves on our couch and decided they’d never leave. And until Thich Nhat Hanh suggested these emotions were corporeal, I tried to deny their existence entirely. They screamed and howled for my attention, but I ignored them. I buried their cries in alcohol and ice cream. I busied myself with activities as disparate as feminist politicking and “American Idol” to avoid their fierce cries for my attention. I checked out book after book after book to no avail.
Then last November, tragedy struck. My close friend Elizabeth died when she was only 35. This grief has a different shape; instead of struggling with the loss of an amorphous idea, in this case the image of the Perfect All-American Family, this follows a physical loss. Elizabeth no longer walks this earth. I will never again hear her deep, almost hiccupping laugh. Her 5-year-old daughter possesses the shape of her face, but the Elizabeth I knew is gone.
This loss will not be denied. It presses upon my chest as heavily as a desperate child. Heavier, in fact: No child ever crushed me so hard I feared I’d stop breathing. This grief is present, every single moment. Enter another library book.
I visualize the crying baby in my arms. She is here. I acknowledge her. I don’t blame her, judge her or demand that she leave me alone, for at last I sense that I need her as much as she needs me. We both cry, but we soothe each other, just because we’re together. The pressure upon my chest softens.
Elizabeth loved her books and her children as much as I love mine. I would give every book in creation to embrace her one more time, but I know I must be satisfied with this baby of my meditations, and my children, just as they are.
That will be enough.
Shannon Drury is a self-described radical housewife. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.