An open letter …
On biting back words that hurt
At day’s end, the sound of my husband’s key in the door can make my heart sing. Company, adult company, a glass of wine, his dear embrace, a hand with the kids, episode three of Bodyguard: these are the small things that sound signifies, the good things. From 9am-3pm, though, the house is mine and I like it this way. Whether writing or cleaning, paying bills or making calls, I work hard and I look forward to lunch. A proper break: seated at the table with something to read, something savoury, something sweet, a mug of very hot tea. These are my private, quiet pleasures, and so as I sat the other day, toast just buttered, book open at crucial turn of plot, and I heard that familiar scratching motion in the lock, it was not joy that surged up my throat, but a furious irritability, a dreadful resentment. It was all kinds of ugly. I put down book club’s October read ( We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride: breathtaking), pushed away my plate, a pair of poached eggs, still quivering from the pan, and stood, as my husband, followed by his mother and nephew, came through the front door.
They had been for lunch, my husband’s nephew over from Australia, my husband’s mother on a rare outing from the home where she lives, and had decided to call by, to check out our new house. It was a perfectly reasonable, very nice thing to do, and my reasonable, nice self counselled, “Gracious. Be gracious and welcoming and kind”, but she was no match for my churlish, ungenerous self, who elbowed her roughly aside. “Hellooo,” I said out one side of my mouth. “You could have bloody warned me,” to my husband out the other. And even as I formed the hateful words I was already spilling over with regret. Too late. It was too late to take them back.
A short time afterwards we were away with friends, several families staying at several different baches, the kids moving between the households, as free as birds. Warming ourselves on the front steps in the early morning sun, one of the other mothers and I were discussing whose child had slept where. “Muumm,” moaned her oldest daughter, overhearing her younger sister and another of the little girls had slept in her room. “I hope they…,” she said in a cross tone, and in my head I finished her sentence: “… didn’t touch my stuff”, “… didn’t mess up my room.” As someone who likes my things how I like them, I could relate. But then she did something that quite stopped me in my tracks. “I hope they enjoyed it,” she corrected herself. Her mother smiled. “They did,” she said. “They had a lovely time.”
Did you teach her that, I asked later? How was she able to reframe her mindset at 11, when I’m 44 and I still can’t? And I told her about the incident with my in-laws, about my petty behaviour, how ill-mannered I’d been. How a voice in my head had been telling me to get over it, suck it up, pull myself together, but that I had succumbed instead to the most repellent aspect of my nature. That nagging voice will never change anything, she said. And then she shared something with me that felt like one of the greatest insights of my adult life. Next time you feel yourself sinking into a negative state of mind, she said, try breaking it with something physical. When you were sitting at that table and you heard that key turning, instead of letting those words take shape, you could have got up and done a quick cartwheel. I bet you’d have been smiling when they came through the door if you’d done that.
Sue nicely summed up my subject last week. She calls it “the quarter four stresses”. “On top of those you mentioned,” she wrote, “I have my husband’s, my daughter’s and my mother’s birthdays, plus our wedding anniversary on December 31. Despite being really organised, writing lists, shopping early, loving Xmas Day etc. I never get past the anxiety this time of the year causes.” Mary said she used to be like me, high standards and expectations, burdened with responsibility, at 64, though, she has found contentment. “I believe happiness is internal and does not come from perfection or control, but just the opposite, by relaxing and enabling others in your life to be themselves, however imperfect.”
And even as I formed the hateful words I was already spilling over with regret. Too late. It was too late to take them back.