If You’ve Ever Yelled at Your Neighbor (Thoughts about Quirks and Bad Behavior Vs. Spiritual Gifts)

If You’ve Ever Yelled at Your Neighbor (Thoughts about Quirks and Bad Behavior Vs. Spiritual Gifts)

“I’m a monster,” said the shadow of the Marquess suddenly. “Everyone says so.” The Minotaur glanced up at her. “So are we all, dear,” said the Minotaur kindly. “The thing to decide is what kind of monster to be. The kind who builds towns or the kind who breaks them.”

Catherynne M. Valente

Most people don’t think it when they first meet me, but I have been in an impressive set of verbal and physical altercation stories for someone who is often assigned adjectives like “nice,” “quiet,” and “I don’t know who that is.”

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Recently I got into one such altercation which I detailed on Facebook and then later deleted, because:

  • The responses I got from friends were not quite what I was hoping for,
  • Just in case my neighbors could somehow connect with me on Facebook now or we actually become friends later I really don’t want that post hanging out
  • It came off as way more judgmental than I wanted even though I was trying to leave out any details that sounded condemning of others involved.

Responses were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and while I feel really ungrateful for saying this, they didn’t really give me any comfort. I think this is what I had on my mind:

  1. Does this happen to other people? Please tell me it does.
  2. It makes me feel better to tell the story of how silly I was to stand on a milk-crate and put my leg through it causing bleeding and bruising (for some reason). But also I want sympathy for physical discomfort and being an idiot.
  3. I actually kind of want to know what other people do in this situation instead. And most of the time that kind of advice would come off as preachy and I appreciate that people didn’t just give it. But although #1 is on my mind, I’m pretty sure by now out of experience that other people (ones I respect anyway) generally deal with these situations differently.

I did finally just ask a friend what she would have done and she said, “I would have walked away and told him I’d be happy to talk when we could talk without yelling.”

I had a seriously “well duh” moment just about then,

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along with my own head commentary which carries full knowledge of how I handle conflict when it’s not directed at me.

I used to work as a cashier at Wal-Mart. When customers inevitably got angry and aimed their accusations at me, I had a line: “You can stand here and yell at me, which I’m happy to let you do, or you can let me go get you someone who can actually solve your problem. I don’t really care which, but one is definitely faster. Your choice.” And I really would serenely stand there and nod empathetically if they kept yelling.

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Once I single handedly solved a years long neighborhood dispute with a little old lady who always came out to yell when kids in the community space made too much noise. In the middle of a really tense shouting match between her and one of the mothers I simply stepped in, rested my hand on the older woman’s arm and asked, “Are you feeling ok? You seem like maybe something is really wrong other than the kids.” She broke down into tears and told me her life story, apologized for yelling at the kids, and said she wouldn’t bother us anymore. (She never did as far as I know).

I can take joy in just how calm I can be in the face of spitting red faced fury. Calmness is both offensive to the angry and completely impenetrable. It’s beautiful. So why can’t I seem to keep it when I’m in situations where someone actually has the power to hurt me and I really do have responsibility for what they are angry about?

One of my dearest friends in the world thought very seriously about NOT being in relationship with me at the beginning of our friendship because I admitted that I occasionally have a scary temper, and then she witnessed it.

We were walking on a sidewalk together when a car who was trying to take a shortcut to a parking lot was actually driving up on the sidewalk behind us. She immediately stepped out of the way and motioned for me to join her. But I instead slowed down to a painful speed and said, “I’m not moving. We are supposed to be here. That car is not.” She nervously joined me, not fully knowing what to do. When the car finally honked at me I spun around in a second, and slapped a hand on his hood. I yelled, “THIS IS A SIDEWALK! PEOPLE WALK HERE!”

Guys, it was a car. It could have run me over. I was in a foreign country where I really wasn’t sure they wouldn’t try. That story simultaneously makes me laugh and feel like a complete fool.

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And how could you not wonder, as my friend (or boss), about what would happen if I ever aimed that temper at you? Or couldn’t hold my tongue in a situation where it was harmful to everyone not to do so? I think about that all the time. If I make myself feel like a bomb that could go off at any moment, how must I make other people feel?

That same friend who witnessed the car slapping, DID eventually decide I was worth the trouble, and (I am so grateful for this) decided that at least usually my escapades involve me seeking some sort of justice.

In a recent conversation we discovered we had both had similar experiences involving a Ouji board and a party. Neither of us (being people who seriously believe in the spiritual realm and that messing with it is a very bad idea) wanted to play. My friend had cleverly avoided conflict by moving the Ouji dial around intentionally herself to make sure nothing else could. She got out of an actual spiritual encounter and freaked all her friends out at the same time–but she wasn’t sure she felt good about it.

Me? I said very soundly to my friends, “You guys can all get yourselves killed by a demon if you want, but if you get that thing out I swear I’m walking home right now.” (I lived miles away and it was very late at night, but I meant it.)

“See?” said my friend, upon hearing the story. “That’s why you are the way you are. Every friend group needs someone who does that.”

I guess at least my friends would never end up victims in a horror movie. That’s something right?

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I wish I had a more thoughtful way to end this, except to say that I have insisted over and over again that though we may sometimes use our gifts badly, those quirky attributes often ARE gifts and they are there for a reason. If you start out on a maze and a mythical minotaur gives you a key, there will be a lock you can open with it somewhere–and it won’t matter if you pick your nose with it or use it as a hair barrette. And God is so much kinder than minotaurs.

As long as you keep the keys you are given (and try to keep them out of your nose), they will make sense and be there when you find the locks they are for. That’s what I’m hoping.

If Your Voice is Small

If Your Voice is Small

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I’ve seen you, fellow quiet sojourner. I know people ask you why you don’t talk too. I admire you, because you are probably better at just saying nothing rather than letting awkward dribble escape now and then, just to prove you exist, like I do. I wish I only talked when I really wanted to. That I didn’t feel pressed into small-talk, which it turns out isn’t often remembered at all anyway. I feel kinship with you, even while I want to give you space and not insist on doing the same thing to you which most people do: expecting friendship, or entertainment, or patronizing conversation where I’m only insisting we talk because I somehow think it’s my job to get you to do it. I see you. I tend to think you are better than me, because you are more comfortable with your backstage place, less worried about how much you exist in the worlds of others, less inclined to fill in the spaces with conversation you don’t really want to have.

Do you, like me, sometimes keep your mouth closed because you know the only thing that would come out would be disappointment or disdain? Or maybe sometimes because you aren’t interested in the conversation going on, and you just honestly don’t know how to pretend to be excited? Or maybe you accidentally dropped off into your own fantasy about a magical land where cups of coffee are always bottomless and naps are long and thunderstorms always come at 3 o’clock sharp after plenty of sunshine so that rain is always whimsical and dreamy (and never just cold and dark) and animals really do understand what you are saying and people never ever think that being quiet means that you are less capable, or less smart, or less important?

And I’m guessing that you, like me, are always just a little startled when the label “quiet” is applied at all. Because it’s not quiet in your head. Because when you are one-on-one with someone you really care about you can go on for hours. And if you measure only the talking that people do that they really care about, and really deeply mean, the amount is really about the same. And I bet you, like me, have a hard time regretting not being into fluff conversations. And hopefully you, unlike me, don’t have a lot of regrettable fluffy conversations on your conscience, because you, unlike me, are a more dignified version of “quiet.”

Maybe you, like me, trust words more when you’ve had time to think about them and when you can set them down on paper. Or screen. Not a place where they just float out in the air to be forgotten, or misconstrued later, but in a place of permanence where they can be counted, measured, and heard again and again. Because words can be such slippery dangerous things when you don’t pin them down properly. (It’s so much easier to be held responsible for something I can prove I said, rather than for something I don’t quite remember saying or that I’m sure I said in another way).

And do you, like me, struggle not to roll your eyes when yet ANOTHER charismatic go-getter with a loud voice and a tendency toward pandering and a total lack of appreciation for thoughtful types has been elected as your boss, or pastor, or mayor, or president of the adorable cats appreciation club? (Just kidding, obviously cat lovers would never do such a thing.) Do you sigh with relief on the rare occasion when someone who values substance and reflection and honesty, and occasionally quiet, actually manages to be the leader of something? Do you then roll your eyes again as all the charismatic go-getters scramble to be that person’s friend now that he has some influence?

I think God made sure Moses was in the bible just for us. People talk about his speech impediment, but they act like he must have been yet another charismatic go-getter who just happened to have a stutter and would be just as loud and charismatic and go-getting as the popular leaders they are used to. They forget about his reluctance to lead at all, or his quiet response over and over again to merely go and pray when the Israelites were ready to kill him. Or the fact that when more charismaticky go-getters thought they deserved leadership just as much as he did that they were struck-down with leprosy or sucked straight into a hole in the ground.  (Look it up. It’s not smart to spurn God’s quieter ones). God has raised us, defended us, loved us, valued us, and occasionally smote the loud ones on our behalf. And a quiet man got to deliver the law, organize God’s nation, and see the Messiah when he first showed his true form.

 

Know that when I see you, I do not think of you as quiet at all. You speak volumes beloved friends. Not all words are spoken. Not all meaning needs words at all. And sometimes, silence can be the loudest response of all.

 

*Note: I do not actually advocate for the smiting of loud people…mostly.

 

If We Are Becoming

If We Are Becoming

This pain has worn me well

This sorrow has made me rich

What is sadness then?

In the hands of the blessed

The children of glory

It is only the path to becoming

A way of wealth and joy

For we love a man of sorrows

Whose tears were more than gold

Whose heart held riches through pain

And who made a way to become

So we do not despair

We become

What greater joy is there

Than for one who has seen death

One who has seen the hellish broken

To delight in the early morning

To breathe deep and fully

Who knows doubtlessly

It was only becoming

And she is becoming still

I did not feel the rush of joy and protective hormones you are supposed to feel when they put my son in my hands for the first time. I found myself instead, scrounging around for something anything that would help me grasp the moment. But I couldn’t. This little squishy and slightly sticky bundle was a stranger to me. What I felt upon the birth of my son was not love, or new identity, but relentless, heavy, unbreakable duty. And that was all I had to go on.

I was not prepared at all for the relentless nature of motherhood. The diapers that always had to be changed again. The fact that the next time he would need to eat would be very soon. Always soon. The endless need for sleep and the constant realization that what sleep I got barely touched the ever growing debt of exhaustion that had wound itself around every cell in my body and settled deeply into my soul.

And when I looked at him,  I felt all the freedom I used to have and how very very dead it was now. And always duty. And pity too, because none of this was his fault. And he had me as a mother. And I did NOT feel like a mother.

There were so many things that made me feel that way. Breastfeeding was not possible for me and my son became dehydrated and lethargic before I discovered that fact, to my horror. I did not handle sleep deprivation with any kind of grace. I did not find sitting next to my son all day alone as he made gurgling noises thrilling in any way. I had already begun counting down the days until he turned 18–because my new mom brain thought that it would be exactly like this forever.

What I wish I could tell myself back then more than anything is “hormones or not, no one becomes a mother in a day, or in many ways even in a year or in two. Becoming a mother takes a long time, and I suspect, it never stops. You are becoming one right now, even if you don’t see it yet.”

In many ways, I think my own identity of mother is more a mark of what I have done than of any ability I ever had before that. I am now a mother to two very special boys. A mother of a 4 year old and a 2 year old. I cannot be a mother with all the wisdom of one who has say, a 10 year old until I have earned that by doing it over the next 6 years. I am becoming. I have become. And it is that becoming which matters so much.

I have always struggled under the weight of feeling like I simply AM things. I AM good at math or I AM bad at directions. Hard work wasn’t really about anything other than sheer production to me. I did not know you could get better at things, as strange as that may seem.

But as I have tried to get away from this faulty idea in my adulthood, I have run into the wall that I think so many in my generation do. That I also cannot be ANYTHING I want. If I decided I wanted to be a professional basketball player, I could not make that happen. My lack of any natural grace, and short stature would ensure that. I could get better at it than I am, but I cannot choose what I can be excellent in outside of a narrow set of skills and tendencies and biological leanings. So then I have to ask myself, what is it that I am actually capable of becoming? Can I even know that? Can I be a good mother simply because I want to be? Or a writer? Or a friend?

For the most part, I think all we can choose is what to grow toward. If I go outside when I can be alone, and manage to find a moment to slip off my shoes and feel the earth beneath my feet and I breathe deeply and let the world feel big and myself feel small–one thing is obvious. We were brought into a world of ever growing things. We are made to be ALIVE and not to be still.  We WILL grow in some way and toward something. And growing things tend to always grow toward that which gives them the most energy.

I really hate to think of what growing toward Netflix looks like. Or comfort eating. Or 8 cups of coffee in one day. But by grace, by so much grace we can grow back again and again toward something better, no matter how much we lean to lesser things. I don’t think we always have to know what it is we need to become if we fix our eyes on the work that has specifically been set before us, and on what is good, and worthy, and true. It is not the seed who ultimately ordains this miracle, or the planter, but the God who made them both. 

There were so many places in my life where I was not yet who I wanted to be, but those moments were often the ones that eventually pushed me closer to who I was supposed to be, and to the passions that make me who I am. And I do not regret a single ounce of pain from any of those moments. For they brought me here, to this place in my life and every blessing or gifting I have. And I do not know if I am the best mother that has ever existed (I can guess pretty well that I am not), but I am the best mother I can be to my very own two boys and I will be better yet tomorrow. Even more than this, the joy I find in my identity as Mother now is breathtaking. I leaned in, I showed up, I watered that ground with faith and transformation happened so slowly I never saw it until it already was.

I wish I could say to so many many pieces of myself scattered back through time, “You are becoming. You were not made for this moment alone, but for another one, and many more–and for all of them put together.”